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?

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage