There is nothing like an Aunt

 I often hear lyrics completely wrong.  Either it’s an inherited, small eardrum or natural lack of concentration.   I couldn’t understand why in “Rock The Casbah”, the Clash had to tell us that “Sheree don’t like it.  Rock the Casbah.”  I thought Sheree must have been someone’s girlfriend.   I was convinced for years that REM’s The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight featured a lyric where Michael Stipe says “Call me Cheryl Baker.  Call me Cheryl Baker” and only last year realised it was “Call when you try to wake her”.  After all, it wasn’t entirely unthinkable that Michael Stipe was a Bucks Fizz fan.  And don’t get me started on The Beatles, particularly during the psychedelic years, where the lyrics merge into a drug-added impressionistic bombardment of words.  I thought for years that “newspaper taxis appear on the shore” from “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was “You’ve paid for taxis up here, on the shore” and I wondered why Paul McCartney thought his Addison Lee account was anything to do with it. 

Lyrics can be dangerous things.  Both Jim Morrison and Whitney Houston, for example, were clearly so affected by “Norwegian Wood” that they went and  “…crawled off to sleep in the bath.”    How many rash and downright idiotic decisions have been made on the spur of a moment after listening to “Living on a Prayer?  How many people think that Barbara Streisand’s blasting out of “life’s candy and the sun’s a ball of butter” is not metaphorical but literal?  It isn’t reasonable to think the sun is a ball of anything , let alone dairy butter, but there are some peculiar people out there.  Perhaps now would be a good moment to say that I never understood what on earth the song “Parklife” was all about.  “All the people, so many people....” yes, Damon, dear, there are quite a lot of people.  But what are you instructing us to do here?  Go hand in hand, hand in hand through their parklife?   Take a route straight through to Parklife?  What does that mean?  We might not want to go to the park, particularly those of us who suffer from hayfever.

It’s more fun to replace words you are certain exist in songs, with a token word.  Replacing “heart” with the word “aunt” is a real crowd pleaser.  It not only changes the lyric but, as P G Wodehouse discovered, there are few things funnier than stoic Aunts suddenly turning up in bizarre places.  Imagine if Bonnie Tyler had experienced a total eclipse of her Aunt.  Or imagine the scolding I would be in for if by accident I left my Aunt in San Francisco.   And has anyone ever answered that ancient question : How do you mend a broken Aunt?  Maybe Toni Braxton had it, when she asked the listener to unbreak her Aunt.    But this game also releases a new truth from the lyric.  Aunts are toughies.  I should know, I am one ten times over.  Aunts are durable, accommodating and tenacious.  Aunts have a frightening strength which causes all men within a ten metre radius to shudder involuntarily.  Nuclear warheads’ robust military strength falter when faced with the countenance of an Aunt with an axe to grind.  Is it entirely impossible then, to imagine at the end of Titanic when everyone is dead and the ship is at the bottom of the Atlantic, that when all else is lost “My Aunt Will Go On”?   Therefore, the joke doesn’t work if you put the “Aunt” in to replace a tender “Heart” of the shattering variety : “Aunt of Glass” draws no smiles.  Although you can do the same with “Eyes” and “Thighs”, making that classic song from Dirty Dancing “Hungry Thighs“, or Survivor sing about “The Thigh of the Tiger”, but it isn’t as satisfying.  Nothing quite clasps the humour of getting the lyric wrong like an Aunt, even a couple of lovely thighs can’t quite do it.

Starting with the morning commute, I am trying my best at widening my classical music library and it’s beginning to feel like an endurance test.  It gets me away from the fear of misunderstanding the lyrics because there are no lyrics.  Beyond being terrified by Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf as a small child, and banging out Debussy’s Arabesque No 2 on the piano after a meat supper and a dessert made entirely from Chianti, I don’t tend to push myself.   But it’s not enough.  One Debussy swallow does not a summer make.  I spent years playing Hummel, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Beethoven on the piano, but such was the pressure to learn and the boredom of endless practice that I instantly reverted to spending three years listening to The Doors on LP.  This explains why I have a shortfall in my classical learning, which I am keen to address, and why I sat cursing at my computer on Monday evening.  I quite liked Mahler’s Symphony No 1.  So I bought Mahler’s No 2, which sounds like a rude thing but isn’t.  It was 25 tracks.  All of the titles were in German and were called things like “WiebraumilchstraBe Leibfraumilch”.  My internet connection ruptured itself trying to deal with all it’s German musical dynamism.  I rebooted the whole thing and eventually, my constipated MAC dredged up the music from the Itunes download list.  Then when I played it, it was good for the first 11 tracks, but the remaining 14 tracks were full of some opera lady sounding distressed.    

