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Weeding the garden

The most memorable film I saw in 2010 – at the cinema or on TV – was Julien Temple’s visionary TV documentary Requiem for Detroit.

The most memorable book I read was Richard Mabey’s Weeds. The two are linked. Both produced a surge of hope within me which ran contra to a generalised feeling of despair against which I was battling. Still am. Both works are concerned with – to put it crudely – the survival of the natural world in the teeth of our man-made conspiracy to destroy it. Both sent me back into my own memory bank.

I can remember visits to London in the late 40s and seeing empty bomb sites wherever mum and dad took me. What struck me, however, was not to do with destruction but reclamation. Everywhere I looked, the sites were overrun by exuberant greenery and feral flowers. They looked rather like the familiar suburban undeveloped “dump” which was my playground in the semi-detached estate where we lived on the divide between London and South Hertfordshire.

I was an uninquisitive child and never thought to ask the identity of the plants which had so completely masked the ruins of the blitz. Maybe I didn’t even know then that they were weeds – plants in the wrong place. Three or four years later – having passed the eleven-plus – I saw the first of the celebrated Ealing Comedies at the school film club and things began to fall into place.

Hue and Cry (Dir. Charles Crichton 1947) is an adventure story about a group of 12-13 year-old children whose London playgrounds are its bombsites. It immediately transported me back to my first glimpse of London’s wounds being treated with a kind of green first aid; living compresses and bandages just getting on with it without rescue parties and stretcher bearers. When I worked near St Paul’s in the early 60s there were still vacant overgrown sites close-by and it was not hemmed in by the Financial Times building and its like.

In the late 1960s I moved to the cathedral city of St Albans and revelled not only in its ancient buildings and alleys but also in its undeveloped sites close to its centre. These too had become playgrounds and natural open spaces where dogs were walked, refuse was thrown, lovers trysted, cider-drinkers blissed out and slept, and developers endlessly circled awaiting their market moment. Their moment eventually came and the various strains of convolvulus and rosebay willowherb (fireweed) gave way to hard-edged office blocks and unwanted shopping malls.

There’s a scene in Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net in which (I write from memory) a group of three friends buy some wine at an offo, clamber into a jungled bomb site in the shadow of St Paul’s, discuss the Meaning of Life until dawn and decamp for a café breakfast. A marvellous piece of writing and an implied celebration of anarchic destruction and consequent growth.

Around 1971 I saw a band at Wembley called MC Five. MC stood for the motor city, Detroit, and the band was politically inflammatory and proto-punk. I guess – if they were all still alive – its members might be dancing on the ruins of Detroit which has physically collapsed in tune with the collapse of the American motor industry. Julien Temple’s film shows the most toxic of Detroit’s car plants succumbing to invasive plant-life which has embraced its art deco grandeur with something akin to vegetational pizazz.

Richard Mabey’s brilliantly explored chapter, ‘Triffid’, notes that:
There’s been no horrified backlash against this invasion, no attempt to scapegoat nature for what is at root, the result of economic and political stupidity. Instead, the weeds are being read as a parable, a lesson that a monolithic, oil-based urban culture is unsustainable in the twenty-first century, and that there might be other, more ecologically gentle ways of living in cities. Families too poor to buy fresh food are starting neighbourhood organic farms on the sites of demolished local blocks. Young people from all over America – musicians, green activists, social pioneers, are flooding into the abandoned areas, keen to experiment with new patterns of urban living which accept nature – including its weedy frontiersmen – rather than attempting to drive it out.

As Julien Temple himself says:
Amid the ruins of the Motor City it is possible to find a first pioneer’s map of the post-industrial future that awaits us all.

Let’s hope.

Topics: Culture