A Work of Nonfiction by Pete Johnson
I was born in London. One of the great world cities. When I was born, the last war had only been over for a bit more than six years, and relatives were still fighting, this time in Korea. Times were hard, and life was simple. The TV had one channel, and we still listened to shows on the radio. Cinema was the great escape from cold rooms, smog, and harsh winters. Most of my family lived within a short walk. We were always in and out of each other’s houses, and congregated at my maternal grandmother’s house. Despite the unenviable lot of women back then, it was undoubtedly a matriarchal society, as far as I could tell.
That area of South London was close to the docks. Close enough to see the superstructure of the cargo ships, not far from the end of the street. Go in the other direction, and you would see Tower Bridge, looming above the dockside bustle. We lived in boroughs, and we knew our boundaries. Crossing a road could put you in a very different area, as far as we were concerned at least. I grew up street-smart, playing around lamp-posts with gangs of pals. Always outside, whatever the weather. Nobody travelled far. School was a few minutes away, shops were on corners, and supermarkets didn’t exist. Except for day trips to the country, if you had access to a car, and maybe a summer holiday by the beach, if you were lucky, you stayed where you lived.
Of course, it felt right. The way it should be. I knew no different, but I didn’t envy those who lived outside the city. In fact I felt sorry for them. They were missing out. They were literally out of it.
Later on, and things hadn’t changed much. We had a telephone in the house, and there were three channels on the TV. But it still wasn’t in colour, not quite yet. We now had a toilet that wasn’t in the back yard, and a coal fire that could be lit with gas. But the winters were still bad, the summers stifling, and the traffic had got worse. I still hadn’t been abroad. I hadn’t even been to Scotland, Wales, or Ireland. For that matter, I hardly knew the other parts of London, save for bus rides north of the river, to go shopping in Oxford Street as a treat.
All that came soon enough. Leaving school, getting a car, parents moving to the suburbs. It all happened so fast. Before I knew it, I had lived all over that huge city, on all points of the compass. I knew the place like the back of my hand, and could travel all over, without recourse to a map. I was a Londoner, through and through. Not English, never British, just a Londoner. I studied my city, embraced all it had to offer. Theatres, cinemas, clubs, restaurants, places of interest. I saw them all, and knew them intimately. I had little interest in my country outside of London. York, Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol. So what? They were not London, they were somewhere else. Somewhere people spoke with funny accents, ate different things, and looked on with envy at the chance of life in the capital. I still felt sorry for them.
Much later, and I was tired. Worn out, eaten up, and spat out by a city that treated its inhabitants as disposable. London is a place for the young, and is unforgiving of advancing years. I could no longer imagine growing old in the place that I once adored. I had to formulate my escape.
So, we bought a house 130 miles away. The east of England, called East Anglia here. A rural place, with only two small cities, surrounded by huge farming communities, and endless vistas of flat land. As we travelled those miles, we also travelled back in time. We returned to a gentler age, a life only ever imagined, and never experienced. A place where people greet you as they pass, or offer to help if you appear to be lost. Staff in shops made conversation with us, groups of youngsters moved to one side on the pavement to allow us to pass. A life lived at a slow pace, as if moving through treacle. Even after five years, it is difficult, no impossible, to fully explain the change. I now live in Norfolk, but I will always live there as a Londoner. It is like being on holiday, but for the rest of your life.
Near my new home is a mighty oak tree. They tell me it first sprouted in 1666. As it grew, London was devastated by The Great Fire. Charles II was on the throne of England, and Samuel Pepys was writing his famous diary. When this oak was 110 years old, the far-off colonies in America declared independence, and started a war with England to achieve it.
In 1916, the tree had reached the grand old age of 250. That summer, Britain suffered terrible casualties at the Battle of The Somme, and the First World War would drag on for two more years after that. Fifty years later, and England won the 1966 football World Cup. The Beatles were said to be ‘more popular than Jesus’, and the war in Vietnam was escalated. I was just 14 years old. The tree was 300.
This tree slumbered through the Moon landings, the first heart transplant, industrial unrest, and various changes of government. It shed its leaves and acorns, and its massive trunk increased in girth. It paid no heed to the three day week, power cuts, immigration, or the EU. The pettiness of mankind was beneath it, and the branches continued to spread. It survived storms, lightning, parasites, and drought. It paid no heed to snow, ice, flood, or hurricane.
When I am not only dead and gone, but my presence on earth is no longer even a memory, it will still stand. People will pass under the huge canopy, and wonder at a tree that is over 400 years old. That is just how it should be, and the thought of it makes me feel strangely happy, deep inside.