we live in the most vulgar part of Hampstead, a chunk of millionaires’ suburbia where the living is done behind electric gates away from the lanes of the famous “village.” The carbuncular alarms on every villa look like strongboxes. “Burgle me! Make my day!” These lovely avenues, once a part of “forever England,” have been tarted up by residents who favour gold letters and coaching lights. Our bit of Hampstead seems distinctly unintellectual and philistine, though someone did shout “Stoic!” when I was running in the rain.
In Balham, “gateway to the south,” a man in a van once shouted “Fucking leftie!” when I was slow parking my 2CV, also in the rain. Young men still whistle at girls, old men greet each other in broad Jamaican accents. I lived there for 12 years and-mostly-loved it. Before the last recession a public meeting agreed to a) preserve the art gallery and b) erect a statue of Peter Sellers (owner of the “gateway” joke) in the planned new shopping centre. Ten years on, there is a giant supermarket and recycling centre and some bronze murals, but no art gallery. “The Council have sold Balham to Sainsbury’s” people say in the newsagents (one rogue TLS, no copies of Le Monde). The drunks who used to sit under a solitary chestnut tree where people now post bottles, have taken to the tube steps.
Many little-known writers and composers live in Balham. Those I know appreciate the density of human life round about, as if it makes up for the smallness of their cheques. You can’t avoid life here even if you are a recluse, because it comes in through the windows. A small contingent is always ready to unload litter and aggression into your front garden. Our old fence reminds me of when my daughter lost her front teeth. Why did I bother trying to save a neighbour’s new larch panels from those toe caps? At least I finally managed to get the front window reglazed. Petty victories against thy neighbour are less conspicuous in Hampstead. But what offends the eye and the heart are those militaristic People Carriers with fancy number plates, sashaying down the middle of the road. Might is right round here, too-except that is doesn’t have to infringe the written law.
You can swim for nothing in the muddy Hampstead ponds-and for a fee in Tooting Bec Lido…