Letter from London: Parklife

An Austrian or German woman approached us close to Prime Meridian in Greenwich Park last week. I didn’t ask her where she was from exactly but she was full of the joys of spring. This was right before the latest cold snap spoiled the party. One or two bright young yellow crocuses were pocking the green grass sloping away from us, while tiny buds in the trees had created a kind of faint green mist around One Tree Hill. The fact the Austrian or German woman was preaching to the converted didn’t matter; it was her delight at everything which had been so winning to us. We even took the liberty of imagining her holidaying alone and therefore craving this kind of interaction, forgetting again that many people who live alone are perfectly happy with their own company. For all we knew, she may have just killed an abusive husband and was celebrating the fact.

At the risk of sounding technical, funny to think that solar time is actually less reliable — this is Greenwich, after all — because solar time keeps changing throughout the year, and the actual time interval between the sun crossing a set meridian line changes. A simple clock, on the other hand, tick-tocking away as if inhabiting some kind of rare Dickensian silence, measures always exactly the same length. The reason Prime Meridian is here and not somewhere else is because the Americans had already selected Greenwich as the starting point for their own federal time zone system, and because in the ship-savvy late 19th century almost three-quarters of the planet’s commerce depended on sea-charts using Greenwich as Prime Meridian. Brits by deliberately confusing the distant past with the more recent past like to take all the credit for Prime Meridian remaining here, but it was in fact an American decision. Which is not to forget about the illustrious longitude backstory with Harrison and giant telescopes and the cosmos feeding into Greenwich Observatory — nor more recently the shrewd success of ‘Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time’ by Dava Sobel, recounting this time. When this book came out in 1995 I can well remember a number of shaking heads among the elite and often male academic maritime community, as if this American outsider, a woman no less, had stolen their idea, forgetting of course that no one ‘owns’ history.

I don’t know if I could survive London without its parks. Just as I am not sure I could get by without my friends. At home we try to be a creative family — art, music, even writing — but life is hard for people in London right now, creative or otherwise, and I suspect people need each other far more than they used to. Let us hope there are benefits to come from the government’s latest ‘discovery’ of a spare £166 billion. Protecting creativity is a million torrid miles from anything sentimental, I should add — there is nothing ‘precious’ about it at all — and a lioness will always guard her cubs. But Clara Bach has her latest single — ‘Untangle’ — out, I am happy to report. Am I allowed to say that? It is written with her brother Anders Bach who has also produced it. Sharing the same air as these two talents doesn’t mean ignoring HouseFresh with its recent statement that air quality in London is the equivalent of passively smoking 154 cigarettes a year. But it does make for a melodic household. ‘Untangle the tangles,’ as the song goes.

It was in pursuit of good air that we were walking across the park. It was why I was looking up so admiringly up at the line of girthy oak trees by Observatory Hill. A kind of arboreal comfort had to be taken from knowing these trees were such effective air filters, no matter the strains we pollutant-splutterers of the early 21st century place on them each day. Amazingly, some splendid specimens like the London Plane trees — at their best in St James’s Park — are pretty much impervious to air pollution, and can filter damaging pollutants far better than most trees by laying hold of the pollutants on the bark and leaves. This is also why so many London Plane trees have recently been planted in so many of the world’s pollution-blighted cities.

Bad news for tree lovers, though. Last week saw all the London Plane trees by Euston station chopped down in an act of what felt like more than just brutal brainlessness. A part of Euston Road as a result now looks unrecognisable. This was all done in the name of the HS2 rail project, and yet in what felt like seconds later there came the sudden announcement of a pause of at least two years in the construction of a substantial other part of the project, while actual construction of the Euston section has now been delayed indefinitely. Too late for the trees, alas, which obviously didn’t have any say anyway. One of those freshly downed was over 5 meters in circumference. This actual tree was supposed to have been saved five years ago. So much for Moliere telling us it is slow growing trees that bear the best fruit. We don’t even get to see them grow these days. At the same time, London mayor Sadiq Khan was criticised last week for failing to deliver on what had been an admirable and vote-winning pledge to plant two million trees in London during his first term of office. Since 2016, only 340,000 trees have been planted.

