Margaret Forster: My Life In Houses (Chatto & Windus)
Saturday 15 November 2014
Novelist Margaret Forster applies the same attention to detail and precise language of her fiction-writing to the story of her own life, as glimpsed through the prism of the houses she has lived in. It is not a tale that puts much emphasis on the colour of the walls or the placing of a rug. Instead, it is an emotional response to the houses that became her homes.
Forster was born in Carlisle in 1938, in a council house on the Raffles estate. Her father was a fitter in a local factory and, prior to marriage, her mother had been a secretary. She had an older brother and younger sister, the family of five crammed into a two-bedroom house with an outside lavatory and, bafflingly, a bathroom housing only a bath.
Forster was fascinated by houses from an early age and developed a rather snobbish attitude to her own home. While she often went to visit school friends living in large private houses she never invited them to her own crowded house. She longed for the large bedrooms that her friends had and the privacy they afforded. She often played a game where she picked a house she liked, moved out the inhabitants and moved herself in, luxuriating in the quiet rooms she anticipated they had. In her childish mind she never saw this as a rejection of her family, more that she was imagining a life beyond them.
Forster was a clever child and won a scholarship to study at Oxford University. She hated the constant noise and chatter around her college room and, as soon as she was able, she rented a room in a house nearby. The house was owned by the intimidatingly proper Mrs Brown but run by her sister, Fanny, who sported a fixed grin in public but constantly grumbled under her breath. She met her future husband, the journalist Hunter Davies, and after university they settled into rented rooms in London before buying a dilapidated house on the ‘wrong’ side of Highgate Road that was to be her home for the next 50 years.
Forster writes in a deceptively simple, conversational style that is warm and inclusive. Her recollections are generously tinged with a gentle, knowing humour. The most moving sections are when she discovers she has breast cancer and her London home becomes her sanctuary. First one mastectomy and then another, but the solidity of her home comforts her through her recovery. She eschews the usual terms associated with cancer patients such as ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ the disease instead opting to retreat to the familiar territory of home, observing how her mind and body react to the disease and treatment. Sadly, she now has metastatic cancer which is being held at bay.
Forster’s journey through various properties also reflects the changes in British society. She recalls her mother blacking the grate and keeping their home scrupulously clean without the benefit of any of the modern appliances we now take for granted. When she moved to London many of the large houses in her street were split into bedsits but as the area became more desirable the buildings were converted back to their original state. As she recalls, there were skips all along the road and the sounds of drills and hammers seven days a week. She is amused when the kind of fire that her mother toiled over and had replaced with a cheap tiled fireplace becomes fashionable again, as do the panelled doors that her mother had paid to have covered in thin sheets of plywood.
Forster found that the atmosphere of a house had to be just right in order for her to write. Even when finances allowed her to have a holiday home first in the Algarve and then in the Lake District, it was her London home that sparked her writing into life. She wraps it around herself like a favourite cardigan, knowing that it is the memories those walls enclose that make it special. This is a lovely and touching evocation of what home means to one woman, and within this is a universality that many will connect with.