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..."

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