Hampstead meanderings

I have always loved Hampstead, which – unlike “liking” it – is a thing of the heart and doesn’t correspond to common sense.  When I was a teenager, rotting in the outer perimeter of the Metropolitan Line, I couldn’t think of a place lovelier than Hampstead.  Also, at the time, the comic Rob Newman (last seen dressed like a North Sea trawlerman and preaching about eco-systems) lived somewhere up near Parliament Hill, so I thought if I hung out there a lot I’d catch his eye at Maxwell’s and then, well, pretty soon move in with him.  Or something.   Hampstead was fairyland compared to the rest of North London.     When I was five years old, the first couple I ever knew to get divorced lived in Hampstead, which seemed very exciting at the time.  One minute friends of my parents were living quite happily in Keats Grove, and the next she was weeping in a Belsize Park flat which had scary life-sized statues of children in it which used to terrify me, and he had soberly decamped to a bachelor pad in Tanza Road.  I also member a scary woman dress designer, whose Siamese cats were far better bred than her husbands (all of whom appeared to be called Mario).  She ran a business selling outlandish, Pan’s People-esque clothes from a huge, white stucco house somewhere off Downshire Hill.  My mother bought her dresses for about four years, only to return for a fitting one day to find she’d done a runner, moggies and all.    She didn’t even leave behind any jumpsuits.  Despite this – or maybe because of this –  Hampstead began a florid ascendancy in my imagination, and somehow got wired in my flighty brain that this was where grown-ups lived.   It had romantic gothic turrets that clung to the North London skyline as you trudged up to the Heath, in a journey unchanged in three hundred years.  Something of mittel Europe hung on to it’s edges, and I always hankered after something nameless that it seemed to promise.  It has always been a wee bit special.

The trouble was, even thirty years ago when the most threatening sight on Hampstead High Street was a drunken Peter Cook dribbling outside The Coffee Cup, you needed an awful lot of the green stuff to rock on up to NW3, peruse a selection of houses, and snatch up one of the fruitiest.   In my teenage years, I attended parties in the area, one of which was in a privately-hired gothic cottage on Hampstead’s frilly, frisky outskirts.  An hour before the party my brother asked to borrow £750 to pay for it.  £750? I asked.  Not likely.  After all, in the event, the evening featured a good friend of mine being sexually pestered by a bass player in the front garden and a fellow sixth former being found passed out, laying half way up the entrance steps.  Why pay £750 for that?  Go to any English High Street at 1.35am on a Friday night and you can see all that for free.  I also attended a party upstairs at “The Dome” on Hampstead High Street (now Cafe Rouge) where I had a romantic clinch with a trainee turf accountant.  I do not know why this was, unless he was giving me tips for the Gold Cup.  I have spent my adult life curiously living in a peculiar Hampstead ring (I think Boy George had a run in with one of those on the Heath one night) – renting flats of variant qualities in West Hampstead, Swiss Cottage, Golders Green, but never having the lolly to invade the central, liberal, Nicole Farhi-esque Hampsteadian heartlands.   The only people I know who live in Hampstead bought their homes forty years ago and are holding on to it by their false teeth.   No one with a degree in the Arts and Humanities can sniff at the place these days.

So, the last bank holiday brought me to Hampstead, to one of those arse-clenching, calf-killing steep steps to the left of Heath Street which climbs up to Holly Mount.   Hampstead was looking her best because she was in her best delightful half-light (early summer, high turquoise skies, evening, sun setting over Haverstock Hill etc)  Half of the world accepted that we were basically on a 11 day beano for most of the second half of April, and half of the world didn’t.  Some businesses expected employees to turn up, some weren’t arsed.  Some shops were open, some were closed.  We didn’t know what was what at all.  And then there was all that Easter nonsense to contend with (eggs, chocolate, Waitrose being closed for two days just because of all the crucifying stuff and then someone rises from the dead (or something) and then Waitrose opens again). The trouble was – with this wealth of public holidays – no one changed the pub laws.  That meant on both Sunday nights (which were really like Saturday nights to us) the pubs shunted everyone out at 10.30pm.  We were most confused.   On the second Sunday of the glorious bank hols – the one for the rising-up-from-the-dead thing, not the one for the Wedding of Prince Baldie thing – Mr Bluebird and I went to the Holly Bush in Hampstead with some friends.

The Holly Bush is one of Hampstead’s oldest pubs.  It isn’t close to the Heath, it is infinitely better placed, on Holly Mount, close to the transport facilities of Heath Street.  It was built by the portrait painter George Romney at some point in the 1790s.   At some point in the hour before we turned up though, it was being patronised by one enormous bustling table of well-to-do local youths, who had been sat there since lunchtime, and who were drinking for England.  Despite this pub being taken over by the Watford brewery, Benskins, in the 1920s, there is nothing of Watford about it, my friends.  Ted Baker-ed Hampsteadians bray and belch on dainty bar stools that, frankly, weren’t built to accommodate third-generation-public-school rugby buttocks.   Snappy, quiet girls with sleek hair smirk and smoke outside the door and George Romney would roll in his grave if he could see how much the cheeseburgers cost.   Small, 18th century alcoves reveal confused Japanese tourists.  One of them clutched a tourist guide from about 1991 and seemed perplexed that she had found more Vietnamese cafes than Viennese cafes in Hampstead these days and she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Margaret Drabble either.  Where was this mittel European intelligentsia she had heard about?  Most of the tourists were looking – terrified – at the large crowd of GAP year-ites who were downing shots and screaming throughout the small, oak-wooded Georgian rooms.  A table (also of tourists) bore the hysterical drunks quite well, showed no irritation and nobly didn’t move away.  Later, we discovered they were in fact deaf.

The Holly Bush is an anachronism.  It is so chronologically displaced as to be quite a distressing experience.  It is a very pretty pub, perfect for when Hampstead was a country town back in the 1790s (Ah! I remember it well!  Those crazy Napoleonic Wars!  And that night with Nelson on Hampstead Heath…oh, those were the days..)  It was a popular destination for tuberculosis-ridden, pox-coated Londoners to take the air and hump incessantly in the ponds.  Now, Hampstead is a bloated old battle-axe of an inner London suburb, which appears to have had most of its individualism sucked away by the garish fluttering of money that clogs up its arteries like fat, and basically stops anything interesting happening there.  It’s become a bit vapid.  The intellectual penury that drained out of it from the late 1990s onwards into more cheaper salubrious districts like Stoke Newington or Stroud Green has been mirrored by a true, financial penury; small shops are wrung dry for rents in Hampstead.  Many local shops are now empty and for let.  All the restaurants in South End Green have changed.  The book traders in Flask Walk have survived, although I wonder for how much longer.

Yes, as the commerce infrastructure of the area fragments, the residential quarter flourishes.  Very small, brutal-looking housewives drive very large cars up and down Haverstock Hill, although it seems odd splashing out on a vehicle suitable for roaring through Wiltshire quicksand or lashings of Norfolk mud when all they do is pop to Belsize Park and back.   The owner of a very large car never quite gets it’s moneyworth out of the vehicle if they don’t use it for the reason it was designed.  There are drivers out there so thick that they can’t calculate that if you drive a ostentatiously large, wide car down an 18th century side street you are going to get stuck.   Most amusing.  Plus, no one can see them waving “AW! Help! I am stuck down Ye Olde Hollie Mounte in Ye Olde Hampsteade!” because they had the windows of their car tinted, under the misapprehension that they were fascinating enough to encourage constant gawping from the rest of us. They aren’t.

Hampstead manifested itself in the nation’s consciousness as some kind of intellectual, artistic zone in the first thirty years of the last century, when it offered sanctuary to those fleeing from the middle and east of Europe, and seemed to harness the more middle class of European immigrants on the immigration spectrum.  For reasons that can only be consciously bourgeois, the middle class, educated Jewish Europeans that arrived in this country and situated themselves in literature and the performing arts are referred to as emigres.  The poorer, uneducated Jewish Europeans in the East End are simply “immigrants”. (I think you get a French sounding name for your immigrant status if you’ve written a ballet, or were friends with Powell & Pressburger).  Either way, right up until 1970s NW3 bustled with a remarkable surfeit of intellectuals, writers, actors and artists, albeit successful, well-off ones.  A brief glance at this list gives you an example of the freak scale of notable brainboxes per square foot once you step north of the Finchley Road from the 1910s onwards : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Hampstead_residents

These days, even the successful ones are unlikely to afford to live there anymore.   The flip side of the coin of economic gain granted by a property boom is the civic cost.  The property boom of the last ten years has cost Hampstead itself, because it’s raison d’etre isn’t there any more.  It’s just a wealthy suburb.  Hampstead has eaten itself , regurgitated everything and spat it back out.  No one wants to shop in the shops anymore, the Hampstead Bazaar is no more bizarre than a Starbucks latte, and the vague and the delightful and the interesting and the artistic are no longer required.   There are, however, some lovely big cars.  Alas, it’s a sobering moment when you realise there is more intellect in a radish than Hampstead these days.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t dislike Hampstead, in fact I love Hampstead.  That’s why it upsets me that it seems to have become just another pretty borough – only more shrill and distasteful than it used to be.   Is any essence of itself still there?  I would like to think so.   Perhaps Hampstead’s own energy and verve will reignite itself in some new form, but the writing has been on the wall for almost a decade – see this article from The Telegraph  seven years ago : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/propertyadvice/propertymarket/3324574/Whatever-happened-to-Hampstead-Man.html

Hampstead’s identity in the last hundred years was a peculiar alchemy that birthed an sophisticated bohemianism unrivalled by other London boroughs and which was inevitably too dependent on fortuitive economic criteria to survive.  But, it still has it’s magic.   The feather in its cap is it’s variable architectural styles; 18th century cottages nestle amongst late-Victorian gothic weirdo houses, looping round lanes and twisting and turning into surprising avenues.   It’s charm is built in.  Nothing could be more splendid than living on Parliament Hill, tidy and quiet, close to the bustling city yet seemingly miles away in a small cluster of roads that open out to the astonishing views from the top of the Hill.  It will always have it’s poetic magnificence, if compromised slightly by the harsh aggression of the millionaire-homes marketing, and the endless chavtastic chug of dinosaur cars that crawl up and down the High Street.  There have always been the Hampstead sneerers.  Up until 1980, these were vaguely leftie-disapproving, liberal bashing jealous anti-semites.  Now they are vaguely banker-disapproving, townie-bashing, jealous anti-semites.  They think their nastiness is acceptable.  Fuck ’em.  It’s charmless and egotistical and usually belies resentment that they haven’t got a view from their bathroom of the Heath.   Rage against the non-Hampsteadians, my friends, and wend your way, lovingly, to NW3.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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