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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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood