Observations on Manchester Square, W1

© Copyright D Williams and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

© Copyright D. Williams and licensed for reuse via a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA licence 2.0.

1. A watchful, wilful captive, I look out through a sash widow onto Manchester Square, W1. Framing my view is an iron balcony upon which several plants sit, most extravagantly a marble vase brandishing pink geranium petals, soft and light and neoclassical. Another terracotta pot with bright red flowers jungles the right of my widow view – a blind spot. I love the lily pad leaves of geraniums – they open out into parasols, like umbrellas catching sunlight. And then, beyond the flowers and the balcony, a sliver of street and a private square marked off by iron railings, and full of enormous plane trees.

2. The square is curved; it’s more of an oval. My slice of view reveals a section of pavement along which cars are parked: a shiny silver Saloon and a black Range Rover. This is W1, and the checkered sunlight flecking the sidewalk might well be shimmering coins.

3. A man paces. He wears a blue suit, perfectly ironed with a grey handkerchief visible from his left pocket. The jacket is double-breasted and gold buttons glint in two rows like medallions. The man has oatmeal-coloured hair with a bald top, which is probably only visible to me, from the height at my window. He holds a large smartphone to his ear, he talks and paces.

4. The garden, by the way, is circular and fenced. I resent the privatisation of public space – sold off, turned into heritage sites for corporate tea parties rather than bushes full of horny couples. I really think there should be people making love in the bushes. The sterility of manicured green spaces – if you threw a plum stone I bet it wouldn’t grow, the smooth surfaces of those lawns are as cruel as paving stones. It’s about maintenance, upkeep, preserving the image, and it creates a sense of powerlessness in me. A city in paralysis. Nothing new grows here, it says.

5. It’s so private. Even from my high window view, I can only glimpse small sections between the plane tree’s branches – it’s June and the trees are at the height of their virility, letting go after winter’s hibernation, flushing leaves. In fact, I can hardly see in at all. I see segments of a curved wooden bench, patches of a mown lawn, and trimmed bushes lining the inside of the fence and obscuring the view of passers-by.

6. Observing. Looking out of the window onto the street, watching cars slide past, people walking on the pavement, nearly always on the phone. Londoners, we try to fight time by doubling up tasks: walking somewhere can also be calling Thames Water. I’m guilty of this – no time to just look.

7. Man in a baggy blue t-shirt walks by with an iPad in one hand, phone in the other, his gaze switches between them – as if they compete for his attention, like pets. I have a moment to watch, before he retreats from my view, from the small portion of street I’m monitoring. I’m trying to isolate still-lifes, to very quickly tender my mini surveys into text. The photographers’ decisive moment doesn’t really translate to writing, it’s more of a race to write out details, a lingering look.

8. Ivory mini convertible has driven past twice. Seems to be looping the square, which is a roundabout, a one-way for drivers. So loops and repetitions are inherent to this spot. When you look out of a window, what things are repeated? There’s a sameness to this city, as if there’s a script that we’re all following, in part designed by our bodies (eat, sleep, take painkillers), but also it’s ideological. Work hard, get a mortgage, is the conservative line. Today the scriptorium is fully functioning. So what’s my role? Maybe I’m looking for unreadable things, something hidden behind those bushes in the park. How long, I wonder, would a homeless person last before they were told to move on? You’re not welcome here, we don’t want to see.

9. Man in flourescent workman vest walks past. That fluorescent works in interesting ways: on the one hand, it’s the most visible thing and it’s about drawing attention. Children on school trips wear them so the teachers can see them with ease; cyclists; security guards and workmen. But also, as a kind of uniform, and it’s so official and ubiquitous, it practically makes you slightly invisible. You become part of the working fabric of the city. Your presence isn’t challenged: you’re on script. Seems to be the greatest disguise: slip on the costume of the managers and workmen of the city, and you don’t get registered.

10. Just spotted two men in the park! One wears a leather gilet. The other a red t-shirt. They observe the fence and retreat behind the plane tree. I’m overexcited. What are they  doing? Third man appears wearing gloves and white trousers. He’s turned a hose on – yes, he has a long orange hose with a yellow spray at the end, and he’s laying it at different junctures in the park, and waiting. So he’s a gardener. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed – there’s no disobedience here. The man leaves the hose spraying and wanders off.

11. Post van just drove past. That brick red and insignia, somehow reassuring. The post office feels like such a benign entity. Is this just good marketing? Could be a good conspiracy theory – dark side of the post office. Like the “Ice Cream Wars” in Glasgow. PO as illegal distribution sub-network.

