Mary Bailey from England is one of the most influential and well known persons in the fish world nowadays. Aquarist, editor and writer, Mary is author or coauthor of five wonderful books on aquarism, was the English editor of the wonderful and regretfully now gone Ad Konings' Cichlid Yearbooks and Heiko Bleher's Aquageo and the editor of Cichlidae, the journal of the British Cichlid Association, which under her editorialship transformed into a modern and world class bulletin. Mary's views are always food for thought. I am honored by her acceptance to participate in this interview.
I know this is a staple question, but I would like to know, how it all started for you in the aquarium world? How all this passion was born and developed?
My "ex" had an aquarium in his parents home when we were both students and before we were actually an "item". A bunch of us went to stay for the weekend, there were Kribs with babies, and I was hooked, spent most of the weekend watching. When he moved in with me, the tank soon followed. I spent hours going through his books and right from the start it was really only cichlids I wanted. Within a year I had 5 tanks in the living-room and Astatotilapia nubila with fry in the dining room. Another year and the spare bedroom was a fish room
For those of us who don't know, would you tell us about the hobby in England? How the British Cichlid Assciation works and how old it is?
Sadly the UK hobby is now largely business-led. When I started (1971) the shops stocked mainly fish and there was very little equipment. There weren't as many species as now, of course, but it almost seemed like there were more as any shop might produce a real surprise at any time. Shops sold books and magazines on fishkeeping, and most gave good advice as they cared about fish and wanted to keep you as a customer. Nowadays most shops are full of gadgets and gizmos (mostly unnecessary), the range of foods etc is utterly confusing, and no books to tell you how an aquarium actually "works" and why you don't need all that equipment. Most shops are cloned and full of the same "manufactured" (ie farmed) fishes. Often the shopkeeper knows very little about his stock (even though it's commonplace stuff), and it is the sound of the cash register that is all-important. I get to see a UK pet trade magazine and it is not about love of animals but how to make as much money as possible out of the public, often via gimmicks. The sad thing is, many hobbyists think the answer to everything is to spend money, when the truly skilled aquarist is successful through knowledge of how water works, and so forth.
The BCA was founded round about the time I started keeping fish, though I didn't get involved for about a year thereafter. Its main aims are to spread information on cichlids, help people with their cichlids, and conservation. It publishes a Newsletter (black/white) and a journal, Cichlidae (colour), both bimonthly. It holds conventions twice a year and has a website with a forum and information service (www.britishcichlid.com.
Being England a country with such a cultural and scientific tradition, from where many renowned ichthyologists and aquarists have originated, how is the relationship between the scientific community and the aquarists?
Generally speaking the relationship is good, but very few UK aquarists seem interested in that sort of relationship. Those who are tend to be over-awed by famous scientists and not make contact (I can remember feeling that way!). Part of my mission in life is to try and build bridges between the hobby and science, as I believe we have a lot to offer one another, at least at the serious hobby level. I personally am in contact with scientists on both sides of the Atlantic and this seems to be of mutual benefit.
You certainly brought a golden era for Cichlidae, the journal of the British Cichlid Association, could you share with us how was your experience editing the journal?
Thank you for those kind words, Juan. It was hugely enjoyable, but an immense upward learning curve. Although I am a professional text editor, I had virtually no lay-out experience and there were some real nightmares to get it right. Even after two years, occasional segments with double columns (usually to accommodate a small, low-resolution pic) could take hours and hours of battling with the software, which had a mind of its own. Aligning the contents page was another problem area. But it was great fun to put it all together and then see my handiwork in print. It was also very enjoyable working with "my" authors on their texts, and liaising with photographers (sometimes known as scrounging pics!).
As long time editor of Heiko Bleher's wonderful AquaGeo magazine, could you tell us what were the good things that it brought to your life?
I was only the English editor and translator (most of the material started life in German), which means that I made sure the text was presentable in English. I didn't have any involvement in the choice of material or the layouts. But I really enjoyed the work because the texts were usually very interesting and I learned outside my own field (learning is my great pleasure), and also got to know some very interesting people all over the world.
Besides your editing and writing work, you are also author or coauthor of aquarium books, do you have a project in hand?
I'm afraid not, I got tired of producing books in carefully checked English, which said what the author(s) wanted it to say, only to have it converted to bad English with wrong meanings by the publisher's text editor. This invariably meant a big row before it was changed back again. Then there was the design stage, where someone else took/chose pics that often contradicted the text, and the designer cut out bits of text to make them fit. I remember being particularly cross when a tank supposedly for West African rheophiles, in a biotope-oriented book, had Kribs in it!! And writing lots of captions saying "This photo shows how NOT to do it"! It was all very stressful, and by the time it was all sorted the pay (I do need to earn a living!) was less per hour worked than I could have earned on a supermarket check-out or as a cleaning lady. So after going through it all five times I decided enough was enough. BUT, on the credit side it taught me what it is like to be ill-treated by editors, and I think that has helped me to be a better, more sympathetic one. I don't think anyone should be allowed to edit unless they are a writer who has suffered at the hands of editors for a few years!
About education and growth in the hobby, what do you think are the key areas where people have to work?
I think the hobby, at least in the UK, has gone backwards in terms of knowledge, due to the equipment revolution. I'd like to see a return to understanding water chemistry and how biological filtration works, instead of the current belief that all you need to do is tip in conditioner and pump water as fast as possible. There is so much incorrect information and disinformation around, and the internet doesn't help becasue there are now so many "experts" who know very little at all. I'd like to see a return to basics, understanding about water and fish biology, and then tailoring equipment (only what is actually needed) and conditions to the fishes kept.
What in your perspective should aim future education in the hobby? What is the hobbyist of the future?
I think I just answered the first part of that! I suspect the hobbyist of the future will, however, continue to be technically oriented, but hopefully with an increased knowledge of how the hi-tech stuff actually works (if it does) and relates to fish, and also able to discriminate between what is genuinely useful and beneficial to fish and hobbyist rather than manufacturer and retailer. I hope there will still be some luddites like me to carry the message that you can keep and breed fish, even difficult ones, without spending a fortune on equipment.
Being three times in Lake Malawi and observing cichlids, would you share with us some of your experiences?
That would take forever!
It wasn't just - or even primarily - a fish experience for me, but a life experience. I fell in love with the country, and learned a very important lesson, which, sadly, politicians and other do-gooders in the developed world do not often understand. That is, OUR way isn't necessarily the only or best way of living. Despite the poverty and short life expectancy, the average African (in Malawi and Mozambique, at any rate) is a lot happier and far less stressed than the average European or American. A mud hut is the most deliciously cool place to be in the tropical heat, so why do we consider that "primitive" and think it better to provide these people with concrete-block houses that are far less comfortable? I was astonished at how friendly the people were - none of the racial hostility (towards white people!) we have in parts of the UK. Of course, the lake, the scenery and the fishes and other wildlife were marvellous, but it was the people that charmed me most. And the elephants in the reserve we visited. There is nothing to match seeing elephants in the wild, films do not even start to convey how majestic they are when you see them in the flesh in their native habitat.
Would you tell us about somebody who has influenced you and you admire in the fish world?
I think the person who has influenced me most was the late Dr Ethelwynn Trewavas. She taught me that leading scientists are (usually) approachable human beings, and not infallible, and gave me a huge amount of encouragement to keep studying my fishes and record my observations. She believed that serious aquarists and scientists should communicate and collaborate, and practised what she preached. She was a truly remarkable and great lady as well as a brilliant ichthyologist, still sadly missed by all who knew her. The other major influence in my aquatic life was Dr Keith Banister, also sadly deceased, who became a good friend, helped me with huge amounts of information, and encouraged me to finally get off my backside and go to Africa, where he had lived and worked in several countries and on several occasions. He didn't tell me what to expect or try in any way to influence how I would react, and was absolutely delighted when, like him, I fell in love with the continent and its people.
Finally, what the aquarium world has brought into your life?
Brought into? It has practically taken over my life! Though I do still manage to squeeze in some other interests as well. Obviously it has brought me great pleasure in my cichlids, but it has also become my career (for nearly 20 years now), and one that I enjoy far more than my previous jobs. It brought me Africa, and in the process cured me of my fear of flying - realistically, I had to fly to get there, though I wouldn't at all have minded going overland and seeing more of the world if time permitted. I now have "itchy feet" and enjoy travelling (and flying) to new countries and new places when the opportunity arises. Usually these trips are fish-related in some way. Perhaps most important, it has brought me good friends all over the world.
© Copyright 2007 Juan Miguel Artigas Azas, all rights reserved
Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (December 01, 2007). "Interview with: Mary Bailey, Dec-2007". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on March 25, 2019, from: https://www.cichlidae.com/article.php?id=412.