There’s been a lot said lately about the neighbourhood I live in – and neighbourhoods like it. There’s been a lot written about the people who live here, and what’s compelled them to burn down their own streets. I’ve spent days reading the commentary, listening to windbag politicians churning out the same old platitudes. I’ve dropped off donations for those burned out of their flats, harangued our useless mayor and burned with a peculiar indignation that a lot of the people’s opinions that I’m reading are those of people with powerful voices who did not grow up or even set foot into the communities they speak of. It’s unheard of for me to write anything political here, but I’m not happy having this particular elephant in my room.
I live in a neighbourhood were the police are regularly posted near the local tube station at school closing time, not I might add because of any law and order hotspot but simply to “reassure the general public”. The kids are noisy, boisterous and take up a whole lot of pavement, but I’ve never seen them do anything really shocking, let alone criminal. The crack den that operated unmolested 500 yards down the road was genuinely scary and far rowdier than the kids. What does this tell the kids?
I live in a neighbourhood where a gang of hooded youth will step back politely with an apology when I want to pass, but roaming gangs of adult men will sexually harass and follow women with impunity. It’s never them I see getting stopped, searched and told to move on. In this neighbourhood the local bus route is regularly disrupted as groups of up to twenty police officers board and search the bus for “fare dodgers”. Sinister barely describes how it feels. Does this happen in Kensington and Chelsea? I think not. What do the authorities think of the people of my community to order such a thing? Are we all already criminals by default?
I live in a neighbourhood which recently suffered cuts in youth services of seventy five percent, where popular youth groups and adventure playgrounds vanished overnight. Where young people have positive experiences and role models from outside of their homes stripped away in the name of cuts. What is better for these youths, to know that there is somewhere safe for them to go, where your postcode does not matter, where an alternative to gang culture is available and where adults genuinely give a shit about what happens to you – or where these cuts have now sent them – the street corner, to boredom, the dealers and the gangs. People need to get off their moralizing high horses about how these kids are “undeserving” or how “I never had that in my day and I turned out ok” or how it’s their parents responsibility – youth groups are a practical antidote to alienation THAT WORKS. It’s pragmatic. Kids are a lot less likely to burn down the high street if they are busy doing something else. Also, taking away the only alternative to the street corner sends a strong message. You are pointless, you are insignificant, you are powerless. Well a lot of kids found a way to feel powerful recently, and I am totally freaked out about what message they gained from that.
In a society where mobile phones and trainers pretty much define who you are even “respectable” people get caught looting. The shock and howls of amazement when people like school assistants and graphic designers get caught with looted sportswear are hilarious. YES! Even people with careers can loot! Temptation and greed is universal folks, but isn’t it interesting that sticky fingered professionals are seen as an aberration, despite the fact that we’ve all seen politicians who are not too proud to nick a few quid from the taxpayer. But their looting is sooo much classier than what happened in Tottenham, I mean, it almost slipped by unnoticed.
I live in what many would call a deprived neighbourhood, and before I lived here, I grew up in another one. There was one thing in common with both. People would look at us as if we were some kind of exotic virus, tut tut about what was to be done, call us names, give big jobs to their developer buddies to build us a swimming pool if we got rowdy then piss off again. No one ever wondered, seriously, what it’s like to know that the rest of society simply saw you as scum. No one ever wonders what we actually want or need or listens when we actually tell them but we are often spoon fed architecture that we didn’t want and is not fit for purpose. Poor areas are often “improved” by “gentrification” – a process by which much loved local pubs, cafés and shops get bought out and replaced by high end eateries, bars that do not welcome locals and expensive luxury flats. Rents skyrocket so that locals get forced into only the very very worst accommodation while hip young things move into their old homes and sneer at the former occupants. If you live in London and are really lucky you may find your home, park or favourite shops bulldozed for an Olympic stadium. What an honour! These are the improvements that are forced upon us, while public services that we badly need are snatched away.
And as Tottenham, Croydon and other towns and neighbourhoods burned, already there were those who were mocking the looters for their poor taste. Oooh, look, they’re looting JD sports! Hahahaha!!! They’re cooking their own food in Macdonalds, what a hoot!!!! Twitter dissolved in an indignant howl that can be translated simply as CHAV SCUM and the powers that be told us not to worry, they wouldn’t let a little thing like human rights get in the way of dealing with these feral rats. “Security” measures better suited to regimes like Egypt or Syria are bandied around by our Prime Minister. And quicker than you can say lets demonize the urban poor suddenly there is funding. Funding for the return of public services? For senior citizen or youth groups? Anything positive at all? Errr.. no. For more rods to beat us with.
