An offer I declined
I often feel the lack of countryside in London. I felt it today, this afternoon, at almost five o'clock, too late to do a great deal about it. When I used to live in Oxford, I could be in the countryside within a few minutes of the craving so to do, a short cycle off the estate taking me outside the city. It was possible, in fact, to walk out of the front door and find myself, within a few minutes, lost in the dark in a rape field and hemmed in by cows while trying to find a short cut to a village pub before last orders.
In London, no such thing is possible. Even finding anything that can be described - be properly described - as countryside is hard enough. It always amazes and exasperates me, how many people are able to respond to my complaint by recommending Hampstead Heath. The Heath is nice, but it is not and cannot be the countryside. The countryside is not a tiny patch surrounded by the city. It is the larger part which itself surrounds the city and in doing so, makes that city seem small. It is not the countryside if one goes over the brow of a hill and sees just below one's feet the largest city in the continent of Europe. Hampstead Heath is no more the countryside than is Tooting Bec Common. Or Clapham Common, for that matter. One may as well claim that London gives access to the sea, by pointing at the Thames and claiming that it represents an estuary.
At least in South London one feels a little less hemmed in by the city. For some reason the buildings do not seem quite so high, the roads a little wider, the sky therefore a little more visible than it is on the other side. One feels the promise of countryside, even if it is only an illusion caused by an absence of building. I was struck, not long after moving down here, when on a bus journey that took me into Mitcham the clutter of buildings suddenly disappeared: between Mitcham and Croydon, looking south, there was suddenly a horizon, a view of fields with no housing at the other side. There was suddenly a gap, an end, an edge. I cherished that, and felt much more at home in South London than I had ever done in the North London where I was born.
But, even then, it is not countryside. To see that requires a train, and time enough to travel. The most that one can do with a couple of buses at five on a Sunday afternoon is the Kent suburbia. There are places that look as though they ought to be countryside, just by their names on the map: Elmers End, for instance, or West Wickham to which, eventually, I took a bus. But they are, alas, simply suburban outposts - villages, if they call themselves that, in name alone, no more bucolic in character than a pelican crossing.
Even on the map they betray their real nature by comparison with the much more impressive names that lie just south-east of the grille of the A-Z, like Pratts' Bottom and Badgers Mount, whose absence of apostrophe indicates, presumably, a verb. One imagines that life in these places is no more rural than it is in Pimlico, but if one is rather more likely to see a stockbroker than a scythe one is, at least, equally unlikely to set eyes on Canary Wharf. You need to feel that all that is gone. You will not see it. You will not hear it. You will not come upon it suddenly, by accident. And you will be able to look around you and see nothing that you recognise. I need that, often, in London. I need it because London will not let me have it.
Eventually I got as far as Hayes, by way of a couple of buses and a train ride from the penultimate stop on the commuter line to the final one. (I almost said, on the branch line, but the nature of a branch line is that it branches off a main line, and this line goes directly in to Charing Cross.) Beyond there was Hayes Common, and beyond that there is, at least, some sort of countryside, or at least some space, some Green Belt before Biggin Hill. The other side of the space one leaves the area of the A-Z entirely, which would seem remote enough for most inhabitants of London, even those who think that the city stops at the southern fringe of the Underground network.
I might have gone further, had I had the time, but it was already close to seven when I arrived on the common. There were few people about, mostly walking their dogs, and one cycling couple of whom the lagging, female half complained: "this is a really pleasant bit and you insist on going fast!" to her speeding partner. Probably to get away from you, I misanthropically responded, probably loud enough for her to hear but not quite loud enough for her to be sure what I'd said. After that there was barely time to find a comfortable log to sit on, in the wooded area, and read a couple of articles in the London Review of Books, before the air became perceptibly blurred - more the anticipation of twilight than the twilight itself - and I decided to plod my weary way back to the station. Not, very much, a day out in the country. But not, at least, an evening in front of the television.
Besides, I had had my genuinely bucolic moment earlier in the day, in Penge, after getting off my first bus and walking to the bus stop for my second. Four young lads, probably none of them eleven, were gathered in a group, one of them holding something in his hand, the others looking at it. When I went past them it transpired that the object of their attention was a frog, just as it might have been if they had been spending all day fishing about in the village pond, wading about and seeing what they could find and what they could do with it.
I paused to wonder what Orwell might have written about them, in Coming Up For Air or one of the letters he wrote during the period when he wrote that novel, while he was keeping a friend's village shop in Hertfordshire and, though not to the extent of going to live in Jura, leaving the metropolis to its own unadmired devices. Perhaps he night have imagined them letting the frog loose in the village church during a service, or putting it down the neck of some persecuted girl.
I may, I realise now, be mixing Orwell up with Richmal Crompton, but at any rate the idyll didn't last for long, for this was still the city and city children have very different ideas. Before I had gone very far past the boys, one of them called out to me:
"Hey mister, if you give him ten pence he'll put the frog down his trousers." The bus took twenty minutes to arrive - they were still making the offer to passers-by when it arrived. As far as I could tell, there had been no takers.