by James Murray-White
I was expecting to be entranced by this collection, steeped as I am in
the life of parks and the world of the imagination. I had heard Ali
Smith talking about her story as she walked around Regents' Park on
Radio 4, and anticipated that this collection of stories would range
widely and wildly, as all the authors were encouraged to experience all
of their chosen park's resources, including park wardens and planners.
By including Regent's Park's own literary website, and exploring the
work of its beekeeper, Ali Smith clearly relished her commission, and
that shines through in her story.
Ultimately though I'm disappointed
with it as a collection and as a set of individual stories. None of
them really fired me up, and I would gladly leave them all scattered
over park benches for others to try out, rather than greedily keep them
to myself and put them on my shelf.
Across 10 short pages, Hanan
al-Shaykh flits between Kensington Gardens and her character's
childhood in Kuwait in A
Beauty parlour for Swans. The "dark wilful world" inside
the character contrasts with the freedom found within the park, and as
embodied as swans, but this comes across as heavy and forced symbolism.
Nicola Barker's story, By
Force of Will, Alone (set in Greenwich Park) is on the
surface, an interesting character study of "the pugnacious Sydney
Figge", but one which gets lost in over explanation and hyperbole. In
one paragraph alone, there are 4 bracketed explanatory sentences
(somewhat unnecessary, methinks) which pad out Sydney's life and
antics. It is a shame that this larger than life figure who is the
unofficial ruler of the park, becomes boring under all the author's
efforts to flesh him out.
On my first reading of the set, I
noticed that I enjoyed each one slightly more than the previous. The
first three stories (at least) seem to be based upon strange male
figures lurking in parks, and don't really develop much from there.
Shena Mackay's story The
Running of the Deer is so obviously trying to cram in
loads of facts about the location, and this is to the detriment of the
story. She gives us Richmond Park's historical, royal, literary and
musical connections....then throws in some mysticism and pantheism for
William Boyd's The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth didn't
grab me as I had hoped it might – neither of the characters are well
drawn or that interesting. The inclusion of Yve Hill's Nomenclature of Breezes and Winds
as part of the story, and indeed the turning point, fails to lift the
15-page story out of the gentle lull it falls into.It doesn't live up
to the potential shown in the opening paragraphs.
Will Self here seems to have less
sparkle than usual. His wonderful meanderings languish around a
reflection upon a park, in this case Bushey. It reads as a report upon
park life that becomes ever more anthropological in its examination of
the goings on and daily useage of the acreage. In his hands Bushey
becomes a "sanctuary" for the "extensive and dispersed part-time
hunter-gatherers" seen through the eyes of the head park keeper, who
seeks amongst his staff for a "certain waywardness".
This dryness of language contrasts
beautifully with what was for me, the collection's highlight: Clare
This is a love story that floats high above the park, with the birds
who are now so tragically ensnared in their cages. The descent into
sadness and loss is delivered tenderly, yet with precision. Here is a
writer who has taken the brief and used it as a springboard for a
poetic storytelling of love and loss. This story shines, and is an
inspiring piece for hot summer days, when "the treetops, bowing toward
one another, form a corridor pleasantly cool in the summer heat, and
for its full length, the branches are strung with gilded cages whose
jewel-bright occupants set the air alive with exotic trills and
shrieks". Wigfall seductively takes the reader along a gilded avenue of
love and its inevitable loss, and it is the gem of this lacklustre
collection. The next collection (and I hope there will be more) needs
more bite to it, otherwise these will be left behind on the park bench
to blow about in the wind and decompose amongst the leaves.
|Since growing up in a City full of
parks and wild spaces (Cambridge - with the magnificent Midsummer
Common and Jesus Green), James
has always sought out parks wherever he has lived, including Hull's
Pearson Park, Princes Gardens in Edinburgh, Bristol's Brandon Hill, and
currently various Jerusalem spots.
Paperback/Hardback? Paperback (stories printed as
separate books within a pack)
Book website: Parkstories.org
Authors: Ali Smith, Nicola Barker, William Boyd, Hanan Al Shaykh, Will Self, Clare Wigfall.
this book (used or
Publisher's Website: Royal Parks
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