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Breakfast at Louis’s

Conrad Landin talks old Hampstead to Marika Cobbold, whose latest novel deals with technology, fake news and corporate-owned newspapers

08 April, 2021 — By Conrad Landin

Marika Cobbold

“LOUIS’S to me is as Tiffany’s was to Holly Golightly: a place where nothing really bad can happen,” observes Thorn Marsh, “but unlike at Tiffany’s, Louis’s also provides the pastries.”

As with her fictional creation Thorn, it was a visit to the Hungarian patisserie in Heath Street which made Marika Cobbold know she had to live in Hampstead. Having just moved to the capital – “Gosh, 20 years or so ago” – Marika visited north London for the first time with a friend.

She says: “It was the Well and Louis’s that I remember falling in love with – and thinking, why on earth aren’t I living here? But it was too late, I’d just bought somewhere in another part of London.”

Now, after 15 years living in the heart of the village, Marika has written a novel that couldn’t be more Hampstead if it tried.

It’s narrator is Thorn, news editor at the fictional London Journal – who is shunted off to write lifestyle features when the paper is bought out by a profit-hungry corporation.

But an equally main character is the Heath itself – which is where Thorn reports that she witnessed a man dive off the Viaduct Bridge to save a screaming woman.

The “Angel of the Heath” goes viral – thrilling the paper’s new bosses and their desire for clicks.

Only trouble is, it’s not exactly true. Though there is photographic evidence to show the jump took place, there was no one for the man to rescue other than his own, troubled self. As Thorn grapples with the consequences of her drunken apathy, Marika leads us on a riveting journey through fake news, self-perception and guilt – and back to north London again.

One aspect of Hampstead that the novel dwells upon is the fading influence of the emigré generation that fled Nazi Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1930s. The new sense of community brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic has, for Marika, brought this home. In a new neighbourhood WhatsApp group, older residents have posted “photographs of 1960s Hampstead and all the rest of it”, she says. “There is a kind of nostalgia – but not in a bad way at all, because it was more special then, when all these people were there.”

With fewer and fewer survivors of that generation still alive, what is its lasting impact on the area?

“In a funny sort of way, I’d say it’s people like me,” says Marika, who grew up in Sweden and has Jewish heritage.

“You listen to programmes from about 10 years ago from when that generation was still around to speak about their experiences, there is a sort of spirit that I think we lack, to an extent. And when you then mix it up with a European trauma and drama of the emigré generation… and they’re gone.

“There is an awareness amongst people of my age that it was precious, and one tries to honour the better aspects of that,” she says, adding that keeping alive the “tolerance, openness, community spirit and internationalism… has influenced the way people are.”

Journalism in Marika’s blood – her family run a newspaper in Sweden – but she has never worked in the sector herself. For insider knowledge, she turned to friends, including her neighbour, the former Guardian foreign editor Martin Woollacott, who died last month. But puzzlingly, even the London Journal’s new regime appear not to understand the internet and the social media universe Marika describes is more reminiscent of how it was a decade ago. Nonetheless, the description of a newsroom besieged by cuts and clickmania hits the spot.

On Hampstead Heath is Marika’s first novel in almost a decade – but it has been a decade in the making. She had seized on the idea of an individual being falsely credited with a heroic act, but modern technology kept getting in the way.

“I had him jumping from a building into the canal at Camden Lock,” she recalls. “How do you get something that is big enough to catch the public’s attention even for a couple of days, that isn’t caught on some sort of CCTV camera?”

It’s a good job she persisted –­ or this tale of atmosphere and authenticity could have been lost forever.

  • On Hampstead Heath. By Marika Cobbold, Arcadia Books, £14.99

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