Nick Hayes asks who owns the land and who has the right to access it?
Nick Hayes is an illustrator, best known for his graphic novels and distinctive black-and-white prints, but in this substantial hardback he shows he has the chops to carry off a very well-researched and engagingly-written non-fiction book. With the same precision that he renders the natural world through his art, Hayes, identifies the various layers of rights, rules, expectations, and entitlements around land-usage in Britain – the ‘spells’, as he puts it, of law that prevent us from crossing the sometimes invisible walls, fences, or thresholds of property. Each chapter is named after an animal – instilling an atavistic presence into Hayes’ conceptual and physical forays and incursions – ones often heedless of the artificial barriers humans impose on nature. The author weaves in his own experiences of trespass into his erudite interrogations into notions of property, space, boundaries, the rights of the commoner and the landowner, corporation, community, and individual. His firsthand accounts of stealthy flits into the vast estates of the mega-rich have a visceral frisson of transgression to them. And yet these aren’t macho versions of ‘urb-ex’ or rural flâneury, but often reflective ramblings with plenty of time to stand and stare, or, in Hayes’ case, sit and sketch. The ruminations on the rights of the (rambling) citizen amid the forests of legalese and doxas (ultra-orthodoxies considered a sacrosanct part of the status quo) and shibboleths of society, are counter-balanced with beers and sausages around campfires, and even the odd illegal high. Forbidden fruit is here to be tasted, Gardens of Edens scrumped, and grass definitely not kept off of. Two chapters stand out – one about the colonial spectre that haunts the ‘picturesque’ countryside: the slavery in stone of many a stately home; and the other about the Greenham Peace Camp and the rights (or lack) of women and property. These are impressive in their own right, but add to the heartfelt deconstruction of the glamourye of the property barons and (Conservative) consensus reality. To his credit, Hayes consider both sides of the fence, and wishes for a more porous communication between polarised positions: it is the legal fiction of the fence that makes criminals of the commoner, and sows enmity between those who live on and love the land. Hayes considers other models of land usage and rights – and shows how the Scottish model is perfectly workable, with education and shared obligations of care and consideration. Other countries in Europe offer better access than the United Kingdom where 92% of the land and 97% of the waterways are off limits, often owned by offshore companies registered in tax utopias like the British Virgin Islands, and subsidised massively by government grants. Like Don Quixote, Hayes tilts at these windmills. His chutzpah and sheer cheekiness has to be admired, for it is done with wit, skill, and an artistic flourish. He is a most civilised interloper, even as he yearns for our wild roots to be see the light of day. Full of fascinating, eye-opening facts about the ‘countryside’ and the ‘rights’ we are deprived or begrudgingly granted by the descendants of those who stole the commons from us, The Book of Trespass is a must read for anyone who cares about access to the land – wherever one lives. Hayes reminds us that the stories we tell change our perception of place, of ecos and community, and it is time for those stories to change.
‘Trespass shines a light on the unequal share of wealth and power in England, it threatens to unlock a new mindset of our community’s rights to the land, and, most radical of all, it jinxes the spell of an old, paternalistic order that tell us everything is just as it should be.’
Nick Hayes, The Book of Trespass
Kevan Manwaring, 8th February
The Book of Trespass is published by Bloomsbury