The coffee reminded me of a few things: The taste of Laphroig whiskey. The smell of dry caked mud on football boots. A pint of beamish in a plastic glass, sitting in the sun at a summer music festival while you’re wasted with your wife’s cousin and you sip slowly while he makes a tight little roll up and you both wait for the next band to come on.
The love heart patter on top of the coffee looks like Julie Christie’s lips.
They didn’t have bacon sandwich so I had a Danish pastry instead.
“As the freezing shitdrizzle comes down I sit at the back door and watch Mrs Blackbird pick off all the remaining red berries. The wood pigeons left them alone for some reason. There used to be a Mr Blackbird. But that was years ago. That stupid fucking cat next door has probably killed him and bitten his head off. I like cats… sometimes, but on the whole they are like Hannibel Lecter in the Slience of the Lambs… psychpathic killers who can be hugely charming, if they’re in the mood. I am still sick and have had a cough for months. I have a referral to go to hospital for a chest X-ray, mainly to rule out the possibility of terminal lung cancer (it’s the time of year for taking the worst case scenario of everything). If it was normal rain I would walk, but this rain with the consistency of the bottom of one of those slushpuppy ice drinks the kids like, so I sit on the top deck of the No. 4 bus and try to enjoy the scenery through the dirt and drizzle coated windows, while trying to cough all over the seat. It is most likely asthma reappearing due to pollution. But it could be I am allergic to the dog. However, me being sick has coincided with a massive burst of creative energy. When I get home I get the urge to write a folk song about my old stomping ground of North Lincolnshire. When my wife gets home from work and asks how was my day – bird, cats, bus, folksongs – I feel I’m not quite at the cutting edge of fast paced 21st Century life.
This optimistic flower appears in late spring in one of my favourite gardens, a mystical semi-wild farm- house plot in Borrowdale, the most beautiful valley in the whole Lake District. When we arrive there are huge clear blue skies – in fact remark- able weather, which is coaxing the old garden into life. The day is humid and although I am intrigued to look up at Base Brown and think of climb- ing it, hanging out in the overgrown back garden is what my heart is cling- ing to, then a swim in the river with the boys. I lean up against the wall and touch the soft yellow flowers. The fell will still be there tomorrow.
My memories of past Lake District holidays are all about rain and intensely green and tangled cottage gardens that suggest a thin layer between this world and other, more magical ones. But on this night we make a fire and sit drinking beer and looking up at the giant, now murky, fell, and our faces glow brightly as the boys run through the field in some kind of fantasy adventure game with sticks. The poppies open up to the warmth of the Spring but are also somewhat bedraggled by the cold winds moving through the valley. I sense the presence of a powerful local nature goddess. I feel like these flowers when I’m with her – buffetted and a bit bedgraggled by the gusts of what life cannot be, but still glowing and optimistic at the warmth of what life is.
20 years ago I was in the middle of my obsessive walking project – journeying along the routes of now buried rivers in London – that became The Groundwater Diaries. Here’s the map of The New River that appeared in the book. “London is a city of invisible boundaries. Areas alter in atmosphere or architecture in the space of a few yards, and a reason for this might be that the rivers which once flowed were often the borderlines between ancient parishes and settlements. You might walk down a street now and suddenly notice a change in the air. Chances are you have walked across the course of an underground river. The New River would have been no different. Although a recent addition to the waterways of London (about 400 years old), when it was built it would have run through mostly open countryside and settlements would have grown around it.
Some portions of the New River are visible to the naked eye. Yet these sections (for instance, Turnpike Lane to Finsbury Park), which flow silently behind housing estates and terraced streets, seem somehow not as alive as those which have disappeared. It’s the ghost parts of the river, now covered by houses, gardens, shops, parks and roads, that get me going more than the algae scum cuts I can see filled with bikes, shopping trolleys and empty plastic Coke bottles.
Searching for lost rivers is, in a way, a spiritual journey, searching for things that I once valued but have lost…”
There was a bright chill in the day. I was walking slowly up the hill when I saw one of my neighbours talking to two men in red t-shirts. She said hello to me and so I stopped for a quick chat. The men were from a building firm, working on one of the nearby houses, and were asking about parking permits. I made a tangential comment about my neighbour’s shoes and the men laughed uproariously. Slightly taken aback, I carried on my usual 5 minute conversation with the neighbour, covering a range of topics. Every time I said something even vaguely witty the red-shirted strangers would start giggling and choking. After a while it began to go to my head and I decided to up the ante a bit, trying out a few impressions and mentioning Brexit. You’d think the whole Monty Python team had reformed and were doing their greatest hits outside on a small bit of pavement in the southern slopes of Finsbury Park/Highbury border country. As they spluttered and wiped tears from their eyes, I realised I was starting to get addicted to this and already envisioning my forthcoming stand-up comedy tour.
Then a van the pulled up. The driver wound down the window and said “Alright lads?” and made some very bland comment about Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The two men nearly wet themselves laughing and I realised that, far from them being highly tuned to my subtle brand of middle-aged beardy dad sub-Marxist Zen banter, these poor souls must have been stoned out of their minds on some kind of knock-off brain melting Skunk. I said goodbye, to my neighbour, the laughing twins and my dreams of comedy stardom, and shuffled off up the street.
