Homeless Nature and Theatre of the Absurd

6 mins read
The saving of the elm trees in 1851: they were included in the Crystal Palace project

Battersea has been woke as long as the Elms that were left to grow inside the Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace of 1851…In fact it was because of protests about three elm trees at Prince’s Gate Entrance that the shape of the barrel-vaulted transept of the giant glass building was conceived.

In  Edinburgh, I met Jeremy Weller of Grassmarket Project, who made a new theatre that embraces the best performance we can give: being ourselves. Everyone from the street to those in young offender institutions were given a chance to be themselves.

More recently Thomas McCrudden did this most obviously by telling the story of his life in Doubting Thomas that led to Ken Loach’s scriptwriter describing how he wanted to see “everything Grassmarket has ever produced“. I, Daniel Blake, had been the film that won the highest prize of French film, the Palm D’Ors at Cannes. Now he saw something that astounded him: ordinary people portraying themselves. If life is performance, by contrast you should try being yourself.

Protesting and being oneself

McCrudden experienced being himself by standing on stage, and now like Rachida, Dimitri and Sophie and others in York Gardens, I found I was being myself, by protesting, something I hadn’t conceived of before.

Ros Coward, a Guardian journalist, described how she also had received a deluge of emails, after describing the ‘assault’ on the countryside by developers. With so many in a state of disorientation at what climate and disease could inflict, I found myself reflecting on the biblical plagues of insects, which are shown to have human faces and eat only human objects and garments. I could well imagine these locusts or beetles swarming out of the Supreme Courts of Westminster today, or the Hague, as the judges’ wigs or Lords’ and politicians’ robes were eaten and they ran away stark naked!

Justice does not seem to bear scrutiny in relation to our government, with those obeying social distancing finding those in power constantly, laughingly, disregarding rules. Likewise – by direct contrast – when public policy encourages a Greener Wandsworth Borough with volunteers taking action to start a wildflower meadow, I locally found a sympathetic ear from Councillor Tony Belton and his partner happily handing the phone to him, so he could chat on a Sunday afternoon, for over a quarter of an hour.

He has chatted admirably until blue in the face for fifty years and involved Timothy West and Prunella Scales in a brilliant, hour-long documentary about Red Battersea. Simon Hogg  has spent years relating the filmic history which included serendipitously the filming of Up the Junction, by Nell Dunn, in York Gardens, and she and Jeremy Sandford lived in Battersea when writing the Palmes D’Or winning Cathy Come Home. The quest to be a radical borough, goes back to William Blake marrying in St Mary’s and Wilberforce calling for the worldwide end of slavery. Also the first black mayor and working class cabinet minister.  It took community so seriously that twice Battersea Labour was excluded from the National Party. Still Tony Belton calls out housing projects in Nine Elms as ‘social apartheid’ and the Financial Times agrees. No wonder that as capital has been daunted by disease some dare to break out and agree at times with the Extinction Rebellion. As Tony says to me after fifty years of experience: “You can’t please everyone, but we need less pollution“. 

Stand for nature

Although the rightwing orthodoxy of Conservatives will deride those who help each other outside Westminster’s plague-ridden, locust-swarming hubbub, it is worth recalling that even Victorians like Florence Nightingale had nursed the sick for the privilege, after the Crimean War.  When those shell-shocked returned to Britain, they were the first to be employed at the new Kew Gardens, as garden wardens.

So the word woke should perhaps be reawakened- or indeed woken! Demonised for trying to stand up for nature it is clearly nothing new: in fact the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace, Wangari Maathai, was responsible for starting the Green Belt Movement as early as 1977, when she envisaged a Great Green Wall across Africa, to counter climate change. The Green Party may not appear close to power, although it shares power in countries like Germany, and it is influencing debate, with more councils including Wandsworth following the initiative of glyphosate-free management for parks. 

The British Empire entirely depended on gardeners to find new foods and medicinal plants. They might have been ‘woke by the standards of the Taylor Wimpey planners but it was also a gardener, Joseph Paxton from Chatsworth House, who in fact designed the Crystal Palace in 1851’s Great Exhibition. A dedication to nature is essential to all our lives and the expression: being attentive to our higher nature reflects that we unconsciously do know that.

