Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Melissa Harrison

Melissa Harrison | 7th December 2012

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments:

I live in Streatham, South London. It’s just as unsalubrious as it sounds: our High Road – the longest in Europe – was voted Britain’s Worst Street in 2002, the roads off it are peppered with ‘no stopping’ signs designed to combat kerb crawlers (Cynthia Payne ran a famous brothel here in the late 70s and early 80s), and sheer, unvarnished deprivation, in Lambeth, is only ever a street away.

But it’s also very beautiful – if you know how to look. Unplanned, piecemeal South London is famously leafy, with remnants of surprisingly old woods surviving from its more sylvan past. There are streets of Victorian and Edwardian terraces, some pretty shabby, it’s true, but lined with plane trees and horse chestnuts. In the roads around me, much more remains untamed than in London’s smarter districts: dead trees are left to rot, to the great benefit of stag beetles (the area is one of their last remaining strongholds), the verges are riotous with weeds and wildflowers in spring, and instead of smart tennis courts and tidy play areas, large swathes of our parks and commons – of which we have many – are left jungly and unmown for much of the summer.

Having a dog brings you into a much closer relationship with the green spaces around you than you would otherwise be likely to have. You’re forced to seek out places to walk it every day, and you go out in all weathers. You find yourself walking the streets, too, with no fixed purpose beyond the walk itself – something that can seem difficult in cities. And you begin to notice things.

This spring, sycamore seedlings sprouted from every available patch of ground: not just my shady, compacted, rubble-filled and barren back garden (we mow them in their thousands), but in cracks in the pavement and even from walls. Like buddleja, they are a pioneer species, quickly colonising unpromising areas of scrub – and it’s little wonder. They are cheerily unfussy, the spinners assimilating carbon and even photosynthesising a little to get the seedlings off to a flying start.

Streatham is, for the most part, a cheerful mixture of races and classes, and its plant life follows a similar pattern. In the little ‘nature garden’ around the corner, once the site of a large Victorian villa, dignified larches and redwoods from its long-lost garden rub shoulders with common ivy, Spanish bluebells and a pretty stand of Japanese knotweed which the parks department tells me has been there for decades without harming anybody at all.

In the streets it’s the same, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the wildflowers from the garden escapees: this summer yellow corydalis and creeping campanulas colonised walls and brickwork up and down our street, followed, in autumn, by asters, whose windblown seeds seem now to be lodging in even the tiniest cracks.

But this is what it takes to survive in the city: vigour and tolerance and a certain unfussy bonhomie. The squirrels typify it for me: they are everywhere right now, in every street tree, park and back garden, necessitating the dog, for the moment, to be kept on a lead. They scuttle crabwise up tree trunks, mouths stuffed with fried chicken bones or bits of burger bun; they crouch on the verges, caching food for the coming winter, patting down the tired grass with their expressive hands, alert for jays and rival squirrels.

And now the leaves are coming down, leaving the branches black and bare above the houses and lying in litter-studded drifts on the pavements. They are repositories of smells for my dog, who feels the need to nose carefully through them: perhaps the young fox who regularly follows us on our evening walk has passed that way. The two regard each other with rapt fascination, their relationship based on signals utterly unreadable to us.

Everything is damp, everything is decaying. Migrant thrushes strip the rowans; local blackbirds guard the firethorns in the local park jealously – albeit silently. Apart from the robins’ plaintive repertoire the city birds will almost all be silent now until the tits begin see-sawing in February.

The grass on the common has stopped growing, and the nettles are rotting down. Mushrooms sprout secretly, hidden in carpets of rotting leaves. Algae creeps up the damp flanks of trees and colonises brickwork and buildings. The living city begins to prepare for the long winter.

Melissa’s first novel, Clay, published by Bloomsbury on 3 January 2013, will be our Book of the Month for January at Rough Trade. To pre-order a copy at the special price of £12.00, click here.

Melissa will be reading from Clay at the next Caught by the River Social Club event, taking place in London on 22 January. Buy tickets here.