The ‘Wild Chamber’ of London parks
Certain geographical factors determine our creative lives. When you travel around Figueres in Northern Spain you quickly see why Salvador Dali painted in ambers and ochres; it’s in the landscape all over the area. Whole views look exactly like his paintings.
Writers often explore the issues that surround staying or leaving a hometown to head for the city; one could say it’s a dominant theme in American literature. Keith Waterhouse’s ‘Billy Liar’ isn’t just set in the North – it feels Northern, to the point where London becomes a mythical place no-one has visited.
The influence of proximity to the water tends to feature more in Canadian and US novels, despite the fact that London is only approximately 47 miles from a coast. For many Londoners it might be five thousand miles away. We never go there. Coastal towns are synonymous with being run-down and badly managed by corrupt councils. To see the decline in once-great resorts one need only look as far as shabby, dirty Brighton, with an embarrassing space needle replacing the formal elegance of its lost pier.
The coast affects London. One clue is that the city is surprisingly full of seagulls. My father would always gloomily predict rain as seagulls appeared inland. He could never cope with the fact that London is nearer to France than it is to Cornwall. That strip of sea, so narrow it was called a ‘channel’, remained an insurmountable wall. Most of his family had worked on water as Thames lightermen, and the river’s tides (which have an unusually high range) affected our moods.
Equally, I look at maps of places I’ve never been in America and wonder how, say, growing up in Kansas affects one’s idea of coasts and seas.
When we’re small the immediate area we can walk around forms the perimeter of our world, and informs our imaginative abilities. London’s greenery is absurdly generous. There’s no way of avoiding it wherever you walk. The photo at the top is Blackheath, where I played as a child. It still had hilly sections then, and was within walking distance of our front door. I still dream of its lush greenery and its attached parklands, domesticated in a very British way that makes US parks, with their hiking trails and areas of scrub, feel alien.
London’s parks, woodlands, ancient forests, secret gardens, informal community parks, tended meadows, play areas, crescents, allotments, polygons, circuses, heaths and commons each have a different character. Add to these our obsession with back gardens (not places to be kept beautiful but somewhere messy to escape to) and you start to think that these ‘wild chambers’ are there to stop families from going mad.
Hence my decision to use them as the basis for the next Bryant & May novel. Are there any aspects of London life I’ve yet to cover? Let me know if you think of any. I’m considering high-rise living as one possibility for a future book but may have missed something obvious…