Summer days in Pleasantville (population: mowers)

Apologies for the unseasonal photograph; just imagine it’s marshmallows, not snow.

I grew up in a mansion. This is true.

My first house in conscious memory was a poky little box on an infamously cat-pulverising road, but I was only there for a couple of years before we moved to my official childhood home. And yes, it was the building above. To clarify, we didn’t live in the whole building – we lived in the largest segment of it, the bit denoted by the glowing front door and all the windows to the right of the black dormers. (To clarify further, the crouching figure in the doorway is my brother adjusting his salopettes, and don’t ask.) It was an ancient house with draughty halls and a real stuffed deer’s head hung in front of the main staircase which spanned the three floors. We had a five-acre garden, which had an enormous square lawn and pond and was surrounded by acres of mostly untended woodland, full of deer, rabbits and the occasional creepy stranger who would sneak onto the grounds and nose about the place. Our neighbours were mostly quivering geriatrics who used to largely leave my bother and myself alone in favour of bothering my poor father on a constant basis to ask him whether the gutters/windows/roof/boiler/plumbing needed cleaning/replacing/repairing; however there were a few kids our age around, mostly boys with whom we crashed about the place on our miniscooters and constructed complex settlements in the woods complete with a financial infrastructure and class system. 

As you can imagine, it was a dream location to spend your formative years. The old bricks were porous enough that in times of high wind the carpets would inflate until each room resembled a bouncy castle. The enormous staircases allowed for excellent flight practice, and the sofas we inherited with the house provided a fantastic landing pad after my mother had finally tired of their hideous ugliness and taken an axe to them, leaving us with the huge foam chunks from their padding. The eternal driveway was smooth and had the perfect gradient for one to soar down it on one’s miniscooter at a speed close to terrifying. It also meant that we got used to a lot of things: isolation, for one. The house was on a hill in the middle of nowhere; there was little traffic noise, wildlife roamed free in the fields surrounding us and the only bus to anywhere was infrequent, unreliable and manned by surly old men with mustaches and a vehement hatred of children. We got used to an environment of gentle but ever suspicious surveillance; the aged neighbours would watch us out of their windows or regard us with dismay from their gardens, which faced directly onto ours. My dad stopped coming home from work for his lunch hour because one ancient lady would watch all morning for his car to arrive, wait two minutes from him entering the front door and then, without fail, phone him to complain about the gutters and windows and roof and boiler and plumbing. This treasure of a woman was ironically named Joy.

We absolutely had to leave. Over time, our quaint old creaky castle seemed to become a crumbling, hostile crypt. The entertainingly draughty walls also meant that room temperature in winter was always perishingly cold; you could see your own breath and I used to wear my ski jacket indoors every day from November until March. The neighbours gradually wore my father down to a shred of a man. We weren’t allowed to build or change anything because the place was protected for historical posterity. While I was in Germany, trying to find a place to live, my family finally upped sticks and found a new place to live. 

The second house was similar, a smaller, boxy sort of terrapin quite literally in the middle of a working farm, complete with electric security gate. It was even more isolated than the last. We were eons away from everything and our windows looked out onto nothing but fields and garrulous-looking crows fighting with each other. There was an unused boathouse in the garden edging onto a stretch of river and a scrap of woodland inexplicably full of junk – we found a hammock, thousands of plant pots, bits of discarded metal, odd handfuls of some kind of shredded plastic wool that looked like afro clippings and hundreds of pieces of ugly and decaying flotsam. Again, we were surrounded by nothing but silence and birdsong and blood-sucking insects.

But now, finally, for the first time in my life, we are in the suburbs, and this is the longest stretch of time I have ever been living in this, our new house. It is brand new. It is one of lots of nice, appropriate houses facing onto an appropriately leafy and child-friendly street, appropriately close to a corner shop and a bus stop and a playground and a pub. It’s the kind of place where the vast majority of Brits spend their lives and yet to me it is utterly foreign. The novelties of suburban life are strange and charming, as if I were an ex-marine living with an indigenous tribe in the Bornean rainforest for a TV documentary.