I did successfully get the whole Mahler Symphony onto my iPod but then it didn’t seem to suit it.  The iPod, even turned up full blast, is still not that loud on the quiet parts of a Mahler Symphony.  It cannot compete with the rolling, purring engine of the No 82 bus which I travel on daily.  The streets and noises and air of London drown it out.  This doesn’t happen with “Day Tripper”, which when turned up loud on the iPod can basically compete with everything apart from an atomic war.  Neverthless, my new routine is Debussy on the bus on the way in, the Beatles when I’m walking around trying not to buy anything in the shops and then Mahler on the way home.   But this effluence of classical music is affecting everything.  Debussy’s La Mer is so dreamy, that it took me from Golders Green to St Johns Wood just to put my lipstick on.  Usually, during those two locations I’d have put a full face on, checked Facebook, and read two chapters of a thriller from the 1870s.  And going home listening to Mahler – have you ever tried going home listening to Mahler?  It makes you feel so rage-driven that by the time I arrive home I’m feeling positively violent.  If not, I end up feeling suicidally reflective.   The iTunes is sort of anti-classical too – the tracks are so long that they cut out half way through download for no particular reason, because iTunes is overwhelmed with the Bavarian splendour of the classical music.   Huge orchestral waves suddenly veer up in the middle of a soft, lullaby of a piece and give you a fright.  And if there’s one person I don’t want to be frightened by in the evening gloam, it’s Mahler.  The one thing that slightly more horrifying  would be Mahler’s Aunt.

It’s hard to be confident about choosing classical music when I actually used to think that “Grieg” was the name of a composition composed by someone called Peer Gynt.  But I shall soldier on.  I shall choose inventive and challenging classical music at random moments when I’d rather be listening to Jessie J – even though my Aunt’s not really in it.

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An Evening at Breakfast

Was it me or did Valentines Day feel as if it was on steroids this year?  Never before in London had I seemed quite so many anxious looking males rushing home from work with bouquets.  Some ranged from the ideal (fifteen dusky pink roses tied with a velvet ribbon) to the dumpable (eight yellow carnations wrapped in thin cellophane, which was dotted, confusingly with white spots, carried by a clueless chap on the Victoria Line).  On February 15th, at 8am, I passed Marks & Spencers in Bond Street station.  They were taking down the ornate, heart-shaped boxes of cheap chocolate and replacing them with ornate, bunny-shaped boxes of cheap chocolate.  No sooner is Valentines Day over, and suddenly it’s Easter.  The store staff were agitated and desperately promoting Easter / Egg / Dead Messiah themed confectionery.  In a recession with a flat-lining economy, every festival is just one more vital opportunity to stay above water.

Up in Hampstead, on Valentines Night, there were no tables to be had at any pub.  When I say no tables, that is a slight lie. I had booked a table at The Flask, a sort of unloved Youngs pub next to the best second hand designer shoe shop in London.  The Flask had had the only spare table in the district at 7pm.  But when I arrived I found our table in miniature form, pushed against the wall and accompanied with two tiny stools, the same size that you see in a nursery playspace.    I walked around the dining room, and everyone else had chairs.  Everyone else was not about to be sat at a three year old’s dining table.  I asked if we could have some chairs at our table and a man with complicated facial hair told me that no, I could not have any chairs.  I must sit on stool.  I considered the high chairs, before abandoning  the nursery corner at The Flask altogether. It was a shame, because I would have missed the group singalong of “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round” after nap time.   Around the corner, Cafe Rouge sat – open and empty, with short, tiny red candle lights on each table giving the place an unsavoury, gothic aspect.  A sign outside told me I had to pre-book if I wanted the Valentines menu.  The man inside said that if I wanted to eat there at all I would have to have the Valentines menu.  The Valentines menu was a pile of shit cobbled together and trying to look Parisian.  Carluccios had the same, austere, terrifying  nonsense going on; a four course Italian meal at £25 full of the kind of food (beetroot pasta anyone?) that no one in their right mind would want to eat.  I might send the yellow-carnation-cheap-cellophane-probably-has-halitosis man I had spotted earlier there, but only as severe punishment for his floral mishap.

