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And another thing

What is the most important thing about London? Trees

4 July 2007

1:51 PM

4 July 2007

1:51 PM

A MasterCard survey shows that London is now the most important and efficient city in the world — financially that is — and another reveals it is also the most expensive, Moscow alone excepted. The two are connected no doubt. Certainly a lot of successful people live here: over 10,000 of them, I hear, earn more than £1 million a year. I have lived here 52 years and expect to die here, for I like my house despite its 52 stairs. People pour into London from all over the world, in greater numbers and variety than ever before. I now come across tourists from Sri Lanka and India, as well as Korea and China, to add to the countless Japanese. Half a million Poles work here, 350,000 Filipinos, almost as many French and countless Brazilians. How do they all fit in? Some of these newcomers are very useful. I know a good dry-cleaners, run by Bengalis, where you can get shoes mended, keys cut, watch batteries replaced, cheques cashed, jewellery repaired and half a dozen other useful services provided, all in a very small space.

When I was young and poor I took taxis all the time and often lunched at the Savoy and dined at the Ritz. Now I am old and rich, I never take taxis if I can possibly avoid it, and always try to eat at home where the food is so much better. I love having my orange-coloured free travel pass and spend many happy hours in the Underground and on red double-deckers. Sometimes I don’t hear a word of English spoken, but who cares? I offer large, overburdened African ladies my seat and get a flashing smile. The other day, on the Tube, a six-foot-tall beautiful blonde gave me her seat, and I took it for I was tired after tussling with heavy volumes at the London Library. As I sat down she said: ‘I love your hair’ (it has gone what they call ‘champagne’).

You hear curious snatches on public transport. ‘Where are you heading today, Slopey?’ ‘Hoping to find the residence of John M. Keynes.’ ‘Excuse me, please, what is Marble Arch for?’ ‘We won’t get to the Ziggurat today, that’s for sure.’ A man leans across the gangway in the Central Line: ‘Excuse me, aren’t you Professor Pinker?’ ‘No, I am very much not Professor Pinker.’ Or: ‘Darling, you’re Lorelei today.’ ‘And get laid tomorrow, not likely old beanshoot.’ There is a habitué on the number 9 bus, who sometimes bursts into a spirited rendering of Schubert’s Schwanenlied, segueing into ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’.

Visitors love our big parks, and there is nothing like them in any other capital city, but even better are the communal gardens which are dotted about London. Recently I went on an evening guided tour of several, arranged by Henrietta Phipps, whose knowledge of these places is encyclopaedic. Also in attendance was Thomas Pakenham, who has learned more about trees than any other person alive, and is acquainted with the personal history of thousands of Kensington specimens. He can tell you which are flourishing, which are poorly and which should never have been planted. And all the people on the tour know things and pipe up. Once inside these gardens you get a different picture of the houses which abut them, no longer neatly arranged in terraces and crescents but fiddled with and individualised according to upper-middle-class taste, or lack of it. Here is the intimate underbelly of west London, and its secret history. ‘Look, that’s where Edgar Wallace lived to escape his creditors.’ ‘You see the house there — Osbert Lancaster was born in it.’ ‘Edward Ardizzone did a drawing of that house and its lumpy inhabitants.’ ‘Tony Blair looked at that one — turned it down.’ ‘See this house? Stravinsky lived there and wrote his whatdyecallit. Got drunk with Nabokov and fell down the front steps.’ ‘No, you mean Rachmaninov, don’t you? Wrote that Prelude about the man waking up in a coffin.’ ‘Ah, perhaps I do.’

Communal gardens, however delightful, involve all the animosities inseparable from sharing. ‘I’m no longer on the committee. Turfed off for being “too particular”, they said. And now look at the place! The trouble is that there are too many millionaires. See that tree? It was lovely. Then the stinking rich monster who lives behind it complained about his loss of Ancient Lights, and threatened to sue. So we had to chop all the branches off and now it looks like a giant black twig.’ ‘Well, we have worse. They dug down two, even three storeys, at the back, to make extra room for their Filipino servants, and you don’t always need planning permission, either.’ ‘I know. Look at that, for instance — like the Big Hole in Kimberley.’ ‘Yes, and that hideous two-storey thing there, with pseudo-Palladian pilasters. That was a one-storey garage, quite harmless, and they wangled the new horror past the council.’ In these communal gardens you get an impression of the grim struggle now developing between established residents who have been ruling for 50 or 60 years, and New Money, determined to make it talk loudly. Deafening the birdsong, overshadowing squirrels, hedgehogs and occasional badgers scampering, is the chink of gold, the rustle of huge-denomination banknotes, the drawling periods of bored Chancery lawyers earning their fees and refreshers and pleading Human Rights.

All the same, communal gardens, each of which has its own herbaceous and arboreal and social personality, are worth all the struggle to preserve. Clever children come to play hide-and-seek; they speak Latin, too. Old gents who had known John Galsworthy and J.M. Barrie sit on the bench. This is certainly Peter Pan country, in a sense. ‘I tell you who used to sit on that sort of seat. Dorothy Sayers. She had a big bag of cream buns and ate them.’ ‘That fellow Cameron lives in Notting Hill, doesn’t he? Comes here then?’ ‘Oh no. He’d probably be in favour of municipalising communal gardens. They’re politically incorrect.’

The best thing about communal gardens are the trees. They are much more varied than the ones the councils plant, and often unusual or even rare. Trees have been grown in London since Roman times — it was first mentioned as Londinium by Tacitus in his Annals, c.115-17 — but the city’s climate has never been so favourable to tree-growing as it is today, especially imports that require warmth. In the last half-century, London’s climate has improved more radically than that of any other big city. The fogs have gone, and trees hate fog. The soot has gone, too, and trees hate soot even more. In most winters London is still a cosy habitation for the great majority of trees. Does any other big city have more trees per inhabitant than London? In my own garden there are nine, not counting the fig which overhangs from next door, and the splendid vine. There must be nearly 100 trees in our little street. So how many are there in London altogether?

In some ways trees are more important to our happiness than buildings. They are usually more beautiful, easier on the eye, certainly. They are a sign and cause of health. They soothe the spirit gently, excite the imagination, rustle to delight the ear, make the rain more pleasant, smell sweetly of the weather, upstage the endless cars. Easy to talk down London. ‘Hell is a city much like London,’ wrote Shelley. ‘A modern Babylon’ (Disraeli). ‘That great cesspool’ (Arthur Conan Doyle). What no one says is that London has more trees than many a forest. I like to go into Hyde Park, sit down, and just look at the endless vistas of trees, silently, gratefully. I hope the billionaires who now flock to London will show their appreciation by planting more trees.

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