The wellbeing reading group were lucky enough to have the author of our most recent book attend our meeting in December. William Miller, author of Gloucester Crescent, joined us virtually from his sitting room in the famous Crescent, and answered lots of questions from our group members who’d been avidly reading his autobiographical work.
Telling the tale of his singular upbringing in Gloucester Crescent in London, the book takes us through his childhood and is littered with famous names, not least of which was his father, the comedian, author, TV presenter, theatre and opera director, and doctor, Sir Jonathan Miller. Alan Bennett was a regular for dinner (apparently he liked his food served at 8pm on the dot), George Melly the jazz musician and A.J. (Freddie) Ayer the philosopher were neighbours (William used to enter the Ayer’s house via Freddie’s bathroom whilst Freddie was taking a bath), his father worked with Peter Cook and John Cleese, and the infamous Miss Shepherd’s van was parked, in all its smelly glory on the road where William played. Nigella Lawson was Freddie Ayer’s step-daughter and they holidayed together in France, later William would work with Nigella on her TV programmes. The book takes us through William’s difficult relationship with his father, a man he tried desperately to please, and eventually to escape. We hear about his terrifying teenage years being bullied at a state secondary school, and his eventual escape to Bedales public school, where he did badly in his A levels. It’s a fascinating book to read, and it was equally fascinating to have the author join us to talk about his work.
During our hour long meeting, William talked about his mother being his staunchest supporter, and that his siblings reserved judgement about the book until they’d read it. He told us that they, and many of the people in the book had expected a raunchy exposé, but were relieved at the humorous telling from his perspective as a child. He explained that writing in a child’s voice was a “get out of jail” card for the book, so that he didn’t have to include any of the more scandalous gossip that passed him by as a child, but which he has since found out.
We asked about how he remembered things so clearly, which William put down to a good memory, his mother’s appointment diaries, and an excellent biography of his father. Hearing about the research he conducted for each of the stories he wanted to tell was particularly interesting for our librarian group members.
The overall impression was that of a chaotic life that has come full circle- William was talking to us from his house in Gloucester Crescent, a couple of doors away from the house he grew up in, where his mother and brother still live. His father died a couple of year ago, and his description of watching his larger than life father fade away with Alzheimer’s was incredibly sad. If you’d like to hear more, William’s moving portrait of his father’s life is available on BBC Sounds https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000yt7f . We heard funny stories too, reminiscences or Blue Peter presenters, and a lovely photo of Miss Shepherd that wasn’t in the book. After a decline, when Gloucester Crescent was compared to a run down end of season seaside town, William now describes a place that’s now busy and vibrant again, with lots of creative people and a great social life. My favourite description is from Alan Bennett though, who William reports as saying Gloucester Crescent was like “filthy ferrets in an old sack, fighting”.
It was such an enjoyable reading group, we ran over by half an hour, and had to pull ourselves away. Roll on the next book, which is The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. We will be meeting on Tuesday 11th January 2022 12.30-1pm for our regular reading group meeting. Contact Library@geh.nhs.uk if you’d like a copy, or a meeting invitation!