Pastoral settings and nature have been a consistent motif in music, art and literature for millennia, providing a central muse for countless celebrated works. With access to green spaces in the urban landscape an essential part of contemporary living and escape, Cath Holland explores how these classic themes may come to punctuate inner-city creativity of lockdown.
Theoretically, we have a flexibility to create anywhere we might find ourselves. Tools, facilities and will-permitting, that is. But reality dictates. Our surroundings nourish or deprive us as humans and supports or stunts what and how we make. The inability to venture outside of the local and immediate was a collective experience during the stricter phases of lockdown, the value of public spaces amplified in importance universally overnight, regardless of income, social class or access to transport.
The virus itself is not a leveller, but its effects on us all, more so. The open air is a bigger part of our social and creative lives now; local parks are shouldering the responsibility of providing green space for town and city dwellers, a place to breathe and meet. Parks have come a long way since the paternalistic ambition to civilise and expose the working class to Victorian culture, and so encouraging civic and national pride. The urban parks of today’s Merseyside – Birkenhead Park, Princes, Sefton, Wavertee, Everton, Walton – offer a safe daytime sanctuary, with contemporary childhoods free of a pre-1990s upbringing coloured by flashers and discarded pornographic magazines.
It’s true the ownership or use of a private garden is nice, with tailored plants and lawn. And yet, looking at my own garden I can’t begin to write in it right now, the overly familiar failing to inspire my own senses. There’s an awareness of garden walls setting boundaries, and the fretting over the things that need doing; weeds pushing their way through the cracks in the path, thick white roots buried deep and stubborn in the soil and my own psyche.
Jack Cooper, raised on Lancashire’s seaside coast, named his band Modern Nature after visiting Derek Jarman’s famous garden on a strip of coastline in Dungeness, Kent, taking in the nuclear power station view. He borrowed the phrase from the filmmaker’s diary, which explored Jarman’s relationship with and creation of the garden. Last year’s debut album How To Live, a collaboration with Beak>’s Will Young amongst others, reflected on the unexpected harmony of the place’s urban and rural crossover nature. The two states didn’t collide but instead coexisted through Cooper’s whispered vocal, an instrument itself, and the expressive reflective saxophone of Sunwatchers’ Jeff Tobias. I mention to Cooper of walking in Birkenhead Park, the design the blueprint for New York’s Central Park; how there is an evenness underfoot, how urban parks are artificial rural areas constructed and built and moulded to be as close to the countryside as it can. A halfway house, they work along similar lines but aren’t quite there. They’re too tidy, for the most part, aside from the odd upturned trolley or debris from indulgent sunseekers. In cities, there can never be pure rural. There’s always something to offset it.
“I know what you mean,” Cooper replies, “people have to convince themselves they’re in nature, in parks. Maybe there is connection, just being on grass or under trees. We live very close to Epping Forest, at the top of London. People have an image of what that’s like but the bottom two thirds you probably couldn’t walk for long without encountering a road. It’s tiny pockets of rural land, then you’ll go under a dual carriageway, or a motorway will go through it.”
The band’s new record Annual, one of melancholic minimalism, emerged from a diary Cooper wrote over the course of a year. Socialising, touring, meandering around those forested surroundings near home and taking in the journey to his studio space in an industrial area with few human faces, he documented his thoughts and feelings and mood as the seasons spooled through autumn, winter, spring, summer, before returning to autumn once more. Although noting the smell of winter in wooded areas is the downbeat one of decaying leaves, he observed that the seasons didn’t generate binary responses within him.
“It definitely wasn’t downbeat in the winter and more optimistic in the summer. It’s never as straightforward as that. The summer can be an expectation on us to be outgoing and bright and optimistic and that can be almost heavier than melancholy one can feel in the winter.”
Much of the work from poet and senior lecturer in creative writing at Liverpool Hope University, Eleanor Rees, is inspired and linked to nature, connected to folklore and mythology. Her 2019 collection The Well At Winter Solstice gives a voice to the long silent buried in graveyards, spirits underneath flowing waters, souls deep down wells and lost between the changing tides. With Rees’ home now more occupied by her non-creative work, and travelling freely to favoured natural spots on Wirral not possible, walking alone and visiting urban greenery is the next best option. She sits or stands in local parks in south Liverpool and writes in her notebook, an improvisation in relation to the place. The practice is a creative exercise, but also forms a coping strategy.
“Like a meditation,” they tell me, “even though you’re using words. It’s not as quiet as a meditation, you have to get into a different state of mind. I’m responding to what’s going on around me, I find that quite calming.”
The natural world is a partner in Rees’ creative process, the first draft of any poems written in situ. She sees the exercise and creation of poems as a conversation with her surroundings.
“I’m part of the world around me, it’s who I am. On a philosophical level there’s no separation between my selfhood and the physical material world around me. It’s not just me and my perceptions affecting what I’m going to say about that place, it almost has a voice in the process. More like how you might write if you were doing a collaboration, you’d give a bit of your agency to that other person, let them affect you. It’s a two-way process.”
