Ever since the first lockdown measures came into place in March of 2020, I’ve gone walking. I’ve tried to get out every day, just to ensure that I’m getting some sunlight. I walk at a brisk pace, like I’m busting for a piss in a shopping mall and trying desperately to find the nearest restroom. The pace is important. I don’t want to be shuffling along without purpose. I want to get the blood pumping around my body and bring on a sweat. While I walk, I try to untangle creative problems. So I’m not really concentrating on anything around me; I’m marching full speed ahead on the quietest paths I can find, lost entirely in my own thoughts. Without my glasses, the street trees and ambling pensioners are a blur. I cross the road before I’m close enough to recognize a person. It’s the new etiquette.
I keep going, past the old woman that smokes a cigarette as she leans out of a Dutch half door like a horse waiting for an apple. There’s a black cat nearby that I always encounter without fail. I don’t know its name, but it probably hates me for the way my marching feet disturb its sunbathing. On the pavement ahead is a none-too-subtle recreation of the male reproductive apparatus inscribed in chalk. Delivery vans thunder through empty streets, turning out of T-junctions without going into first gear. Hedges of blackberries and nettles. Piles of wet leaves yearning to be kicked up by a child’s boot. Brick and concrete expanding in all directions like invasive, all-encompassing kudzu over millennia of floodplains and pastures. A family with an apple tree leaves a crate in their yard on which is scrawled: Help yourself!
I mostly storm ahead, picking up the little details subconsciously after months and months of walking. All information is attained by accident. I feel like that’s life in a nutshell- weighed down by the present, consumed with the needs of the self. The bigger universe flits by in the periphery. But not all the time- sometimes you stop.
I stopped near the end of my loop. By which I mean: I didn’t stop walking, but I stopped unpacking the present. For a brief yet significant moment, I existed in the past. And in that brief moment, there were twenty years.
Twenty years of human history. All in this one place. The War on Terror, the rise of social media, the Indian Ocean earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and the global recession passed by within the modest borders in front of me: a wooden fence and an iron one, that joined together to contain a flat expanse of concrete more densely-packed with my own memories than perhaps anywhere else. In some ways I was made in that fenced-off rectangle; formed piecemeal amongst its jungle-gyms and swing-sets, beneath the boughs of its surrounding trees. I was shaped by the politics and rituals we created there, a two-decade saga of alliances, double-crossings, promises and pacts. Secrets were shared upon the seats of swings. Confessions were administered. Amateur dramatics were performed. There were declarations of love and there were fist-fights. There were football tournaments and inductions into alcohol. We climbed the trees, we chased each other in games of hide-and-seek, and we tested the defense-mechanisms of wasp-nests. As towed howitzers rained down explosive shells on Helmand Province thousands of miles away, my friends and I pelted each other with horse chestnuts, water balloons, airsoft pellets, and snowballs with as much ferocity.
This playground- which we never called by its actual name, but simply “The Park”- had seen almost everything there was to see about human life and relations. I looked at the changeless trees and thought about how they could produce a definitive study on our species, simply from their vantage point over The Park the past few decades. That flat, rectangular space was a microcosm of everything outside its borders. It had seen violence, sex, sickness, crime, and politics. I genuinely believe that the vastness of the world outside those fences could be fitted into the space within, when you boiled it down to its fundamental properties.
That’s what struck me when I was out walking the other day. How a place once so important to your life can disappear in plain sight. No matter how much we once invested ourselves in this place, time nonetheless moves forward, and The Park remains- its trees silent and its concrete unyielding- as if we were never there at all. As if all of it never happened. The memories are important to us, but the universe is indifferent. And even we forget, until it rushes back to us like it did me that day.
So I thought I’d have a go at trying to write about the place. It seems too important not to write about, and yet I’ve never considered it. This is a blog about my life after all, and when I reflect on how much of my life was determined by this one place, I feel its absence here conspicuous. For starters, The Park’s importance to us was necessitated by simple physical geography. It wasn’t centrally-located in the town in which we lived (in fact it’s right on the edge), but it was central to my friends and I. It lay adjacent to our primary school, so we were already funneled in that direction to begin with. When the school day concluded at 3pm, The Park was right there, so that’s where we hung out. Once that precedent was set, we hung out there on weekends and holidays too. When we left primary school, we still hung out there because that was simply where we had always congregated. Even though our new school was far away on the other side of town, in the opposite direction, The Park remained vaguely equidistant to each of our houses. It was the logical meeting point for our group due to the geometry of where we lived.
