By William Boyd
A – Angus Wilson (1913-1991), novelist and short story writer, identified what he called an essential dichotomy in the English realistic novel dating back to Samuel Richardson in the 18th century, namely the concepts of ‘town’ and ‘country’ and the opposing values centred around them. The division is an intriguing one, even today, and it is still relatively easy to classify a novelist in one or the other camps. Are you essentially ‘urban’ or are you ‘rural’? This is not an innocent question, as Angus Wilson infers. To categorise yourself as one or the other is tendentious and provokes a series of unconscious judgements. In his long autobiographical essay, The Wild Garden, Wilson lists some of the antitheses that ‘town’ and ‘country’ respectively embody: progress versus tradition; art versus nature; industry versus the contemplative life; reason versus instinct; strained sensibility versus sturdy common sense, bohemianism versus rootedness, and so on.
What is the self-appointed urban writer to do in the face of this labelling? Indeed, must one be either town or country? Is it possible to be both at once? On reflection, I would describe myself as an urban writer, if only because I know that after a few weeks of rural life (however delightful) I find myself craving the city and absolutely everything it offers. But at the same time the urban writer does not want to be pigeonholed too narrowly – some of the verities of the country and country life are most appealing – there is a tendency to want to have one’s cake and eat it also. There is a little bit of the rural in all of us metropolitan types, and in order to exemplify that well-roundedness in our characters, in order to bring something of the country to the city — in order not to have to go to the country — the city invented the park.
B – Battersea Park is the park that is closest to where I live in London and the one that I know best – I walk briskly through it almost every day. I love Battersea because, alone of all significant London parks (with the exception of Kew Gardens), it incorporates London’s river, its north side being defined by the Thames. You can walk along the wide promenade between Albert Bridge and Chelsea Bridge on the Battersea shore with the broad river on one side and lofty plane trees on the other. The riverine light seems fresher and brighter, as if the air is washed and cleansed by the Thames’ tidal flow. The sense of not being in the city — yet knowing full well you are in its heart – is particularly intense. This, fundamentally, is what a park in a city is all about — this is the sensation a city park is designed to foster.
C – Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, in the pantheon of English literature, perhaps best illustrate the split between the ‘town’ writer as opposed to the ‘country’ one. It is a very 19th century juxtaposition, made particularly acute and particularly obvious as the Industrial Revolution then took its remorseless grip on the nation. The widespread development of the city park, in turn, was largely a 19th century phenomenon. The filth and foetor of the Victorian metropolis made the green spaces all the more important. I have a history of London composed solely by its maps and one can see the exponential growth of the city over the centuries reflected by the steady appearance of its parks, like green islands in the burgeoning, cross-hatched grid of London’s streets, not so much the city’s ‘lungs’ as the city’s verdant archipelago in its dark and grimy sea.
D – Definition of a park. It’s time to establish precisely what we mean by a ‘park’. I’m thinking principally of London but I feel this definition will fit all parks in all cities of the world. There are certain determining characteristics, necessary conditions, for park-status. First, there must be tall mature trees, the older and taller the better. Second, the majority of the trees in the park must give the impression of random planting – no rectangles or neat lines, by and large — an avenue here or there is allowed, an allée, but we need the illusion of spontaneous, unplanned growth. Third, the ground must undulate in a significant way – flatness is not a park-criterion. Fourth, is the question of scale: you mustn’t be able to see all sides of the park — one boundary at least must be invisible, from wherever you stand. Fifth, there must be a gated entrance: a park need not necessarily be fenced or walled but it must have a portal – or several. Immediately we see how these five categories allow us to separate, for example, a park from a city square, however large or grand, or from a common. This is a particularly London issue: is Clapham Common a park? Is Barnes Common a park? Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park are perfectly adjacent — can’t Wimbledon be described as a park? By applying my five categories one can see why the answer has to be no (no portals). Is London Fields a park? Is Kew Gardens? The five categories say that they both are. Let’s cast the net a little wider. Is Les Tuilleries in Paris a park? No – it’s too flat, there are not enough very tall trees, the trees are planted in straight lines. Les Tuileries is a jardin publique.
E – Entertainment. The park as playground. When I grew up in Africa, in Ghana and Nigeria, 1n the 1950s and 1960s, there were no parks in the two cities I knew, Accra and Ibadan. But amongst my earliest memories is a particular park – Duffus Park in Cupar, Fife — which was about a quarter of a mile from my grandmother’s house. I was often instructed to ‘go to the park and play’, a journey ameliorated by a small sweetshop at the park entrance. There were swings, a slide and a roundabout, a cricket field and football pitches and the place fulfilled everything that the concept ‘municipal park’ could demand. Perhaps because of some latent childhood association of being obliged to play in the park I’ve always, subsequently, been resistant to park-borne entertainments: concerts, open-air theatre and the like – though for many people this is the function of a park that they know best. The park is a venue where you can kick, hit or throw a ball, cycle, skateboard or rollerblade, jog or ride – a recreational sporting site, in other words. For me a busy park on a hot summer weekend is one of the most unpleasant places a city can offer.
F – Fiction. I suspect novelists use parks in their novels in the same way as they use pubs and supermarkets, bus stops and post offices – they’re convenient. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Peter Walsh, after his visit to Clarissa Dalloway, goes for a walk in Regent’s Park (where he sees Septimus and Lucrezia quarrelling). Why Regent’s Park? Probably because Regent’s Park was the handiest – a two minute stroll from Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury where the Woolfs then had their London house. In The End of the Affair Graham Greene sets scenes on Clapham Common because, in 1935, he rented a rather grand house at number 14, North Side. The sole significant exception to this general rule that I can recall is a 1981 novel that takes place in New York called The Park is Mine by Stephen Peters, in which a disturbed (and heavily armed) Vietnam veteran takes over Central Park and reconfigures it for war. Possibly the only park-novel ever written.
The single way to make sure a park is the ostensible subject or background for a fiction is actually to commission a story set in one – which is exactly what London’s Royal Parks have done (see below).
G – Green Park, or more correctly, The Green Park, is the park I have used for my Royal Park story. I used to walk through The Green Park regularly on my way to and from the London Library in St James’s Square. It gets its name, reputedly, from the absence of flowers, as it is said to have been a lepers’ burial ground. Amongst London’s hundreds of parks, large and small, there are only eight ‘Royal’ parks, gifts to the nation from its monarchs: Bushy, Green, Greenwich, Hyde, Kensington Gardens, Regent’s Richmond and St. James’s. Eight parks, eight writers, eight stories.
H – Hyde Park was described by Dickens as ‘the park, par excellence’ and for sheer scale and variety it deserves its status as the grandest of London’s Parks (lovers of Regent’s Park might disagree) with an area of over 350 acres. Deer were hunted in the park until the middle of the 18th century.
I – ‘Itchycoo Park‘ by the Small Faces (see below under ‘Lyrics’). There’s some debate amongst Faces fans about the real location of the park: the concensus seems to be Little Ilford Park just south of Wanstead Flats in E 12. It was known as Itchycoo Park by the local kids because of the large number of stinging nettles growing there.
J – Japan. There is a park in Tokyo, Hibiya Park, described as ‘green oasis in business area’, the first Westernized urban park in Japan, opened in 1903. Certain cities – certain modern gigantic cities — make me want to go there and visit their parks, to discover what they are like and see if they provide that escape from the grinding omnipresence of the metropolis that parks are meant to deliver. Here is small list of parks I’d like to visit and check out (perhaps): Alameda Park, Mexico City; the Nehru Park, New Delhi; Jhalobia Recreation Park, Lagos; Ibirapuera Park, Sao Paulo; Fuxing Park, Shanghai; the Simon Bolivar Metropolitan Park, Bogota.
