“When I was a child, I’d listen to the rhythmic clatter of manual typewriters coming from the open windows of houses along the street.” The typewriters that William Miller could hear were being used by his father, Jonathan Miller (star of Beyond the Fringe, opera director and writer), across the street was Alan Bennett, A.J. Ayers (the philosopher) lived on the other side of the garden wall while Claire Tomalin, V.S. Pritchett and Angus Wilson were typing away in nearby houses.
William Miller grew up in Gloucester Crescent, the literary world’s best-known street, in the 1970s and 1980s. This was the real-life Love, Nina, the action that is depicted in the movie The Lady in the Van happened outside his front door. Gloucester Crescent is a memoir of William Miller’s childhood and teen years, he grew up while the stories told in Alan Bennett’s diaries are happening in the background. If William’s life is now defined by literary depictions of that time, at the time it was dictated by his attempts to match up to his father. Jonathan Miller was brilliant but volatile and self-involved: “Much of the time he’s far too busy with work and his big ideas to think about family life and leaves Mum to deal with all that.”
Gloucester Crescent is written from the perspective of William as a child, and in the tone of a child’s voice (peppered with a child’s innocently perceptive observations). Miller admits that “as a child who was overshadowed by these extraordinary people, I longed to have a voice and be heard.” He has achieved that. The voice of Gloucester Crescent is entertaining and affable, combining the cynical teen innocence of Catcher in the Rye with a flow of gossipy stories about the neighbours of the Crescent. William Miller’s stories are, it should be admitted, the commonplace events of many childhoods but are worth publishing because of the famous names who pass by while they are happening. As a child William is bitten by a dog, the dog belongs to Alice Thomas Ellis; he irritates his friend’s father who regularly mocks him, A.J. Ayers; he meets the first boyfriend of another friend’s sister, Martin Amis and his first dance at a school disco is with Princess Margaret’s daughter.
The name-dropping is never a problem, these people are merely the scenery to William’s youth. He certainly never takes advantage to provide salacious stories about all the notable literati (which must have been his publisher’s hope when this book was commissioned). Gloucester Crescent rarely strays from the consciousness of William as a child, and what child takes much notice of their parents’ friends? We are told that Alan Bennett is a daily visitor to the Miller’s house yet William Miller does not quote anything that Bennett might have said on these visits.
Almost everyone who picks this book up will be looking for another perspective on the life of Alan Bennett, Beryl Bainbridge and Miss Shepherd (in her van), they will be sorely disappointed. Gloucester Crescent is a child’s eye memoir of growing up in a bohemia where the adults’ values have unintended consequences (for the child of an intellectual William’s education is a disaster). William Miller may be the most genial writer of the year, he always considers the other person’s point of view and Gloucester Crescent ends in a forgiving understanding of his relationship with his father. However, as the diaries of his family friend, Alan Bennett, illustrate, memoir (or a diary) can be at its best when it is unforgiving and exasperated by other people.
Any Cop?: Enjoyable but this is not a glimpse into life on Gloucester Crescent that we expect. It is William Miller’s teenage years while his parents entertain downstairs.