Thank God for Pizza Express.  It was the only sane building in the district, with its champion site halfway up Heath Street.  This building used to be a sort of steak and ribs shack called Kennys.  We went there once to meet one of my brother’s girlfriends in the early 1990s.  It was an odd evening.  My brother had got a couple of sisters mixed up and inadvertently asked out the wrong sister out over the phone so was a bit off his ribs that evening.  For reasons that are not clear, he continued to go out with the wrong sister for three months, but I don’t think Kennys had anything to do with it.  Now Pizza Express is there,  sticking to what it knows best and accompanied by the usual hardy, but small, wine list.  There was no danger of being force fed a Valentines menu designed to wreck your constitution, and fill you up with so much fat, chocolate and lard that any attempt to have Valentines sex once you got home would result in indigestion, dyspepsia and /or a coronary.  There were a couple of comedy waiters who kept dropping things, but Pizza Express can absolutely always be relied upon to do exactly what it does on the tin, and the garlic bread is still as astonishingly good as ever.

Onto the lurve-in at The Everyman, then.  One of London’s leading independent cinema groups (along with the Curzons) were showing Breakfast at Tiffanys with free prosecco as a Valentines special at three of their cinemas – the Hampstead, Baker Street and (new) Maida Vale Everymans.   The Belsize Park and Renoir Everymans were deciding not to put Baby in a corner on Valentines Day, and were showing Dirty Dancing.  For the anti-Valentine cynics who think that love is nothing more than a deadly disease, there was Fatal Attraction at the Everyman Screen on the Green (no free prosecco with that one, only a T Shirt claiming All Women are Desperate, Psychotic Man Eating Numpties Who Will Kill Your Rabbit Rather Than Keep Their Dignity). At Hampstead there were lots of couples of the down-at-heel, shabby chic variety getting smashed on the free prosecco.  Well, the prosecco ought to be free when you have paid £25 a seat.  However, The Everyman is a fantastically luxurious experience.  It may be £25 a seat, but it’s actually £25 for a cushioned, velvet armchair (big enough to curl your legs under you when you’ve kicked your shoes off) a table, waiter service which brings you your drinks after you’ve placed your order in the lobby so you don’t have to carry them, and one of those special buttons with a picture of an usherette on it, which you press when you require a fill up or a food order, which makes you feel like you are in a First Class section of an aeroplane.  Chocolate raisins were dispensed in those white, square cardboard containers that people in American films eat Chinese food out of.  In the foyer, they allow you to taste artisan chocolate for free. I love the Everyman.

  Breakfast at Tiffanys is one of those films whose magic made a ludicrously significant impact on me because I saw it at my most impressionable age.  I’m not sure whether these sorts of experiences are serendipitous or disastrous, but the truth is the impressions films leave us with in the adolescent years embed themselves with great fondness for, it seems, ever.  The day Audrey Hepburn died in 1993, BBC2 went on an Audrey-o-thon.  I had seen stills from Breakfast at Tiffanys of course, as so many elements of popular culture had harnessed the style and attitude of the film, that you felt you’d seen it before you’d seen it.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  I adored it.  My choices for eyeliner and hair and how to smoke a cigarette were formed that evening, and stayed, as if preserved in early sixties aspic.  No sixteen year old with a sense of style can watch Breakfast at Tiffanys without being seduced by Holly Golightly’s elegance and style.  We didn’t look beyond the surface, of course, as the whole $50 for the powder room thing kicked the tale into an unpleasant, adult arena, but the impression made by the artifice of Lula Mae / Holly’s self-made character launched a thousand liquid eyelines.  But – and here’s a confession – I never rated Audrey Hepburn that much as an actress.  She looked striking, she had doe-like eyes, and an undeniable grace and charm, but as for actually bringing home the acting bacon?  I sort of always gave her a B Minus.  George Peppard, I thought, was entirely made from stone cladding, or marble, or some other water-resistant, heat-resistant matter so impermeable that no emotions or acting could ever get out.  He sort of plonked himself about with his strong jawline and his Action Man hairdo throwing out unblinking stares of unyielding emptiness.  But none of that had ever detracted from the essentially wonderful Breakfast at Tiffanys for me, with its illuminating colour frames and its gorgeous slinkiness. 

