I left the barrow because I realised I’d forgotten my edging tool on a cricket table; not an actual table, but a big cricketing playing area. I walked the few hundred yards back to retrieve it, then headed back to retrieve my barrow when a vast oak tree, almost 100 feet high, suddenly fell in front of me.
Imagine! No me, no John Bird!
It crushed my barrow, causing my screw-instructor to (jokingly) complain that I had no respect for my tools. I was told the oak tree was probably over 300 years old. It was planted on a particular day and had survived war and revolution. It survived bitter winters and boiling summers. It survived the landowner, Viscount Midleton, making vast amounts of money in brewing and who built a nearby house 250 years before.
It survived the requisitioned HQ of Canadian airmen during the Second World War. And it survived a reformatory for recalcitrant (largely working-class) boys.
The felling of this tree to a 16-year-old London Irish slum boy was a magnificent sight. It just missed the 18th-century mansion called Peper Harow (pictured). It was only later, when I put pen to paper to write to my mum, that the thought occurred to me that I’d been spared for better things. She said as much. That Jesus always had a plan for the survivors of disasters. Perhaps her prayers to St Jude had been answered.
Imagine! No me, no John Bird! No meeting Gordon Roddick in an Edinburgh pub whilst I was hiding from the police! No Big Issue!
Happenstance would have gone in another direction, all because I’d left my edging tool on the cricket table and didn’t linger at my (unfortunately crushed) barrow. I lived to tell the tale.
Not long after this encounter I discovered art, painting and Impressionism. That is, the 19th- century French movement that predominantly emphasised the changing qualities of light in nature.
We will, I’m certain, read books in years to come that will recall the arrival of Brexit as a big tree that fell suddenly
I was shocked by all this light because, for the first time in my life I was living in the light. I was working on a large estate and was outdoors at all times. This wasn’t the troglodyte existence of my earlier London life; all dark, damp and dirty. I walked around the estate and everything seemed to glisten.
Today of course you can see Impressionist paintings – and almost all of nature itself – on your smartphone. You’ve got an LCD backlight; a light that, at times, makes your back-lit handheld world look like a stained-glass window.
But do our kids, well-behaved as well as misbehaving, ever get the chance to be drenched in outdoor light? Or are we now living in a world of well lit-up troglodytism?
We will, I’m certain, read books in years to come that will recall the arrival of Brexit as a big tree that fell suddenly, even though it may have been a long time coming. That the UK’s Eurosceptic rot set in decades before our contemporary times.
Things do have a habit of being a long time in gestation before coming into being. It takes dozens of little things to make up a big thing.
And the oak tree that neatly nearly crushed The Big Issue out of existence – and with it, the enormous impact of a street paper movement that’s permeated the planet – has to be grasped as life itself. Which, often enough, is life going in another direction.
I’m sure you’d have found something else to read without me.
Watch out for big trees: they don’t last forever!Image: The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo