On Seeing Parrots on Hampstead Heath

The London winter sun is so slow and sleepy these days. It barely creeps out of bed by 9:30, casting a half-hearted greyness across the rooftops. It can hardly stay awake til 4:00 in the afternoon, when it sinks back exhausted into its bed of clouds the color of minor bruises. When it does manage to open its eye a crack, though, it’s quite a show, igniting the sodden hillsides of Hampstead Heath with a deep, fulgent glow. Everything seems to burn intensely for a moment, like a black-and-white film that suddenly bursts into color, before the sun winks out again and the park and its perambulators return to the old chromatic monotone.

I was walking through the Heath the other day with my son and his friend when my son’s friend mentioned that he and his family had seen parrots here. Parrots? That’s not possible, I thought. There are no parrots on Hampstead Heath. “Are you sure?” I asked. He was sure, but I still didn’t believe him, thinking he must have mistaken some other birds for parrots. Then, a few minutes later, and a few hundred meters further down the Heath, my son shouted: “There they are, Dad!” I looked up and sure enough, there in the branches above my head were two bright green parrots. “Wow,” I said, “I never knew there were parrots on Hampstead Heath.”

As incongruous as it seems, there are indeed parrots on Hampstead Heath. In fact, they’ve been spotted in parks and gardens all across London. There are some great explanations for their presence here, too. One theory goes that the parrot population is descended from birds that escaped from the set of The African Queen, which was apparently filmed in studios outside London. Another hypothesis is that the birds are the progeny of Jimi Hendrix’s parrots, which are supposed to have flown the coop after the singer’s death in London. So far, no one has suggested that the famous Monty Python “parrot sketch” has anything to do with the phenomenon. Whatever the truth, it’s pretty startling to see such birds in London, hardly even a close approximation of their native habitat. I had a good long look at the birds, musing that their appearance here was a pedestrian example of the ‘uncanny’, and continued the walk with my son and his friend.

Finding something ‘uncanny’ always involves a mix of the strange and the familiar: something quite ordinary is sharply transformed into something exotic, bizarre or spooky. The presence of two parrots transforms Hampstead Heath into a rain forest; or the parrots themselves are transformed into numinous messengers from another world. Sigmund Freud wrote a fascinating essay on the uncanny, saying the experience “derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but—on the contrary—from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it.”

The uncanny is not necessarily always terrifying, but it is always unsettling. Some of my own experiences of the uncanny were certainly like that. Once, at a train station, I watched a collapsed wheelchair go up an escalator all by itself. There was no one in the wheelchair or even near it, so I had no idea how it got on the escalator in the first place; a very weird sight. Also, one evening when I was coming home from work, I turned a corner and saw that a street near my house was completely flooded from a burst water main. The whole street was transformed into a briskly flowing river, everywhere about an ankle deep. Very strange and scary to see a street transformed from one sort of thoroughfare to another, and frightening to see the force with which the water swept down the street.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has an aphorism about rainbows—an uncanny experience that is inspiring rather than terrifying—that gets at the simultaneous attraction and repulsion we feel toward the out-of-the-ordinary:

When a rainbow has lasted as long as a quarter of an hour we stop looking at it.

We all marvel, or tremble, at the uncanny, but it makes us bored or uncomfortable if it goes on too long. Rainbows are gorgeous, exciting things, but their fame (like our own) is limited to about 15 minutes. Those parrots piqued my curiosity, but shortly thereafter I continued my walk, eager to get home. The uncanny has an extremely short half life. That’s no bad thing, I think. Intense experience are, by definition, brief—and are all the more intense for being so. Earthquakes are also uncanny. I was in quite a few when I lived in San Francisco. The earth moved for only a few seconds, but I was left permanently rattled.

In Praise of Roy Wood

Who is Roy Wood? I thought you’d never ask… Roy Wood was the main songwriter-singer for the 1960s group The Move, co-founder of the Electric Light Orchestra and the resident eccentric hit-maker for the 1970s band Wizzard. He is a multi-instrumentalist. On one of his solo albums, Boulders, he was literally a one man band: he played every single instrument on the record; for instruments on which he was not proficient, he recorded each note separately and then assembled the track in the studio. He even plays the bagpipes. He is the neglected genius of British pop music, a whipper-upper of pop confections every bit as delicious as those of Lennon and McCartney. His melodies enter your brain and melt immediately into your amygdala, where they generate all kinds of lovely, lively sensations. And I finally got to see him in concert, just before Christmas, something that I have wanted to do for nigh on a decade now.

Wood looks a lot like he did in the 1970s. Then, he was a scruffy Ziggy Stardust, with a scraggly beard, hair (which was colored a variety of scalding hues) down to his ass, rose-tinted spectacles of the kind John Lennon was wont to wear, and strange, vaguely totemic make-up scrawled all over his face. Today, he hasn’t cut his hair (and no longer wears make-up) but his dress sense has calmed down a bit: black pants and a black shirt over a long black tailcoat. He’s still got the glasses, too, which kind of makes him look like a portly, avuncular Charles Manson.

