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My Life in Houses
My Life in Houses
'I was born on May 25, 1938, in the front bedroom of a house in Orton Road, on the outer edges of Raffles, a council estate. I was a lucky girl.' So begins Margaret Forster's journey through the houses she's lived in, from that sparkling new council house, built as part of a utopian vision by Carlisle City Council, to her beloved London house of today, via Oxford, Hampstead, the Lake District and a spell in the Mediterranean.
This is not a book about bricks and mortar, or about how a house becomes a home with the right scatter of cushions. This is a book about what houses are to us, the effect they have on the way we live our lives. It is also a wonderful backwards glace at the changing nature of our accommodation: from blacking grates and outside privies; to cities dominated by bedsits and lodgings; to houses today being converted back into single dwellings, all open-plan spaces and bringing the outside in. Finally, it is a gently insistent, personal inquiry into the meaning of home.
Hardback; 204 x 137mm
Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster. Chatto and Windus, £14.99
"Paul came first, with Jane Asher, but for tea, not dinner." And George and then Ringo. They came to the semi-detached Victorian house in Boscastle Road, Highgate. They came because Hunter Davies was writing their biography and Hunter's book had been made into a film and Margaret's novel, Georgy Girl, was a film too and they had so much money they had to live abroad in Malta and Portugal to avoid the tax.
But that isn't the story. It has no part to play in this most moving and reticent of autobiographies.
The houses watch the passing years and our lives are shadows on their walls.
The house in Orton Road, built by an enthusiastic council in the green fields of Raffles, was a good house for Margaret to live in for her first fourteen years. A bright fire, food on a pristine tablecloth, but there were five people crammed into one living room. There were other larger houses in Inglewood Crescent, in Norfolk Road, Morton Manor, the Girls' High School, houses to be imagined and re-imagined. And there was the rare time, when the others were out, alone with a book and a warm fire when the house became a library, a space of one's own.
The house in Richardson Street across from the cemetery was larger. It needed to be scrubbed from top to bottom. Margaret's grandfather bought her a bureau to replace the piece of wood balanced on her knees that served as a desk and she sat and worked and read in her own room, indignant if anyone interrupted her scholastic endeavours.
In Oxford, in Mrs Brown's house in Windsor Road, she found the calm and security of a room of her own. She was married from there. It was the first place she and Hunter had had privacy.
The flat in Heath Villas, Hampstead - sherry with Mrs Woodcock, notes left on the stairs - had an intense silence so near to the centre of London.
Her new house, Boscastle Road, the house that became their home, where Margaret had three children, where she and Hunter still live after fifty years, "smelled bad, it was still unwelcoming, sulking, not at all pleased to see us". At first there were the builders, "J.P.Brown, an Irish man, thick set and strong looking though not young", and his six labourers coming at 7.30 every morning. And then there was inconsiderate Mrs Hall, the sitting tenant in the flat on the second floor. And the children, Caitlin - Mrs Hall became sympathetic, considerate - and Jake and finally Fleur.
And then, after Malta and Portugal and home again, there was cancer. Hospital. "Arriving home again was in itself a healing process. . . . on dry land again, secure within its four walls." Again, later, it was "a place to recover and heal".
A second mastectomy and chemotherapy.
The cottage they bought on the edge of the Caldbeck Fells hunkered down against the storms. "The cottage sat snugly, knowing it had survived worse many times."
They bought a house in the valley, in Loweswater, a short walk from the lake, a shabby house but with scrubbed floorboards and, even on a grey day, full of light. A calm house, a place to write, walk and read for six months every summer.
In 2007, the cancer became metastatic, "spreading through my bones and into the lining of my right lung . . . When everything in my body is changing as my cancer advances, my house, by staying the same, is a huge comfort, as it always has been."
This is the quietest and gentlest of autobiographies. A life is revealed not by the events in the world, but by the surrounding air, by the walls in which one develops one's being.
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