Oh! how I love, on a fair summer’s eve,
When streams of light pour down the golden west,
And on the balmy zephyrs tranquil rest
The silver clouds, far — far away to leave
All meaner thoughts, and take a sweet reprieve
From little cares; to find, with easy quest,
A fragrant wild, with Nature’s beauty drest,
And there into delight my soul deceive.
There warm my breast with patriotic lore,
Musing on Milton’s fate — on Sydney’s bier —
Till their stern forms before my mind arise:
Perhaps on wing of Poesy upsoar,
Full often dropping a delicious tear,
When some melodious sorrow spells mine eyes.
Summer came back to these parts last week. Last week I finally got round to visiting John Keats’ house in nearby Hampstead: it’s well worth a visit, nicely interpreted and making you want to read some of his poems. The week before, on a fair summer’s Sunday eve, I took a short spin around Finsbury Park, even closer to home, sharing some of the simple pleasures he expresses in this sonnet.
Obviously I can’t improve on his words because he says it all really. Is there, in all honesty, anything genuinely better than just walking slowly – very slowly – past a well-kept border? Or walking barefoot on the grass, testing the theory that this gets unproductive electricity out of your system (no idea whether it works but it feels nice)? Or sitting down on the same grass just because it’s dry, and just because you can? Or seeing families full of children making hay in the safe play areas? Or taking a small boat around the pond, dodging the floating weeds and barely disturbing the ducks, who couldn’t care less anyway? Or doing all that without rushing, or feeling you actually have to do anything?
Simple stuff, I know. No one is going to say that Finsbury Park is the most special park in London. That’s just the point. Even here, in an area full of life but not totally prepossessing, we are on the doorstep of a large green space which is one of the key places where the local area goes to relax. And on a pleasant evening – is there any weather, anywhere in the world, as fine as a perfect English summer’s day? – you don’t need much else. Look back at the poem – you don’t need to be anywhere in particular to experience that.
So who are the 47 then? Well, for the past five weeks I’ve inevitably identified myself with the people we call the 48 – the 48%+ who voted to stay in the EU. Coincidentally I discovered the figure that 47% of London is open space, most of it green. That’s where we have it over most other big cities. Paris is as beautiful, Vienna is as historic, New York is as vibrant. But wentralhere are their green spaces? Mainly on the outskirts – even Central Park, glorious as it is, is one big space, tidily packaged and corralled into one place.
In London the open spaces are dotted all over town – either staring you in the face or tucked behind back alleyways or along water courses, where to come across them is always a welcome surprise. I’ve wondered for years what the point is of the Green Belt around London. Green Belts are supposed to be the lungs of an industrial city – which is plain enough where a city is so heavily built that it’s too late to do much about it. London’s lungs are where they belong – alongside its beating heart. The Green Belt has only one real purpose: to sustain the property values of the noisy middle classes across the prosperous South East.
That’s today’s sermon, but really all I want to say is that many of the simplest pleasures are usually associated with open spaces – and are usually available, as they say, free, gratis and for nothing. John Keats understood that. So can anyone.