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…