My run takes me past the park. Long ago, I thought myself lucky to live by it.
I remember it from a time before the tents and makeshift housing, when it was an open sea of green. I remember it without the fires that burn constantly. Scattered among the tents, the fires heat large, enamel tubs of soup and gruel. On the outskirts of the park, rubbish fires release tall plumes of acrid smoke that rise like grey pillars into the sky. As I run past, their smell sticks in my lungs; it’s heavy with chemicals, rubber and animal remains.
Years ago, the stock reply to ‘I live by the park’ used to be ‘oh, lovely.’ I remember sprinting across it on my morning run, thankful for the sea of green beneath my feet. I remember weekends of cricket, dogs chasing and rolling and children’s games. During the day, the park was filled with hoots of enjoyment, and at night the quiet was broken by laughter or conversation. The people who lived by the park benefited by their proximity to this oasis of green.
Today, the green has gone and the reply to ‘I live by the park’ is a sharp intake of breath through clenched teeth. Its trees have been cut for firewood and their disfigured stumps clutch at the mud. Any free ground has a tent or shack on it, or has been dug to grow vegetables. The park today is mostly brown not green. Today, living by a park is to be too close to suffering people.
Most of the houses overlooking London’s parks have fortified their front gardens and boarded up their bay windows. Most of the houses on the road by my park have CCTV cameras trained at their front gates. Some have signs written in Arabic and Dari that say ‘keep out’. Most now have large toughened glass porches – second skins that enclose the entire front façade at ground level. It’s strange to look at them; I can’t quite remember what the houses looked like before they started protecting themselves.
I watch the postman delivering the morning mail, wearing a protective suit. If you live by a park, post isn’t put through the front door anymore; it’s hurled over high walls or you pick it up directly from the sorting office. It’s funny how those small changes make life feel very different.
The few houses that haven’t completely fortified have to bear the knocks on their doors, day and night. ‘Can we use your phone – there’s an emergency.’ ‘Do you have any milk? My baby is hungry.’ ‘I need medicine, bandages.’ There are a couple of households in the street by the park that seem to be unofficial centres of charity. Their paths are packed with migrants day and night. But very few people have opened their homes like that. And mostly, the good people get tired, worn down, and move away. When eventually their house is sold, it is always at a loss and is always fortified quickly by the new owners.
The parks are never quiet. They are filled with noise and the many sounds of need. Children cry almost constantly. There are arguments in many languages. Sometimes there are songs from far away countries, or bursts of gun fire. When it rains hard, as it often does now, you can hear it bouncing off the roofs of the tents and shacks like drum skins.
The inhabitants of the parks have closed them to others. All but a few of London’s open spaces are ringed by ramshackle fences – heaps of barbed wire, old furniture, supermarket trolleys. Anything that has been thrown away or wasn’t nailed down is used to build up the perimeters. The noticeboard from the local parish church is currently part of a hut built into my park’s fence. A couple of Victorian gravestones have been repurposed as boundary markers, and I’m pretty sure that’s the climbing frame from a local school I can see being used as a barricade.
The park’s occupiers guard its entrances; they’re protecting themselves from other migrants. These guards are armed, and the police and emergency services don’t go in without permission. How strange that people who have fled and found a nation to stay in have the instinct to close their borders – such as they are – to others.
There is never a week without deaths in the parks because still the migrants and asylum seekers arrive and find nowhere to live. Families struggle to get into parks. Bribes and threats and entreaties are given, but there isn’t enough room in London to house all the world’s displaced peoples. Still the migrants and asylum seekers come on foot and then by boat from the Middle East and North Africa.
The parks are like republics or embassies for the dispossessed. They’re a legal grey area, and a continuing nightmare for central government. Britain is bitterly divided on the issue of letting refugees in. But, like all European nations, Britain had to choose between letting in asylum seekers or sinking their rickety boats along with the nation’s democratic principles.
The government was defeated in the Lords, and the nation’s door remained open. This is a source of pride to people who believe that no man is an island, and that islands bear the same duty towards suffering humanity that landlocked nations do. But with no national health service, no social security and not enough housing, its parks were all London could offer the world.
At least it did. Other European nations have built walls and shoot and gas migrants who approach them. And still the men and women and children come, trying to escape the wars, the droughts and the floods in their home countries.
Britain has changed. Europe has changed. And a future that none of us wanted is forming before our eyes. And every time I run past a park, I see and I understand that how the world used to be has gone forever.
© Gvons 2015
© <a href=”http://taluda.openphoto.net/gallery/”>Adrian van Leen</a> for <a href=”http://openphoto.net/gallery/image/view/20159″>openphoto.net</a>