How wrong you can be.  After twenty years of watching B of T on televisions small and large, on digital format and VHS, I had never really seen it.  Not in its true guise, and not as the director intended.  All of a sudden, parts of the film unrevealed began to reveal themselves; the quality of the carpet in the communal hall of the brownstone building, the shockingly awful, tiny gold telephone that Paul’s old lady lover has shoved into their rococo apartment, the tiny baubles of glass like a vertical string of pearls that make up the stem of the martini glass of morning milk for Holly, the fact that her cat is seriously overweight, the remarkable heaviness of the make-up on every woman except Hepburn, and the delightful fact of the teeth.  Actors teeth look like – well, teeth.  Some of them are crossed.  All of them are that charming shade of off-white.  They are slightly nicotine-stained.  They are not overwhelmingly white.   There is a grandeur to the sharp, sparse set design that comprises Holly’s small apartment.  The decor is (with the exception of Paul Varjak’s bizarre flat) one of muted browns and matt creams and plain black and white, all of which contrasts and frames the sharpness of the classic tailoring worn throughout.  Apart from the legendary black Givenchy dress, there is the astounding tailoring of Patricia Neal’s royal blue and black check two piece – the two pieces being a knee length skirt and a voluminou cape which clasps at the neck – which announces itself violently and stridently, much like her character.

But the most alarming revelation was the acting.  The acting ability of Hepburn and Peppard absolutely wins through.  Yes, she looks remarkable, but she is acting her socks off, and the romantic narrative of the film suddenly comes alive.   Her face is not suited for television, because she is so overwhelmingly cinematic.  She has the most amazing skin and his face actually seems to move if you put it on a cinema screen.  It was like watching a film in colour for the first time having only seen it many times before in black and white.  The cinematographer’s work is able to be seen.  There are shadows, shapes and nuances which the television is ill-equipped to project.  The best discovery of all is that the substance of the plot near-outshines the style of the film.  Bearing in mind this slice of dedacent post-war Americana is probably the most stylish film of the second half of the twentieth century, that’s some competition.  The other revelation was, obviously, the eyeliner.  Basically, I went into shock and had to be given Merlot.  Here’s the thing :  I’d been doing it wrong since 1993.  The eyeline of the 1961 Hepburn eye doth not flick out and up.  It flicks out in a straight line some 3mm beyond the outer rim of the eye and it is very thin.  Flicking “up and out” is very 50s.  Hepburn announces the new 60s line.  Then there is some complicated grey-blue eyeshadow business going on (impossible to absorb, more Merlot) before a riot of mascara completes the whole lot until we’re left with classic, gamine, eyelash-batting Hepburn a la mode

After the lights went up, various people were either snogging or asleep, depending on their ages.  The chairs were deliciously comfortable and hard to stand up from.  Once I took a cursory shufti at the audience I realised that only about four of them looked old enough to have seen this film when it first came out, nearly fifty years ago, young and excited on a first date.  Christ, they looked old now, though, shuffling about and dropping sweet wrappers and fumbling for reading glasses.   Age happens everywhere, except celluloid where, in this instance, everything was as buff, shiny and beautiful as new, fittingly returned to it’s original genre.

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A right Charlie

And, so, as the world descends from Charles Dickmania following the bicentenary of the birth of our great writer, the Culture Secretary launches his attack on his cabinet.  Jeremy Hunt, in possession of a name that can only come from a limerick, has given each member of the cabinet a different Dickens novel to enjoy / depress / intimidate the recipient.   Whilst not belittling anything the great social commentator of the British produced – and no one could create character like Dickens could – it’s fearful, the amount of laudatory and celebratory efforts towards this most great social chronicler of the English.  Arnold Bennett doesn’t get to celebrate his own birthday once he’s dead. Neither does HG Wells, but Dickens has locked himself firmly in the teaching, television-viewing, sentimental heart of all of us, and he isn’t budging.  Apparently, David Cameron received Great Expectations and Hard Times.  That’s probably because if someone had given Hard Times to Liam Fox he would have thought it was a story about Viagra.   Nick Clegg got Oliver Twist.  Cue huge Tory guffaws about him always “asking for more”.  I can’t imagine that George Osborne got A Christmas Carol, despite the alarming similarities between his economic policies of austerity and those of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Anyway, word has it from No 10 that George Osborne is frightened of A Christmas Carol, and so couldn’t be given it.  It has ghosties in it, you see, and one sight of those and he screams “Nanny!” and sucks his thumb and has to be given a warm rusk in the night by a housemaid.