I first got into The Move, and hence Roy Wood, in the early 1970s, after becoming deeply enamored of the first few albums by the Electric Light Orchestra. In the 1960s, The Move was almost as popular as the Beatles, at least in England. They were notorious for their live shows, during which various household appliances (as well as, in one case, an entire automobile) were violently dismantled. The Wood songs from the ’60s are still vibrant and catchy today, some of the finest pop songs ever written: I Can Hear the Grass Grow, Wave Your Flag and Stop the Train, Flowers in the Rain, Fire Brigade and Blackberry Way. Wood is not an aphorist-lyricist, but comes close with these lines from one of my favorite songs, Useless Information:

Turn your ears to the weatherman
Saying it will be colder in December
Get your boots and your astro-cam [?]
It’s been the same for years, so why remember?

In concert, Wood plays guitar (and bagpipes!) and is backed up by a resplendent four-piece horn section, a vivid, soulful female back-up singer, a bouncing bassist and a drummer of whom one is never sure whether he’s throwing a tantrum or simply playing his instrument. Wood is these days best remembered for a 1970s seasonal hit, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. It’s a good song, but doesn’t seem to me worthy of the veneration the English have bestowed on it, certainly not at the expense of classics like See My Baby Jive, in which Wood manages to encompass and incorporate almost every sound in popular music history since 1940, from the Andrew Sisters through Elvis and on to Frank Zappa. The audience, mostly people who looked to be in their fifties and perhaps even early sixties, Wood’s contemporaries, got into the festive spirit by donning tinsel wigs and wearing fake antlers with Christmas tree lights on them. Christmas really brings out the kitsch in the English, don’t it?

Anyway, Wood was fantastic in concert. He bantered around with the audience between every number, and put on a stunning display of musicianship. I used to listen to my Move records as a teenager, with the headphones on as I fell asleep at night. When he played the opening chords of Blackberry Way, a fixture of my teenage listening, I actually gasped. Wood doesn’t have a very high profile anymore. His insistence on sticking with his unique brand of classical- and jazz-inflected rock, with roots in 1950s bubble gum music, isn’t very commercial these days. If you ask me, though, Roy Wood is one of the greatest pop songwriters—ever. Move over Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs; make room for Roy Wood!

In Highgate Cemetery

Yesterday, on New Year’s Eve day, my sons and I visited Highgate Cemetery. What better way to ring out the old than a stroll through this gorgeous, Gothic graveyard? We went to the western cemetery, which is available for tours by appointment only. (The eastern cemetery, just across the road, can be visited without a guide.) I had wanted to visit the cemetery for years, but every time I turned up it was either closed, I was too early or too late for the next tour or, if I was on time, I was with my daughter, who is too young to be allowed in (because of the slippery terrain). This time, though, I was in luck. And the weather way perfect: cold, grey and damp.

Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 in response to a lack of burial spaces in London proper. At that time, Highgate was a sleepy little village in the countryside just outside London. Now, it’s a 20-minute Tube journey from the center of the city. Need for cemetery space was so acute that the Cemetery opened another section, the eastern part, in 1854. Coincidentally, Highgate Cemetery was designed by an architect named Stephen Geary, who is buried there.

The Cemetery is situated on a hillside overlooking London, at the foot of St. Michael’s Church, where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is buried. (Coleridge was a great fan of aphorisms, by the way. “Exclusively of the abstract sciences, the largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists of aphorisms, and the greatest and best of men is but an aphorist,” he wrote. “Truths, of all others the most awful and interesting, are too often considered as so true that they lose all the power of truth, and lie bed–ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors. There is one way of giving freshness and importance to the most commonplace maxims—that of reflecting on them in direct reference to our own state and conduct, to our own past and future being.”) When the Cemetery first opened, the hillside was bare and the graves sparse. Today, it is densely overgrown with trees and shrubbery, a haven for birds and small mammals. And graves are crowded into every available space. The most recent interment is that of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian recently poisoned with polonium-210. Other notable graves include those of Karl Marx and novelist George Eliot (in the eastern part) and Charles Cruft, founder of the Crufts dog shows, and Jacob Bronowski, scientist and author of The Ascent of Man (in the western part).

Until the early 1980s, the Cemetery was in a state of extreme dilapidation and decay. It was a favorite target of vandals and vampire hunters, and in the 1960s was used as a set for many Hammer horror movies. Since then, though, security has been vastly improved and many of the graves and monuments have been rescued from further destruction. But, partly as a conscious decision and partly due to lack of funds, the Cemetery has not restored the site to its original state. Instead, restoration has focused on preserving the architecture rather than making it look like new again. As a result, walking through the Cemetery is an incredibly vivid experience. Monuments are in various stages of disrepair; brambles and ivy cover many of the graves; fallen columns litter the ground. The Cemetery is not neatly kempt and manicured. It’s sprawling, mysterious and marvelous; everything you would expect an old, magnificent graveyard to be.

The architectural highlights are the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon, pictures of which can be seen on this Wikipedia page. Coming upon these monuments in the grey, twilit drizzle of a winter late-afternoon in London is like stumbling on some lost Aztec temple in the jungle. Dark and overgrown by bushes and Yew trees, the Avenue looks like the entrance to some magnificent city, or perhaps the way into an unknown pyramid. At the other end of the lane is the Circle of Lebanon, a ring of mausoleums crowned with a 300-year-old cedar in the grass plot above the stones. The whole was designed with the mid-19th century fad for all things Egyptian in mind. An echo of this style can be seen in the Egyptian Room at Harrods.

Highgate Cemetery is, in the best sense of the word, a haunting place: Its beauty and serenity stay with you long after you have passed once again through the gates, back into the land of the living.