Years ago, I heard a story on the radio and it has stayed with me, half remembered, ever since. Somewhere in East London, down by the docks, there is a wall that was home to a small but well established population of scorpions. They had been there for a century or more, having sailed in from one of the warmer corners of the planet, exchanging hot sun and sand for Victorian England; in my mind a damp and gloomy place of gaslight and cobbles, pea-soupers wafting in through the dark streets. Was this an unhappy accident, or a thing of delight for the well travelled scorpion? Perhaps, peeking out from under the rock that she had once called home, roasting in the desert heat, she had yearned for the cool damp air of northern climes? Or was it now a matter of regret, the grass being greener and all – let’s face it, a dank wall on the Isle of Dogs isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and that shady rock wasn’t so bad. Regardless, a foothold had been made, a new life carved out and the scorpion diaspora extended. I often wonder if they are still there.
I have always liked the incongruity of this kind of thing; small pockets of the exotic, bringing colour to the commonplace. I’m not talking about animals that have arrived as a consequence of altered habitats or adaption to climate change. These can still be thrilling – I’ll never forget the time in deepest darkest Sussex, down at the Cuckmere Haven, when I first saw a little egret, with that unmistakable whiff of the African Savannah. And how could it be anything other than exciting when we hear of Great Whites being sighted off the coast of Cornwall, confirmed or otherwise. But these are examples of something else: it is the accidental that I like. The escaped parakeets of West London that probably arrived in a similar fashion to the scorpions (despite some terrific theories – Humphrey Bogart anyone?), or the occasional story of wild wallaby populations, presumably escapees from zoos over the years. One night, whilst working the bar of a rural Sussex pub, a regular came rushing in:
“You won’t believe what I’ve just seen up on the Downs! One of those small kangaroos! Oh you know, what are they called?”
I fell into his trap. “Wallaby?”.
“Good man! Mine’s a pint”.
I’m not sure that it can be described as accidental when people end up in similar situations – it is usually more complex than that. But there is something that I find romantic and appealing about these unexpected enclaves; I think maybe it is the poignancy of separation and distance. The Welsh speaking Patagonians come to mind, or the West Indian cricketers playing in the Lancashire Leagues between the wars, far from home. And I have always loved the stories of isolated monasteries, high up in the hills of Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, the last of their kind and home to an ancient monk or two. They rise each day for matins and shuffle down cold stone corridors by candlelight, following centuries old liturgical traditions that will surely die with them. It’s beautifully sad. Sometimes it is just plain heartbreaking, such as the Filipino nurse I met on Christmas Eve: she told me that she would spend the next day quietly with a few colleagues. Most of her money was spent on rent and food, with the remainder sent home to support her children. She was unlikely to see them before 2021, once she had saved enough for her ticket. There is nothing romantic about that.
I rose early this morning. It is not yet seven and I am sitting in the small garden at the back of the house, eating my breakfast. My grandmother did this every day, from April through to November. I understand why – it feels like the most delicious luxury, almost an indulgence. This is one of the unexpected consequences of the lockdown. Instead of the frenetic dash to get oneself (and others) dressed, fed and out of the door, I can bring my breakfast outside into the early morning calm of cool air, pastel colours and muted sounds. Like others, I am rediscovering the wealth of birdsong, no longer drowned out by the sound of traffic – another lockdown side effect. The world is still and peaceful, and the endless sky permits my mind to wander freely. I can’t escape completely – thoughts of those we are separated from jab acutely: we are all in social distanced enclaves of our own right now, perhaps not that far from those we love, but it might as well be light years.
Not twenty yards from where I am sitting, is another such incongruity – a stand of trees , a dozen or so; with a bluish hue, the silver green leaves dancing quietly in the breeze. It is a cool wind that blows on the Fens, straight in from Siberia, but these trees seem well enough. Much like the scorpions, one wonders what they might say if asked, for these are olive trees; far from their Mediterranean hillside home, far from the dry air rising in the hot sun, far from the sound of cicadas and the scuttle of lizards. A small arboreal community, getting on with things, largely unnoticed, in a municipal park watching over the local citizens as they take their daily exercise. If anything, these olives are the permanent fixture, for they will likely outlive most of us. Either way, Marvin Gaye knew the truth of it because, wherever we lay our hat, we will make the best home we can – however much we may dream of far away Welsh valleys, or of hot dusty deserts and shady rocks, or of the azure waters that forever sparkle under the hot sun.