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For someone who has spent, as I have, most of their life living in London, it is less a physical space than a lump of memories, of personal meanings, of aching emotional associations. This makes it quite difficult to address the question of a “favourite place”. To make it easier, or at least to start thinking about it in a more focused way, I thought: of all the places where I have lived in London, which was my favourite? And to that question the answer seemed fairly straightforward. My favourite was Hampstead, where I lived, very near the Heath, for two short stints in my early thirties.
There are two reasons, though, why I have doubts about putting Hampstead forward as my “favourite” London place: 1) There is something horribly unsurprising, something smug, something almost disgusting, about a writer, of all people, going on about how much he loves Hampstead, and, more importantly, 2) What I love about Hampstead is precisely its unLondonness. The view from Parliament Hill, taking in everything from the four chimneys of Battersea Power Station to the dull cluster of Canary Wharf, only emphasises this sense of difference – from that vantage point it feels like you are outside London, looking in. And the streets of Hampstead village at night do not feel like the streets of a fizzing metropolis. They are dark and silent enough to be inviting to owls – once I heard one hooting there, among the isolated pools of light. On summer Sundays when thousands of people from other parts of London flood the Heath– making it feel, for a few hours, as if it might actually be in London – I would tend, when I lived there, to stay away. Weekday mornings, that was more like it. A few people walking dogs – of which I was one – and that’s it.
Let me tell you about one particular morning. I had just moved back to London after two years away. I had rented a small flat in Hampstead. It was early February and, on that first morning, I woke up early to find that it had snowed during the night. Quite a lot of snow by London standards – enough, anyway, to make everything look more or less white. So that was quite exciting, and when I took my dog for a walk, obviously we made for the Heath, which was only a minute or so away. That walk turned out to be one of those ordinary yet luminous experiences that you never forget. The enormous snow-stillness of the Heath that morning. Limitless, was how it seemed to me. I did not know the Heath well then. It was still very mysterious, especially under the snow, and it seemed to be waiting for me. And only me – there was no one else there that morning, that I saw.
It wasn’t as early as all that – it was eight o’clock or something, and a few miles away people were pouring out of Tube stations, and the Central Line was jam-packed, and the buses weren’t stopping because they were already full and ploughed on through the slush. And that’s what London is about, surely – life, movement, noise, people. “Brokers … roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse.” London is about engagement, not withdrawal. Not solitude. Not silence. Not the sort of stillness where the whisper of some snow slipping from a branch makes you turn your head as if someone had said your name. Only the flightpaths, that morning, the moaning of the planes as they sloped towards Heathrow, low enough over Hampstead for me to make out their livery – Air China or Emirates or American Airlines – indicated that, although I was surrounded by unexcitable trees, and it was quiet enough for me to hear my shoes squeezing the snow with a little squeak every time I moved, I was at one of the world’s nodes.
So what am I doing writing about Hampstead? It was my intention to write about how much I like some very lively London locality, some London-lively place, like the Barbican, or the Cask pub in Pimlico, or the view from Waterloo Bridge. I seem, though, to have used up all my words.
David Szalay’s first novel, ‘London and the South-East’, won the Betty Trask Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His most recent book, ‘Spring’, is published by Jonathan Cape 1
Photograph: John Constable/Courtauld Gallery