An Arctic wind rakes my face with sleet and threatens to perforate my Parka. It’s so dark that I scuttled back into the house to check it really was 8 a.m.
Unfortunately it was, so now I’m picking my way along pavements strewn with the stripped corpses of outcast Christmas trees; their erstwhile owners displaying a thoughtlessness that only confirms that the season of goodwill to all men is over.
Even the robins are silent.
Tom ambles down Flask Walk to meet me. He’s perpetually three minutes late as if in sympathy with the buses he campaigns about. By now the last vestiges of my warm bed have deserted me and I’m beginning to question my sanity.
We set off down Well Walk and I can sense Tom is limbering up to give me an update on TfL’s failings on bus safety. Beneath my woolly hat my woolly brain is still struggling with pavement safety, and last night’s last pint.
Hampstead’s renaissance as a venue for great live music has significantly moistened my plans for a dry January. Not only has my local boozer been transformed into The Hampstead Lounge & Jazz Club – acquiring a level of sophistication that makes it a magnet for visiting friends and parent get-togethers; but my favourite covers band of all time, Hampstead’s very own Mad Dog Bites, continues to have a Friday night residency at The King Willy. Attendance is practically compulsory for all decent Hampstonians.
The wind feels like it’s trying to push us back along Lime Avenue and there’s melt-water trickling down my neck. My head has begun to drum out the rhythm of Mad Dog’s closing number last night: Half The World Away: ‘I should like to leave this city / this old town don’t smell too pretty…’ Bloody miserable January!
Something I half-hear Tom say about bus bosses sweeping incident reports under the carpet chimes in my sore head. It’s over a year since my daughter spent a few hours at The Royal Free after the 46 she was on swerved violently, the driver distracted by his controller repeatedly radioing him. We’ve heard nothing since, except for emails from ambulance chasers. Tom’s got a point…
But before I can be drawn into bus-talk a raucous cacophony of screeches erupts from the treeline. The parakeets are in a flap about something. I wince at the noise. Tom stops mid-sentence.
They always remind me of a gaggle of leery geezer-birds in a Mayfair pub during Euro ’96, screeching over who had the nicest eyes – David Beckham or Teddy Sherringham – and oblivious that they were standing in front of the big screen.
I wonder that the parakeets don’t bugger off somewhere warmer for winter, which puts Tom on diversion. He tells me that when he first arrived in Hampstead he made the same mistake.
One winter morning he’d come back from a walk and told his young sons he’d seen wild parrots on The Heath. They didn’t believe him, so next day he’d taken a photo to prove it. Then spotting a pair of gents emerging from the bushes clutching binoculars, and hoping they were birders rather than doggers, he’d shown them his photo and asked for an explanation.
This being Hampstead one of the men turned out to be renowned ornithologist Bill Oddie. He informed Tom that the noisy green birds were in fact ring-necked parakeets which, as natives of The Himalayas, find English winters quite balmy.
He went on to tell Tom the two tales of how this invasive species came to colonize The Heath. The first is that they escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of John Hustons’ 1951 film The African Queen.
The other is that they are descended from a pair that Jimi Hendrix set free as a gesture of peace and love to his adopted city. Their electric-green plumage and rose-coloured neck ruff certainly match his groovy colour scheme and this urban myth might explain their fondness for high-volume feedback.
Squawks give way to quacks, telling me that Tom and I have reached the Men’s Pond. We strip down to our trunks. The concrete floor in the changing area is so cold it threatens to flay the flesh from our feet. As we trot down the jetty, the bitter wind blasts our skin with shards of rain; Or maybe it’s trying to snow.
The board says the water temperature is 5 degrees C, so it will be warmer in than out. Others may prefer to lower themselves gently into the chill but I like to meet it head-on. For me a swan-dive off the board is the only way to go.
It’s the open water equivalent to an espresso martini – a turbo charged wake-up call to put your worries to one side and enjoy living in the moment. Afterwards conversation is of what we’re going to do, rather than what life is doing to us.
As Tom and I stroll back, I feel equal to the world again. Balance has been restored and this town don’t smell so bad after all. It’s home not just to Christmas tree tossers but to plenty of others who do look out for the safety and well-being of those around them – some even acting as my guide-bus to the Pond.
