This enthralling book has a running theme on dust and dustology that is hard sometimes to fathom; and wanders off- piste to do justice to its bibliography, from Deuteronomy to Foucault, happy second marriage to nightjars in Madagascar. Arthur Quiller-Couch advised his literary undergraduates to forego fine writing or, in his words, ‘to murder their angels’. Dee has a weakness for angels, some of which could have done with murdering; nonetheless, thanks to him, non-birders will not look at gulls or gullers the same way again.
Dee is less interested in writing a conventional natural history of Britain’s gulls than in “watching the watchers and the watched”. Landfill is as much about us as it is about these beguiling birds.
Throughout history, gulls “have lived in our slipstream, following trawlers, ploughs, dustcarts”. From conversations at rubbish dumps to Chekhov’s seagull (probably a black-headed gull) and those in Beckett’s plays (“there is no green; there aren’t even any gulls”), Dee’s book is a wonderfully thoughtful and gently ironic meditation on “gull-life and gulling-life”, as well as our changing relationship with nature in the Anthropocene.
But what makes Dee stand out from much of the nature-writing crowd is his interest in people and the subtlety, breadth and allusiveness of his references: Landfill touches on Dickens, the Bible, Hitchcock’s The Birds, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Samuel Beckett and much more. In Dee’s hands, a book about gulls becomes an exploration of the anthropocene, a meditation on the taxonomic impulse and a philosophical inquiry into waste.