A tree grows in Southwark

At the heart of Betty Smith’s 1943 novel A tree grows in Brooklyn is the image of a Tree of Heaven growing in harsh urban surroundings. The tree’s survival in the heart of a grom part of the city is a metaphor for people’s ability to flourish in the most difficult environments. [EcoBrookyn say the tree of heaven is an invasive non-native species which is to be deprecated, but that seems a bit mean.] The novel is well-known outside the US, if only because of the many references to it in popular culture

But perhaps we could have had a London equivalent, decades earlier. The Welsh journalist and short-story writer, Arthur Machen, wrote in his London Adventure of 1924, that he had gone into

“the waste portions of the world down beyond the Surrey Docks … by way of Tooley Street, into something unshapen that I had never visited before; into places that might have been behind the scenes of the universe; bearing, indeed, much the same relation to the ordinary London view as do the back of the backcloth and the back of the wings to the gay act that the audience admires from the stalls. Everything was shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words; it was as if one were journeying beyond the back wall of the everlasting backyard. Then a street of grey brick with stucco mouldings, not much greyer than the bank walls; and lo ! from the area of one of the sad houses there arose a great glossy billow of the most vivid green surging up from the area pavement half-way the height of the ground floor windows; a veritable verdant mountain, as blessed as any wells and palm trees in the midst of an African desert. It was a fig tree that had somehow contrived to flourish in this arid waste; but to me a miracle and delight as well as fig tree.”

It’s intriguing to wonder whether Smith may have been inspired by this; Machen attracted quite a following in the United States from the 1920s. But, if only Machen had aspired to write lengthy novels instead of short mystical fantasy, who knows? Maybe the famous tree would have grown in Southwark, rather than Brooklyn.

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