Stuart Reid Charterhouse
erard Manley Hopkins, who was received into the Church by Cardinal Newman, was brought up from the age of eight in Hampstead. Poor Evelyn Waugh was not.
He was brought up in a nice but irredeemably suburban house in North End Road, on the borders of Golders Green and Hampstead.
The nearest letterbox to the Waugh household was down the hill in Golders Green, but the young Evelyn would walk up the hill to post his letters, so that they bore the Hampstead postmark and his friends would think that he lived not among dentists and solicitors but among rich and beautiful bohemians.
I can quite understand Waugh’s determination to be associated with Hampstead. It’s not just snobbery, either. Hampstead is quite simply the loveliest part of London, and the Heath very heaven.
In recent weeks I have been taking my dog Harry to Hampstead Heath, and exploring my old haunts: I was brought up in West Hampstead, which was for people who could not afford Hampstead proper, and spent a lot of time on the Heath. Little has changed in those parts in the past 50 years, though there are now some rather horrible and expensive shops and cafes on Heath Street and Rosslyn Hill and I think that the famous “Hampstead Thinkers” – or “Hampstead Tinkers”, as they were known, confusingly, to the Irish in nearby Kilburn – have given way to captains of industry.
It is really rather sad. You knew where you were with “Hampstead Thinkers”, the pious, privileged Lefties made famous by the late Michael Wharton, who wrote the Peter Simple column in the Daily Telegraph. Chief among the Wharton/Simple thinkers was Mrs Dutt Pauker, who lived in “Marxmount”, a palatial mansion near the Heath, and was rumoured to have been the lover of Walter Ulbricht.
There were any numbers of Marxmounts in the old days. The one I knew was a three-storey Georgian house that stood behind high walls on Lower Terrace. Fifty years ago my parents were friends with the people who owned it. He was into construction, she was into Left-wing politics and once dismissed George Orwell as a science-fiction writer. They kept an Epstein sculpture in the downstairs loo and had an Italian butler called Bruno.
They were very civilised people and I liked them because they treated me as an adult. I liked even more their daughter, Sarah, however. When I first met her, in December 1958, I was 15 going on 16, and she was 13. She looked, as I thought, just like Bridgitte Bardot, and was conducting herself in the fetching manner of a French starlet: drinking gin and tonic, smoking Gitanes, and every now and then throwing her head back in laughter. (Any girl of 13 behaving like that these days would be placed in care by our moral guardians; it rather makes you glad to be old.) Sarah introduced me to Miles Davis, the MJQ and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and, since she was at the Lycée Français, to the Lycée crowd. Holden Caulfield could not have wished for more.
Sarah’s house was a couple of hundred yards from Whitestone Pond, where in the 1950s and 1960s revolutionary types spoke from soap boxes. Once when I was about 12 I stopped to listen to a Spaniard talk about the Civil War and the evils of Franco. He had probably lost all his family to the Nationalists, and I said to him: “I think Franco is jolly good.” There was silence, then outrage. How could I say such a vile and stupid thing? The answer, which I did not give, was quite simple: in the 1930s my late father, like most Catholics, had supported Franco, and he continued to support him after the war. As far as I was concerned everything thing father said was right. That encounter was the beginning of my political life.
Looking back on it all now, I find it almost impossible to sneer. These days I even like the comfortable trendiness of the middle-class Guardian types you see on Parliament Hill: well-dressed folk with welldressed children and handsome dogs. You also get the best foreigners there: very fit Ivy League Americans and the better sort of Italian, German and Frenchmen. Alas, most of the Middle European refugees from Hitler have died. They were known as “Thirty-niners”, and there were lots of them in Hampstead when I was small.
One of the best-known “Thirty-niners” was Sigmund Freud, though he actually got out of Vienna in 1938. He settled in Frognal, not far from Hampstead Public Library, one of the few buildings in Hampstead to be bombed during the war. “Good thing too,” someone once said during a boozy night in Fleet Street many years ago. “It was a hotbed of subversion.” My childhood was not especially holy, but then Catholics were perhaps not especially holy in those days. At any rate you did not come across the evangelical enthusiasm you find today. We used to go to Mass at the Church of St Thomas More in Marefield Gardens. I think I lapsed for first time after listening to a sermon there on holy purity when I was 16 or 17. My dereliction was not the fault of the Second Vatican Council, which had not even begun then. I lapsed for the same reason most adolescents of my generation lapsed: I wanted to have fun, and my parish priest was offering me the Cross.
Did anyone leave the Church because of the changes to the liturgy? Perhaps, but I find it hard to believe that a serious person would leave the Church because of the Novus Ordo. After all, the old Mass was always available somewhere, thanks in large measure to Archbishop Lefebvre.
There would, I am sure, have been a great falling away even without the Council. On the other hand, the renewal that the Council was supposed to usher in did not manifest itself in vocations, converts or widespread piety, and today the Church is bitterly, and bitchily, divided.
Oh dear, I did not mean to get serious. All I can say is that when I am walking with Harry on Parliament Hill I suspect that Voltaire got it wrong and that there are indeed moments when all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.