For starters, the sheer noise rattles me like a cockatoo with people kicking its cage. Every morning I am woken up by the sound of a different but yet equally loud piece of heavy machinery; no one knows why one might want to take a chainsaw to one’s front hedge at 7.45am on a Tuesday, but it seems to be a popular hobby, when the street cleaners or bin men or Bastard Leafblower Man aren’t out with a vengeance just after sunrise. There are also a couple of anonymous testosteronis around who plough their ridiculously souped-up engines down the road just after breakfast, as well as the sweet and naive adolescents that loiter about in front of each others’ houses right outside my bedroom window shrieking tipsy nothings at each other. Living on a road also means roadworks, and they have been treating me to diggers and pneumatic drills every morning like the atrocious opposite of breakfast in bed. Once all that industrial hard labour is out of the way and the dawn chorus has been appropriately extinguished under the bellows of grinding machinery, the second phase of suburban living begins. Mowing. There is never a day, nor time of day, nor season of the year that does not require at least one person to be mowing their lawn at any one time. It is as if no-one in this area is at all employed, because the mowers’ burring can begin or end at any time from any of the neat gardens surrounding us regardless of whether that house contains a young family with children or a retired couple with a black labrador. 

Suburban living is also a very vulnerable state, it seems. You have to lock windows and doors quite frequently, I am told, when going out, because there are people called thieves that come in and nick your stuff. Because your house is so close to civilisation that people actually know it exists. As a reminder of that fact, the garden fills up with tennis balls, footballs and those holey golf balls tragically lost by neighbouring children. (Not knowing which garden they came from, I try to just evenly distribute the wealth by throwing a few back over each fence.) Because we are now surrounded by real people rather than scrubby wilderness, our vegetables are finally safe from deer and rabbits so that the deserving slugs can have a crack at erasing them all from the earth. The real-life Jehova’s Witnesses even came round once, which made me so happy I was unshakeable for the rest of the day, even though they did ask me if my mummy and daddy were in.

The main thing, however, which I love about these new surroundings is feeling a part of everything. Now finally joined on to our garden rather than separated from it by a long pathway, we can move from street to house to garden without thinking about it, like a glorious and peaceful human osmosis. There are people around enjoying themselves and making noise and walking their dogs, making you feel like you’re not some ostracised Boo Radley figure up in ‘that weird-lookin’ place up the hill’. I can cycle to the gym and back and thus escape that much-loved ironic remark that you leave your bike at home to drive to the gym where you ride the bike. I feel like I am a real member of the world now, and am overjoyed to find that not all convenience is a homogenous symptom of consumer culture but that it’s perfectly usual and harmless to enjoy the ease of taking your lunch onto the patio or walking to town. But goddamn, are the suburbs a loud place. Oh god, there goes another chainsaw.

Conclusive proof that children love unpaid manual labour

The beautiful spiral herb mound

I have finally mustered the energy to write today’s post after spending most of the day thus far convalescing in bed, tentatively sipping Ribena in a smog of profound self-pity. How did I end up in this pathetic state? Well, it all began many years (hours) ago…

There is a community gardening project called OxGrow down Abingdon Road in Oxford. It is a plot which used to be a bunch of sports grounds and tennis courts for one of the snootiest colleges here, but they have kindly donated it the grounds to the local community to be gradually cultivated and tended until Hogacre Common becomes a lush and teeming eco-paradise. I have been going on Sundays since the start of term and it only took me three minutes among the gorgeous and heaving veg beds to fall in love, and since then they’ve erected a ‘bee platform’ (believe it or not, bees prefer to live on a platform. It makes them feel above the common bees) and expanded the vegetable garden to an incredible degree. We’re growing dozens of exciting varieties of heirloom potatoes and garlic, the onions at the moment look like gleaming juicy gemstones laying on the compost and the strawberry plants are so aggressively lush that the green berries underneath the leaves are nothing but an endless taunt withholding what they are going to become. The work parties are every Sunday whether or not it is glorious sunny weather or the ground is smothered beneath a thick fleece of snow. There is always tea, there is often rain and there is always, without fail, plenty of digging. I love it. Digging is man’s most soothing and wholesome pastime; it makes you feel like a hearty medieval peasant and has the cathartic effect of letting you take out all your anger and stress in every enormous kick you give that big soil-clad spade. At the end of the day, everyone is free to take whatever produce is ready to be picked and you’re usually so cream-crackered the next bit is almost as good as the work party itself: resting back at home with an enormous cup of hot tea and gently hardening mud on your knees.

