I was born in Epsom, one of those places on the fringe of London that mark the very boundary of the city, the point at which tarmac gives way to soil. As the picture below shows, just a few hundred yards from my road, Hookfield, the country begins in all its greenness.
This never much interested me in my youth. I was always more attracted by town than country. Nature passed me by. When I moved into the city proper, I took little notice in the pike or herons I saw from my boat on Regent’s Canal, or the ring-necked parakeets and woodpeckers I later found in Brockwell Park. If somebody told me they saw a badger in Regent’s Park or a cormorant on the Thames, I cared not a jot. And who needed peace and still when you had Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park nearby, even if I rarely actually bothered to go there.
A month in the Scottish Highlands changed that. For the first time I was able to observe hedgehogs, adders, shrews, woodmice, weasels, deer and eagles in the wild, and see traces of badgers, pine martens and wildcats. The sheer scale of the country was extraordinary, from the peaks of the Munros, to the endlessly unfolding glens. It was eye-opening and life-affirming.
Returning to London was difficult. I had previously viewed the city’s numerous parks as pastoral paradises. Now they seemed liked scratty scraps of green, a sad imitation of the real thing. The battering noise, smell and greyness of London was overwhelming.
But nature is still here, if we look for it. It’s there in the foxhole that occasionally appears at the bottom of my garden. It’s there in the resilient, remarkable weeds and visiting birds, as lovingly chronicled in Richard Mabey’s essential London wildlife book ‘The Unofficial Countryside‘. It’s there in Tales Of The City, the blog of Mel Harrison, in which she charts encounters with owls, snowflakes and brambles. It’s there in Herb Lester’s Untamed London map, which records those places ‘where nature still runs wild in the big city.
As I walked home from taking my daughter to nursery this week, along the horrible, traffic-clogged hill that takes cars from Herne Hill to Camberwell, I heard a faint, familiar sound as I passed a bus stop. It was the chirruping of a grasshopper. I stopped and looked and found it on a hedge. It looked at me, quite unmoved, before continuing to sing (or stridulate) defiantly. We gazed at each other for a minute, while commuters bustled past on foot and in car, and then quietly, and more contentedly, I went about my way.
This week, I went to the fair at Brockwell Park. I don’t have a picture of that, but here’s me at another funfair in 1977. I was not a particularly pretty child, nor a thin one, nor one that actually looked all that much like a boy. And what is that coat I’m wearing? But along with a photograph of me and my dad riding the dodgems taken a year later – me marginally cuter, he like the Brummie James Dean – it is one of my favourite images from my youth.
That’s because it was taken at the Epsom Derby funfair, where we went as a family every year. It is almost impossible for an adult to now understand how exciting the funfair is to a small child – the colour and clatter of the rides, the sweet smell of popcorn, onions and candy floss, the sheer thrill of being outside after dark – but this picture brings a lot of that back to me. It’s a pure pleasure, one without any compromises or guilt. By contrast, most grown-up fun tends to come with the feeling that one is doing something one shouldn’t, and will pay for it later, either with a hangover or an empty wallet. Or perhaps that’s just the Catholic in me talking.
When I was a teenager, fairs were still about thrillseeking, just in a different way. There were the rides of course, but now it was more because this was were you went to meet girls (or watch your friends meet girls, or watch your friends talk about how they’d like to meet girls). You also went along in fear/search of some real danger – the possibility of getting chased round the park by the semi-mythical Roundshaw gang, who supposedly spent every evening roaming the borough, looking for people to beat up. Such bifftastic activity has been circumvented by the organisers of the Brockwell Park fair, who have a ‘No Gangs’ notice prominently displayed and a police van on constant vigil. I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. The parent says ‘good’, the teenager says not.
And it’s as a parent that I take my daughter to the funfair every time it comes to Brockwell Park. That’s partly for her sake, because she loves it so much, but it’s also partly for me, because I want to remember what it’s like to feel this way.
Here she is last week, on a violently orange airplane.
I read an article last week about the dishonesty of most funfairs, how it is impossible to win any prizes and the whole thing is essentially a tiny, tacky, travelling confidence trick. It’s very difficult to visit the fair as an adult and not see the sleaziness. But to a child, unaware that the coconut might be glued to the stand, this is paradise. It is wonderful to witness, but also slightly depressing, because it is impossible to share in the innocence, to see the funfair through an eye unstained by prejudice.
My daughter had more fun at Brockwell Park funfair than I think it is possible for an adult to comprehend, when everything is costed in terms of money and time. I hoped that when I went with her, I’d vicariously absorb some of her glee. And I was happy to see her happy, but I also ended up wallowing in nostalgia and misremembered romance. Is that such a bad thing?
This guy knows what I mean, or at least I used to think he did.