On the day of the royal wedding - no, not just the day, the time - I went to Wormwood Scrubs with the dirtsurfer, the flexifoil kite and Joey the dog.
Dirtsurfer on Wormwood Scrubs
Dirtsurfer and kite on Wormwood Scrubs
I often go out early in the morning - around 6am in the summer - and there aren't many people or cars around at that time. A few regulars running or walking dogs before work. The fat man from our street, usually grumbling and pulling on the poor fat terrier's lead. The woman who might be doing chemo, with a head-scarf to hide baldness and three dogs- not easy to get a 'morning' out of her. The tough, silent man with the huge young husky-like white dog who has lately started getting a bit rough in his play with Joey... The early morning is a nice filter. I feel that they all want the space to themselves, that the morning makes the Scrubs more theirs than at other times, their walk more adventurous, less urban, I suppose.
But on the royal wedding day, I was out at 10am. There were similarly few people, I suppose because a royal celebration is also a pretty good filter - who is not at their television screens? But they were a different lot from the early morning walkers.
I came out of Bell's wood and a young man in football shirt was sitting on the park bench with a plastic bag full of beer-cans next to him. He had one started in his hand. We smiled good-mornings, and he said "lovely, in'tit" with a strong Eastern European accent; he was picking up the vernacular of "innit" and adding his own slavic, and in this case drunken, layer to it.
There was the group of four women with a hoard of dogs - a happy group. Joey went up to a black terrier and started to play. They both lay in the grass, low, from tens of feet apart, waiting to pounce. It is a precursor to play that urban dog-walkers know well, in which the dogs seem to have recognised through ceremony a mutual desire to pretend to be something - territorial? hunters? maters? - that they no longer are.
I threw a stick for Joey that the terrier ran for. They enjoyed the competition for a few minutes, and one of the women was calling for the terrier to return. I was going in the opposite direction and continued to throw sticks and look out for the wind direction - my own private totemic moment was going to be with the kite and dirtsurfer, after all. The owner eventually started to back-track towards me to get her terrier back.
She spoke sternly to her dog, and I offered that they were playing nicely. I felt a little self-conscious - we all knew that there had to be something odd in each of us not to be engrossed in the national celebration. She was a nice-looking, shire-ish woman in her 40s. Why wasn't she stuck into the national story?
She agreed: "They do love running around, and she's about the same size as yours."
"And they have a common interest in short sticks," I offered.
She got me to repeat that and agreed. She regained the terrier's attention and turned back towards the little tribal pod of dogs and women. As she walks back I think I can discern on the back of her black t-shirt "Dykes prefer bitches" scrawled in white cursive across it.
The wind was veering between North East and South East. On the Eastern edge of the common, in the leigh of a barrier of trees, the breeze was highly irregular. I headed towards the centre and, near where the crows were pecking, started to unfurl the kite in a wind that, though still irregular, was probably going to be strong enough for a couple of beats cross wind. The crows are actually a good indicator of wind - they've always struck me as real optimisers amongst avians, and they like to launch and land into wind to minimise the number of flaps it takes to get airborne.
On my early morning runs on the Scrubs, I often come upon a crow at the top of the rugby posts, or on the cross-bar of the football goal. If I - and especially Joey - run by too close, the bird turns into wind and drops into the air with hardly a flap. It picks up speed in a shallow dive and glides gracefully out of our way. The whole sequence is performed with beautiful attention to energy conservation, to not lifting an unnecessary finger. The birds then remind me of some of the best surfers I've seen in the line-up: the waves comes, and none of this hyper-athletic paddling in ... they simply drop down the wave, adjusting their weight forward and back, and catch the rolling surf with just an elegant kick and paddle.
All to say that if there is a patch of crows in a large field, that area is quite likely to mark where the wind is.
I launch the foil into the irregular air flow and a huge bulldog comes bounding from behind. His keeper is a young man with a friend who also has a dog, but one less interested in kites. It is always a slight concern, this situation. The kite has triggered some vestigial desire to attack a large, slow-flying animal. But this animal will fall out of the sky if the wind fails. At that point, the dog may well try to take a bite out of the canopy. It happened to me - with a bulldog - on San Francisco's Ocean Beach. The bulldog ripped the kite; the dog-owner seemed to think a kite was an unfair temptation to throw in the way of a beloved pet; I was angry at knowing the kite would be out of service until stitched back together. A situation of shared living space that really has no potential for a good solution.
So I hoped that the wind would maintain sufficient strength to keep the kite out of the bulldog's reach. Another complication with these kite-loving dogs is that they will often try to stay vertically below the kite. So if the wind is strong enough to bring me directly beneath the kite - not that strong - then the yapping dog will be at my legs. Again, it has happened to me, especially on the Scrubs, that if I then try to get onto the Dirtsurfer and power away, the dog becomes more interested in following me and yapping at me than at the kite ... Again, owners of difficult or frightening dogs usually think that this is too great a challenge to put in the way of their loved ones.