12. Man walks past with postman’s satchel. Is this just fashion? Workmen: burden, ardour.

13. Two ladies in red, one shiny jacket, the other in a red puffa, walking a few paces apart. One fiddles with sunglasses, passed between her hands, observed perhaps for pleasure, and replaced in a shiny exterior pocket. The other in puffed-red seems to watch the lady in front, appraising the lipstick shade of screaming silk. Or maybe they don’t notice each other at all, but listen absent-mindedly to their jackets squeaking, ear to each step, two bobbing bodies and caught by inattention’s radiance.

14. Noise from the building site behind us, like a lawn mower. This city is constantly drilled into. And in this post-industrial economy, where real estate is what makes wealth, we mine for space: basement-bedrooms, a swimming pool in your cellar, accrue value by excavation. I love the idea of writing as a kind of digging – so tapping on a keyboard is like drilling little holes until the exact word emerges. And where writing could be a kind of drilling into walls, or breaking windows, or making vacant lots which are breathing spaces, plots that haven’t yet been managed for us.

15. Man slows down outside my window and looks up, as if he can see me. Rolling a cigarette in a slate grey suit. Our eyes seem to catch but there’s glass between us, and three plants on a veranda. Am I imagining it? He seems to look right at me, and I feel his animal stare as I sit, camouflaged and watchful.

16. Is this observing a kind of safari? There is definitely a hierarchy of gazing, like in a zoo. I am enthroned on a bench in the Romanian Cultural Institute, my look is legitimate, it comes from the inside. I’m shielded and cushioned, and there are snacks. Whereas they, on the street, their returning gaze is hostile, it’s that of an outsider, and it’s a kind of provocation. There’s an essay about how we look at animals, and the arrogance of the one-way gaze. It asks, what do they see, looking at us?

17. Man’s head appears in the bushes. He’s clipping them. Just went into the park with E, only accessible with a key and we sat on curved benches and looked at red geraniums. There were, surprisingly, several people in the park who I couldn’t see from my window: a man on a bench observing the grass, other men (perhaps workers) at a table. Rules are displayed on laminated notices: No smoking in the park, No bicycles clipped to its railings. So many rules. E thinks the white parking lines around the edge of the square are a magic circle, and in some ways the park does feel alive, a sleeping creature. When I left, the gate sprung back as if to keep me in – it doesn’t like people leaving, E said. Like that fable about the Forest of Gline: none come out, but many go in. I loved that verse, it was so terrifying, the idea of begin swallowed by a vast expanse of forest that’s also a labyrinth. Maybe you transfigure inside, or maybe you leave by air. The stones are hatching.

18. I have seen so many Selfridges bags, that bright flashy yellow of a sports car. It wants to be seen. Nature only produces such yellows in desperate circumstances. The shop is dispersing itself, the bags like tuffs of dandelion seeds. Shoppers’ pollen. The money-coloured light that glitters here catches the laminated surface of the yellow bags, its scratch-free surface promising eternal sophistication.

19. Funny seeing men in suits cycling on the Santander-sponsored bicycles. So apt – the cycles declare: investment. The suits are tight around their shoulder blades – because they are not made for exercise but only for laundered carpets of trading floors.

20. Blue boater hat drifts past. The woman beneath it is only a slurry of grey, but the azure hat glistened in the sunlight, afloat on the street as if it were a hat blown off, a quiet river in Oxford. The opening of a Pinter play.

21. People walk past the garden, and I’m seeing only an excerpt of their journey – it’s like noting down a quotation. The pavement is an established pathway, it’s managerial – walk this way, it insists. And inches away, behind the bushes and beyond the fence, a man labours. Sweeps and waters, prunes the bushes. I look down upon two worlds separated by an iron fence, and they feel like different universes. It’s the condition of city living: buildings create walls, coinciding lives that don’t always meet, but graze past each other. Like the backyard, a small kingdom where people strut and lie and plant, feeling secluded and private, but there’s somebody in a bikini just meters to your left, sectioned off by a garden fence. All the allotments, the segments, the illusions of solitude.

22. Watching from the window I realise: people still smoke. A lot. So many cigarettes hanging out of mouths, rolled from fingers.

23. I haven’t seen any birds in the trees. There are monkey nuts in here, E crushes them out
of their wooden cases that are embossed as if with fingerprints.

24. Van flashes past: “TABLE MANNERS”.

25. A couple walk down the street, his arm is round her. They’re in their early 50s and I love the way they touch each other. He’s slightly taller and leans an arm to curl all the way round her body, cupping her shoulder; and she is turned towards him, squeezing his spare hand. There’s a slowness to their pace, they’ve chosen touch over speed – it’s so tender. It reminds me, I love public displays of affection; I want more petting in pools, more snogging on park benches. We’re far too civilised.

26. E now stands out on the street having a cigarette. She holds her baby in her arms, and he plays with a necklace. Arms reaching. I love the way babies use their mouth as a reader, everything touches lips and tongue, it’s a reading muscle like the eye. Until they’re told its not hygienic.

27. Woman in a purple trench coat with a yellow bob has walked past twice. I admired her purple the first time, and like it less the second. It’s a purple verging on yellow rather than vermilion. Purple is a chromatic luxury, I like it rich and deep, electric aubergine, the kind that sets off gold, that makes it flare like glowing embers.

28. The litter of lunch is so immense, we should all carry tin cups and a fork around, army surplus. So many people eat sandwiches as they walk past. Neoliberal etiquette says eating while you walk is okay. In fact, it’s necessary. Woman in green jacket with greying hair tears open a cardboard sandwich box; her pace does not falter.

29. Another woman reads as she walks, wearing bright red chinos. A novel? Although those trousers tell me, this is an Italian – so it’s probably a tourist with a guidebook. I love the idea of novel reading as you walk, eyes jerking between the page and the street, and how the street’s noises and flashes would slip into your reading mind.

30. Woman with sleek blonde hair looks into the park, peering between the railings. Did she hear a noise?

31. Am I isolating moments? Blinks, textual photographs.

32. Conversation with E about Romanian lucky charms. Her baby son wears a bracelet, she explains, that stops people sucking away your energy. She can’t find the word in English, but when somebody looks at you right in the eye, they can take your energy. Siphon it off. We all seem to half believe in these things, and might as well take precautions.

33. Sun has broken the clouds, and there’s many more pairs of sunglasses being worn. Sense of everybody doing the same things, I find it incredibly claustrophobic. On script. Same feeling as Christian Marclay’s film, The Clock.

34. I can hear a beeping, the endless reverse of a van or maybe a fridge alarm. Some machine is screaming, it’s uttering a pre-recorded warning, a contingency.

35. Two women walk together, one with a handkerchief on her head, and she’s gesturing. Her hand hovers in front – perhaps she’s catching the sun, teasing out its rays, feeling it. But then she stops abruptly, and her companion walks on a few steps before she realises. The handkerchiefed woman is gesturing again, pointing to something in the park, across the park. This way, she says. It’s there.

36. My brain feels slower. Just watching people walk past, hardly registering what they’re wearing. Hands feel hot. The idea of constantly observing suddenly feels like a greater feat than I imagined. Hard to keep agile, I’m sinking into the velvet chair, my waistband tighter after lunch: goat’s cheese and dry potatoes that have absorbed glugs of avocado oil, and now they’re absorbing bits of me.

37. The pink of the geraniums keep catching my attention. Such a clean pink, I’m marvelling at it. Looking at the parasol-petals you can see veins of white beneath, like cracks in the skin.

38. Shiny gold pushbike by just came past, with a black couple inside, both wearing huge sunglasses and shopping bags, blaring music. I realize this is the first black person I’ve seen all day. The colour of the air in London is white and the light of this square is the unrefracted white of money.

39. Like the magic lines around this park, the chalky dashes on asphalt, only some people get to enter. These cities have become gated communities, playgrounds for the very rich. What does this make me? How am I implicated?

40. A faint sun shines from a puddle on the pavement, water trickled out of the park from a gardener’s hose which still lavishly spouts behind the iron railings. A faint, bleached sun. I hope somebody steps in it, sloshes a new shoe.

41. I like the way the trees hang over the park, and now the sun is out can you see their shadows leaning on the street. As a bald man walks past, the shadows dapple over his face, he dips in and out of sunlight, freckled by it. Suddenly the leafy beaches are more like feelers, light and shade as gulfs.

42. Just saw a mysterious thing: a floating bubble. How utterly strange. It looked like a bubble blown from one of those toys for children. It flared by the branches of the plane tree. A shiny oily surface, iridescent and gleaming. As I looked closely it disappeared.

43. Old man in a navy rain jacket and cowboy hat. Marvellous sight, a gift. Is he a birdwatcher from Texas? What story could I spin?

Izabella Scott

About Izabella Scott

Izabella Scott is a writer and editor based in London. She has worked for the publisher MACK since 2012. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Frieze Writer’s Prize.

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