Jason Goodwin spreads the love
THERE’S a stylish fellow called Tyler Brûlé who has an FT column and is always redesigning airport lounges or leaving Toronto and turning up in Canberra. I had a taste of the whirlwind existence myself last week—wheels up at Istanbul, visit the holiest site in London and touchdown in Pisa— and, for much of the time I was enjoying the high life, I found myself thinking about muck.
Last year, when we dug out new vegetable beds from an old lawn, I naïvely supposed that onions the size of footballs would sprout from the virgin earth, as they did for homesteaders on the grasslands of the Great Plains. Unfortunately, the courgettes and peas struggled to outpace the depredations of slugs and four out of five pumpkins failed, the survivor merely throwing out a single, desperate fruit at the end of a mass of fleshy tendrils. The soil was too thin and chalky.
I cadged a load of muck from Tom’s farm. Shortly before I went to Istanbul, he turned up on a tractor stuffed with small children and hoisting a huge bucket of the purest, deepest black gold. It was, he said, vintage biodynamic produce, laid down by his predecessors, rotted to the perfect crumb. He dropped it neatly on the vegetable beds and we carted it about and dug it in.
I don’t know what Mr Brûlé thinks about in bed, but in unfamiliar rooms in Istanbul and Florence, I’ve been dreaming about that muck. I thought about it most when I wandered around St Pancras Old Church.
I was at the British Library to research a collection of old newspapers, which turned out to be stored on film. A dozen scholars at neighbouring desks were unclipping and replacing their reels and running them through their viewfinders to a soporific whirr. After a while, I reacted like the Flopsy Bunnies to overgrown lettuce. The room was very warm and quiet, the air stirred only by soft whirrs and clicks.
The news in my newspapers was equally stale. I woke with a start and slipped guiltily outside—and, in moments, found myself in the most extraordinary place in London.
ST PANCRAS OLD CHURCH may claim with some justification to be one of the oldest Christian sites in London. It has an altar stone that may be 6th century and various tantalising clues suggest it was active when Diocletian lifted the ban on Christianity in 313AD. In the churchyard, about two acres broad, stands Soane’s monument to his wife, a sort of cubicle with a roof so distinctively elegant that Gilbert Scott knocked it off when he came to design the red telephone box.
William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft married and were buried here and, behind the church, a tortured ash, like something from a Tolkien fantasy, grows weird and rooty through a ring of gravestones. It’s called the Hardy Tree because when the first St Pancras railway line was about to slice across the churchyard, a young Thomas Hardy was sent by his employer, a Covent Garden architect, to oversee exhumations and the removal of headstones.
He replaced them in a tight ring around a small ash tree and wrote a poem in which he imagines the corpses squashed ‘like human jam’. It’s not one of his best.
AN engraving in the church shows the graveyard sloping down to the River Fleet, with some young men splashing about where the St Pancras Road now runs. Quite as amazing as anything in Istanbul or Florence and what it all needs now is a huge load of muck. The grass is patchy and bald and the soil is slimy after rain. For 100 years, urban swards like this must have been starved of good fertiliser. Everyone knows about the Great Stink, when raw sewage rotted on the Thames and Parliament had to be prorogued, but the Great Manure Crisis of 1894, when 50,000 horses were each dropping 20lb of dung on the streets every day, has been entirely forgotten.
The Times predicted ‘in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure’. I bet St Pancras and all the other churchyards, as well as parks and everyone’s back gardens, got a regular fertilising dollop from the hackney-cab horses. The internal combustion engine solved the manure problem just as it was about to go exponential, but it also condemned London’s grass to a century of neglect.
Now I have a dream to fall asleep by. I bring Tom’s tractor into St Pancras churchyard and spread an inch or so of well-rotted over a cordoned-off patch. I reseed, then move on to the next patch, leaving a thick, healthy thatch of grasses flourishing in my wake. Try thinking about that the next time you can’t sleep. It works almost as well as the newspaper room at the British Library.
‘After a while, I reacted like the Flopsy Bunnies to overgrown lettuce’