I remain pretty relaxed about all this. The kite will probably stay air-borne, although the wind is very irregular. But the owner seems much less relaxed, which contributes to my worries. The owner is coming from behind - upwind - and although I am looking at the kite (therefore downwind) I know he is near when I smell the sweet smoke of the joint he must be pulling on. I want to be reassuring, and say "he's just having fun".
"He's really obsessed by kites" says the owner. "Always goes after them. Ripped one to shreds the other day..."
Well, that seems less good. I concentrate on keeping the kite airborne. The owner moves up to the dog, joint in mouth, jeans low under hip, and lies on top of the large animal and shouts admonitions in its ear. "Just trying to train him"... I wonder if he is copying the training techniques that have been unsuccessfully tried on himself all his life.
A puff of wind is strong enough for me to slip the dirtsurfer onto my backfoot and glide on. Like a crow, I would like to think, as I pass the happy, untrainable bundle on the grass and wave.
Now is the time for my own private ceremony, proper. The dirtsurfer is pointed Northwest and I am rolling over rugby fields, football pitches, the dried mud of goal-areas, the longer grass between pitches all at a good clip. The dirtsurfer has the beauty, compared to the all-terrain roller-blades that I have also used here, of complete ease, smoothness. What surfers on waves call glassiness -- that particular quality of big waves on still days, waves made by storms a long time ago, a long way away, where the wave rises out of an ocean that is free of all small-scale ripples. Only the great leviathan folds of the waves themselves stop the ocean looking like glass. And to surf in these glassy conditions has a special mystery to it: the smooth facility, the speed, the way your hand can stroke the unblemished wall of water on your way across a wave.
There is something of this as I dirtsurf Westwards on the scrubs. I get closer to the central cops and the wind strengthens. The Victorian prison comes into view. I wonder which way the inmates are looking: out to the open common, or at their screens, also engrossed in the national celebration?
My awareness of the prisoners has become a part of the ritual of kiting on the Scrubs for me. When, a few years back, I had been out here on a strong February day jumping high on a kite too big for me, I had felt that each jump would obviously be seen as an aspiration to freedom by any prisoners looking out. And when, on that same day, I had been slammed into the ground and broken my leg in two places, as well as the intense pain, I felt the simple shame of having thought the prisoners would see the jumps as liberating when in fact they were hubristic.
Wormwood Scrubs - the prison is in the bottom of the picture, the structure with three large courtyards next to Queen Charlotte's Hospital. The copse is clearly visible in the center of the common
But I'm careful now, and the kite and dirtsurfer are working joyfully well. Holding the kite in the wind is gripping into an invisible force, something alive, all around us. Tapping it requires skill and cunning. The twitches in the kite make it all the more like something living - like catching a great fish, and letting it take you for a walk. Like a fish on a line, there is a real life force that is communicated to the other end, surges of power that mean you are being guided. And once tapped, this force allows the transformation of a rough piece of earth into something with a completely different texture - something sliced through with ease, speed, grace. The caked mud of the football pitch is made slick as oil. Ordinary space is transformed.
Today, I think of the prisoners again, and wonder if my private ritual - this moment of complete, lively ease - really is such an expression of freedom. The slav, the dogging dykes, the joint-puffer, myself - we are all self-consciously, I feel sure, not part of the national moment. We want to assertively be doing something else. And we don't want to be in some republican anti-celebration, because that would seem itself to be too bound up in the national obsession. We are out on the Scrubs, with our private rituals and attachments, our dogs, our friends, our equipment and our augmented sensations because we we're not willing today to be attached to the nation that is having this moment of unity.
I wonder what that moment is like. This morning on the radio, the vox pops were peopled with those who simply loved their prince and future duchess. So is the moment of celebration like the joyful moment in a sentimental film, a moment of shared joy made sweeter because the identification of oneself in the whole is complete? It is not just one's own joy being felt, but that of everyone else: audience, fictionalised characters, actors, even, and all those who have and will share this moment. My self-conscious aroyalism was a decision to protect myself from enjoying all that, the same impulse that usually stops me watching the worst of Hollywood. And maybe the same for my other co-celebrants that morning at our anti-wedding on the Scrubs.
But maybe this thinking is itself a special kind of prison - the imperative to not belong condemns one to DIY meaning-making, a rather rough job. A special relationship to a dog, a solitary sport, a drug or a cosy outsider-ness might be thin gruel. And maybe it is hard work, so DIY enthusiasts never quite make enough meaning to go around. On the other hand, we were all out there trying to do something else. There was togetherness even in our attempt to avoid it.