Excelsior

06-Feb-09

What say we go over to Primrose Hill this afternoon?”

“All right,” I said, “but I still want to walk through Hyde Park.”

“Look, your department is not going to be open,” my girlfriend insisted. “Nobody will be able to get in – all of London is on pause.”

“Be that as it may. I am now in London, and in London it is snowing. Hyde Park is right around the corner and if it’s the last thing I do I am going for a walk through a snowbound Hyde Park.” By this stage I was getting petulant.

“Primrose Hill is just as close,” my flatmate lied, “and the walk through Regent’s Park will be just as nice as a walk through Hyde Park.”

“Nicer,” my girlfriend chimed in.

“Definitely” my flatmate repeated emphatically, “nicer”. They both gave me the same Look one gives a small child who has just kicked his football through the neighbour’s plate-glass window – shattering a small porcelain figure of an elephant and killing a canary – and who is well aware that this time he is not going to get the ball back.

“Oh, all right.” I grumbled as I skipped out of the room.

“Why Primrose Hill?” my girlfriend asked.

“I just got a phone call from my sister,” he explained, “and apparently people are sliding down the hill on plastic rubbish bags.”

“Cool!” I said, sticking my head around the door. I disappeared momentarily. “Do we have any rubbish bags?”

“Of course!” exploded my flatmate; on which note he marched into the kitchen, opened a drawer with great conviction, closed it with even greater conviction and looked around in confusion for an instant before triumphantly pulling open a door and brandishing a roll of white bin liners.

“Aha!” He cried as he ripped one open and jumped inside. “See?”

I saw. So, too, after a moment, did he. The mouth of the bin liner flapped pathetically around his calves.

“I’m not sliding down a hill on that,” said a feminine voice from behind me.

“I’ll go out and get some more,” I said, retreating into my room to get dressed. Some time later, puffed up like a tanned Michelin Man in a vest, a turtleneck top, a sweater, a cardigan, a 7-foot Imperial scarf and a long brown trenchcoat, I opened the door to the flat and stood in the doorway.

“I am just going outside;” I said, falteringly. “I may be some time.” The door crashed in my face.

 …

 

“Is that Primrose Hill?”

“Yup. From the top of there you get the best view of the city. 70% of all films shot in London have a scene from up there. Three Weddings and a Funeral…”

“And its more famous sequel,” I whispered under my breath,

“… Doctor Who, Notting Hill – the list is endless.”

“So the one day we’re going up there is the one day we don’t get to see the view?” I shook my head in disgust. “Typical.”

I looked ahead at the mound which was beginning to take shape through the falling snow. On top of all that white I could see a giant black huddle – hundreds of small outlines fighting for space and crowding for warmth.

“Are you sure we haven’t gone too far North?” I asked: “We seem to be interfering with the Emperor penguin migration.”

“Very funny,” they lied again, as we slowly made our way to the top.

“You talking to me?” I asked my flatmate in what I thought was my best Happy Feet manner.

“No no – ‘Jew talkin’ to me?!’ – get it right! Robin Williams was putting on a Mexican accent.”

“D’you talking to me?”

“Ach, leave it.” Pause.

“Doo talking to me?”

Having trudged up the slope, we found ourselves in one of the most unusual cross-sections of London life I can remember being in. Some 300 people with an average age of 23 stood stamping on the snow, bedecked in a dazzling array of colours. A large hat attached to a small orange coat that turned out to be my flatmate’s sister handed us a large cardboard sheet and pointed us in the direction of the slope.

We looked around us. The watchword of the day, I feel, was improvisatiion. Improvised clothing in in unexpected weather, improvised transportation in a paralyzed city and improvised sledding equipment once the three sledges available from Argos had sold out.

“If only Woolworths were still alive!” was the almost audible cry of pain.

With no official equipment to help them out, the youths around us had cobbled together a range of methods of descent which were a true testament to British ingenuity.

To our left, three construction workers in fluorescent yellow lifevests were taking turns on a 3m by 20cm plank of wood, whose aerodynamism was receiving envious looks from the couple struggling to make progress on the ironing board.

The four teenagers on the air mattress were too delirious to race it down the hill, and just lay there sleeping on the summit. Next to them, in the centre of the throng, an athletic young man in a camouflage-grey jacket was body-popping relentlessly to the sound of an aged boom-box resting on the snow beside him. People were giving him a wide berth, but his obliviousness to it all was exceeded only by the fervour of his knee-twists.

Of particular interest to us were the two youngsters on stolen road signs. A tall, greasy-haired object was having great succession with a Deviations Ahead sign, while his more rotund accomplice kept veering hopelessly off course on his Men At Work placard.

We applauded their initiative, if not their flagrant disregard for civic regulations and at least two distinct subsections of the highway code.

After half an hour’s preparation on a slope of our own construction on the side, we felt we were up to the challenge and sidestepped our friend with the boombox to the main slope. Having found a second piece of cardboard and wrapped it appropriately, we took turns racing down the hill at respectable velocities.

“Look over there,” said my girlfriend suddenly, pointing at an iced-over concrete path leading down the slope. “That looks like fun!” As a grown-up who gets queasy on the Little Alpine Train at EuroDisney, it looked anything but fun.

As she raced off down the path, my flatmate and I edged warily over to the top of the slope.

“No way am I going down that,” I declared, digging an enormous Caterpillar Boot into the snow to serve as a crampon.

“Well, see you back up here then” said my flatmate as he readied himself for descent.

I turned away haughtily, forgetting about the hold I had achieved with my foot. I spun inelegantly in the air for a moment before landing heavily on a convenient bin liner by my flatmate’s side. With a dignfied inevitability, friction started to abandon me.

“Come on,” said my flatmate, holding out his hand.

“Come on!” I echoed, grabbing his outstretched hand in a distinctly non-homo-erotic manner but rather with the very manly determination one finds among parachutists and bungee jumpers. And marines. Mainly marines.

Shooting down the slope we found ourselves engaging in the most amazing acrobatic feats in an attempt to send as few toddlers to the casualty wards of London as possible. After grabbing the ice with my hands to pull us round a couple of young girls going down head-first on a teatray, and letting go of my flatmate so that we could pass on either side of a man on a snowboard, I found myself looking straight into the eyes of a young woman who was descending with her back to the slope. The choice had clearly not been hers.

As she started braking I was just able to roll to my side and pass her, but could hear the yell of panic she emitted as my flatmate proved unable to avoid the collision.

There was a dull crash, followed by a joint scream from the two interlocked bodies skidding down beside me. With his right foot trapped between her legs and her neck inextricably stuck under his left knee, my flatmate and his victim gathered momentum and quickly overtook me.

“Lovely day,” I could hear him say. Silence. Indefatigably optimistic in his conversational approach, he tried again.

“Come here often?”

Having finally though gawkily arrived at the bottom, I staggered to my feet and waved the carboard in victory.

“Behold the sleigh that has conquered the icy slopes of Primrose Hill!” I would have cried, if the emotion had not been too much for me.

“Excuse me –” said a young mother next to me “– do you mind if Michael uses your sled?”

“Of course not,” I replied gallantly, smiling at the young boy who took the opportunity to throw a snowball in my face.

I handed them the piece of cardboard as I stepped over a small child careening maniacally down the hill in a baking tray. The press gang had been right. This was better than Hyde Park.

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