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8 September 2016

Hampstead Heath, midnight, a bottle of wine – is this a midlife crisis?

I suppose that, as midlife crises go, what I did was better than buying a motorbike.

By Nicholas Lezard

Ever since I was about ten years old, I have wanted to sleep under the stars. Not often: it’s just one of those bizarre wishes that pops up from time to time and then is dismissed as unworkable. They’re always doing it in Narnia or Middle Earth but it’s not the same in the real world. My school used to send us on camping trips to toughen us up, which I kind of enjoyed, in a perverse, masochistic way, but the camping aspect never appealed as much as the walking. Sharing an army surplus tent in the middle of the Brecon Beacons, in March, with someone whose main interest in life is farting, is not my idea of a groovy weekend away.

But the other night, driven mad by the heat and feeling a little skittish, I thought: “Why not pop up to the Heath with a flask of something, a packet of custard creams and a roll-up or two?” It was a clear night, the moon quarter-full, and the wild, or wildish, spaces beckoned. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Someone might proposition me in a manner I would find unwelcome, but I’m fairly confident I can brush off any admirers, and also I don’t plan on going to those parts of the Heath where That Kind of Thing goes on. Not that I actually do know which parts of the Heath you go to for That Kind of Thing, but it’s a big place, and the odds are against bumping into any insalubrious activity. (To be perfectly honest, I’m not thinking about this much at all. All I’m really thinking is: “If I sprain my ankle in the dark or get lost, at least I can get a column out of it.” Anyway, didn’t Colin Wilson sleep on the Heath while he was writing The Outsider? Rubbish book, but still.)

Things go slightly wrong at the beginning of my journey, perhaps as a result of my having spent the evening rehydrating with gin and tonic, when I take a bus to the part of Hampstead which is about as far from its eponymous heath as it is possible to get – and a long way downhill from it, at that. So I find myself hiking up what is in effect the biggest hill in London, wearing a fairly heavy jacket (it might get a bit parky in the middle of the night) and carrying a bottle of water and – well, it seemed unwise not to – a bottle of wine. I walk for miles, it seems. (Next day, I check on Google Maps. It’s about a mile and a half.)

So, eventually, I find myself soaked in sweat, stumbling around in the dark and wondering if this was such a great idea after all. I once went on a moonlit walk on the Heath with my friend A—, which is probably the most romantic thing I have ever done (and even more so, perhaps, because we were no longer going out together). This, on the other hand, didn’t feel very romantic at all.

However, as I got my breath back and stopped sweating so much (my clothes remained damp for the rest of the night), and identified a nice clearing in a patch of moonlight, I found myself thinking: “How magical. Forty-odd years I’ve been wanting to do this; why have I waited so long?” The breeze carries the scent of jasmine, and all around me are the sounds of the nocturnal wildlife: the Hen Party Going On Somewhere, the Thing Rustling In The Shrubbery – and the Mosquito.

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One usually thinks of mosquitoes as more of a Continental than a British problem. In Rome a month or so ago, I sustained, I think, one bite in the whole week I was there, and the reason I say “I think” is that it might have been a spot. Here, though, it was the height of the mosquito social season: there was a party going on in my blood and every mosquito in NW3 was invited.

In the end I dozed off for an hour or two, but it was an uneasy sleep, troubled, weirdly, by dreams of earthquakes (which, unknown to me, were happening for real in Italy as I slept) and, of course, the whine of insects. The wasp, however unwelcome a pest in late summer, does at least have the courtesy to make itself scarce at night; the mosquito has no such manners. After a while I wearied of being a smorgasbord for Anopheles and, as the dawn was breaking, walked back down the hill for the night bus.

Well, I suppose that, as midlife crises go, that’s cheaper than a motorbike. And it did make me more appreciative of the comfort of a bed. Aren’t beds great? I can’t recommend them highly enough. I can recommend staying indoors at night, too. Although, as I was reminded on my journey back, there are quite a few people who don’t have that option.

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war