The Unofficial Countryside cover by Mary Newcombe
Little Toller Books recently embarked on an excellent project: to republish classics of nature writing. I’ve just finished reading their new edition of Richard Mabey’s ground-breaking study of urban and fringe nature, The Unofficial Countryside, first published in 1973. In it, Mabey describes his explorations of crumbling city docks and overgrown bomb-sites, railway goods yards, sewage farms, canal towpaths, and disused factory wastelands, which more traditional naturalists ignored. He tells of his realisation that even the most unpromising, blasted and neglected urban landscape is capable of supporting life. In a prologue, Mabey remembers that epiphanic moment:
It had been what they call a normal working day. … Driving home in the middle of a creeping three-lane jam was about as much relief as if the office had been towed away on wheels. I was locked-up, boxed-in, and daydreaming morbidly. It was difficult to believe that there was any other sort of world beyond all this.
On impulse, I had snatched out of the homebound crawl after a few miles and headed down a winding suburban lane. It led to a labyrinth of gravel pits, reservoirs, and watery odds and ends that I had often visited during my work on the book. It was hardly the promised landscape, and the whole area was pocked with working quarries and car dumps. But in the mood I was in, just to have seen some murky water lapped by non-air-conditioned wind would have set me right.
What I did find that early autumn day was, I suppose, nothing special … I had parked by the edge of a canal which curled around the western edge of this maze of water, and had stumped off, scowling, along the towpath. I think it was my black frame of mind that made the unexpected late fruitfulness of this place strike me with such intensity. I had never noticed before that the canal here was as clear as a chalk stream. Yellow water lilies drooped like balls of molten wax on the surface. Near the edge of the water drifts of newly hatched fish hung in the shallows. […]
What had begun as a nervous gallop soon turned into a stroll. My eyes began to relax a little, and following the last swallows hawking for flies over the water, I caught sight of a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife in the distance. I had never before seen this plant so deep into suburbia. The towpath itself was festooned with wine-tinted hemp agrimony blooms and when a bicycling worker bucked past it seemed as natural to exchange greetings with him as if we had been in a country lane. No matter that the place he had come from was the gaunt Water Board pumping Station that stretched along the bank, looking like nothing so much as an oil refinery. As dusk fell and the warning lights on its roof began to flush the bellies of the roosting gulls, I went off home like a new man.
Mabey recalls that nearly forty years before, only a few miles from this spot, George Orwell had written a poem called ‘On a Ruined Farm near the His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ in which he spoke of feeling torn – like Buridan’s ass that died of starvation, standing midway between two kinds of food and unable to decide which it preferred – between two loves: rural England with its close but dying communities, and the new industrial landscape where the mass of people were forced to live.
As I stand at the lichened gate
With warring worlds on either hand –
To left the black and budless trees,
The empty sties, the barns that stand
Like tumbling skeletons – and to right
The factory-towers, white and clear
Like distant, glittering cities seen
From a ship’s rail – as I stand here,
I feel, and with a sharper pang,
My mortal sickness; how I give
My heart to weak and stuffless ghosts,
And with the living cannot live.
The acid smoke has soured the fields,
And browned the few and windworn flowers;
But there, where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers –
There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel –
There is my world, my home; yet why
So alien still? For I can neither
Dwell in that world, nor turn again
To scythe and spade, but only loiter
Among the trees the smoke has slain.
Yet when the trees were young, men still
Could choose their path – the winged soul,
Not cursed with double doubts, could fly,
Arrow-like to a foreseen goal;
And they who planned those soaring towers,
They too have set their spirit free;
To them their glittering world can bring
Faith, and accepted destiny;
But none to me as I stand here
Between two countries, both-ways torn,
And moveless still, like Buridan’s donkey
Between the water and the corn.
But, argues Mabey, Orwell was ‘too gloomy':
The choice was not as stark as he painted it. The trees can live next to the cranes. He forgot that their roots are not just the symbolic ones of our natural ancestry, but real ones of wood and fibre. At both levels they are a goodly sight hardier than the smoke-stained branches. Our attitude towards nature is a strangely contradictory blend of romanticism and gloom. We imagine it to belong in those watercolour landscapes where most of us would also like to live. If we are looking for wildlife we turn automatically towards the official countryside, towards the great set-pieces of forest and moor. If the truth is told, the needs of the natural world are more prosaic than this. A crack in the pavement is all a plant needs to put down roots. An old-fashioned lamp-standard makes as good a nesting box for a tit as any hollow oak. Provided it is not actually contaminated there is scarcely a nook or cranny anywhere which does not provide the right living conditions for some plant or creature.