That meant that this quiet, somewhat unremarkable place on the fringes of Nailsea saw the evolution of our priorities and ideas. The details changed but the system stayed the same; where once we met at The Park armed with Pokémon cards, we later came with six-packs of beer. Old habits accommodated new characteristics. Our activities remained structured around this one place, even though in theory we were far too old for it. The Park had been designed for children under the age of 12 after all, which roughly corresponds to the age range of the nearby primary school. In the early years, when we rushed out of the school gate to the swings and slides of The Park at 3pm, our parents formed a line of spectators around the exterior of the fence. They were happy to chat amongst themselves while we played games of tag inside, and only really ventured in themselves to break up fights or drag us home if we refused their calls. Sometimes the younger kids would fall off of a climbing frame and dash their little heads on the concrete like a dropped Kinder Surprise. My friends and I always stayed the longest, and by the age of 10 we did so without the supervision of our parents. I remember how quiet it got by 4pm, when all the other kids had left for piano and swimming lessons, for The Simpsons and other after-school cartoons, for dinners of fish-fingers and baked beans. The older we got, the longer we stayed. Conversations became less about comparing Lord of the Rings characters and more about how increasingly horny we were all of a sudden. We knew from Sex Ed classes and the network of older siblings that we were on the cusp of changes, that primary school was coming to an end, that we were already beginning to feel different. We cherished The Park after 4pm- when it was ours alone- because that was the only time we could truly discuss the things that were now of great importance to us.
There were four swings on the swing-set, and even though the exact number of our group fluctuated from as little as two to well over a dozen, we each had our favorite swing. It was important for us that everyone know which swing was ours, and some people insisted on their favorite swing. When there was more than four of us, the swings were first-come-first-serve, and the slowest or least assertive had to sit on the ground.
“Bagsy,” was the law of the land (the British equivalent of “calling dibs”). Sometimes things got primitive and a given swing was won through physical violence. Looking back, it’s interesting how much importance we ascribed these swings in our early years. The more comfortable place to sit became a status symbol, a thing worth fighting for. If The Park had been the same, minus the swing-set, I imagine something else would have taken its place. The physical geography of any given space necessitates the culture that forms there. In a living room, it might be the prized recliner, or the seat closest to the power outlet. On a larger scale, it’s a strategic hill, a nexus of trade, or proximity to natural resources. We find the advantage in the natural arrangement of space.
One afternoon, around 5pm on a silent, overcast day, I was sat on the swings with my closest friend. In the distance, we noticed a gang of older kids heading toward The Park. They looked like giants- at least fourteen years old or perhaps even older. They had piercings, facial hair, and they smoked cigarettes. My friend and I looked at each other but said nothing. We watched as they entered the gate and walked right up to us, laughing about something. It occurred to me that I might die, so before they were close enough to speak, I jumped out of the swing in surrender. Swings were important to us, so I figured it would be important to them too. I was convinced they would demand my seat and I was terrified of a confrontation. My friend remained in his swing, and the older kids took the three remaining seats without comment, as though we had some ongoing arrangement. But then, one of the guys took a long drag on his cigarette and asked me “Why did you give up your swing, mate?”
“I…I wanted you to have it,” I stammered, not knowing I was in the process of setting a passive code of behavior for the next twenty years. The older kids chuckled and started talking about something else. I knew then that I didn’t have anything to fear from them, and their acceptance reinforced my idea that being a doormat had its rewards. Now I got to hang with the cool kids. I took a seat on the ground and watched as one of them set up a radio he told us was stolen. We hung out for a while, like two nomadic tribes that find each other in the steppe and share cups of fermented horse milk. I can’t remember what we talked about. I just remember a vague feeling of unexpected happiness. It’s funny how when you’re young- particularly before the onset of adolescence- older kids could be impressive and interesting simply by virtue of being older. Perhaps I thought that being able to sit with them was a sign that things would go well for me when I started secondary school the next year and officially became a “teenager”. The politeness of these guys who looked somewhat intimidating on the outside was a nice surprise. Eventually I announced that my mother had texted me saying I had to go home for tea. One of the guys said “Go have your tea, mate,” and they wished me and my friend well as we left. I liked that despite their rebellious image, they endorsed the idea of respecting your parents. On the surface, this encounter is a complete non-story- and yet I’ve held onto it for nearly two decades.
It serves as a counterpoint to another incident from the same time. As I said earlier, The Park was full of kids of all ages for a good hour after the school day ended. In essence, it was like another lunchbreak, an extension of the school day. If two kids got in a fight over a swing or whatever, parents were there to intervene as authority figures. But by the time we were on the cusp of puberty, we desired independence and practiced it by staying out later and later. When it was just me and my friendship group left in The Park after 4pm, we no longer felt like we were at school. It felt like we were in the real world, out in the wild, simply from the absence of the other kids and the watching eyes of parents.
