This is the third in our series in which writers describe what London means to them. Anne Chisholm is a biographer, and Chair of the Royal Society of Literature.
London has always been my true home. The house where I was born, early in World War Two, is a tall grey house by a church on the eastern edge of Regent’s Park. These days I often drive past it and while not consciously thinking of her am always aware of my very young mother, awaiting my birth as the battle of Britain was won and the blitz arrived, walking heavily, so she told me, across the road and into the park and across to the Rose Garden, happy, apprehensive, occasionally afraid. When I was a few months old the house was badly shaken by a bomb falling nearby; apparently we were all sheltering in a cupboard under the stairs – my father on leave from the army – but the blast blew the door in and I sustained a scratch on the end of my nose. It left no scar. Soon after this my mother and I left for her parent’s house well away from London.
My earliest memories – more impressions or emotions than concrete recollections – all concern the war, for we moved back before it was over to my grandmother’s house in Belsize Grove where, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, I still live now, although in a block of flats rather than the small white 1830s villa I can just see across the road from my bedroom window. In my building, built in the early 1930s around communal gardens and a swimming pool (long filled in) as the latest fashion in urban living, with a doorman and a restaurant in the basement which would send up meals to order (long defunct, though the former hatch in the wall by my front door is still discernible) there still live one or two very old residents, given to zimmer frames and furs, who arrived from Germany after Hitler took over. One, who gave me coffee and cake after I helped her carry her shopping, remembered firewatching parties on the roof and bombs falling. I think I recall people sleeping in the tube station just across Haverstock Hill; I definitely remember hearing the air raid warning sirens, and being frightened when I was told about the buzzing doodlebugs, which would go silent, cut out and fall abruptly to earth. Ever since, a sudden noise in the sky can make me think of death.
After the war, when we moved to a large red victorian house in Gainsborough Gardens on the edge of Hampstead Heath, Mr Wilmot, the gardener, a stout man in a cloth cap, would take me into his shed and show me a twisted piece of metal he said came from a downed German bomber. I spent hours with Mr Wilmot grubbing around in the bushes. He was a kind man and those were less suspicious times.
Not that my childhood was in the least shadowed by the aftermath of war. I grew up in a comfortable, intellectually inclined, leftish (although my father was always one of nature’s Tories and not pleased when I made friends with a Labour MPs family) and confidently middle class Hampstead not yet colonized by the very rich or sprinkled with expensive boutiques. By the time I was nine or ten I was walking alone to school, a long trek to a Catholic convent some way away, chosen by my parents not on religious grounds but because they were told the nuns took girls education seriously. And indeed they did – I owe a lot to the fierce, powerful, clever women who taught me to love Latin (that did not last) and Shakespeare (that did) and made no attempt to convert me, indeed just humoured me when I announced I wanted to be a nun myself and probably in due course a saint.
I would walk back on dark autumn evenings dreaming of sanctity and kicking piles of huge yellow and bronze leaves from the plane trees along the gutters. Each lamppost seemed to have a tall black spear of shadow piercing the foggy darkness above, and the streets smelled of wood smoke and coal dust. There were very few cars about. When I got home I would go round to the back door of our house and often find our charlady, as cleaners were still allowed to be called, cleaning silver at the kitchen table and complaining companionably to my mother about men. I would eat bread and dripping and wonder what they were on about. Sometimes Mrs Wheatley would bring her fatherless son Patrick with her, a solid redfaced boy older than me who would try to squeeze against me on the back stairs. After I mentioned this he did not appear again.
The house was a stone’s throw from the Heath, which was familiar territory, with long family walks to Kenwood on Sundays and, eventually, expeditions with friends on bikes or alone with the dog. Once, a pale figure in a raincoat reared up out of the long grass and flashed at me, his limp grey body more pathetic than threatening. Even so I clipped on the dog’s lead and ran home with my heart pounding expecting to be the heroine of a drama, to find I was late for lunch, my father was already carving and no-one much interested. ‘Don’t worry darling’ said my mother vaguely, ‘That’s all they ever want to do.’ But later, in my teens, I heard a grim story of a girl who had not got off so lightly.
By that time, though, I was at boarding school in Dorset, where I was happy enough to be one of the relatively few Londoners; most of my friends lived in the country, which then as now struck me as wonderful to visit but no place to settle down. They were all very keen to come to stay with me in the holidays. Home, after the spartan dormitories and bleak communal bathrooms, was heaven, even though in winter I had to jump from bed with my teeth chattering and light the gas fire in my bedroom at the top of the house and jump back before the room warmed up enough for me to face getting dressed. But I could see the dome of St Paul’s through chestnut tree branches from my ice-rimmed window (the ice on the inside) and felt all London belonged to me. Teenage life in Hampstead in the late 1950s meant discovering foreign films at the Everyman, hanging around in the one and only Coffee Cup (both still going strong) taking the tube to the West End for a film or a musical (Salad Days, The Boyfriend) or my fathers favourite, a Gilbert and Sullivan opera at the Savoy. As for parties, we put on our shortened bridesmaid’s dresses in pastel brocade or taffeta for staid dance in church halls or drawing rooms with parquet floors, with reluctant public schoolboys stuffed into dinner jackets attempting the quickstep. As for sex, even when we were sixteen or seventeen our anxious mothers would ring each other up if anyone was out after midnight, though we went in for nothing more than holding hands and kissing under trees on the Heath, tentatively discovering first love, astonishingly innocent, clumsy and sweet.
Then it was on to university, first journeys to Italy and Greece, my first proper job (after a brief stint on the young Private Eye) in New York where one day after about two years my mother, on the phone from Hampstead, asked tentatively if I thought would ever come back to London. I felt a shock of indignation that was almost painful. There was never any doubt in my mind that I would always return to London where I belonged, and when later I found other cities to love – after New York there came Tokyo, Calcutta, Melbourne and Sydney – it was always partly because they reminded me of London, with their endless variety, their secrets, their opportunities, the freedom they offered for reinvention and anonymity, random encounters, privacy in a crowd.
Now, although I am lucky enough to be able to retreat to the country whenever I wish, I recognize that I have no desire to grow old in a village, no matter how peaceful and beguiling, where I would be dependent on the car and observed by kind neighbours. I am best off back home, across the street from the house where my grandmother lived, my sister was born and where I first decorated a Christmas tree as the war came to an end nearly seventy years ago.