And loud and gaudy as they are, the parakeets bring a touch of vibrancy to the trees at this time of year; and they make me think of Bogart and Hendrix, which puts a smile on my face. As does diving off the board into living water.
Maybe I should request that Conrad and the other Mad Dogs play out with Reasons to be Cheerful next Friday night…
Lo! and it came to pass, in the rain of North West London, that a love was born unto me for the festival of Christmas, that once I did dread!
Yea verily, the holly spirit has entered me, banishing forever the imp of ‘bah humbug’. I have seen the lights!
Yes, even as Camden’s elves prepare to festoon Hampstead High Street with dancing festive LEDs and retailers urge us to part with our hard-earned cash I feel the ghost of Christmas Cynicism Past chased away by glad tidings of great joy.
And what, you may ask, has brought about this uncharacteristic reassessment of a religious festival that has been commercialised to obscene excess?
How can I bring myself to rejoice at the prospect of a Christmas goose force-fed by consumerism and fattened to the point of liver damage?
Heaven forefend that I might have grown fluffy in my old age and begun to believe that what’s sauce for the goose shall be sauce for the gander. Nah – it’s because I’ve taken a gander at the source of our Yuletide tradition and I’ve had an epiphany.
At this darkest time of the year, everyone needs a bit of seasonal cheer in their stocking. But if neither religion nor retail therapy does it for you, you can end up Scrooged. Fortunately I’ve found it’s in the gift of Hampstead Heath.
And it all started with a log…
But before I explain, and since we are in Hampstead, Dr Freud, perhaps it’s time to revisit my childhood to understand my issues with Christmas.
I think it’s entangled with my Hungarian roots. My Sussex classmates celebrated sumptuous Christmases on the 25th December while my family exchanged modest, gifts on the evening of the 24th. Then it was early to bed and early to rise for a journey of biblical proportions across several counties to gather with those members of the family who had survived the War and settled in the UK.
Though all the chairs were occupied there always seemed to be gaps and no one abover a certain age spoke about their childhood Christmases.
When my Mum died that sense of absence amid the presents drew closer still, dulling the glitter of the tinsel.
But Christmas is a celebration of nativity. And, with the advent of my own children not only did I get the opportunity to play with Lego again but I also found myself passing on some family traditions; the first of which was decorating a Yule-log.
Now, before you get visions of chocolate and cream I must explain that this is the wooden version, bedecked with holly and ivy, glitter and tinsel; gathered with misted breath and mittened hands; then daubed with Copydex glue and finished with a candle that, once lit, sent hibernating beetles scuttling across the kitchen table.
It’s something my siblings and I enjoyed doing with Mum when we were little. And passing it on to a new generation brings a part of her back.
That first log, taken from the bough of a fallen tree near Kenwood on a cold and frosty morning, helped me come to terms with Christmas. It reminded me that weathering the bleak midwinter warrants a celebration and, whatever justifications have accreted to that need, it remains a blend of thanksgiving, self-indulgence and coming together, even if nowadays our survival is, generally, more assured.
So, while others shop till they drop under the Christmas lights, munch mince pies, or enjoy nine lessons and carols in one of Hampstead’s beautiful churches, I shall be rejoicing in the elemental glories of the Heath’s ponds and hillsides.
Of course not all traditions are worth preserving. So instead of traipsing halfway across England on the 25th December I shall follow my new custom and join the festivities at The Highgate Men’s Pond for the Christmas Day swim.
There’s no better way to be reminded of the frisson of life immersed in deep mid-winter than sharing the warmth of others who call this area home?
Then I shall return to my family to dive into a Christmas lunch of Community Market produce, before opening a few presents and remembering the absents. It’s good to be a Heathen on holly-day.
Merry Yuletide everyone!
What do blind people have to do to be seen?
In reporting the recent trial of a man who carried out an acid attack the media focused exclusively on the disfiguring injuries suffered by victims.
Both TV and radio reports chose to focus on the life-changing scars inflicted on the young women caught up in this horrific, senseless attack.
Their stories were heartbreaking and as the father of two daughters in a city that is no stranger to acid attacks, I could only shudder and think, there but for the grace of god.