K – Kissing. How many first kisses take place in parks? How often do the first intimations of a future adultery occur? There is, in summer especially, a mild erotic and sensual undercurrent to park life. Clothes are removed. People sunbathe. Boyfriends and girlfriends can meet and find a quiet corner. In my new novel one of the characters witnesses her lover’s betrayal with another woman in Battersea Park. The somewhat risqué 1933 song ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ gets it just about right: ‘First you pet a little / Let up a little / And then you get a little kiss.’
L – Lyrics. In actual fact parks feature rarely in the lyrics of songs, perhaps because the possible rhymes don’t appeal (‘shark’, ‘lark’, ‘dark’, ‘aardvark’). As the subject of songs they are even less common. As mentioned, there is the classic 1967 London park song, the Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park’ — ‘What will we do there? / We’ll get high / What will we touch there?/ We’ll touch the sky’ — that 1960s paean to pubescent narcotic bliss: ‘Feed the ducks with a bun/ They all come out to groove about.’ And of course there is the baffling ‘MacArthur Park’, written by Jimmy Webb, Richard Harris’s solitary pop hit of 1968 with its notorious cod-surrealism: ‘Macarthur’s Park is melting in the dark/ All the sweet green icing flowing down/ Someone left the cake out in the rain’.
I was once on a location recce for a film in Los Angeles and we checked out Macarthur Park as a possibility. I was looking forward to seeing the place as the song resonates for me, such are its associations with my teenage years. But the park itself was a disappointment, unkempt and shabby and vaguely menacing with its population of vagrants and drug-dealers (this was the 1990s). Indeed it doesn’t really qualify as a park, either, failing to meet the five criteria of my definition (too small, too flat).
I also think La Grande Jatte fails to achieve full park status (no portal, not that it exists as a park any more) though as park subject-matter it probably takes the laurels, being both the setting and subject of Seurat’s masterwork and the equally masterly musical by Stephen Sondheim, ‘Sunday in the Park with George’.
M – Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. The most curious of her novels with the most unappealing of her heroines. It best reflects Angus Wilson’s dichotomy of ‘town’ versus ‘country’ in the English novel, with Fanny Price and Mansfield Park — and dull Edward Bertram — representing all that is solid and worthy of ‘country’ values, set against the witty and louche sophistication of the ‘town’ Crawfords from London. This 19th century opposition still makes itself felt in contemporary Britain on certain issues (because inevitably it comes down to class) – notably hunting. The Countryside Alliance, by its very name, purports to stand up for values that Fanny Price and Edward Bertram would espouse – Mansfield Park could be the Alliance’s spiritual home.
N – Necropolis. A sub-division of the park-proper. Large graveyards do fit the five criteria of a park, the presence of headstones, tombs, mausoleums and funerary sculptures notwithstanding. If one thinks of Highgate Cemetery or Père Lachaise in Paris they are in their own way as memorable spaces in the city as St James’s Park or Le Jardin des Invalides.
O – Orson Welles and the Prater park in Vienna are forever linked, at least in the minds of moviegoers, because of The Third Man. Are there other filmic associations with parks that endure quite so strongly? Perhaps Clint Eastwood in his role as Dirty Harry and The Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, where the confrontation with the Scorpio Killer — played with loathsome creepiness by Andy Robinson — takes place in the park’s Kazar Stadium. Otherwise New York leads the way with Central Park: Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park come immediately to mind (this list is highly subjective) and I have an image of Dustin Hoffman running round the park’s Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir (as it’s now known), at the north end between 87th street and 96th street, from Marathon Man. Let’s not get started on Woody Allen and Manhattan.
