WE ALL remember scenes from our childhood, but, in his book Gloucester Crescent: Me, my dad and other grown-ups, 54-year-old William Miller takes his mind back some 40 years to reimagine himself as a child, a schoolboy, and an adolescent, and sets about describing life as he sees it.
But his dad is no ordinary dad: he is none other than the theatre director, television presenter, Beyond the Fringe star, and doctor, Sir Jonathan Miller. What does your father do, William was once asked. “Smoking, typing, and getting paid for it,” he answers.
The other grown-ups included neighbours in Gloucester Crescent, London, the Bloomsbury of the late 1960s and ’70s, such as the writer Alan Bennett and the philosopher Professor A. J. (Freddie) Ayer. For William, Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van parked on Bennett’s drive, wasn’t a character from a film, but a cantankerous lady he encountered in real life. “Miss Shepherd doesn’t like any of the children in the crescent,” he observes.
There is something of Adrian Mole about the book; but, in his case, when names are dropped — and they are regularly and with great force — the encounters are true. Miller went to school with the Queen’s niece, and the description of dinner and an evening out at the theatre with Sarah Armstrong-Jones and her mother, Princess Margaret, could become a classic of comic writing.
Miller lived a life of privilege, and being taken by his father to work meant watching rehearsals of Così Fan Tutte. Nevertheless, there are vivid passages describing pre-adult angst: the fear of being bullied, of losing his mother to cancer, of nuclear war, and of waiting for exam results.
Religion does not figure highly. Why would it, in the home of a leading supporter of the National Secular Society? But, towards the end, Miller relates the curious experience of the family friend Freddie Ayer. He died in hospital, but was revived, and reported a vision of a bright light. “It was a turning point”, Miller notes, “for a man whose entire philosophical belief had been based on there being no God.”
This is a good read, which ageing members of the chattering classes will much enjoy.
Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.
Gloucester Crescent: Me, my dad and other grown-ups
Profile Books £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50