Stoke Newington Church Street, N16
This used to be my favourite pub in North London but I haven't been in for a while. I must be getting old because the ruralesque walk around Clissold Park at night doesn't seem as appealing as it once did.
I was there with old friends from the Real Psychic Genius Football Prediction Society. The Shillelagh is really our spiritual home but we now tend to wander a bit down the road to the Rose & Crown, where the music isn't loud and there's lots of space for assorted fortysomethings to shuffle around slowly. Leeds v Spurs was on the telly. I picked a famously unlucky seat – where I had watched England lose to Brazil in the 2002 World Cup and from where countless times I'd seen Ireland throw away the lead in the last minute in qualifiers. It didn't disappoint. Leeds lost. But the Guinness was as good as ever and there's still a good mix of old and young drinking away. One big change is last orders which is now an orthodox 11-ish rather than four in the morning. But I suppose that's progress. As my wife said when I rolled in, last orders was invented for people like me who need authority figures such as barmaids to tell them what to do.
Sitting at a bus stop on Stoke Newington Church Street I heard a sound both familiar yet strange. In the midst of the normal sounds of the city – police sirens, buses, cars, motorbikes, car alarms, roadworks – came a low rumbling engine rasp. Then, chugging slowly from Green Lanes, along came a weather beaten John Deer tractor, pulling some kind of plough/rake contraption. It carried on towards Albion Road then disappeared into the centre of Stoke Newington.
Is this now the fashionable drive of choice for the smart Stokeyites?
While the numbers of Dog People frequenting Clissold Park has grown enormously over the past few years, one of the things that hasn't changed is their inability to 'see' normal humans. I have always been able to walk amongst them, seemingly invisible, without so much as a glance. I could have marched into the middle of a group of them and emptied a bag of Winalot on their heads and they wouldn't have noticed.
This week, because our neighbour is poorly, I've been walking her dog most days (breed? Er, it's a little brown dog that looks uncannily like Robin Smith the late Labour MP) and today we ventured into the park. I wasn't in twenty seconds when two Dog People approached me, smiling in a strange friendly way.
"Hello!" one of them said. Was she talking to me? I must have looked startled.
"He looks like he needs a good run!" beamed her friend.
"Aren't you going to let him off his lead?"
"He's very friendly!"
Their eye contact was unbearably intense. I didn't dare let him run free yet, I said. But if I let go of the lead perhaps I would become invisible again. Most likely the effects of the dog wear off over time. Luckily I was pushing a pram with the other hand and my son was able to get me out of danger by crying.
Between two smallish trees in Clissold Park there is a long length of red twine that somebody (conceptual nature artist or mischievous kitten with a ball of wool) has wrapped round and round many times. It's saying "we are connected in ways that we don't fully understand". It's also saying "imagine a world where red licorice grows from the trees. Yum!" It might also be an advert for the wool shop on Blackstock Road. Or perhaps it's saying "look how fragile is mortality" or "look how fragile is the Arsenal back four when a ball is played over the top".
A while ago (I can’t remember – was it three years or six months?) a wicker sculpture was placed on top of the remains of one of the old trees that had died after the 2003 drought. It seemed to be saying that the tree could continue to have a life after it had died.
Every day my two year old son and I walk through Clissold Park and go up to touch the Football Tree.
“Football Tree!” my son will say. We’ll then both have a quiet think about how great football and trees are, and walk on.
But the Football Tree is no more. The other morning as we approached it as part of our daily pilgrimage, we saw the wicker sphere lying smashed on the ground. Next to it was an iron pole, part of a nearby fairground display. Still fresh in the air was the sense that someone had decided that good stuff was rubbish and had to be ruined. Was this part of the artist’s planned trajectory for the sculpture – to hire a gang of bored and drunk idiots to destroy it?
My son said he wanted to fix the football tree. I told him that it couldn’t be fixed because it was a metaphor for the world’s problems. Or the problems of bored and drunk idiots hanging around in parks at night. Or the England football team’s problems. Or the problems of sentimentalising outdoor installation sculpture
The old bowling green in Clissold Park has recently become a martial arts zone. Of particular interest is the modern hybrid form practiced by two white-tracksuited youngsters. It looks to be a combination of tai chi, judo, robotic dancing and generally hanging around looking bored. Quite how this form would fair in straight combat is hard to say, though the bright white robes/shellsuits might be off-putting enough to an attacker for the martial artists to leg it in the other direction.
The cherry blossom of Kingsbridge House, on Lordship Road, has gone, blown in the wind towards Seven Sisters Road. Up there amid the concrete they would have been greedily awaiting the annual visit of the pale pink swarms. The wind also trapped a red plastic kite in the branches of a Clissold Park plane tree, like a sliver of raw flesh hanging on thin ribs.
My kids find more blossom at the side of the road on Grazebrook. I explain that it’s probably 40% dog urine but they don’t care, and run down the path with it, letting it fly out of their hands behind them.
The daffodils are out in Clissold Park. Squat dogs round and through them.
“Kaiser! Butch! Over here!” shouts an angry looking man with little hair. The sky over Lower Holloway is golden but greyness is descending as the wind picks up. A blue plastic bag joins us on our walk and keeps pace for a while before blowing up into the branches of a tree.
The Dog People of Clissold Park have been growing in number since the end of the summer. Now they are all over the park, hanging around in factions. Today the weather was bad and for some reason two of the Dog People factions had decided to face off on the footpath at the north east corner of the park. There were around 30 dogs in all, covered in mud, racing around happily. But the Dog People didn’t look happy. They all just stared off into the mid-distance at the other Dog People faction as if to say "they don’t know ANYTHING about dogs". Now and then someone would chat, probably about dog biscuits or flea powder. Then they’d carry on staring.
These are tense days in Clissold Park.