Will Self: PsychoGeography #100

Urban degeneration
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The Independent Online

For much of the time the local park has a bad vibe. It's bordered on one side by a narrow lane, along which are ranged a Baptist hall, an Anglican church rendered with snotty stone and a backpackers' hostel lodged in a defunct, 11-storey office block. Late at night you can find truculent Scandinavians wandering the nearby streets, doubtless searching for a half-timbered, 16th-century coaching inn.

The foot of the park - which has been landscaped with scraggy shrubbery and the shaved pubises of artificial hillocks - dabbles in a busy arterial road. The other two frontiers of this debatable land are defined by residential streets - although some of the houses are notably bizarre: an Edwardian pub converted into a glass origami penthouse; a simulacrum of an Italian villa, complete with burnt-sienna paint job and finial cypresses; and a ramshackle dwelling which, despite being surrounded on three sides by the park, endeavours to persevere, its paling fences seized in a convolvulus of barbed wire, the tops of its walls saw-toothed with broken glass embedded in mortar.

Broken glass - it's everywhere in the park. Shards glint in the long grass, in the shrubbery, and on the defunct tennis courts. I wonder if the children who play here will forever find the crunch of rubber sole on shattered glass powerfully evocative of their childhoods? Perhaps that, or the febrile crack underfoot of the disposable insulin syringes which litter the brick paving beneath the crap loggia, by the drained ornamental pond, in which sits a single, enigmatic boulder.

In the playground the swings stand like gibbets, a few lengths of chain dangling from their rusty crossbars. The rubberised flooring - beloved of some safety-conscious bureaucrat - has been eroded by the scuffing of many thousands of feet, exposing the concrete and clay of the urban bedrock. The climbing frame is a pirate ship, with steel masts and bowsprit, there's a chain ladder teeny buccaneers can employ to swarm aboard. They do, because there's nothing else to do, the roundabout is chained up, the sandpit covered and padlocked.

That rubberised matting! And those security cameras! Cameras which were, presumably, intended to lead to the arrest of whole rings of paedophiles - but instead are cloudy with the artificial-eye equivalent of glaucoma. The idea that these safety measures could prevent injuries in a recreational area smeared with a thick impasto of dog shit and broken glass, and patrolled by marauding bands of giant adolescents stoned out of their heads from smoking a noxious combination of crack and mashed up pituitary gland is, frankly, rather droll. Especially when you consider that a couple of years ago the remains of a woman's corpse were found smouldering on a bonfire near the outdoor exercise bars.

Still, I don't want to gross you out with this stuff. The fact of the matter is that the park has its moments. The Portuguese who've taken over the old café have turned it into a lively focus of their unlikely community. Cut-price Ricky Martins hang out in front of it, swigging cerveza and eating broad beans soused in olive oil, while listening to fada wailing from the dustbin-sized speakers of their dustbin-sized cars. On Sundays the whole polyglot cavalcade of this inner-city area can be seen in the park, staking out a football pitch with sloughed off coils of clothing. An anthropologist could have a field day here, trying to establish on what basis the Afro-Caribbeans cede territory to the British Asians, or the graceful Somalians give ground to the Turkish Cypriots.

In rainy weather the park has an ambience at once dull and threatening - like a blunt knife wielded by a halfwit. But when the sun shines and the greenery shimmers all that is forgotten. The park! What an excellent place - let us go there and frolic. Let us fly our kite, or if we don't have one, lash one of our skinnier kids to a couple of bin bags and see if we can haul him aloft! The park, you see, has friends - it even has Friends. The Friends of the Park have been in consultation with both the public and the local Development Partnership with a view to doing the place up.

This or that new feature or piece of park furniture has been proposed - as if the open space were a room or a garden, that only needed the attentions of a television presenter to bring it out in telegenic bloom. The truth of the matter is that the park doesn't need any one-off investment, but a long-term commitment. The park needs someone who's prepared to stick with it night and day, to keep it as a fat, rich man in an Astrakhan coat might once have kept a ballerina. In a word, the park needs a keeper.

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