Both fantastical and true, Under the Hornbeams by Emma Tarlo tells the story of her friendship with two men who live under the trees of a famous London park. In this lovely, life-affirming book, Tarlo recounts her introduction to self-proclaimed hobos, Nick and Pascal, in the early months of the Covid pandemic. As they share food, thoughts and confidences against the peculiarly constrictive backdrop of a national lockdown, she is compelled to reconsider notions of freedom and fulfilment.
Fittingly, Tarlo is a professor of anthropology. Although her daily work is concerned with observing different ways of living and questioning ‘embedded assumptions,’ never could she have predicted how this would precipitate a seismic shift in her own life.
The rumblings of this begin in early lockdown. Keen to make the most of her allotted time outdoors, Tarlo begins to explore the wonders of Regent’s Park, where a friend introduces her to Nick and Pascal in their space under the hornbeam trees. Her first impression of their characters proves to be prescient; silvery-bearded Nick, reading, his legs elegantly crossed, the younger Pascal, with a mane of matted hair, projecting zen-like vibes from his sleeping bag.
‘If Pascal is in his leafy private bedchamber, Nick is in his salon, ready to receive guests.’
Tarlo is duly received, and discovers a disarmingly intelligent conversationalist, and in his sleeping-bagged companion a gentle ‘quietist.’ She unexpectedly finds herself sharing some personal history and within a couple of days is also sharing meals with her new friends, forging a connection with them while the lions of London Zoo roar sporadically from their corner of the park.
In this spring unlike any other, Tarlo captures the suffocating nature of the pandemic restrictions. Locked down at home, she is tied to a computer screen, dealing with a workload that feels like incarceration in itself. To spend time with Nick and Pascal is ‘to enter a space apart,’ and as the year progresses and restrictions ease, others drop by too, as if the pair ‘are hosting an impromptu soirée in a magnificent living room filled with glistening light and birdsong.’
If this sounds like a romanticisation of homelessness, well Nick and Pascal insist that they are not homeless, they are free, and while Tarlo is enamoured of their zest for life, she never underestimates the difficulties they face, be it sub-zero temperatures or mean-spirited officialdom, both of which crop up in her account.
Rich with beautiful observations of nature, Tarlo also places much weight upon the concept of ‘breaking bread.’ Friendship is forged over the two-way sharing of food, and there are some luscious descriptions, in particular her preparation of a crumble made with park-foraged berries. Nick, ever resourceful, uses the aluminium foil it’s wrapped in to fashion an aerial for his pocket radio.
As time passes and their lives become ever more entwined, the conjunction of lockdown and her new friends’ philosophy of being will provide inspiration for Tarlo’s own future.
Readers concerned that Under the Hornbeams will provoke intrusive public interest for Nick and Pascal in their leafy abode will reach their own conclusions by the final page of this utterly absorbing and unique read.
Under the Hornbeams by Emma Tarlo is published by Faber & Faber, 384 pages.