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Margeret Forster's My Life in Houses is an inspirational reflection on eight decades of home

Margeret Forster's sensitive new study of a life in real estate is more than simple autobiography.

My Life in Houses
Margaret Forster
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £14.99
 

Inevitably Margaret Forster’s account of the houses where she has lived serves as an alternative memoir. The 76-year-old novelist and biographer is suffering from metastatic cancer, so there is a valedictory quality to aspects of her book. She quotes Leonard Woolf: “Looking back on my life, I tend to see it divided into sections which are determined by the houses in which I have lived.” In Forster’s case, these sections resonate with happenings, feelings and people, but the houses remain central.

At one point she appears impatient of her deep-seated habit of regarding her home as an active player in her life: she describes this impulse as “pushing emotion on to what was just a pile of bricks and mortar”. Were she proof against such a tendency, with its suggestions of anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy, she would not be the writer she is and this book could not exist. Her admission, partway through her account, that “surroundings had always mattered to me”, is entirely superfluous.

Such close engagement with a house is, she acknowledges, a particularly writerly preoccupation. To illustrate, she cites authors whom she herself has examined as biographical subjects, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier. For all three women, a house is a universe in miniature, ideally ordered to suit its occupant – like an item of bespoke clothing, as Forster describes it. It reflects and reassures the writer at her (housebound) desk. Its qualities are affirmative; it offers solace, inspiration.

Forster’s focus on the spaces she has inhabited over eight decades, and the extent to which they in turn inhabit her, is consistent. She resists any conventional autobiographical impulse. Her husband (Hunter Davies) and her children are sketchily drawn; she does not reflect at length on her highly successful career as a writer, her books or what her writing means to her, nor are we often reminded that Forster’s homes have been cradles not only to her own writing but that of her husband, too. Instead, she explores a very personal emotional and imaginative bond with her living spaces, some of them permanent, others – including holiday homes in Britain and abroad – temporary or little used. My Life in Houses is exactly that; and as a result, perhaps, it is simultaneously less moving but more universal than it might have been. Forster’s spaces are specific to her and in this very specificity lies their value to her. Few of us have not felt at some time the womb-like tug of a favourite room.

Margaret Forster was born in 1938 in a newly built council house on a model estate put up by Carlisle County Borough Council on an expanse of poor-quality grassland to the west of the town, 12 houses to the acre, green spaces remaining. There were two bedrooms to the Forster home in Orton Road but no indoor loo or basin, and rudimentary heating in the form of a black iron range that required assiduous attention. Looking back, Forster describes herself as “a lucky girl”, an assessment intended as much for her younger self as the reader.

She lived there with her parents and siblings until she was 14. By the age of seven she had already begun to dream of a different home, a different aspect; she wanted distance from the rowdy corner pub, flowers in place of potatoes in the garden, and a view of garish colours rather than the predominant grey of outhouses, coal sheds, dank privies. Her childish cravings were for space, quiet, prettiness and, like writers before and since, a room of her own. She explains this reaction as not “any rejection of my own family, just a natural desire to have the chance not to be forced to be with others all the time”: that is to say, not snobbery, but the bookish child’s longing for a desk and the possibility of reading undisturbed. As Forster recounts it, that desire, natural or otherwise, became a significant dynamic of her life. Until her purchase in 1963, with Davies, of the house in Boscastle Road, London NW5, which remains her home today, Forster was a woman constantly – perhaps unusually – focused on settling satisfactorily the question of her living arrangements.

Since 1987 Forster and Davies have divided their year between Boscastle Road and a house in the Lake District. Now, given her illness, she anticipates a final move, to a hospice. That threatened severance spices her love for her home of 50 years. In truth, this sensitive and inspiring writer has always been passionately attached to the homes where she has lived. 

Matthew Dennison’s latest book is “Behind the Mask: the Life of Vita Sackville-West” (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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