Review: ‘Landfill’, Tim Dee (Little Toller, 2018)

This is a book about gulls, birds of the genus Larus, and people who like that sort of thing will find that it is the sort of thing they like, but it’s a good deal else, too: it’s an exploration of waste, a rummaging, bent double and elbows-deep, in human detritus; it’s a shaking-out of human knowledge, a crash-test of our taxonomic and epistemological frameworks (including, but not limited to, those concerning birds of the genus Larus); it’s surprisingly electrifying, trading though it does in gulling arcana, the classification of garbage, and thoughtful saunters along the urban waterfronts of southwest England; come the end, it all feels somewhat like a front, a pretext for Dee – the foremost prose stylist, by a neck from Helen Macdonald, in British nature writing today – to cut loose, as in a walloping climax he leaves behind both gulls and tips to hunt nightjars in Madagascar, stringing together Borges and ecological dynamics, Dickens and Frankenstein and the dodo and the roc; it subsides at the seaside, at Dee’s parents’ cluttered Minehead home, in an elegiac epilogue (‘I knew it at once as an Iceland gull … I loved it immediately nonetheless, and I knew, as I watched its northern light dimming through the Somerset dusk, that it would end this book’).

In truth Landfill is a bit of a slow burner, in part because of Dee’s notably unusual willingness to shut up and let his interviewees speak for pages at a time; in places the book becomes a genuine oral history of the landfill site and the urban gull (North Thames Gull Group mainstay Paul Roper: ‘The seeming chaos of birds does have an order, I think; we’re just not clever enough to see it’; champion guller Dominic Mitchell: ‘The thing about gulls and watching gulls is that sometimes there are no answers … You must be happy to say you don’t know’). The rubbish tip – a declining habitat, it turns out, as more waste is recycled or buried – is vividly evoked (‘I got out of my car into a smell’). Excursions into literature (Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, Stig Of The Dump, The Seagull) occasionally feel dutiful but are always insightful.

Victorian social reformist Henry Mayhew provides the key to Dee’s real theme: taxonomy, classification, the ordering of world-knowledge. ‘Trash,’ Dee writes, ‘has a deep and determining place in Mayhew’s cosmology.’ Mayhew’s compulsive classification extended to both rubbish-collectors (‘bone-grubbers and rag-gatherers; pure-finders; cigar-end finders; sewer hunters’…) and rubbish (‘a dust-heap … may be briefly said to be composed of the following things…’). ‘Had Mayhew seen gulls in the capital,’ says Dee, drawing the decisive line, ‘perhaps he might have found a correlation between gull and dust and all the grey-brown amorphous anarchies.’

Dee is always pushing restlessly outward, plunging into big ideas of ecology and evolution with the shit of the landfill still on his boots (Dee loves that word, shit). He stresses the human-ness of the concept of ‘species’ and offers a personal angle on Darwinism: ‘When Claire and I were courting … Claire said to me that the one thing she knew to be true about the world was that natural selection operates on every living thing and that it is happening still. I knew then that I wanted to marry her.’

No-one else currently writing on wildlife can match Dee as a prose stylist; in a nature-writing field crowded with posers, wafflers, windbags and ham actors, Dee’s mastery not just of subject and language but of tone – his talent for modulation, for retaining the note of a human voice in the most baroque passages of prose – sets him apart. If we must classify, then Dee must be classified as a ‘veteran’ writer, but his writing is startlingly fresh, even on shit, trash, death and dirty-white birds that no-one loves.

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