Q&A with the author, The Scotsman

This is a Q&A with Louisa Pearson of The Scotsman, April 2011, for a newspaper feature about the new book, Radical Gardening.

LP: It seems as if the Victorian notion of opening up green public spaces with the intention of confirming the existing hierarchy rather backfired. What would you say are the key reasons for public green spaces in cities developing into popular venues for political demonstrations?

GM: Some public parks in Victorian times were established precisely for working class communities—many in part were about social control too. But open space is actually difficult to control, and even to fence the park in is a challenge to maintaining boundaries. In 19th century social protest, park fences were sometimes the very target of protestors, who pulled them down. I wanted to look at the way public parks could function in terms of social movements—this includes, for instance, looking at the establishment of Speakers’ Corner, both as a dedicated green space of public political debate, and as a cleverly designed means of surveying and controlling the rabble-rousers and discontents. (There is a Speakers’ Corner in Singapore, but one must complete a permission form in advance to speak there.) Another way I look at political campaigns and public parks is to think about how the marching demonstration usually ends up in a park, for the rally, speakers, music, etc. So, Hyde Park is one of London’s Royal Parks, with all the sense of tradition that that implies. But it is also the most political green space in the capital, because it has been the destination of protestors for centuries—from Chartists to suffragettes, fascists to hunger marchers, CND to Countryside Alliance, and many more besides. So my view is that, as I write in the book, ‘protest is a normative use of the green cityscape’. And the very park land itself can be central: let’s remember that in 2003 the government ludicrously tried to ban the million person march against the war in Iraq by not allowing people to walk on the grass!

Would you say that the idealism of the garden city movement is still relevant today?

What really interests me about the Garden City movement was the way those early garden cities, especially Letchworth, captured the imagination of the utopian ‘cranks’ of the early 20th century: here was a new green urban space, actually designed—named, even—around the idea of the garden. And who wanted to live there? The faddists, utopianists, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, suffragettes, sandal-wearers, socialists and non-conformists—seekers after the ‘simple life’ in a new century. There are even  more of those kinds of people around now, so in that way alone I think the idealism of the garden city may still speak to us. But also, as I write—‘its quiet green heart seems to beat the environmentalist rhythm even more loudly’. And cooperative ownership, fair trade, local produce, pre-car design—all of these are elements from garden cities that are still of relevance (perhaps even more so) as we move to a peak oil or transition society.

Do you think people will be surprised to learn about the connections between Nazism at the organic movement?

I don’t know. In fact it is a fairly well-known history, though the links between some of the new or newly-popularised beliefs and practices of the times and Nazism are better known that others (Hitler a vegetarian, for instance). I felt a strong need to look at aspects of land and ideology, planting and national identity, landscape design and notions of progress, that weren’t just about liberal or left ideals, but that were more complex and uncomfortable. At the time I was writing the book the British National Party was talking quite a lot about the importance of planting native species, old English apple trees and traditional roses for example, which really struck me as needing to be discussed. What was their understanding of the relation between nativism and anti-immigration, for instance? A BNP campaign on land issues, the environment and animal welfare was called Land & People, which sounds, well, not really so very far away from the Nazis’  Blut und Boden. So, yes, my version of the radical garden necessarily includes other radical beliefs and movements, such as fascist gardening, xenophobia.

Peace gardens seem to have successfully stood the test of time and continue to be seen as an obvious way to commemorate the dead and to promote an anti-war message. Why do you think this is?

I’m glad you think the peace garden has stood the test of time.  I wonder whether in fact it’s less positive: many of those that remain from the 1980s heyday of municipal planting of an anti-nuclear peace garden (usually in Britain by a socialist local authority) are neglected, or have been shunted to the shady edge of a larger public garden. But I do write about some of the enduring ones, such as in Sheffield or in London. I’ve done a lot of work in the past on peace cultures—music, festivals, CND and things like that—but when researching the peace garden movement I hugely enjoyed the idea of that planting and statement and design. You could make a standard peace garden in a public park with a modest pagoda, some Peace roses, maples, cherry trees for spring blossom, and one or two small pine trees clipped in cloud shapes—this cluster of plants and structures signified a political statement of anti-nuclearism, bringing a piece of Japan to the British park, as a gesture of solidarity and memorialisation. A real political planting in operation here. Perhaps with Fukushima we will  revisit and freshen up some of our remaining peace and anti-nuclear gardens.   

