Two views from the balcony

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The Independent Online
I HATE pigeons at ground level; limping, flea-ridden creatures, either preening in that inflated manner or pecking greedily at a fragment of discarded cigarette. But seen from above they are magical, soaring, floating, swooping and settling on a branch four floors above the street.

That is the level at which I live, and whenever I am watering my window-boxes I watch the aerial pigeons, and a great deal else.

Window-boxes are my sole experience of gardening, and that square metre of earth and flowers is just about right for me. I dead-head the petunias and cornflowers, the multicoloured pansies with their cross faces - they are called Stiefmutterchen in German, meaning stepmother - and those tiny, gentian-blue things whose name I forget.

It's the ideal vantage point from which to watch the world, and watch the world watching me. There are envious faces at the windows of the hotel diagonally across the road. I assume they are Dutch, for no other nation has such a universal passion for window-boxes. The Dutch tourists wonder whether the neighbour to whom they have entrusted the task of watering their own precious window-boxes is carrying it out conscientiously, wishing that they were not in the middle of London but back home, wielding their own watering can.

I watch the street cleaner with his cumbersome trolley as he strolls across the road to resume his patient sweeping of the detritus of city life. He is leisurely yet thorough. He has to be; ever since his job was taken over from the council by a private firm, he has worked longer hours for less money. Supervisors cruise round making sure the sweepers are not slacking. Still, in this hot weather his job may be quite pleasant. In autumn, when dank leaves wrap themselves round his broom, it's a horrible, endless task, like being the sorcerer's apprentice.

I watch the shoppers laden with carrier bags from the giant Sainsbury at the far end of the road. It is currently being enlarged, to provide more selling space and more checkout counters so that impatient Kensington housewives have less excuse to snap at the cashiers. These are mostly black, with some Filipinas; polite automatons totting up vertiginous bills. Some people spend as much on a couple of bottles of champagne as the cashiers might on feeding their family for two or three days. The management lets them buy the old or broken eggs cheaply, though. That must help.

I see from the latest government figures that the income of the richest has risen by 60 per cent since 1979, while that of the poorest has remained at best, steady; at worst, it has fallen 17 per cent. Here in Kensington's favourite playground the evidence is all about you. At this Sainsbury's you can buy a certain kind of bread for pounds 3.95 a loaf; cheeses at pounds 10 a kilo; to say nothing of charcuterie from all over Europe at a pound or more per 100 grams. You can buy exquisite little desserts at pounds 1.29 a portion. They'd cost 20p each to make, but as these practised shoppers tell one another, time is money, and at pounds 1.29 it's a saving, really. I am not criticising Sainsbury's. I shop there all the time, paying these prices and thankful that I can put supper on the table in half an hour at the end of a long day. I choose to spend money, rather than time and effort.

Those of us who work long hours for good money (rather than long hours, or no hours at all, for rotten money) have a wide choice. Bread costs the same for the rich as for the poor, but the poor generally buy white sliced loaves at 29p, or bread that's reached its sell-by day and is now almost stale. It is reduced, along with the unsold patisserie, at 8 pm, and there is always a small, embarrassed cluster around the bakery section at five to eight, waiting to grab the best bargains.

One-third of our children - 4.1 million - now live in poverty, according to statistics from the DSS (it should know). And, in a mirror image of that figure, 1.4 million people now earn more than pounds 700 a week. Good for them, eh?

Strawberries are down to pounds 1.45 for 400 grams, and the denizens of SW7 pile their trolleys high with six, eight, even 10 punnets. They'll be throwing some away - they go off quickly in this heat - but at such a bargain price, who can resist?

What is the item women are most often convicted for stealing? Food: a leg of lamb for the children's Sunday lunch, or fresh fruit. No woman should be sent to prison for stealing food. If excuses are made for rapists (wife pregnant; dolly birds in short skirts . . . asking for it, wasn't she: not fair on a bloke) why aren't excuses made for hard-up mothers of growing families?

Time to water the back window-box on the sill of my study. It looks across a leafy communal garden: private, of course, keyholders only. It is nearly always empty. My partner and I had a picnic there last night; just the two of us reclining on the sweet damp grass as darkness slowly fell, drinking our chilled white wine and eating fresh baguettes with cheese and parma ham and melon. From their balconies, as they watered their plants, our neighbours watched us. We had strawberries to finish. Pity to throw the rest away, but they're going off.

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