I grew up in a market town called Stevenage. It’s in the county of Hertfordshire, about 30 miles north of London. The New Towns Act of 1946 designated several towns to become so-called ‘New Towns’ and Stevenage was one of them. These were to take the overflow of population from London, whose housing stock was dilapidated and which had been decimated by German bombing in the Blitz.
When I was born, in 1954, the population of Stevenage was about 7,000. Today it stands at 85,000. The old town is an ancient settlement, situated on a long straight Roman road known as The Great North Road. It has the widest high street in Hertfordshire, with a medieval row of shops called Middle Row.
I attended Alleyne’s Grammar School, one of the oldest in the country as it was founded in 1558. I walked the fields with my dog, feeling myself to be more of a country lad than a town dweller. I was a young naturalist, so seeing wide open spaces turned into housing estates broke my heart. A pasture that we called ‘Skylark Field’, where I once counted a dozen larks in the sky at one time, became a sterile development of 400 little boxy houses.
I knew that people needed somewhere to live, but I also felt, even at that young age, that there were way too many people. A distaste for the incomers saw them labelled as ‘New Towners’, with the older inhabitants clinging to their ‘Old Towner’ status. A modern pedestrianised shopping centre harmed the old-fashioned shops in the high street, with many closing and being taken over by fast-food chains.
Seeing all of this desecration coloured by attitude to modern housing and shopping developments. I left home as soon as I could, rarely returning. I last visited twenty-four years ago, and got lost – in my own home town!
I’d done some minor disruption of the stakes and lines laid out by a surveyor, for houses to be built on an old orchard which was my childhood refuge, so it was easy to take to the writing of Edward Abbey. His best-known novel is ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’, a title that comes from ‘throwing a spanner in the works’ – that is, deliberately sabotaging machinery being used to destroy wild places.
Cover of the first edition
His work spawned the term ‘monkeywrenching’, and his disparate gang of malcontents take on industrialists who are despoiling the landscape. Abbey worked as a park ranger for the United States National Park Service and was passionate about protecting the environment. A prickly character, he riled many people and was considered sufficient a threat to warrant the attention of the F.B.I.
The work that he did, along with his writing proved inspirational for those who tired of the wishy-washy, compromised campaigns of early environmental protection groups. He was deliberately outspoken in his views, mainly to keep people aware of the threat posed by those who would rape the land for profit.
Abbey’s early death at only 62 was probably a relief to some. Awkward to the end, he ensured that he was buried in the way that he wanted and where he chose. His friends put him in the ground of the Cabeza Pieta Desert in Arizona so that he could rejoin the circle of life by becoming fertiliser for cactus.
He remained true to his beliefs, and I think that he would have got on well with some of the other outsider, rebellious writers that I’ve written postings about on this blog. It’s easy to imagine him sitting around a campfire and sharing some beers with Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan, John Kennedy Toole and Tomi Ungerer.