Essay: The Green Mile
Jessica Sequeira reflects on the role and representation of green spaces in Cambridge
23 February 2013
The distance from one side of Midsummer Common to the other, moving along the river – Park Parade to Elizabeth Way – measures exactly one mile. Seen from above, it looks like a sine wave, a serpent-like ripple. Alongside the docked boats runs a tarmac path bordered by mud and grass, occasionally treacherous when scattered with the scree of winter ice. In the morning the sun casts fiery gold streaks across the water and turns the air a hazy pink.
Midsummer Common is by far my favourite green space in Cambridge, but I’ve never seen a convincing description of it in prose. That’s somewhat surprising, as the English tend to be quite good at immortalising real-life locations in literature. Green spaces are particularly well represented in the nation’s poetry and novels, where they tend to be discussed either as comforting symbols of home – places to take children and pets for the afternoon before cutting home for a cup of tea – or as overly zoned areas, symbolic of excess civil interference.
Green spaces are some of the few places of repose in the midst of hectic urban life; it isn’t too surprising, then, that they pop up with some frequency in the literature of the city. For instance, Graham Swift is obsessed with green spaces; he comes back to them again and again, calling Clapham Common inShuttlecock an “endless, enveloping savannah” and describing Greenwich Park in Waterland as a place where “fresh sunshine falls on old splendour.”
In his 2006 The Book of Dave, Will Self similarly draws on green spaces, referring to his Island of Ham – based on Hampstead Heath – as “this peculiar island, a couple of square miles of woodland and meadow set down in the lagoon of the city.”
Cambridge may hardly match the urban sprawl of London, but Midsummer Common would seem a space equally capable of being described as any City spot. Of all the greens in Cambridge, it seems by far the most intriguing. I tend to think, rightly or not, of Parker’s Piece as a bit of a lad’s green (the modern rules of football were forged there in 1848), and of Jesus Green as a bit domesticated (after it was cut away from Midsummer Common in 1890, it technically became a ‘park’).
Compared with those two, Midsummer Common is far more interesting: the black sheep of greens, the outré uncle who turns up at holiday time armed with his latest dubious tale. It’s a node of city interaction, constantly filled with people, whether they’re pub-goers frequenting the Fort St George, rowers slicing through the mist at ungodly hours, or nine-to-fivers trekking or cycling to work.
Annual celebrations tend to be held at the green: it plays host to Guy Fawkes Night, when fireworks burst across the sky and an enormous bonfire crackles below throwing sinister light on the faces of celebrants.
It also provides the space for the Strawberry Fair, a known police headache for higher-than-average appearances of both LSD and scratchy sitar music. Therefore, let’s think about Midsummer Common for a few minutes, taking it as our temporary centre, giving it the attention it deserves.
It remains there with us, even as the accretion of more temporary elements – events and lives, for example – continue to flicker in and out of it, reinforcing it while also pushing it, too, more slowly, to change. Putting these momentary bits and bobs into more durable form (words, pictures, etcetera) thus comes to take on an incredible importance.
DARK SIDE OF THE GREEN
In the Hispanic (and Latin American) novel, the plaza is the locus of activity, the constant reference point for what happens in the city and to the characters. Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda’s 1962 La plaça del diamant – which takes its title from a square in Barcelona’s Gràcia district – is one such novel that takes the plaza as its base. Natàlia meets Quimet, the man she marries, while passing through on the way home from her bakery job.
The growth and deterioration of their love, the confetti-filled parades and festivals of the city, and the eventual protests staged against an increasingly sinister political reality are all experienced in that square of paved stones, which is today filled with touristic cafés and slender young trees I don’t know well enough to give a name.
Something similar happens in Argentine writer Marta Traba’s fictional recreation of the ‘march of the grandmothers’ in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo in Conversación al sur, and in Mexican writer Elena Garro’s surreal recreation of Ixtepec in Los recuerdos del porvenir. In England, the plaza – the centre of Spanish colonial architecture – doesn’t necessarily play the same role. There is a close equivalent, though: the village green.
When The Kinks released their concept album The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, it was rightly taken to be a bit of tongue-and-cheek nostalgia bringing together fifteen tracks based on rural Devon. But it was also brilliant in its recognition of the significance of the space for the nation.
The mention of these Latin American novels was not entirely incidental; in a flash, a space can transform from being a frenetic hub of saint’s day celebration, complete with banging drums and costumes, to serving as a rigid and silent by-way for marching troops. Midsummer Common is off the centre of Cambridge, and Cambridge is off the centre of England: I don’t imagine such a dramatic switch like this happening there anytime soon. But its dual personality as both a cut-through for those heading to work, and a site of choice for the town’s festivities is one version of this somewhat schizophrenic sense of possibility.
