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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Pirates of the Caribbean’s silly magic still works – but Johnny Depp doesn’t

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It’s Johnny Depp who’s sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead . . .]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced the sprawling villain Davy Jones as captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, the incumbent King of the Pirates, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfil his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third instalment, At World’s End, on a bitter-sweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous that even this former fan could not bring herself to like it. Bloom and Knightley had moved on, and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success in 2003 of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue), Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogue and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, the weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters – Turner’s son Henry is following in the family tradition, trying to save his father from a curse – usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (here's looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, the new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the film being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by earpiece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful – though it goes deeper than his performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard have tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, that the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from purgatory. But all I wanted was for "One Day" to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written. The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

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