Overcast Saturday late afternoon

We’re making ‘field recordings’ with the Saturday workshop group members. We’ve divided into smaller groups and each has chosen a different chunk of the Square Mile to explore with audio recordings.

I’m with a group of six members, Professor Shen Ji and translator number 2, Frances. We explore the outdoor market and, with the support of numbers, wander deep and freely into this chaotic and vibrant community. The professor becomes very animated when describing these houses, convinced they were built in the 1970s and that they are very traditional, and self-built. “See the tiles on the roofs” he says. Later we meet one long-term resident. She is one of the few Shanghainese left here, she tells him, and yes, the houses were built in the 1970s. The community’s relationship to the river tributary that runs in front of some of the houses is clear. They chuck all sorts of detritus in. But the professor reminds us that main sewers for Shanghai were only installed ten years ago. It will take time.

Later, we pause on the bridge overlooking a main stretch of river and I ask, hopefully, if there is at least some plant life in there, some weed perhaps? He is clear. “Nothing” he says. “Look at it. Completely dead.”

I lead us on to the Botanic Gardens Extension. They’ve not been here before. Now I understand the confusion on my first visit a month ago. Thanks to the information from Ms Xiu I know that this is normally a Nursery and not open to the public. We are allowed in, no charge, because the main Gardens are closed for major refurbishment in preparation for Expo. Its chaos irritates the professor but adds to the atmosphere for me. One of the birds I’ve previously been trying to identify, with his help, appears on a branch. And he confirms that this is a Chinese magpie.

It’s now late afternoon. Some people are still exercising, others are using any available space to keep out of the cold. One group is huddled in a potting shed, with the door open, playing a board game, a mound of soil behind them. Others are whirling sound-producing diabolos.

"Surely something living?"

"Surely, something living?"




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