This Sunday, to celebrate their own volunteering achievements, a student/pupil tutoring scheme called Jacari brought a bunch of their enthusiastic members and tutees to the garden; nothing says ‘celebrate’ like being made to dig clods of soil when you’re 12…Everything was so calm and tranquil for the first hour or so, while we did various odd-jobs around the beds, until suddenly an army of children swarmed in and started gettin’ all up in our pitchforks.

Honestly, it was the most terrific fun. Since my ‘job’ (read: toil) in Berlin I have missed mucking about with kids something awful and unfettered access to spades and worms had put them into an excellent mood. Give kids complete free reign in the outdoors with gardening tools and they become the kind of brilliant beasts you always hope your kids will turn out to be; they squeal with breathless astonishment every single time they find anything vaguely insect-y, ask endless questions and do hilarious things like ‘accidentally’ shovelling soil into the back of your jeans as you’re crouching in the neighbouring bed thinning crops…yes…

The best thing of all, though, was when I was allowed to take my own group of kids off for an explore around the grounds. It was then that I, for the first time, realised how cool and exciting my mum was when I was growing up. She used to take us through the woods for hours, and being the head of a family of nerds she initiated us into the world of insects, birds and fungus (the latter of which my grandmother also tried to do but almost got herself banned from ever seeing us again after she almost managed to persuade us to eat the mushrooms we had found on our ramble). My dad, a vet, helped by bringing home little pots of mealworms or crickets for us to poke at, or even brought the occasional grass-snake or even kestrel that was currently being given medical care. We grew up surrounded by wildlife. And it seems it all stuck, for I found myself teaching these children thousands of little facts and neat things about nature that I had just assumed all kids innately know as part of being twelve years old, but the kids – and quite a lot of the adults – were soaking it all up in shiny-eyed fascination. It was incredible. Several of them had never encountered the buttercup test. One of the student volunteers asked the kids if they knew what a ‘hog’ (as in Hogacre) was. They chanted ‘noooo’. The volunteer hesitated and then muttered that she didn’t actually know either. (I delicately let them know it was another word for a Big Fat Pig.) This is not the kind of thing kids need – they want thousands of small and useless and amazing facts and they want them ALL THE TIME. To be the provider of said facts is simply endless fun.

 These kids didn’t know what stickyweed was, which in my view is a tragedy and a kind of infant poverty, so I diligently explained why it was called stickyweed, how it came to be so sticky and then explained to them the rules of that honoured game where you have to try and stick as much of the stuff on your brother’s back as you can without him noticing. We were lucky enough to find some froghoppers so I could explain how they make their little frothy dens out of their own ‘spit’. We talked about what compost was, how you can tell a dead nettle from a real nettle, and oooooohed at a skeletal leaf that had been completely ravished by the satisfied snail resting on its tip. It’s times like this that I wonder at all the families you see in supermarkets, telling their kids to ‘I don’t know just shut up Damian’ when they keep incessantly asking questions. Having the privilege and the trust to answer a child’s questions is one of the most fun and exhilarating feelings and even if you don’t know the answer you are at least in the position to make that connection with the child: you can tell them an interesting story of what the answer might be (“Oooh, maybe bananas are bent so monkeys can use them as boomerangs, what do you think?”) or at least encourage them for having had the gumption to ask in the first place (“Do you know, I have no idea! It’s cool that you noticed…!”) Suffice it to say, if I have kids – and it’s a big if, since I have looked into the heart of darkness on that score – I will ensure that they know all about inkcaps and puffballs and stickyweed as soon as they can stand. 


After being gone from the garden for a length of time close to ‘abduction’ on a legal scale, I had to bring the kids back and they all marched off to their treasure hunts and gnashed on crisps. And they went home, hopefully to a future filled with afternoons spent covering their peers in adhesive strings of flora and getting shouted at for being a mess. We all got to take a fresh new onion home, alongside a glorious array of broccoli, asparagus, leeks, chard, and all kinds of delicious just harvested produce.


It all came home with me and went into a delicious vegetable ginger-honey-miso stirfry with a huge field mushroom that had come from the market a while before. It was delicious. And then, hours later, for some reason I can’t quite fathom, it kept me awake all night and made me more violently ill than I have ever been in my memorable past. But it was worth it. Pass the ribena.

