Caught by the River

Kenneth Allsop Memorial Talk

20th November 2012

Richard Mabey speaks at the first Kenneth Allsop Memorial Talk from Little Toller Books on Vimeo.

Virginia Astley writes:

It seemed fitting that my route to the first Kenneth Allsop memorial talk should take me over Eggardon hill. ‘The bleak spine of rock and the ramparts of the Stone Age fortress, steeped in ancientness.’ Allsop wrote. The isolated road wove through a landscape Allsop described as the most desolate in the south-west, ‘even in summer, grey mists like muslin fold wetly upon it.’

Eggardon crops up many times in Allsop’s writing, and when reading, In the Country the shadow of its looming form seems to hang around every page. It is hard not to be affected by Eggardon. Even after twenty-five years it has not lost any of its mystery to me.

Down in Bridport, outside the Electric Palace, the food bus was selling saltbeef and saukraut. Inside the foyer of the old cinema I met lovely Gracie from Little Toller Books, stood behind their complete collection of nature classics: these chunky books with their beautiful covers laid out as a mosaic – happy in each other’s company.

In the theatre a large black and white photo of Allsop projected onto the back wall. In front of this, Sue Clifford from Common Ground introduced the nature writer Richard Mabey as they sat down at the small table to talk. There always feels something a little staid about these literary events configured in this way and I think it’s hard for the participants to know how to manage the line between performance and conversation. But despite this, words flowed quickly as Mabey set us straight on how it wasn’t until towards the end of Allsop’s life that he came to know him.

It was Allsop’s nature writing in The Daily Mail that first attracted Mabey. In those days the usual nature, or country writing was hunting, shooting and fishing; all of which Mabey declared he could not abide. So when ‘Ken burst on the scene with his metropolitan, slick, political, jazzy hip-hop style of writing’ Mabey was ‘knocked over’; it was unlike anything else. In 1969, Allsop had made a documentary about the urban wildlife of New York – complete with stick insects crawling up Harley Davidsons. This idea that nature could find a place in an urban environment chimed with Mabey’s discoveries in his own life. Working for Penguin Books meant he was located in a west of London wasteland of breakers yards and gravel pits; his lunch times were spent prowling among six foot high goat’s willow and buddleia, watching the migrant terns perched on floating tyres. This time spent in an urban scrubland and Allsop’s film led Mabey on to think about nature striving at all odds and the toughness of nature, instead of viewing wildlife as a pet that could only survive with our help. These ideas culminated in 1974 with the publication of Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside.

Prior to this Mabey had produced Food for Free. He hadn’t been a born naturalist, had not enjoyed catching butterflies, or had a pet magpie, but had been a romantic teenager, with a tendency for Keats. His time at university coincided with the Cold War and he became involved with the peace movement. Mabey and friends would go and stay in Norfolk, on a converted lifeboat, watching birds and drinking. While here, Mabey noticed the people on the Norfolk coast foraging for food and this was his catalyst.
Collins didn’t like the title Food for Free – they thought it too slangy. Their suggestion was: ‘The Edible Plants of Hedgerow Bottoms’. Mabey told us disparagingly.

When asked about other influences, Mabey cited Geoffrey Grigson and The Englishman’s Flora – a social history of Britain’s wild plants. In this, Grigson had amassed vast lexicons of English folklore for each plant but hadn’t gone to the villages and spoken with people. It was all information gleaned from a roomful of Victorian tomes.

In 2000 Mabey was involved on the board of Plantlife; the idea was to create a popular plant society equivalent to the RSPB. But somehow they hadn’t managed to recharge a vernacular interest in plants. Mabey suggested updating the lists of vernacular names and folklore for plants but then decided this would be a personal project rather than something Plantlife produced. Financiers and botanists said it wouldn’t work and would serve rather as an epitaph than as a re-invigorating exercise, but, undeterred, Mabey persisted. On one visit to a school in Berkhamsted he became convinced there was a thriving folklore surrounding plants. Children and families were constantly making up new traditions and names; people’s interest in the world around them was anything but diminishing. Mabey told us excitedly of the moment he heard a child describing the snakeshead fritillary as ‘the linoleum plant’. The results of this extensive research and collation were the encyclopedic Flora Britannica.

The US writer Joseph Meeker was another key influence, in particular The Comedy of Survival. Mabey enjoyed the US approach to nature writing, which was broader than ours, and encompassed politics, science and personal views, creating a broader sense and a more eclectic book. In The Comedy of Survival Meeker expanded the idea of comedy and tragedy into the natural world, seeing our behaviours as either adaptive that promoted our survival (comedy) or estranging us from other life forms (tragedy).

The talk drifted to Fowles and what an accomplished naturalist he was. Fowles spoke of woods as ‘green chaos’ – so intricate that we cannot hope to plot them and in Mabey’s view we’re better off leaving well alone. After the great storm of 1987 it was often woodland where it was left and not cleared and replanted that fared better in the long run. Mabey believes we should hold all this in mind with the present crisis of ash dieback; nature is another culture that uses another language and we are just one of twenty million life forms on the planet that have been granted some living space.

He cautioned that we will not have a solution to the disease but the trees will. One thing he is against is the re-planting of woodland with what he terms, ‘battery saplings’. It was young trees such as these that are charged with bringing in ash dieback. But, Mabey says we have a large diversity of ash here in the UK with wide genetic variation. He believes the ash is cleverer than us and we just need to tag along to the tree’s cleverness. The collateral lesson was the folly of planting trees to revive woodland.

Driving home over Eggardon I thought of Kenneth Allsop and looked out for the white stag. He wasn’t out but I was happy to spot a young badger stuffing himself through a hedge.