This new edition of The Unofficial Countryside is beautifully produced, with a new cover and plates by Mary Newcomb, the untrained and visionary East Anglian artist (above; image by her daughter, Tessa Newcomb, below). The book is divided into four sections – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – following Mabey as he rambles along derelict canal banks, through reservoirs and among steaming rubbish tips. In these unlikely locations he finds a staggering variety of plants, animals, birds, and insects making a living out of human waste, dereliction and disturbance. In the early part of the book, Mabey challenges the conventional distinctions between flowers and weeds, between native and imported species, and between formal and informal landscapes. Mabey expresses his dislike for the well-manicured municipal parks of the time.
This was a book that changed attitudes, changes that can be seen now in improvements in parks management and the proliferation of urban and semi-urban wildlife sanctuaries, often created out of the derelict landscapes that Mabey describes.
Tessa Newcomb: Small Activities in a Vast Landscape
The new edition has a typically left-field introduction by Iain Sinclair who draws parallels between Mabey’s book and J.G.Ballard’s Concrete Island, published in the same year. These, he argues, are both key texts of late 20th century English urban neo-romanticism, a meeting-point between the rich tradition of English nature-writing and the Situationist concept of ‘drift': to wander aimlessly and without destination through the city, soaking up its ambiences. Psycho-geography was the term that came to be used to describe the study of the urban environment’s effects on the psyche, with psycho-geographical reports compiled fromsuch ‘drifts’. Both traditions, Sinclair argues, meet on the urban margins. Mabey was one of the first to suggest that the concepts of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ no longer apply: ‘‘it is not the parks but the railways sidings which are thick with wild flowers’.
Richard Mabey concludes his peregrinations with these cautiously optimistic words:
There is a limit to the recuperative powers of the natural world. It will always fight back, but it cannot survive outright eradication, as I was to be reminded a few months later. It was late June, and I had tracked down that ruined farm that Orwell had written his poem from, hoping that, forty years later, it would have proved his pessimism unjustified. But it was a crumbling and dejected place, beaten back by the sheer weight of development crowding in on it. There were a few strips of vegetables, but most of the ground had been occupied by used-car dumps and football pitches. Therewere scarcely any trees remaining and the chief vegetation above grass level was a few clumps of elder and hawthorn. That these bushes would soon be draped, not with an honest English climber like traveller’s joy, but with the extravagant trumpet blossoms of an alien bindweed, the American bellbine, would not, I think, havereassured Orwell. This hardy immigrant would live on, I guess, and some greenery continue to brighten this bleak industrial landscape. But it was not the set-piece I was looking for. The odds were too one-sided. Even the factories themselves once ‘white and clear/Like distant glittering cities . . .’ were now dark with grime and age.
I ended up at an abandoned brickyard at the very edge of my chosen area. I suppose that it had ceased to be used about three years before, and it was now a dumping ground for any household rubbish too big for the bin. But successive excavations of the sand and clay for the bricks had left the yard with a legacy of mature waste ground. The abandoned mounds were thick with wild rose, hawthorn and the young shoots of rosebay. The steep-sided pits hadfilled with water, and though they had little or no vegetation in them, they were buzzing with water boatmen, diving beetles and newts. And the paths between, once heavily-used tracks over the light soil, carried one of the most brilliant collections of dry-soil flowers I have ever seen: ox-eye daisies, centauries, vetches, late cowslips, lady’sbedstraw, musk mallow knee-high.
I walked to the very edge of the yard. There was one of the deepest pits here and into it had been pushed and abandoned a saloon car. The air and weather had already begun to get hold of it. The bodywork was rusting and the rubber beginning to peel off the tyres. But there were more miraculous healing forces at work. Sidling over the bonnet and poking through the hole where the windscreen had been, were sweep upon sweep of spotted orchid, in every shade
of pink. This most delicate of flowers, hounded by new roads and car-borne trippers, had found refuge amongst the clutter, and was having its revenge.
Rotting car, Cliffe Lagoon, 1982 – Fay Godwin