Enter stage-left and his new so-called Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). I suppose it is not all doom and gloom for champions of a cleaner London. ULEZ is expanding. What motorists dislike naturally is the prospect of being hit with a £12.50 charge. This is if for when they drive in any of the freshly expanded zones. I have to say, seeing hundreds of large private vehicles every morning stuck in the traffic outside our door with the engines still running, often with only one person inside each vehicle, eliminates most of my sympathy. Also, the extra charge is for when cars, vans, motorcycles or other specialist vehicles, don’t already meet emissions standards. What is so bad about that? The battle is serious. Several recently installed ULEZ cameras in this part of London have been damaged in the past few days by having their wires cut. What do these new saboteurs call themselves? Anti-ecologists? Does this make them anti-life?

It is not just our lungs which can enjoy the recuperative power of trees. Poets and songwriters have long used them in their work, to illustrate both the good and the bad. At the end of the new Sam Mendes film ‘Empire of Light’, Olivia Coleman’s character narrates the famous Philip Larkin poem ‘The Trees’: ‘The recent buds relax and spread/Their greenness is a kind of grief.’ That last line from the opening stanzaabout spring being a measure of grief is very Philip Larkin. Who among us, though, can ever forget the most shocking tree lyric of all — ‘Strange Fruit’? When we listen to this for the first time and realise what the so-called fruit is hanging from the poplar trees, something happens to our consciousness which should never quite go away. Those powerfully voiced images of swollen eyes and a twisted mouth are morally and physically repugnant: ‘Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh.’ It is no less shocking today than it must have been 83 years ago when first recorded by Billie Holiday. I had also actually forgotten it was written by a Jewish school teacher called Abel Meeropol under the name of Lewis Allen. Much later, in 1971, Meeropol said: ‘I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it.’

I read of a recent ceremony taking place across the river in London’s Finsbury Park. This involved the respectful planting of a walnut tree in honour of the late peace activist Bruce Kent who died last June. Among those present was Fr Udo Chinedu, Parish Priest of St Mellitus, representatives from Pax Christi, Rev Gyoro Nagase from the Buddhist Peace Pagodas, representatives from the Movement for the Abolition of War, the United Nations Association, CND and Westminster Justice and Peace, plus local MP Jeremy Corbyn, who organised it. Bruce Kent was a well known Catholic priest and CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) leader.

Still thinking about this, I stared out beyond the tall Shard building at London Bridge and bald-headed St Paul’s Cathedral towards central London. Somewhere in there was Hyde Park, perhaps the mother of all London parks. I had been walking by there the day before, after passing the fine Arab tea houses down Edgware Road. As I stared at the trees that day through the traffic close to the Marble Arch, I was remembering a visit to Speakers Corner I had made in 1990 to write my first feature for the Evening Standard. (‘Soap box fury,’ it was called.) Only a few weeks ago someone had pleaded not guilty to plotting a terror attack on a Christian speaker at Speakers Corner, so it is very much still alive and kicking. In 1990 I found myself reporting on a rise in fundamentalists preaching theological intolerance. This was shortly after I had returned from spending some time in the Middle East. At Speakers Corner in my report, I had also come across a tall American leaning over a friend and asking what everyone was fighting about. ‘God,’ said his friend. ‘I thought Eric Clapton was God,’ replied the tall one, before the two of them wandered off. I was also remembering in my late youth losing a manuscript in Hyde Park. My friend Anthony Doherty reminded me lately that I may also have lost a tooth there. This was while climbing over some railings late one night. Those were the days and nights, I was thinking. The park was and still is open from five o’clock in the morning until midnight all year round, so there is still room for more adventure yet.

On the other side of Hyde Park is Notting Hill where a woman with very rich friends lives. She has been dangling carrots of late in front of the artist. This she does by suggesting she has found someone to buy her work, only to go silent again when asked about this, as if it doesn’t really matter, and artists should know their place. It seems you need to be famous to succeed in the art world these days — or at least paint famous people. Look at Johnny Depp’s lurid depictions of the great Bob Marley, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger and Hunter S Thompson. £4.5million he reportedly made from these in one week in Britain. People don’t want clean air. They want bad art.

Finally, there is one tiny park in London which I have only just heard about. It is a small part of a new space in Barking which has recently been redesigned to help girls feel more comfortable when moving through public spaces. This it does with better lighting, murals and seating areas. I looked at the artist and mentioned this. Plenty light there, I was thinking, staring into her blue eyes. Lenny Bruce once said that he hated small towns ‘because once you’ve seen the cannon in the park there’s nothing else to do’. No such problem for us in London.

Peter Bach lives in London.