DINOSAURS have arrived on Hampstead Heath, big metal pieces of art which are providing something different to look at and a hunded passer-by updates to Instagram. There was the most minor of rebellions against the arrival of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, as the artists have christened them. A local conservation area was worried that children could be hurt on them, but the project pushed on regardless.
It would have been a shame if planners had halted their arrival on those ultra-cautious grounds, and good on the City of London, the Heath’s guardians, for thinking about how art can work within the boundaries of the Heath. It’s unlikely anybody wants our great green space to be cluttered with sculptures at every turn and the every and now then approach is surely the right way to go. But it was open minds which led to a remarkable little chapter in Heath history almost a decade ago. It still sounds so ludicrous but back then we were treated to a giant, 30ft table and chair standing near Parliament Hill fields, an artwork labelled The Writer by its creator Giancarlo Neri. It’s hard to convey the sheer size of it now or what a stunning impact it had for its short stay on the Heath, but the general consensus seemed to be that it was fantastic. In fact, the memory of it remains so clear that you wonder where a decade has gone.
It naturally attracted so many theories about what it was meant to represent, mad explanations about why the chair was tucked in and guesses about which famous former Heath-walking writer it was meant to honour, but just in itself it was something to stare and smile at.
Neri had been a former football player who had turned to art when the knees gave in. What was extra special about his creation was how happy he was for people to do what they liked to it, so if people carved ‘Richard hearts Natalie Imbruglia’ or something like that into one of the table legs, he was happy for that to happen. Graffiti was allowed on it. People tried to use the chair legs as soccer goalposts. They used the tabletop as shade from the sun on picnic days.
And legend has it that one couple somehow managed to scale its great height and snuggled together on the summit in that special way, a feat which actually been predicted by writer Michael Rosen at its installation. He had half-joked: “People are going to wonder about what’s on top? There’s a lovely not-being-able-to-see-the-top about it, and of course, people will think about all sorts of activities and what might be going on there. After all we have a mile-high club, well, we might get a 30-foot high club.”
But you didn’t need to be in love, to love The Writer, and the zany Lilliputian effect it had on us. It was suggested that Neri had meant it all to be a tribute to the loneliness of writers, but the effect was the opposite for most. People sat together nearby and played with it, often supping their summer wine long into the evening. You couldn’t think of a less lonely scene.
And then it was gone. Four months of lovely silliness dismantled and hooked home to Italy.
The grass quickly revived and suddenly there were no clues to it having ever been there at all.