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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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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