Category: London

RGS Nature Writing Book Club – Ghost Trees

Last night I attended the first nature writing book club at the Royal Geographical Society, it provided a really interesting way to discuss a single book. The book in question was Ghost Trees by Bob Gilbert. The evening was chaired by Olvia, an editor for geographical magazine.

The format consisted of introductions, and a discussion about what we had taken from the book, without the author present (although all readers were complimentary), followed by a discussion with the author and two panellists, Meredith Whitten and Marcus Nyman.

I had not read the full book, I attended with my wife and we were sharing a copy to read pre-event, however I will finish it in the next few weeks. The event provided a fascinating discussion of a book that was based in Poplar, very close to my flat in Whitechapel.

The discussion about the book reinforced that there are a range of ways to interact with nature – through observing but also through, maps, routes, stories, and examining species. The book manages to explore an urban environment with a wide notion of nature.

The author as part of the book walks every street in the parish of poplar and the book embodies the idea that attentiveness is love; with a strong relationship to place. It challenges the idea that urban nature is not a good as rural nature. The nature in the city does not need to be compared to the countryside. 84% of the population of the UK live in urban areas so there is a need to value the nature there.

Gilbert talked about some of the developments taking place in both Popular and further afield -and he asked the question ‘development for the benefit of who?’. He said that benefits of development, even when they were considered were often only considered on a very local scale and there is a need to regard the city as a whole as the habitat.

He drew on his experience managing parks and green spaces for Islington stating that by many measures parks are one of the most sterile places in a city in terms of nature. You can find a greater variety of spiders in underpasses and range of wildflowers in wastelands. He went on to talk about how this is changing with areas being left uncut and set aside to become more wild. He also cautioned about the creeping commercialisation of parks. The fact that many parks are being used for fee paying events in a effort to reduce the cost of the parks to municipalities. However he stated we need to move on from a model where we can only measure value in terms of GDP.

Overall the evening was enjoyable and thought provoking, however the biggest benefit of the evening was that it got me to read the book, which probably would not have been on my to read list were it not for the evening.

Notes on: Understanding the improved performance of disadvantaged pupils in London

This report came out in September 2015, and I printed it off to read about a year after it was published; and I am only now sitting down to read through it now, so it is now 25 months old. Working in high performing inner city schools it was of interest (although obviously not that much interest as I would have read it sooner!).

The report looks at evidence that London is an educational success story, but this success is not new and was present from the mid-1990s. The difference in the ethnic mix compared to other disadvantaged areas can explain only one-sixth of this increase. Looking at all factors the change is mainly attributable to gradual improvements in school quality rather than differences or changes in the effects of pupil and family characteristics.

The report sets some context relating to London; it is the 23rd largest city in the world; and 45% of Londoners come from a White-British background, compared to 80% across England and Wales. London is very different from the rest of the country in ways that could influence trends in educational performance.

There are also differences in the school provision in London compared to the rest of the country; due to the higher population density there are higher levels of choice and competition compared with other areas of the country. Teachers are younger and less experienced; there are higher levels of teacher pay, to cope with the higher cost of living, and there is relatively higher funding, to cope with the higher costs associated with London. However, a study quoted Greaves (2014) states that most of these details are longstanding.

The report then goes on to present what they call ‘basic empirical facts’:

Fact #1 – The performance of disadvantaged pupils in London in exams at age 16 has improved substantially, starting from the mid-1990s onwards.

Fact #2 – The characteristics of disadvantaged pupils in London are very different from those outside of London, and in ways that matter for pupil attainment.

Disadvatnaged pupils in inner London are much less likely to come from a white-British background, 13% in inner London, whereas 76% outside of London.

Fact #3 – Improvements in performance are not restricted to secondary schools; large improvements in primary school results can be seen from the late 1990s onwards.

Fact #4 – The London Effect is small at age 5, before growing between ages 5 and 11 when children are in primary school.

The next part of the paper goes into to provide statistical evidence to support these facts. The methodology is detailed and well laid out; though would be difficult for me to summarise in a meaningful way. The paper fails to provide a list of strategies or conclusive reasons for this increase; however, this is not the purpose of the paper.

The full paper can be read here:

Danny Dorling – The 32 Steps

Penguin have released a series of books to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. A number of the books are related to the social geography of London. The books are quick reads and thought provoking while maintaining accessible.

Information about the twelve books can be found on the Penguin website here.

32 steps
This novel was written by Danny Dorling, Danny works at the University of Sheffield, and was behind the World Mapper project.

This book presents a wide range of information about how the social indicators change in London along the route of the Central line.

Some of the interesting factoids from the book are:

  • The central line was opened on 2nd April 1911; the same Sunday the 1911 Population Census was undertaken (the first census to take account of living conditions).
  • Starting on the West; for the first four stations every second spent moving is exactly a day off their lives in terms of how long people living beside the tracks can expect to live.
  • Average GCSE Point score in London is 337, but West Ruislip it is 356.
  • In London distance is measured in seconds and minutes rather than in miles and kilometres.
  • In Holland Park children receive the highest GCSE results along the line.

Dorling produces a range of stories to illustrate the statistics. I recommend this book to all geographers and anyone interested in London’s social history.


The book is also inter-dispersed by graphs showing some of the data. (click the graph for a larger version).


Much of the data used in the book comes from a relatively new website/project;

I purchased this book from Foyles; which cost £4.99 but was part of their 3 for 2 promotion; so I was able to purchase 3 of the titles in then London Underground Series for less than £10! On Foyles website it is available for £3.24 (11/04/2013).