What’s wrong with these pictures? Unless you live on Pandora you don’t often get to see land floating through the sky! It’s been raining here in London almost non stop for the last couple of weeks, so on one of the few fine days last week I took my chance to go for a stroll in Finsbury Park. The huge expanses of grass that act as spontaneous football pitches in better weather were saturated in standing water and acted as natural reflecting pools. I took these photos of trees and sky reflected in the water and turned them upside down – as you can see from the image below.
For more beautiful and fascinating images of the sky around the world, visit Skywatch Friday!
The last time I posted it was August – I was off on an island adventure and the days were still long, if not especially sunny. If I hadn’t realised that that’s been a long time, the trees on the streets are reminding me – it’s been the most beautiful autumn, the indifferent summer mellowing gently into it, then, Bam! Cool, foggy mornings, crisp nights, short days and the trees igniting in a shower of gold, amber and crimson. We had our annual samhain party, and after the dancing and debauchery and fireworks and fun came the morning and the hangover. One of the best ways to blow away the cobwebs the morning after is to go for a walk, so three of us made our way to Hampstead Heath to admire the autumn colours.
Up past the kite flying crowds on Parliament Hill, down into the gentle sweep of valley below Kenwood House the panorama of of London falls behind us, winks, vanishes and reappears framed between gentle hills then vanishes again as we enter a grove of beech trees. The light is fading, without a tripod I cannot capture this on camera but photography is not the point – this is a special place to all of us and we just come here to stand among the giants and drink in the eerie, glimmering light. The biggest tree in the grove which three people together cannot reach around has already shed its oval leaves and the woodland floor is carpeted three inch thick with them; the other trees are only just beginning to turn. A carpet of beech leaves in the dimness of an autumn or winter twilight takes on an eerie orange pink which the individual leaves, as you can see below, do not possess.
The giant stood bare at the head of the grove, drifts of its own leaves burying its roots and swathing the clefts and fissures of its trunk. Clusters of plump fungi nestled in its bark.
The strengthening wind stirred its upper branches and whipped the smaller trees into fierce motion. The sky darkened. It was time to walk back. Twilight is one of my favourite times of day in the city, especially during the shorter days of the year. The cosy warm glow of shop and cafe windows and the weird artificiality of streetlights against a deep indigo sky are a perennial delight to me. Maybe you are surprised that a nature lover like me can take such pleasure in what is essentially light pollution but I cannot help myself; I do love the darkening autumn and winter nights and their cheerful illumination, and there are reasons why I live in a big city, after all. The gorgeous sight of the whole of London spread out and twinkling before us was as ever breathtaking. If you are ever in London on a clear autumn or winter evening there is nothing, and I mean NOTHING so heart stoppingly lovely to be found anywhere else in the city as the view from Parliament Hill. But on this particular night the city and it’s gaudy beauty was upstaged as the racing clouds parted and a brilliant moon, just a little short of full but as big as I’ve ever seen it lit up the deepening sky. It was bright as a spotlight, shining through clouds still faintly tinged with colour from the setting sun, and it cast a glamour over the ponds fringing the heath. A silver glittering path bloomed on the waters surface and faded as the clouds massed, then came brighter than before. All the lights of the city cannot compete or compare to this unearthly beauty.
You don’t have to go to far flung wildernesses to experience the wild. It exists everywhere and in tandem with us; all we need to do to enter this wild world is look. This weekend I witnessed something lovely which proves the point.
I’m not going to reveal the exact location to ensure the safety of the protagonists; sufficient to say that the action took place in a thronged urban park very close to my house. During a busy event which saw stalls set out under the lovely old plane trees flanking the park I noticed in one of the trees the angry rattling alarm call of a Mistle Thrush. This, I thought to myself, could well be the bird who’s dreamy song I have often heard from our back garden, and I began to circle the huge trunk in hope of seeing the bird. I was not alone – another woman had noticed the sound too and we resolved that one of us would see the angry bird. In fact, we saw so much more.
All of a sudden I could see what was hiding in plain view – a thrush, sitting boldly upright in the fork of the tree a scant twelve feet above our heads. Big as it was, it soon became apparent that this was a juvenile bird still in the nest and it’s parents were flying about the tree fitfully, making that rattling sound. As we watched in amazement a parent bird suddenly flew in, stuffed a cherry into a gaping beak and vanished as suddenly as it had come. This flurry of excitement revealed three chicks in the very much outgrown nest, who quickly settled down so that only the very tops of their heads were visible.
