I find myself lately looking for new things to write about. Much as I don’t wish to plunge recklessly into another book, I miss the regular practice of writing that the last one gave me and feel oddly congested without it, as if I had verbal constipation. Anyway, one of the books I read while resting was Jilly Cooper’s The Common Years, definitely a comfort read of the highest order. It’s a book based on the diaries she kept between 1972-82 when she lived in Putney in London and walked her dogs regularly on the Commons there. It’s a very funny and touching account of owning dogs, watching children grow, and living in a small community, bound together by gossip, feuds and local events. But it’s also a great deal about nature, for which Cooper has a tender eye. I loved her descriptions, like this one, for instance:
‘Sunday, March 30th 1982
Glorious sky-blue day. Walk to Barnes Station. Last year’s bracken still clings onto the dotted green hawthorn bushes, like some doddery ancient lady hanging onto the arm of a handsome lover. On Common Lane a blackthorn tree is already out and scattering confetti. The little elm copse on the corner of Rocks Lane and the Lower Richmond Road is putting out green leaves, but so many branches are already dead. They are like haemophiliac princes, doomed to die young.’
I loved the way that Jilly Cooper’s writing seamlessly blended the external world and her private family life; her lively eye recorded the seasons passing, and her faultless ear picked up all sorts of bits of funny dialogue that came her way (‘Sunday walk with both children. They have long discussion about how old I’ll be when they’re both over seventy. Emily says: ‘You’ll be over 100, Mummy, and paralysed, and you’ll have lost all your legs and arms.’ Felix says: ‘You might not, if you use Oil of Ulay.’) And I wondered for a while about keeping a diary again. But that sort of practice is something that makes me flag, these days, put off by the death knell of obligation. But I did feel a tug in me towards writing more about nature. I tend to be an indoors sort of person, but there are parts of nature for which I feel a deep affection. We live in a very pretty spot, right on the village green, and opposite the Brook, on which several families of ducks parade themselves. If at night I hear the screech of a car’s breaks you can bet that a couple of them have unwisely decided to cross the road. The Brook is circled by glorious chestnut trees and they mark the chapters of the year for me. In the spring, I long to see the sticky buds burst into the thick, creamy blossoms of the candles, and now the leaves are on the turn; a dull rusty color under gray skies they glow into bronzed life when the sun warms them. It won’t be long before the conkers start to fall, and the green will swarm with little boys filling their pockets.
I’m also fond of our garden, which I spend a lot of time defending from the energetic pruning of Mister Litlove. There is little more therapeutic for him, after a tough week at work, than taking the secateurs to any poor shrub that has made the mistake of flourishing. Work has been a bit unrewarding this past year and there have been times when I have feared that all my plants would be reduced to scrawny misshapen balls of twigs. On the whole, plants are like hair, in that even the most identity-destroying cuts grow out in time, but we have had a few tragic casualties. It’s about the only thing we really argue over.
But neither the back garden, nor what I might laughingly refer to as the front garden provide a ready source of words. And then it occurred to me that not at all far away we have a local country park. The entrance gates are not far from the supermarket I regularly visit, and suddenly it seemed like a great idea to go walking there every time I had to shop. It struck me that I needed the exercise, and I had a luminous vision of myself, strolling the paths of the park and then retiring to the café in the grounds to write up my impressions.
So I hastened off to the park last Monday, pausing in the supermarket to buy myself a new notebook and pen. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious day, being overcast yet humid, with a blustery wind. It was the kind of day when you don’t know from one end of it to other whether you are hot or cold. Still, I wanted to make a start, so I drove to the almost empty car park. Instantly I ran into a problem; the fee to park there was a flat charge, £2 for the entire day. Well, I didn’t want to park the whole day, I only wanted to be there for an hour at most and I hadn’t got £2 with me. The place looked windswept and deserted and I thought about risking it without a ticket, but my inner good girl rebelled and I ended up getting back in the car and parking just outside the entrance gates, something several other people had evidently chosen to do. It seemed crazy to have a great, big, empty car park because the council couldn’t figure out a system of structured payment, but still buoyed with the enthusiasm of the new project, I shouldered my bag and headed off into the park, pausing to look at the map attached to the fencing outside that promised trails and lakes and abundant wildlife.
The first thing I saw was the sign to the café, and imagining a host of colourful local characters I headed eagerly towards it to check it out. From the outside it looked okay, but inside it transformed into the poky dining hall of a state comprehensive school; large refrigerated units hummed softly to themselves in front of tables nailed to the floor that were entirely free from customers. A dull gray glow fell from skylights that probably needed a jolly good clean and I couldn’t even see anyone behind the counter. Outside two young workmen in dirty jeans and t-shirts leered at me, purely for the form of it, then went back to trying to light their cigarettes in a fitful wind. So, not quite the rural pleasuredome of Kubla Khan I had envisaged, but never mind, there was the park to be explored.
I went and explored the park.
It turned out there wasn’t really an awful lot to say about it, either. It was very green. It was a sort of hymn to the power of chlorophyll, with lots of trees that all looked identical to me, and a great deal of nettle-y undergrowth, wilting with exhaustion at the end of a long summer. There were two large expanses of water, that looked like… well, expanses of water, as they do around here in the fens where every second lake is a submerged gravel pit. In between the two lakes there was a still, silent pond, shrouded by overhanging trees, unnaturally motionless and thick with stagnant emerald algae. I crossed over a couple of wooden bridges, put in to add a pretty attraction but spoiled rather by the huge notices either side proclaiming ‘Danger! Slippery when wet’ and ‘Unsafe construction. Beware flooding.’ Then I began to worry about getting lost, because I can lose my sense of direction if I start turning up the aisles of a supermarket too quickly, and besides, all the paths looked more or less the same, if they didn’t have an unsteady wooden bridge to define them. And worst of all, I was beginning to feel very, very bored. I lasted somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes, and then I gave it up as too mind-numbingly dull to be borne, and returned to the car.
Was it me? I rather thought it might be. I didn’t feel at all as if I’d had a glorious, life-enhancing commune with nature; instead I felt warm and disheveled and my nose was running (all my tissues were in the car). I was really looking forward to getting home, putting the kettle on and reading something lovely. I have not given up on the idea of finding some nature I like, and there are some possible walks I can take around the village. But I do wonder whether the landscape of the Fens, flat and undistinguished as it is, will ever quite provide me with the experience I’m after. Or maybe, I will have to accept that I am not as responsive to the charms of the natural world as I think I am and I’ll have to find an altogether different topic to write about.