The best things in life are free – unless Hampstead’s horrible hedgies get their way

A parked Bentley with the number plate I H8 TAX summarises everything that's going wrong with our beloved Heath.

Once again, towards the end of the month, money starts getting tight, but the weather is still lovely and holiday-type things must be done – so, what to do? The Wallace Collection, for a start: that’s good free fun. It is, for some reason, an incredibly sexy place and not just because it has that amusing Fragonard showing a young man looking up the skirt of a girl on a swing.
 
Everything there is voluptuous somehow and Howard Jacobson chose well when he made it the scene of a lover’s tryst in his novel The Act of Love. That takes care of one afternoon, then.
 
Loafing around Regent’s Park with some bread, cheese and a chilled bottle takes care of another; but the third afternoon is the best, because someone has paid me unexpectedly early and although I could hardly call myself in rude financial health, I can at least top up the Oyster card and go somewhere on public transport. I’m only going to Hampstead Heath – my fellow columnist Mr Self regards pretty much everywhere on the mainland as being within walking distance, which I think is rather splendid, but I am not going to inflict a three-mile walk to the Heath on the Beloved, especially as we are going to be walking around a lot when we get there. Also, as she is not a native Londoner, she has never seen the Heath before and I am rather keen on introducing her to it.
 
The Heath figures prominently in the childhood of anyone who grew up, as I did, anywhere near it. I don’t think there was ever a time when I was not aware of it, of its improbable vastness in the middle of the city. And the older I get, the more amazing I consider it. As readers of this magazine will be acutely aware, these are terrible times, with our freedoms under threat from all sides – from freedom of association to the meanest use of the word “free”: that is, free from cost. You can still, thank goodness, just bowl up to the Heath and walk straight in. (I gather you are now supposed to pay to use the swimming ponds, which is academic for me, as the days in which I would expose my body clad in swimming trunks to the world have passed.)
 
So, one beaming Thursday, we do just that, along with a couple of buddies who know the Heath at least as well as I do – and it is marvellous. We do see some Lycra-wearing people walking up and then down, and then up and then down our chosen hill again, using those extremely silly walking poles, but they, too, have their liberty, so we confine ourselves to mild mockery while we eat our picnic.
 
Eventually our friends peel off and the B and I are alone, so I show her through paths I remember from my childhood to the tree you can climb inside, and then on, using only my nose to guide me, to the Spaniards Inn for a pint. I note with approval the blue plaque on the house next to it, which reminds us of Henrietta and Samuel Barnett, Christian socialist reformers who did much to make Hampstead such a pleasant place and to lift the poor out of squalor. It is on the way back to the Hovel that I notice the Bentley parked outside one of the impossibly adorable houses in the higgledy-piggledy streets between the Heath and Heath Street. It’s not so much the Bentley itself – after all, London is now seething with them – it’s the number plate: I H8 TAX. You geddit?
 
Now, while the relationship between the taxman and me is not a simple and straightforward one, it is a matter of my own incompetence rather than outright objection to the principle. So I am not, I must confess, very amused to see this number plate. It is not hard to come to some ungenerous conclusions about the charming man – it will be a man – who thinks this is a terrific joke.
 
I think back to the plaque for the Barnetts on their old home by the pub and speculate about the kind of people who now buy such properties. I imagine a London a hundred years hence and the plaques that will decorate the walls of Hampstead. “—, hedge-fund manager, lived here from 2012-2040.” “So and so, arms dealer, lived here off the blood of thousands between 2000 and 2020.”
 
You get the idea. We are living in an age that would seem to consider the very idea of positive social reform as a quaint mug’s game. London is now a playground for the rich and they have had enough of being within smelling distance of the poor. I am also aware that the body responsible for Hampstead Heath is the shadowy City of London Corporation and I wonder how long it will be before its overlords monetise it.
Ice cream on Hampstead Heath, sunglasses optional. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit