A fine sense of place indeed
Margaret Forster has always been a writer of precision about ordinary lives, creating very particular, sharply observed people in particular times and places who, because they are so specifically detailed, can stand for universals also.
Here, she writes her own autobiography, in many ways, but through the lens of her own precise fascination with the nuts and bolts of the material world we live in. Specifically, in this case the nuts and bolts being the houses we live in, the houses which shape, define, stand for and hold our lives in place and time.
The book (which I was very happy to receive as an advance review copy from the publishers) starts with a quote from D.H. Lawrence which outlines the premise:
The house determines the day-to-day, minute-to-minute quality, colour , atmosphere, pace of one’s life; it is the framework of what one does, of what one can do, of one’s relations with people………….looking back on my life, I tend to see it divided into sections which are determined by the houses in which I have lived, not by school, university, work, marriage, death, division, or war.
Forster is very particular and precise about the houses she has lived in, starting from modest origins in the late 1930’s on a council estate in Carlisle, and progressing through lodgings in Oxford, as a student, to renting with her husband Hunter Davies in the Vale of Health, and then, as they both became successful writers, buying their first house (where they have lived for over 50 years) in Kentish Town, and also including a couple of residences in Malta and Portugal, where they decamped with their young family, and then later in a weekend cottage in Caldbeck, and finally once their children had grown, to live for 6 months of the year in isolation in the Lake District and then back to Kentish Town for the autumn and winter
Along the way in this fascinating book Forster examines not only her own particular life by reference to the houses she lives in, but changing social mores, trends in the mobility of neighbourhoods, communities and social classes, and the way in which place becomes a repository of a life, rich through the memories accrued in connection with that place.
For example, it was fascinating to read that even so recently as the early 30s, when the social housing estate where she would be born some years later, was being built, in order to ‘clear the slums’ of Caldewgate, Carlisle, budgeting considerations made decisions which a modern reader finds appallingly mean-minded. Very few of the Caldewgate dwellings had an internal water supply, and none had their own lavatory. The new houses built on the Raffles estate, by contrast would have not only their own water supply, but even a bathroom, which contained a bath – but no sink, and more pertinently, no toilet. Cost savings created the decision to give each dwelling its own lavatory – but made this an outhouse.
Jumping much further forward to when Forster and Davies buy their own very ramshackle first house on ‘the wrong side of the Heath’ (all they could afford), in Parliament Hill Fields, this came cheapish because it contained a sitting tenant as a result of the 1957 rent act. Of course, as time wore on, the area became desirable, gentrified and smart, and she details the changing demographics, not to mention the years of pouring money into a house which initially they thought they would live in ‘until they could afford Hampstead’ but still inhabit to this day, their relationship with a house initially dour, depressing and glum having changed, as dwelling and owner ‘connect’
She also addresses, in a very direct way, the facing of her own mortality, with an as yet unresolved (in the pages of the book) debate on whether to die at home or in a hospice, when the options for ‘managing’ her diagnosis of cancer which has metastasised, run out.
Forster’s narrative voice, her ability to tell a story engagingly, with light touch humour and warmth, make this an engaging as well as a fascinating read. She is a writer who draws the reader in, rather than holds them at bay, creating a feeling of intimacy.
Publication date is November 6th in the UK