Reviewed: Field Notes from a Hidden City by Esther Woolfson

Where the wild things are.

Field Notes from a Hidden City: an Urban Nature Diary
Esther Woolfson
Granta Books, 368pp, £16.99

A few years ago, I was poking about in the urban wastelands near Heathrow – sub­tropical jungles by comparison with Esther Woolfson’s austere Aberdeen – when I came across a giant hogweed surrounded by a striped, municipal keep-out tape. It was a great joke: the most architecturally awesome wild plant in Britain, with flowers as big as cartwheels, marked out as a danger zone, even a potential crime scene. I wondered if it was an installation by an eco-graffitist, symbolising the cultural cordon sanitaire we create between wild nature and human comfortableness in the city.

Less honourably, I thought it was a splendid piece of mischief. Giant hogweed was introduced from the Caucasus in the mid-19th century and is one of those detested “invasive aliens”. It can cause blisters if you touch it in bright sunshine and is on Defra’s list of plants illegal to deliberately introduce “in the wild” – it’s a vegetable guerrilla. I was tickled that it was seen as too scary even to dig out. Yet that’s a dangerous fix, leading easily to a dereliction habit and a forgetting of what was there before the ruin.

Woolfson doesn’t go down this path and isn’t of the school of “edgeland” writers who view urban wildness as insurrectionary, a welcome disruptor of urban order and natural historians’ proprieties. She is an acolyte of the saint of Assisi, not Sinclair of Hackney. Her “urban nature diary” is a gentle, often thoughtful reflection on the natural commonplaces that happen to pass through or across her life. For example, she has an infestation of rats, ponders their cultural stereotypes and history at length and calls in the pest controllers. It’s done with regret. Rats have been among the countless animals she has kept as pets: doves, starlings, cockatiels, the rook that was one of the characters in her earlier book Corvus. And she documents her compulsion to rescue and mother creatures – a pigeon caught in a snowdrift, songbirds at her feeding station. (She has a red, plastic trident to shake at marauding sparrowhawks.)

She notes the spivvy oystercatchers (though not their splendid local tag of “oycs”) and loves the way they feed and gossip on every traffic island in the city. She’s especially good on the northern weather and how it seems to have become embodied in Aberdeen’s granitic scowl. A woman in the street says to her, “I’ve so many clothes on I can hardly move. Don’t you find that, in this weather, all pride goes?”

As the book ambles on in this agreeable vein, however, through sparrows, hydran­geas and the elusiveness of the Northern Lights (it has a real Scots lilt, despite the frequent, jarring interjections of Latin names that would have been better in a glossary), I found a kind of torpidity creeping over me. Her diary has no charge, none of the bristling excitement that ought to come from encounters with survival against the odds. She is short on attentiveness, too. There is a passing curiosity for the living presence of things but it too quickly scuttles off to the library.

The chapter on spiders is typical of her approach. It’s framed by some exact observations on the canny disposition of their webs round her house, including a witty Thoreau-like taxonomy of “the study-bookcase spider, the back of the Orkney-chair spider, the stairwell spider”. However, it’s interleaved with so many second-hand references that it’s as if she is working up an essay from a Wikipedia crib: numbers of species on the earth, origins of arachnophobia, anatomy (it’s obvious she’s never looked at one through a microscope herself), research reports from half a dozen universities, Louise Bourgeois sculptures, spiders in folklore, science fiction, nursery rhymes, and so on.

Woolfson is no Miss Muffet and it’s all interesting stuff but it’s more a combination of fireside thoughts and textbook precis than an “urban nature diary”. Indeed, the problem with the book is that it bears little resemblance to the description in the title. It’s as much armchair meditation as a collection of field notes. There is no “hidden city” revealed. It’s not even particularly urban. What Woolfson describes – the habits of slugs, tame jackdaws, tits at the bird feeder – could be witnessed in any house and garden in country or town anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

Perhaps this is her point – that there is quotidian nature in all our lives. If so, she has backed away from one crucial conundrum. How is it that these supposedly wild organisms have so enthusiastically taken to our exclusively tailored habitats and what does this mean about the likely character of “nature” in the future? I’m on her side when she points out the hypocrisy of our “hierarchies of cruelty” and cultural acceptability. The sparrowhawk’s assault on the robin is demonised; the robin’s gulping of the worm made into a cute Christmas image. Nasty, xenophobic undertones seep into the language that conservationists use about bothersome immigrants, while we conveniently forget that Homo sapiens is the most dangerous, invasive species on the planet. There is plenty of such sensible debunking. But she avoids a reckoning with the sheer fact of a thriving urban nature, the implications of which may be prophetic, one way or another, for the future of the biosphere. She might have grasped this if she had ventured out of her study and into her home city more.

Aberdeen is not especially rich biologically but has two spectacular newcomers – “urban adaptors” – in plain sight but unremarked by Woolfson. In the very centre of the city, at Triple Kirks, peregrine falcons have come to breed, using the stone buildings as facsimiles of natural cliffs. In the evenings, while Woolfson is browsing in the Tao, these ferocious raptors are scything through the night sky high above her, chasing down migrating water birds. Before they began nesting in accessible city buildings, nobody knew peregrines were nocturnal hunters or that supposedly weak fliers such as water rail also made great journeys under cover of dark.

Along the shingle banks of the River Dee is one of the great floral displays in north-east Scotland, immense blue sheets of naturalised Nootka lupins. They come from the Pacific coast of North America, were brought over for Queen Victoria in 1847 and escaped from Balmoral into the river system 20 years later, again finding the Scottish shingle an acceptable substitute for their native habitat. Both organisms have made extraordinary journeys, geographically and culturally. They are opportunist, adaptable, mobile, cosmopolitan, the “generalists” that are increasingly moving in as the habitats of highly localised and finicky species are trashed. Aberdeen has one of the latter, an extraordinary liverwort that grows entirely underground in Hazlehead Park, and is disappearing as the damp heather it needs is slowly suffocated by rank grass.

It’s impossible actively to dislike Field Notes from a Hidden City. It is genial, readable, warm-hearted and on nature’s side. Yet it is, in all senses, a tame book. Woolfson likes urban nature to the extent that it comes into her willing embrace. It would have been a braver and more valuable book if she had taken on the challenge of these more wilful, multicultural denizens, which ride into civilisation on our coat-tails but keep a defiant independence. They may increasingly shape the contours of wildness in our overdeveloped country.

Richard Mabey’s latest book is “Turned Out Nice Again: on Living with the Weather” (Profile Books, £8.99)

Woolfson's account explores the quotidian aspect of nature. Photograph: Architectural photography by www.simonkennedy.net

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.