It is a brisk London night, full of crisp spring beckoning. The whoops and grunts of distant youth are drowned out by the cacophony of late evening traffic which hacks at the throat but fails entirely to quell the earthy stench of optimism which wafts across the air. Two minutes' walk from Lambeth North tube on the Westminster Bridge Road there is a rather hefty traffic island, split into a mammoth lowercase 'i' by a cycle path. The story goes that at one time a splendid statue stood aloft the dot of the 'i', directing the island's traffic from his grassy knoll. Local Catholics were disturbed by the statue's stone nudity however, so he had to go. Shame. After which the traffic island was abandoned, left to wither and die, choked by weeds and coke cans and car exhaust muck. Tonight however, there is activity. Tonight at least thirty or forty people are milling about the place, and at least half of them don't work for a television company. These are the guerrilla gardeners, committed to the cause of brightening up our neglected public spaces.
Richard Reynolds lives in Perronet House in Elephant and Castle. For many, the only consolation of Perronet House is that it isn't quite as shockingly unattractive as its grotesque elder sister, the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. An optimist however, is never daunted, and an activist never sits around complaining about stuff when there is work to be done. And so it was that the first guerrilla gardening project took place in October of 2004, as Richard went to work on the large planter at the base of Perronet House. Seven moonlit hours later and a barren eyesore with a couple of dead ferns in a pair of purple buckets became a gorgeous gardenette with carnations and lavender, and convolvulus all in a row. And so it began.
A couple of years on from the original idea and there are now nine separate projects up and running across London, with hundreds of volunteers signed up to help Richard out, donating shrubs, gloves, tools, manure and most importantly, their own time and energy. The media have also got involved of course, with features in various organs around the globe and even the support of Richard and Judy. Although Judy did seem to have certain reservations, feeling the need to point out that some people actually prefer concrete. (Well, yes - some people even marry concrete, but you can't please all of the people all of the time. Especially not the loons.) We find ourselves more inclined to agree with Helen from Coventry who called in to the Jeremy Vine show when Richard was spreading the word on Radio 2. 'It's so positive,' she said. 'Britain would be a much better place if there were pockets of Richard everywhere.' The great news is that Helen's dream is becoming a reality. Guerrilla gardening is catching on and pockets of Richard are indeed springing up all over the country. Rather like Creeping Charlie (glechoma hederacea).
On Wednesday night in Lambeth there were lots of new volunteers. ZoŽ for example, who works in corporate responsibility. She came upon the Westminster Bridge Road project by chance, as its directly opposite the college where she studies Italian. She chose to get involved for the same reason everyone else does, namely because its far better to gaze upon a host of golden daffodils than bunch of weeds clinging on to a Twix wrapper and an old nappy. And if the council have no interest in maintaining these sites, then it's left to ordinary individuals. Furthermore, it is actually rather good fun.
Shibata from Fuji TV explained that in Japan the situation is pretty much the same, with public bodies unwilling to spend money on something they deem, relatively at least, utterly insignificant. He was very enthusiastic and could easily envision this hands-on solution taking off in Tokyo too. His own hands however had yet to make contact with the earth, so, perhaps unfairly, we chided him. Taking our chide to heart he rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in. Twenty minutes later when we'd grown weary and were on our way to the pub for sustenance, Shibata was still getting stuck in, weeding like a man possessed. Guerrilla gardening's like that. It gets a hold of you. Like a drug. But an excellent drug that does nothing but good.
There is however, a slightly dark side to this whole thing, which many of the media stories thus far have focussed on. This is the fact that if the letter of the law were to be applied literally, guerrilla gardening would actually be a criminal offence. Specifically, these public-spirited green-fingered sprites could potentially be charged with vandalism of public property. In reality however, joking to one side, what are the chances? As Claire from Kent pointed out, they've got better things to do and it takes them long enough to get round to them. 'I got shot at on my doorstep and it took the police 24 hours to come,' she said, by way of explanation. Of course, the police do occasionally get curious, but the moment someone explains to them what's afoot, they tend to offer their full support before tootling off.
On second thoughts then, there is no dark side. Not really. In fact, one of the main reasons guerrilla gardening goes on at night is so that in the morning people are delighted to double- take when they notice a charming city oasis where only yesterday was a parched and soulless wasteland. Imagine their blissful bewilderment as they shake their heads and wonder who on earth can have been responsible for such rapid, effective regeneration. Well, it wasn't a bird, it wasn't a plane, and it definitely wasn't the council. Tsk. It was the outlaw Richard Reynolds and his band of merry men and women, who rob from no one and give to all.
Ultimately it's rather heartening to think that perhaps - especially with spring in full swing, more new projects in the pipeline and more and more volunteers getting involved every day - the guerrilla gardeners' war on wasted terra is one war that can actually be won.
Check it out.
Do your bit.