From 1960s counter-culture to the present day, would you say that gardening and flowers have been an effective way of spreading ideas about wider environmental issues?

Hippies in the 1960s talked of ‘flower power’, sang of wearing flowers in their hair, and used the flower as a symbol of peace at anti-war demonstrations (famously of course by carefully placing flowers down the rifle barrels of US soldiers and guards). This is not just a wishy-washy symbolism—remember that during these years peace protestors and students were shot and killed in the United States by their own soldiers. Students on campus shot dead by the national guard for protesting against a war. Flower power also then contributed to the burgeoning environmental movement, from the first Earth Day in 1970 on really. More and more people began to see the garden, their little private plot, within the larger context of global environmentalism—not just hippies of course: organic campaigners, scientists concerned about the prevalence of pesticides and herbicides in the garden, community organisers and so on. Even punk rockers in the late 1970s could get in on the act—after all, Johnny Rotten sang on ‘God save the Queen’ in 1977, ‘We’re the flowers in your dustbin’. OK the punks were in the bin, but they were still flowers! I write about all of these little and big cultural crossovers in the book.

Allotments seem to have been hugely successful in terms of maintaining a space for shared food production and community interaction within a non-commercial setting. Do you think that they are a lucky anomaly given the social changes that have taken place since they were first set up?

The allotment movement is a real champion aspect of the book, the enduring heart of a radical tradition of gardening in Britain. I even suggest there is an anti-capitalist impulse within allotmenteering, on two counts: first the rejection of current land values in peppercorn allotment rents, and second, the fact that usually you are not legally allowed to sell your allotment produce. Instead during glut you must contribute to the gift economy: too many broad beans or marrows? Give them away. Nor do I think the enduring nature of the allotment is down to luck: rather it is a success story by dedicated activists who kept the movement going and revived it during and after the dip in allotment fortunes in the postwar decades. Local and national campaigners fought hard to keep the allotment as a social feature of Britain, and cleverly linked it with new concerns such as the environment, organic produce, food miles, etc, and that is a tremendous achievement by activists.

Making use of “wasted land and wasted skills” in community gardens seems hugely positive. Do you think the destruction of these gardens is simply a display of power/control?

In New York City in the 1980s and 1990s many of the wonderful community gardens that had been made on vacant lots by local people determined to do something about the urban devastation that was part of their daily experience were destroyed by the city authorities. Old hippies, migrants, community activists and artists had reclaimed these huge swathes of waste ground and planted and designed gardens in them, open for all to use. One group famously called themselves the Green Guerrillas, and the gardens were given names like the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Love, Jardin de la Esperenza. The destruction of community gardens was ostensibly in the name of regeneration, of course, though some of the disappeared garden plots in fact remained boarded up and derelict years later. (And academic surveys showed that the presence of the community garden was itself regenerative, even having an uplifting effect on local property prices.) It’s true that other NYC community gardens were protected and remain still in situ, and the Lower East Side has a vibrant culture of community gardens that locals enjoy and tourists visit. But in the 1990s these gardens were a real battlefield between the authorities and local people—the people seeing the city administration as part of the problem, destroying a set of marvellous green statements of self-help and community organisation from poor and migrant groups. Activists saw no surprise that the socially marginal were targeted—a familiar enough story in their view—but even the New York Times newspaper described the destruction of the wonderfully ambitious and eccentric Garden of Eden in 1986 as ‘an act of neighbourhood violence’. You can actually get a sense here of the way in which the garden really can be political space, for organisation and contestation alike. Grassroots politics, literally.

Guerrilla gardening seems to have caught the public’s imagination and appeals to the inner anarchist. Would you agree that it has been an effective reminder to people that gardening need not be suburban and safe?

Hmm, well, yes, I suppose so. We do need to stand back a little and remind ourselves that—just possibly!—planting a few flowers isn’t quite unleashing the inner anarchist, even if you don’t have permission. And I felt a bit uneasy with some aspects of the guerrilla gardening movement, even though these were jokily presented—the membership, the identity numbers, the light military terminology. I do wonder if the reason it has captured the public’s imagination so might in part be because it is so politically polite—a weightless ideological act for a coalition culture? But, on the other hand, it does act as a contemporary gesture of intent, a reminder that urban environments matter to people, a do-it-yourself response, and a critical accusation at the lack of care taken over some land by public and corporate owners, and it might open the doors to more radical understanding.

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