London’s changed. London’s always changing; a city that stays constant is a city barely worth the name – but living in a city you don’t tend to notice the changes so readily, just as when you live with a puppy or a kitten you don’t notice it growing: change most often happens gradually, rather than suddenly, and is best observed not by being in close proximity to the thing upon which it is acting but by sampling that thing – an animal, a city – from time to time. London’s changed, as all cities must change, and after last being there in 2009, when I visited it again last month the changes were striking.
It was a different city in 2009, too, from what it had been the previous time I’d been there. I’ve been visiting England, and particularly London and the Home Counties, every few years for my entire life; but for most of that time I was a child, or very young, and the sphere of my interest and attention did not extend very far beyond my own self. As an adult I’m less interested in myself and more interested in the wider world, and thus I’m more inclined to notice what’s happening around me. I’m more attuned to change.
The last time I was in London was in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. I’d come from Australia, where we thought things were pretty bad, but walking through Bloomsbury from the flat I was staying in to the British Museum, a distance of only a few blocks, and seeing the scores of empty offices and buildings freshly available for lease on that five-minute walk, made me appreciate how lightly Australia had escaped.
When I arrived in London this time, just a few weeks ago, it was Spring, or it was supposed to be Spring; but a month and a half into the season snow was still falling, the trees were still wearing their winter twigs, daffodils and jonquils were pushing through the earth but they seemed to have made a mistake: even in April they seemed to have come early. No other flowers were joining them. The Londoners were still huddled into their winter coats and scarves. They were sick of it. Everybody was; everybody spoke of how there’s been no Spring this year, and how the seasons have become so wildly unpredictable, and how surely this means they’ll get a hot summer as recompense – as if the seasons are give-and-take, as if weather is equitable. I read that lambs are dying in the fields; that there’s nothing for them to eat. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and relished the cold weather that I love but something else I’d read recently was nagging at me: somebody wrote that they can’t enjoy winter any more because they couldn’t help thinking of all the animals dying out there in the harsh, frosted woods.
I was travelling with my family, and a family friend, and her young son. We stayed in central London, in fact again only five minutes walk from the British Museum, but in the other direction. We arrived from Heathrow early in the morning and besides the cold nearly the first thing we noticed is that London had discovered coffee. I’ve read about it online, too: how the ever-continuing influx of Australians and New Zealanders have brought the coffee culture from their homelands to London. Young Australians and New Zealanders used to come from to London to earn pounds; now the pound has crashed and they’ve all opened cafés instead. Perhaps the economy left them with no other choice: seemingly every time you open a newspaper there’s a story about somebody who never thought they’d be doing the work they’re doing; somebody who left their previous office-bound life behind. In Canberra, fifteen or so years ago, the federal government forced thousands of public servants into redundancy and the economy of the city diversified and changed; suffered, too. People take the options they’re left with. People move far from home or far from their comfort zone and they make a go of it.
When during my week in London I got some time to myself I caught the Tube to Fulham to visit a particular shop. I’m not used to reading maps of a city as big as London so I underestimated the distance from Hammersmith station to the shop and decided to walk, along Fulham Palace Road. The station complex gave way to shops which gave way to houses which gave way to shops again; the road meandered like a river and the buildings on either side were like the cliffs of a gorge. Near Fulham Cemetery I heard a sound, unfamiliar yet also intrinsically familiar; strange and out-of-place. It sounded like a parrot shrieking and that’s exactly what it was: I looked up and there was that unmistakable shape, slender and long-tailed, with pointed wings; it’s a shape I see every day in Australia and I didn’t expect to see against the cold grey sky of London.
The bird flew into the park next to the Cemetery. It was bright green, with a red beak, and I thought it should be easy to identify – how many parrots can there be in London? But the internet revealed a baffling – perhaps baffled – array of possible answers. From the colouration and markings I deduced that the parrot I’d seen must be a Rose-ringed Parakeet, an animal whose various subspecies are found across south Asia and central Africa – but the description of the bird seemed too large to be the delicate creature I observed. No matter, it’s the best guess I’ve got, and perhaps in this instance – a parrot in London! – the particular species is not so important.
Not being in a hurry I followed the parrot into the cemetery; I supposed that it might be looking for a nest-hollow, the season being spring in name at least. Soon I heard the bird call again and saw it, sure enough, investigating a hole in a large elm. There were others, too – other birds and other trees, other hollows. Wherever the parrots came from, whatever species they are, however they arrived in London, they’re breeding now – the weather must be horribly alien to them but they seem to be flourishing. I wonder if they die in winter, in the snow, more readily than the native birds do – or do their feathers, those wonderful insulators, keep them warm? Do they feel, in some ancient instinct, that something’s not right, that they’re not where they should be?
Whatever they feel, they’re making a go of it. They’d read some infinitesimal sign in the season’s weather and something in them had clicked: springtime, time to nest and breed and raise up the next generation of London parrots. At some stage they’ll become native, I suppose, like the Barbary Macaques (Macaca sylvanus) in Gibraltar; like Dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) in Australia. The world changes, bit by bit. By the time we left London, after two weeks, the skies were blue, the trees were beginning to leaf, and the parks were filled with the sound of people and the sound of birdsong.
Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org