What the ducks at the park made me realise about city living

When I was a kid, Islington wasn’t that posh. It was a place where ordinary people lived – teachers, social workers, writers, and not even famous ones. Parents got together to organise a cheap’n’cheerful playgroup. The local shops included a chippy, a jok

It’s a bright autumn day, and Moe and I are feeding the ducks in the park. These ducks know me well by now. When Larry was just a toddler we used to feed them together, every day. Now Larry is so grown up that he’s gone to nursery by himself for the whole morning. So it’s just Moe and me.

I throw a few breadcrumbs to a friendly-looking lady mallard. But before she can get her beak anywhere near them, a Canada goose barges her out of the way and wolfs down the lot. Cheeky beggar! I throw another handful, deliberately closer to the mallard. But the same thing happens again.

I step back. I survey the scene. There’s no doubt about it – things have changed around this pond. There’s a new hierarchy in place. The mallards used to have a comfortable spot under the weeping willow. There were a few moorhens and pigeons, sure, but they seemed perfectly happy to scoop up whatever the mallards left behind.

Now the whole front section by the fence, prime breadcrumb territory, is occupied by scores of thick-necked Canada geese with beady black eyes and determined expressions. The mallards are lurking hungrily in the water, way out of breadcrumb range. They look miserable, ousted; their once-sleek feathers are ruffled and drab.

Immediately, my heart goes out to those mallards. I know exactly what they are going through. I feel the same way myself when I go back to Islington, where I was brought up. When I was a kid, Islington wasn’t that posh. It was a place where ordinary people lived – teachers, social workers, writers, and not even famous ones. Parents got together to organise a cheap’n’cheerful playgroup. The local shops included a chippy, a joke shop and a shabby boozer.

Now the chippy is an artisan cheesemonger and the joke shop sells laughably expensive designer furniture. The playgroup is full of nannies. This may be fanciful, but to me the new breed of Islingtonians – the ones whose leisurewear of choice is chinos with moccasins; the ones who have upwards of a million quid to pay for a perfectly ordinary house – have something of that beady, determined, Canada goose look about them.

Meanwhile, all of us soft cuddly brown mallards have been pushed out to the suburbs, where we’re huddling together, trying not to feel bitter.

Right. I scoop up Moe and set my jaw in resolve. I am going to get my breadcrumbs to those mallards if it is the last thing I do. Perhaps if I climb up on to the railing of the bridge and get just the right angle . . .

I throw my crumbs. Immediately the Canada geese start to advance in a menacing flock. But the lady mallard has their number. She is quicker off the mark. She is smaller, and more agile, and dammit, she wants those crumbs more than they do. Before any of those great lumbering geese can get involved she has snapped them all up and glided niftily away.

And I may be imagining it, but as she paddles off she looks to me just a little jauntier, because now she knows that Moe and I are on her side. Silently, I make that mallard a solemn promise: we’ll be back tomorrow. And we’ll bring duck seed.

Like the ducks, many have had to take flight from the inner city and settle for a life in the suburbs. Image: Getty

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era