Just past Westminster station at the corner where the route turns sharp right to the finish line!
We should not be here
Words by SJ Butler, images by Mark Cocksedge
A December morning in the park at St James’s
We should not be here. This is not a place where people stop. At most, they pause, take a picture, pass on.
We pause: I stop a stranger, ask why they are here, Mark takes a picture, we pass on. We hope that we too look like these strangers, because we do not have permission to do this, here.
“We knew from television about St James’s Park”, the Italian girl tells me. “It’s famous for the scoiattolo, the animals? I don’t remember the name.”
Mark takes their picture as though we are friends met by chance in a London park, and we part.
The Dutch mother and daughter carried a bag of peanuts all the way from Holland to feed the eekhoorn.
I am trilingual now: scoiattolo, eekhoorn, squirrel.
This is a strange place, mid-city, bare mud, damaged grass, water, birds and cardboard coffee cups. It’s pretending to be wild, in its curves and clumps of undergrowth. But every loop of path is contained behind a fence. And the whole held tight in a crook of roads. Birdcage Walk twists into The Mall with its roar of cabs, cars and trucks and an icy wind that blows away the words of the Portuguese guy we stop as he’s about to cross the road.
“I’ve been here a long time. This is my neck of the woods – it’s nice. London’s like Russian roulette. Anything can happen!”
His sunglasses are so dusty I’m amazed he can see in the low winter light. But it’s true, anything can happen.
We take his picture leaning against a tree and say goodbye. The Household Cavalry trot past, all blond plumes and glittering breasts.
It’s freezing out here on The Mall, this naked avenue created for ceremony. The park, at least, has slopes and shrubs that soften the wind a little. We look in at it longingly, at the tourists taking photos where we have been forbidden to.
Do they know their shadows hold hands with the lepers of St James’s? Henry built his palace over their hospital, his deer park over the marsh where they wandered. No one will say where they went.
We look in through the gates again. Two men in suits stand under a tree, briefcases at their feet, sheaves of paper in their hands, a secret meeting out in the open. We cannot ask who they are. We’ll stay out here. We’ll watch.
A cabbie pulls in by the gates beside us, dashes out, grabs a coffee. From the front wing he flies a tattered union flag. “I’ve got another two in there. If there’s anything on and that, I whip them out and stick them on. It’s patriotism.” And he’s off, hunting a fare.
Then, nobody. A few runners. We don’t want to stop them, put them off their stride.
We edge into the park. Who’ll know we’re here? A gentleman (definitely a gentleman) strides towards us. His coat is thick woolen authority down to his ankles.
“I’m walking from my home to my club in St James’s for luncheon.” He leans towards me, raises an eyebrow. “It’s a whig club for radical liberals.” Is he teasing me? I think he may be serious.
We’re surrounded by power. Stand in the centre of the park, stretch out your arms. You’ll touch the stiff collars and polished shoes of government, royalty and army. Whitehall, Westminster, the Palaces, the Barracks surround us, inscrutable behind walls and railings.
There are no houses.
There are no shops.
There are no offices, warehouses, workshops or market stalls.
No one pops out of their front door to buy a paper or a pint of milk. No one works here. No one makes anything, except coffee in the park cafes. Park keepers sweep leaves – that’s the sum of the industry here.
This is a place where you need permission to ask people why they’re here.
On this freezing December morning tourists line up to take each other’s photos. They laugh at the squirrels, geese and pelicans. They crowd the railings – there’s a queen in there, maybe.
“We’ve been down to Horseguards’ Parade and we’re just walking down The Mall, we’ve been to Australia and we’ve been to France and Spain – we’re staying in London for a few days and then we’re going to Scotland,” say the Australians, three generations of one family.
The New Yorker is taking his time.
“What brings me here? Well I’m sorry, I don’t have any sort of driving reason behind this, I’m simply taking a very long route to my graduation today, a leisurely walk.” The park is serene, he says, and despite the bleakness of the buildings around it, the bitter wind, and the roaring traffic, he’s right. It’s a place to slow down, stretch your legs at lunchtime, meet a friend, take time out.
Perhaps to walk, unknowing, in the footsteps of a king. Now you know, can you feel his boots? Just don’t look back, they said – walk towards the axe and the baying crowds, hide your fear in your feet. In time, no one will remember you walked here too, though it’s in every blade of grass. Poor Charles.
We wave our New Yorker on his way, and look at our watches. It’s almost time to go. A couple and their grown-up daughter stroll past, unmistakably local.
“This is our back garden. Sometimes we go over the river, walk the South Bank, sometimes the City, whatever.” They’ve been coming here fifty years or more, the daughter played in the sandpit while her father watched the soldiers marching in the barracks. He’d hold his daughter’s hand and think “Poor sods”. “We’re off to the National Trust shop now for tea,” they say, and they walk off arm in arm.
We head on down Birdcage Walk.
We’ve become part of the flow. We’re two more people weaving through the park, crossing from Walk to Mall and back. We’re tracing invisible lines through this self-contained landscape, threading them in amongst the hundreds and thousands woven by tourists, soldiers, locals, kings and lepers.
If we came back on a day of snow when the roads are silenced, what might we hear?
This is a place of small surprises, after all – where people pass each other without ever speaking but take away a memory, a ridiculous hat, a black swan, a strangely beautiful young couple, the faint outline of a king’s jaw.
We do not have permission, but we are here.
© SJ Butler 2013