Peter Hitchens on living in Hampstead and having his bike stolen by a ‘geezer in a tweed jacket’
PUBLISHED: 13:00 22 December 2016
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He came to the area for the “glorious Heath”, to live in a part of London that wasn’t “seedy” and because he’s always liked hills.
But while dwelling in NW3, Orwell Prize-winning journalist and renowned conservative polemicist Peter Hitchens ended up infiltrating the Labour Party, chasing well-dressed bike thieves and boring people into submission with arguments about nuclear weapons.
When working for the Daily Express in Fleet Street – a job to which he happily cycled every day – Peter lived in Belsize Grove from 1979 and 1984, after renting a flat for two years in Greencoft Gardens, Swiss Cottage.
“Hampstead has always been my favourite part of London,” the 65-year-old says. “I find something seedy about large parts of London, but not Hampstead. It felt like living in a cultured, civilised part of a major city.”
Then still on the left, Peter says he also moved to the area because of its reputation for radical politics.
But because the Hampstead Labour Party was “full of Trotskyists”, he knew he wouldn’t have a hope of joining its management committee.
“I’d never been in favour of the IRA and I’d come around to nuclear weapons, so of course they would never have me – they hated me more than the Tories, who were merely their opponents,” he says.
As a consequence, he was forced to get on the committee by more devious means – being sent there as a member of the Camden Co-op Party.
“I would be called to order whenever I spoke,” he says. “They would say: ‘Comrade Hitchens, you are provoking the other comrades!’, but of course the others would never be called to order.”
He reflects that he now feels like a “ghost” in Hampstead, however, since the place is “full of oligarchs”.
“London was quite shabby at that time – the Tube was a mess, a lot of property was run down,” he says. “But I think it was a better place – much more flavoursome – when it was poorer. It was so much quieter, and still quite possible to live in the centre. I think it will end up a mega-city like Shanghai, I’m afraid.”
Though he says he considers himself lucky to have lived in Hampstead when he did, his departure to Oxford – not long after a stabbing outside Belsize Park station made him worry London was becoming “a bit like New York” – was something he happily embraced.
He also remembers, with a wry laugh, having his bicycle stolen in uniquely Hampstead fashion.
“I was carrying laundry along my street one day when I saw some geezer in a tweed jacket and salt and pepper moustache making off with my bicycle,” he says. “He looked like a geography teacher.
“I chased him down the road with my laundry bag but, impelled by fear, he managed to pedal away.
“Just before he did, though, I managed to get him with a good whack on the side of the head with the laundry bag. It was quite bizarre.”