Maggie Gee – she’s on her twelfth novel, was awarded the OBE in 2012 New Year’s Honour’s List – is rather grand. In a lovely way. Despite herself. She’d never willingly put herself up there, after all she’s distinctly left-wing. But there’s something about her manner.
Today, I see her hurrying in from the main entrance at Roundwood Park. She’s swishing - hating being late. All blonde hair, elegant wide trousers with black and white geometrical patterns, and nervous energy.
In the middle of the night, (this was in May) workers from Brent Council stripped Kensal Rise Library of books. Maggie is furious. “They’ve even taken the plaque that commemorated Mark Twain opening it in 18, “she fulminates, “that way, they remove the evidence of history and the building is no longer a library. This is the only library that Mark Twain, the father of American Literature, ever opened. His father died when he was 11, he was self-educated in libraries. He understood what libraries mean in terms of quiet public space and learning. Unlike Brent Council. And they are Labour now. It’s outrageous.”
Maggie is late – she is so considerate, she’s sent her husband, Nick, (Rankin, also a writer but of non-fiction) along to apologise – because she’s been asking for quotes from the great and the good in the literary world re the demise of the library. We’re meeting in Roundwood Park at Maggie’s suggestion because her Orange Prize short-listed novel, The White Family (Saqi 2003) has many creative links with the park so it makes sense to come here.
“I feel passionately about public space,” she says. A hundred years ago, the rich invested in public space like this park and the library because they didn’t want to be murdered in their beds at night. These days when the gap between the rich and the poor is growing all the time, we seem to be losing this understanding of what matters. The White Family was about that too.”
Maggie loves Roundwood Park and as we approach the bandstand – in the rose garden opposite the cafe – she starts talking about how the old bandstand (one of the weird things for me about being in a sleepy fishing village in the north of Tobago recently, was the bandstand next to the beach, a vestige of British colonialism) used to be on the top of the hill. “People used to go there and dance during the war, “ she says, “they’d have fun up there.”
I don’t know why. Probably because I’m ignorant about OBE awards. Perhaps the ‘provocateuse’ in me. I say something like – “Aren’t you a Dame these days?” and Maggie instantly recoils. “No, I’m not,” she replies with a certain gentle hauteur, “sometimes they jokingly call me ‘Dame’ at the Save Kensal Rise Library meetings and it irritates me a little bit.”
Alfred White – one of the central characters in The White Family, the father – is a park keeper. Albion Park – the park in the book – is based on Roundwood Park. So it’s not surprising that Maggie is outraged that Roundwood Park no longer has its own park keeper. Cuts, cuts, cuts. To the fabric of our society.
“There’s never been a serious crime here,” she says, “and much of that is down to having had a park keeper. It’s these little things that are being eaten away, bit by bit. And they make all the difference. We neglect these public spaces at our peril. Park keepers make people feel safe.”
We walk up the gentle slopes of Roundwood’s comely hill. “My husband says it must be an ancient Anglo Saxon tumulus because it hasn’t been put here,” she enthuses. Plane trees surround us and one has the plaque to Lance J E Hamilton who killed himself here. At 35 in 1998. “His family come every year on his birthday,” says Maggie, “and put flowers on the tree where he hanged himself. It reminds me that parks are full of lonely people too, often they can find solace. Sadly he didn’t.”
Out of the blue Maggie is suddenly on her back looking up at the for once blue sky – right in the middle of the concrete topping on the hill. Revealing the proximity of her child-like self. Her spontaneity is infectious. Within minutes, I’m on my back too. “I do this every time I come here,” she declares, “it’s like looking out from the Earth’s eye to the heavens. It’s very special. My daughter, Rosie, does it every time she comes up here as well.”
And then, she’s off again. There’s huge log on the crest of the hill and it’s here that the Gee-Rankin family stand in the evening in order to relish the view. “You can see down to the cemetery, the Wembley arch and the basket ball pitches. It’s a London site,” she says proudly.
Sylph-like, it’s not a surprise to hear that Maggie likes to run. “I haven’t run for about four months, “ she laments, “I’ve had a hip injury and it does take longer to heal when you are getting older.” She’s 63 – not old at all. Apparently, her family used to play a sort of rounders in the Park, where they sprinted round an incredibly large circle of trees. A rather unorthodox game of rounders, it has to be said, because there are only three of them, and it’s a big circle of trees. “Well, we did run fast,” she exclaims incredulous at my incredulity.
