About a year ago I read a piece* about a quiet morning’s work in a loop of dusty greenery beside an off-ramp from the eight-lane I-10 in LA. My first, rather resentful thought, was that this could not have been written by a woman. Women ought to be able to enjoy the unofficial solitude such half-forgotten spaces can offer, but I am not going to be the pioneer in this outpost of the feminist Wild West. My second, now definitely resentful, thought was that even getting to one of those freeway freedom zones would be tricky, as I’m a long-term semi-invalid. (A friend who has severe rheumatoid arthritis cheerfully refers to himself as a “crip”, and I’ve given the term house-room, this being its first, tentative, public outing. As for his blithe spirit, I live in hope.) My legs seem often not to get the memo—you know, the one telling them to move, preferably in the sort of co-operative enterprise that allows all of you to head in the direction you actually want to go in. Hiking in the Santa Monica mountains, for example, I don’t even dream about. I used to go walking on the hills and moors back home in England; but that was a long time ago.
On the other hand, I live in an area of LA that is generally safe, one where the most common crimes are thefts from and of cars, and where what people seem to worry about most, after break-ins, are coyotes coming down from the mountains to snack on their pets. This means I am able to savour a different kind of largely unnoticed and unappreciated space: the lanes or alleys—the name for them in the part of England I come from is ‘ginnels’ (with a hard ‘g’)—that run between the back gardens of the single-family homes and behind the condo and apartment buildings that line the streets in my neighbourhood. These lanes are a source of deep satisfaction for me, and for more reasons than the mix of peace, safety, and fresh air—well, relatively speaking: this is LA, after all—that they can offer.
The last house my husband and I lived in in England lies just off a busy main road and near an even busier ring-road around a fairly large city. The house had been added to over time, and while its front wall is 19th-century brick with a large 20th-century bay window, the core of it is very old—17th century, probably. The other walls are of stone and almost two feet thick; the windows are tiny and idiosyncratic in shape and arrangement; the floor of the dining-room at the back is of stone slabs and the fireplace there is a simple rectangular space at the bottom of the stone chimney; the fireplace in the living room is even larger, and irregular, not a neat rectangle.
You approach the house from what had once been a real road, but at some point had dwindled into a lane, when it was replaced by that busy main street I mentioned. In fact, a few yards beyond the gate to the house, it becomes a simple footpath, and then, after crossing an ancient bridle-way linking the parish churches of the villages on the south side of the city, you won’t find it at all, for it disappears under a tangle of humble greenery. The same plants give the lane its uneven, unkempt borders: brambles and fox-gloves, nettles and dock, dandelions and daisies, set off by a few more elegant escapees from local gardens. The house is so secluded even local taxi-drivers didn’t know where it was.
When we lived there, that quiet lane constantly reminded me of the places I used to play in as a child: first of all the small back-yards and the ginnels, still paved with cobblestones, behind the rows of Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses; later on, as I grew and became more independent, there were quiet streets (so much less traffic then), fields and spinneys, canal bridges and tow-paths, and, in the long summer evenings when there’s light in the sky until 11pm, deserted car-parks and institutional lawns that were ideal for our cricket matches and games of rounders. There were many patches of waste ground too, of the kind where rosebay willowherb grows, because it likes disturbed earth, and where it was useful to know that dock leaves relieve the pain of nettle stings. These were usually the sites of older buildings—mills were closing all the time back then, and cottages being found “unfit for human habitation”—that had been demolished, or just being allowed to fall down. They were off-bounds for us, for good reasons, only not the sorts of reasons that children find compelling.
And then there were all those small, unnoticed, unused spaces where kids construct their own world, from the nooks and corners, the unwanted leavings, of the grown-up one: a world that is out of sight of adults, some of the time at least. It is constructed largely in ignorance of adult interests and values, and often in spite of them, which is why being told to keep out of somewhere becomes an invitation to try to get in. An adult sees a row of ugly, delapidated single-car garages patched with peeling tar-paper and thin wooden panels cannibalised from old tea-chests. A child goes around the back of the row, to where the ground slopes steeply away, and finds the little cave made between the sagging floors of the garages, the narrow, crumbling brick piers that prop them up, and the bare earth. A secret space like this can become a hiding-place for a gang, where initiations may be held, or precious, forbidden objects kept safe, such as cigarette ends or rusty pen-knives or fire-crackers salvaged after Guy Fawkes’ Night. My best contribution to this kind of stash was part of an ear I’d hacked from a dead hare found on a walk in the fields near the house of some friends of my parents’, and that I had brought back, for obvious reasons, without my parents’ knowledge. It had to be buried pretty quickly, also for obvious reasons, but it upped my status no end.
