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There was a bright chill in the day. I was walking slowly up the hill when I saw one of my neighbours talking to two men in red t-shirts. She said hello to me and so I stopped for a quick chat. The men were from a building firm, working on one of the nearby houses, and were asking about parking permits. I made a tangential comment about my neighbour’s shoes and the men laughed uproariously. Slightly taken aback, I carried on my usual 5 minute conversation with the neighbour, covering a range of topics. Every time I said something even vaguely witty the red-shirted strangers would start giggling and choking. After a while it began to go to my head and I decided to up the ante a bit, trying out a few impressions and mentioning Brexit. You’d think the whole Monty Python team had reformed and were doing their greatest hits outside on a small bit of pavement in the southern slopes of Finsbury Park/Highbury border country. As they spluttered and wiped tears from their eyes, I realised I was starting to get addicted to this and already envisioning my forthcoming stand-up comedy tour.
Then a van the pulled up. The driver wound down the window and said “Alright lads?” and made some very bland comment about Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The two men nearly wet themselves laughing and I realised that, far from them being highly tuned to my subtle brand of middle-aged beardy dad sub-Marxist Zen banter, these poor souls must have been stoned out of their minds on some kind of knock-off brain melting Skunk. I said goodbye, to my neighbour, the laughing twins and my dreams of comedy stardom, and shuffled off up the street.
It’s that time of year when the colours of the trees have passed into a dead brown and piles of leaves are no longer fun to walk through because they are too soggy. The weather is alternating between over-warm soft mugginess and bitter crispness. The general greyness is eased by the fact that at least one of our kids is still really excited about thoughts of Christmas and so invisible magic dust is breathed out into the air and stopping me becoming too morose at the passing of time. Our 11 year old’s general positivity and joy of life means that even though he had to have an operation a week ago and spent all week at home, he is busy creating art daily (usually Dalek based scenarios) and enjoying this quiet, introverted time of year.
At the weekend we went to Dublin to visit our daughter, who’s gone to university. Leaving London for a couple of days meant that my head somehow emptied of many of my small and large worries. When I saw her waiting for us at her halls of residence a kaleidoscope of images of her as a young child, playing in the park, and just generally hanging out with me as she grew up, came rushing through my head and then out into the clear morning sky. I could now enjoy seeing her steps into adulthood and independence. We walked all over the city, I bought two new books, saw the Book of Kells and, later in the day, my daughter bought me a pint for the first time.
It’s a strange, warm-chill morning, just after half seven. The mist still lingers around the lower stretch of the parks, ear the ponds. A bagpiper has started up. He’s obscured by the trees, but we can hear some plaintive tune.
“In the first world war they sent pipers out in front of the troops to scare the Germans.”
“Did it work?”
“Probably not. At least, not after the firs time.”
My 14 year old son is in his tracksuit, jiggling about excitedly. We’ve stated doing running in the park, before school. Short intervals sprints, about 50 yards, then walking back.
The piper is now playing ‘Amazing Grace’. The mist seems to be moving towards us.
“3-2-1 go!” I shout and we are off. Me in front of him by miles, I think, then in the last few strides he lopes past me and wins by about five or six metres.”
“That was fun.” He laughs.
He is now faster than me. An inch shorter, about three and a half stone lighter, but he has looseness, a happy explosive elasticity.
We go again. This time it’s closer, as I’m trying harder. Walking back, the dog runs around our feet, trying to get us to kick his tennis ball.
‘Amazing Grace’ is still going. A park warden is walking over to where the piper is hiding behind the trees (Horse Chestnut?).
Third run. I’m winning all the way until the last couple of strides. He glides past me, still talking about how pipers have been in the British Army for a long time.
The park warden is striding back now. The piper is playing a different tune, something melancholy. The warden must have asked for a request.
Next sprint, he wins by a long way.
The mist is moving towards us.
I kick the tennis ball and the dog goes sprinting off, but in the wrong direction. My son runs after him and kicks the ball again. The dog is getting old, his eyes are going.
