Human Shrub exclusive interview!

HE FIRST emerged last spring, dressed in a costume redolent of a Yeti risen from a compost heap.

Martin Newell

HE FIRST emerged last spring, dressed in a costume redolent of a Yeti risen from a compost heap. The self-styled Human Shrub was protesting, he said, about Colchester Council's horticultural neglect of the town centre planters - some of which were weed-ridden and bereft of their seasonal colour.

The bees were his friends, he added and they were having a hard time of things. The guerilla gardener was initially treated as a joke by council and press alike. Yet he wouldn't go away.

Over the summer the number of his activities and appearances increased. He had become a bee-list celebrity, if you like. The eccentric-friendly East Anglian Daily Times broke the story first, with photographs of the elusive super-hero at work. But who was he, exactly and did his gentle stunts have a political motive?

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There has been much speculation as to his identity. Local councillors, a Tory MP and even an editor of a regional newspaper have at one time or another been suspected. The Human Shrub, though, has begun to capture the imagination of the world. Several national headlines, one or two TV appearances later and his Facebook page has garnered an international fan-base.

The Shrub's ideas have blossomed and borne fruit. When he went out on his most recent foray last weekend, a small squad of admirers turned out with trowels and forks help him restore a neglected Colchester shrubbery to verdancy. People seem to love him. And last weekend, Mrs Shrub herself emerged, aproned, young and lovely, serving cakes to the volunteers Human Shrub, in fact has managed on a tiny budget - and with little PR machinery to speak of - what the strident nannying of government has so far failed to do. He has aroused community spirit and galvanised people into improving their neighbourhoods..

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As a former village gardener myself, I was intrigued and I wanted to secure that first interview. It was not easy for me. I was sworn to secrecy by my go-between, a shadowy figure in a half deserted Colchester office block.

I was told that Human Shrub would not converse with me, as such. He would, however, consider answering a few questions if I sent them in writing. There was an anxious 24-hour wait beside the telephone. I chewed gum incessantly and scanned my e-mails through the night. I was a nervous wreck. Finally, around about dawn, through my intermediary, the Shrub got in touch.

In a downbeat time for the UK, was the Shrub expecting such a positive reaction to his activities, I asked?

“I wasn't aware that the humans of Colchester were so kind.” he said. “But the help and support I've been given has really encouraged my work.” Our home-grown hero seemed nonplussed by his new-found fame. “I couldn't believe it when they told me that human television cameras were looking for me. I never sought fame and attention. I was simply protesting at the political humans' destruction - and their blatant disregard for my friends, the bees.”

How were he and Mrs Shrub managing the fame, though? “I'm OK with it, but Mrs Shrub is uneasy about the attention I'm getting from female humans.”

When they're relaxing at home, he, apparently, likes listening to morning birdsong and she likes looking at the stars. He added that he and Mrs Shrub don't yet have any shrublings of their own to send to nursery, but that they are currently working on it.

Reading carefully through his replies, far from being politically motivated, I would guess that the Human Shrub is rather anti-political.

There is a strong streak of genuine philanthropy in his beliefs, which is more akin to first-generation eco-hippie ideals. “I think young humans need better education about the Planet Earth. If taught at a younger age, it would help to create wholesome meals and lead to a fitter healthier, happier United Kingdom. Humans also need to realise that emphasis on jobs and gold aren't the be-all and end-all. “Shrub then goes on to talk about peace, love, unity and the community. Believe me, readers, this is no MP, local politician or newspaper editor we're dealing with here and his motives, far from being political or merely aesthetic seem rather more spiritual in origin.

On a practical level though, surely he couldn't finance a horticultural revolution all by himself? Might he consider sponsorship from say, Nottcuts or B&Q? “If any human business organisation has resources to offer, I would gratefully receive them.” he replied. Asked about fame's vulgar spin-offs, The Human Shrub showed little interest in making a record, or bringing out a book - apart from maybe a children's educational book. He would rather feature in Gardener's World than in Hello magazine, he said.

Though, he did say that if they ever make the film, he would like Ben Fogle to play him. Finally, I asked him if he intended to bed-down for the autumn and winter: “I imagine I'll need to rest my roots - but I am not scared to come out again and again to ensure that the humans in charge of Colchester do the right thing and help my brothers, the shrubs, grow.”

What strikes me about Human Shrub is his complete lack of the usual sort of green-jackbooted stridency we might expect from eco-evangelists. He seems altruistic and rather likeable. Altogether now: All you need is Shrub, Shrub - Shrub is all you need…

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