So I’ve adapted to London once again. More or less. It takes a day or two. I have a love-hate relationship with this city but always the former wins out. I’ve lived in or around it since I was twelve years old, and although there are times when I’m heartily weary of its noise, its relentless traffic, its suffocating heat in summer (assuming we have any summer – this is, after all, England) its crowds and that sense of far too many people (plus ever-increasing numbers of cats, dogs, urban foxes) crammed onto one tiny piece of planet earth, there is something about it which holds me captive. It’s a sense of life and living; a sense of never-ceasing movement in what is a wonderful jumble of a place. And in my view, if London has anything really special on top of that to offer to the world it’s its genuine multi-culturalism. All colours and all creeds seem to rub along together as happily as people rub along together anywhere. In Crystal Palace where I live there are almost as many black people as white. There are Chinese, Japanese, people from all over Eastern Europe. Sit on a south London bus and it’s not unusual to hear three or four different languages being spoken at the same time – and English may or may not be one of them. I’ve lived in this area now for eleven years and I personally have never come across or been in the vicinity of any racially motivated conflict. That isn’t to say there isn’t any. But at least it puts it into perspective – despite what some of the more lurid populist UK newspapers would have you understand. Some years ago I was standing in a small technology shop run in those days by a very eccentric computer geek and it occurred to me that there were five people all talking together – two Brits (myself and the geek), one German, a Japanese man and a Caribbean. Wonderful. It’s the way the world’s going. Slowly, very slowly, it’s coming together. And those that resist it stand like present-day Canutes against the tide. I have written in a book of meditations which I’m at present preparing – ‘We have for millennia accorded life and death significance to things which, in the wider sweep of things, are of no greater moment than the mosquito on the back of the elephant.’ Prick me, do I not bleed – and all that.
Another wonderful thing about London – especially that south-eastern area in which I live – is the enormous amount of green space. The huge Crystal Palace Park is but five minutes walk away – with its woodland, its walks, its open-air concert bowl, its lake, its maze, its children’s recreation ground – and for those that know anything about these things, its famous, full size 19th century sculptures of prehistoric animals set around the shores of that lake. It’s also a favourite roosting place of large numbers of an extraordinary bird known as a ring-neck parakeet. It is extraordinary mainly in that it is a parrot, a native of South-East Asia and has established itself in the south east of the UK (probably originally escapees from private collections) in what are now considerable numbers. There are thousands of them and they fly by in large screeching (they’re no song-bird) groups, flashing their emerald wings. Then take a pair of binoculars and look at them as they perch in the trees and you will see a truly colourful and handsome bird. Amazing that something originating so far away and in such a different climate can successfully colonize somewhere like the UK with its sometimes bitter winters.
Birds (and I suppose I’d better add, ‘the winged variety’) have been for me a lifetime hobby. My woman and I both belong to the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). It’s an organisation which maintains all over the UK a great number of nature reserves which are devoted mostly to wild birds. For the princely sum of three GB pounds (€3.9, $4.9US) per month you have, as a member, free access to all of these places along with free parking. A day spent wandering around in such wild places, watching the comings and goings of these extraordinary winged creatures – sometimes in their thousands – is an experience whose pleasure is difficult to convey. Last week we visited a big RSPB reserve on the coast in Dorset. There we saw an Osprey. To those who know nothing about such glorious birds of prey, I guess there’s on the face of it nothing very special in an osprey. But when you see the majestic size of this thing – a wing span of up to two metres – you have to stand back in some sort of awe. The bird we saw was almost certainly a Scottish bird on the way back to its breeding territories in the Highlands from its wintering grounds in Africa. It had stopped off in that reserve to refuel. A profound sense of presence hangs around a wild thing of this magnificence. It stands above you, caring not for you or for your petty fears and hopes – it is utterly its own self. It goes where it will and it does as the moment takes it. And yet, in so doing, it fits precisely into what seems to me some overall and utterly benign scheme quite beyond our understanding. A raw and humbling manifestation of that life which underlies all living.