Halcyon days on the Heath: When fresh air was a cure for everything

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The Independent Online
Last autumn I came back to live in north London - the particular part of north London, edged in by Holloway Road to the east, Chalk Farm Road to the south, Hampstead Lane to the north, Heath Street to the west - for the first time in 40-odd years. Tufnell Park, Kentish Town, Camden, Parliament Hill Fields, the Heath.

The Heath was the one place I missed, wherever else I lived; the place I came back to on visits to the city, found excuses to show friends, take lovers, parade them, proud - both of the diversity of the landscape and my ability not to get lost within it.

'Oh, it's easy,' I would say, when they asked me how I could find my way between barely penetrable bushes and across glades of beech. 'It's where I grew up, remember? Half my childhood was spent over here. The Heath. The Fields.'

And, depending on age, their heads would nod in mute understanding, or, if younger, eyes widening, ask who with? Family, friends?

'No, usually on my own.'

I listen occasionally to parents of children the age that I was then - primary, early secondary - making plans for them at weekends, school holidays. A group visit here, an outing there, pick-up and collection points, packed lunch,

Trisha will take ours this Sunday and next week we'll have Mollie and Ben.

All sensible, controlled, necessary: with constant reports in the newspapers and on television to warn us, who would allow a child to stray far on their own? What careful parent would not think twice before allowing a child to run to the corner shop to buy an ice cream, let alone dismissing them to all this open space out of reach and sight of home? We know better now.

Growing up in Tufnell Park through those long (they were longer then, weren't they?) summer days of the late Forties, early Fifties, without brothers or sisters, I would rush from our basement flat the first chance I got and join the kids who screamed, endlessly chasing the length of Huddlestone and Anson Roads, or whose games of football and cricket (organised by ourselves, sides selected, refereed, umpired) spread the length of side streets largely untroubled by passing traffic.

For a few days of each school holiday, this was acceptable, but then one of my parents (my mother, like my father, worked in a full-time job) would say: 'You know what I think about you kicking about the streets all day. Why don't you get over the Fields in the fresh air?'

Those were the days, remember, more than now, when fresh air was not merely desirable, it was a cure for everything. When I was diagnosed as asthmatic at the age of five and set up with a treatment involving daily injections, my mother shook her head, pushed the syringe to the back of the drawer and packed me off to stay with friends in the country instead. Who's to say she was wrong? For then, at least, until the traffic levels rose and the smog came back, it worked.

And so did taking that 20-minute walk which would set me free amongst all those acres of rolling space. True, sometimes I would hang deliberately around the edges of some impromptu kickabout, awaiting an invitation to join in; wanting the money for an ice cream, I might appoint myself as ball boy on the grass tennis courts near the Lido, running myself breathless for small change. But most often, I would be off on my own, climbing trees and hiding in bushes, racing from one unspecified spot to another, the lone inhabitant of whatever adventure was being played out simultaneously on that Heath and inside my head. The Famous Five, Secret Seven, Swallows and Amazons, Biggles and Worrell, Roy Rogers and (alarming this, in retrospect) the entire complement of the Sons of the Pioneers, ranged on horseback, left to right across a swathe of grass and holding up the action while they sang 'Mexacali Rose'.

In terms of my later life as a writer it explains a lot. Where all those literary novelists, gently - or savagely - dissecting ideas and relationships, had nurtured their imaginations in the fevered sheets and sickbeds of their childhoods, my isolated, outdoor days spent tracking Geronimo's scouts through the undergrowth or waiting to leap from an overhanging branch on to Axis spies, led me naturally through an apprenticeship of writing Western pulps to be the kind of writer I am today. A simplification, of course, but one which contains a kernel of truth.

Looking back, that time I spent on my own was important to me, not because it might, 20 years later, have contributed to Ride the Wide Country or Hearts of Gold, but for the deep pleasure it gives me now in retrospect. The pleasure and the sense, delusory or not, of absolute freedom it gave me then.

Maybe this is not possible now, not in the same way. Not in London. And finally, perhaps, all I am saying is the need most parents increasingly feel to be protective of their children has brought with it a downside. Along with all the swimming lessons, the organised trips to city farms, the cross-town journeys bundled in the backs of ferrying cars, there is a need for kids to enjoy the freedom to be alone. Not alone with a Pacman or the VCR, but alone with both their minds and their bodies, running free.

'Why don't you get over the Fields in the fresh air?'

John Harvey's most recent Resnick novel, Cold Light, is published by Heinemann on 30 August

(Photograph omitted)