It’s that time of year when the colours of the trees have passed into a dead brown and piles of leaves are no longer fun to walk through because they are too soggy. The weather is alternating between over-warm soft mugginess and bitter crispness. The general greyness is eased by the fact that at least one of our kids is still really excited about thoughts of Christmas and so invisible magic dust is breathed out into the air and stopping me becoming too morose at the passing of time. Our 11 year old’s general positivity and joy of life means that even though he had to have an operation a week ago and spent all week at home, he is busy creating art daily (usually Dalek based scenarios) and enjoying this quiet, introverted time of year.
At the weekend we went to Dublin to visit our daughter, who’s gone to university. Leaving London for a couple of days meant that my head somehow emptied of many of my small and large worries. When I saw her waiting for us at her halls of residence a kaleidoscope of images of her as a young child, playing in the park, and just generally hanging out with me as she grew up, came rushing through my head and then out into the clear morning sky. I could now enjoy seeing her steps into adulthood and independence. We walked all over the city, I bought two new books, saw the Book of Kells and, later in the day, my daughter bought me a pint for the first time.
It’s a strange, warm-chill morning, just after half seven. The mist still lingers around the lower stretch of the parks, ear the ponds. A bagpiper has started up. He’s obscured by the trees, but we can hear some plaintive tune.
“In the first world war they sent pipers out in front of the troops to scare the Germans.”
“Did it work?”
“Probably not. At least, not after the firs time.”
My 14 year old son is in his tracksuit, jiggling about excitedly. We’ve stated doing running in the park, before school. Short intervals sprints, about 50 yards, then walking back.
The piper is now playing ‘Amazing Grace’. The mist seems to be moving towards us.
“3-2-1 go!” I shout and we are off. Me in front of him by miles, I think, then in the last few strides he lopes past me and wins by about five or six metres.”
“That was fun.” He laughs.
He is now faster than me. An inch shorter, about three and a half stone lighter, but he has looseness, a happy explosive elasticity.
We go again. This time it’s closer, as I’m trying harder. Walking back, the dog runs around our feet, trying to get us to kick his tennis ball.
‘Amazing Grace’ is still going. A park warden is walking over to where the piper is hiding behind the trees (Horse Chestnut?).
Third run. I’m winning all the way until the last couple of strides. He glides past me, still talking about how pipers have been in the British Army for a long time.
The park warden is striding back now. The piper is playing a different tune, something melancholy. The warden must have asked for a request.
Next sprint, he wins by a long way.
The mist is moving towards us.
I kick the tennis ball and the dog goes sprinting off, but in the wrong direction. My son runs after him and kicks the ball again. The dog is getting old, his eyes are going.
Fifth run. I’m nearly there, trying to relax into the running. It’s pretty much a dead heat, though a photo finish would have had him as the winner.
Last run. He is away fast and wins by ten metres. I’m knackered. The mist has stopped halfway up the park, reminding me of the time the tower block on Green Lanes was demolished 15 years or so ago and the dust cloud enveloped the lower reaches almost up to the raised New River bank.
We walk home. He his happy. The piper plays on his sad tune.
I’m trudging back from the park, feeling tired and for some reason dejected by the clammy cold breeze that’s whipping off the pavement into my threadbare old jumper. A bloke in army fatigues heads down the road towards me, at a fair old clip. He’s on one of those self balancing motorized unicycle things. As he zips past me I see he’s holding a can of extra strong lager and talking on the phone in Russian. He takes a nifty left turn, sips from his can and carries on the conversation. He’s a metaphor. Heading north towards Finsbury Park.
The wind always gets suddenly colder in the first week of October. It’s the beginning of browns and reds appearing everywhere. I walk my youngest son to school. He can’t resist kicking through the piles of dry leaves. He simply has to walk through them. It’s as if he is pulled along by an unseen force. And it slows him down as he turns round for another go
Back home I notice the little shrubby tree in a pot a the front of our house has shed most of its leaves, but it still has its deep pink seed pods, like tiny rose coloured pumpkins. The plant belonged to our late next door neighbour… he had a great selection of front garden plants that I redistributed around he neighbourhood after he died.
Today is the birthday of our late next door neighbour on the other side (both have died in the last year and a half). He would have been 65 today, but succumbed to lung cancer in June. On our hedge cutting days we would chat and he sometimes mentioned vague plans about moving to a cottage in the country with his beloved dog. But I have my doubts. He was born and brought up around here, in these streets, with this wind.
Walking along the corridors at Holborn Tube I hear some comforting clarinet/alto saxophone jazz sounds wafting along and bouncing off the walls. It sort of reminds me of being in London in the late 1980s, when there seemed to be more of that kind of music around. As I get closer to the source I am shocked to see that it’s the old man who lives on the end of our road, blowing on an alto sax. I walk past, feeling that I might have suddenly fallen asleep and be dreaming this.
The old man keeps a small front garden with all kinds of interesting small fruit bushes and vibrant flowers. Many times I have wanted to say how much I like his garden but he gives off a vibe of not really wanting to chat. I walk past him a lot on our road but he never catches my eye. I’ll have something to talk to him about now.