Vova Kharatyan, 65, cherishes his tiny, improvised front yard in Yerevan, “a symbol of my love and my pain”. Photo: Jan Brykczynski
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Take a look in the eyes of our urban gardeners

Eventually, we will have to recognise that it is not “nature” that we need to protect, but ourselves.

Green shoots sprout from old cement sacks, herbs emerge from forsaken bathtubs, vegetables proliferate in rows of abandoned tyres – in Jan Brykczynski’s photo-portraits of impromptu gardens in Warsaw, New York, Nairobi and Yerevan, green nature returns to the city, tended by urban gardeners possessed of “a stubborn pride, almost a defiance”. They work to nurture sometimes spare, occasionally rather lush plots in the heart of their cities, “amid the sirens and the satellite dishes”, almost always in places where we would hardly expect to find anything green at all.

An American flag perches on a post above a New York allotment; beehives weighted with puddingstone tilt among sunflowers on a rooftop; a Polish woman poses in her orchard clutching a sickle, her face sober but not serious enough to conceal a hard-won sense of self-worth. “The ideas of tillage and worship are joined in culture,” says the author Wendell Berry, in a passage that introduces these extraordinary photographs, “and these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both ‘to revolve’ and ‘to dwell’. To live, to survive on the earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, all are bound . . . to the idea of a cycle.”

Now, these quietly inspiring images – the product of the Syngenta Photography Award in 2013 – are brought together in Brykczynski’s new book, The Gardener (Dewi Lewis Publishing, £25), not only showcasing this wonderful, restrained and quietly incisive photographer, but also reminding us of the ways in which intimacy with the soil can help people to “grow, dream, feel safe and take charge of their environments”. It is striking how the gardens blur the seeming boundary between nature and the human world: a dishevelled bed sits amid vines; elsewhere, it is hard to tell where a living space ends and the garden begins. As Marianne Moore remarks in her panorama poem “The Steeple-Jack”, it is “a privilege to see so/much confusion”.

Yet perhaps the most moving of these images show the gardeners themselves: proud men and women, mostly middle-aged, their faces often lined with care, their eyes lit with a private knowledge of the green world. In one particularly striking portrait, a grey-haired woman in a faded brown dressing gown and battered slippers perches on the edge of a bathtub – empty now, but clearly destined for future cultivation – in a nondescript grey yard. Her face is keen, aquiline and alert. Everything about her suggests a more-than-human, almost feral attention. It does not seem fanciful to imagine that she is truly alive and self-aware in ways that she might not have been, had she not become a tender of the soil.

The Gardener is more than a marvellous collection of images by a master photographer. It is also prophetic. How we live with the natural world – the green world, the animal, the weather, the elemental – is surely destined to change as the soi-disant developed world collapses around its own greed and arrogance. The conventional, and painfully artificial, separation of the human realm from the natural other is bound to perish, albeit over a period of time, until we are obliged to learn how to cultivate our gardens under the most demanding conditions.

Even in Europe, the process has already begun – in some western Swiss towns, for instance, the citizens cultivate food plants and herbs, free for all, in public spaces where once there were neat containers of bedding plants. But we have taken only baby steps until now. In time, we will have to recognise that it is not “nature” that we need to protect, but ourselves, and we can only do this by abandoning the old, grandiose, profit-seeking schemes so beloved of our masters and learning to till the soil, live to scale, and live within our means.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser