Philip Hensher

Other voices, the same rooms

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Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House

Julie Myerson

Flamingo, pp. 451, £

I’m not susceptible to ghosts, and never see or sense them; my partner, who is, reports a mildly inquisitive nocturnal presence in our house in Florence, a town where estate agents all acknowledge the likely presence of such infestations, it being so common there. Who our ghost is or was, I don’t know; I am told that he or she has what I would have thought a slightly alarming habit of sitting down heavily at the end of the bed: just a previous inhabitant, whose name is now long forgotten, observing these curiously un-Italian occupants sleeping in his house with emotions impossible to retrieve.

But all houses, in a sense, have ghosts, and not necessarily those of dead people, either. If we have bought our houses, we know a little about the people who lived there before, not just from meeting them, but from their inadequate grasp of plumbing necessities and horrible taste in wall- paper. Before that, darkness falls, and we can only guess at the people who have inhabited these rooms and thought them theirs, who have perhaps left some psychic imprint on the bricks and mortar we are now tarting up and ripping out. Most of us live in old houses, and English people generally feel slightly odd about moving into a perfectly new one; in practice, we feel, those layers of lives ripple about our Victorian walls like the echo of music.

Julie Myerson has had a brilliant idea for a book, which as far as I know hasn’t been done in quite this way before, but whose poetic force everyone will understand. She has lived in her Victorian house, 34 Lillieshall Road, London SW4 for 15 years with her partner Jonathan and her three children. She loves her house, that is evident, and is susceptible to the idea that other people, too, have lived there. One day, she sets out to discover everything she can about the people who have inhabited the house since it was built, in 1873; this is the biography of a house, but also the story of a lot of different people’s lives, and Julie’s own life, wandering rootless from house to house through her childhood until she came to Clapham and a place called home.

Clapham over the years has had some ups and downs, and such a story can hardly be anything but one of gentrification, social decline and social aspiration. Very sensibly, Myerson tells the story backwards, starting with the owner before her, a John Pidgeon, who bought it in 1981. Even then, Clapham was on the up, and from the 1980s it was a place for knocking-through and doing-up. The Pidgeons seem like an aspirational young couple who in 1987 sold it to another young couple.

But before that the story starts to become interesting. These large Victorian terraced houses in south London had once been very comfortable, and have now become so again, but for decades after the second world war they were bedsit territory. The task of tracking down the long- and short-term residents in Lillieshall Road was a nightmare for Julie, involving shooting off letters to anyone of the right name with infrequent success; she tells the detective story quite wonderfully. Still, in the end, she has pretty well the entire tale. What makes it fascinating is that this part of town was the centre of immigration from the West Indies after the arrival of HMS Windrush, and many of the inhabitants of the house were the earliest Jamaican immigrants. Julie tells their story with immense warmth and love, following their little local difficulties with patience and tolerant amusement. It is a wonderful narrative, the arrival of the first black immigrants, and through a few individual lives, patiently mapped, you have the sense of a large social phenomenon being described.

At this period the stories sometimes are heartbreakingly sad; Myerson discovers that a small boy who everyone remembers as being a little charmer, was quietly given up for adoption at the age of two. She tracks him down, and he is bemused, undamaged, cheerful; but it sends her back to her own story, growing up with an unloving father, going from pillar to post with a fundamentally dysfunctional family. Myerson’s previous rootlessness is an important part of the book; indeed, it makes perfect sense, in a kind of unintended way, of the immense warmth and love the rest of the book shows towards near strangers. It is a book filled with gratitude, and her own narrative explains why.

Before the bedsit period, we are in a time of slightly seedy decline, and Myerson comes up with a superb rogue called Reggie. Amazingly, it turns out that his daughter, an actress, had been in their house once before without having any idea that her father once owned it. The actress produces a marvellous cache of family letters, which for me are one of the chief joys of the book. Reggie was no doubt disgraceful in life, but as an exuberant swine he is unforgettably enjoyable.

The story winds backwards to the building of the house; it becomes one of increasing respectability and you remember that Clapham was once called the Queen of the Suburbs. Still, Myerson could have had no suspicion of the magnificent find which awaited her at the end of her exhausting research into previous residents. The first owner of the house, far from being an obscure member of the respectable bourgeoisie, was a royal servant; not just that, but a very enduring one, who had gone into the service of the Duchess of Kent in 1828, and whose death was noted by Queen Victoria in her diary in 1891. It is a marvellous stroke of luck, which gives this lovable book a satisfying conclusion; but even without it the book would have been pure magic.

Festive, curious, full of other lives and voices and quiet existences raised to the exuberant point of historical pageantry, Home is a perfect example of what can be done by just sitting down and looking long and hard enough at a single idea. I am immensely jealous that Julie Myerson had such a simple, perfect one and the dedication to carry it through so successfully, but in fact it needed her to do it. It is a complicated, intricate structure, like a Victorian boarding house of many passages and shaky temporary partitions, behind which anything at all may be dwelling, in the attic of which anything may be found; but throughout the whole house, you can feel the warmth, like a fire in the hearth, of the love of family and place, and the sense of what it means to feel at home. A wonderful book.