Parklife people

This book has a brilliant premise but, frustratingly, it doesn’t quite work

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Under the hornbeams is a strange book, but then it’s a book about a strange situation in a very strange time. Emma Tarlo’s account of two “hobos”, which is what they are most comfortable being called, living under a hornbeam tree in Regent’s Park during Covid, captures the claustrophobic horror of the oddest period that we are ever likely to live through.

Under the Hornbeams: A True Story of Life in the Open by Emma Tarlo

It starts with Lockdown being announced. Tarlo, an anthropologist who has previously written a highly-acclaimed book on hair, is living in a flat with her husband (also an anthropologist who spends most weeks in Paris) and her son (who should be in Oxford, where he is studying). Tarlo is introduced by a friend to Pascal and Nick, two men — the former of them reserved but wise, the second a seemingly omniscient philosopher — who have lived for the best part of two decades out in the open. They are not homeless, Tarlo writes, questioning narratives around what that means: the park is their home. 

It is a brilliant premise but, frustratingly, it doesn’t quite work. A lot of what makes characters interesting, in fiction or non-fiction, are their imperfections. Spend enough time with anybody and the cracks appear. In a magazine or newspaper article, where the reader spends less time in a subject’s company, you can get away with it. But relentless perfection in narrative non-fiction makes characters seem flat. Nick’s only flaw is that he’s perfect.

Long passages of quoted speech, sometimes almost half a page, reveal that he is absolutely bang on — as I suppose a Goldsmiths anthropologist would see it — on everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to sexual harassment to notions of property. He’s bang on too on the power of language, on how terms can be reappropriated by downtrodden groups, and the racist outlook of London’s police.

I have no doubt Nick is wonderful but he almost becomes Christ-like. That, to be fair to Tarlo, is one of the great challenges of writing non-fiction; people give themselves up to you and you feel, as it seems she feels, duty-bound to repay that generosity by writing them up as wonderful, which is sometimes a disservice as a writer.

Technically, less reliance on reported speech would be good. One assumes that Tarlo worked her dictaphone hard. Nothing wrong with dictaphones but they can lead to large chunks of speech and conversation where less would have been more. Tarlo, for example, has a long argument with a drunk who likes Gandhi:

I agree with you that he was an exceptional man who was trying to bring about a more equal society. He was a leading figure in the struggle against colonial rule in India, and there are people all over the world who continue to be inspired by his ideas about non-violence and ecology. Martin Luther King thought him one of the greatest men in world history, but that doesn’t mean he was without fault. Like all of us he was a product of his time.

They aren’t doing nothing; they are practising the art of just “being”

The angry drunk is not convinced. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, ecology, and the ethics and oddities of Goldsmiths profs giving drunks an intellectual thrashing down the park aside, the book would have been tighter and ultimately better by cutting a fair bit of fat. 

On London’s homeless community as a subculture, Under the Hornbeams is interesting. Its account of the creation of quasi-family units — which can be both essential in order to survive, and potentially deeply damaging when those units are unstable and built on unhealthy relationships — is illuminating and will be eye-opening for many readers. 

Tarlo is also perceptive when it comes to capturing the horror (it really was horrible) of the Lockdown period. She weeps on Zoom calls, quits her job, everybody around her is deeply stressed, and even the “hobos” are dispossessed, and yet it was, as Under the Hornbeams shows, also a time when strange new communities were formed. Because of the community she finds herself in, a community whose activity is limited to meagre excursions such as going to the park, Tarlo sometimes sees Pascal and Nick doing almost nothing for hours on end.

Except they aren’t really doing nothing; they are thinking and watching and practising the art of just “being”. Under the Hornbeams is a book that reminds writers to go light on dialogue and reminds all of us to go long on talking to those around us and sometimes just to “be”. Do not, Tarlo cautions, ever think that the homeless have nothing.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover