West Hampstead author Anthony McGowan on The Art of Failing
PUBLISHED: 08:00 26 September 2017
West Hampstead has been transformed over my time here. The change has crept up on me, like the receding hairline and growing gut of the sedentary author
I’ve lived in West Hampstead for 25 years, and for most of that time I’ve been a writer, without any kind of commute, beyond padding in my pyjamas from the bedroom to the study. Once my children and wife have taken themselves away to school or work, I’m left alone to mooch, to ponder, to fret, to procrastinate and, occasionally, to bash at my keyboard. But after an hour or so, my forefingers are reduced to bruised and bloodied stumps, and it’s time to go for a stroll.
West Hampstead has been transformed over my time here. The change has crept up on me, like the receding hairline and growing gut of the sedentary author. It used to be bedsit land, a place filled with oddballs and eccentrics. Money has flooded in, and with it has come a greater blandness, as the bankers disport themselves in their weekend chinos and button-down collars. And yet the area has retained some of that old quirkiness, and there are still spots of joyful weirdness among the new-fangled conformity.
My first port of call is always the lovely Hampstead Cemetery, off Fortune Green Road. I must have ambled through it a thousand times, and many of the graves and memorials have become old friends. I particularly love the Art-Deco Bianci monument. Erected by an Italian chef for his opera singing wife who died in childbirth, it borders on the tacky, with its looming angel and general grandiosity. What saves it is the relief carving of the couple sitting on what looks like a park bench in heaven, the woman cradling her child.
The main drag – West End Lane – has many more places to delay the procrastinating author, and most of them have been commemorated in The Art of Failing. The book records my encounters, thoughts, fancies, baroque imaginings and, above all, embarrassing fiascos and disasters as I traipse through the streets, or loiter in its cafes, sucking up cappuccinos and free wifi.
The fire station is another of the great West Hampstead institutions – the one genuinely interesting building left in the area. When the kids were small we used to sit and wait for an emergency, all of us getting excited at the noise and colour and action. Only later would I hope that it was merely a cat stuck in the tree, rather than some conflagration.
My sauntering around will invariably take in the charity shops – five of them on West End Lane, at the last count. I scan the books looking for first editions or other collectables. Finding a bargain always sets up a troubling oscillation – the joy at the discovery balanced by the guilt at underpaying a charity, and denying a child somewhere of a vaccination or clean water. I suppose a kind of karma comes in that my wife often sneakily gives my books back to them in her regular decluttering exercises.
For me there’s one area in which West Hampstead doesn’t quite cut the mustard – the pubs are at best so-so. The Railway up by the station used to be pretty good, in a homely way, but the refurbishment somehow gave it a feel of menace it never had when it was a dump. The Black Lion is OK. The Alice House is fine, but the clientele are too young and beautiful for an old fart like me to feel at home.
If the pubs are poor, the local author can at least find sober consolation in the wonderful West End Lane Books. The staff are knowledgeable, and always happy to chat, and if there’s a little panic as they see me coming and they race to get my books out on to the tables before I burst in and angrily denounce them, then that’s to their credit.
My great discovery about wandering around West Hampstead is that it’s like a fractal – one of those computer-generated shapes that never loses complexity, no matter how much you zoom in. If the book has one lesson, it’s that we don’t have to travel the world to find adventures. Right here, in each neighbourhood, there are dramas and wonders, tragedies, comedies, farces. I hope The Art of Failing captures some of that.
Anthony McGowan’s book The Art of Failing (Oneworld, £12.99) is out now.
Extract from The Art of Failing:
Heel Bar Hell
February 16 I had one of my experiences yesterday. I had to get out of the house, but had nowhere in particular to go, and so wandered around listlessly not sure what to do with myself.
Then I looked down and saw the state of my laces. The shiny acetate sheaths were long gone, leaving the ends to swish around like frayed kelp. Pondering for a moment, I realised that I’d never before purchased any laces, other than those that come with a pair of shoes attached. And then I thought of all my shoes – many with unmatched laces, cannibalised from other, dead or dying shoes. And there were entirely laceless pairs, perfectly wearable, but for the naked, lolling tongues.
Time to revamp my lace armoury.
I recalled that there was a heel bar down by the station, so I thought I’d go and buy a few pairs. Stock up. Never again have to time-share laces. And also help a local small-tradesperson. Plus, it still wasn’t safe to return home.
There was a tiny Chinese lady in the shop. She looked a lot like Bloody Mary from the musical South Pacific. I asked her for laces.
‘What size?’ she demanded.
That stumped me. I held my hands apart, suggesting a sort of medium-sized lace.
‘No, in centimetre!’
I really had no idea. So I pointed down at my foot. ‘This long.’
The lady was too small to see over her counter. Then her phone rang. She put a big box of laces before me, while she took the call.
For the next few minutes there was much confusion, as I kept thinking she was talking to me, when she was speaking to the person on the phone, and vice versa.
I began to feel very claustrophobic in the tiny booth. Then another lady opened the door and entered. I literally had to squeeze into a corner to accommodate her. I imagined more people coming in, like one of those pointless Guinness Book of Records things. And I imagined never getting out of the heel bar, spending the rest of my life trying to decide between 100 centimetres brown, and 150 centimetres black.
So I grabbed a random handful of laces, I didn’t really care how long or what colour, thrust them at the Chinese lady. They cost £2 a pair, and I had to scrabble in my wallet to get the money together, my elbows clanking against shelves of polish and suede cleaner, like an inept one-man-band, and with the owner and the new lady looking on disapprovingly.
Finally, I was out of there, gasping, the sweat drying coldly on my back. And I decided that buying laces is one of those experiences, like moving house and getting divorced and dying, that are really quite stressful, but beyond that I couldn’t make much sense of it.
When I looked at the laces in my hands, I saw that they were mainly blue.
A Feather, a Child’s Finger Bone, a Teabag
October 25 I was sent out last night to the Tesco Metro for emergency supplies. The charity shops (I had to pass six on the way) had left out their unsellable stock for the bin men – broken-backed pushchairs, spoutless teapots, baby mattresses, stained with troubling areas of burnt umber, and dull amber, unstrung balalaikas, copies of my second novel, etc. etc. As I shambled along, I saw through the murk a figure hunched beside one of these trash piles. It was a man going through the rubbish. From the look of him he was just a notch or so up from utter dereliction, and his face, curiously boneless, wore a haunted, Dostoyevskian expression.
Then my eye ¬was caught by an object on top of the pile of garbage. It took me a second to work out that it was a lady’s hat. The sort of thing a divorced woman would wear to her second wedding in, say, 1963. A veil made of nylon netting. Some other sad decorative elements – a feather, a child’s finger bone, a teabag.
And, as I watched, I saw the man stretch out his arm and take hold of the hat. And then, as I knew he must, he placed the hat on his head, and tamped it down. At the same moment he looked up at me – I was only a couple of yards away by this time. Our eyes met, and I saw the spasm of shame pass across his face. And then his expression changed: it became a look of recognition and understanding. He knew that if our places were reversed – if I’d been the person to see it – then I too would have taken the hat, and put it on my head. And then I looked down and saw that my arm had, of its own volition, reached out towards the hat. I filled the gap in time with a throat-clearing noise, and then we exchanged almost imperceptible nods, and I hurried on to buy the oven chips, a three-pack of Mars Bars and a tin of Andrews Liver Salts.
On the way back I saw that the man had gone, and so, of course, had the hat. That was probably a good thing. Not sure how I would have explained it to Mrs McG.