Just like last time, a gang of older kids appeared on the horizon, but what followed was more like something from the Wild West. Immediately upon entering The Park, they started harassing us and singled out my friend, trying to goad him into a fight. We were ten years old and these kids were fourteen, which is a more significant difference than it sounds. At the time we talked in high-pitched, squeaky voices about Yu-Gi-Oh! and had no muscle mass whatsoever. We were used to scraps always being broken up by a teacher or a parent, and the absence of any kind of grown-up figure in this scenario was something we hadn’t experienced before. Fights at school were always waged with the knowledge that it could never go too far. And we were too scrawny to really damage each other anyway. Whereas these guys were borderline men, a foot taller than the tallest of us and packed with budding muscles.
The older kids followed my friend around The Park, trying to provoke him. Eventually, my friend climbed the tower of the jungle gym and the ringleader followed him up there, until they were both standing in this small roost with the rest of us watching them from below. Then, in a sudden violent flash, the ringleader punched him in the eye. We gasped. I was afraid the force of it would cause my friend to fall from the tower, as he was standing on the outside of the railing with nothing to break his fall. Although the punch knocked his head back upon impact, he had the presence of mind to hold onto the metal bar in front of him. Even today, I can still hear the sound of that punch- akin to the smack of a fly-swatter but lower in pitch- that pierced the tranquility of The Park forever. It changed how we thought of the place. It changed a lot of things for me- my perception of, and expectations for, the wider world outside of school. It embedded in me a realization that there were people out there who would do bad things for no reason, that simply being outside the orderly confines of school or home carried with it an inherent and immutable sense of risk. This event kinda highlights how hanging out in The Park without nearby parents was tantamount to flying the nest for us. The real world had predators. And it was in their nature, I figured, to attack us. We understood that day that the forest wasn’t like the nest.
In some ways, I “discovered violence” that day. Actual violence, that is. The little fights we got into at school were different. This right here felt like a crime. My friend had been assaulted. And it shocked me pretty bad. The older kids fled on their BMXs. We all told our parents. Soon the school knew, and even though it had happened outside of school, they took the incident seriously. My teacher even took me aside and told me to stop yapping about it so much, because the teenager who threw the punch had a younger sister at our school and they didn’t want the situation to escalate.
Looking back, I definitely see the event as a transformative experience for all those involved. We went to a tiny Church of England school and this was a part of our transition to a much bigger world. As I said, The Park remained witness to the way the world opened up for us, acting as the one through-line of our youth. After leaving primary school and starting secondary, we maintained our home-away-from-home the way you might inhabit an old ruin. We no longer climbed the tower or descended the slide. The swings still functioned as seats, but there was never any swinging being done on them anymore. We stayed later and later, for hours on end when we weren’t at school, and as foreshadowed we would occasionally run into rival gangs of teenagers. But nine times out of ten the result was a game of football.
Football was the other reason for The Park’s longevity in our lives. You would think that the U.K. would be denser with football resources and infrastructure than anywhere else on Earth. But there always seemed to be a dearth of everything growing up- not enough players, not enough willing goalkeepers, and never any real goalposts. There was always an issue over acquiring a ball, and then whether the ball we had was pumped up enough. The Park was the nearest flat space, and the swing-set made for the closest thing we could use as a goal. Again, it all comes back to geometry. The swings weren’t designed to be used as seats. The frame wasn’t designed to be used as a set of goalposts. And The Park wasn’t designed to be used as a base of operations for teenagers. But we took advantage of its layout and made it into something our own.
The Park was surrounded by relatively flat fields of grass, and during the summers the ground became hard enough to play there as well. Makeshift goals were made by piles of hoodies and rucksacks, or even upturned bikes. This led to a lot of disagreement about whether certain shots had gone in or not. No game passed without cries of “In a full-sized net that would have been top corner!”. This might be countered with “Nope, it hit the bar. I was at full stretch!”. Where the bar was depended largely on the height of the goalkeeper, and the collective judgement of the group on whether a given shot could have been saved or not. We’d play for hours under the sun. When we grew tired, we filed back into The Park and sat on our swings. First-come-first-serve, as it had always been. We’d talk about football, girls at school, and not much else. The swings were the center of everything, no matter what we did. They were our goalposts when the grass was too wet, they were our seats when we wanted to talk, and they were our waypoint. If we played games of hide-and-seek, the swings were the base where the person who was “it” counted. The Park was the center of our lives during our free time, and the swing-set was the center of The Park.
Looking back on it reminds me of a quote from a friend of mine, told to me recently. The guy is an expert in human geography and psychology, and during one of our discussions he said:
“In geography there is the idea that the land and the people shape each other, producing unique places and cultures. You take what the environment provides and then use that to manipulate the environment in a circle of symbiosis.”
I think it’s true for almost all aspects of life. Pets such as dogs or cats will tend to settle on a particular part of the house’s layout that appeals to them, a comfy spot that they grow to view as their own. We react with amusement at the things they covet. Trees offer birds what appears to be a free buffet, and the birds that consume its nutrients later excrete seeds elsewhere, spreading the growth of the forest. A community develops. As Tim Marshall says, we are indeed prisoners of our geography. The Greeks and Japanese developed maritime cultures due to the lack of arable land available to them. We use what we have the best way we can. And as silly as it sounds, that’s what my friends and I did too. We used the flatness of The Park for football, we used its swing-set as our round table, and we took advantage of its relative remoteness from the rest of the town. It was close to us but far to most others.
Naturally we weren’t the only people that used it. If we were playing football there before it got dark, we sometimes got stares from concerned do-gooders. We never played there if kids were using it of course. We knew the swings were built for children to, you know, swing- just as we had during our primary school days. One time we were sat there complaining about how boring our town was and how there was nothing to do (typical teenage disenfranchisement really), when an old man came up and decided to confront us. We were the only people in The Park at the time, but he probably felt that our loafing about there was off-putting to families that might want to use the place.
“Aren’t you lot too old to be here?” he said, and I imagined in his mind he could already see the headline on the local paper reading: Hero Grandpa Stands Up to Teenage Delinquents. My friends and I would have laughed at the idea that anyone might have considered us thugs, but we also knew that simply by wearing hoodies, playing football, and blasting songs like “Low” by Flo-Rida from our cell phones, that we were already guilty.
“You what?” a friend of mine said, walking up to our would-be conqueror.
“How old are you?”
“Me? I’m twelve,” my friend said in a deep baritone. He was about nineteen at the time.
For the most part, we avoided these situations whenever we could. If a bunch of kids came into The Park when we were there, we’d often leave and come back later when it was quiet again. Kinda like raccoons that scatter away from a garbage skip when humans come along, content that in short order their castle of trash will remain standing.
From the age of about fourteen onwards we visited The Park at night to drink alcohol. Again, geography made it the obvious choice for us. Perhaps the only real choice. The Park was on the edge of town, far from any houses, and cloaked in darkness from the surrounding trees. We were too young to drink anywhere else but on the streets, and The Park was the nearest place that offered both secrecy and comfort. We squatted in the fortresses of our childhood games with vodka and soda to mix it with, untroubled by the cold. Just happy to be outside the reach of authority. There, under the moon, anything could happen. You could go a little crazy. You told each other things you wouldn’t under any other circumstances. You laughed yourself mute. You pulled dangerous stunts for the hell of it. Some nights were quiet and introspective. Some were full of songs, storytelling, or amateur comedy-sketches. And some were as bitter and melancholy as the wintry air we breathed. In the same tower where my friend had been assaulted many years ago, I noticed a guy and a girl from my class, huddled together against the cold. I could just about see that they had their hands down each other’s jeans. In the farthest, darkest corner of The Park came a screech of laughter. When I went to investigate, I got a high-five from a drunk girl I knew of from school but who I’d never spoken to before. Adjacent to these mystery guests were yet more people emerging from the trees. The word was two guys had pissed in some empty beer bottles and wanted to see who could be tricked into drinking it. At the picnic table another guy was unconscious after drinking too much. His parents were on the phone and people kept him lying on his side. A rumble: and two latecomers drove their mopeds through the gate and into the chaos. Back toward the jungle-gym, some people were practicing jiu-jitsu in the grass. And over on the swings, two people had fallen out over something neither of them could understand.
As we entered adulthood, we finally left The Park. Not in any one moment, but gradually, as we became pulled in various directions by forces beyond our comprehension. The Park itself remains exactly the same, minus a repair or two. A new stretch of fence. A new zip-line. Et cetera. But we drifted away one by one as the place lost the advantages it once had in our younger years. It offered us so much back then, but could offer us so little now. I think that’s why I walked past it so many times this year without sparing it a second thought.
But now that it’s come back to me, I’m intensely interested in the importance of place to personal narratives. One thing I like to ask people is what routines and rituals they adopted in their own childhoods. Did they have an equivalent to The Park? Or perhaps something entirely different. A culture made possible only by the geography of their local area. My youth was determined by the fact that my friends and I all lived within a few minutes’ walk of each other. I have friends from other places- some far and some not so far at all- whose memories could not be more different from my own, in which there are no meaningful comparisons to be made. Friends who went to boarding-school all their lives, friends who grew up in small villages in the Midlands whose classmates lived in other villages, friends who lived in the forests of the Upper Midwest whose nearest neighbors were soybean farmers several miles away, friends who were homeschooled until the age of eighteen. And so on. I want to know their stories as intimately as I do my own, to get a sense of what they felt, an understanding of what nearby geographic features meant something to them.