I wish I’d taken a picture to show you exactly where all of this was taking place. Directly below the tree was a plant stall and a busy path on which families were walking to and fro. Ten yards to the right is an extensive and noisy children’s playpark and ten to the left, a community centre where youths lounged drinking orange juice post football practice. This spot is always busy, and yet I wondered how many people had ever noticed this nest sitting in the open on the broad tree fork just above head height. The Mistle Thrush is supposed to be a shy bird, and yet here it was confident in it’s own invisibility in an environment where people mostly just scurry past, head down. I’ve heard these lovely birds singing from busy intersection street lights in the most uncompromisingly grim and urban spots, traffic thundering by, the most sordid of human dramas enacted below.
They have adapted admirably to life alongside us; there is something poignant and oddly touching in how the nest appeared to be made largely of frayed nylon rope and strips of plastic bags. I turned to my friend and said that if there hadn’t been an event happening they may well have left the nest this very day, and shortly afterwards while a knot of us chatted and watched, one of those birds did take a momentous leap and left the nest, flying safely to a branch in the same tree.
These wise birds have inhabited this park for years and I had always wondered where they nested. Turns out they hadn’t even been hiding from me. The woman who had joined me in looking for the birds told me that she’d seen Mistle Thrushes nest in plain view on the front of the Town Hall and it seemed to her that she was the only person who ever noticed, noisy and large though these birds are. I started to wonder – how do they do it? I don’t mean how do they go un-noticed; human preoccupation would easily account for that. Rather how can they make their home in such seemingly threatening environments, with all the cars, pollution, humans and noise – how does it not drive these shy birds crazy? Perhaps they do that truly urban thing of shutting out all that does not immediately effect them – the human world is as invisible to the thrushes as their world usually is to us.
Whilst doing the seed bomb workshop a couple of weeks ago I discovered a delightful fact – allegedly there are Bee Orchids growing on Tottenham Marshes about a mile and a half from my home, and they are due to start blooming right now. How could I resist such a lure? I’ve been neglecting the marshes lately, so I got on my bike and went to see what I could see.
What I saw, alas, was not Bee Orchids. It hardly mattered though, since I was out and about on the last glorious sunny day of this summer so far, and what I did find was rather wonderful in it’s own right.
Zooming down Coppermill Lane through a dense tunnel of rank vegetation, assaulted by the shrill voices of wrens and the scree of nestlings in every tall shrub I wondered why I don’t do this every day. When I got to the drainage ditches at Springfield marina the air was filled with zipping electric blue sparks of Enallagma Cyathigerum – the Common Blue Damselfly. I sat down beside the water and watched their nuptial dances, and was lucky enough to find these two in their extraordinary lovers embrace. If you view mating damselflies from the right angle their joined bodies make a perfect heart shape. Most bodies of water on a still sunny day will yield views of these lovely creatures right now in the UK, and they are well worth looking for. I also saw a glorious Libellula Depressa – or Broad-bodied Chaser, a male dragonfly with a body the colour of powdered and bottled summer skies. Naturally he teased me by flying from his territorial perch every time I got him into focus but I don’t go on these adventures just for photographic trophies and it’s just as well – I would have been deeply frustrated that day!
After half an hour of happy damselfly and tadpole watching I got back on the bike and rode along the River Lea navigation towpath. Shoals of small fish swarmed in the still water and mute swans fussed over their huge nests, and overhead swallows chattered. I was at Tottenham marshes at last.
It’s not much to look at, perhaps, to some people. A swathe of rank long vegetation sandwiched between a busy road, allotments and a canal and with pylons, gasometers, bus depots and factories looming at it’s edges, it’s not many peoples idea of a wildlife paradise. But it’s truly wild, and this liminal post industrial landscape is where the revolution starts, you mark my words. It’s places like these that are home to undiscovered beauty, the covert reclamation of land by all the other living things besides the human. Of course it’s managed to some extent, but the beauty of places like these is that things slip in under the radar – this kind of land is the sort that will suddenly sprout, unexpectedly, a beautiful flower from seeds or rhizomes that have slept in the earth for years.
The air was thick with the scent of elderflower and pollen tickled my eyes and dusted my feet. The voices of many warblers made one territorial claim after another, each responding to the last in a singing chain, a necklace of song. I wheeled the bike along and searched in vain through the long, tangled vegetation.
Was I sad that I didn’t find any Bee Orchids? Not at all, not when so many other beautiful things crossed my path. The bee orchids got me out of the house and may have been my stated aim, but their coy refusal to show themselves led me to other secrets every bit as marvellous.