SO I LIVE IN AN UNFASHIONABLE BIT of inner London. I don’t know if I mentioned that. Somewhere with a persistent image problem, not all of it undeserved. The local shopping centre can’t sustain a bookshop, nor most of the time a decent café. There may be more pound shops than boarded-up premises in the high street, but it’s a close-run thing.
But the image isn’t always deserved, and having lived for a long time now I have developed affection for the place. And in my treasured moments of quiet contemplation (see last week’s piece on introverts) I find a surprising amount of pleasure in my neighbourhood. And, amazingly for a shabby corner of south east London, little pockets of beauty.
When you live in the city you often don’t connect too strongly with the changing seasons. Especially a city in England, where not only do you not have a view of the stars to give you that sense of the world turning, but where you’re also likely to have a fairly uniform cover of grey cloud at any time of the year, cutting you off from even the most basic connection with sky and sun and moon. London days, let’s face it, can be a little samey, meteorologically-speaking: some are colder or warmer than average; sometimes the pavements are wet, sometimes they‘re not.
So it was strangely exciting last weekend when I stuck a plastic bag in my pocket and walked over to the local park to pick blackberries. The bushes are mainly in one corner of the park, away from the children’s playground and the main paths, lining the wire mesh fence alongside the route of the 484 bus. I spent an hour picking the ripe berries, undisturbed by anyone else, alone with my thoughts. When you do a basic and undemanding task like this, it’s interesting how soothing it is to your spirit. You become focused on nothing but the simple repetitive movements; scan the bush, identify the most promising berries, reach out and pick them and drop them in the bag, adjust position to focus on a new bunch. From time to time straighten up and move a few feet to work on a new bush.
I picked nearly two pounds of blackberries. Half of them are now in the freezer, the other half went into a delicious apple and blackberry crumble, made by the Boss a couple of days later. Call me easily excited, but a delicious pudding, made from fresh fruit picked in the patch of urban greenery that until recently we referred to as Dogshit Park. That to me is pleasure!
As I walked back through the park, swinging my bag of berries, I was struck by two reflections. One was a little sad, the other less so.
The first thought was that the cruel joke that masquerades as England’s summer was ending, even though it’s hard to remember it starting. The ripe berries were one sign of that. Now the berries are ripening, soon there will be apples in season, then the leaves will fall.
Another sign of summer’s end was on the granite slab at the centre of the stone circle at the top of the park. This lies close to two tall stone pillars which are placed so that their shadow at sunrise falls on the slab, which is marked with the months of the year.
At one end of the slab is the summer solstice, where the shadow falls in the early mornings of late June (presumably – I confess I’ve never been up in the park at 4am to check. And even if I was, what are the chances that London’s usual overcast sky wouldn’t make it a wasted trip?). As the world travels round the sun and tips on its axis the sunrise shadow makes its way along the slab to the far end, for the winter solstice in December.
With my bag of berries in my hand I stood and looked down at the slab and saw that we were less than a month away from the autumn equinox. Where did the summer go?
My other reflection was more cheerful. I was struck, as I have been before, by what gems some of London’s parks are. The big ones – Hyde Park, Greenwich Park – are well known. But there are dozens of other smaller parks across the city.
My local park is what it says it is – Hilly Fields – but it is a lot more. It has a lovely view across south east London, it has a fine children’s playground and a cricket pitch and bowling green. The day after I picked my blackberries the Nipper and I were up in the park early and we played tennis in the low cool rays of the morning sun. After that we had breakfast in the park café. As we walked home, I noticed the park was filling up with kids playing ball and mums with buggies sitting on the grass with their children. A young woman had set up a stall near the café, preparing to run treasure hunts for children during the day. And in a small wooded corner near the bowling green there was a sign on a tree saying ’Tea Dance For Little People’. As we walked past, I saw three women dressed in gingham frocks, parading around their picnic table, one holding a guitar, rehearsing for the tea dance.
And I thought, are there any nicer places to be today than here?
Which is a comforting thought. But the fact remains, summer’s dying. Back to school, back to work, and back to more serious stuff. Next time, a new story.