Iain Sinclair on The Unofficial Countryside

Little Toller celebrates its tenth birthday this year, so we’re delving into our archives to pick out pieces of writing that have been pivotal on our journey. Iain Sinclair had not read Richard Mabey’s book, The Unofficial Countryside, until we got in touch with him and invited him to write an introduction; his response reinvigorated Mabey’s classic and brought Little Toller an entirely new audience. Do look out for more fragments from our books over the course of 2019 (#TollerTen).


Prompted by 8mm film diaries, I remember the bright moments of my rock-bottom employment, loading and unloading containers, by the railway yards in Stratford East in the early Seventies. The site is presently occupied by the emerging Westfield supermall, the only confirmed legacy of the 2012 Olympics. Leaking warehouses, which had been stacked with the cargoes of the world, in an attempt to circumvent the restrictive practices of the dying docks, the power of the dockers’ unions, were known to the workforce as Chobham Farm. Chobham Farm, Angel Lane. When Angel Cottage, a rustic gem festooned in creepers and blooms, disappeared overnight as part of the great redevelopment package, I cried out, in my ignorance, for a small portion of the precision and lightly-worn scholarship with which The Unofficial Countryside had been mapped. Without a proper accounting of loss, these acts are final: not a scratch on our consciousness when the listed building is replaced by a loud nothing, protected by a corrugated fence and a battery of surveillance cameras. No record has been left behind of our shame in failing to resist. And no memorial, in Mabey’s direct and effective prose, to the processes of weather, the complex entanglements of predatory humans and indifferent nature.


When I wasn’t grazing on copies of The Sun, junked by fellow workers, I laboured, a page or two a day, through Dante. The dark epic seemed appropriate to time and place. The other ex-hippie communalist in the gang sat on his fork-lift truck alternating Thoreau’s Walden and Alan Watts. In the lunch break, we made expeditions into the marshes of the Lower Lea Valley, into overgrown cemeteries, through a tangled residue of wild orchards and concrete pillboxes on the banks of polluted streams. From a deep pocket in his combat jacket, my companion retrieved his treasured copy of Food for Free, with which he identified some of the less toxic mutants, to carry home for supper. Mabey was the surest guide to the coming cultural shift, the economic bite imposed by politicians cruising sullen landscapes in helicopters. His work was made in the spirit of poet-naturalists, but it was eminently practical. If John Clare, imprisoned in an Epping Forest asylum, had nibbled judiciously from roadside salads, on his crazed and visionary trudge up the Great North Road, he would have had something better than stringy tobacco to digest. Or so my fellow wanderer in the Lea Valley wetlands reasoned, missing that underlying melancholy, the tempered romanticism of Mabey’s thesis. Those glancing details – the vortex of a snail’s shell, the colour and texture of a feather – are not only true to themselves, but they become symbols of larger and more mysterious energy fields. Like calligraphic markings on a Chinese scroll. Signs that propose and predict a world of meaning.


The real Beat Generation epiphany, recalling Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’, arrived when we took a break from the slithery sacks of talcum powder, the oozing sheep casings, the chemical drums, and sat against a mesh fence, in pale autumn sunlight, looking across the silvered span of the railway yards. From oily gravel and impacted dirt, sunflowers climbed. ‘Corolla of bleary spikes,’ Ginsberg wrote. Golden messenger spirits of the unofficial countryside. Mabey explains how 13,000 tons of canary grass seed, fodder for caged birds, comes into Britain every year. And is recycled into landfill sites, to leach into the water table, to drift down embankments and sewage-outfall tracks; bringing life and colour to the uniform greys of spurned and disregarded places.


Now, in the age of the Grand Project, Richard Mabey’s excursions from thirty-five years ago, undertaken in strong heart, never succumbing to impotent rage, seem prophetic. Which is to say: true and right. Inevitable. Writing by walking, and walking again to gather up the will to write, was such an obvious tactic; a mediated response to a dim period of failing industries, social unrest, power cuts: suppression of the imagination after the unbridled utopianism of the Sixties. But nobody else, at the moment of the book’s composition, took on the job in quite this way; and not, for sure, in this territory. Mabey, like a covert infiltrator, makes an engaged pass at the ugly bits, the dirty folds in the map. Convalescent canals and sluggish tributaries of the western rim of London, where dispersed Notting Hill dopers and opters-out were taking to the water in narrow boats with psychedelic decorations. With cats, tomato plants and bicycles. Would they notice Mabey, with his binoculars and his notebook, as he investigated pre-traumatic urban-edge market gardens, motorway-detached settlements waiting for longer runways and bigger air terminals? 


The Unofficial Countryside is a proper reckoning, the Doomsday Book of a topography too fascinating to be left alone. Gravel beds, abandoned by film studios, were blissfully repossessed by passerine birds and opportunist plants. Mabey logs the tough fecundity of the margin, where wild nature spurns the advertised reservation and obliterates the laminated notice-boards of sanctioned history. Human tragedies of our paranoid cultures, raids and terrorist outrages, as Mabey points out, are nature’s opportunity. ‘The first summer after the blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation.’


