Hand in hand through their park life

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The Independent Culture
Lovers in the grass. Children on the swings. Radios shattering the quiet of a sunny day. Nothing ever changes in the great British park. Or does it? Jon Ronson watches the world from his usual bench

Sunday. Its getting hot again - hot enough for ducks, as my neighbour weirdly opined this morning - so I take a walk through the park. I possess neither a child nor a dog, so I carry instead - in a pitiful attempt at social validation - a boomerang, which I have no intention of throwing. In more capable hands, it probably would come back, but I would just hit a child or a pensioner with it. Anyway, I am alone in a park and, consequently, appear suspect enough as it is. In a park, your social status becomes cruelly palpable to your fellow park-goers. You wear it on your sleeve. If you are with a child, you must be safe, nice (as if one cannot be both a lunatic and a parent). If you are alone, sweatily clutching wood,you are Colin Stagg, or something similarly eerie.

Around me, sunbathers bathe: always a strange sight. Aesthetically, the British have always been the most scoffed at of all the European communities. We Brits - or so the rumour goes - are pallid and flabby; our skin is loose and beige, the epidermal equivalents of those suedette sofa sets you could buy in the Seventies. The parade of the Body Beautiful, toned flesh rippling in sunlight, is fine in those European societies that accommodate more aesthetically pleasing residents, like, say, France. But when the Brits stretch outon the grass, we only embarrass ourselves and everyone around us. Actually, I don't buy into this opinion. While we are not, admittedly, a nation of Yves Montands and Nastassja Kinskis, we are perfectly passable, and do ourselves a disservice by helping to perpetuate these stereotypes.

A handsome blond boy rollerblades past me and hits a tree. Children jump up and down on the daffodils. A hooligan screams and swears in the afternoon sunlight unencumbered by any discernible police presence.

There is, by the way only one full-time police officer in Britain who is employed exclusively to protect our nation's park life. His name is PC Mike Wellman. Last summer, Mike got a call from two partially sighted pensioners who complained that they could no longer hear the skylarks singing in their local Cheshire park. Mike investigated and discovered that the grass was being mowed too often for the skylarks' tastes. He quickly ordered the parks department to reduce the number of mowings, and the skylarks promptly returned. Undoubtedly, Mike does admirable work, but he can't be everywhere at once.

The light is fading in the park now, so strange men are beginning to pop up behind trees and give each other furtive signals. Still, it is tranquil and delightful today, a little slice of England, our final vestige of the cornucopia of hazy, lazy days gone by. When the first Victorian parks were created in the 1830s and 1840s - as a tension relief for the newly urbanised masses - they represented an admirably socialistic ethic of redispersing art, sculpture and landscape to the proletariat. They were the pride of Britain and were widely copied abroad. Why, then, has British park life now become such a lamentably derided concept?

Aesthetics apart, recent reports suggest that British parks have become uncontrollable hotbeds of vice and crime, victims of government underfunding (20p per visitor per year, in fact) and woeful under-policing. The Sunday People has studied this phenomenon, and has come to the startling conclusion that "thousands of perverts are taking part in kinky group sex sessions in parks across Britain". The report makes harrowing reading for those of us who value and romanticise our parks as integral - almost hallowed - aspects of urban living.

Using infra-rednight-sights, the People infiltrated a night-time woodland picnic area in Surrey, and watched in horror as a couple began having sex in a steamed-up Vauxhall Cavalier, while six onlookers shone torches on "the grunting couple", masturbating and giggling. The People called this spectacle "animalistic and brutal", and who can doubt it?

"The whole scene had been witnessed," it added, "by a strange man with a hump on his back and a disfigured face, holding three alsatian dogs." Later on, many more appalling and graphic things occurred, but I won't sully you with the details. Suffice to say, our nation's park life is suffering a series of damning PR blows.

Demos, a group of academics and statisticians, has just published 12 lengthy and erudite Working Papers on urban park life, covering such topics as lighting, ecology and security, and have made some interesting - sometimes startling - conclusions. Mostpark-users, they have discovered, are now male, young and white. Ethnic minorities, pensioners and single women feel scared to walk alone, even during daylight hours. Like me, single women feel the need to carry props with them (borrowed babies, dogs), as peer-group pressure is now so trenchant. Although the parks are still widely used by the community as a whole (people haven't yet started saying: "I've heard that British urban park life is a lamentably derided concept, so let's not go"), the ways in which we enjoy them have altered, for the worse. We travel in groups for safety. We don't talk to strangers (unless they've got kids). We're home before dark.

Of course, the widespread increase in vandalism helps matters little. Liverpool'sSefton Park, the model for New York's Central Park, has been hit particularly badly. Eros's head has been cut off, as have the heads of the Peter Pan fairies (a copy of the statue in Kensington Gardens). The shelters and bandstands have been burnt down, and those statues remaining intact have been encased in green plywood boxes.Sefton Park isn't unique, of course. Graffiti is now as common a parkland aesthetic as the trees and the leaves and the kinky group sex sessions. The individual privatisations of urban green spaces must shoulder much of the blame. At London's St James's Park, for instance, numbers of staff have been reduced to two- thirds of the levels considered necessary by independent consultants. In Weymouth, 600 hanging baskets have been cut down and three famous palm houses have closed. The list goes on and on. The National Heritage Committee tells me that it plans to ask the National Lottery for money.

All this is a dreadful shame. Today, in the park, it is almost as if the city has ground to a halt. Children play fearlessly, charmingly unimpeded by all the terrible statistics. I remember all those wonderful childhood things that happened to me in parks: first loves,the local parkie - a rosy-cheeked man in a peaked cap who shouted "Oi, you kids" at every conceivable opportunity - now little more than a blurred memory. The parkies got phased out when the parks began to get privatised.