I biked up Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead the other day behind a cyclist who might have been 70 years old. He cycled in the old-fashioned, laborious way, leaning to left and right as he pedalled. He only had a Sturmey Archer three-speed hub, so it was a wonder he was getting up the hill at all. He wore a grubby mac and had one of those army surplus gas-mask bags you can buy for 99p slung over his shoulder. It contained, I suspected, his sandwiches.
I reflected that this man probably remembered the days when the French Connection shop was a chemist's, when the Everyman Cinema was a drill hall. He stopped at the red lights at the top of the hill (I mean, he was that old-fashioned), but by the time I'd caught up with him the light had turned green, and he turned left into Fitzjohn's Avenue.
I looked along that road when I arrived at the junction, but there was no sign of him. He might as well have been a ghost - a ghost of Christmas past - and, come to think of it, nobody but me had looked at him as he'd toiled up the hill.
A novelist friend of mine used to own a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead. I asked him what the shop had become, and he said, with a shrug: "Dress shop." There may not be many writers in Hampstead in 2004, although Lord Bragg and Michael Foot cling on, these two being almost the only remaining representatives of NW3's intellectual days. But Hampstead is a very good place for a writer to visit.
I cycle there at least once a week. I think I've got the hang of being in Hampstead, but sometimes I'm pulled up short. Last week, for instance, I asked for a packet of peanuts in the Holly Bush pub.
"We don't have peanuts," said the barman with a sigh. "We have small bowls of pistachios." The basic rule that I observe in Hampstead is: don't buy anything . . . except maybe from the second-hand clothes shop, which advertises with a slogan that might well be the Hampstead motto: "Designer Clothes Required Every Day."
From Hampstead High Street, I learn the trends. Let me see . . . would I be right in saying that orange is in this year, for rich women? That prams are getting bigger, and often have a space-age style these days? The looks you see are mainly nouveaux, as befits a place that is home to Jonathan Ross, Thierry Henry and Mel C. A lot of the men wear those fashionable corduroy jackets with the cut of a covert coat. The first man that I see in one of those who is not also wearing flared, frayed jeans, I will shake by the hand. Every so often you will spot a man or woman dressed in a more traditional English style, walking with a kid dressed in what seems to be a stripogram parody of an English schoolboy uniform: stripy blazer, stripy peaked cap, long socks. These people are Americans, and in fact the first newspaper you notice, on walking into almost any Hampstead newsagent's shop, is the Wall Street Journal.
Some of Hampstead is pure comedy. Walking past one of the many hairdressing salons there, I noticed the haircutter holding the two-handled mirror to show a male customer how the cut looked from the back. Instead of following the standard male procedure of nodding, uttering a curt "Fine, thanks", with the attendant thought, "Let me out of here!", the customer was actually entering into a discussion about the state of his hair at the collar-line. Hampstead is also the only place I know where the greengrocer has a double-barrelled name: Brian Lay-Jones.
But what I seek above all in Hampstead is that jolt that comes from seeing real beauty or style. I noticed a young woman in the Holly Bush on my last visit . . . She looked ethereal, like something that ought to be on top of a cake; and she was crying, which is a lesson for us all.