Thursday 31 July 2014

Walking on grass

The garrulous Ford Madox Ford used to boast to friends in New York that, as a young man in London, he walked four miles every day on grass. 

From his digs along Holland Park Avenue he made his way to Kensington Gardens, diagonally across them to Rotten Row, across St James''s Park and the Green Park to one or other of his clubs, arriving at about half past twelve. There he would read there papers and letters until one, lunch at the club then take a hansom back to his apartment which he would reach about half past two,. At five he would give or attend a tea party, then bathe before dinner before a barber would arrive to shave him before going out for dinner.

Them were there days.

In the four hours set aside for writing each day he would produce a regular 2,000 words of which half would be 'condemned' the following day. A thousand words a day equalled 360,000 words a year (he seldom took a day off), 'enough to make over four novels. Ford, chronically prolific, published more than ninety books, most of them long out of print, but a handful of which are great and one - The Good Soldier - a solid masterpiece, one that will last. Grahame Greene called it 'the best French novel written in English'.

An American friend of mine loves London because one can, she says, walk short distances between leafy squares and grand parks, resting under mature plane trees, the grass beneath one's feet. We Londoners take these spaces too much for granted (and too many of them have locked gates, for residents' use only), but the Victorians (especially) knew what they were doing - Victoria Park in Hackney, Battersea Park across the river from posh Chelsea, St James's with its pelicans and above all Regent's Park, with its throngs of foreign tourists, spooning EFL students, dodgy oligarchs' nannies and the odd local. It's a wonderful place, and is celebrated in a new book by the artist Sarah Pickstone: Park Notes: an anthology of writing and art inspired by a London park (Daunt Books, 2014).

It's full of good things and one of them I'd like to share. It comes in Ali Smith's The Definite Article, originally published as a booklet and included in the Pickstone anthology. Did you know that the Regent's Park (as it is correctly known) is the oddly lopsided shape it is because Henry VIII was left-handed, "so when he drew over the map of the Abbess's woods to mark the land he wanted thus, that's what his hand did, made a great curve there and a straight line there". I didn't know that.

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