First published in The Sunday Times, 10th Nov 2013
When I left Leicestershire in the 1980s, to become a nanny in London, the thing that most captivated my friends was the idea that I’d be forever bumping into famous people such as David Bowie or Dickie Davies. I didn’t think it likely – I was going to north London after all, not the glittering West End, but I didn’t tell them that. Then, when I moved into Gloucester Crescent, NW1 almost the first thing I learned was that my rooms had once been George Melly’s. I could tell this should have been impressive so I said, ‘George Melly – wow!’ and reported it in my first letter home to my sister Vic.
‘PS: Who’s George Melly?’ I wrote, ‘I’m in his room.’
My sister wrote back saying George Melly was famous for being a bisexual jazz singer (mainly in the London area). And though she was impressed to imagine me rooming with a famous person – albeit mainly in the London area – she asked if I’d bumped into anyone exciting yet, hoping for someone more nationally famous (and not jazz).
I confided in my boss Mary-Kay and her pal Alan Bennett that I was hoping to impress Vic asap with some famous sightings since she’d been lukewarm about George Melly (plus I hadn’t actually seen him, as such). Sam and Will (my charges, aged 10 and 9) came up with two newsreaders who lived nearby. But, since they weren’t Reginald Bosanquet or Angela Rippon, but two women apparently both called Sue, I didn’t think they’d do.
‘Who do you want to have seen?’ Mary-Kay asked.
‘Someone like Elton John or Johnny Rotten.’ I said.
Then, one of them, Bennett I think, said if it was particularly a John I was after I might tell Vic about Jonathan Miller who lived on the crescent.
I’d met this Jonathan a few times and when I thought about it he did seem famous. I just wasn’t sure what he was famous for and in my eagerness mistook him for an opera singer. I mentioned him in a letter to Vic. She wrote back saying she’d heard of a Jonathan Miller but her one was a writer who’d shot to fame in a subversive vicar-snubbing revue show in the 60s – ‘could it be him?’ She wondered. I said I thought not – my one being the lead singer in Rigoletto (an opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi).
Later, in a phone call to my mother I dropped in that Alan Bennett – some kind of minor playwright – kept coming over for his tea, and my mother brought up that same subversive 60s revue show. Saying that both Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett had shot to fame in it. That evening I studied Bennett and though he was very funny and a bit satirical about the potato salad, I couldn’t imagine him deliberately upsetting vicars and the prime minister with antiestablishment sketches.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the accomplishments of Alan Bennett, Mary-Kay Wilmers, Stephen Frears (father of Sam and Will) and co (though I didn’t particularly) the point was that before I’d properly realised any of them were accomplished (much-loved, successful, critically acclaimed or whatever) I’d already got to know them as ordinary people who made rice pudding or had poor roundabout etiquette in the car. They were nice, but they were just members of our household or people from the street. And once I did (appreciate their accomplishments) I didn’t consider them famous enough. And certainly not in the right ways.
The thing was, mine and Vic’s expectations were a bit on the high side – we’d had a selection of hard-to-beat brushes with celebrity before I’d even left Leicestershire. One time, a lawyer uncle of ours had defended members of Showaddywaddy in court and got us a signed copy of Under the Moon of Love. And there was the time my sister locked eyes with oil tycoon Adnan Khashoggi in Fenwick’s of Leicester near the tights and I locked eyes with Prince Charles, if you can believe it, doing a walkabout near Leicester train station (him, not me). Plus there was a mythical second-cousin of my mother’s who’d been a nanny for Mia Farrow and constantly had tea and biscuits with Frank Sinatra for a year. And that’s not to mention all the Englebert sightings due to him having a mini mansion on the Oadby by-pass.
So, to be fair, however witty and entertaining MK and AB were (and they were, very) their actual achievements (fame-wise) were, to my mind, pretty modest when pitted against Showaddywaddy’s number one spot in the hit parade, teaching Frank Sinatra the art of dunking or having a pub in your garden (Englebert) etc.
Time went by and my reported sightings of Don Warrington (handsome) and Joan Thirkettle (short fringe) went unacknowledged. I’d scraped the bottom of the barrel with a second division footballer (chain-smoker) and a cartoonist (good drawer) when it occurred to me that AB was in fact becoming quite well known. The problem was though I didn’t think his plays and screenplays – such as An Englisman Abroad – added up to quite enough on their own. So I invented a stint in Coronation Street for him – as a bolster. Not that my sister liked Coro, but it put Bennett in the mainstream – on ITV, not BBC2.
And not long after that, AB did actually come good for real and, after all the clever gritty things on telly and theatre, had a proper hit with a film starring Michael Palin and a real pig. My friends started to notice him and Mary-Kay – who was apparently the world’s best editor – plus Stephen Frears was making good films all of a sudden, and soon the whole street seemed to be painting, writing or directing something.
Weirdly, neither MK or AB seemed the least bit bothered by their own or each others’ achievements and certainly never talked about them. They were as unimpressed as I’d been and only really cared whether or not it was likely to start raining or if Arsenal had won, or not, and whether there was any fizzy water.
And though these tangible, mainstream successes should have come as a huge relief to me (as something I could write home about) they didn’t, because just about then, I’d stopped being quite so shallow and had started flourishing in the atmosphere of 55 Gloucester Crescent (as people did) and had decided it might be a good idea to actually take part in the world and stop gorping at what everyone else was doing. I’d even applied to study an ‘A’ level, which doesn’t sound that big a deal, but was.
How had this come about? It might’ve been because I never did bump into David Bowie or Dickie Davies or that Vic never was that impressed with London or my life in it, or maybe the influence of a clever boyfriend. Mostly though I think it was the effect of all the evenings with Mary-Kay, Sam and Will, Alan Bennett and assorted others. Me rambling about why I disliked Hardy and why I liked Heaney and them all being so curious about the world, so funny, open-minded, gossipy, puzzled but somehow never shocked.
I remember thinking one evening, how extraordinary it would’ve been to have grown up like that – seeing the world as an exciting prospect, instead of worrying about it and one’s place in it. It was this – not their growing successes – that had an effect on me. I hadn’t known adults like them before – most of those I’d known growing up had seemed either disinterested, anxious, or shocked – not my mother though who wrote poems and drank scotch (which was one of the things that scandalised the shockable).
Someone asked me recently whether I thought any of the ‘glamour of Gloucester Crescent” had rubbed off on me.
‘Well, I love knock, knock jokes and mashed potato,’ I said, ‘so, I suppose it did.’
First published in The Sunday Times, 10th Nov 2013.