This is the fourth in our series in which writers describe what London means to them. Caroline is the author of several biographies and books. She has also written and presented TV documentaries on human rights. 

My father, the Australian writer Alan Moorehead, arrived in London in May 1936. He was twenty-five, and had been working in Melbourne for the Herald. It had taken him many months to save up the five hundred pounds he needed for a passage on a ship. ‘I yearned to go abroad’, he wrote, ‘to get to the centre of things and events … the centre of the world instead of being on the periphery’. London was where he and his contemporaries wanted – needed – to be. In a very different way, it would become my need as well.

As a war correspondent for the Express, my father did not stay in London long. He went to the French border with Spain, to write about the refugees from the Civil War crossing over the Pyrenees. For five years, he covered the fighting in Europe and the war in North Africa, and for a while he and my mother lived in Cairo, where my brother John was born. But the end of the war saw him in a three storey box-like terrace house in Primrose Hill, bought cheaply because nearby bombing had caused cracks across its facade. It was now that I was born. But the long Italian campaign and his close friendship with Alex Clifford, the journalist with whom he had travelled for most of the war, had given him a longing for the light and art of Italy, and it was to Fiesole, in the hills above Florence, that we moved in 1948.

My London of those years yields just one memory. I have whooping cough and I am in my bedroom at the top of the house. Far below, in the nursery, nanny and our cook are having supper. I stumble down, clutching on to the wooden bannisters, whooping. They are eating kippers, and a warm, fishy smell greets me as I open the door. Nanny takes me on to her lap and gives me a large, fat slice of crusty white bread, on which she has spread butter and marmalade.

After two years in the Villa Diana in Fiesole I feel more Italian than English. John and I sometimes speak to each other in Italian. There is a formal garden, with distinctive smelling box hedges, and in the summer there are zinneas, their many different colours bright against the dull dark green box. We have two Boxers, one of which eats my brother’s new baby pet rabbit. We also have a duck called Luigi, given to us by the journalist Luigi Barzini when he comes to have lunch. The Villa Diana has a ghost, that of the poet Poliziano murdered in a top room, and one night it brushes over me in my cot, a slow, soft wind which makes me stop breathing with fear.

But the writing is not going well for my father. With several successful histories of the war behind him, he had hoped to turn to fiction. One novel
has been rejected; a second has received poor reviews. A short book about the Villa Diana has won critical acclaim but sold badly. We are running out of money, and my father reluctantly takes a job in the publicity department of the War Office back in London. The night my mother, John and I leave for England ahead of him, my father is served Luigi for dinner. This is a horrible misunderstanding, Enrichetta the cook having taken his long running joke literally. He feels terrible and it is many years before he tells us.

Now begins the real London of my childhood, though it does not last very long. The Channel is rough and I am sick and miserable when we catch the
Pullman train from Dover to Victoria. Sitting at a table in the dining car, with the little red lamps on the table, I look out across the pale fields and the grey houses and wonder why it looks so sad. We have taken rooms in a hotel in Knightsbridge and its long corridors have dark red flock wallpaper and dark red patterned carpets. No one speaks. When we have breakfast, in a dining room full of silent people and much white starched linen, we are offered porridge and sausages and bacon and triangles of toast, wrapped up in napkins, and it is all unutterably alien. As are the rainy streets, the absence of yellow sunshine, the peculiar smells, the hurrying people. When my brother leaves for boarding school, I think the end of my world has come. I am given a Siamese kitten to cheer me up.

Soon, I am sent to Miss Ironside’s, in Queen’s Gate. I do not mind the lessons, thought many are incomprehensible to me. What I do mind is the food. One day I am faced with a slinky pink patch of blancmange and am sick all over the table. I spend the rest of the afternoon alone in the dining room,
in the growing dark, among the smells of cabbage and bacon and wet socks.

The house in Primrose Hill having been let, we live for a while in a rented house off Hyde Park corner and do not move back into it until the end of 1950. The bombed house opposite has not yet been rebuilt, and with my friend Stefanie, the daughter of a well-known boxer whose face looks to me very squashed, we play in its ruined rooms, picking our way through the rubble and weeds and bushes in search of plunder. Occasionally we make small fires and cook potatoes in a frying pan stolen from our kitchen. When it is windy we take our roller skates and use towels as sails to blow us down the steep nearby mews. I am taken ice skating at Queensway and for my birthday given a red flared skating skirt in velvet and a white top; the instructor, serious and in black, teaches me to waltz. I read Noel Streatfield’s Skating Boots and plan for a future on ice. A stately matron in a long flowing beige dress, with black button boots and smelling sweetly of powder, tries to teach me the fox trot. On Saturday mornings, I got to the children’s film programme at the Classic in Baker Street, and Stefanie and I eat orange ice lollies, which are square, with transparent paper wrappings and taste not unpleasantly of metal.

In the holidays, John and I take our bicycles and go on rides around St John’s Wood until the day when I swerve and knock myself out, and John, terrified, carries me home across Primrose Hill. To please him, I play many games of garages, in which he has the shiny new garage set with an internal lift and little pumps, given to him for Christmas, and I am the dreary customer. To please me, we drape sheets and blankets over the furniture in the nursery and crouch inside, like cavemen. Sometimes I force him to come with me into the park to shoot my bow and arrow, for I have decided I would prefer to be a boy, and have persuaded my mother to let me cut my hair very short. Once a week, we cross the hill to Regent’s Park Road, where we spend our sweet rations; I ask for the boiled lemon sweets, with sherbet inside, and strawberry chews, each in their own wrapping. On Wednesday evenings, Nanny and I listen to Journey into Space. There is a gas fire, which gives out a comforting splutter.

Miss Ironside’s is replaced by St Mary’s Town and Country in the Adelaide Road, where I am bullied by two older girls who take my new pencil case, with its neat little rubber, projector, ruler and crayons and give me an apple instead. When I reach eight I am sent to the French Lycée in Kensington and my London is now a time of long bus journeys, down Baker Street to Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner, and along Knightsbridge. Standing in the bay window of the house in Primrose Hill, nanny watches me and waves until I reach the bus stop. My father is now making money from his books and we buy a car, a Rover with the number plate NGW31, soon known as Never Good Weather. One day the fog is so bad that my father walks in front of the car to show the way while my mother drives.

It was the weather that brought our London life to a close. My father yearned for the sun of his childhood, the particular yellow light of our Fiesole years.My mother, who was English, wanted to stay in London. They made a bargain: we would spend one summer in a cottage in the countryside and the weather would decide. It was the famous wet summer of 1956. Day after day it rained, and the more the water dripped dismally through the soft green woods that surrounded the cottage, the more cheerful my father became. At the end of the year we moved to the Alban Hills outside Rome, to a house once lived in by Aubrey Hepburn, where there was a swimming pool and the terraces were planted with olive trees and cherries, but where in the winter the cold was ferocious.

London was my home, and I mourned it. The stories that John brought back in the holidays were all about friends and escapades; he had a secret life and a secret language and I felt excluded. Like my father in Melbourne in the 1930s, I longed for the ‘centre and not the periphery’. The friends I made at the French Lycée in Rome were pale shadows of the ones I knew awaited me in London. And I was right. But it took me six more years to get back there. But even though London became, and remained, my home, the question of where I really belong never quite went away. Like my father, I am never quite sure where I fit in.

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