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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.