This afternoon, I was lying on my back under a tree in Richmond Park, watching absolutely no clouds cross the sky, thinking how when you dig your heels into mud elsewhere in the world, it’s nothing like the mud in Richmond Park, or down by Canbury Gardens, or in the rec I learnt to kick a football and ride a bike in. Mud’s a wonderfully specific substance, and if you grew up as poorly-travelled as I did, you can get really rather sentimental about the stuff.
There are so many things I thought were just the way things were, but now, coming back having lived in other cities, and occasionally other countries, I realise that, no, that’s just how they are at home. Like the trees in Richmond Park. There are old oak trees with branches coming off them every which way, starting almost at the base of the trunk and spidering out most strangely. When I drew trees as a child, they were usually weblike and wonky (and, after the Great Hurricane of 1987, often horizontal), and it isn’t until now that I put the fact that Richmond Park was a source of firewood for many a palace and royal estate together with the way the branches of these trees have regrown that I understand that that’s not normal, that’s home.
The way you could tell the time, or the day, by the flight path planes were using from Heathrow. The way that, at two minutes past eleven, we’d all fall silent as Concorde roared its way overhead, because you couldn’t hear anything, so we’d just listen, and occasionally wonder who might be jetting over our heads, high-speed to NYC surrounded by champagne, as we waited to find out what we were going to be doing in English that morning. We reminisced about Concorde for a worryingly long time, actually.
The way that people sit together in rows, facing the river, because that’s just how you ought to do it. How you can’t really play football on a towpath so you have a picnic instead; even if you’re sharing a Mars bar, it’s a picnic, damnit, because you’re sitting In Nature and an insect might go on you.
So many things. So many memories. So many changes, and then at the same time, so few. The weird thing about having grown up in this specific area is how outwardly positive so many of the changes are. The playgrounds are notably freer of both needles and junkies. There are reasonably-well designated paths for bikes and walking and horses. There are incredible volunteers who keep places working, and can tell you stories of times I thought everyone might have forgotten, save my one remaining grandparent. Litter is infinitely, infinitely less. There are signposts that haven’t been stolen, rendered illegible, or humorously swivelled into uselessness. There are families and couples and old people and young people all over the place, using the parks and towpaths and the river for all the things you should use them for.
Then there are the things that haven’t changed in a hundred years. Views. There are protected views. Both wonderful and ludicrous. There are water fountains that I used when I had to climb halfway up a wall just to be able to reach them. At least five monarchs hunted on this land, and the deer are still there, only no-one eats them. The river still runs, and it’s still full of enough stuff that you can play ‘live thing, dead thing or misc.’ quite effectively. Kids still play poohsticks. In every sunny-day riverside gathering, there’s still some bastard strumming not-quite-chords and trying to look soulful whilst his mates try and pretend he’s not with them.
There are so many miserable things about the UK, and about London, and about Kingston-upon-Thames, but I hear about them all the time from my parents, so it was a glorious, joyous thing to be able to go home and see the best bits of my childhood, from mud to skyline to people having fun by the water, and to know that plenty more kids are at least getting those best bits too.
I’m so ready to move back home. For better or worse, it’s been too long.