The beginning of the beginning of the end

And it seems to me you’ve lived your life like a lampshade in the wind…
My odyssey in Berlin is coming to a close, but I specifically booked two weeks after the end of my contract to have the time to do all the things one inevitably always says one must unbedingt machen but never actually finds the time or lust. The first of those days was utterly consumed by the sheer mesmeric euphoria of being in bed for hours and hours and hours without having to do anything or, most importantly, without having to see or interact with a single toddler. The second day I remembered that I did indeed have work to do and spent hours and hours at the computer drawing the last of the illustrations for the company’s new workbook, trying to figure out how on earth one can possibly depict ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ as a simple colour-in picture; it turns out that this song is deeply Descartian-philosophical when one thinks it through for long enough (“I am happy, but do I know it? What happens if I don’t know it? Can I know I am happy without being happy? I clap, therefore I am…”)
But the third day – after I had dumped a year’s worth of clothes stretched by tiny hands into amorphous sacks at Oxfam – everything ging los. I had my list of things to do, some respectable and some less so, and I strode off into the wind to explore my honorary Heimatstadt one last time. First off I finally devoted a good amount of time to exploring Tempelhof park, one of Berlin’s most underrated and undermentioned offerings. Tempelhof is unlike any other park in the world, primarily because it’s not a park; it’s an airport. The old airport is not only the place where the first ever flight demonstrations took place decades ago but also was used during the Luftbrücke, when allied planes flew food into the seriously deprived West, suffering despite being an island of non-communism within the communist mire. It was finally, sadly, closed, but unlike in the UK where it would either be made into a tacky concert hall or most likely razed to the ground and rebuilt as a Tesco, here it was simply kept as it was to serve as a park for the general public. Nowadays it is full of kite-flyers, dog-walkers and roller-bladers making the most of the beautiful, huge, flat and mile-long runways.

They have done a tremendous job with this place, simply by barely touching it. The middle strip of land has been turned into a Wiesenmeer (sea of meadows) where wild flowers grow and larks and butterflies can go forth and multiply; there are nicely trimmed BBQ areas with excellent bins and, best of all, right at the back there’s the Tempelhof-Schönefeld Gemeinschaftsgärten. From far away, as I walked around the runways, it looked simply like a big pile of rubbish, and in Berlin this would never be implausible, and as I approached the only two thoughts in my mind were:

1) Typical Berlin. You have something as great as this park and ruin it by letting people wang a load of trash in the middle of it and shove anti-nuclear stickers all over the trash.
2) When will that creepy man stop trotting up to me whispering “Hallo, Kleine” and asking if I can hear him?
But when I got to the trashheap what I actually found were hundreds of wooden crates, old paddling pools, suitcases, clothes trunks and other receptacles which had all been lovingly filled with compost and beautifully flourishing fruit and veg plants.
Not being permitted to plant directly into the airport soil, the members of this community garden project have assembled their gardens on top of the soil and made it truly Berlin by furnishing it with vintage upholstery and faux Wild-West outhouses. Naturally. Once again I simply marvelled for a moment about how much I love this brilliant city, and then allowed marvelling to give way to rage as a bunch of American hipster dweebs cycled up on their rented choppers and started drawling about how “Man, this is like, so Berlin, like have you been to that bar in Kreuzberg where all the drinks are mixed with nutritional yeast and served in urine sample beakers? Have you been to that club in Neukölln where you have to dance with handcuffs on and the DJ is a rabbi? Have you been to that café in Wedding where the coffee is ground under the wheels of a Nazi-Germany tank?…” I left in disgust.
Hipsters (and people slightly too old to be rollerblading in hotpants) notwithstanding, Tempelhof is a great place to spend a sunny day and simply astonishing in its vastness and relative untouched-, gimmick-free-ness. And it was also conveniently near to my next destination, something I was determined to visit from the minute of my arrival and which had my heart beating slightly quicker as I drew ever nearer to it.
Dun-dun-DUUUUUUUUN!
What the heck is that, I hear you cry. Why, it’s Hauptstrasse 155 Berlin Schönefeld. The very building where DAVID BOWIE (and Iggy Pop) genuinely lived for a good long while in one of their most awesome periods. Good grief! Why has no-one profited from this? Why is there no plaque, no commemorative graffiti mural, no themed café next door called “It’s hard to be a saint in the Latte”? It is nothing but a nondescript door with a dentist’s practice. Blasphemy, thy name is Schöneberg. That’s the last pilgrimage I ever make.