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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.