There’s something beautiful and eerie about Regent’s Park – the large, green and often empty space just minutes from London’s West End.
I’ve felt this on the many occasions that I’ve been there over the years. When my wife and I frequently travelled to London some years back, we would usually stay at a nearby hotel, from whence I’d set out for 5k or 10k runs early in the morning. My route would take me around the Outer Circle and partly into the park, and more than once I felt wholly alone, my only company the statues that occasionally appeared out of the early morning fog.
Even at noon, when families and office workers throng the Broad Walk that runs through the center of the park, three minutes walking off a side path can bring you to solitude.
Last Saturday I did something I’d never done before – circumambulate the park at night. We’d just arrived off a flight from Dublin, and the previous day had been a long one. I set out alone, to take the air, and discovered that our accommodation was less than 10 minutes from Regent’s Park.
And so, in the darkness, encountering only the occasional walker and a small number of passing cars (London was empty, it was the holidays), I walked the three miles around the Outer Circle. Part of it was lit by a long row of street lamps, another part in total darkness – which made traversing the old, broken pavement that bit more difficult.
The atmosphere was what I remembered, though: an air of natural beauty, even at night, offset with an occasional start, as when an animal (or something else) would break cover in the undergrowth on the other side of the park fence.
In my mind I thought of Maurice Bendrix, the main character in Graham Greene’s “The End Of The Affair”, and his nocturnal walks in another, not too distant, London park during the blackout of The Blitz. There was something Greene-like about the quiet sense of order, the neat pathways and clipped back hedges of the park, which faced the large, authoritative faces of the expensive houses that bordered it.
It was a setting that awaited an event – a scream, a shot, running feet on the pavement, a hand on the shoulder. I turned off the music in my headphones.
Minutes later I walked back into the streetlights near Hanover Gate, and all such feelings subsided. I sped up and was home within 20 minutes, to a seat, a cup of tea and dinner plans. I quickly forgot the park feeling.
Until, leaving London three days later, I came across the picture above, which I’d taken on the lonely street of the Outer Circle. I elected to keep it, and write this piece, as a reminder that – even in the hyper-connected and hyper-surveilled heart of a 21st century city, there remain moments, stretches, of wonder and unease. We may never be quite as secure as we think we are.
“It’d be a great country if you could put a roof over it.”
This i the standard comment most Irish make about their home country, a place prone to a steady succession of “soft days” – ones filled with on-off drizzle, damp air and mostly-gray skies (and that’s just summer).
Which is why it’s somewhat unbelievable that we’ve spent the past 10 days here with barely a drop of rain. In December, too.
The result is that our visit, and Ireland itself, seems totally different. No more running across a park for cover from lashing rain showers, or catching cold because you didn’t get to that cover quickly enough. No damp children and irate adults, as they try to bring the small ones out and about in weather just slightly less predictable than a Bering Sea storm.
Instead we’ve been able to stroll – dry – through the Christmas shoppers in Wexford, or under the Christmas lights on Grafton Street. When staying close to Castletown House in Celbridge, I’ve managed to run around the grounds early each morning, not wet, not freezing.
Even the conversation’s changed. Anyone who has spent time in Ireland knows how much the locals obsessively talk about the weather – what we’ve had, what we’re having, what we’re going to have tomorrow (“showers” is a safe bet for all three).
With decent weather, what would we talk about, I wondered. Well, Brexit filled that gap.
And, of course, we caught up with friends and family, ate and drank in the spirit of the season, and unwound. A dry Christmas in Ireland was good for the soul, relaxing and sustaining.
We leave tomorrow, and I see that showers are forecast in the morning. Normal service is set to be resumed.
I envy our dog many things but – first and foremost – is her ability to sleep. Hadley, a miniature dachshund, can pitch down just about anywhere and nod off, at any time.
For me, it’s the exact opposite. For years I’ve dealt, to a greater or lesser, degree, with insomnia. It’s far from chronic (I average about 5.5 hours a night, I’ve established – those of us with sleeping problems often record such details obsessively), but it’s ever-present.
Workdays, weekends, vacations – the schedule rarely wavers. A good night is sleep by midnight or 1 a.m. and waking between 5 and 6 a.m. A bad night is a lot less.
After 15 or so years of this – I’ve no idea what triggered it, back in my mid- 20s – I’ve grown accustomed to a regular shell-like feeling when dawn comes around, and the dread of staring down the day ahead, knowing that I’ll feel jetlagged (in a transatlantic way) throughout.
