The Parrots of London

Parrots in the Camberwell neighborhood of London

Arriving in the “global North” and its attendant modernity always starts brewing a process of emotional percolation for me. On one hand, I want to embrace my fascination with how much more money exists in the built infrastructure, the capital, of the city. I want to run around like an observant child, pointing out the banal differences that only a foreigner is attuned to spot (the cheap cost of fruit, the prevalence of contactless payments). On the other hand, to remark upon the difference gives that difference life, agency, and existence. To remark upon the difference creates the difference. As a photographer who strives to create images that depict that difference, I’m very reflexively aware and careful of how I observe the world. Every meeting, every chance encounter, is another opportunity to either succeed or succumb to the “appropriate” way to reimagine reality.

London is stately — I think that’s the best way I can describe it. Blocks of homes stretch like brick hedgerows alongside bike paths, bus lanes, and carefully tended gardens. Large public greens and narrow walkways wend between houses. Quaint yet modern, busy yet effortless. Council estates and mansions sit side by side, forming a curiously egalitarian DNA to the built environment. It’s a charming city, a busy city without feeling rushed. Above all, it’s a damningly regular city. I find no surprises here. The British are characteristically unfussed — I wonder if the environment is built to suit their temperament or if it’s the other way around.

I walk the dog to the park, a Cairn Terrier, a precocious one (they all are) with ginger roots. We walk past a discarded paint can, thrown away in an alley after someone rolled paint over several cars in the neighborhood in an apparent spate of vandalism. It seems incongruous with the apparent safety of the neighborhood, but knife crime is supposedly on the rise, and my host’s home was burgled not too long ago. It gives me a small strange sensation of trench comraderie with Cape Town, but I’m alarmed at just how willfully ignorant the rapport is the other way round.

“South Africa? Too dangerous for me.”

“Generally crime is in the places that are least developed.”

“If the whites and the blacks could have split that country up, they would have done so long ago.”

I don’t know if I’m more bothered by having crime as a common linkage or by the casual dismissal (or is it culturalism?) of the average Briton towards South Africa. Or is it Africa in general? I find a surprisingly lack of awareness about basic issues — how big it is, which languages are spoken, the number of countries (OK it’s not easy to know the exact number, but come on, it’s more than 12). It’s hard not to see that the continent is considered by many to be either a gigantic amusement park, or as a destination for charity pounds. This in general isn’t the worst thing in the world — it’s just ignorant — but stands at odds with my vision of how British multiculturalism and tolerance “should” manifest itself. (I sigh as I write this.) But to dwell on these things makes for an unhappy and mopey existence; it’s best to note, present, and move on — the empty paint can says more than I ever could anyway.

The Cairn terrier leads the way into an ancient park, supposedly a pit where bodies were dumped during the plague (the macabre and the mundane exist cheek by jowl even in sleepy Camberwell). Above me, in the freshly blooming trees, I spot a blur of brilliant green. “It’s a parrot” I say to myself, and am surprised to see that I’m right. It’s not just one, but two beautifully colored parrots chattering happily above me. They must be escaped pets, I think, and something about them strikes me as extremely, sublimely, appropriate for the situation. They flutter their wings and the surrounding world seems to slow to a crawl. Perhaps the metaphor of flying free is too easy not to remark upon, or maybe it’s the brilliant plumage at odds with the drab London cityscape and dull grey sky. In this world of hedgerows and bricks, grey suit coats and pointed leather shoes, they stand imperiously and unrepentantly original. They beckon me closer, but then disappear on a gentle breeze.

I wonder if the energy of the successful Londoner — the entrepreneur, the banker, the diplomat — somehow rubs off on the average person in some sort of quantum energy transfer. No one seems idle, no one seems bored, and even the casual pub drinkers are challenging each other, shouting, falling, and laughing (one vignette will always stick with me: that of a woman high-kicking the brim of a baseball cap on her friend’s head in triumphant display of beer-fueled brinksmanship). The feeling seems to be that of the scurrying mouse; purposeful, but frantic. I’m sure we look almost liquid from above, pouring out of stations, splashing across zebra stripes, dripping into coffee shops and Ubers. Every great city has that magic ability to jumble up together different classes, rich vs. poor, and throw them into the streets to fend for themselves, but London seems to do it better than most. Observation from a seated position encapsulates the made-up word “sonder”, a feeling one has when one realizes that each and every human has their own unique lives and complicated histories. I feel sonder with my ear buds, with my Oyster card, with my dog-hair bespeckled pea coat which I never get to wear in Cape Town. I gaze out idly in the eddy of my own personal stream, trying to dissolve the need to see differences and instead be like the parrot — cool, calm, and effortlessly unperturbed.