Talking Gal 2: Social distancing edition

Dear —–,

This dispatch diverts from the sitting, cooking, sleeping, and music-making I regularly recount and instead takes you on my routine walk through Regent’s Park via Regent’s Canal. The scale of daily life has changed. Always at home, my eyes are focused on things within arm’s reach: the frying pan, the laptop, the sheet music, the book. This evening stroll stretches the legs and lengthens the gaze. The past four I’ve parked myself for a few minutes on a bench where three paths intersect at the foot of Primrose Hill. It’s a prime sit-spot to people-watch, one of my favourite activities in normal times but even more gratifying given the lack of social contact and churn of dismal news. People are still walking their dogs, falling in love, exercising, and summiting Primrose Hill to watch the sinking sun reflect gold, then pink, then deep blue off the panorama of skyscrapers.

One hundred metres down a gently sloping path, directly in my line of sight, towers a cluster of fully-grown London plane trees which dwarf the couples, joggers, and families below them. Unlike the High Victorian gardens with colour-coordinated flower beds and fountains elsewhere in the park, the trees were not planted symmetrically but grow in a vague line pleasing to the eye. In early evening, the last stratum of sunlight illuminates their mottled grey trunks as the sky morphs blue, then periwinkle, then lavender behind the silhouette of their branches. All of Regent’s Park used to be thickly forested; it belonged to a monastery before Henry VIII seized it for hunting grounds. Over the course of sixteen years in the 1600s, sixteen thousand trees were felled to pay Oliver Cromwell’s army’s debts and convert the land for farming. Much of the existing landscape is thanks to John Nash, the architect who designed the never-completed summer palace for the Prince Regent in the early nineteenth century. The paths transecting the southern face of Primrose Hill form a star.

The general fashion sense skews loungewear. I observe sweatpants and house shoes under the long coats of well-heeled locals. NW3 residents usually dress in a cosmopolitan style more befitting their Range Rovers and mansions they’re now confined to. Gone are the trendy tourists posing in front of the skyline in Instagram-ready outfits. I eavesdrop on passing conversations. Almost all of them are about coronavirus, or tangential to coronavirus, like complaining about the various relationships suddenly condensed and conducted exclusively from one’s home, or through a screen in one’s home. One jogger’s remark to her friend running a step behind her struck me for its seeming remove from Planet Coronavirus, and would have sounded poetic had it not been panted: “It could be anything. Fear, joy, wonder.” 

A family with two children around ages six and four were screwing around with a football. Motor coordination did not appear to run in their bloodline, but a good sense of humour did, and they cackled at their unathletic mishaps. The littlest one ran up to the ball and with a dramatic sweep of his leg sent himself airborne, landing with a thud, the untouched football inert in front of him. When he did succeed in kicking the ball, it bounced off a tree stump-the lone obstacle in a 20-yard radius-back into his face. He and his older sister took turns cartwheeling and attempting handstands while the other threw the ball at their legs, hoping for an upside-down kick. Neither sibling was gifted with balance or aim, so the ball would limply smack against the calves of a child folding to the ground.

The calmer water undisturbed by boat traffic enables me to see to the bottom of the canal, and today I counted no fewer than a dozen bicycles. Given the recent trawl of the canal that has left rusty pipes, construction debris, bikes, scooters, u-locks, and a miscellany of possible murder weapons heaped every few hundred metres along the towpath, I wonder if these bikes are new additions to the artificial reef in the artificial river. The birds don’t know their habitat is all fake, hand-dug by impoverished men 200 years ago, or that there’s a pandemic, and are particularly chatty given the season. Their calls are clear and melodious, and easier to hear without traffic whooshing past on the roads above concealed behind scrubby thickets and tall trees. The screeching of trains alongside the canal used to spook the horses towing barges, who would bolt into the canal, necessitating the now-crumbled ramps to lead them back onto the towpath. Sometimes I feel badly that the people wearing headphones miss out on all the birdsong, or (if you’re in the right spot at the right time) the lion’s roar from the zoo. 

This tranquility was interrupted at 8pm on Thursday. I was heading home past the tall block of luxury condos opposite Camden Market as the noise-making in support of the NHS commenced. It’s a hollow gesture, a sanitised perversion of the pots-banging and yelling out of windows people started as protest against government ineptitude in London, elsewhere in Europe, and, mostly recently, Brazil. I think it’s stupid for a country that overwhelmingly elected the party committed to defunding and dismantling the NHS to stand outside and smack their hands together in support of the healthcare professionals they condemned to working in desperate conditions. Most of the condos were dark (as so many investment properties are), and there were no more than 20 or so people standing on their balconies, but without the din from the market, noise-making all over the neighbourhood was audible. After several weeks without concerts, parties, or sporting events, I wonder if people are really just making noise for each other, a release and reminder that we’re more than hideaways at home and somber shoppers queuing outside supermarkets.

Up until a few days ago, one food vendor remained inexplicably open in the market. The crowded stalls selling burgers, falafel, and waffles were shuttered, as were the tea house, book shops, and clothing stores that encircle them. The string lights cast an aloof cheeriness over deserted picnic tables. The single open enterprise was the steak and fries stand, helmed by a solitary employee blasting house music and dancing in the six square feet behind the counter.

Once on the other side of the lock, I passed a private security guard wrapping up a friendly chat with the homeless Moroccan man I often see in his own sitspot, a bench built into the side of a new Labtech building that parallels the canal, and who two weeks ago was harassed by a trio of antagonising, asinine guards and their ill-trained dog. The guard overtook me en route back to the corporate, characterless plaza abutting the towpath where these wannabe cops congregate. 

“You were a lot nicer to that guy than your coworkers. Some of them have been super shitty to him.” 
“Well, they’re not the majority of people in the world. Who am I to judge someone who has fallen on hard times. I just work as hard as I can and take as many shifts here so I never have something like that happen to me.” 

Everyone is having a hard time. New graffiti and street art frequently appear along the canal; if you see something you like, it’s best to photograph it then and there before it’s painted over. There hasn’t been the usual turnover lately. In one of the cramped tunnels that you have to angle your head to pass through (I’m asked on tours how horses fit, and I don’t know the answer), someone has hastily sprayed a silver face with x’d out eyes and a flat line for a mouth. Above it: “2020.”

The birds don’t know about the pandemic, and the plants don’t either. Tiny beauties blossom out of the brick. Violets no bigger than a pencil top line the towpath, and tragically cute white flowers that look like bells droop over themselves in patches of grass around the piles of dredged canal artifacts. Small and delicate leaves inch off branches, the same vivid yellow-green as the pandemonium of parrots who flock in Regent’s Park, screaming as they disperse from tree to tree. 

The next time we see each other, those leaves will be broad and deep green. The pink blooms still tightly wrapped into themselves will have long been opened and shed. The sixteen hours of daylight will keep us from heading home, and the bigger and more dramatic flora will slow our pace. We’ll go from rosebush to rosebush, pollinating them with our noses, and pull blackberries off bushes, popping them into our mouths then and there.