Under the Hornbeams: A True Story of Life in the Open by Emma Tarlo - review by Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn

Park Life

Under the Hornbeams: A True Story of Life in the Open

By

Faber & Faber 384pp £18.99 order from our bookshop
 

Over the course of the Covid-19 lockdowns in London, the anthropologist Emma Tarlo befriended two men living outdoors in Regent’s Park. That’s the simplest way of describing the lifestyle of Nick and Pascal, who slept on the ground without a tent, did not beg or busk, and rejected all offers of hostel accommodation. ‘I’m not homeless,’ protested Nick, the more outgoing of the pair. ‘This is my home!’

The two men had cohabited in this way for years – ‘an arrangement without an arrangement,’ they described it – and seemed content with their lot. When it was cold, they burrowed into a cocoon of sleeping bags, one stuffed inside another. When it rained, they stood under an umbrella, sometimes for days at a time without respite. The park management, thus far, had turned a blind eye to their arrangement, perhaps thanks to their popularity with local residents.

They made a striking pair. Pascal, the silent one, was tall and thin, with floor-length hair ‘matted into a thick felt’. He was French-Algerian from a good family, did well enough at school but ended up on the streets owing, it is suggested, to his ‘irreverence for convention’. Nick, the bon vivant, was red-cheeked and Santa-bearded, and almost always to be found with a book in his hand: Benjamin, Brecht, Pinter, Huxley. Nick had picked fruit, planted trees and sorted fish in a factory. But he had always prized freedom over income. ‘If you learn to fast’, he advised, ‘you won’t ever have to do a job you don’t want.’

Their unlikely contentment and independence of thought captured Tarlo’s attention during an unhappy period in her own working life. With teaching confined to Zoom and her academic field under fire, she began to escape more and more often to the park, sitting in the clearing under the hornbeams, discussing life

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter