I’ve written before about rain. About how it makes me feel alive. Today the rain was beating down, propelled by cold gusts of wind that made the recently muggy North London streets feel like February in the west of Ireland. I leave the hood of my waterproof down, so I can feel the raindrops on my face. In theory you might imagine steeling yourself against this kind of weather. But I feel it stops me living in my head so much, which I am wont to do too a lot of the time. The heavy rain draws out any deep rooted melancholy so that it is truly felt, but it mixes with the joy of feeling… anything. So that in this rain I am both sad and happy at the same time. There is probably a beautiful word in old Irish for that. And also the sense of being firmly rooted in the physical world, and connected to all things, while being acutely aware of the non-physical, mystical nature of existence that is almost always hidden from us. This cold rain reminds me of those that have gone, especially recently. In fleeting moments of understanding that I *am* alive I accept that they are not but feel, in tiny moments, that they are ‘somewhere’. How does rain do that? It makes me live in the now, which means I can see both backwards and forwards without consciously having to think about it… past/future, Highbury Corner/Finsbury Park one-way-system.
But I’m not just having a spiritual experience in this rain. I’m trying to catch up with my youngest son, who has gone off to school dejectedly after I shouted at him for breaking his glasses (again). Both my boys live in a 1970s World of Sport type existence, in which wrestling is a key component of a well-lived life. The youngest – 11 tomorrow – breaks his glasses once every couple of months, but has lost two in the last week.
I can see him trudging in the distance but I’m walking slowly, as I am dragging the neighbour’s dog behind me. Eventually I catch up with my soaking son and we embrace and I tell him to have a good day. He seems happy that we have connected properly. On the way back I encounter one of those road rage situations that seem to crop up more and more these days. An old man, with two bags full of ‘stuff’, is walking slowly across the road as a car comes up. The driver sounds his horn and the old man takes offence and stands in front of the car, arms outstretched.
“I’ve got all day. I’m not going anywhere!” he shouts and blocks the car. I go into the road and try to talk to him. Eventually he leaves the road but as he looks back the driver does that ‘finger on the side of the head’ sign that kids used to go when they called someone “a loony!” Enraged, he goes back out into the road.
“That’s it. I’m not moving.”
On a normal, dry day, I would have been tempted to not get involved. To leave them all to it, these crazy bastards. But in this rain, I am connected to them in some strange way. We are all connected… at least the people in our little corner of Southern Blackstock Road. The dog and I go back into the road. I explain to him that the driver is being incredibly annoying, but that it happens all the time when people are in a rush. What about all the other people in cars and vans, about 15 of them, backed up behind. Is it really fair to them? Don’t let this person in a car ruin your day. He looks at me and shrugs. Then sighs, and walks off the road with me. The neighbour’s dog looks at him as if he knows him. “Have a good day,” says the old man, and continues up the hill. The people in the cars are waving and giving the thumbs up.
The rain gets harder and my head starts to ache. The lollipop lady has to shelter in a doorway. The neighbour’s dog does a massive shit on the pavement.
It’s a beautiful day.
The Beatles – understood that it was important to sing about Rain.
A short video about rain from three years ago.
I’m walking from my car to Tesco to go and buy some chicken dippers… the latest shit food fad in our house – when out of the corner of my eye I see someone walking across the road in my general direction. I look over and see a shortish man, around 5 foot 7, with his shirt off and displaying a muscled torso that suggests heavy martial arts or gymnastic training.
“Hey, mate!” he shouts. “Mate… can I talk to you?”
I sigh inwardly, and stop. He comes up to me and stares intensely into my eyes. He has a very red face, and is sweating profusely. Maybe he’s just done some heavy work on the parallel bars or something.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Mate, do you know what love is?”
My initial reaction is to want to laugh – this feels like the title of a Cockney Rejects cover version of that famous Foreigner rock ballad.
“I know what it feels like, at any rate. Why do you want to know?”
He frowns. “Well, what do you do if you love someone but you’re not sure they love you as much?”
I’m about to quote the lyrics of a famous Sting song here, but I don’t know this unpredictable hardpan well enough yet and not everyone responds well to the work of the ex-Police frontman. So rather than actually say “if you love someone, set them free “, I suggest that he gives the object of his affection a bit of space.
“YES! That’s just what she said. She wanted more space. You do know what love is!”