Creativity isn’t confined to green spaces, whether historically so or constructed for our pleasure. Wandering around the urban sprawl, the colour of character and action carries equal values. Being in the countryside changes and lifts mood, but the cliché of lush leaves, bright flora and fauna and the callous beauty of the wild being a sole source of inspiration is both pretentious and wrong, and exclusionary of those unable to access vast green spaces. Walking the urban streets of my own town, the concrete jungle creates a blank canvas – one coloured by people, voices, smells and atmosphere.
“You’ve got a feeling of wildness still there,” Rees replies, “but there are families cars, all of that. That’s something I’ve done since my first book, trying to appreciate the environment we’re in. The idea, that, if you appreciate the environment then you might treat it better, respond better to it.”
Cooper cites the organised chaos of a Bonfire Night in the country town of Lewes on the south coast in his diary, as the entry leading to the writing and composition of Modern Nature’s song Harvest. There’s a sense of violence to this annual event whether in town or city, in revenge for, or in keeping with its treasonous plotting roots, whether the neighbourhood kids pile up driftwood in the local rec or a council puts on an official family-friendly firework display, omitting the burning effigy from proceedings. Very specific for that time each autumn, in open spaces with big wide skies above, this gathering of people is a relatable universal experience whether we find ourselves on a beach or somewhere more built up.
“I wanted to convey a feeling of when the sun goes down early on those autumn nights, that feeling of the cold air in your lungs, the damp, and I think Bonfire Night is the peak of that feeling,” Cooper says. “It feels very old, and very lawless. The explosion of fire and shouting and loud noise.”
For Becky Hawley from Liverpool trio Stealing Sheep, her lyrics emerge as she walks in the city and out of it. Ideas flow around space and time. She confesses to finding herself in a “deadlock” when stationary. Hawley, Emily Lansley and Lucy Mercer rehearse at the Invisible Wind Factory in an area of warehouses and industrial units, yards from Liverpool’s docks. She travels there on foot from her home by Princes Park, an hour-long journey.
“I go through the whole centre of Liverpool and take my time just being around people and going through the commercial spots, people watching. Then I’ve got the whole journey back which is reflecting time,” she says. “One of the things doing electronic pop music is that you’ve always got to be connected to power [laughs], that can make it quite restrictive. But with the Suffragettes Tribute we put batteries in our keyboards, built in stands we could carry – we could inhabit any space. It was incredibly freeing, we had amps on our backs. We mobilised the power and your voice is the best for that because you don’t need anything else but your own body to create those sounds.”
The notion of open spaces giving us that breather is something she can identify with. That, twinned with procrastination, can be valuable within creativity.
Community gardens are parks’ younger, more locally based green space cousins and Stealing Sheep have been taking satisfaction from Grapes Community Food Garden, a popular and productive green space growing food and flowers on Windsor Street in Toxteth, L8, courtesy of food, art and community organisation Squash. The focus on building and holding a community together, twinned with an interest in the more holistic approach of permaculture gardening on Hawley’s part, harnessing the natural elements of wind, sun and water, led to the three women to start designing and researching plans for a Stealing Sheep therapy garden-type space. They used Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden sculpture park in Tuscany, a fantastical celebration of the female form, as a starting point. “A sort of joyland,” de Saint Phalle once said, “where you could have a new kind of life that would just be free.”
“Part of the challenge and limit of lockdown is how can art be still useful when people can’t come to it or gather to it,” says Hawley. “And obviously parks are a space where you can go, even if this [situation] was to continue or come again. It’s been a theme for us the whole time as people, creatively and therapeutically.
“Lucy’s been playing music for a wild flower garden [laughs] and it’s been on the horizon for a bit, but with lockdown we’ve been drawing more, and inventing spaces people can interact with without being in gatherings. And part of that is designing arches in fantastic colours. There’s music in there, specific plants that have scents that you can pick and eat, an edible garden. You can dream!”
The band, she explains, really got into exotica music at one point, made during that post-war period where people dreamt of utopic places. The garden is a case of “trying to imagine how it can be different”.
That sounds so idyllic right now. “The weeds as well, what makes the weeds?” she says excitedly. “I’m into the idea of embracing the weeds as well, as part of the garden!”
I can’t help but view those dandelion leaves ruining the landscape of my garden now potentially carrying salad potential, at the very least. The possibilities for normal things, objects, even weeds, it seems, are endless.
“Escapism, it gives you the freedom to imagine new things,” Hawley concludes. “It takes you to another world.”
Housing website Right Move, founded in 2000, reported its busiest day ever last month with a noticeably strong demand for rural properties. Out of most of our capabilities that particular path may well be, and few of us will be driving to, say, Barnard Castle to feed our heads and hearts and admire the bluebells, but the lure of open spaces twinned with fresh clean air is compelling, after being cooped up for these weeks. Libraries, community projects, universities, rehearsal rooms and art studios may be kept from us for now but creatives will always find a way of working around things. We react to our surroundings, and document our feelings and emotions through our different art forms.
Artists of different disciplines working on new projects without industry pressure, budgets and deadlines report a level of freedom not experienced for a long while. Boredom and too many hours of my own company led to enjoying literature outside my own usual comfort zone, listening to music I avoided previously, constructive consequences of my restricted movements.
As lockdown restrictions ease for the time being anyway, treasuring this time as an opportunity to soak up more from spaces and places and things familiar and not so much is a healthy spin off. Delving into worlds not our immediate own continue to be a significant part of our creative mindset.