But something was niggling at the back of my mind, and set me scouring the newspaper reports.
Sure enough, my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me. I discovered that two of the victims of the attack had been blinded in one eye. They had received permanent, irreversible sight loss.
And yet no TV report or radio bulletin carried this news.
While I in no way want to downplay the horrific damage, mental and physical, that these innocent victims sustained I do have to question why the media chose to focus on disfiguring injuries over those that are disabling.
Has our society become so fixated on visual perception that the worst possible crime is to despoil beauty and render it too painful or disturbing to look at?
By extension does that mean that the media cannot bear to feature stories in which vision is destroyed?
Let’s face it, blind people are almost absent from our TV screens. If they do appear it’s always in the same clichéd roles of stricken victim (usually female) or sonically superpowered hero (usually male).
It’s the same battle that ethnic minority and gender equality groups have fought so hard to win. But campaigns for disability rights and recognition – especially for those with sight loss – have failed to achieve the same impact.
Nowadays it would be unthinkable for a white actor to black up for a role. And yet sighted actors are still employed to play the few blind roles in film and TV.
Some of us are trying to change this sorry state of affairs. In Fight for Sights new TV advertising campaign a group of us who are really blind invite viewers to ‘Look me in the eye and tell me that sight loss doesn’t matter.’
Let’s see whether the great British public can bear seeing blindness on TV or whether it’s as much of a turn off as the media seems to think.
Going away on holiday when you’re blind can be a mixed blessing.
Sure, it’s great to escape the daily grind of work and chores for a week or two; but I seldom find it relaxing.
At home I’m on familiar ground. I know where everything is. And if I want to go out, to the shops or the climbing wall, I can do so independently.
On holiday I’m always reliant on someone else. Whether it’s finding the coffee or working the microwave; or being escorted everywhere in case I get lost; my lack of independence is dis-spiriting.
Then there’s sightseeing! I know, it goes with the exploring new territory part of a holiday. And I don’t expect others to forego the pleasure on my account. But the constant refrain of ‘ooh, look at this’ and ‘ah, isn’t that beautiful’ does get irritating when you can’t see the objects being ogled.
So I’ll often stay behind and listen to an audiobook instead. Which is okay…except that all rest and no play makes me intolerable. I need my daily dose of exercise. Without it I go stir crazy. So thank goodness for The Isle of Wight.
With its own association for the blind, the island takes accessibility seriously. Which means there are plenty of activities to keep me busy.
Unfortunately climbing The Needles isn’t an option – at least not on my family holiday. The aim is to find something we can all enjoy doing together.
This year – our eighth – Kate, the kids and I went off the beaten track and explored the island by bike. Thanks to a wonderful charity called Charlotte’s Tandems, we had free hire of a bicycle made for two.
And with Kate steering and me pedalling hard behind, the kids quickly discovered that their parents aren’t so decrepit after all.
A few days later we were riding the waves. With me and an instructor in a two-man kayak and Kate and the kids in singles, we were all able to enjoy paddling at our own pace.
After all that fresh air and fun I was quite happy to stay behind and do my own thing when the others did go sightseeing. And we all returned to London relaxed, refreshed and without feeling my blindness had been an issue at all.
So no prizes for guessing our holiday destination next year!
There’s something about coastal climbing that really does it for me.
Maybe it’s because I grew up near the sea, in Sussex. Or maybe it’s the association with childhood holidays that often began with a ferry trip from Portsmouth or Dover.
Certainly those trips led to a fascination with coastal rock formations. I’d stand on deck goggling as the White Cliffs receded behind us or as we slid past The Needles. Even as a little boy I wanted to climb them.
Fortunately for my parents most of our seaside holidays were spent at the foot of sand dunes so my juvenile climbing exploits always had soft landings. But my desire to try something harder didn’t leave me. So when, in the early 1980s, I watched a documentary about Chris Bonington and saw footage of him climbing The Old Man of Hoy, the seed of my desire began to germinate.
Like thousands of other kids I’d followed Bonington’s adventures on Blue Peter. But the snow-capped peaks of The Himalayas were an alien world to a boy who’d never even been skiing. But here, with this giant sea-stack in The British Isles, was something I could aspire to.
