Lazing on a sunny afternoon: summertime on Hampstead Heath. Photo: Getty
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Nicholas Lezard: A trip down memory pain on the way back from the Heath

Nicholas Lezard’s Down and Out column. 

A call from an 0845 number. I ignore it at first but it turns out that someone in Miami – Miami? – has cloned my card and has been making merry with the cashpoints. A bit here, a bit there: it adds up. I find myself curiously un-outraged at this crime. The bank will accept my assurances that I have never been to Miami and the money will be reimbursed; I feel a pang for the people who thought that my account was a gold mine. Anyway, pro tem the account is frozen and the card unusable. I have just enough cash in my wallet, I calculate, for a couple of pints and a Chinese meal. With nothing on the Oyster, I will have to walk.

But it is a lovely evening and I feel like an adventure so I stroll up through Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill so that I can sit on the Heath and read a book for a while before meeting my friend John at the Flask. I feel I owe him a visit; he had called me up earlier in the week to go for a drink with him and Peter Jukes – who wrote that astonishingly good piece about the Brooks/Coulson trial in this magazine a few weeks ago – but I had been feeling low and under no illusions as to how good my company would be.

All goes well, apart from a moment when, prone in the long grass and scribbling notes in the book I am reviewing, I hear a dog running towards me from behind. This is it, I think. What a way to go. Being eaten by a dog on Hampstead Heath. I had, ever since John told me that he’d once bumped into Paul McCartney, who was walking his dog, entertained a fantasy about running into him on the Heath; but somehow, as the animal, frenzied by my intoxicating, musky bouquet, starts licking me all over the head, I think the ex-Beatle would not let his dog get out of control like this.

My real problems do not start there. They start on the walk back later and they are self-generated. I find myself, in short, being assaulted by memories – assaulted much as I was by the dog on the Heath, only with less slobbering and with my glasses remaining in place. We start at the junction of West End Lane and the Finchley Road.

First, there is the top of the road on which Hampstead Cricket Club’s ground lies. Until I was about 13, every alternate summer Sunday was spent on the boundary, watching my father score plucky tens against opposition who seemed to get inexorably younger than him. I once saw him get struck on the thigh by a ball and then looked on, baffled, at the sight of him dancing around the pitch with smoke coming out of his trousers. The ball had hit the packet of Swan Vestas in his pocket and these, being non-safety matches, lit themselves. In the end, no harm was done except for a few hernias caused by laughter but it was the kind of experience that can mark a player and he never recovered his form after that.

Arkwright Road, opposite: by freakish coincidence, the address and the surname of the second primary school teacher I fell in love with. Miss Arkwright: the name still makes my heart tremble. I was eight. Two years earlier, Miss Ashby-Pickford had broken my heart but I was determined to move forward.

Then Frognal. (Sorry if this column is a bit London-centric. In my defence, it started out being called “Down and Out in London” and I still live here, so there it is.) In Frognal lived one of the two Lacanians I had a brief relationship with. All I will say here is that Lacanians believe love is “giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it”.

Moving on.

Then there’s the building that used to house a well-known squat in the 1980s. I remember a time in the basement one evening. A couple of friends of friends are chasing the dragon.

“God, I love heroin,” says one.

“Me, too,” says the other. I am offered some, which I can tell is actually awfully generous of them. But I decline. Years later, one of them, who became a good friend and also kicked the habit, died of a heart attack, aged about 40. I still miss him. (When don’t you miss people you like who died before you, I wonder? Only when you don’t think about them.)

Then . . . ah, but I must be boring you. The thing is, I am afflicted by memories, the way some people are afflicted by their dreams. John went on tour supporting the Ramones in the 1980s and doesn’t even remember he did so – only the ticket stub he recently found in a drawer reminded him. Then again, I lost most of 1982 to drink; all I remember is that I was very, very happy.

But the rest: it’s all there. I even remember, as I pass the folded-accordion shape of Swiss Cottage Library, being a weird 12-year-old, studying books on medieval orthography for the sheer giddy hell of it. (I had retreated from love by then, temporarily.)

So that’s it. I’m staying in for a while now, in the frictionless present, accruing no more of these pesky memories if I can possibly help it, for the time being.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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How Labour risks becoming a party without a country

Without establishing the role of Labour in modern Britain, the party is unlikely ever to govern again.

“In my time of dying, want nobody to mourn

All I want for you to do is take my body home”

- Blind Willie Johnson

The Conservative Party is preparing itself for a bloody civil war. Conservative MPs will tell anyone who wants to know (Labour MPs and journalists included) that there are 100 Conservative MPs sitting on letters calling for a leadership contest. When? Whenever they want to. This impending war has many reasons: ancient feuds, bad blood, personal spite and enmity, thwarted ambition, and of course, the European Union.

Fundamentally, at the heart of the Tory war over the European Union is the vexed question of ‘What is Britain’s place in the World?’ That this question remains unanswered a quarter of a century after it first decimated the Conservative Party is not a sign that the Party is incapable of answering the question, but that it has no settled view on what the correct answer should be.

The war persists because the truth is that there is no compromise solution. The two competing answers are binary opposites: internationalist or insular nationalist, co-habitation is an impossibility.

The Tories, in any event, are prepared to keep on asking this question, seemingly to the point of destruction. For the most part, Labour has answered this question: Britain will succeed as an outward looking, internationalist state. The equally important question facing the Labour Party is ‘What is the place of the Labour Party in modern Britain?’ Without answering this question, Labour is unlikely to govern ever again and in contrast to the Tories, Labour has so far refused to acknowledge that such a question is being asked of it by the people it was founded to serve. At its heart, this is a question about England and the rapidly changing nature of the United Kingdom.

In the wake of the 2016 elections, the approach that Labour needs to take with regard to the ‘English question’ is more important than ever before. With Scotland out of reach for at least a generation (assuming it remains within the United Kingdom) and with Labour’s share of the vote falling back in Wales in the face of strong challenges from Plaid Cymru and UKIP, Labour will need to rely upon winning vast swathes of England if we are to form a government in 2020.

In a new book published this week, Labour’s Identity Crisis, Tristram Hunt has brought together Labour MPs, activists and parliamentary candidates from the 2015 general election to explore the challenges facing Labour in England and how the party should address these, not purely as an electoral device, but as a matter of principle.

My contribution to the book was inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The track list reads like the score for a musical tragedy based upon the Labour Party from 2010 onwards: In My Time of Dying, Trampled Underfoot, Sick Again, Ten Years Gone. 

Continued Labour introspection is increasingly tiresome for the political commentariat – even boring – and Labour’s Identity Crisis is a genuinely exciting attempt to swinge through this inertia. As well as exploring our most recent failure, the book attempts to chart the course towards the next Labour victory: political cartography at its most urgent.

This collection of essays represents an overdue effort to answer the question that the Party has sought to sidestep for too long.  In the run up to 2020, as the United Kingdom continues to atomise, the Labour Party must have an ambitious, compelling vision for England, or else risks becoming a party without a country.

Jamie Reed is Labour MP for Copeland.