My London

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Peter Slater

Peter Slater is an English teacher, liv­ing in London. He was a re­cent prizewin­ner in The London Mag­a­zine es­say com­pe­ti­tion. This is the twenty-sev­enth ar­ti­cle in our reg­u­lar “My London” se­ries.

I have long been fas­ci­nated by how small things of­ten have an im­pact and in­flu­ence out of pro­por­tion to their size. Con­sider those in­fin­itely tiny, barely per­cep­ti­ble move­ments of bone and mus­cle that the rider uses to con­trol a horse, the minute sub­tleties of bal­ance that a child must ef­fect when learn­ing to ride a bike, or the surely un­quan­tifi­able change in the ex­pres­sion of an eye that can con­vey ei­ther a jolly twin­kle or a vile leer. In a world where it seems that it is of­ten only the big events that get heard or no­ticed, it is worth re­mem­ber­ing that, in the end, it is the quiet voice and the slight and seem­ingly in­signif­i­cant ac­tion that can bring about change as ef­fec­tively as the shout or the bomb.

As with ac­tion, so with place. All things con­nect. In London, it is the myr­iad small green spa­ces that per­form the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble and give the city an air of gen­eral cheer. Fly into Heathrow on a sum­mer’s day and hope that the pi­lot has to cir­cle whilst wait­ing for a free run­way. Look down: that flash of sharp light is a pond, that smudge of green a grassy patch, the cloudy blur thick bushes. And then they’re gone; but the brief, small glimpses are enough to glad­den one’s heart.

Back gar­dens seen from train win­dows are al­ways a de­light: each one re­veals some­thing about the char­ac­ters of its own­ers. I have names for some of them ad­ja­cent to the Gospel Oak to Bark­ing Line: Miss Hav­isham is the one that was clearly well-tended in its day but has since been left to wither; The Mi­caw­bers is re­lent­lessly good-hu­moured, pop­u­lated with chil­dren’s foot­balls, bikes, cars and a rusty swing; Rogue Rider­hood is a vil­lain­ous, nar­row rec­tan­gle of mud that was once a lawn but which has

been paced upon and stamped upon ruth­lessly and en­closed by a mean wooden fence; Mr Wem­mick has a tree house surrounded by a moat of crazy pav­ing. (Well, it’s hard to es­cape the shade of Dick­ens when writ­ing about our city).

Pre­tend to be ine­bri­ate (or a poet) and stop and look up at a tree in full leaf on the busiest street and you will be trans­ported to a strange world of in­sects, bees, and even small birds liv­ing amongst the leaves and trail­ing vines of sun­light. There you have the most per­fect gar­den in minia­ture.

You may have ob­served that all the gar­dens I have men­tioned are not those places where you, Reader, might wan­der or sit and read a book. My aim is to point out the se­cret, or the not well-no­ticed, and thus far our sites have been too se­cret to ac­cess eas­ily. But this is not fair: no se­cret is quite so de­li­cious or so wel­come to the tired mind in a city as a gar­den and the very idea of a se­cret gar­den con­jures hope­ful images of high hedges, a pond graced by wa­ter lilies, black­birds fuss­ing hid­den in un­der­growth, a robin perched on a fork. A gar­den is more than it­self. It is a safe place, a haven from the rush; a quiet cor­ner of one’s mind. Gar­dens are a breath­ing space – lit­er­ally, be­cause of pho­to­syn­the­sis, and metaphor­i­cally: they help one gather one’s thoughts: or, by read­ing a good book, gather the thoughts of oth­ers and con­tinue the painstak­ing work of a life­time to make sense of the world. In the midst of a noisy city gar­dens of­fer a re­minder that there is a world be­yond the bricks and con­crete. So if this es­say is to have any prac­ti­cal use I must now re­veal at least one of my favourite, less fa­mous spa­ces that may be vis­ited with­out dif­fi­culty.

The Phoenix Gar­den is a third of an acre hid­den a stone’s throw from Char­ing Cross Road, wedged in a cor­ner be­hind the Phoenix Theatre and the Odeon, Shaftes­bury Av­enue. Cre­ated in 1984 on the site of a car park, it has ac­quired a pleas­antly nat­u­ral­is­tic feel: or­na­men­tal with­out be­ing too fussy. There is a patch of lawn on which to loll, nu­mer­ous benches and logs which serve as benches. A per­gola, splashed with wis­te­ria and shaded by the flow­ing branches of a huge wild cherry, stands in front of a wide-fronted shed-like struc­ture whose home­li­ness is only slightly marred by the

heavy pad­locks and wire-pro­tected win­dows.

There’s a bar­be­cue space and a chil­dren’s play­ground (al­though when­ever I’ve been there the kids have al­ways seemed to favour the bet­ter equipped play area in the grounds of St Giles church, next door). Crazy-pav­ing paths lead to nowhere. A se­ries of step­ping stones hewn from a gi­ant tree trunk in­vites you to wan­der around the pond – which is well-stocked with arum lilies, kingcups, wa­ter lilies.

Feed­ers and nest boxes en­cour­age a di­ver­sity of birds – in­clud­ing house spar­rows (now rare else­where), blue tits, robins and black­birds. I’ve yet to see a magpie, but there is a magpie qual­ity to some of the bits and pieces with which the gar­den is filled: large con­crete urns that ap­pear to have been swiped from some bleak Six­ties in­ner-city hous­ing es­tate, heavy stat­u­ary, odd gar­goylish things hid­den amongst the un­der­growth. There are also bees and the West End’s only frogs.

The gar­den is staffed and tended by vol­un­teers from the lo­cal com­mu­nity – the ec­cen­tric­ity and lack of cen­tral plan­ning in its de­sign tes­ti­fies to the benev­o­lence of its man­agers: it’s clear that ev­ery­one who has ever lent a hand has been given a say in its lay­out. It’s like a Mozart sym­phony played on steel drums, penny whis­tles, milk bot­tles and car horns: there is an un­der­ly­ing or­der but it’s pre­sented in the most chaotic way imag­in­able – and it’s glo­ri­ous! Also no­tice­able is the com­plete lack of lit­ter (and com­ing from the mu­nic­i­pal dump that is the in­ter­sec­tion of Tot­ten­ham Court Road and Char­ing Cross Road you re­ally do ap­pre­ci­ate an ab­sence of burger car­tons and milk­shake cups).

It is funded en­tirely by pri­vate do­na­tions and the man­age­ment com­mit­tee in­vite sub­scrip­tions from the pub­lic to be­come ‘A Friend of the Phoenix’ at £12.00 per year.

So take your book, sand­wich, bot­tle of wa­ter and sit for an hour. A small thing, but you’ll go forth re­freshed, re­laxed and some­how bet­ter.

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