Notebook: Upmarket villagers choke on a Big Mac: Suburban Hampstead is unhappy, but a High Court ruling that McDonald's can set up shop there may slow the march of the big-money brigade


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The Independent Online
TWO DOORS down from Hampstead's London Underground station, an empty shop with boarded-up windows is all that remains of the Remainder Book Company. It is an inelegant interruption in the High Street's parade of fashionable establishments: Falafel King, C'est Si Bon, Wax Lyrical, Next, Benetton, Dome Brasserie. But if its present condition mildly troubles the eye, the proposal for its transformation is much more controversial.

Many people of Hampstead Village - 'Hampsteadians', they call themselves - are unhappy about last week's High Court ruling that will allow McDonald's hamburger chain to move into the vacant shop, thus altering the 'tone' of a former spa, passionately proud of its past and inordinately protective of its future.

Not all feel this way. Across the street, near the Haagen-Dazs ice- cream parlour ('Dedicated to Pleasure'), a woman flower-seller said: 'Aren't you pleased? I'm all for it actually. Just what we need here.' Directly opposite McDonald's-to-be, the owner of Indian Home Cooking (a take-away) said: 'I'm not against it. It can't hurt us.' But in Hampstead, the opinions of a flower-seller and an Indian man carry little weight. The 12-year fight against McDonald's is likely to enter the Court of Appeal.

The row is puzzling. For one thing, the High Street tolerates other fast- food restaurants, among them Pizza Hut. Polystyrene food containers, for which McDonald's is criticised, are to be found at other eateries. And if the dispute is really about 'tone', what about the bookies next door to Royalty Designer Suits?

Most curious of all is the manner in which the anti-McDonald's campaign has brought together privileged Hampsteadians and Camden Council, whose downhill socialists normally can't abide the toffee-noses uphill. (War between dainty spa and Dave Sparts is most evident in draconian parking restrictions: Hampstead drivers refuse, uniquely in London, to buy Camden's parking 'vouchers', explaining in windscreen notices that the voucher shop is beyond 'reasonable' walking distance.)

But then, as Gerald Isaaman, editor of the Hampstead & Highgate Express, explained: 'Hampstead is a place of colourful contradictions.' Mr Isaaman is one of the most articulate campaigners against McDonald's. He ridicules the idea that Hampsteadians are snobs. 'There is a nucleus of people who care, who want to curtail the philistines. Look at London]' he said, indicating the metropolis below. 'It's a shambles]'

Mr Isaaman is small, grey-suited and precise. He frequently writes to national newspapers to present his viewpoint or to correct those of others (he took the Times to task for using the word 'Hampsteadite' instead of 'Hampsteadian'). He is also generous with his time, in what he regards as a good cause. Last week, he took me on an informative stroll through the finer parts of his beloved village, faxing me later with the following afterthoughts:

'I hope you enjoyed seeing the other and fairer face of Hampstead yesterday,' he wrote. 'In retrospect, I should have waltzed you past Galsworthy's house, not far from where we were. It was there that he wrote The Forsyte Saga, that father of soaps, and it was there that the Nobel Prize committee came to give him his prize for literature, I think in 1933 . . . the only known occasion (it) has been presented outside of its mother country. It reminded me that a few years back, the poet Joseph Brodsky was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Hampstead with John le Carre and his wife Jane, when in came Irene Brendel to tell Brodsky that it had just been announced that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature.'

I CONFESS to having regarded Hampstead as something of a dead poets' society in which the pretentious, the pernickety and the possessive survive; unlike Daniel Defoe who 'confest' it was 'so near to Heaven that I dare not say it can be a proper situation for any but a race of mountaineers, whose lungs had been used to a rarify'd air'. Once a thick forest of oak, beech and chestnut where wolves roamed, it was cleared, first for swine by hardy Saxons, eventually for soirees for the lionised.

The process of change has been dramatic. In 986, King Ethelred granted the manor of 'Hamstede' to the Abbot of Westminster. Later, gangs of washerwomen would spread Henry VIII's linen on the heath to dry. In Puritan times, the 'Hot Gospellers' preached under a giant elm that was hollowed out and contained a winding staircase of 42 steps. In more recent centuries, Hampstead became a favourite haunt of poets and painters, scribblers and statesmen, toffs and trend-setters. In this haute boheme, Keats dashed off Endymion, Hannah Lightfoot indulged George III, and Constable brushed his skies. Here, Hugh Gaitskell moulders in the tomb and Melvyn Bragg polishes his teeth.

One occasionally hears the word 'twee' aimed at Hampstead. It drives Mr Isaaman into a fury. 'What a dreadfully stupid word]' he said as he escorted me past the imposing Queen Anne houses of Church Row (one formerly occupied by Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar's chum) to the 18th-century parish church where subsidence has bent the brickwork and from which thieves recently ran off with a bust of Keats (later recovered). We entered the churchyard, cosy with moss and brambles, its headstones nicely aslant. 'I don't like too much symmetry here,' my guide said beside the final resting places of Kay Kendall, Herbert Beerbohm Tree and the entire Constable family.

Mr Isaaman is a pleasant companion, full of historical nuggets and lively anecdotes. Outside the graveyard he said: 'Gracie Fields used to live in that white house there . . . That's (the architect) Maxwell Fry's place, The Sun House, where the deputy Indian High Commissioner lives.' Then up Frognal, a narrow lane of double yellow lines: 'De Gaulle lived over there during the war . . . That was Ramsay Macdonald's home, later his son Malcolm's'

We passed a house with a plaque declaring it to have been the home of a former editor of Punch, another occupied by a director of Sotheby's, and a third which 'used to be great for parties - I once heard Dr Spock speak in that garden'. On Holly Hill, a walled alley loud with insects, he said impatiently: 'What do they mean, this is a place for snobs? It's just a very pleasant place to live]'

Then, horror on Holly Mount] Wordlessly I pointed at something peeping over a wall. 'Uh-uh, we've found a (Sky television) dish,' said my guide, hurrying forward to the former lodgings of Robert Louis Stevenson. On the walk back to Church Row, a terrace of tiny cottages, each worth about pounds 500,000, narrowed into a wilderness of overgrown gardens. 'Judi Dench lives in there,' Mr Isaaman confided.

Infected by my guide, I found myself muttering 'Tsk-tsk' against the predacious plan to make this village fast-fed and finger-lickin'. The mood held until I left Mr Isaaman and returned alone to the High Street. That evening, throngs of young people gathered inside and outside Haagen-Dazs, the Dome and other fashionable spots. White Preludes, black Porsches and suntans distinguished them from the pub crowd. They laughed excessively while appraising one another's garments. This youthful mob is known as the 'Becks'.

A 'BECK' is a modern Hampstead phenomenon. It means a 'Rebecca', a well-heeled young woman. If their hedonism harbours an intellectual streak, they hide it in much the same way as Madonna, say, might hide a passion for Ovid. They consume extravagantly, pay cheerfully and show off a lot.

Unwisely, I asked: 'Looking forward to McDonald's opening?' Rebecca (I assumed) replied: 'Oh, ha-ha-ha] David, did you hear that? He's asking about McDonald's opening]' David exploded mirthfully: 'His opening? McDonald's dropped his trousers] McDonald's dropped his trousers]'

Money talking. Today bankers and lawyers, many of them rich Americans, occupy many of Hampstead's millionaire cul-de-sacs. Their money has changed the face - perhaps the soul - of the village. One still may glimpse a denimed artist setting up his easel outside Flask Walk's second-hand bookshop, or find aged hippies hobbling on sticks from homes that they were lucky enough to buy 30 years ago; but there seems to be a preponderance of New Hampsteadians who like their history gilt-framed and their cultural ambience nicely perfumed. Gerald Isaaman likes to call Hampstead 'not so much a place as a state of mind'. Big Mac is about to crash it. 'Hot Gospellers' like Gerald Isaaman may be genuinely aggrieved, but the truth about Hampstead is that money replaced taste as its prime mover long ago. McDonald's at least will make it cheaper.

(Photographs omitted)