Wednesday 2 September 2015

A Hampstead Jaunt

Yesterday I took a walk in that 'suburban Nirvana' (as Wilkie Collins called it), Hampstead Heath - a Nirvana that seems much more heavily wooded and overgrown than when it was a haunt of my misspent late youth. Our aim was to visit Kenwood to see the paintings, and we did at length emerge from the suburban jungle to the prospect of its dazzling white facade above a sweep of green and a fine lake. Sitting on a bench on the verandah at the side of the house was a familiar figure - Julian flippin' Barnes. That's Hampstead for you. His legs were crossed and he was earnestly scrutinising a folded page torn from a newspaper - probably doing his Sudoku...
 We left him unmolested, entered the house, and had just finished touring the upstairs rooms - portrait, portraits, more portraits - when suddenly the alarm started sounding, urgently and insistently, with an automated male voice ordering us repeatedly to leave the building by the nearest exit. This was all getting a tad surreal. Happily, after mustering outside the building, we were all allowed back within ten minutes or so, to be informed that it was only a drill. So we were able to linger long before Kenwood's astounding Rembrandt self-portrait. I'd forgotten that above this wonder hangs Sir Joshua Reynolds' lively self-portrait (in spectacles), and to its right a very fine Portrait of a Lady, thought to be another Rembrandt when it was bought but now known to be by Ferdinand Bol.
 The dim panelled interiors of the Spaniards Inn seemed little changed since John Keats drank there - and, according to the proprietors of the Spaniards Inn, wrote his Ode to a Nightingale in the gardens. By way of contrast, Jack Straw's Castle, the huge ramshackle pub where I laid the foundations for some of the most blinding hangovers of my life, is now spruced up, bland and blank - and the entire building is an up-market fitness centre. O tempora, o mores...

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