At 'mighty scene of things,' the exotic takes on English coloration A journey abroad


LONDON -- When the season changed, the children of Islam disappeared the way desert people are said to do, without a trace.

In the summer and early fall, they had owned the park after 6 in the evening, when they streamed out of all the Arab embassies tucked here and there in the neighborhoods that surround it.

The women came behind their fluttering masks and flowing veils. The Muslim men strolled along the Broad Walk, hand in hand. Their children tumbled in the grass.

Until they disappeared when the air got nippy, I half expected to come out of the Queensway Tube station one day to find they had set up pavilions on the edge of the Round Pond and had planted crescent flags. I kind of miss their familial congestion now.

The cooler days drive the lethargy from the ducks. They are screamy; they stalk out of the water and bully the children who bring grain for them. It is curious how much affection the ducks generate.

One Sunday morning a duckling got entangled in a submerged kite string. Its struggles attracted the attention of the people around the pond, even caused them to talk to one another, which they don't generally do. Within a short while, they agreed a rescue ought to be organized.

From somewhere a rubber dinghy was produced. One of the younger men in the modelers club, those who come each Sunday to launch radio-controlled sailboats onto the pond, launched himself in the dinghy and rowed precariously out (at one point he almost went over) and freed the duck.

Everybody applauded, congratulated one another, smiled. The hero of the moment paddled ashore and fought unsuccessfully to suppress a large grin of pride. Then everyone dispersed and went back to themselves.

Down on the Serpentine, the sickle of bright water that marks the boundary between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two form a contiguous patch of green and are usually considered a single entity), the dragon boats were competing in a regatta.

The dragon boats are not so quick and sudden as the sculling boats; these flash across the surface like water striders and from the shore look like pencil scratches on a pad. But the dragon boats, each pertaining to a social club or company, are heftier. Each has a crew of about 10 strong men to move it along. In a race they dig deep into the water, grunting like Polynesian oarsmen. A helmsman stands aft. The smallest crew member, usually a young boy or girl, sits in the prow and beats on a big drum to give the rowers the rhythm. The carved dragon head leers on the bow.

Not too long ago the Japanese came to Hyde Park and put on a big fair. They lofted a thousand kites. They sold terrible-tasting food at outrageous prices, just as they do in Tokyo. Sumo wrestlers arrived and staged matches at the Royal Albert Hall, which stands in circular splendor on the edge of the park. The owner of the Royal Garden Hotel, where the wrestlers stayed, had to call in an engineer to reinforce their beds.

It is a cliche, but grounded in truth, that the English do not like foreigners. Yet these parks are full of people with turbans and dreadlocks, checked kaffiyehs, east Asians from who-knows-where, and everyone acts as if it is the most natural of things. The dragon boats seem so un-English, yet they are powered by Englishmen with tattoos.

What is English?

What is English these days, or un-English? Is Hyde Park, with all its exotic recreations? Baseball on one patch, soccer on another, unicyclists here, tai chi there. Maybe what remains essentially English is the code of behavior, which everybody seems to accept: Keep to yourself. Never accost, but always respond with civility.

Each person proceeds down cathedral walks of perfectly proportioned sycamores or reclines alone under druidic oaks. They are so confident their privacy is unbreakable, it is as if they were encircled by an invisible and protective perimeter.

A Japanese acquaintance tells me he thinks the English are unfriendly. He recalls happily the outgoing nature of the people in the Chicago suburb where he lived for a while. Maybe, but how about the parks in Chicago? New York? Baltimore? Are they so free from peril as these? And why? There are no police evident.

The reason? People keep to the rules. Never intrude. Allow your fellow being the freedom of not having your acquaintance.

Even the animals behave as if they had gone to boarding school. The dogs rarely fight and are perfectly polite. There are no cats.

During the recent Conservative political convention, Prime Minister John Major quoted one of his predecessors, Harold Macmillan, as follows: "People walk in public gardens, but they tend their own."

These 10 words encapsulate a truth by which the Tories live. They celebrate ownership and private recreations, which is not what Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens are all about. The park is a venue for public recreations, and in spite of English standoffishness, it encourages encounter. In this way it is connected to the Greek agora, the Roman forum, the plaza, the hurly-burly of streets here and there, sites that have been thought important to our social and political health for as long as our history goes back. Perhaps devaluing them is not the best thing.

Macmillan's words do encapsulate a truth, but it is opposed by another truth. In fact the clash of the two truths is at the center of political debate in Britain today.

Privatize the park?

The Labor Party believes that the Conservative civic philosophy, which has privatization at its center, has a stern logic to it that will eventually carry it into every corner of life. But could Hyde Park be privatized? Sold off? Who could conceive of such a thing?

Actually, it happened before. In 1652, just over a half-century after Hyde Park was opened to the public, Parliament sold it. But as is often the case, one of the new owners was found to be exploiting his position and overcharging for access. Eventually it was returned to the public realm.

The park has seen worse days than that, or this. In the 18th century, it was full of muggers and it was a favored dueling ground. Two hundred years before that it was wilder still, and Henry VIII slaughtered deer and wild boar in it. Queen Victoria buried her dog here. Best of all, it is decorated here and there with monuments to the less-celebrated heroes. There is an obelisk to John Hanning Speke, who discovered the headwaters of the Nile and who has always been overshadowed by the flamboyant Richard Francis Burton. There is a stone set amid some shrubs dedicated to William Forsythe, who used to supervise these gardens, and who lent his name to the plant that each spring gives Baltimore its first real splash of color, the forsythia.

Hyde Park offers what William Hazlitt called "the mighty scene of things," activities innocent and muscular, ideas idiotic and subversive -- and sometimes splendid. I saw a young woman at the Speakers Corner who had managed to get her hair the color of beets; her nose was pierced three times with rhinestone studs. Her attention had been seized by a haranguer who carried on about feminine faithlessness. Another orator thought it a good idea to base British sterling on tin, since there is so much of it.

American tourists come to the Speakers Corner with video recorders and a fever to use them. They film everybody they consider eccentric (like the emaciated man who circles the crowd and occasionally barks: "Hang the royal family! Hang 'em all! It's what they did to us.") and go away with their cassettes convinced they are the normal ones.

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