Friday, 10 May 2013

Nature abhors a vacuum

On his morning walk from High Holborn to Fleet Street in 1947, in the rubble stretching from Farringdon Road to Fetter Lane, the young journalist Kenneth Allsop spotted a pair of kestrels - ‘like a lean pair of Che Guevara’s jungle guerrillas prowling through Harrods’, he wrote later. In 1949 he published Adventure Lit their Star (1949), a fictionalised piece of nature writing based on his own experiences as a wounded RAF pilot watching the previously rare little ringed plover in the gravel pits and sewage farms near Staines, Middlesex. Allsop was a pioneer in the new field of of urban ecology.

At the end of the 1960s Allsop, by then a star writer and TV presenter on the BBC show Tonight, wrote an article for the Sunday Times about wildlife thriving in the last remaining bombsites and scrubland in the centre of London. Allsop’s theme was the usefulness of the human-made landscape as a makeshift natural habitat. ‘How willing nature is to forgive the insults of man,’ he wrote, noting the absence of snobbishness with which kestrels nested on both the Savoy hotel and the Poplar gasometers. ‘How magnanimously she responds and pumps back life, like blood into dead tissue, once the environment is cleansed.’ At the height of his TV fame, in the mid-1960s, Allsop had moved from London to an old millhouse near Powerstock, Dorset where he wrote a regular column for the Daily Mail about his life there, collected as In the Country (1972). This part of the world was more remote than it is now:

‘BBC2 cannot penetrate our valley fastness. Colour has never been glimpsed. BBC1 comes in blurrily through a blizzard of static. On our regional commercial station we see, scratchily, ads for car marts far down the coast and scenes shot in smart candle-lit restaurants frequented by the beau monde of Plymouth. French programmes jabber dominantly on our screen, and there are occult images which are said to float in from Madrid. I am thinking of demanding my licence fee back from the government and declaring a TV UDI.’

Allsop’s style - describing a badger’s bottom as ‘waggling like an old boy in baggy trousers’, a starling as ‘a winged hippy with self-grown furbelows’, greenhouses as ‘bottling summer like Schiaparelli does scent’ and rats as scrabbling through his compost heap ‘like bargain hunters at a rummage stall’ – was unashamedly anthropocentric and uninfected by the quaintness or purple prose that afflicted much country writing before him. Allsop also made a BBC documentary, The Wildlife of New York, complete with stick insects crawling up Harley Davidsons and cockroaches congregating in the wiring behind telephone receivers. ‘Nature cannot abide a vacuum,’ he wrote in In the Country. ‘With an exactitude far more intricate and discriminating than our wonder dating-service computers … every niche is filled.’

Given the wonderful aliveness of the book, it is hard to believe that Allsop ended his own life a year after it was published.

You can watch Richard Mabey talking about Allsop here:

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