Review of “Under the Hornbeams” by Emma Tarlo: Revelations in the Park.
Early on in the initial lockdown of 2020, Emma Tarlo, who at the time was a professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths, was introduced to two individuals by a friend. These men, Nick and Pascal, had been living in a remote area of Regent’s Park. Nick, a 64-year-old white man, and Pascal, a Parisian of Algerian Berber descent, had been companions on the streets for 16 years and had been sharing their makeshift home under the hornbeams for the past five. Despite their living situation, they did not consider themselves homeless. Nick explained to Tarlo that he did not identify with the label of “homeless” except as a term used by the police. While others welcomed the government’s decision to provide accommodation for rough sleepers during the pandemic, Nick and Pascal silently resisted any attempts to relocate them. They preferred to stay in the home they had created with the understanding of a sympathetic park manager. As Tarlo’s work life became unstructured and her daily trips to the park to bring food to the men became routine, she began to view freedom, connection, and privilege in a new light.
There is a potential risk that this type of story could be portrayed in a way that glorifies the middle-class individual as a savior. Tarlo makes it clear from the beginning that the relationship she forms with the men and their diverse group is mutually beneficial; she provides hot meals, while they offer companionship, thought-provoking discussions, and a different outlook that influences the author’s perspective on her own life. The book, which was written with the men’s approval, strives to maintain a balance between honoring Nick and Pascal’s chosen lifestyle with dignity and not romanticizing the immense challenges and risks they face.
Tarlo expresses difficulty in explaining Nick and Pascal’s lifestyle to those unfamiliar with the park, due to the limitations of language. She is met with criticism and stereotypes when discussing living without traditional housing. To her surprise, she learns that the Vagrancy Act from 1824, created after the Napoleonic wars, still considers homelessness a criminal act. It appears that considering the world as one’s home, like Nick does, is only acceptable if accompanied by a physical dwelling.
Tarlo, who has previously authored books discussing the global hair industry and the relationship between Muslim women and fashion, describes her role as an anthropologist to her new acquaintances as “truly about showing interest in individuals and their experiences.” However, as she delves deeper into her curiosity by learning fragments of their personal histories, she becomes increasingly aware of the ways in which cultural concerns hinder the progress of anthropology in academic settings. While efforts to decolonize the field are commendable and necessary, they often result in unending meetings where there is no consensus on common definitions of fundamental concepts. Tarlo reflects, “In the past, I felt confident in my ability to approach a subject with caution and sensitivity, but now every topic and associated terminology seems fraught with potential harm and uncertainty as to whether I have the right to speak on it at all.”
By talking with her friends in the park, she gains a new perspective on freedom and finds the bravery to quit a job that is causing extreme levels of stress. “Nick and Pascal have shown me that while security is crucial, it is not the only aspect of life.”
The fact that she even has the option to make a choice is a sign of her privilege, as she acknowledges. However, Nick – who has spent 20 years living on the streets and often refers to his life in the park as a “privilege” – is also confident in his own ability to make decisions. “I’m here as a sort of rebellious gesture,” he explains. “I could live differently, but I’ve always preferred being outdoors and I’m not very interested in possessions.” She notices how deeply connected the two men are to nature; the care they take to minimize their impact and maintain their small corner of the park. But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that their ability to make choices is always conditional, and that the author’s involvement must also be on their terms.
Tarlo writes in a captivating manner, incorporating dynamic supporting characters and literary allusions throughout the book. She is aware of the artificiality of organizing the scattered and fragmented conversations into a cohesive narrative: “To turn it into a single story is to impose a structure that goes against its inherent nature.” As a result, some sections may seem like filler. However, the end product is a profoundly empathetic book that, similar to Alexander Masters’s Stuart: A Life Backwards or Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, challenges readers to look beyond their biases or pity and establish connections with the curiosity and attentiveness that define anthropology.
The book “Under the Hornbeams” by Emma Tarlo is available for purchase from Faber at a price of £16.99. To help support the Guardian and Observer, you can order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional delivery fees may be applied.