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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times