P – Platanus. The plane tree. The variety planted in London has taken the city’s name – the ‘London’ plane. Somehow the plane tree, one feels, should be incorporated into the city’s crest so omnipresent is it in London’s streets and in its parks. It turns out to be a hybrid derived from the platanus orientalis and the platanus occidentalis. This hybrid sheds its bark, a fact that is believed to make it more resistant to the city’s polluting toxins, and which gives the trunks their distinctive camouflage look. Moreover, these are prodigious trees growing to a vast height. The oldest plane trees in London were planted three hundred years ago (for example, those in Grosvenor Square) and dendrologists believe they are still in ‘full vigour’: we don’t really know to what heights the London planes may grow, as the history of this hybrid is still incomplete — already they are the tallest trees in London, if not the oldest (that honour may go to the ancient oaks in Richmond Park). The plane trees in Battersea Park and on the Chelsea Embankment are adolescents, a mere hundred-plus years old. The plane trees in London’s parks have yet fully to astonish us, the London plane has not yet reached its zenith.
Q – Queen Victoria. There is an apochryphal story that Queen Victoria was irritated by the large number of plebian Eastenders coming ‘up west’ to Hyde Park at weekends so she ordered the construction of a large park in Hackney to keep the common herd where they belonged. And so Victoria Park was created.
R – ‘Rural‘ novelists (a baker’s dozen in no particular order) — Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, John Cowper Powys, Elizabeth Bowen, John Fowles, D.H. Lawrence, Walter Scott, Bruce Chatwin, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, John Buchan, William Trevor, Mrs Gaskell.
S – The Sublime and the Beautiful. According to Edmund Burke’s treatise (1756) the Sublime finds its source in anything capable of exciting pain or danger. Beauty, however, consists of anything small, smooth, with an absence of angularity and a brightness of colour. This sounds almost park-like to me, the park providing us with those qualities of Beauty we require in our life — in contrast to what the ‘Sublime’ city represents with its pain and danger.
T – ‘Trahison des clercs‘. Along with MacArthur Park, another park I’d long wanted to see was Parque do Flamengo in Rio de Janiero. This was a landfill on Guanabera Bay (east of Copacabana beach) redesigned and supervised in the 1960s as a ‘People’s Park’ by Elizabeth Bishop’s lover Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop is perhaps my favourite poet and the construction of this enormous park played a baleful and unhappy role in her life. Lota became so involved and so conflicted in its construction (and so exhausted by the constant battles with city officials, developers and bureaucrats) that she had a nervous breakdown that lead directly to her suicide in 1967. It brought to a shocking and tragic end the Brazilian episode in Bishop’s life. She had spent some 15 years in Brazil, the happiest time of her life (and the period of her greatest poetry) until the construction of the park began. Flamengo Park, it can be argued, brought about Lota’s death and an end to Bishop’s happiness. She died in 1979. I finally saw the park in 2004. Rio’s setting is the most beautiful in the world and on a sunny day Flamengo Park looked lush, well-groomed and benign. In 1960 it must have seemed like a great idea and Bishop was initially happy to see Lota’s talents and energies faced with a real and stimulating challenge. But Bishop came to hate the park, and with good reason.
U – ‘Urban’ novelists – (a baker’s dozen in no particular order) – Charles Dickens, Beryl Bainbridge, J.B.Priestley, Patrick Hamilton, Martin Amis, James Joyce, Muriel Spark, Zadie Smith, Graham Greene, George Gissing, Iris Murdoch, James Kelman, Anthony Powell.
V – Vaneigem and Debord, (Raoul and Guy) the two founding fathers of the Situationists who in turn gave rise to the concept of Psychogeography, that neo-academic discipline that has revealed the city to us in ways we could never have imagined. However, I wonder if the city park is inimical to the psychogeographer’s normal analysis. The basic methodological tool of the psychogeographer is the dérive — the aimless stroll, the transient passage – and one would have thought that it would seem tailor-made for a park (parks are about strolling, after all). But there is no escaping the fact that, in a park, there will be less to observe and log — nothing much changes in a park apart from the slow growth of vegetation and the turning seasons, so the banalisation of life is harder to spot in a park than in a street.
