Hackney Marshes, by Louise Stern

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The longer you live in London, the more the city maps out your personal history. I like it when that history loops back on itself. When my first book came out, I was interviewed in a flat right across from the very first place I’d lived when I came to London from New Mexico in 2002. It was fitting looking out at the windows of the tiny granny flat where I’d laid awake on the hard single mattress 10 years before wondering what this city could hold for me.

I’m pretty lazy — if left to my own devices, I rarely travel far, especially if I’m writing. The work seems to expand to fill the entire day, and my world shrinks to a few square blocks, travelled in sweatpants.

I didn’t know Clapton well before I moved into my flat a couple of years ago. I hadn’t even particularly wanted to live there. But since being here, I’ve grown to love it best of all London. I haven’t encountered its particular balance of wildness and urbanity anywhere else.

Most days I make it down to Hackney Marshes. When I first went there I couldn’t believe how big it was. A canal runs through the park, which leads on into several other parks extending either direction. The tiny Anchor & Hope pub on the canal nearly always has a crowd out front at the wooden tables who look like they’re full of juicy gossip if only I could eavesdrop. There are sometimes graceful, swaggering basketball players on the courts next door who wear their sweatpants like they’re on the catwalk. They make me think of my brother, another basketball player and coach.

On the other side of the canal straight down from my flat are fields where cows graze. Blackberries grow wild along the edges of the canal and between each patch of land. Once on one of the dirt paths that runs off the main path, you can often walk for quite a ways without seeing anyone, the trees enclosing you with their twisted limbs.

When passing the main meadow near where the temporary giant basketball court was put up for the Olympics, I think even more vividly than I usually do of my transplanted Mexican husband, who, as I write this, is on the plane over to London, where he will finally be able to live permanently. When the first rays of weak sunlight broke through the winter last time he was in England, he had me out there in the meadow with some homemade ceviche and guacamole in plastic containers; we opened a bag of tortilla chips and tried to convince ourselves that we were sunbathing on the beach in Mexico. He sure did a good job imitating the British stiff upper lip then — maybe it isn’t too far off from Mexican machismo.

The train rattles through the marshes sometimes, heading out to Wood Green and reminding me that I’m in London — otherwise, I could almost forget.

After some time wandering, I head to my flat to get back to work. Depending on which route I take, I sometimes pass Neden Urfa, which from outside looks like a regular kebab shop but where everything tastes fresh and delicious. They make the spicy, flavourful pide from scratch, and the family who owns it are always warm, waving and smiling every time I go by their window. Eating there feels like being in their kitchen.

If I leave the marshes the other way around, I pass Earl at the barber’s shop next door to my flat. His place is nearly always full, television blaring with football matches or music videos, gold teeth sparkling from various mouths, and children playing. Even if I walk by five times a day, he acts as if it’s been several days since the last time we said hello and when I go away for the weekend, it’s as if it has been a year. In the early morning, he’s often alone and napping in one of the barber’s chairs, his bald head slumped over before his busy day starts.

Back in my flat on the top floor of the building, I stare out at the treetops and the birds flying above. Sometimes people going to or from the betting shop underneath my flat take refuge on the bench across from my window — I’ve seen some epics being played out there. You can see the buildings of the City if you crane your neck out of the window. There’s plenty of room to think, especially knowing that the marshes are a minute away.

Louise Stern’s recent novel, ‘Ismael and His Sisters’, is published by Granta, £12.99

Photograph: Josh Lustig

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