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Life in the big smoke

London, my London

I took the river boat home after doing interviews around London Bridge yesterday. I looked at the grey waves, the silt. This water, it’s seen tragedy before. It’s seen suicides and bombs and murders.

London has seen a lot. London has survived a lot. I saw some quote yesterday about how this old battle scarred city shrugs and moves on. But we’re fragile. Those of us who live and love and dream and hate in this city, we’re fragile.

I’m fragile.

I’ve seen the aftermath of terror attacks in two cities I love, in two cities I’ve called home, in the space of about a week. I’ve seen fear and resilience and strength and shock. I hid my face from the sweeping broadcast cameras at the vigil in Manchester, because journalists shouldn’t cry.

This is real. This is happening. This keeps happening. This white hot madness, like a pinched nerve running through society. Why does it keep happening?

I was at Borough Market on Saturday afternoon. I bought a coffee from one of the stallholders and then I got a train from London Bridge. A normal day.

A friend of mine left Borough Market a couple of minutes before the attack. A normal evening. Shattered.

Perhaps the people who look back at this time will find a narrative. We only catch glimpses of it, rushing forward and looking out at these events as they blur. In the future some sense might be made and some answers might be found. Until then we’re stuck with the blur and with our feelings.

This is what I thought yesterday. If we don’t take care of our societies they will break. If we don’t figure out what our values are and then stand up for them, what we have will crumble. If we’re not compassionate we engender hate. And if we don’t have honest conversations about fear and anger and who to blame for all kinds of horrors those feelings will crawl out like beasts from the most spiteful corners of our societies.

I wish I could have offered my sadness to the river. I wish she would have washed it all away. But she’s seen it before, she doesn’t care. It’s up to those of us who live along her shores to do that work for her.

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.

Why England is the world’s most haunted place

It’s been called the first media circus. The country is at war and a huge storm hits London, overturning boats on the Thames and smashing windows, but what really mattered in the spring of 1762 was the ghost craze on Cock Lane.

You can visit the narrow alley today, a clean and sanitised short-cut between office blocks in Farringdon. Back in the 18th century it was a very different street near the infamous Smithfield market. The stench of cattle and blood must have hung in the air. Hundreds of animals were brought to Smithfield every week, some were sold and some were slaughtered. Before the cattle market the square had been the site of brutal executions. Over the centuries death burrowed its way into cobbled stones and the bricks around Smithfield.

In 1759 a young couple, William Kent and Fanny Lynes, moved in with the Parsons family on Cock Lane*. But all was not quite what it seemed with the youngsters. They weren’t married. Kent had in fact previously been married to Lynes’s sister, who had died in childbirth. The pair seems to have fallen in love after her death, but the laws at the time prevented them from marrying.

The Parsons were struggling to make ends meet, but offering the couple a room wasn’t the only way Richard Parsons, a church clerk with a drink habit, was able to buy rounds for his friends at the Wheat Sheaf. William Kent was a loan shark and lent Parsons twelve guineas.

A teenage girl and a ghost

The Parsons had two young daughters and Fanny Lynes struck up a friendship with twelve-year-old Betty. When Kent was away on one of his many business trips Fanny and Betty shared a bedroom on the first floor. And that’s when the hauntings started.

Knocks and scratches could be heard in the room, but no logical explanation could be found for the mysterious sounds. Fanny Lynes became convinced it was her dead sister come back to punish her for running away with Kent.

The noises and scratches became louder and more pervasive. Eventually Kent and Lynes were evicted from the house. It was a decisions that was set to have tragic consequences.

The heavily pregnant Fanny Lynes caught smallpox and died a few weeks before giving birth. The hauntings then intensified. Betty Parsons started suffering from convulsive fits. The Parsons decided to accuse William Kent of poisoning Fanny Lynes. It was now her ghost that haunted the house.

“Scratching Fanny”

Things escalated. The Parsons started charging for access to séances in the house. The ghost became known as “scratching Fanny”. Celebrities came. Rowdy, drunk séances were held night after night around Betty Parsons bed. William Kent tried to clear his name. Fanny Lyne’s coffin was disinterred and opened. The popular press took sides, some accused Kent of murder. Hundreds of people gathered on Cock Lane every night to get a glimpse of the ghost.

After much excitement it turned out Betty Parsons had been creating the sounds by beating her chest and knocking on a piece of wood under her bedclothes. She was taken away from her family to be examined by older male “experts”. Several people were jailed, among them Richard Parsons and his wife.

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“The most haunted country in the world”

I’ve been reading books about British ghosts. I’d stumbled across the saying “the English see more ghosts than any other people” and I wanted to find out more. Was there anything to the suggestion that England is the most haunted country in the world?

One of the best books that fell through my letterbox was “A Natural History of Ghosts” by journalist Roger Clarke. He’s had a life long fascination with all things spooky and became the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research. The Cock Lane ghost story is one of many in his book.

Clarke writes with both excitement and detachment about hauntings, séances and spooky legends of the British isles. He explores how both seeing and hunting ghosts has become important to the tourism industry in the UK. This is a country where the mention of a ghost might bring more visitors to a pub, a hotel or a castle. Perhaps that’s why the English see so many of them.

Nostalgia and boredom

Ghost sightings become more common in times of crisis. During the First World War some Brits had something called a time slip experience. People claimed to have seen an imprint of a more comfortable past, a manor that had burned down appeared to people who walked by the site at the right time of the night, the sounds of old parties echoed through time.

This hints at what is perhaps Clarke’s most interesting explanation of why the English see so many ghosts. Nostalgia and class.

“For most of the last few hundred years, only the upper and lower classes tended to believe in them. The middle classes have always deplored the idea of ghosts … Your middle-class sceptic would say that toffs like ghosts because it is a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.

The twin polarities of the haunted British landscape make it clear: the haunted pub and the haunted stately home … If you were poor, it was because you hoped for the future; and if you were aristocratic and rich, it was because you trusted in the past.”

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*Yes readers with a dirty mind, I know this whole thing sounds like a ghost story from the Viz.

Some thoughts about leaving the city and moving to the suburbs

In November Gerry and I moved from north London to the south east. We left an apartment nestled between a busy train line and one of the main arteries funnelling cars into the city from the north. We moved to a house in the suburbs.

Our north London was mostly a busy, noisy place. There was a Whole Foods store around the corner when we moved to the area and during our five years there the powers of gentrification brought a Foxtons estate agent, a Foxlow restaurant, several yoga studios, pubs full of men with beards and coffee shops charging three pounds for a black coffee.

It’s now the only place in London where you can get the pizza mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love. There is also a shop selling sticks. The rents shot up and I started feeling slightly self-conscious going to the shops in an old hoodie and my tired jeans, everyone else looked amazing, the odd celebrity walked down the street.

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I was glad to leave, but I didn’t really understand that moving would have a physical impact on me. I had been tense, bracing myself for some unknown disaster, my neck ached, trains interrupted my thoughts, the planes overhead were so common I hardly heard them, my shoulders crept up, my breath was getting stuck in my throat.

We now live on the slopes of the second highest hill in London. To the north is the river, to the south and east two ancient woodlands. After a fifteen minute walk I can be in a forest, a real forest. We have a garden and we’ve spent time digging into the earth, revealing worms, sending beetles and spiders scuttling away. I’m breathing more deeply, I feel less anxious. There is silence here.

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I’ve been reading about how living in cities affect how we feel. A while ago I decided to explore some more of south London and ended up in a bookshop in Greenwhich where I picked up “Headspace – The Psychology of City Living” by psychiatrist Paul Keedwell. The book cites several studies about how noisy, polluted urban living can make us tried, anxious and unwell.

One study at the University of Munich showed that being exposed to the colour green makes us more creative. Portuguese researchers found that “people who lived in areas associated with greater levels of air pollution scored higher on tests of anxiety and depression.”

Another study at the Humbolt University of Berlin looked at how traffic noise, air pollution and lack of green space affect health and showed that the participants who lived in “high burden blocks” had less healthy lifestyles. A study from Helsinki found that “even short visits to an urban park or an urban woodland led to marked stress-relieving effects in city dwellers”.

According to the book there is no need to move away form the city to find relief. Visiting parks and green spaces works just as well, as does exercise. But I have moved and reading about how living nearer green spaces and having a garden is good for you is positive reinforcement for what was a fairly major life decision.

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Central London has some of the most polluted streets in the world . I can taste the exhaust fumes in the city now. The street where we live is so quiet I notice when a car goes by.

It’s not all perfect. This part of London is poor. There are fewer restaurants and no shops selling sticks. Instead of having a bus stop outside the front door I have to walk for about twenty minutes to get to a tube station. So I walk more, down and up the hill to the station, looking out over east London on the other side of the river, listening to the birds, looking up at a few bright stars at night. I’m happier. My calves ache from all the walking.

Since moving here I’ve found out that a lot of other Finns have made this part of London their home, perhaps it has something to do with all the trees.

The first Saturday in the new house

This first night in the house we hammered through the plaster in our bedroom. Big chunks flying everywhere. There was a hollow-sounding area on the lower part of the chimney breast and it seemed like a good idea to find out what lay behind it. An old fireplace, full of rubble and ash. The draft from the chimney stirred the dust. We covered up the hole with a small piece of thin plywood.

This is the first Saturday in the house. The old boiler is roaring next to me. It’s quiet outside. I’m sitting in the office looking out over our garden. The words still seem alien to me. The office. Our garden. Yesterday two cats walked across the lawn, the short-haired tabby one sat on the roof of the shed for a long time, staring at the garden on the other side of the fence where a lady appeared regularly to smoke fags and check her phone. The neighbour on the left has placed plastic tubs full of seeds on top of her fence. The only birds that seem interested in them are the pigeons. When they’ve finished their meal they swoop towards our house, wings outstretched, looking like World War Two bombers. This is my new life.

There has hardly been space for anything else than the new house during the last seven days. We moved on Tuesday and it feels like half a lifetime ago. It’s a steep learning curve of boiler-lingo and electricity-lingo, getting locks changed, issues checked, reading up on asbestos. It’s an old house, the carpets are threadbare, the wallpaper is peeling, everything smells very strongly of curry. I love it.

Not much has been done to this house since the seventies. During our first night here, when everything was still very chaotic and dusty, we discovered that the old doors had been covered up with cheap boards. We prised away the boards and found mustard yellow and pea-soup green four panel doors underneath. There are several different holes in them where previous owners have moved the handles around during the last century.

Is this what middle age is like? Will I now bore people to lip-chewing despair talking about doors and floorboards and all the other stuff we discover when peeling away the layers that have been added to this house since it was built?

The floorboards creek, the boiler roars, but otherwise it’s quiet like London’s never been quiet before. I wake up surprised. No trains outside the window, no traffic, no sirens, no airplanes in the sky. I’ve never realised how much spaciousness there is in the quiet. I feel at home, I feel at peace. So bring on the mess and the chaos of ripping everything out and starting again.