Today I walked the length of Radford Road in Nottingham for the first time, ten o'clock on a blustery morning and lots of businesses still shuttered up. A man with a cut above his eye and a dirty white baseball cap spoke to me in Polish, wanting a light. I knew he wanted a light because he wiggled his thumb, miming lighting a fag. His grin - a boozy, slightly conspiratorial grin - vanished and he looked momentarily embarrassed when he realised I was not Polish.
In my day job as an English teacher I speak to Poles, Kurds, Afghans, Congolese, Romanians, Iranians... But they all come to me. In college I have a prescribed role and function. But out there this morning I had no such thing. Looking into the Nawrooz Restaurant at a young lad intently slicing up kebab meat with a huge knife, I hesitated at going in for a glass of tea and decided to walk on. I want to find out about his life and the lives of others like him who live and work on this ordinary, extraordinary road, but to do so I'll have to get over this feeling of being a tourist or an infiltrator. They're roles I'm not comfortable with.
Maybe I should carry a lighter.
We found a handful of frostbitten shaggy parasols, a lone field blewitt and some chanterelles which turned out to be false chanterelles. But it's midwinter. You can't expect much. From anyone, really. Even sunshine disappoints.
Mushrooming is a reason to connect with the environment in a very purposeful and real sense. There's the expected pleasure of the cooking and the eating. And then there's the poetry of their names. Rusty Wood Rotter, Woolly Milk Cap, Bare-Toothed Russula, Bulbous Honey Fungus... Beguling, huh? How could a poet resist? And then, of course, the frisson of the danger of misidentification. Ross, Fergus, Andrew, Sandra, Ali... Which name is the right name? Which of their bodies is poisonous?
I don't advocate the taking of drugs, but in 1990 I took magic mushrooms in Leeds with some friends from university. It was night-time and we all walked out into the city. The intoxication felt purging, and a return to an irrational, playful realm where inanimate objects seemed energised - trees became friendly and church towers became sinister, stretching up into the universe (my recent visit to the J.S.Lowry exhibition at Nottingham Lakeside reminded me of this). A playground became our elysian fields.
Somehow we have to find ways - safe, legitimate ways - to re-connect with our environments, redraw their maps and reinvest them, reimbue them, with the magic of our own psyches. This is urgent. If we don't do this, then what do we have? We have spaces designed for shopping, which look like copies of themselves, which look like they could have been built anywhere, for anyone. And we have roads which channel us with increasing efficiency to the places where everyone else is going. And the 'interesting' places in cities are the places we are told are interesting by councils and tourist boards. We need to take back the cities for our own purposes. Retail park, shopping centre, multi-storey carpark... Are these phrases beguiling? No. But they could be. If we looked differently.