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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear