Review by Annabel, 15 October 2019
Nestled between Primrose Hill and Camden Town in NW1, it’s hard to believe that Gloucester Crescent (and Regents Park Terrace which joins its ends) was ever considered slightly shabby: you’ll know the road if you saw the film The Lady in the Van. When you look at today’s house prices: there is a 1-bed flat for sale at £725,000 and a 2-bed one for £850,000 at the time of writing. Yet, when William Miller’s parents Rachel and Jonathan Miller (yes, that Miller) bought a terraced house there in 1961, it hadn’t yet become so desirable.
From Alan Bennett, who was the Miller’s lodger before he bought his own house in the road, to George Melly, Michael Frayn, Claire Tomalin, Mary Kay Wilmers of the London Review of Books (whom Nina Stibbe nannied for and wrote about in Love, Nina), to Beryl Bainbridge, Kingsley Amis, Joan Bakewell and Oliver Sacks around the corner, and many more writers, actors, musicians and theatre folk, this corner of Camden town was crammed full of artistic talent, providing Miller fils with an interesting environment to grow up in.
There’s one sound I’ve only ever heard in the gardens of Gloucester Crescent. And it goes on all day, every day of the week: the sound of grown-ups working. Lots of them work at home on typewriters which they sit at with the windows wide open. Dad and Alan talk about the other people in the street who do lots of typing, and how, when they eventually finish, their friends come over and they have a party to celebrate that they’ve stopped.
William captures the ‘competitive typing’ perfectly.
The children all ran wild in each other’s gardens and houses, profoundly irritating some of the grown-ups who were trying to work. The philosopher A J Ayer would shout, ‘that bloody William Miller,’ every time he climbed through a window to see his son Freddie. Looking out of their windows, William could see a lot of what was going on in the streets, houses and gardens, be it openly or in secret – this was Bohemian London.
This was never the case with his parents though, both doctors, until Jonathan moved into comedy with Beyond the Fringe. Jonathan Miller is generally portrayed with fondness – a tortured writer, eternal leftie, Jewish too of course.
In Dad’s world there are two kinds of people – the ones he likes, who are good, and the ones he hates, who are bad. The good ones are people like his close friends and the drunks who come to the door and anyone who votes Labour. Since Dad finds it easier to hate people than to like them, there are quite a few on his bad list, which includes people like Idi Amin, because he’s mad and eats human flesh, Hitler and his generals, the upper classes, because they hate the Jews and vote Conservative, and then all theatre critics.
His father may have been tortured in his work, a depressive perfectionist who was often bad tempered and a rather passive parent, but he was capable of being silly too, especially when Alan Bennett was in the house. William pens a lovely portrait of the pair pretending to be gay astronauts deciding how to cook their eggs – just as Apollo 11 was taking off, William wishing they’d take it seriously.
Childhood may have been idyllic, but secondary school was a trial for William. Crossing town to Pimlico school where he was bullied badly, and just scraped enough grades to get into Bedales sixth form, where he failed his science A-Levels too, but had a much happier time. Not for William a career in medicine like his parents.
Instead the media and the USA beckoned, and now in his 50s, William is a successful TV producer having found his own niche. I was amazed to find that he has even moved back into Gloucester Crescent with his family – just three doors down from his parents who are still there.
Miller writes with wit and affection but lingering over the book is the sense that he and his siblings still struggle to live up to their father’s high expectations. The book is subtitled ‘Me, My Father and Other Grown-Ups’ and it is William’s father who is the dominant character, I never got much of a sense of his mother Rachel – she was just there. This memoir with its all-star cast of London literati and plenty of evocative photos, however, was a joy to read.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny. Her personal blog is AnnaBookBel.
William Miller, Gloucester Crescent (Profile, 2018). 978-1788160377, 352pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P).