Melissa Harrison: A walk on the wild side

The author of a debut novel about nature in the city shares her environmental concerns with Christian House

Melissa Harrison agreed to meet me at a Portuguese coffee shop in south London, only to discover on arrival a life-size fake reindeer, looking at her through the window. Instead of trays of pastel de nata, there were chairs going cheap. The café was no more, Harrison informed me as we stomped our cold feet on the chilly pavement; the inevitable colonising force of commercialism has arrived in the form of a second-hand furniture store.

Harrison's striking debut novel, Clay, is set in this same realm of takeaways and pound shops. Yet, decamping to a happy little café up the hill, she explained how Rush Common, the unassuming ribbon of grass and trees opposite, becomes an oasis for her characters, as they struggle to get by in this gritty location.

"I love it around here, how much green space there is," she says. "Because it's just been carved out piecemeal, there are all these green bits and they're fantastic." Tooting Common was another source of inspiration. "It doesn't have all those things like a nice running track, but it's kind of better for that I think. It's really wild. The other day, I watched a crow eating a bat in a tree on Tooting Common. It was being mobbed by parakeets."

In Clay, Harrison pitches a disparate trio of characters into this mix of haven and hell: TC is a housing-estate youth with negligent parents; Sophia the widow wiles away her days maintaining the park with a pensioner's passion for guerrilla gardening; and Jozef the middle-aged Polish farmer flounders in the city, mourning his lost fields. Over the course of a year, each finds solace in the untamed green spaces hidden in the midst of the noise, traffic and litter.

"I think they're all me in different ways," Harrison claims of her battling characters. "I worry about them."

In 2010, she won the John Muir Trust Wild Writing Award, and her "Tales of the City" blog smoothly pans around the capital with a naturalist's eye. In person, she is an elfin-like firebrand; small, smiley and tangle-haired, fighting the environmentalist's cause in a hectic metropolis. "I wrote to Jeanette Winterson when I was about 23 or 24, and asked for her advice about writing. And she said, in her typically Biblical language, that you need to find your burning bush. And I didn't really understand what she meant for a while. But this is my burning bush. This is really important."

Our approach to educating the nation about the natural world, she claims, is back to front. It's founded on a misapprehension that the environment is simply a cause for concern, another problem. "It's very hard to change things out of a sense of guilt. You change things out of a sense of love," she declares. "When someone wants to cut down a tree that you played in, you get upset about that tree and then you get upset about the trees around it. It comes from having a connection, and making a connection has to begin with noticing."

So will readers be surprised to learn in Clay just how much nature is on their doorstep? "I hope so," says Harrison. "I want people to look. Because you don't have to live in a national park to have this around you and to draw something from it. You can live in the middle of Streatham and notice thrushes, notice where the fox goes every night. It's all there."

Harrison is not, however, a blinkered romantic bemoaning the ills of urban life. After all, this is an inner-city conservationist with a day job as production editor on Mixmag, the monthly dance music magazine. The capital, she admits, has its own peculiar charms. "I like how it is, how ratty and real and scrappy. It has become part of me. I grew up in Surrey," she says, "and then I went to Oxford, but there I was the kid who went to a comprehensive. I've never fully been that posh country person. I've always been on the margins of something else."

Indeed, the fringes of London have shaped her empathy and compassion in a way that a rural life couldn't. "I would miss, weirdly, the fact that two years ago I opened my front door and there was a girl smoking crack on my doorstep."

Harrison's debut arrives at a time of heightened interest in nature writing. Recent years have seen the publishing success of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways, Kate Rew's Wild Swim and the late, great Roger Deakin's Waterlog. Harrison has become something of an eco-bibliophile: "I was following all leads, so I was going back and reading Richard Jefferies and John Stewart Collis and Edward Thomas. And Ronald Blythe – I love him."

Her country-set second novel, which she admits to tussling painfully with at present, will hark back to Blythe's investigation of a social register and its attached topography. "It's about landscape history and how to read a landscape of what's left," she explains. "You can look at a patch of ground that's stained black, and the reason it's stained black is because there used to be a walnut tree there and the tannin from the walnuts has leached into the ground. And the reason that the walnut tree was there is that it was planted by farmers because they could tether their horses underneath it, because the shade from the walnuts was so dense it was thought to keep flies off the horse. So then you go, OK so that was next to the farmhouse, so there was a farmhouse here. You can read all of this in that black patch."

It is this missionary's calling to inform that keeps Harrison tethered to the city. "I think Clay was born out of the pressure of wanting green spaces and not having them," she considers with a grin. "If I had beautiful countryside all around me, perhaps I wouldn't feel it so urgently. Perhaps it would feel as if that question had been answered."

Clay, By Melissa Harrison

Bloomsbury £14.99

"All around them, the common was alive. The brambles full of roosting songbirds, the little copse stalked by foxes and the leaf litter rustling with voles, hunted, now and then, by a kestrel who had a nest high on a housing block three streets away. It was intoxicating and familiar; it smelled of new life and decay..."

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game