Walking towards the summer youth theatre which is closed but there is a group who are working towards re-opening it, we’re discussing Kensal Rise Library and its possible return to All Soul’s College as a property. “All Soul’s have it within their power to give the building back to the community as a reading room,” she says passionately, “but at the moment, they are talking about a commercial rent which of course we can’t afford to pay. They have become rich as Croesus on the rents they’ve raised in Kensal Rise on the back of slavery. Now is a brilliant opportunity for them to give back in a philanthropic way. We have set up a charity to run the library.” It turns out that Maggie who was from a working class family in Poole, Dorset, owes her own education to spending time studying in the local library which is one reason for her feeling so incensed.
I recall that The White Family was also based on the Stephen Lawrence case. “That made me so angry. I wanted to work out how that kind of crime could happen so the park keeper’s son in the book doesn’t do very well at school, feels a failure and turns this inner violence outwards and murders someone. I wanted to write about how a race murder could happen as a way of looking why such a crime happens.”
This was a novel before its time. Maggie wrote it in 1995 and couldn’t get it published anywhere. “In the end, Saqi, a publisher which is run by brothers who come from the Lebanon, published it in 2003. They understood. It went on to become my successful book in terms of sales and prizes,” she explains.
Next I discover something surprising. In this era of diminishing council-supported public amenities, Roundwood Park actually has public toilets that are open. I’m not sure about their cleanliness but they are open. At this point, Maggie becomes animated again. “This is where the park keeper had a hut,” she says as we explore behind the public toilets, “it’s closed these days but this must be it.” We find a hut that has been boarded up. “I spent several hours interviewing the park keeper there. I remember he had a shock of white hair. He was very generous with his time and information. I took notes and they became the foundation of the father in the White Family, the hero of the novel.”
We reach the pond with its yellow flag irises in full bloom. “This the background for lots of wedding photos for Afro-Caribbean and Indian families,” she laughs softly, “they are saying, this is my beautiful garden, this is our beautiful park. I love that willow tree especially in spring, when I can see it’s golden branches, they seem to have shining beads running down them.”
But is the water fountain working? “Water, public water, is such a great idea,” she says, “it is a stepping stone of a civilised life.” Tragically, it is not working. The edifice behind the water fountain is supposed to honour the opening of the park in 1895 and Charles Pinkham, its benefactor. As he was for the Lexi’s original building. But it’s a bit of an abomination. Half folly, half hideousness.
However not far away in the corner of the flower beds is a gem. It’s a 1950s statue of a girl with her arms in the air. It’s as if she is imploring us to join her in acknowledging that this park is a spiritual experience. “I had my photo taken with her, my hands were in a similar position as if to say ‘This is Heaven. Heaven is here with us,’” says Maggie. “I think it’s a very hopeful posture.”
At this point, I am slightly scathing about the planting of the flower beds in Roundwood Park. My attitude is not new. I’m convinced those responsible had a municipal training in garish flowers. However Maggie is not having such contempt poured on her beloved flower beds. “Oh no,” she exclaims, “I think they have changed. I’ve seen birds of paradise here, I think they’ve been getting more adventurous. I always love them.”
Whereupon we survey the beds intently and discover to our dismay – there is mayhem in the beds. We are both shocked. There are beds covered with weeds, there are beds with a few hardy perennials, but there are no begonias or marigolds to be seen. There is a dearth of flowers in these flower beds.
We march over to the gardener who is doing a little light hoeing. “Is this the result of the cuts?”asks Maggie. “Well, we’re not sure what is going on,” says the rather soft-spoken gentleman, “they keep saying they are going to send plants over but nothing comes.”
At this very moment, a man, his wife and dog start remonstrating about the very same situation. “Look at the state of these beds, it’s disgusting,” declares the man who turns out to be former resident of Harlesden, Peter Wicks, “we lived here for forty years, we come down from Bedfordshire to see the parks we love and this is what we find. The Council should hang their heads in shame.”
A little later Peter who is in his late 70s declares that he is ‘a kick arse poet’. Yes, yes, yes.
“We remember Roundwood when Billy Smarts Circus came and the Russian Ensemble. We’ve danced here many a time,” he enthuses.
Maggie and I leave determined that we will contact the Council to see what is going on. Mind you, a month later, the flowers are still absent…
PS Paul Hutchinson is the planting man at Brent Council to complain to.
PPS Maggie Gee is working on a new novel set in New York and the heroine is a version of Virginia Wolf transposed to the 21st century who is thrown out of a museum for trying to look at her own archives. These are now kept away from the polluting gaze of the public.