While Apple is given keys to its five thousand square foot offices in Battersea Power Station this July, with a nearby tube station due to open on the northern line, it is worth recalling how homeless have been accommodated in bed-and-breakfasts since lockdown, and yet still thrive in these uniquely friendly streets, with a particularly large hotel on the Clapham Common, where Francis, Kate and other volunteers have brought food from Pret and other high street restaurants who give charitable donations each day. There will be 253 flats in the station and there is even a BMF Bear Grylls’ gym and signs of life in the Turbine Theatre. One hundred shops were due to open last year and in spite of difficulties some are optimistically forging ahead. There will be a viewing gallery from one of the towers of the power station where steam billows out, instead of smoke, from the energy-generating plant.

If we can care for our community and the trees in York Gardens when we slow down, why do we ever stop when life becomes an irrational competition? Lyn Gardner, associate editor of the Stage, theatre’s main organ, predicts poverty will bring a revolution in values and commented on a theatre company touring homeless from Edinburgh to Paris Pompidou to Dublin, London and Berlin: ‘Grassmarket Project has proved : firstly, that theatre is not just art, but can have a utilitarian function, that it can be a last court of appeal.’ That is an interesting take because in East Europe where Grassmarket would flourish, at Brecht’s first theatre, where Piskator and he had started experimenting for working class audiences, homelessness was largely overcome. The homeless had office-space and councillors provided flats. An ensemble there has continued since the 1990s and given hope and opportunity to many ex-homeless drinkers and druggies. In fact, they were able to draw on the inspiring motivational sense of a collective project, aspiring to put everyone on stage. The same aspiration is why Cabaret with Lisa Minelli, was to make Christopher Isherwood who resided there in the 1920s world-famous, as well as Kathe Kollwitz and Rosa Luxemburg. Everyone is allowed to speak.

There is no such thing as weeds

Thankfully a French migrant botanist Dr Sophie Leguil,  has reminded Londoners that there is no such thing as weeds. In fact the term weed is one we have invented to describe what flourishes in urban settings or in single crops. She herself was inspired by a French movement, Sauvages de ma rue. Paris’ Mayor Anne Hidalgo has led the way inspiringly too.

Still I am involved in Battersea’s theatre of social deprivation, with Battersea Arts Centre supporting York Gardens youngsters and have seen homeless perform themselves on stage, from Edinburgh, Dublin, London to Paris and Berlin. Although they are often stepped over in the street all have something to offer; like weeds, they are simply susceptible to not being recognised as healthy, blossoming and useful to all our development. Another analogy is recent research into plantains, known, for example, to absorb heavy metals from car fumes and so leave us better air to breathe-’weeds’ we should leave them.

When Memorial Gardens-SW11 becomes… a garden

Creating a garden in the once urine-soaked den of Memorial Gardens-SW11 it became clear that gardening is performance and those actively involved, sharing food from Pret donations and stopping drinking cans of lager to be involved, were soon clearly happiest, more energetic and full of life. Local children started coming again as wildflowers donated from the Mayor’s office and four hundred bulbs donated from the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association caused a transformative facelift.

There is lavender, parsley, rosemary, oregano, thyme, lemon balm and sage and everyone is welcome to cuttings. We are close to York Gardens and as trees were cut down there, the name of the estate Gardens may be ironically in name only. So I would like to make everyone welcome, proposing cautiously that botanical theatre is a communal space, where we can find ourselves. Life is theatre and we do our best acting when we learn to be ourselves. When I met Rachida, Lindsay, Catriona, Adam, Dimitri, Sophie and others I knew my behaviour was not unique, and although protesting felt new we probably were all being ourselves more than we ever had for the first time!

I would like to mention the Memorial Gardens, corner of Battersea Park Road and Hoxton Fruit and Vegetables (see at the bottom of this article), also as a place where people can gather parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme-or strawberries, string beans and coriander, as we merrily are growing on. A fun break from York Gardens for the children and families is available. 

A child drew rainbows

Come help yourselves to parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, curry leaves and lemon balm, or lavender sprigs in Battersea’s Memorial Gardens. We welcome you to take cuttings, within reason, if you miss your adjacent York Gardens (lavender and sage cuttings can be taken very well at this time of year). We are also growing its first wildflower meadow with poppies from the Mayor of London, for solace. 

Photograph: Wandsworth Borough Council, 9 December 2014

UPDATE 25/10/2021: Minor amendments on sections “Stand for Nature-Second Paragraph” and “Protesting and Being Oneself”.


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