A terrible revenge. Peter Dunn recalls the bad old days of Anne Robinson, and wonders at the public monster she became

Memoirs of an Unfit Mother

Anne Robinson<em> Little, Brown, 285pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0316857777

Anne Robinson, she of the low boredom threshold, has always known how to say goodbye. About 30 years ago, when we were fellow reporters on the Sunday Times, she and her then boyfriend, Johnny Penrose (now her husband), were staying with us at our cottage in Oxfordshire, drinking the day away. Robinson was sitting on a fireside rug. Penrose, standing next to her, made some remark and Robinson screwed up her face and asked: "Why don't you just fuck off?" Penrose shrugged, walked out and drove back to the Mirror in London for his shift in the newsroom.

Later that night, I was awakened by voices and went to investigate. Anne was in the sitting room with her back to the door. She was saying to my wife, Lis: "Why don't you leave him, then?" She turned, saw me and bolted out under my arm, leaving her hosts to have a huge row.

Many of her colleagues on the paper experienced this dark side of Anne in her cups: the slurred summons across the newsroom (by phone) to listen as she ranted on about some ashen colleague on a neighbouring desk; the dreaded rota at the Blue Lion, the paper's pub on the Gray's Inn Road, to return her home to her husband, Charlie Wilson, a chippy Glaswegian headbanger from the Daily Mail who later edited the Times for Rupert Murdoch. On one of my night runs, Charlie answered the door in his pyjamas before turning curtly on his heel. Anne changed into a very short nightdress and was soon bouncing up and down in an armchair, saying: "Give 'em a drink, Charlie. Give 'em a drink, Charlie." Wilson poured whiskies, then looked at me with loathing. "The t-r-r-ouble wi' the Sunday Times," he said, "is it's run by fuckin' college boys."

Robinson herself could be a bit scary, even with friends who tried to look after her. Her mockery of colleagues was often devastating. She decided that the paper's crime reporter, John Ball, didn't pull his editorial weight, and said of him: "Poor John. He's only had that typewriter two years and already it's gone in for its first 500-word service."

I suspect that Robinson wrote Memoirs of an Unfit Mother for quite complex reasons. The fame and fortune (always a benchmark for herself and for her judgements of others) she has achieved as inquisitor on The Weakest Link justify a celebratory autobiography. It will have made her lots of money to boast about. More than that, I'm sure she wanted to get in first before someone else laid their hands on the scalpel. No harm in any of that, except that Robinson has used the exercise to wreak a terrible revenge on almost every important person who influenced her life. It's very skilfully done, with much praise before the little balled fist sinks into the victim's solar plexus. Charlie is my darling, but he used to knock me about and he was ghastly on the honeymoon; Johnny is also a darling, sooo artistic, funny and considerate, but how feckless, how sulky when I got a better job than him on the Mirror and he got sacked and I still made Robert Maxwell give me a Mercedes. With an on-board telephone.

None of this viciousness is apparent in the first two, enjoyable sections of the book, in which she talks about her extraordinary mother, the Duchess, a market stallholder who conquered the meat and poultry business in Liverpool and taught her daughter to despise men (as she did her meek husband) and to have someone do the Hoovering. Robinson took this to heart, so much so that, in north London, she even had a nanny for her dog Guinness, a gigantic creature whose tumuli of garden evacuations kept visitors on their toes.

Her first job in journalism, kitted out by her mother with a green MG car and, later, a mink coat for doorstepping, was with the North London News Agency; it marked her down as the tough, resourceful young journalist who later worked on the Daily Mail (where Charlie Wilson was deputy news editor) and the Sunday Times. Robinson points out, quite rightly, that those were difficult times for young female reporters. Celia Haddon, her contemporary on the Mail (who later wrote about her own drink problem), told me that one executive she had worked for would grab her breasts when it pleased him. Even on the Sunday Times, the news desk deliberately humiliated Robinson by sending her to cover an FA Cup final crowd story when seven months pregnant.

The book's darkest (and most tedious) section covers the 1973 court battle between Wilson and Robinson for custody of their little daughter, Emma. Only then did Sunday Times friends of Anne's realise that social invitations to the couple's various houses had been monitored (usually by sycophantic Mail employees of Charlie's) for evidence of their gross behaviour. The writer Ian Jack, hearing that an affidavit would accuse him of being sick in Charlie's bath after delivering Anne home, absented himself abroad for the duration of the hearings. Robinson has never forgiven the judge for deciding, in effect, that Emma would be better off with Wilson's nannies than with hers. Given the ferocity of the battle - even the equable Penrose had deserted her for Charlie's cause after suspecting her of spooning with one of her legal team - the offer of maternal access seemed a reasonable compromise.

Judged by her own account of her life since then, Robinson remains something of an enigma. Was she an alcoholic, as her stupendous benders suggested? Or was she genetically addicted to the kind of rage for recognition and wealth that also drove her mother to drink? When, two years after giving up the booze, Johnny persuaded the Mirror to give her a job, her solipsistic ego made her a natural for the kind of Glenda Slagg column in which she could lacerate Joan Collins for wearing thick make-up, Princess Diana for image-building visits to hospices, and Johnny (referred to as Himself) for his funny taste in underpants. As a features editor on the paper, she enticed some of her old Sunday Times mates, including my wife, to write for her, then got bored with them. My memory here is of Lis, on her knees and in tears on the telephone, while Robinson lacerated a piece she had commissioned.

Robinson's book proclaims her contempt for men, and yet there is hardly an episode in her life when men have not played a significant role, either in picking her up or hoisting her career, from Frank Keating, the sports writer whom she nearly married and who wrote the test pieces that got Robinson her first news agency job, to Robin Day, with whom she may or may not have had an affair, to Johnny Himself, who wrote her copy when she was too drunk to file to her employers at the Liverpool Echo. Like Margaret Thatcher, who Robinson thinks got it right about husbands, it does make you wonder how Mrs Penrose will cope when and if the dungheap of celebrity television collapses beneath her.

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis