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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. 

Lazing on a sunny afternoon: summertime on Hampstead Heath. Photo: Getty
Lazing on a sunny afternoon: summertime on Hampstead Heath. Photo: Getty

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.