For example, Battersea Park would still be very recognisable today to a pre-World War II stroller — even a pre-World War I stroller, come to that. Only the trees are taller (setting aside the controversial addition, in 1985, of the Buddhist Peace Pagoda on the promenade). There is less to see and comment on. If a fair definition of psychogeography is ‘the study of the effects of the city on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ — or, more simply, ‘the personalising of city wanderings’ — then parks and park-denizens provide less intriguing material than can be found in the streets beyond their boundaries.
Perhaps this is to celebrate the triumph of the park – the triumph of rus in urbe – because, by this token, the city dwellers who constructed these parks, large and small, have truly brought the country into the metropolis. We can experience, in a park, the same familiarity, the same tiny incremental creep of natural change, the same tedium as we do in the country – the park features as a form of on-demand therapy, a drop-in clinic for the stressed-out citizen. If the febrile, noisome, noisy, dirty, frustrating, angry, debilitating nature of city life is getting to you – then step into a park.
W – Wittgenstein. A real ghost that haunts the Prater in Vienna, as opposed to the fictional one of Harry Lime, is Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1973, in a short biography of Wittgenstein, William Warren Bartley made the claim that, during Wittgenstein’s ‘lost years’ of 1919 to 1929 (when he abandoned philosophy), he used to go to the Prater at night to have sex with ‘rough young men’. Nobody can prove this, or disprove it, though Wittgenstein’s best biographer, Ray Monk, believes that Bartley may have seen some private documents that could confirm that these nocturnal visits did take place. The Prater is huge, perhaps the size of Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park. Funnily enough, I don’t think it does the myth of Wittgenstein – this strangest and most extraordinary of philosophers — any harm to imagine that he would wander in to the park every now and then looking for sex.
X – X-rated. The city park, for all the innocent pleasures it offers, also has its grim underbelly and is the focus for all manner of illicit activities: narcotic, criminal, sexual. One thinks of Platzpitz Park in Zurich – the so-called ‘Needle Park’, a junkie-Mecca in its heyday, set squarely in one of the most prosperous cities in Europe. And how many countless muggings, assaults and murders have occurred in parks? When the innocent petting and kissing are over, parks are often the perfect loci for casual sexual acts, hetero- and homosexual. Here is James Boswell on the 25th March 1763. ‘As I was coming home this night, I felt carnal inclinations running through my frame. I determined to gratify them. I went to St James’s Park and picked up a whore. For the first time did I engage in armour [a condom], which I found but a dull satisfaction. She who submitted to my lusty embraces was a young Shropshire girl, only seventeen, very well-looked, her name Elizabeth Parker.’
Y – Year 58. In the last year of his life, 1870, the 58-year old Charles Dickens rented a house at 5, Hyde Park Gate where he set about writing his last novel – never completed — The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Dickens worked on the first floor, looking out across the Bayswater Road into the park. He seemed untroubled by the noise of the traffic, the carriages, carts and drays. Dickens knew that he was not likely to live long when he started Edwin Drood – his ill-health was giving all the signs of the stroke that was to kill him, months later, in June. One likes to imagine Dickens writing his last novel at Hyde Park Gate, aware of time running out, looking up from his manuscript to survey the park in front of him and finding consolation in the view.
Z – Zoo. Another sub-divison of the park along with the necropolis. Large zoos in cities, like cemeteries, play the same role as the park does in our city lives. Zoos are needed, Angus Wilson claims in The Wild Garden, because they may ‘be the only means to keep increasingly urbanized man in healing touch with what remains… of wild life.’ It seems to me this is what the park does also for our urban personas – we need the paradox of our carefully cultivated wild gardens in the ever-growing city. They are an escape and, perhaps deep in our subconscious, they remind ourselves of an alternative way of life. They help keep us sane.