My writing desk sits under the window in our front bedroom, though we have rarely used the room as such, and it gives me a clear view of the strip of grass on the opposite side of the road. It is that writers’ activity, doing anything else but write, and mine is staring out of that window and watching life pass by on that strip of grass. Whenever I do it, I stop myself, tell myself I should be writing, and turn away from the window, but so often some fascinating tableau out there will catch my attention.
We live in a Victorian back-to-back terraced house in East London. It was the type of house originally built for factory and dock workers. Its layout is simple, almost identical to all the other ones that once filled this area. It was built with two rooms downstairs, two rooms upstairs and a tiny courtyard at the back, which backs directly onto the courtyard of the house behind us. It’s small but we love it, it’s our home. Our bedroom is the bedroom at the back of the house while the front bedroom has become our spare room/store room/laundry room/my home office; it’s rather cramped but it is amazing to have a place where I can go and write.
There isn’t a matching row of terraced houses on the opposite side of the street to our house, instead there is a long and narrow strip of green grass, a public green space, where the opposite row of houses once stood. Our area of London was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and the opposite row of houses was a casualty of that bombing. After the war, this strip of bombed houses was turned into a green space, rather than just building on it again. It is so pleasant having this green space right on our doorstep, even though there was a tragedy behind its creation.
This grass was always the territory of two crows, which I named Ronnie and Reggie because they always strutted across the grass as if this was their very manor and would chase away any other birds who dared to land there. They would happily chase away the starlings and pigeons who tried to encroach on their territory, though they were always wary of the seagulls. That was before the Covid lockdown. During the first lockdown, the number of crows multiplied by almost tenfold. There is now a murder of crows that can number twenty or even thirty some mornings, marching across the strip of grass, and they show such little fear of us human residents. One day, returning home from the supermarket, I found two crows sitting on the roof of our car, parked outside our house. They were angrily ripping apart a piece of bread. As I approached the car, one of them hopped away, but the other one remained standing in the centre of the car’s roof, staring angrily at me. It didn’t move as I passed within feet of it. Maybe our street has become their manor.
Many joggers run around the strip of grass as part of their exercise. Some are dressed in the latest running clothes with the latest technology to aid them, their smartphones attached to their forearms by a dedicated strap-on pocket, their fit-bit or smartwatch on their wrist measuring every step they take. Or else they are dressed in old T-shirts and mismatched jogging bottoms. There are joggers who start their run with elaborate stretches and twists and joggers who just go straight into their slow and purposeful runs. The most memorable jogger is the jogger who has been there as long as we have been living here. She is now a woman in her late sixties or early seventies and every Monday to Friday, at seven o’clock in the morning, she runs around that strip of grass. She always wears the same tracksuit of black leggings and a DayGlo top, which is currently bright yellow. She always runs in the same way, short and fast-paced steps with her arms raised up against her chest. She will run around the grass three or four times before running off to the newsagents for her daily newspaper. She then walks home, with a long and flowing stride, the opposite of the way she runs. She’s a very lithe and sprightly woman, so her jogging has served her well.
The dog walkers also exercise their pets on the strip of grass. Some energetically exercise their dogs there, running with the excited dog, throwing a ball for it, chasing it around. Some dog walkers bring their children too, leaving them to do the running around with the dog while they stand on the side and wait for all that energy to be spent. Other dog walkers have their dogs on a retractable lead, where they can stand and let the dog run off by itself until it needs to be pulled back. There is one dog walker who has always grabbed my attention; he and his dog look so alike. He is a portly middle-aged man and his dog is an equally portly Jack Russell terrier. Almost religiously, they walk around the edge of the strip of grass several times a day. I don’t know whether it was his doctor or the dog’s vet that recommended they get more exercise to lose weight. He always walks right around the grass with no shortcuts; his dog always follows behind him, but it always cuts off the corners, taking a diagonal shortcut across them.
On a weekday morning there is the rush of mothers taking their children to school. Those mothers hurriedly rush their reluctant children along, their children trying to stretch out to the maximum the time they aren’t in school. Those mothers are much more interested in talking to their friends as their children hurry on ahead of them. At three-thirty the flow is in reverse, but this time it is teenage boys in their black blazers and matching school ties from the boys’ school on the opposite side of the main road that cuts this area in two. Though they may all be dressed in their neat and dark school uniforms, they still behave like teenage boys. They walk in groups, physically jostling one another, that one-upmanship between boys. They kick a football between them, shout excitedly at one another when they are walking next to each other, eating chips from the cheap fried chicken shop on the corner of the next street. Both of these different rushes of school children are over in barely half an hour each time, over and gone in a quick rush.
Throughout the day, people walk past this strip of grass. People walking to work, people returning home with their bags of shopping, people talking on their phones as they walk, children playing haphazard games on the grass. In the summer, people actually sit on the grass having picnic lunches, though these lunches are far more often chicken and chips from the chicken shop than picnic lunches bought from the local supermarket, though some people do this. And one day there was a young woman recording a video. I noticed her walking around the grass, holding her phone in front of her face and talking in an animated style into it, her right arm gesturing to illustrate what she was saying. At first, I assumed she was making a video call, face-timing someone, but then she walked past for the third time and I realised she was performing the same hand gestures. She was recording herself. Somewhere on the internet is her video, with our street as her background.
On overcast, winter mornings fog can cling to the grass. Some mornings it can be so thick I cannot see the blocks of flats behind the grass. Some mornings it can be just a fine layer, a foot or so deep, just clinging to the grass like a haunted fog from a gothic horror film from the nineteen sixties. And this fog will disappear with the full rays of the sun. And then other mornings the grass will be frozen white by the early morning frost.
So many of the images and people I see out of that window bleed into my writing. They are not so much inspiration for me, but some things I use to add colour to my writing. If I want to describe a minor character or a passing tableau then often I will use something I have seen out of this window. So much of my life bleeds into my writing. In this coming year I’ll be sitting in front of that window a lot, I have so much I want to write about.