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.
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 film version of one of the passages from my book A London Country Diary.
(Music by the Highbury Vale Electronic Music Studio)
See also Rain.
It’s sheeting down with rain. I’m walking, at a decent clip, in the direction of Holloway Road, though, of course, I could go anywhere. There’s a slight sadness – I lost my really good waterproof jacket somewhere not that long ago. This new one hasn’t quite bedded in yet.
I like walking in the rain. I take it one step at a time – in the sense that I actually notice my steps. With the water stinging my face, it feels like a good day.
Somehow the rain stops you thinking about the future. I am fully in the present and feeling alive as I pass the Greggs on Holloway Road then cross over near the closed-down insurance office. In the distance I can already see the lollipop lady at the end
of Liverpool Road.
The sound of the rain is calming, like white noise, blocking out the rumble of traffic and the chatter of things I have to do. As the rain gets heavier, I feel like I’m moving forwards – making the future come to me. And getting really wet thighs because this new waterproof is just a bit too short.
Had to go into the City on Monday – around Mansion House – and was reminded how beautiful the old streets can be. You have to look along the curve and twist of the lanes, squint, then try to ignore many of the most modern buildings and attempt to see the City as it once was. Some new projects seem to be trying to obliterate the past with agressive bombast, like the 1990s No.1 Poultry, which was ugly (but not even good modernistly ugly) to begin with and has not improved with age, its creator perhaps obsessed with Battenburg Cake due to a moment of Prousian recollection with his sketch pad.
I worked in the City for brief periods in the late 80s, including a stints temping at Warburgs, the Financial Times, BP and a couple of others whose names I can't remember. As a computer input drone my mind was free to explore and after work I could drift anonymously around the alleyways and lanes, imagining, then sit in old pubs and try to guess which era particular people would look best in.
I love the 60s/70s building at 30 Cannon Street. Although bursting with crazy 60s humour it gives a substantial nod to medieval architecture of the past in the way it seems to get bigger the higher it gets. There's something edible, biscuity and Italian about it. (for more info see http://www.mimoa.eu/projects/United%20Kingdom/London/30%20Cannon%20Street).
The names of the streets around here are magnificent. Old Jewry. Ironmonger Lane. Poultry. Cheapside. Walbrook. Garlick Hill. They give you the sense of rapidly changing environment, something London can still offer in pockets. Old Jewry is now slabs of concrete, expanses of glass, but a vision of the past can be found in an old plaque embedded into the wall telling of the synagogue that stood until the late 13th Century around the time the Jews were expelled from England.
And one suprising thing is the amount of small, old fashioned shops in this part of the city – tailors, cobblers, cafes, galleries, old restaurants, hats, umbrellas. Everywhere you look, fragments of the past are still woven into the fabric of the streets. Tiny churchyards. Old houses next to office blocks. Ancient coats of arms peeing out from the roof of a bank.
A walk down to the
fairy fields at the end of the Cahermacrusheen boreen where we have a grand
picnic of cheese sandwiches and Tayto crisps and a flask of tea. The sea is
still and the Aran Isles look very close. Most of the land around North Doolin is
parched and the grass dry and brownish as if this was August rather than early
April. But here, on the way to the rocks at the edge of the Burren, the turf is
thick and wet like black gold and little patches of intense green burst out
from beneath the stones.
The kids do a cow
attracting dance that achieves its objective, expect these are bullocks not
cows. On the way back we see a thorn tree decorated with ribbons, materials,
toys, holy water and candles. Next to this is the dry stone wall part of which is
made up of massive horizontal stones, which I have a feeling had once been the lost
An Upper Street Walk
Drinkers stand near the bus stop.
WiFi workers stare
Cherry blossom floats
Through the air like soft pink snow
Near the council offices
The bloke was in his early 20s and had a stripey t-shirt and a spotty red face. He swaggered out of the King's Head with his dog then watched, transfixed, as the dog did a big runny shit all over the pavement. He was about to swagger off in the direction of Finsbury Park when I announced that if everyone acted like him the whole world would be covered in dogshit. He looked at me in disbelief. How will I clear it up? he whined. I pointed to the paper bag he was holding, which contained a brand new tube of what I presume was acne cream. The dog looked up at his master as if to say "want me to bite his gonads, master?" but the bloke in the stripey t-shirt still seemed confused, as if he had never realised that leaving dogshit in the middle of the pavement was wrong. I left him standing over the pile of crap, wondering what to do, though my daughter informed me that as soon as my back was turned he had swaggered over to the bus stop as if nothing had happened.
One of the main reasons to stay fit is so you can run for a bus and catch it. I've always prided myself on being able to catch just about any bus I want – even if I miss a stop I'll sometimes run for the next one. In the last couple of years this has been getting harder. But recently I tried the North London Fathers' Triathlon, in which one runs for a bus after completing two even more gruelling events.
1) Getting to school to pick up kids while pushing a pram and you're a mile away and five minutes behind schedule.
2) Trying to find every overdue library book in the house within a 15 minute period (at advanced level, there'll be two or three toddler books hidden behind bookshelves)
Is it too late for this to be included in the 2012 Olympics? It could be a gold medal bonanza for Britain…