I wonder if I have ever stayed in an English house that didn’t contain a creased and dog-eared book by Osbert Lancaster. In my childhood his collections of pocket cartoons were always a disappointment: the comic sketches on their covers promised hilarity, but the jokes inside – no doubt wonderfully topical in their day – meant little to me. His architectural books, which I noticed as I grew older, seemed forbiddingly esoteric. Not until I acquired parents-in-law who owned almost his entire oeuvre did I discover the memoirs that convinced me of his brilliance: All Done from Memory (1953) and With an Eye to the Future (1967) are remarkable not just for their wit and powers of observation, but for their highly individual take on Britain’s path to two world wars.
It is during the night-time air raids of the summer of 1944 that All Done from Memory begins. Rather than await his fate indoors, Lancaster wanders the empty streets of west London, revisiting the scenes of his Edwardian childhood. Notting Hill, where his family once lived, has long been abandoned by the wealthier classes and become a land of seedy flats and bedsits; his book, he tells us, should be seen not primarily as autobiography but as ‘a memorial plaque to a vanished world’. The fact that in our own time Notting Hill has been reclaimed by the rich (though not always with respect for its original architecture) adds a dash of irony to his endeavour.
At the heart of the book is a series of portraits of characters from his childhood, each brimming with eccentricity and occasionally certifiable madness (as in the case of the clergyman who tells his largely female congregation that heaven has no place for women). There is Cousin Jenny, who lives in a Victorian time-warp, obsessed with European royalty; Mrs Ullathorne, once a beauty at the court of Napoleon III, her hands ‘criss-crossed with the purple hawsers of her veins’; and, most disturbingly, Colonel
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