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After reading the excellent collection of stories in our North London issue, I’ve been trying to think of other short stories I’ve read set in North London. It was tougher than I expected; several things I could have sworn were set there turned out on a second read to be set somewhere that could have been North London, but which could equally have been Clapham or Brixton for all the (non)mention of any place names. I must have been relocating these stories as I read more of them; living in North London for 13 years clearly predisposes you that way.
There was one story though: D. H. Lawrence’s eerie and discomfiting “The Last Laugh” set in Hampstead. I’m not usually a big fan of Lawrence but I picked up a collection of his short stories on a whim a few months ago in the secondhand bookshop where I work and I loved this one. It’s about a couple leaving a house late at night who are intrigued by a strange laugh coming from the trees of a nearby park. They end up having an encounter with a being who sets in motion a train of inexplicable events.
Published in 1928, it picks up on the early 20th-century wave of interest in Pan, the god with goat’s legs associated with wildernesses and shagging, and who is supposedly unique among the gods—because he died. In “The Last Laugh”, Pan returns to the world (well, Hampstead), which has devastating consequences for people wrapped up in everyday civilised concerns. Pan seems to blur the distinctions between humans and animals, right and wrong.
What I like about the story is that it gives a very particular sense of Hampstead as a marginal place, nearer to the wilds of the Heath than the city, somewhere on the edge where the the wilderness isn’t so very far away, where it’s possible to feel very afraid of the dark. Pan is the origin of the word panic, apparently because his presence induces frantic terror in people in lonely spots. That branch snapping behind you, the strange cry that could be a fox but sounds like a woman screaming… that’s Pan, according to the ancient Greeks. And in this story, Hampstead is a lonely spot. Farther up is the desolate Heath and down south is civilisation in the form of “the yellow, foul-smelling glare of the Hampstead Tube Station.” Lawrence’s North London is a place where “the world seemed empty, uninhabited save by snow and voices”.
I don’t think it’s stretching the imagination too much to say that it’s an area of North London where, late on the right kind of stormy, snowy night when there isn’t a bus to be seen for miles, it does seem potentially the sort of place where you might meet an ancient god. I once walked home alone somewhere in its vicinity in the early hours and got the willies so badly that I broke into a run for the bus stop and fell flat on my face, giving myself a black eye—which, I suppose, could have been the result of an encounter with Pan. (Or it could have been the result of my earlier encounter with the pub.)
I also found the end of “The Last Laugh” unpleasantly fascinating. I won’t spoil it, but it’s well worth tracking down if you haven’t read it.