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Interview: Bob Gilbert, author, storyteller, environmental educator

11 August 2023

‘I’ve always wanted to make people more aware of the natural riches around us in the heart of the city’

I’ve had a very varied career, including teaching, community work, and even a period in stand-up comedy; but, in my late thirties, I knew I wanted to do environmental work, especially environmental education.

I started by co-ordinating a community garden in inner London, but went on to head up an FE environmental-studies department, set up a residential field-studies centre, and then became a director in the environment department of a London local authority.

I’d always written on environmental subjects — including a local-newspaper column that ran for 28 years — but, in my early sixties, I devoted myself to writing full-time, and presented a number of radio programmes.

Our move to Poplar gave me a new canvas to work on, and I set myself the task of walking every street, alley, and estate in the parish to document its wildlife. I found wonderful and almost overlooked diversity: sand martins nesting in drainpipes in canal walls; rare plants, like Jersey cudweed, in cracks in the pavement. I even had a wood mouse that would come and sniff my coffee cup when I sat in the garden.

I saw how plants and street trees reflected the area’s social history, and I hunted for the black poplar, the tree that had originally given the whole area its name. All this led me to write my book Ghost Trees [Feature, 30 November 2018; Books, 7 December 2018].

We’ve moved back to north London, where my wife, Jane, works as a prison chaplain. It’s given me another urban canvas to explore, which has already yielded mistletoe and wall ferns, a woodpecker drumming on a housing estate, and redwing wintering in our tiny back garden. I write a certain number of hours, lead walks, give talks, tend the still-untamed garden, walk the dog, and wash up. I volunteer at London Zoo, and continue to walk the English coastline.

I have no formal training in botany or zoology. I’m entirely self-taught. Although I was brought up in the inner city, my mother loved wild flowers, though she couldn’t remember their names. I remember the first time I saw a blue tit in our back garden, and being amazed at how colourful it was. It seemed something exotic, almost tropical, to me.

We stayed with relatives in Sandgate, Folkestone, every summer holiday, going rock-pooling with our shrimp nets, searching for tiny green crabs, transparent shrimps, bright-red sea anemones, and yellow starfish. It was entering a different world.

I was the first in my family to go to university, and I studied sociology. It was to have a huge influence on me and my approach to natural history. I’ve always been interested in the ways we relate to other things, the uses we put them to, whether magical, medical, or edible, how we name them or affect their spread, and the stories we weave around them.

Although I love the countryside, it’s urban ecology that has been my especial interest. I’ve always wanted to explore, and make people more aware of, the riches around us in the heart of the city: ferns growing behind a leaking downpipe, or the spiders weaving their webs across the lights of a pedestrian underpass.

Some of our commonest urban species are the most threatened, with huge declines in sparrows, starlings, swifts, and house martins. One of the things I’ve begun to write about is how we can design cities to the mutual benefit of both ourselves and other species. We don’t just need reserves and rewilding: we need to live, work, and produce our food alongside the rest of the natural world. With 80 per cent of the British population now living in cities, it’s in cities that we need to begin to reconnect with nature.

My latest book is an attempt to answer six enigmas — one of which is why, in 1913, all the musk plants in the world stopped smelling. Here was a hugely popular plant, grown everywhere from country gardens to working-class windowsills, entirely for its amazing fragrance, and yet that fragrance was suddenly, and globally, gone.

When I first heard the story, I was immediately captivated by its combination of mystery and natural history. It took me more than 30 years to get round to investigating it, but during that time I came across other mysteries. What is star jelly? And is there really a population of mosquitoes living on the London Underground? And what’s the real reason that nearly 70 per cent of our large, ancient yews are to be found in churchyards?

The Missing Musk gives the answers I came up with, but also shows how every answer leads to further questions, and how I came to respect mystery itself. It’s mystery that links the scientific, artistic, and religious imagination.

The Green London Way was my first substantive book. It details a 106-mile route around London, divided into separate walks, linking parks, heaths, open spaces, urban alleys, and canal towpaths. It details the natural history and social history of London, and the connections between them, as well as the struggle to create, or preserve, almost every open space in the city.

I wrote it as a single parent with a small child, unable to get away on long walking or climbing trips. I put my son on my back and, beginning from home, plotted a route around London. When the first edition came out in 1991, it pioneered the idea of urban walking.

I was brought up in a family of six in a prefab set on a post-war Bermondsey bomb site. South London, like the East End, had an almost tribal culture, and we were part of a very large extended family, with our grandmother at its heart. Most of us belonged to the same Evangelical fundamentalist mission hall — a legacy of the Moody and Sankey revivals— and, consequently, most of my friends were also relatives. We weren’t encouraged to mix with the unsaved.

It could be fun, and I loved big family celebrations, especially Christmas; but it was also a strict, stifling environment, which didn’t tolerate dissent.

The God of our mission hall was angry and vindictive, and, though I did my best to fit in, I don’t think he ever really liked me. But to reject the faith was to reject the family, which was inconceivable for a child. It wasn’t till I left home that I was able to break away, and even then it was traumatic. Many years later, in my early forties, I walked into a Quaker meeting and felt I’d come home. Here was an affirming and non-dogmatic approach to faith, emphasising the light within me rather than my irremediable evil, and a wonderful, enriching silence instead of all those words — “The silence of eternity, Interpreted by love!”

Fundamentalism makes me angry. I’ve never forgiven it, and hold it responsible for much of the evil at work in the world. The Missing Musk offers an antidote to it, espousing radical uncertainty, the creative importance of not knowing.

And another thing: the unchecked power of giant developers and their effects on our cities, serving those who are already best off, displacing local people, breaking up communities, paying only lip-service to the environment and biodiversity.

Nothing makes me happier than having our three boys all at home at the same time. Sitting still in nature, watching a tree move in the wind, waves crashing on a beach, or insects coming to a flower. Whisky. Films.

I love the sound of rain dripping from a tree, or rhythmic beats on a window or roof. There’s nothing more comforting than going to sleep while the rain beats a tattoo outside.

Two things give me hope. First, past examples of successful environmental change, such as reducing the hole in the ozone layer, or dramatic improvements in air quality after the Clean Air Acts. They counter despair. Second, the energy, commitment, and activism of many young people in confronting climate change, environmental degradation, and the biodiversity crisis.

Jane and I do Iona morning prayer together, but, for the most part, I don’t pray for things. I lay them out in the light and wait. I don’t wait for things: I wait with them.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Thomas Traherne, whose Centuries of Meditation had a huge influence on me; and William Henry Hudson, whose books on the natural world are full of acute observation, wonderful prose, and wit.


Bob Gilbert was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Missing Musk: A casebook of mysteries from the natural world is published by Sceptre at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-529-35597-0.

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