Some lucky bastard would have got one of the two most mature and devastating of Dickens’s novels – namely Little Dorrit and Bleak House.  Each concerns itself with the corruption inherent in the material world, and the psychology of imprisonment and legal procrastination.  Neither of them clocks in at under 800 pages.  You wouldn’t have time to buy / squander / illegally rent a second home if you were too busy trying to find out what happened to Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam.  Is it for the good of the nation that Dickmania is circulating among the cabinet?  Will any of them actually read them?  Probably not, although they may come in handy as reading “decoys” on Chequers weekends when Cameron wants to avoid playing croquet with Sarkozy.  Bleak House is often considered to be one of the greatest novels written in English, a view to which I concur (the scene where Guppy proposes to Esther Summerson is one of the funniest in English literature) and its opening pages are so splendid that they are enough to make any prospective writer baulk at the prospect of ever putting well-nibbled biro to paper.  However, one of the strange aspects of the English is that no other literature seems to exist except that which is written in English.

A few years ago a friend of mine, wanting to know the difference between her Pushkins and her Dostoyevskys, tried to sign up for a course in 19th century Russian literature in London.  There were none.  And she looked on Floodlight (although first got confused and looked on Searchlight, the magazine of the Anti Nazi League where there, actually, quite a few Russians).  London’s evening classes are among the most diverse in the world, offering a highly consistent teaching standard.   There are literally hundreds of courses.  The organization of English literature evening classes in this country depend on dividing in 1900.  For the twentieth century there are the modernist classes, focusing on Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, attended by fey women in unusual hats.  Then there are the post-colonial novels, working on texts by Samuel Selvon and Chinua Achebe and unlikely to cause Dickens to turn in his grave when confronted with the quality of their prose.  They are selected in order to apologise for the fact the British once – whoops! – ran a silly Empire, and which is intent on endlessly examining how post-colonial discourse as a literary expression has…..zzzzzzzzzzz…. sorry I fell asleep for a moment there.   On the other side of 1900, back in the olden days, lives something sacred called the “canon” of English literature.  George Eliot, Thackeray, Shakespeare and Dickens live here.  Anyone who was ever buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey is essentially a shoo-in for the “canon”.  Many of these people wrote books that are televised on Sunday evenings on the BBC and feature people in bonnets.   Classes on the “canon” are attended by neat, middle aged women who live in Archway, retired school teachers and spindly young post graduates studying the homosexual in Great Expectations.

Why they put a great big line in at 1900 beggars belief, but they do.  The Edwardians, therefore, present problems.  I love the Edwardians for this.  Some people shove them into 20th Century Fiction and herald them as modernists.  Others tag them onto a riot of Victoriana and suspend that riot of Victoriana right up to the shot of the first bullet of 1914.   Either way, E M Forster confounds classification in this regard, and the sublime Tono Bungay by HG Wells gets thoroughly neglected.  Nor is it quite so clear why Virginia Woolf sneakily manages to monopolise the entire modernist section from beyond her watery grave, whilst other writers of more merit get neglected.  But try to find courses on the Russians, or the Germans or the Italians?    Nothing.  The two greatest European novelists who ever lived – Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky – don’t crop up anywhere.  Eventually, my friend found one course on the Russians, taking place at the City Lit, only for it to be cancelled a week before it was due to begin, as so few people had signed up.  This was particularly annoying as by then she’d bought all the books and given herself a hernia carrying The Brothers Karamazov back from Hatchards.   It would be just as difficult to find an evening class in London on Flaubert or Balzac and, just as no one captures character as brilliantly as Dickens does in English, so no one  in French literature captures character quite like Balzac.  But in England, you don’t learn about that.  In English literary culture, you’d be forgiven for thinking no other language seems to exist.  Whilst the French and the Russian write of crime, punishment, money, social revolution and how to keep your head warm in a Russian winter, the English prefer to find out whether Darcy and Elizabeth are ever actually going to shag.