As soon as I was old enough I joined the Army Cadets at school, suffering a year’s square-bashing for the promise of a week’s climbing instruction in the Welsh Mountains the following summer. That week convinced me that I had found my sport. Soon I was heading off to Harrison’s Rocks in Kent and testing myself on sandstone. I was hooked.
Unfortunately back in the 1980s I didn’t have access to indoor climbing like The Arch; so the season was short and subject to the fickle British weather. Somehow it always felt like I’d only just got into peak condition when the summer holiday’s ended and autumn began. Still I bagged some decent routes on the sea-cliffs of Swanage, Portland and Pembrokeshire…but never made it up to Hoy.
Then, aged 19 I was told I was going blind and my life went into free-fall. After a brief and hair-raising flirtation with night-time buildering at university I hung up my harness and for two decades put away my dreams of climbing anything ever again…
…until eight years ago when my daughter decided to have her birthday party at a climbing wall. I saw my way back in and began making up for lost time. I bagged the Old Man of Hoy in 2013. At 137m (449ft) it’s Europe’s tallest sea-stack.
Having bagged a few other routes on my bucket list my climbing partner Matthew and I now spend the indoor climbing season preparing for the next coastal challenge…that way we can make the most of the outdoor season. We do most of our training at Arch North in Colindale (with a bit of high-wall practice thrown in elsewhere to maintain our rope skills), After a couple of hours bouldering we’ll head to the pub next door to plan our routes for the next climbing trip.
This winter we were getting in shape for an attempt on Europe’s second tallest sea-stack, Pan di Zucchero in Sardinia. At 133m it’s only a little shorter than The Old Man of Hoy. But lying 2km offshore in the middle of Masua Bay it forms a beautiful island of white limestone that is just as dramatic.
Like many routes in the area it’s bolted, which is good for me as my trad skills are definitely something that departed forever with my blindness. It means I can do a bit of lead climbing, although realistically for my own safety and Matthew’s nerves we’ve found that attempting anything more than an F5c is inadvisable.
The hardest pitch on Pan di Zucchero is graded F6a+. With neither Matthew nor I getting any younger and both of us having family and work commitments, that meant packing a lot of practice and planning into the evening each week we meet to climb.
Luckily The Arch North is close by and has enough wall-space that we don’t waste time queuing. It’s also a hub for climbers who are always happy to pass on tips and advice. We knew that the hard white limestone in Sardinia is dotted with sharp little pockets and tiny nubbins so worked on finger strength and footwork, especially rockovers. We also made time for some thuggy overhangs in preparation for a couple of meaty crux moves.
So we felt in pretty good shape by the first week in May when we flew out to Cagliari with our ropes and quickdraws. Unfortunately our arrival coincided with that of the maestrale – a strong, cold north-westerly wind that was gusting up to 50mph and creating 1.5m waves making the sea crossing to Pan di Zucchero, let alone any attempt on it, impossible.
Fortunately there’s loads of climbing out there and it was easy to find some cliffs in the lee of the wind. We bagged some excellent single-pitch routes at Castello dell Iride and a clutch of truly stunning multi-pitch climbs further round Masua Bay.
There’s a wide range of grades from beginner to full-on ‘in-my-dreams’ stuff. And all the sport routes are really well maintained. Without being as busy as, say, Swanage there were plenty of other climbers out there, from all over Europe. Some dirt-bagging; others staying in B&Bs or, like us, in one of the lovely villas that dot the hills overlooking the coast. If you can get a group together I’d recommend where we were, www.casafigus.com – it was a great place to chill after a hard day’s climbing and it also had sea kayaks we could use to explore the amazing rock formations that line the coast. The food, the people and the scenery (according to the others in the group) were wonderful. And as for the rock…that hard, white limestone is a dream to climb on. Just remember to check your shoes beforehand, you’ll need all the smearing you can get!
The sea was like a mill-pond as we drove back to the airport past Masua Bay; wind-speed 2kmh. Typical! Was I disappointed not to bag Pan di Zucchero? Yeah…but I had a great climbing trip, and it’s still waiting for me. And like Arnie…’I’ll be back!’