It is early February and the snows have finally come. In December I long for this seasonal variety, only to wish its swift departure barely two months later. But at least it offers a change in our somewhat circumscribed lives. As I walk through Kensington Gardens in the late afternoon, the Round Pond looks as if it might have frozen over. I am momentarily reminded of those distant figures playing on the ice in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow. This scene, however, is the usual one: parents and their children standing at the water’s edge attempting to feed the mute swans, Egyptian geese and feisty moorhens. Where does the tradition of offering white bread, which can’t be healthy for these creatures, come from? A black swan is also in attendance; though I’m never quite sure whether nowadays this rare bird is meant to be a portent of good or ill. Given the current climate, it could be either. Rather like Bruegel’s painting, there is a muted quality to everything, as if life itself has been suspended.
During this particular lockdown, it has become harder to implement some kind of regimen. Taking exercise – I’m now at an age where I’m likely to ‘lose it’ if I don’t ‘use it’ – has become erratic. Fortunately, given the time of year, there’s always a decent excuse at hand (the cold, the rain, the dark) so I don’t feel as guilty as a good Catholic should. I tell myself that were my favoured form of exercise not on the long list of non licet activities, things might be different. Last autumn, in a heroic attempt to stave off the onset of middle age, I started wild swimming in the Highgate Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath. I found I took to it quite easily. There isn’t the boredom of running, and the fact that I manage to emerge from the icy waters still breathing always brings with it a sense of achievement. But it is the ritual of those glorious morning swims I miss the most: the friendly nods; the rhetorical “Is it cold today?”; the chilly post-swim shower; the flask of hot tea and sugared bun (as a well-earned treat). Some of my fellow swimmers are taking cold baths to keep acclimatised while the ponds remain closed. I’ve tried, but there’s nothing more depressing than turning blue in a cold bath tub with a rubber duck instead of the real ones.
Unlike so many, who have quit the metropolis for a more bucolic lifestyle, I seem to be immune to the lure of the countryside. Perhaps it is my rediscovery of this city, in which I have lived for much of my life. I am ashamed to say how little I know of London. Exploring the City by bicycle has been a delight. The Square Mile, for so long given over to the frenetic pace of business and finance, has been allowed to reveal its medieval self in peace. Dr Johnson’s maxim that “to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city…[you] must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts” still obtains.
St Bartholomew the Great, the city’s oldest parish church, is a Romanesque gem served by a half-timbered Tudor gatehouse. Its founder, Rahere, a courtier of Henry I, fell gravely ill on a pilgrimage in Rome. He vowed, should he recover, to set up a hospital for the poor, and was visited by St Bartholomew who said: “I have come to help thee in thy straights. I have chosen a spot in a suburb of London at Smithfield where, in my name, thou shalt found a church.” On hearing of this, Henry I granted Rahere the land on which he established not only a church but also a hospital and an Augustinian priory.
A favoured topic of conversation – usually overheard in a park or supermarket – seems to be where one should have been at this time of year. The more exotic the location the better, it seems. Without the usual signifiers of wealth and status on show, might this be a new form of social one-upmanship?
Predisposed as most of are to living in the future tense, as we look forward to Eastertide, I am reminded of an interview with the writer Joan Didion. When asked why she used the good silver every day, Didion retorted: “Well, every day is all there is.”
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