He’s smiling now and he introduces himself. His name is Jimmy Reilly. He’s just come back from a court appearance in Hackney. We’re still walking but we’ve come to Tesco now and he has to make a decision – does he want to carry on chatting about affairs of he heart but also commit himself to helping me get some food for the kids’ tea, or does he cut and run. He asks me a few more questions about love, and I try to be honest and not too profound and Zen-poetryesque with my responses. It seems as though he’s about to calm down. Then he remembers that when he was in court he saw his girlfriend and she was just texting on her phone and not watching him at all.
“I don’t know what’s in her head, what she’s thinking.” He frowns again, his face gets redder and he bunches up his muscles, as if he’s he wants to punch the living shit out of something.
I tell him that we can never really know what someone else is thinking and that he probably needs time to work out what he wants and feels because he sounds a bit… heavy. He takes this well and decides that we should be friends. By the way, could I give him some money and also drive him to his new flat which is several miles away. At this point I realise I can do no more to help him and explain about the chicken dippers. I wish him good luck. He tenses his muscles, waves and heads west to the Holloway Road, still unaware that he’s forgotten to put his shirt on.
I have a new stick whittling knife. It’s still in its plastic packet, though, because I haven’t motivated myself to start using it yet. In one sense I am a wild woodsman who turns the detritus of nature into beautiful and meaningful objects – that’s the sense of not-quite-happening or a parallel universe. Like many of the great things in my life at the moment, it only exists in my head.
It’s possible to become overwhelmed by world events to the point where one can feel utterly powerless. When this happens, it’s important to have little projects that take you away from trying to think a path through the issues. I also feel that public demonstrations are good, but they need to be balanced with more personal creative acts which have some kind of mundane, but powerful, meaning.
So when I’m carving my sticks – and this only happens in my head right now, but I will start doing it again soon – each one is finished in a different way and given a different name or title. So, for instance, the next stick I finish – when I finally take me new knife out of its packet – will be called The Stick I Made As An Initial Response To The Rise Of Right Wing Populism.
I’m sure it will help me – in my personal search for equanimity, as well as in my desire to create a more equal, just and tolerant world.
Today I walk the neighbour’s dog again. On my return leg I am reminded that the rubbish bin at the top of one of the nearby streets has gone missing. We walk back around to the next street, but the bin has been taken from there, too. That hasn’t stopped an accumulation of rubbish, of course. In the way that the light from a star shines down to us millions of years after the star itself has died, so refuse will continue to accumulate for years on an empty street corner due to the historic placement of the bins.
I phone the council and, voice rising in indignation, explain that it just will not do. Somebody says that somebody else will get in touch with me. Probably write a letter. And the ‘somebody’ wouldn’t be a ‘person’, it would most likely be a computer – the actual person on the end of the phone doesn’t actually say that, I just know. I sigh inside. I do that a lot these days. The actual person on the end of the phone didn’t make the decision about the bins. It’s not her fault.
The dog then does a massive crap, but the tennis ball he’s been holding in his mouth starts to roll down the hill. Should I continue to clear up the dogshit or chase the ball? Life is full of tough decisions like this. I decide to do the right thing and clear up the mess, but luckily for me the ball comes to rest on something sticky – I think it’s a big patch of 24 hour old vomit (brown with a hint of red… Merlot mixed with kebab?). I walk the dog back to the house, slightly concerned at the realisation that he can’t shit and hold a tennis ball in his mouth at the same time. What sort of dog is that?
Back at the house I’m feeling slightly guilty at getting on my high horse about such a trivial thing as bins. I need to get things in perspective. It’s Donald Trump’s inauguration tomorrow, for God’s sake. I should be complaining to the council about that. Or out on the streets. What the hell is wrong with me? What is that saying? – that evil triumphs when good people turn into stupid wankers, or something…
Then my youngest son comes home and says that his school have decided to scrap afternoon playtime.
“I’m going to do a petition,” he says, looking very earnest.
“Good to hear,” I say.
He frowns. “Dad…”
“What’s a petition?”
It’s a Sunday and it’s a gardening day. Except it isn’t. The rain is constant. Not lashing, or pouring or even just drizzling. Just there all the time like a boring droney person you sit next to at a dinner party. Everything in the garden is just out of reach today because of the rain. It’s going to be hard work even putting some stuff in the wormery.
Instead I focus on making really good bacon sandwiches for the two oldest kids. But teenage kid no. 2 is not happy. It’s a different kind of bacon – from Tesco, in a different wrapping. Free range dry cured bacon. From Devon.
“It’s the wrong kind of bacon, Dad.”
It starts to snow. My youngest son has been waiting all year for this. “Ha ha ha!” he shouts, looking out of the window. He’s already in his pyjamas, but slips some trainers on the end of his feet and runs outside. He stands looking at the sky and laughs again, doing a strange jig with his arms outstretched. Then he stares at the floor and his smile vanishes. “Where is it? Why isn’t the snow still there?”
