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

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.