I have lived in London now just over thirty years, having moved here on 4th July 1983. I don’t know how long you normally must wait to claim squatter’s rights, but thirty plus years seems a good enough period to me. So, let me state my claim now, London belongs to me.
The glory of London is its parks and open spaces, you are rarely ever far away from a London park, common or heath. I am within fifteen minutes’ walk of Kensington Gardens or Holland Park, much closer to several smaller areas with grass and flowers and benches on which to sit, all maintained by Kensington and Chelsea council who also still believe in the value of trees. Those who would see what they call ‘the state’ shrink rarely mention such items in their calculations. What does it cost to maintain a tree? Too much for some, who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Holland Park is one of the less known London parks and one of my favourite, combining as it does areas of uncultivated and semi wild ground, with the ordered gardens around Holland House. Like most London parks it too is mercifully well provided with wooden benches, the metal ones being considerably inferior. I think leaving a park bench as a memorial is as great a gift to the world you leave behind as the planting of a tree. Sitting on one of the park benches in Holland Park in the fall of last year I was moved to pen a poem.
Each one chooses its moment
then a letting go,
the moment of separation
Falling slowly through the damp autumn air.
No, not fluttering
a closing of the eyelids.
In choosing your moment
you chose less carefully.
For Caspar Ringrose 11/1/71 – 26/6/94
As you can see I dedicated it to Caspar Ringrose on whose bench I was sitting when I composed the poem. I never knew him, but hope he would approve.
Kensington Gardens is a different sort of open space to Holland Park, providing passage for cyclists and joggers between Bayswater and south Kensington. Kensington Gardens isn’t a separate park at all, but is an adjunct to Hyde Park. I used to walk to work taking a route through Kensington Gardens, then Hyde Park, Green Park and finally St James Park before finally reaching my office just around the corner from New Scotland Yard. The geography of each park brushing against the other allowing for such a pleasant journey into the heart of London.
I recently learned that this is the same route to work taken by John Stuart Mill over a hundred and fifty years earlier. It was on one such journey that he found two dead babies in Kensington Gardens, abandoned by a mother too poor to care for them. Shocked by this discovery he took to handing out leaflets advocating birth control in the East End. This action earning him a short spell in prison.
Thankfully the most shocking thing I have ever come across on a London walk is a rather splendid looking dead fox, foxes now regular visitors to night time London. Engaged I imagine in clubbing to the early hours of the morning in the West End.
St James Park is the most ordered of the central London parks, I used to take my lunch there. It is also of course a notorious meeting place for spies. I often used to look out for likely suspects, latter day Kim Philby’s, or Anthony Blunt’s, men in hats carrying brown envelopes, who, after looking furtively around, turn to a stranger and say “I think the ducks have not been fed today!” To which with any luck the stranger replies. “Fortunately I have come with a bag of breadcrumbs.”
Not all of London’s parks and green spaces are open to the public. Particularly around Holland Park and Kensington there is a plethora of padlocked parks and gardens. These are the reservations set aside for the wealthy inhabitants of the crescents and squares that make up this area of West London. In the film ‘Notting Hill’ Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant clamber over the railings of one such park to enjoy some quality time together. If you ever did try this I imagine some monstrous alarm system would start screeching into the night.
During the war the railings around these parks were removed, ostensibly for scrap iron, though also feeding into the democratic spirit of the war. It was a move greatly applauded by George Orwell, who had at one time lived at the Notting Hill End of Portobello Road.
Towards the end of the war the railings began to be put back. When Orwell protested, this move an indignant correspondent accused Orwell of advocating theft. Orwell responded:
‘If giving the land back to the people of England is theft, I am quite happy to call it theft…In his zeal to defend private property my correspondent does not stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title deeds.’
If anything, things have got considerably worse since Orwell’s day. There are now whole areas of Dockland, and parts of the City in which you are ‘allowed’ to walk and may be permitted to take pictures, - however these privileges, not rights you understand, can be taken from you on a whim from the ‘owners’ of the land. Whilst the maintenance of Hyde Park has been privatised and recently the company who won the contract started to levy charges for playing football or cricket on parts of the park that Londoners have played on, for free, for hundreds of years. These moves met with stiff resistance and the authorities backed down.
Londoners have over the centuries have proved a difficult populace to govern, quick to defend any transgressions of their rights and liberties, with a propensity to riot if the ruling elite push their luck too far. I will be standing with them, for London belongs to me, one to its citizens.
 The collected Essays Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3, As I Please, p241.