Sunday, 22 September 2013

Thoughts from a Hat-less Walk along the Ring Road, from Cowley Centre to Barton-upon-Bayswater, 22.09.13

It was meant to be a cycle ride. Not of my own volition, but HL decreed it was good for me, and that we would go to the Tesco garage, pump the tyres up with appropriate wind, and I would cycle home. The nozzle didn't fit the valve on the front wheel. Ha! But by then I had it in mind to be useful, so I walked down to Cowley Centre, and bought a few things needful, and then trudged back, at first through the no-mans-land of Cowley-Headington, and then onto the no-questions-asked of the ring road. Probably four or five miles all told. Having intended to cycle home, I had brought my helmet, but not being able to use it, I was hat-less in the scorching nearly-sunshine of the Autumn afternoon.

The ring road is a perplexing thing. I dislike it strongly as a car passenger, as it is boring, and seems needlessly long, but if you look at the map, you see it could hardly be briefer. There's a story - probably only an urban myth - that the City Council had intended to drive the road through Christ Church Meadow in the early 1960s. I'm not sure what this would have added, but it would have taken away a great deal, and as debate raged, the argument finally reached the Cabinet, where the Prime Minister and six other ministers, were all Christ Church men, and that was the end of the matter. In vengeance, the City Council, whenever the college has asked permission to build anything anywhere near the Meadow, has said No, ever since, on principle.

But the ring road is wonderfully treed, if there's such a word. It's funny to think of these vast green giants trying to suck in the disgusting CO2 that the cars pump out furiously all the day, returning the favour only with oxygen that we all need to live our daily lives. I dimly recall someone's epitaph "He planted trees, that others might bask in their shade", and I've always thought that would be a wonderful thing to do. Well, it's been done all along the ring road, and bravo to whoever did that - and, as I'd come out without my hat, I appreciated their shade today.

An old lady came into view, moving very slowly, and as she got closer, clearly with spondylitis and a West Highland White terrier, of similar antiquity. She was leaning on one of those four-poster shopping trolleys, for which someone really ought to have been given the OM - practicality, mobility, utility, all in one - and the dog's lead hung slackly off its handles, as no one was going anywhere fast. And I wondered what on earth they were doing on the ring road. It was a long journey to anywhere useful - like the shops - and it's not the sort of place you'd go to let a (younger, perhaps) dog off the lead for a frolic. But maybe it was because of the path itself: broad, unbothered by cyclists, who have a much broader parallel one to themselves, and safe from jostling and hurrying. She couldn't very easily physically look up, and she didn't, but doggedly ploughed her furrow, the Westie loyally trotting at her side.

And so back through Risinghurst, Barton's upmarket neighbour, and how very apparent that was. I am a creature of the suburbs - could almost have been an estate agent, except that I tell easy lies about the wrong things - three and four bed semis, front gardens, off-road parking, and then a funny little park and playground. Nothing announced its entrance, it was just a gap big enough to get a ride-on lawnmower through, and then a field big enough to play a game in, and a playground in which small people were having fun. Two of them were on one of those slidey swing things that Boris Johnson (the Mayor of London) got stuck on a while back, and should have looked a fool, but somehow improved his ratings yet again. There's something Clintonesque about that man. And on the grass there were four perhaps early-teens, one a runty little chap with his shirt off, but remarkably good at kicking the kiddies' football back into the playground without actually getting up from his recumbent position. He caught my eye not for the usual lascivious reasons, but because I thought this is how I must have looked long ago, pale, and thin, and unremarkable, although without the redeeming footballing skill. Not even the most eager pervert would have batted an eye at seeing me shirtless in a suburban park. I hope he was flattered, even though he'll never know the reason why. Soon the shirtless season will be closed, and I shall be commenting on their duffel coats and wellingtons.

And so over the border into Barton, which divides into an East and a West. East is slightly posher. We live in West. In the East there is a Leisure Centre, which I've only ever seen in the dark, and from the other direction, so I couldn't read its label. I went in, and to my surprise, there was a thriving gymnasium (those places always slightly alarm me) and a tranquil swimming pool, and a nice young lady at the desk who rather than just giving me a leaflet, summoned a nice young man to show me round. I used to swim at the local pool, at quiet times, when I worked at Seven Dials, over a decade ago. They tell me there are quiet times at this pool, too, although back then I made the mistake of telephoning them and asking "can you tell me when the schoolchildren use the pool?" and realised only after, what that must have sounded like. I stopped going there after an incident in the changing rooms. It was nothing that would get anyone in the papers, still less the courts, and I should really have found it rather flattering, but I turned tail and fled, and never returned, and have never swum since. The other chap could have done with a hat.

And walking, biking, swimming, and mulling, I made my way home, in the miasma of my imagination. Without my hat.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2013

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