Author’s note

An introduction to Radical Gardening, in George McKay’s own words, January 2011:

Where does this book come from? Over the years I have written extensively about alternative, radical and community cultures, including

  • researching pop, rock and jazz festivals,
  • cultures of the peace movement,
  • community music,
  • and activist politics.

Most of these things appear in gardens in some form, with surprising regularity in fact.

  • Festivals. Festivals are themselves usually a particular use of the landscape in a rural setting, often selling the idea of the temporary pastoral idyll to an urban public (think of Woodstock in 1969, marketed as a retreat from New York). With the idealism of certain festivals—notably Glastonbury, the CND festival in the 1980s—the festival site becomes a version of ‘polemic landscape’, using the land, trees, fields, to try to evoke or symbolize a different way of thinking, even a different (green) politics.
  • Peace. I was also interested in looking at the way the peace movement used the special green space or symbol of the garden as part of its cultural protest—the ‘peace garden’ favoured as a statement of anti-nuclearism by socialist local authorities in the 1980s, for instance, but also, historically, going back to the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union of the 1930s. I wanted quite simply to think about these in the context of challenging what seems to be our current orthodoxy of militarism—to do my little bit to reinsert into public discourse practices of  dialogue and negotiation which don’t culminate in aggression, war, death.
  • Community. As a musician I’ve often written from that cultural perspective—I’ve described much of my work as ‘cultural studies with a soundtrack’—jazz, rock, pop, punk, rave, and so on. I worked as a community musician in the early 1980s—with hindsight I realize it was an early effort to combine culture, politics, education, areas I’ve stuck with since, really—and co-edited a book about community music a few years ago. So again, when I started thinking about community gardening, allotments, I had something to draw on: the way in which a social and cultural focus might help construct community, might help us redefine it.
  • Activist politics. A lot of my work has been about social movements—the way people form campaign groups, make political protest happen, how they use culture to symbolize the campaign and to change society. And gardens figure significantly here, from the simple fact of needing a public park for the political marchers to wind up at for their speeches and rally, to, say the invention of Speakers’ Corner as a  privileged (and at the same time limited) space for free expression. I also needed to look at the darker side here, at the fetishisation of land in, for instance, Nazism, and at the sinister echoes of that in white racist or extreme nationalist movements since. Not every garden is a paradise.

And I really loved the idea of all these kinds of big questions—different ways of living, war and peace, community, politics and social change—being situated in the space of the garden or the practice of gardening in some way. I came up with this massively ungainly term to think about these sorts of things: ‘horti-countercultural politics’. Don’t worry, I only use it a couple of times though in the book. In fact, Radical Gardening is more a book about ideas (ideologies is the word we used to use) in gardens, really. I liked the surprise when I talked with people about the book I was writing: ‘what, in a garden?

I was influenced by my own background too: a Glasgow boy, born in the Cowcaddens, the heart of the city ripped out in the 1960s to make way for a motorway, our home and the community destroyed for the motorcar. Most of my family were moved out to the city’s edge, a new place of green space and fresh air that was, like lots of postwar council estates, in every way not quite a garden city.

But in Easterhouse I do remember as a boy clumsily spilling a packet of flower seeds in my granny’s garden, feeling I’d failed, then coming back a few months later to be amazed by the splash of colour in that exact spot. We joined the Scottish diaspora–moved to England, living in caravans and railway cottages in north Norfolk. In the early 1970s I spent years looking at the big skies, wheat fields and sand dunes, and always pausing by an allotment in fascination at its dis/order. I was a boy observer in the countryside. Then, 1977, punk rock and I was, felt myself to be, as Johnny Rotten sang, a ‘flower in the dustbin’, involved in peace and anarchism, listening to punk and reggae.

I went to the festivals and alternative fairs—especially important with hindsight were the free festivals, Deeply Vale and the big one, Stonehenge, which was an exhilarating and sometimes very edgy experiment in living as well as a mass land grab. I squatted in London. As a student I wrote an undergraduate dissertation and later a PhD thesis on utopia and dystopia.

All of these personal experiences have informed what I think of as a possible garden, and I’ve retrospectively through the writing of the book framed these parts of my life within a garden / land / eco understanding that, kind of, as Dylan Thomas once put it, ‘drives my green age.’ Even as I wrote the historical material I recognized the people there from my own experience: the Letchworth Garden City ‘cranks’ of the early 1900s, or the East Anglian green-clad utopianists of Manea Farm in the 1840s—I know their daughters and heirs, and they are still gardening for a better world.

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One thought on “Author’s note

  1. Hannah

    For my bachelor’s degree I used Senseless Acts of Beauty, just read this for my PhD- is there a natural progression from road protests to community gardening I wonder? I’ve posted a review of the book on my blog too.

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