“It’s crap snow,” I tell him.
“It’s not fair. I want to go sledging.”
I bend down to inspect the snow depth. It’s about 0.001 mm. Not quite enough to justify a trip to Hampstead Heath.
“If it’s really deep tomorrow, will you come and get me from school so we can go sledging?”
I look at the sky, then the ground. Finally I sniff the air*.
“OK then – it’s a deal.”
* Meaning – have already checked the BBC weather forecast for the next day.
Recently a friendly and generous neighbour gave us a bike. Or to be more precise he gave the bike to me so that I could give it to our 14-year-old son, who has been making do with a tiny BMX with a rusted seat. This new bike is full-size with narrow racing wheels and and he (our neighbour) has swapped it for “something more practical”. I tentatively asked him how much he wanted for the bike, even though I didn’t really want a bike, but he said no it’s fine. No problem. This was five months ago. Our son has no intention of riding the bike. It is still under a large tarpaulin sheet in our front yard.
My wife suggested to me this could be my opportunity to start riding a bike again (she is a born-again cyclist so loves the idea of trying to convert me). I did spend my childhood cycling everywhere, never without my wheels. At university, too, I biked all over the place. But since coming to London I have learned to love walking, love the freedom it gives and the possibility of being spontaneous and changing direction going into bookshops, nipping into Italian cafes for lunch, jumping on a bus that you like the look of, popping into a museum. Or just sitting down with a book. Or deciding to get lost. Cyclists will tell me you can do all these things with a bike. But I’m not so sure. There’s something about cycling that is goal-based, with too much emphasis on “getting there”. I like to think it I live by this quote from Rebecca Solnit:
“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin USA)*
(Of course all this has nothing to do with the fact that the last time I rode a bike regularly was in my early 20s, when I was doing over twenty miles a day cycling to work in the Norfolk countryside and something about my bodyshape meant my arse got really big and muscly and my trousers stopped fitting properly. Nothing at all.)
* Actually I don’t really live by that quote. It is a true and lovely quote, but I have my own quotes. The trouble is they’re in my head and hard to access – unlike Solnit’s quote which I found on the internet at the amazing Brainpickings site.
A few weeks ago I started walking my neighbour’s dog. The neighbour is ill and can’t do the long walks at the moment. For a while the neighbour was in hospital and the dog lived with us. The kids were excited, especially the boys. They loved the cuddles, the face licking and the hairs all over the place. Now my neighbour is back home and so my neighbour’s dog is back home too. Every day I aim to do one big park walk with him.
Part of me resents this intrusion on my personal time. Life is busy enough as it is and that Totally Uncommercial Great Lincolnshire Graphic Novel won’t write itself. But there is something about my neighbour’s dog… he is happy and he spreads happiness. Maybe all dogs are like this, I’ve just never noticed. Plus time seems to slow down when I’m with my neighbour’s dog. I have started truly noticing things again in the park, something I haven’t done since I used to walk small children (very slowly) around here.
Today I sat on the slopes in the middle of the park and threw a saliva covered tennis ball repeatedly for my neighbour’s dog to chase and bring back. My neighbour’s dog will do this all day if I let him. If I would play ball. But I do have other commitments, I say to my neighbour’s dog – but he doesn’t listen. I counted 100 throws one time recently, then got bored with counting and just concentrated on the basics – ball, saliva, throw.
My neighbour’s dog urinated 30 times today and did a massive shit. I successfully managed not to get dog shit on my hands as I was clearing it up. I’m learning. I am the pupil. My neighbour’s dog is the teacher.
Walking back home on a warm evening I’m thrilled to see a black cat cross my path halfway down Finsbury Park Road. I’m already anticipating the good luck vibes, when a second black cat emerges from the shadows a couple of doors further down. It waits and watches me. A double black cat path-crossing… it’s a confusing situation. Does it mean twice as much good luck or (more likely) does the second black cat erase the good luck of the first? Or perhaps even create bad luck? If this is the case, are there any complicated hand signals I can offer that might block this black cat magic? I’m confused and contemplate crossing the road… but the second cat makes a run for it and nips in front of me – clearly a genuine crossing of my path.
These could be long term Luck Cats, in which case it might be several years before I can safely say what the final result of this strange incident will be. Interestingly*, it would seem that it’s only in Britain that black cats symbolise good luck. Everywhere else in the world sees them as bringing bad news.
* Obviously I’m using the word “interestingly” to mean “not-very-interestingly”