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?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.