So now when I go for walks along those quiet, neglected neighbourhood ginnels here in LA—where collapsing fences, and gates hanging drunkenly from rusty hinges rub shoulders with brand-new concrete walls soberly sporting automatic security lights—I feel sad, if no longer surprised, that I almost never find neighbourhood kids playing, and certainly not out of sight of watchful adults. I think how well suited these places would be to old-fashioned games of hide-and-seek or cops-and-robbers. When I find I can call one of them “Quince Tree Lane” or “Blackberry Alley”, and then a builder of yet another gigantic ersatz-Moorish or faux-Mediterranean villa rips out the brambles, or chops down yet another tree that for decades has been weeping fruit and leaves into this uncared-for corner of the adult world, I mourn for the disappearance of these neglected, scruffy, ugly, beautiful spaces. I mourn for my house in England, which I have lost. I mourn for my childhood, which is gone for ever. I mourn for everything that is fragile, and humble, and defenceless.
As I write this, another Santa Ana is probing our defences. It’s rattling shutters and turning downpipes into bagpipes and didgeridoos; rocking and shifting the tables and chairs on our deck; whistling and howling around doors, like something, or someone, wanting desperately to come in, but, being demonic and not of this earth, needing permission to do so. I am still not used to this sort of weather, although I’ve lived here for almost sixteen years now. I’m not used to a wind that will suck the moisture right out of your mouth and skin like a vampire, that can scour your eye-balls or make your nose bleed. A few exceptions aside (such as during the legendary summer of ’76), there were no dry winds back home, only ones that bring rain, hail, sleet, and snow, sometimes all of them in a single afternoon. If I could hear the wind in the telephone wires, making them sing and quiver in their moorings, it was coming rain, or a storm, they were singing about.
When it’s raining is my favourite time for those back-lane walks. No-one’s about; even the multi-dog-exercisers, and the power-walkers with their holstered iPhones and bottles of super-water and Boris Karloff sneakers, prefer to stay indoors; birds and cats alike seek shelter. The rain soaks old leaves and drenches bone-dry fencing, and for a while—a little while—there’s a wonderful scent of damp earth: a sharp, sour tang as comforting to me as the aroma of my morning coffee, or as my husband’s look when he hands it to me.
So next time I’m tempted to name and list all the things I’ve lost—such as playing cricket, or dancing, or walking on the moors, or for that matter walking for more than a few blocks without needing a few hours’ rest—I will remind myself to make a second list as well: of all the things I haven’t lost because they weren’t mine to begin with, no more mine than is the pair of hummingbirds that has recently taken up residence on our deck.
They are as light and delicate as flower-petals, these birds, but when they divebomb intruders into their territory (they clearly have no doubts as to its being theirs), they’re like jewelled bullets. When one of them stands in the air three feet away to scrutinise me, turning its exquisite head now this way, now that, and I sit frozen in my chair, hardly daring to breathe, I feel I have been blessed—or at any rate inspected and found satisfactory. I have been accepted, you see, like the grewias or the olive-tree on our deck, into the hummingbirds’ world, which is no more part of our world (the human world, the city world) than the world we kids made for ourselves out of the adult world’s left-overs was part of their world. One falls inside the other only on a map, and you cannot enter it by setting your GPS.
I shall remind myself, then, that it’s a mistake to assume the ordinary, everyday things that are transient, and lovely, and fragile, are all of them here, in this world—the world of the city, with its circling helicopters, its strip-malls and strip-clubs, its freeway off-ramps—when really they are in their world. I shall tell myself that you have to wait for permission to enter it; sometimes it’s given, and sometimes it’s too late even to ask. That is why those things can’t be caught, let alone held fast. They have to come to you, for as long as they like, and then they leave. In compensation, they can come to you anywhere, even in a ginnel in Los Angeles.
*Nathan Deuel is the author: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/livable-city/la-oe-dueul-bundy-exit-20151227-story.html