Peter Hitchens on living in Hampstead and having his bike stolen by a ‘geezer in a tweed jacket’
- Credit: PA Archive/PA Images
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.
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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.
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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.”