Precisely because Midsummer Common is travelled by people of so many different backgrounds and interests, it’s become somewhat divisive. For instance, the stretch is a notably dark one to walk or cycle, as not many lamps light the path, and the little light that does come in is incidental- lamps from houses, reflections off the river, stars up in the big wide sky.
This is a safety issue that comes up with some frequency at meetings of the Friends of Midsummer Common Association, an organisation founded in 2006 “to ensure that events have minimal impact and cause no nuisance to local residents”. Often, these meetings devolve into stereotypes of speeding cyclists and drunk pedestrians. Indeed, what happens on the common, and who controls it, has been a matter of contention since medieval times.
Modern guardians of the green are lucky they needn’t grapple with the issues faced by those running the Cambridge Fair, which had its origins in the king-backed carousing of 1211. Then – as now – University and city administrators butted heads. According to the National Fairground Archive of the University of Sheffield, “one of the privileges the University Proctors still had was the right to search the fair for beggars, vagabonds, and lewd women”. The City Council saw no problem in handing over beggar duty to the University, but claimed the lewd women as its own jurisdiction.
ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL
Occasional bacchanalian moments aside, Midsummer Common is more often than not supremely quiet. Mothers drift down criss-crossing paths, stooping to hold the tiny hands of children made artificially round with layer upon layer of winter wear. People sit on benches ruminating or simply waiting for come what may. Yesterday I saw a vision of what looked complete happiness; a man with a glossy black Labrador by his side was contentedly throwing bits of naan bread in a plastic Tesco bag to the ducks.
Last night, few were out and about, save for a small circle of teenagers sitting perched up against a wall, and much farther on, two men out smoking, the cigarettes in their hands just glowing circles in the dark. The wind whistled painfully in my eardrums. The houses overlooking the paths had on their lights; workday over, most people were probably home, cooking dinner or watching TV. Few had curtains rigged up. I thought I might want some barrier if I lived there, but perhaps those people just have nothing to hide.
However, even if all the people were to stay indoors, they’re not the only ones who call the common home. Red Poll beef cattle will start roaming about when the weather gets warmer; having been returned from the farms where they’re cared for in winter. Any potential havoc they might wreak on the roadways is precluded with cattle grids, which make my pale green Raleigh screech in protest. Small rodents and insects scurry at soil level. Dogs out for their morning constitutional greet one another with inquisitive sniffs.
When the sun sets the swans come out, regal and white; they tend always to clump in the same areas, against the boats and by the bridge. I wonder if this has something to do with the temperature of the water, or if like humans they are creatures of habit, liking to sleep in the same place day after day. In the morning the cries of seagulls wheeling above wake them, and when that happens they crane their long necks upward in response, snapping a bit, cross at the intrusion.
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY
Along with the other green spaces of Cambridge, Midsummer Common plays an integral role in the constitution of the Cambridge geography. For this very reason we need to think about it in a focused way – what it means, why it’s important and how we value it as a public space. As a community it’s important to unite for causes and not just against them; preserving and cherishing common spaces like the green is probably one of the most clear-cut points diverse communities can agree on.
It can’t just be an act of passive appreciation: the space we’re in is created through the way we talk about it. The fact that it isn’t necessarily an active part of most of our consciousnesses is potentially indicative of larger fractures – between our personal lives and the environment we live in; between the university and the rest of the community (‘town and gown’).
The cold stone on King’s Parade has been described, eulogised, and mythologised ad nauseum; it has been elevated into a near parody of itself in productions ranging from Cambridge Spies to The Questioning City. But Cambridge is not just a city of students.
Writing and representing a common space like Midsummer Common would be a way of bringing the whole community together, of decreasing divisiveness, of combating cellularism and of creating an identity for the city beyond just its colleges.
And there’s no reason to stop there. In hosting so many open events, and in the way it shades off into the non-student town of Chesterton, Midsummer Common makes a convenient place of focus.
But there are clearly a number of spaces equally rich in history and simultaneously full of interactions between residents, or passers-by, and their surroundings. One interesting project would involve gathering personal stories of public spaces like the Common, compiling them in one place open to all such that not just words, but also photos, videos, and other less static elements are involved.
Ultimately, all of this is a simple attempt to add some thickness to our description of our shared Cambridge community. I’m fairly awful at navigating directions intuitively, and Google Maps is embarrassingly constantly open as a tab on my browser. At the very lowest level it’s great at helping me figure out where my destination is, and how to get to it. But to expect it to capture the richness of a place like Midsummer Common would be simply absurd. Online, the green appears as a toothpaste-green splotch of grass in the shape of an elephant’s head: dead space.
Those of us who think it’s worth anything more than that have the responsibility to say something about it – to make it live.