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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A powerful portrait of the Bangladeshi textiles industry

Jeremy Seabrook's The Song of the Shirt goes beyond hand-wringing to investigate the true cost of cheap labour.

On 24 April 2013, an eight-storey commercial building called Rana Plaza in the Bangladeshi capital city, Dhaka, collapsed. Hundreds of bodies were buried in the rubble. The search for the dead went on for weeks. More than 1,000 people lost their lives; 2,500 were injured. The deadliest ­accident at a garment factory in history, the incident shone a light on the dire conditions endured by those who produce cheap clothing for the west.

In a cramped and unstable building, the workers – many of whom were women – stitched clothes for international brands such as Benetton and Primark. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of what happened was the wanton disregard for human life shown by the bosses. The building was clearly structurally unsound. The day before the disaster, cracks had appeared in the walls. But many workers were ordered to return the next day. Some of those who died had yet to receive their first pay cheque.

While the international firms that sold clothes made at Rana Plaza have offered ­financial compensation to the survivors and to families of the victims, not much has happened to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. This is not surprising. Numerous factory fires in recent years, cumulatively resulting in the deaths of hundreds of workers, have also failed to trigger any systemic change.

In his book The Song of the Shirt, Jeremy Seabrook goes beyond the all-too-transient hand-wringing about sweatshops that has typified much of the media coverage of the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters. Seabrook is nothing if not prolific. He has written about forty books over the course of five decades, many of them focusing on poverty and development, both in the UK and on the Indian subcontinent. For several years he was a columnist for the New Statesman in Kolkata.

The richness of that experience is evident in this book. Researched over the course of many years, it stitches together history, folklore and hundreds of encounters with individual Bangladeshis to give a thorough picture of the structural injustices that have led to the present situation.

“The position of Bangladesh in the division of labour of globalism today is not to clothe the nakedness of the world but to provide it with limitless, cheap garments,” he writes. “The workers are disposable, rags of humanity, as it were, used up like any other raw material in the cause of production for export.”

In lyrical prose, Seabrook places the personal stories of garment workers and their families in a broader context, showing them as dots in a bigger picture of the destructive effects of British colonisation and the injustices of modern globalisation, but also as the inheritors of their history: a people who have long been associated with weaving, in a country at the mercy of the ­elements, where riverbanks break and ­water consumes whatever scant resources the poor have.

The stories of the people Seabrook meets often extend to just a few paragraphs and the chapters, too, are short, sometimes just a couple of pages. Yet this fragmentary approach never feels disjointed. Rather, each small section layers on the last, gradually building up a complex and textured whole that illustrates the ways in which big ideas – colonisation, industrialisation and deindustrialisation – play out on the smallest of levels.

What distinguishes this book is its deep historical consciousness. Quietly outraged, Seabrook sets out in detail how in the 18th century the East India Company deliberately destroyed the long-established weaving industry in Bengal in order to promote British textiles. At times, he makes specific comparisons, noting that the workers of Bengal were forced to produce opium, which was then used for sedatives and medicines that made things “less harsh for the disaffected and sometimes mutinous workers of industrial Britain”.

He also applies these contrasts, which illustrate relative privilege, to the present day, describing children at a factory in Dhaka who stitch clothes together for the lower end of the European and North American markets. “The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the west,” he writes. Elsewhere, he makes a cross-historical comparison between workers in the north of England in the 19th century and today’s Bangladeshi garment workers. Both groups are casualties of unjust capitalism.

Seabrook travels outside Dhaka, notably to Barisal, a city where poverty is so deep that families – many of which have lost what scant land they had to flooding – have no option but to send their daughters to work in the capital’s garment factories. These brief stories are woven into a fabric that displays the relentlessness of poverty in places hardly touched by modernity and the claustrophobic pressing-inwards of structural inequality.

Seabrook is at his best outlining the living conditions of the poor. He tells their stories dispassionately but vividly, always according his subjects dignity. These are people with the odds stacked against them. Lima, a garment worker who has migrated from Barisal to Dhaka, dreams of earning enough money to purchase land in her village and become self-sufficient. Seabrook explains to readers that it would take her 13 years to earn enough to buy a tenth of the land required for self-sufficiency. “Still, she goes about her daily work meekly obedient; her trust is absolute, both in the future and the grace of a God who will not fail her.”

There is not much hope in The Song of the Shirt but, sadly, that is a realistic representation of the situation. At present, for all the moments of collective outrage, there remains a huge demand in the west for cheap clothing, which is met by the supply of cheap labour in southern Asia. And if cheaper labour appears elsewhere, this industry that has sprung up so quickly that its buildings are hardly fit for purpose will instantly relocate.

Fittingly for what begins as a study of mutability, Seabrook ends with a question: “Will the resourcefulness of humanity demand a new and more ample relationship with material resources, one that does not continuously deplete the reservoirs of human energy, nor exhaust the limited treasures of a wasting planet?” We do not yet have an answer.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism