Gloucester Crescent, Me, My Dad and Other Grown-Ups by William Miller, is a wonderful book. Younger son of famous polymath Jonathan Miller, William Miller writes from the heart about his childhood and youth growing up in a roomy Victorian house in Gloucester Crescent, NW1.
What with Nina Stibbe’s memoir of her time as nanny to Mary-Kay Wilmers’ children, who lived across the road from the Millers, and Alan Bennett’s celebrated novella the Lady in the Van, and now this new memoir, Gloucester Crescent roughly 1965 – 1990 has been richly illustrated as a home to writers, philosophers and artists of great renown, leading intertwined lives, apparently with Alan Bennett as a kindly, benign kingpin who seemed to spend more time hopping between the neighbours’ kitchens than he did in his own home.
This is a book about a time, a place and a childhood. William portrays himself as desperate to win the approval of his father, to bridge the divide between them, yet Jonathan is distant and irritable, often absent through work and spends more energy hating than he does caring. Yet when William is stuck in a lift in a neighbouring house, it is Jonathan who leads the rescue and is overwhelmed with relief when his son is finally freed. So much of William’s vocabulary when talking about his father is negative: ‘crazy’, ‘rubbish’, ‘rots’, and all the hate hate hate. Meanwhile William’s mother is calm, capable, pretty and constantly whipping up large meals to feed all-comers.
I spent the first part of the book wondering whether William realised the privilege he lived with, since he writes in such a matter of fact tone, in the voice of his younger self: ‘Lots of my friends have houses in the country, and Mum sometimes says it would be nice to have a place we can all go away to.’ However, that question is answered when we are treated to his realisation that the adults of his parents’ circle might lack self-awareness: ‘You often hear the mums and dads in the Crescent complaining about someone being upper class or a Tory. If you ask me, I think they’re all a bit confused and don’t realise that anyone who doesn’t know the people in the Crescent probably thinks that they’re all upper class when they first meet them. I once heard a recording of Dad talking on the radio from a long time ago and he sounded even posher than Prince Charles.’
The sadness of William’s childhood and his yearning for a more satisfying relationship with his father is so raw and described with such intimacy that it almost felt indecent to be reading about it, particularly the moments when William seeks to fill the parental void with relationships with other, mostly very kind adults, as well as the awful, awful bullying at school, made even harder to read by William’s very straightforward descriptions; but the humanity and humour of the stream of anecdotes draw the reader through towards the understanding that the key to Jonathan’s parental style is his distant relationship with his own father, along with, apparently, a tendency to depression. In the picture painted by his son, Jonathan was up against it when it came to fatherhood.
And now, William is ensconced in Gloucester Crescent himself with a family of his own, living in the house that was owned by Ralph and Ursula Vaughan Williams, across the street from his parents who are still living in his childhood home.
He has come a full circle, except not fully, as he seems to be a completely different type of father from Jonathan. This is a book of paradoxes.
Available from, amongst other places, the Primrose Hill Bookshop
© 2018 Joanna Reeves, all rights reserved.