Tuesday, 4 October 2011
...this, the oak in autumn (except that heat- and light-wise it could have been a high-summer Sunday on Hampstead Heath)? Well, there was never any competition: I've done my galley years with Boulez and though his conducting of Ravel's complete Daphnis and Chloe with his British chums the BBC Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago was a truly great performance, I think I've squeezed what juice there is out of his own music. So even one of the seven concerts over the weekend, since I wasn't duty bound to cover them (Igor has done a splendid job over on The Arts Desk), was not an option.
On the other hand I'm so glad a friend of ours, who shall remain anonymous for reasons TBA, decided to hold a small 50th birthday picnic in Kenwood on Sunday afternoon. The Indian summer which has been gracing us until today held out, we lost the route as usual on the way from Hampstead tube and found ourselves - which I was perfectly happy about, since I knew roughly the direction - in a glade of oak so profuse that acorns were plopping not just all around us but on my very head.
This place still amazes me, above all on such a day when the shade was both magical and welcoming. What a mixture of luck and perseverance that, as Richard Mabey tells us in The Unofficial Countryside, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson faded in his attempts at development and enclosure in the early 19th century. A writer in Household Words, probably Dickens, laid an appropriate curse on the would-be encloser:
May his dreams be redolent of Smithfield, may nightmare tread with donkey hoofs on his chest, and may visions of angry laundresses [whom Sir Thomas tried to charge for spreading out their washing to dry on the heath] scald his brain with weak tea!
The dastardly capitalist did not prevail, and after his death, writes Mabey, 'the Metropolitan Board of Works were able to purchase the Manorial rights of the heath'. The 1871 Hampstead Heath Act resisted park-prettification, 'its natural aspect and state being as far as may be preserved'.
And it has been, to Mabey's and our delight. Mixed blessings followed: at the end of the 19th century the London County Council both tidied and tree-planted, so it seems that we may in part have this anti-natural organisation to thank for some of the shady groves. Even against this there was a swiftish reaction from the newly-formed Hampstead Heath Protection Society. The great pleasure of the northern zone is how you come out of the shadows into meadows, how you leave behind the crowds and then find them again all enjoying peaceful picnics in the sun. There's something incredibly moving about the ease and co-operation of so many people and dogs out relishing the fair weather and the public space, a kind of democratic ideal.
As we did, under a big oak near the house with its fabulous collection of paintings (courtesy of the Iveagh Bequest, may it always remain free to all). I should hasten to point out that the two cyclists below were a) nothing to do with us and b) disembarked just after striking the lawn.
Our consumption and chat, including more quality time with our lovely goddaughters, was decidedly leisurely, though there was - as in all good gatherings - a nodal point as our host donned a former girlfriend's bathing top, skirt and hat and went off to brave the women's pond. We stayed put, expecting some kind of sparagmos a la Bacchae, hairy limbs floating in the pond, but in fact all that happened were some incredulous mutterings in the queue and a bit of half-hearted stirring from two attendants. Whether the experience of being 'a lady' marks a whole new adventure in our host's more-than-midway journey I couldn't possibly say. But we all left happy and sunkissed.