Fifth run. I’m nearly there, trying to relax into the running. It’s pretty much a dead heat, though a photo finish would have had him as the winner.
Last run. He is away fast and wins by ten metres. I’m knackered. The mist has stopped halfway up the park, reminding me of the time the tower block on Green Lanes was demolished 15 years or so ago and the dust cloud enveloped the lower reaches almost up to the raised New River bank.
We walk home. He his happy. The piper plays on his sad tune.
I’m trudging back from the park, feeling tired and for some reason dejected by the clammy cold breeze that’s whipping off the pavement into my threadbare old jumper. A bloke in army fatigues heads down the road towards me, at a fair old clip. He’s on one of those self balancing motorized unicycle things. As he zips past me I see he’s holding a can of extra strong lager and talking on the phone in Russian. He takes a nifty left turn, sips from his can and carries on the conversation. He’s a metaphor. Heading north towards Finsbury Park.
Though it might have been Polish.
The wind always gets suddenly colder in the first week of October. It’s the beginning of browns and reds appearing everywhere. I walk my youngest son to school. He can’t resist kicking through the piles of dry leaves. He simply has to walk through them. It’s as if he is pulled along by an unseen force. And it slows him down as he turns round for another go
Back home I notice the little shrubby tree in a pot a the front of our house has shed most of its leaves, but it still has its deep pink seed pods, like tiny rose coloured pumpkins. The plant belonged to our late next door neighbour… he had a great selection of front garden plants that I redistributed around he neighbourhood after he died.
Today is the birthday of our late next door neighbour on the other side (both have died in the last year and a half). He would have been 65 today, but succumbed to lung cancer in June. On our hedge cutting days we would chat and he sometimes mentioned vague plans about moving to a cottage in the country with his beloved dog. But I have my doubts. He was born and brought up around here, in these streets, with this wind.
Walking along the corridors at Holborn Tube I hear some comforting clarinet/alto saxophone jazz sounds wafting along and bouncing off the walls. It sort of reminds me of being in London in the late 1980s, when there seemed to be more of that kind of music around. As I get closer to the source I am shocked to see that it’s the old man who lives on the end of our road, blowing on an alto sax. I walk past, feeling that I might have suddenly fallen asleep and be dreaming this.
The old man keeps a small front garden with all kinds of interesting small fruit bushes and vibrant flowers. Many times I have wanted to say how much I like his garden but he gives off a vibe of not really wanting to chat. I walk past him a lot on our road but he never catches my eye. I’ll have something to talk to him about now.
I’ve written before about rain. About how it makes me feel alive. Today the rain was beating down, propelled by cold gusts of wind that made the recently muggy North London streets feel like February in the west of Ireland. I leave the hood of my waterproof down, so I can feel the raindrops on my face. In theory you might imagine steeling yourself against this kind of weather. But I feel it stops me living in my head so much, which I am wont to do too a lot of the time. The heavy rain draws out any deep rooted melancholy so that it is truly felt, but it mixes with the joy of feeling… anything. So that in this rain I am both sad and happy at the same time. There is probably a beautiful word in old Irish for that. And also the sense of being firmly rooted in the physical world, and connected to all things, while being acutely aware of the non-physical, mystical nature of existence that is almost always hidden from us. This cold rain reminds me of those that have gone, especially recently. In fleeting moments of understanding that I *am* alive I accept that they are not but feel, in tiny moments, that they are ‘somewhere’. How does rain do that? It makes me live in the now, which means I can see both backwards and forwards without consciously having to think about it… past/future, Highbury Corner/Finsbury Park one-way-system.
But I’m not just having a spiritual experience in this rain. I’m trying to catch up with my youngest son, who has gone off to school dejectedly after I shouted at him for breaking his glasses (again). Both my boys live in a 1970s World of Sport type existence, in which wrestling is a key component of a well-lived life. The youngest – 11 tomorrow – breaks his glasses once every couple of months, but has lost two in the last week.
I can see him trudging in the distance but I’m walking slowly, as I am dragging the neighbour’s dog behind me. Eventually I catch up with my soaking son and we embrace and I tell him to have a good day. He seems happy that we have connected properly. On the way back I encounter one of those road rage situations that seem to crop up more and more these days. An old man, with two bags full of ‘stuff’, is walking slowly across the road as a car comes up. The driver sounds his horn and the old man takes offence and stands in front of the car, arms outstretched.
“I’ve got all day. I’m not going anywhere!” he shouts and blocks the car. I go into the road and try to talk to him. Eventually he leaves the road but as he looks back the driver does that ‘finger on the side of the head’ sign that kids used to go when they called someone “a loony!” Enraged, he goes back out into the road.
“That’s it. I’m not moving.”
On a normal, dry day, I would have been tempted to not get involved. To leave them all to it, these crazy bastards. But in this rain, I am connected to them in some strange way. We are all connected… at least the people in our little corner of Southern Blackstock Road. The dog and I go back into the road. I explain to him that the driver is being incredibly annoying, but that it happens all the time when people are in a rush. What about all the other people in cars and vans, about 15 of them, backed up behind. Is it really fair to them? Don’t let this person in a car ruin your day. He looks at me and shrugs. Then sighs, and walks off the road with me. The neighbour’s dog looks at him as if he knows him. “Have a good day,” says the old man, and continues up the hill. The people in the cars are waving and giving the thumbs up.
The rain gets harder and my head starts to ache. The lollipop lady has to shelter in a doorway. The neighbour’s dog does a massive shit on the pavement.
It’s a beautiful day.
A short video about rain from three years ago.
I’m walking from my car to Tesco to go and buy some chicken dippers… the latest shit food fad in our house – when out of the corner of my eye I see someone walking across the road in my general direction. I look over and see a shortish man, around 5 foot 7, with his shirt off and displaying a muscled torso that suggests heavy martial arts or gymnastic training.
“Hey, mate!” he shouts. “Mate… can I talk to you?”
I sigh inwardly, and stop. He comes up to me and stares intensely into my eyes. He has a very red face, and is sweating profusely. Maybe he’s just done some heavy work on the parallel bars or something.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Mate, do you know what love is?”
My initial reaction is to want to laugh – this feels like the title of a Cockney Rejects cover version of that famous Foreigner rock ballad.
“I know what it feels like, at any rate. Why do you want to know?”
He frowns. “Well, what do you do if you love someone but you’re not sure they love you as much?”
I’m about to quote the lyrics of a famous Sting song here, but I don’t know this unpredictable hardpan well enough yet and not everyone responds well to the work of the ex-Police frontman. So rather than actually say “if you love someone, set them free “, I suggest that he gives the object of his affection a bit of space.
“YES! That’s just what she said. She wanted more space. You do know what love is!”
He’s smiling now and he introduces himself. His name is Jimmy Reilly. He’s just come back from a court appearance in Hackney. We’re still walking but we’ve come to Tesco now and he has to make a decision – does he want to carry on chatting about affairs of he heart but also commit himself to helping me get some food for the kids’ tea, or does he cut and run. He asks me a few more questions about love, and I try to be honest and not too profound and Zen-poetryesque with my responses. It seems as though he’s about to calm down. Then he remembers that when he was in court he saw his girlfriend and she was just texting on her phone and not watching him at all.
“I don’t know what’s in her head, what she’s thinking.” He frowns again, his face gets redder and he bunches up his muscles, as if he’s he wants to punch the living shit out of something.
I tell him that we can never really know what someone else is thinking and that he probably needs time to work out what he wants and feels because he sounds a bit… heavy. He takes this well and decides that we should be friends. By the way, could I give him some money and also drive him to his new flat which is several miles away. At this point I realise I can do no more to help him and explain about the chicken dippers. I wish him good luck. He tenses his muscles, waves and heads west to the Holloway Road, still unaware that he’s forgotten to put his shirt on.