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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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem