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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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear