Dirty Old Town

There are parts of the city where the remnants of heavy industry remain, relics of a bygone age when factories outnumbered offices. It wasn’t long ago that these areas bustled with activity, but many are now little more than urban wastelands, a stark reminder of how quickly ‘progress’ can render things obsolete. These places were collateral damage as the industrial revolution gave way to the digital revolution. Ghosts of a vanished world.

There’s a bleak beauty about these places (as opposed to Black Beauty, who was a horse). One of my favourite spots sits in the shadow of two giant gas towers, painted in claret and blue in honour of the local football team. These cast-iron monoliths, scheduled to be pulled down at any time as part of decommissioning of the long-abandoned gas works, are a familiar and much-loved part of the city skyline, and will be fondly remembered by many. Extending away from these towers in every direction is a desolate landscape that shows the influence of the hand of man at every turn, including the infamous monstrosity known as ‘Spaghetti Junction’ (or the Gravelly Hill Interchange to give it it’s correct moniker).

Two of the city’s many rivers flow through this dystopian dreamworld, both of which having been straightened and forced through concrete box sections and culverts to fit around the roads and factories. The canalised rivers sit directly alongside actual canals, constructed to transport goods in the days before road and rail. In the industrial heyday of the early to mid 20th century these watercourses would have shown a resplendent array of colours and odours resulting from the reaction of myriad heavy metals and chemicals discharged from sundry businesses (incidentally the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined to describe the music that was born in these industrial areas, the pounding rhythms a facsimile of the noise from presses and forges that would operate around the clock). Thankfully environmental standards are much higher now, and many of these urban waterways are rich in wildlife, including the charismatic kingfisher. They remain the lifeblood of the area, vibrant green and blue corridors through a desert of concrete and steel.

The concrete desert is surprisingly diverse. A small number of active businesses still remain, survivors of a dying age, but these are vastly outnumbered by a mosaic of factories closed and factories gone, vast tracts of urban waste in their stead. The term urban waste has a negative connotation, but it’s something of a misnomer. It describes an endlessly fascinating range of land uses, the most interesting of which are those areas where nature has begun to gain a toehold once again, having been kept at bay for so long. A proper ecologist would never use the term urban waste, of course. Us nerdy types prefer descriptions such as ‘early pioneer successional vegetation’ or ‘open mosaic habitat on previously developed land’, both rather dry descriptions of what planning policy refers to as brownfield land (to distinguish it from the green belt, you see). The plants and animals that thrive in these areas are an intriguing and hardy bunch, forming a unique community type that is rare outside of these anthropogenic zones. Characteristic species include ragwort, rosebay, mugwort and nettle, all things that are the bane of gardeners but provide a superb nectar source for pollinating insects. The loose, friable substrate of many demolished sites also provides nesting opportunities for a broad range of invertebrates, including solitary bees and wasps. Coupled with the omnipresent butterfly-bush, the value of these areas to insects is obvious, and where things are valuable to insects they tend to support a host of additional species further up the food chain. One such species is the black redstart, a beautiful bird about the size of a robin, which is amongst the rarest of breeding species in the country. This bird has a curious habitat niche, favouring those remnant industrial landscapes (often near water) that provide a rich selection of potential nest sites and abundant invertebrate prey. Traditional heartlands for this species have included the London docklands and cities including Birmingham and Sheffield, although it remains scarce and elusive to this day.

Our half-demolished industrial landscapes have long inspired artists of all descriptions, from the classic to the modern. One of my favourites is Eliot Hodgkin, perhaps most known for his depictions of WWII bomb sites after the blitz. These sites are often strikingly similar to the brownfield land that I describe above, and in Rus In Urbe (1946) he captures a host of familiar pioneer plant species with a backdrop of wartime London beyond. These species: rosebay, dock, dandelion and nettle, are all common sights on a walk through the urban wasteland. His work has a simple beauty, and I urge you to seek it out.

Sadly, many of the landscapes similar to those painted by Eliot Hodgkin are disappearing, lost to urban regeneration. It’s entirely understandable; to most these sites are inherently unattractive when compared to ‘green’ sites, and often occur in areas where investment in new infrastructure is desperately needed. One could argue that the tendency to develop these areas as cinema complexes or retail parks with the same five shops and restaurants isn’t the best use of the land, but that’s a discussion for another day. What is very clear is that the loss of these wonderful urban biodiversity sinks is as regrettable as it is inevitable.

Sometimes the ugliest things can be the most beautiful. These brownfield mosaic habitats are a true national treasure, but are destined never to be valued as such.

A Lazy Morning in July

Today I decided to lay down in a lovely old hay meadow. I’m not normally one for being tactile when it comes to nature, I don’t think I’ve ever hugged a tree, but today I felt like I needed to get a bug’s eye view of the world. I discovered that the world is very different when viewed from beneath.

The first exciting observation was that meadows are actually very comfy. Most wildflower meadows in Britain are cut once or twice a year, meaning that at the start of July they are rich with grasses and flowers. If you pick the right spot, ideally somewhere where the grasses outnumber the flowers, the tussocks provide a surprisingly luxurious mattress. Not exactly a deluxe memory foam job, but I’ve paid to sleep on worse. Try not to crush the lovely flowers though!

My second observation was of an olfactory persuasion. Meadow flowers smell wonderful! This sounds like an obvious statement, it’s no secret that flowers smell nice, but often our senses are pummelled by the overpowering scent of the monster flora that most florists peddle. Wildflowers are subtler, and are all the more beautiful for it. I highly recommend getting down amongst the flowers and breathing it all in. (Unless you have hay fever, in which case I recommend staying at home and googling a flower. Alternatively invest in a military grade gas mask, although you may get funny looks from other park users). I digress – meadows smell good!

Things look very different when you change your angle of approach. The first thing that you notice is the astonishing variation in the height and structure of the plants that surround you. From above you can be forgiven for thinking of grasslands as green and homogenous, however this is far from the truth. Grasslands are like forests in miniature, with robust grasses and sturdy herbs forming a canopy over finer species below. The range of colours is startling too. Humans can see more shades of green that any other colour, and nowhere is this more obvious than our wonderful grassland habitats. Green is only the canvas, however, onto which is painted a rich array of flowers of every imaginable colour, each trying to out-compete the other. A festival for the pollinators, and one that I was privileged to attend.

The sky looks different too. You really pay attention to the shape and movement of the clouds when they fill your entire view, as opposed to the bit above the horizon. I’d normally try to write a lengthy description using tedious long words, but it ultimately comes down to this – clouds are pretty great aren’t they? Do you know what else are great? Birds! If you’re lucky enough to pick the right spot you’ll be treated to an aerial display by swifts, swallows or martins (or various combinations of the three). The sight and sound of these beautiful creatures is a true sign of summer – magnificent! I was also fortunate enough to see a dragonfly from beneath, hawking slowly over the meadow, dual pairs of wings beating like the mighty rotors of a chinook helicopter. Superb!

A word of warning before you rush off to frolic in the nearest field: by choosing to get down amongst the vegetation, you’re issuing an open invitation to a host of weird and wonderful invertebrates. You effectively turn yourself into habitat, to be colonised and invaded at will. By and large most of the species that you encounter in meadows are fairly benign, but there’s always a risk of ants in pants or bees in bras. That is, bees getting into your bra, rather than a bee wearing a tiny bra. Although…

Finally, there’s no poetic way to put this, but check for dog mess. Always, always check for dog mess.

Sea Change

The harsh metal edge of the steps bit into the flesh of his shin as the masked guard pushed him roughly into the transporter. Blood oozed lazily through the ragged fabric of his trousers, but the pain barely registered. The inside of the transporter was a seething mess of decrepit human life, men and women of all ages packed into a space far too small to afford privacy or comfort. The air was thick with rank odour, a smell that betrayed the lack of access to sanitation. There was no need for hygiene, or any of the other tenets that used to be basic human rights. You don’t need to be clean to die.

Cortez stumbled forward, trampling over groaning forms and prone limbs, eventually collapsing against the metal wall of the small metal enclosure that functioned as a holding cell. A barred window gave a tantalising view of the outside world as the transporter whirred into life, rising slowly into the air. He remembered when the transporters were invented, designed as luxury vehicles carrying holidaymakers to exotic destinations far and wide, a replacement for the outdated, slow aeroplanes and their primitive fossil fuel technology. A sad grimace twisted his gaunt face as he reflected on the events of the past thirty years. Nobody outside the towers went on holiday any more.

Nothing in his life bore any resemblance to the world that he remembered. Born into Tennessee farming stock, he had known little outside the family tobacco ranch and the small town of Fairview, but his childhood memories were happy ones. Unlike many of their neighbours the family lived a frugal yet comfortable existence, primarily a result of the toil both his mother and father invested in their little patch of earth. The farm was run as a tight ship, and turned a small profit almost every year. Everything had changed in the year 2139, when Cortez was 19 years old. That was the year the war started, and part of America disappeared.

Of course, America wasn’t the first country to disappear. As early as 2086 the country formerly know as Bangladesh had been wiped off the map, and in the intervening years the sea had claimed much of southern and southeast Asia. The resulting human migration was like nothing seen before, with hundreds of millions of survivors attempting to find sanctuary in the drier lands of northern Asia and Europe. The effects were catastrophic. Cortez remembered watching the 24/7 rolling news channels, filled with tales of death and suffering on a planetary scale. Many millions died in the desperate act of fleeing this most unnatural of disasters, and a combination of disease and famine claimed an equal number. The impending disaster had been predicted since the late 20th century, but a combination of ignorance and political posturing meant that no attempt was made to reverse the problem until it was much, much too late. The orange man on the television had made it sound as though the little brown people on the other side of the world deserved their fate, and his followers lapped it up. There had been dissident voices of course, but they were shouted down by those in power. Those who had sworn to protect them. The orange man was long dead now, but by the time the west realised the recklessness of their actions it was too late. The environment was broken, far beyond the wit of man to repair.

The transporter vibrated noisily as it flew fast and low over the barren landscape, the mechanical sound melding with the noises of human suffering. He had tried desperately to evade capture, spending weeks hiding in the sewer system with other like-minded rebels for whom the government’s ‘ultimate answer’ held little appeal. The current leader was clean-cut and emotionless, very different to the orange man of his childhood, but the rhetoric was just as savage. For those outside the towers there were two stark choices: work or die. The bitter irony was that they’d work you until you dropped dead, when another unwilling volunteer would take your place. The model was based on those trialled by the Third Reich in the 1930s and 1940s, and the ruthless brutality of the current regime had several parallels with Mr Hitler’s form of fascism. This was no attempt at engineering a master race, Cortez thought sadly. This was genocide as population control, nothing more. Fewer people meant less competition for resources, you see.

In some parts of the ravaged world, the broken climate had taken population control into its own hands. Much of the population of Africa had died out long ago, a result of extreme heat causing desertification and famine. The kind of famine that no televised charity fundraising event could touch. The kind of famine that dried up lakes, killed crops and starved livestock. The kind of famine that killed everyone. Whilst the hot places got hotter, the cold places fared no better. Much of the places formerly called Russia, Scandinavia and Canada had long since become inhospitable to human life, meaning that the more temperate zones of the USA and central and southern Europe had become more densely populated than ever. The competition for resources became unsustainable, large tracts of land becoming the scenes of pitched battles between newly formed tribes. These minor tribal scuffles escalated exponentially until things came to a head in 2139. This was when China and the USA decided to fire missiles at each other, which did surprisingly little to help the situation.

‘Peacekeepers’ was the name that the government had given to the groups of armed militants that implemented the ‘work or die’ order. It was a much gentler term than ‘death squads’, although the results were often much the same. Fourteen men, women and children had died in the raid that had been the start of Cortez’s journey to the transporter, a journey broken only by a three-week spell of imprisonment and torture. In all honesty he had preferred the sewer life.

The work element of the ‘work or die’ programme meant one of two things, and neither was a 9 to 5 office job. The majority of ‘candidates’ were sent to work on vast farm complexes that were solely devoted to maximising yields of food for the massive population, and which bared little resemblance to the tobacco farm of Cortez’s youth. The second option, reserved for the most physically capable of candidates, involved the repair and upkeep of the crumbling concrete and steel walls that lined tens of thousands of miles of coastline. These vast flood defences, commissioned in a fit of Canutian folly by the remaining 49 states of the union after Florida was lost some 30 years previously, were in perilous condition in places as a result of perpetual seawater corrosion and bombardment by monstrous waves. Many breaches has occurred in recent years, and many lives had been lost. It was widely recognised that maintaining the sea defences was perhaps the most treacherous of all possible assignments, and the register of those killed extended to many leather bound volumes in the tower vaults. The towers themselves, in which the powerful resided, were naturally designed to sit high above the surrounding land to provide brief respite should the seemingly inevitable happen.

Cortez mindlessly fingered the concealed blood on his wound as the transporter began to descend. Soon the sorting would commence, with the feeble bodied and feeble minded separated from potential workers. It was an open secret that nobody ever saw or heard from one of these groups again. The side of the transporter swung open like a cattle truck, and he made no attempt to conceal his limp as he shuffled sadly out. The injury had been acquired several years before during a clash with a Peacekeeper, and he had always suspected that it would seal his fate. During the intervening years had had come to accept it, and felt strangely calm as he neared the front of the queue of broken souls. He had no desire to live in the burning embers of a dying planet, and he pitied the misguided fools that would try in vain to reverse the irreversible. He shuffled forward awkwardly, his deformed leg obvious to the guard, and was ushered left to join the rest of the crippled and mad.


I had my semi-regular checkup this week to assess how mental I am. The answer was, reassuringly, not very mental, although two days later I had a bit of a wobble that could have gone either way. It got me thinking.

Firstly I should explain how I perceive time. It sounds daft, I know, but recently I’ve learned that we all experience time slightly differently. Some see a calendar year as a linear thing, beginning in January and following a straight line until the end of December. Others see time as a loop, or clock face, months ticking by and years beginning afresh. Personally I visualise each year as a parabola, with January to April a shallow incline to be conquered, May through August almost a plateau, and September onwards a sharp, uncontrollable fall. Don’t ask me how I perceive longer time periods, I don’t even know how to explain it myself. Suffice to say that there are right angles…

I don’t think I’ve always experienced time as a curve. Certainly as a child I belonged to the ‘straight line’ crowd, with acute peaks during times of excitement like summer holidays and Christmas. The warping and curving has only really happened in the past decade or so, which broadly correlates with the period I’ve spent tussling with the world and my place in it. Ergo, time passes differently when you’re mad. I’m not very mad, but just enough to see beyond the magician’s curtain (and occasionally the wizard’s sleeve).

The slopes of the parabola are the times that I find difficult. Like many who suffer with relatively benign depression, the black dog comes with the dark. Summertime is generally fine, with the long sunny days keeping the silos of good chemicals in my strange brain topped up. Vitamin D, serotonin, dopamine, all present and correct. Autumn is when things start to change, happy chemicals starting to deplete as the nights draw in. I can generally feel myself weakening, as the sun-fuelled forcefield melts slowly away. By the time November comes I’m quite fragile, and during the bad years this is when the real tussle starts. It’s a tussle with myself, so you’d think I’d know the rules and how to win, but apparently not. It’s frustrating, because autumn and early winter are two of my favourite times of the year. I’ve said it before, but I prefer Bonfire Night to Christmas. It’s the smell of woodsmoke and candy floss that does it.

I’m going to gloss over the winter part because I want to write about it as much as you want to read about it (i.e. not at all). Suffice to say once you’ve tried to push through three months of feeling broken and worthless, you won’t want to do it again. It’s a handy learning curve if nothing else. Finally you get through to the other side and spring is on the horizon. The nights get longer and the lazy sun starts to make an effort once again. It’s an upward struggle to drag myself to April, but that’s usually the time where my old friends the good chemicals generally kick back in.

Back to the parabola again. It was only this week that I finally worked out why I see time that way, or at least I’ve come up with an explanation that my brain finds convincing. I think I want to see time as a loop, probably an oval, but my broken brain can’t connect the two loose ends of the curve. December should grade into January and begin the annual cycle afresh, but for some reason I can’t handle that. I fall into a void between the two ends of the thread, and it is often a real fight to end one year and find my way to the start of another. January and February are when I’m at my least motivated, and I sometimes obsess over the fear of getting back on the treadmill and living through another year. It doesn’t last long, but it’s always there.

I’m lucky in many ways that my job is also my passion, namely nature and wildlife. Nature can, however, be a real bugger for those with a tendency to dwell on the passage of time. Nature gives the open-minded depressive any number of allegories to cling to, some helpful but most less so. The birds are the worst offenders, the spring chorus of the migrant breeders raising our spirits and gladdening our hearts before they abandon us to our solitude once more. The swifts are the ones that get me, one moment wheeling through the sky en masse and screaming with the pure joy of being alive and free, then August arrives and they depart suddenly on the changing winds. They’re oblivious of course, but the swifts taking their leave is a sure sign that I need to batten down the hatches for the gathering storm.

It’s mid August as I write this, and I’m fine. I’ve been on my second spell of antidepressants for over a year now and they seem to keep all my chemicals balanced without making me an emotionless robot. The swifts are preparing their exit strategy and the leaves will soon start to turn, but I’m fairly optimistic about the coming months. I think Bonfire Night should be a good one this year.