The Battle of Hampstead
It is sixty years since Anticant came to London as a young man to start an interesting job and become a part-time Bar student. After some months lodging in stuffy South Kensington, he decided to move up to the fresher air of hilly Hampstead, which reminded him of his north country Pennine home.
He found a vacancy in a small, solid, square detached house near Belsize Park. Across the front of the first floor, four large arched windows let copious sunshine into what had originally been the best bedroom, and which now became Anticant's spacious bed-sitting room.
The owner of the house was a rather grand lady, Mrs Constance M. (Anticant thought of her as "Connie", but would never have to presumed to address her as such.) Her husband, a local solicitor, had died untimely, leaving Connie a widow in her late forties. She took in three gentleman-lodgers to make ends meet, looking after them efficiently and sometimes a trifle brusquely – she almost certainly considered being a 'landlady' beneath her. She regarded herself as part of the Hampstead cognoscenti, and gravely informed Anticant that nobody who was anybody lived "on the wrong side of the Finchley Road". (In later years, Anticant did so for several decades.) Despite long sessions of sunbathing in her pretty back garden, Connie always seemed tense and hyperactive. Possibly she was sexually frustrated, but Anticant did not choose to explore that avenue.
The other lodgers were all interesting in different ways. There was a jolly young Dutch naval officer, attached to the embassy, courtesy of which he supplied Anticant with bottles of cheap rum. There was a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman of distinctly bohemian cast, who wore a flowing cloak and a low-crowned wide-brimmed hat of the type favoured by artists in the 1890s. His name was Rowland Kenney, and he was indeed far more distinguished than Anticant realised until much later. Mr Kenney was a major figure in early 20th century socialist politics, and had been the first editor of the Daily Herald. He had served as a British diplomat in Scandinavia and Poland, and had written books about all this, including an autobiography, Westering. Even more interestingly, he was a brother of Annie Kenney, the Saddleworth-born mill girl who was one of the earliest associates of Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters in their epic fight for womens' suffrage, and who, with Christabel Pankhurst, had caused a national sensation by serving a short prison sentence in 1905 after refusing to pay a small fine for making a disturbance at a meeting addressed by Liberal cabinet ministers Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey at Manchester's Free Trade Hall. Sadly, Anticant had no idea of Mr Kenney's past, or of his connection with Saddleworth, while they both lived in Connie's house, and it was with much regret that he later realised what a unique opportunity he had missed for some fascinating conversations and mutual family reminiscences with the old gentleman.
After Mr Kenney left – or before he arrived; it doesn't really matter – there was a retired colonial civil servant of immense dignity with whom Anticant sometimes went for Sunday morning walks across Hampstead Heath while Connie was preparing lunch, for which we were under strict instructions to be back by 1 'clock PROMPT. This gentleman affected a monocle, and spoke in an accent so refined that he would have pronounced it "refained". Our failure to return punctually after an especially sunny stroll to the Spaniards Inn and back led to a memorable scene which threatened to erupt into a veritable Waterloo. We did, in fact, overstep the mark badly, only getting back to Connie's forty minutes after we were due. She was absolutely furious; the excellent lunch over which she had spent immense trouble while we were gadding about was (in her eyes) ruined, and she told us off in no uncertain terms.
Anticant bowed meekly before the storm, but the stately ex-governor (or whatever he was) did not. He rose from the table, drew himself up, fixed his monocle firmly into his eye, and declared: "I" – he pronounced it "Ay" – "have never been spoken to like this before, and Ay have no intention of putting up with it at may tayme of life!" Whereupon he stalked out and betook himself to the nearest pub for a beer and sandwich, leaving Connie gasping like a fish and Anticant giggling up his sleeve. Unsurprisingly, the pompous gent. moved to other lodgings shortly after this epic brouhaha.
All this happened more than half a lifetime ago. But it stays vividly in Anticant's memory, not least because he passes by that house quite frequently on his journeys to and from the Hampstead hospice where he is now a day patient. Driving past, he looks up at the four arched windows and reflects on all that has transpired since his year's tenancy of that charming room. Connie is long dead, and probably nobody except Anticant even remembers her in that road where she once reigned supreme in her hospitable house and sunny garden.