Mabey is associated with a long residence in the Chilterns, with childhood memories of Berkhampstead, and the discovery, a Home Counties version of Alain-Fournier’s novel, Le Grand Meaulnes, of a landscaped parkland over the garden fence. Intimations of wilderness within the fetch of suburbia. He absorbs and champions John Clare, not as an overreaching ‘peasant’ poet, but as a great and prescient natural eye. A witness to seasons and shifts, informed but unsentimental about the flora and fauna of the fenland fringe. He sees Clare’s tragedy, a man at the whim of the social and economic forces of his time: enclosures, loss of common land, construction of railways. And he recognises this pathetic figure, trapped on the road between Helpston obscurity and metropolitan fame, as the solitary prophet of a new ecology. The damage in Clare’s psyche, the painful divorce from the things which were closest to him, chimes with morbid shadows from our own period. The black-dog weather systems that settled on Mabey, clamping his life-force, after the groundbreaking achievement of Flora Britannica in 1996. He relocated to Norfolk and wrote himself back to a proper balance with the land. This trajectory, soul-sickness, walking in nature, swimming, planting, observing, was the template for a gathering school of writers, many of them associated with the East Anglian countryside: W.G. Sebald, Ronald Blythe, Roger Deakin, Robert Macfarlane. Sickness was not always the launching point, unless it was the sickness in nature, in our broken treaty with living things.


The Unofficial Countryside was an exciting re-discovery for me: the unacknowledged pivot between the new nature writers and those others, of a grungier dispensation, who are randomly (and misleadingly) herded together as ‘psychogeographers’. Will Self, looking to J.G. Ballard, a large presence on the western collar of London, as mentor and inspiration, has recently undertaken a series of yomps between airports and cities: the ultimate shock-corridors of deregulated urbanism. A Liverpool clergyman, John Davies, took a sabbatical to hike down the acoustic footprints of the M62, from Hull to Crosby beach. But the most submerged inheritor of the genealogy set out by Mabey in 1973 – Cobbett, Defoe, the 17th century mercenary John Taylor, John Hillaby – is the self-proclaimed ‘deep-topographer’, Nick Papadimitriou. A solid invisible, tramping and haunting Mabey’s familiar turf, the Colne Valley: the canals, reservoirs and sewage farms of the Watford-to-Heathrow corridor. When Papadimitriou, archivist and scavenger, a person who solicits arrest and confrontation every time he sets out to visit another decommissioned settlement, tries to make a record of the Bedford Court Estate, he carries one book as his totem. The Estate is doomed, a parking lot for aircraft, but Papadimitriou, recording wild flowers, invading abandoned orchards, keeps faith with his chosen text: like a veteran of the English Civil War, bible and gunpowder, marching south to the Levellers’ camp at St George’s Hill, Weybridge. This is how he transcribes the episode in a contribution to the anthology London, City of Disappearances (2006).


‘I first stumbled across the Bedford Court Estate during an attempt to visit Perry Oaks, a sludge-disposal works set up by the County Council in the 1930s . . . The sewage works featured in that record of urban wildlife, Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside . . .  Mabey drew attention to the rare waders using the works as a halt on their migratory flights.’


In 1973, Ballard published Crash, his controversial novel of sex-death eroticism in a claustrophobic mindscape of concrete and tarmac: the airport slip roads, multi-storey car parks, low-level warehouses and convenience hotels that overspread Richard Mabey’s liminal lands. Two writers, apparent contraries, produced defining texts at the same moment. And laid them out in the same never-quite-identified non-places. Ballard’s perverse (but tender) ecology of petrol, blood, semen, crumpled metal, is the soundtrack playing at the edge of Mabey’s frame as he logs willowherbs, mosses and knotgrass. Mabey’s rogue plants, scuttling creatures migrating along central reservations and colonising abandoned filling stations, are the local jungle into which Ballard’s architect, Robert Maitland, plunges in Concrete Island (1974).


It was astonishing to find how accurately The Unofficial Countryside plotted my own unwritten future books. Mabey evaluated every piece of evidence I had missed on my pedestrian circuit of London’s orbital motorway. He was interested in process, not place. Everything I attempted was an articulation of the specifics of named territories, the reconstruction of an authentic edgeland mythology. Mabey projected his ‘journey in an erratic circle around London,’ in 1973, ‘tacking towards and away from the centre.’ Like me, he soon learnt how ‘every road and path seemed to lead straight to a “Private” sign’. Like me, but decades earlier, he understood how the rambler learns ‘to look at sewage farms and airfields . . . as if they were natural land-forms, inexorably tied to local history and geology.’ If I had been half-awake, I could have found the horrors of Thames Gateway, the apocalyptic mess of Grand Project short-termism, analysed by Mabey in his account of a single day botanising the smouldering landfill dumps of Rainham and Dagenham. ‘Russian thistle is spreading,’ he wrote, ‘and maybe one dust-blown evening, the drinkers in Dagenham saloons will look out into the main street to see the tumbleweeds rolling past their reined-up Cortinas.’


Bunkered down at the limits of London, through valid obsession and intensity of vision, the warring ecologies of J. G. Ballard and Richard Mabey are finally united. Two men of the Sixties in whom libertarianism and conservatism, rage and good-humour, combine to telling effect, have emerged as sages; the elective godfathers of a new generations of questing dissidents.



IAIN SINCLAIR lives in Hackney, east London. He is a poet, essayist, novelist and filmmaker. His acclaimed books include Lud Heat, Downriver, Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital, Edge of Orison, Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire, and Black Apples of Gower. This introduction was written for Little Toller’s edition of The Unofficial Countryside.

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