I don’t want to belittle Dickens or the English canon at all; Dickens is one of my favourite novelists who never fails to astound me.  In fact, as I get older and my outlook on the world develops, his ability to astonish me drastically increases.   David Copperfield is my favourite, closely followed by Our Mutual Friend.  At re-reads he is even more exceptional.  Shades of narrative and character that had previously lain undetected when you read the novels at first ten years previously burst out of the pages and make themselves known.  The novels become truly different books if you read them a decade apart, so probing and perceptive is Dickens’s intimation of behavioural patterns and social observation.   Little Dorrit is astonishingly modern in its preoccupation with the destructive forces of economic speculation and the weariness and depression of a mind in a debtor’s prison.  I’m 100 pages from the end of it at the moment and can’t wait to get to the end of the story.  However, in English literature Dickens is like the sun – he breathes heat and illumination over the Victorian age to bring it to life for the rest of us, but his vigour and energy and vibrancy are so all-encompassing in our culture that he is nearly in danger of blotting so many other writers out.  A cursory glance at the television documentaries of the last year would be enough to convince someone unfamiliar with Victorian literature that only the two people who ever wrote anything atall between 1810 and 1870 were Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.  There are hundreds of Victorian writers out of print and a whole ton more in print and not celebrated or edging their ways onto the Schools Curriculum.   What of Somerset Maugham?  George Moore?  George Gissing?  Mary Elizabeth Braddon?   Do so many wonderful Victorian luminaries deserve to be left out in the cold?  In the last ten years the movement towards resusitating previously obsolete Victorian texts has spread with abandon (see, run by someone who attended the same MA as I did, Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, and which pledges to reprint some wonderful forgotten Victorian thrillers) but the Victorian Age is over a hundred years ago, and perhaps the die is cast regarding who is to be celebrated and remembered and who is not.  Whilst Dickens deserves to straddle the Victorian canon like some great, mustachioed colossus, I can’t help suggesting, as Oliver Twist did, “please sir, can we have some more?”

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Park Life

As London wheezes through another ice-strewn week, and the air hurts as it vaults down to our lungs in the mornings, focus is pulled away from our parks.  This is a shame, as the thrilling majesty of the Regents Park is never so dramatic as it is in the winter.  It gets odd in the summer, admittedly, because the Open Air Theatre gets filled with actors either in Shakespearean doublet and hose or tap shoes – or occasionally, on gala nights – both and there’s nothing so annoying as having a load of thesps hanging around one’s inner circle.  To North Londoners, it’s always just “the Park”.  In the summer, the Regents Park steps into light and is filled with ham sandwich-munching, lemonade-swilling picnickers, young lovers holding hands on benches painted as dark as the evergreens and strolling new mums launching their filled prams into the Boardwalk in the noon day sun.  Then there are the pilates practicing yoga class attendees, filled with organic oats and mung beans and looking irritatingly well, and the London University playing fields, ten men abreast, coughing and kicking some odd miss-shaped object with their feet (how do you say it, a foot – ball?).

In the winter, remove everything except the blokes kicking the mis-shaped object.

The park in the winter can be your own. Because everyone else is shut up in offices willing for the hand to turn to 5, or curled up in the warmth of home with a hot chocolate and wearing a fleece.  Only football lovers and lone walkers make the trips into the park when the plants are dead.  Only us city walkers are stoic enough to bear the shock in friend’s faces when we tell them where we are going : “The PARK?  Are you insane?  It’s minus 12.  If you don’t go out without any earmuffs, you’ll come back without any ears.”  But as dedicated city walkers will know, there is solace to be found through the inter-park winter’s nod – that half bend of the head that fellow walkers embarrassingly give to each other whilst out for a stroll in the dead rose gardens on January 29th wearing two scarves, a Christmas present leather pair of gloves, three hats and some snowboots.  We know our own kind, us winter walkers, and when amongst them I know I belong.  Which is a mighty fine thing, because I don’t think “belonging” to en masse groups has ever come naturally. I am still bruised by the mid1990s grunge years, when it became de rigeur to wear a T shirt under a shapeless sack masquerading as a strappy dress, and yours truly spent a lot of time alone, in a room, wearing red lipstick and watching Debbie Reynolds films.  I was a freak because I stylistically wanted to be a 50s throwback.  Within ten years, I was a frigging GENIUS.  A trail blazer.  Ahead of the curve.

Whoops, I’ve digressed and meandered down altogether the wrong path.  Perhaps that’s why I like the Park so much – so much opportunity for procrastination and alternation along your route.  The Regents Park as we know it was a hunting / dairy farming / Georgian bit of field until the corpulent and red-faced Prince Regent decided to build his own palace in 1811.  Before that, it was used as a hunting ground by Henry VIII who, the Royal Parks website euphemistically writes, took the park as he ” considered [it] to be an invigorating ride from Whitehall Palace”.  That is not why Henry VIII took over the Regents Park.  He took it over when he stole it from a monastery which is how he got most things.  The effusive Parks website continues in a flagrant tone that Henry ” would hardly recognise the stylish gardens and sports fields that now stand in its place “!  Well, I think perhaps he would, being a sportsman, and very fond of pinching actresses and taking them on “invigorating rides from Whitehall”.  I’m sure an afternoon of Regents Park jollities would be right up his Royal codpiece.   

The Regents Park was of course named for the Prince Regent (it was called Marylebone Park before) and his plan was to appoint John Nash to construct a wide park suitable for a kingly palace, to be approached by an intimidating and gracious tree-lined avenue.  He got his avenue (Portland Place) and he got his now famous elegant Nash terraced houses around the park, but the palace in the middle never got built.  This is because the Prince Regent was a right fatty and spent so much money on hog roasts, cakes, Maltesers and Mars bars that there was no money left to build a palace.  Therefore, walking north up Portland Place one has a sense of impending majesty in the great grandeur of one of London’s widest roads, but there’s no pay off.   No palace.   William IV, the Prince Regent’s successor, opened up the Park to the public in 1835, but only for two days a week.  I mean, you can’t let the commoners in all the time, can you?  By this point the Zoological Society of London was already in, after William IV was threatened by some giraffes and a bad-tempered lion outside John Lewis Oxford Street.  In 1829, the Zoo took up its residency.  The Royal Botanic Society got involved in the 1930s, the same decade when the stunning Queen Mary rose gardens opened – although there are also Italian and English gardens too.  Taking into consideration that the home for the US Ambassador to UK  takes up a fruity site on the south west of the park,  the Regents Park Mosque hovers on the skyline near Baker Street, there is a not-too-big-to-be-scary boating lake and the Open Air Theatre sits right in the very centre (and confuses children and adults alike by its insistence to carry on performing in the rain forcing the audience to get wet) this is an exotic and fabulously international use of space.  And if that’s not sophisticated enough for you, you can also play Australian Rules Football.

It is of course owned by Her Maj, you know – that one – the one we’re getting two days off work for in June.  This means that it is not legal to do certain stuff here.  According to the Royal Park bye-laws, you cannot use “any roller skate, roller blade, skate board or other foot-propelled device”.  This is odd, because you can drive all round the inner circle for hours should the mood take you, and I’m not sure what a car is if it isn’t a foot-propelled device.  You cannot allow any animal you are in charge of to be “tethered or graze”.  What are you going to tether your Jack Russell to in Regents Park exactly?  A lion? A sad looking panda?  You can land a helicopter, apparently, but only in an emergency.  You must not release doves or balloons.   

You need written permission to “play or cause to be played a musical instrument”.  But does “cause to be played” mean encourage the player? Or incite instrumental activity?  Or inspire the player by being his muse?  Honestly, I can’t help it if, when I’m walking through the park, my compelling sexual allure causes a chap to toot on his trumpet.  I also need written formal permission to interfere with a plant or fungus or use a mineral detector.  I need formal permission to wash my linen and then hang it in the park to dry or park my caravan.  You’re also not allowed to scatter anyone’s ashes in the Royal Parks.  They’re very anti this (I think it would be easier to land the helicopter) as human ashes contain minerals which damage the soil and the plants in it, and in turn, the wildlife that feeds from these plants.  Not that we thought about this in the hot summer of 1998 of course.  It was until after my father’s death that we realised that his lifelong wish of being cremated, preferably when already dead, and being scattered in the Regents Park was highly illegal.  This meant that we went into the park, ashes in one hand and a plastic fork from the cafeteria to mash them into the ground with the other, yours truly was deployed as look out and given a £50 note in the event of seeing a parkkeeper who would hopefully be open to bribes.  No one did see us, although the nearby plants continue to look strangely troubled.  I shouldn’t think for a moment we were alone in our  predicament.  I’m surprised any of the foliage in the park is still living when you consider the amount of people whose last wish it is to end up under a hedge here.

Crikey, that was a bit morbid for an early spring morning.  Or perhaps its a bit optimistic to call this strident morning early spring, when I found myself so cold when walking through Hanover Square at 8.10am today that I actually burst out into hysterical laughter.  Spring is on her way, Londoners, and I can feel her feet racing across the city gravel and cobbles as I type….Get thee to a park and watch out for the first joyous signs of it.  And do try to keep within the bye-laws listed above.

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