This time an eloquent coming-of-age memoir by William Miller, son of the more famous Jonathan; neighbour to Alan Bennett and the Lady in the Van, Nicholas and Claire Tomalin and then Michael Frayn, George and Diana Melly, Colin and Anna Haycraft, Ursula Vaughan Williams, Max Stafford Clark and other, presumably less famous, neighbours and in the next street Sir AJ Ayer and Dee, Shirley Conran and then all their many and various children.
The time was the 1960s and the place was Gloucester Crescent and the other street was Regent’s Park Terrace, the book is Gloucester Crescent, Me, My Dad and Other Grown-ups.
Colin Haycraft was the founder of Duckworth’s the publisher, so as well as publishing a lot of books by the writers listed above, he also published Oliver Sacks, Beryl Bainbridge, Robert Lowell, the American Poet and William’s godfather, and a host of other luminaries all of whom drifted in and out of each other’s houses as guests – long stay, short stay, coffee, dinner or lunch – and talked and talked.
The abiding impression of this fascinating and gossipy book, written now the author is in his mid-fifties, but from his perspective as a child, is of someone who longs to get a word in edgeways.
It all sounds rather chaotic and free, happy and unclouded. But actually, small children do need attention and preferably from their own parents, William seems to have got most of his parenting from some of his adult female neighbours. And that might equally go for some of the other children in this remarkable list of extraordinary people.
The section on William’s schooling is simply chastening. Shades of Philip Larkin spring to mind as the political philosophy of the left leaning, public school educated adults choose the State system for their own off-spring. Even the journey to and from Pimlico School is fraught with stress and incipient danger, it breaks one’s heart.
This is the Bloomsbury Group of the nineteen sixties, the Gloucester Crescent set, I suppose you could call them, though I have never heard them described like this. It was a time of febrile activity for the grown-ups, William describes the tattoo-sound of typewriters pinging across the gardens of the surrounding houses, the pauses to drag deeply on a cigarette, then the tap, tap, tap. Some fluently hammering out words, Alan Bennett for example, played his typewriter as if it were a piano, using all his fingers, Jonathan Miller was a two-fingered typist, until the lovely Stella Coltman-Rogers came to type his letters, then the sound changed to a flowing, professional typing speed.
The games and the gardens, the dogs and the other children. All wonderfully present. The epilogue is a recap of where we are now, the departed (and lamented) or the simply moved away; Alan Bennett is one such, and he moved with Rupert into the house opposite my own in another North London crescent.