The wilding of England


Nettles, ivy, brambles, fat hen, groundsel, vetch, dandelion, bindweed, cleavers, chickweed, buttercup, shepherd’s purse, herb robert, black medick, scarlet pimpernel, speedwell, yellow archangel, ribwort plantain, daisy, cat’s ear, dock, couch grass, yorkshire fog, meadow grass, false oat grass.

It sounds lovely until you start digging them all out of your vegetable patch.

I’ve been re-reading After London by Richard Jefferies, which divides itself, like Gaul, into three parts:  the long prologue which describes the reversion of England to wilderness; an account of the social regime which arises (after many generations) as a result, seen through the life of one family; and the quest of the protagonist, Felix Aquila.

After London

The first part is  a Victorian science fiction story in which London mysteriously fails, the population crashes, technology is forgotten, and coastal or climate changes cause the formation of an immense lake in the centre of southern England.   A modern equivalent of this story would probably be an urban gothic dystopia, but Jefferies was a countryman and a naturalist.  In his story, weeds seed themselves across formerly cultivated grounds, brambles race across roads and railways, and wild woodlands expand and re-establish themselves.  Domesticated animals disappear or go feral, creating new breeds adapted for life in the wild, and humans live on the edge.

The middle (and for me less interesting) section of the novel envisages a semi-feudal society arising in England, and develops the curiously ineffectual main character.  Pure science fiction returns when London makes its appearance during the final quest sequence, as Felix journeys across the Lake and into the toxic bog which has engulfed the great city.  One might suspect that the story is an allegory of Jefferies’ own life, and this was how, in his heart, Jefferies experienced the living but stinking London of his day.

Forget the plot and characters, as Jefferies himself did, stopping his narrative with brutal abruptness as Felix turns for home.  The weeds, the woods, the water, the weather, the fetid breath of London – these are at the heart of his imagining.

2 responses »

  1. You might be interested in Mat Coward’s ‘Acts of destruction’:
    “In 2002 I had a short story published in a Crime Writers’ Association anthology; it was called Back to the land, and was a police procedural set in London, twenty or so years in the future, in a post-peak-oil world of food shortages and slow transport. My aim was to write something that was neither utopian nor dystopian, but which gave some idea of what a society might look like that was coping with the kind of future we are, it seems reasonable to suppose, all facing. Or one version of it, at least.”

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