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Little Toler Books, 2018, 240 pages
Hbk £16 ISBN 978 1908213624
Review by Barry Larking
The gulls at the huge Pitsea landfill in Essex figured out that the site worked a six day week. On Sundays they looked elsewhere for their grub. It was Bank Holidays that flummoxed them. This is one of many quirky details that litters this delightful book, that combines the factual, the surmise and the anecdotal with a marvellous sympathy for these birds and the human predicament in a time of flux and doubt.
Part ‘man on the Clapham Omnibus’ philosophical soliloquy, fieldwork reportage, then a diarist’s observations and memoirs, Landfill is a slice of nature indeed, and one that could only have been written in the 21st century. It’s a million miles away from William Boot’s ill-fated genteel Splashy Places as ‘nature writing’ goes .
“On nearly every outing there [the author’s visit to Pitsea again], I either stepped on a dildo, tripped on some indeterminate grey cabling, was detained by the pleading button eyes of a dead soft-toy, or kicked a book by Ranulph Fiennes”.Not your ordinary bird book then.
Typically, Mr Dee is well aware of his own less than precious approach to a literary form once set tastefully in a kind of Edwardian bell jar, often distinctly morbid too: An Essex dwelling predecessor in the nature writing game, Wentworth Day, like so many who lived through the First World War, “… was one of those early-twenieth-century conservative countrymen writers who saw the end of the world written in the death of the old truths of rural England”. Day’s mourning was caused by people, rather than football crowd sized flocks of gulls, evidently the wrong type of people, spilling out from the towns, spreading …
Before gulls became urban gleaners, the same tactics of survival, of grubbing a living in the swollen, dirty and fetid cities and towns of Victorian Britain had been already mapped out by humans. The author cites Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor  whose observations, obsessively annotated and graded in an ascending order such as any taxonomist might make, of the serious delving into muck that kept the Victorian destitute alive, pre-dates his own. This chapter is not to be tackled at meal times. The parallels between the gulls’ speedy exploitation of our human excess and that excess itself. Cause and effect.
“What we had made our own is now dirty, and we want it away and gone. But the waste doesn’t necessarily kill where it is, in situ it can live, and even nourish and sustain. It is like this for the gulls at landfills. It is also like this for all sorts of human activity too. We are a waste-making species like no other, but we are also workers of waste, recyclers, ragpickers, archivists, librarians, archaeologists, historians, bricoleurs and gullers”.
Gulls’ numbers expanded in line with our girths in the Affluent Society. Now these puffed up populations are declining due in part perhaps to the radical measures taken to change the way we dump our dross and how to shrinkthat ocean of dross itself. Yet, instead of falling back on their ancient littoral habitats, the gulls seem quite happy to retain their perch in our urban and suburban realm.
This feather-by-jowl arrangement has had a complex side effect; closely observed gulls. Tim Dee reveals that some authorities claim that the formerly settled allocation of places in the gull hierarchy are misleading us. We are not any longer looking at a cabinet of specimens showing mere chance variations. Gulls, like human society, are evolving. Gullers are insisting that, what for many casual observers were ‘minor differences’ in hues of leg colour and or details of plumage, actually are ‘breakaway’ sub-species. Darwinism on a rooftop near you.
A host of problems arising from this domestic and civic proximity comes to distract from these birds’ grace and determination to survive. Pets killed, rubbish bags done over, shoppers and strollers duffed up for the snacks held in their very hands… The bad headlines in the aptly nicknamed gutter press on the ‘Gull Plague Menace’ write themselves in impossible to parody prose. A bird whose flight inspired RJ Mitchell to design the Spitfire has become an evil target overhead. The aerial antics did have a sort of silver lining for one tabloid though: ‘Seagulls mug dole spongers’. At the end of the pier?
Landfill is also about Tim Dee himself and the last chapters are a subtle turning over of that great landfill of memory that life brings, rescuing the precious from what Yeats dramatically called the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. This is a delightful account of that sorting, not disregarding of the unresolved issues, human as much as ornithological, but neither overwhelmed by them. It has a broad appeal as a result.
The jacket and text illustrations by the late Greg Poole are a fitting urban art response to the book’s theme, complementary of an intention to find a fresher, 21st century, voice speaking up for nature and the democratic, accessible experience of it. In a warm and generous obituary  to an old friend, the author places Poole “among the best of a generation who revitalised a tradition always in danger of lapsing into decorative prettiness”. Amen.
1. William Boot is a fictional nature writer of the old school in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Mr Dee also sprinkles literary and literate references into his text to good effect
2. Henry Mayhew London Labour and the London Poor 1840s passim. Collected into three dense volumes thereafter
3. Greg Poole (1960-2018) obituary by Tim Dee The Guardian 11th January 2019