I was therefore interested to read recently the opinion of the late fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who believed that spending hours of the night and early morning awake could loosen creative juices. While I’ve certainly spent the early hours writing or editing, I can’t say I felt any more inspired – more like grateful for not wasting time trashing futilely around the bed.
But Aldiss’ belief prompted me to think of the positives of fractured sleep, and I came up with this list (which I’m tempted to print and pin above my bedside locker):
Peace and quiet. Little is stirring at 5 a.m. The world is asleep. This stillness is best enjoyed standing on the back deck with very early cup of coffee.
More hours in the day. Gordon Gekko-like, I can therefore get more done (of course, this doesn’t always pan out – sometimes I spend too long on the back deck, for a start).
A feeling of solidarity with my heroes. William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Franz Kafka, Philip Larkin, and others were all 4 a.m. floor pacers. Alas my scribbling is not quite at the same level. One can dream (if one could sleep.)
Imperviousness to jetlag. I’d like to say this is true all the time but alas it’s not. However, if schedules align, poor sleep in Oregon can dovetail to a perfect waking hour when we visit Ireland.
Cuddle time with a half-awake dog. If I’m awake, Hadley is often half-awake, and she’s usually in the mood for a snuggle at any hour. (Yes, she sleeps in our bed.) To be honest, this is insomnia’s true silver lining.
From time to time I fear that I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by art.
Perhaps it’s a facet of ageing – I feel that I’ve seen or heard a lot of it before – or maybe its a curse of the online age, where all art is in a piece of modifed aluminum in my pocket. Either way, the “wow” factor strikes me less and less these days.
All the more so when it comes to visual art. It’s a long time since I’ve stood before an artwork and felt a deep connection or resonance. Until recently, the last time I felt this way was standing before Picasso’s “Still Life With A Mandolin“, in Dublin a few years ago.
And then something happened. A few weeks back my wife and I, with friends, attended the Portland Book Festival, which was partly held at the Portland Art Museum. The Festival entrance fee allowed for access to the Art Museum and its “Modern American Realism” exhibition.
All of which brought me to my revelation. Turning a corner on the second floor of the Museum, to step into the exhibition’s room, I was confronted by an imposing image of a woman, standing in a window, staring at something out of frame.
The picture, at over a meter high, transfixed me. I’d never seen this painting before. Who was this person? What had happened to her (why was she in the dark shade, in contrast to the bright of the wall and the grass outside)? Was she looking at something specific (which I assumed until I spent longer looking at her face) or staring into space?
Moreover, was I wrong in reading a sense of dread into the image? Did it simply capture a mundane moment on a mundane morning, and nothing more?
The picture was Edward Hopper’s “Cape Cod Morning“, painted with oil on canvas in 1950. I know little of biographical background to the image, which was unlikely to have been painted in New England, but instead in Hopper’s small downtown Manhattan studio. But it was a notable work created in a period of inactivity for the artist, I’ve read.
The genesis of the image doesn’t matter, of course. Brian Eno has written that “what makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you.” So it was with “Cape Cod Morning” – the image stuck in my mind for the rest of the day, and in the days and weeks since I’ve viewed it online again and again.
I’m still trying to figure out what – if anything – she’s looking at.
For me, it could be “A Case Of You”, “Woodstock”, “River”, “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” or “The Circle Game” (though I’d have to favor Tom Rush’s cover of the last song). In fact, it could any song from her albums “Blue”, “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns” or “Hejira”.
But there’s one Mitchell composition I continually return to, perhaps because its lyrics of travel and uncertainty and learned life experience resonate deeply with me, as does its wistful melody.
The song is “Amelia” (which I’ve written about previously). Lyrically, it’s an odd combination of travelogue, tribute and existential questioning, which contains one of my favorite lines in popular song:
People will tell you where they’ve gone They’ll tell you where to go But till you get there yourself you never really know
Musically, it’s in the “Joni tuning” of CGCEGC, with chord slides which create a yearning, searching feeling. But trying to dissect the song weakens the experience of listening to its full six minutes, and immersing oneself in its feelings of desire and disconnection, commitment and hope.
Diane Krall sang it at the birthday party at L.A.’s Music Center this week, and I’ve no doubt she made a fine job of it. But there’s nothing like the original. Thanks Joni.