Bel Mooney broadcaster
Bel Mooney House



Return To Full List of Articles

A House in a Life

The Times Magazine, 2004


When, unexpectedly, my long marriage swerved into a cul de sac to crash, the velocity pitched my spirit over the wall - and into a new house. Now, if people ask gently, 'Are you all right?' my habitual reply seems a non-sequitor: 'I have my house.'

Yet to those who know me well the answer is exact. Since I have worshipped at the shrine of the Penates - the household gods - for years, it's fitting that those ritual devotions should bring me consolation. Maybe I should add, 'You see, this is my own house'. For, like many women, I have measured out my life with crowded rooms, until sometimes I was Alice grown too large, her head against the roof. Husband, children, parents, pets, parties, food, working at home, fitting it all in.....the ceaseless struggle for perfection. Now, in these cool autonomous spaces, it's tempting to come out with the cliches of the independent, separated woman....'I feel liberated....I can be myself....' and so on. But the truth is, I was myself in all our homes; it's just that I'm not sure whether I made them or they made me.

Walking down a street at dusk, the lamps lit, the curtains not yet drawn, you see rooms illuminated like stage sets for the comedies and tragedies of other lives. In just such a way I find myself looking back through lighted windows at my own life unfolding under different roofs, and ask myself - with due humility - how I got to be so lucky. Carol Ann Duffy's fine poem 'Windows' might have been written for me:

There you are again, in a room where those early hyacinths
surely sweeten the air, and the right words wait
in the dictionaries, on the tip of the tongue you touch
in a kiss,  drawing your crimson curtains now
against dark hours.

But I can't draw the curtain yet. Look at those houses, increasing in style and grandeur all the while. In the warm light is a woman being busy - oh, so endlessly busy - learning to cook for the beloved young husband, cuddling a baby son, crying, raging, writing, decorating thirty-five Christmas trees, painting, sewing, hanging curtains, wrapping mountains of gifts, meeting builders, talking on the phone, nursing a sick daughter, setting tables, plumping cushions, serving dinners, washing up late at night, dancing, getting drunk, seeing the kids leave home...Ah, and saying goodbye to the still-beloved husband.....

And before that is the teenager, the child, the baby, in the parental homes which set the standard for all that would come later. What did it all mean?

This new house is silent. It cannot supply the answer because it doesn't know me very well. Not yet.

I spent the first two and a half years of my life in my grandparents' rented pre-war semi in bombed-out Liverpool. My young parents couldn't get on the housing list, despite having two children, and so the family pulled a scam - pretending they'd been thrown out because of a family row, that we were all sleeping on my Auntie Prim's floor. It must have been so scary for them: petitioners before a tribunal of 'them'. As T.S.Eliot puts it, 'My people humble people, who expect nothing'. I often wonder how much of it I absorbed, that desperate longing for a home. Of course it worked - and they got a 'corporation' house in West Derby, before moving to an estate of new flats called The Green, on Queen's Drive. There we awoke to the sound of buses changing gear on the the dual carriageway, the distant hum of a big city.

My memories are of 'fifties thrift: every brown paper bag saved in the kitchen drawer, my mother knitting and sewing all our clothes and curtains, my grandmother showing me how to craft 'contemporary' cushions from black-out material and flowers cut from coloured felt. My father perpetually decorates, trimmed edges of the wallpaper ribboning from my mother's shears. A smell of paste and white gloss. The coal fire heating the back boiler for Sunday baths, and tea by the fire listening to 'The Ovaltinies', and diving across freezing lino to dress in the kitchen when frost crystals form on the insides of our bedroom windows. My grandmother's house is the second home, her small brass hearth set polished to a glitter, like the trivet that keeps the teapot warm before the fire. She is totally defined by the polished surfaces that reflect both her devotion and her toil, and is forever picking imaginary crumbs off the rug. It's all so domestic , this life; the outside world impinges not at all.

When I was nearly fourteen my parents moved south to Trowbridge, Wiltshire - and their own home now, another pre war semi , heavily mortgaged. This was a considerable step up in the world, and apart from unlearning an accent I had to pick up unfamiliar skills like riding a bicycle for the first time. For a long time I missed the murmur of the city. On Sundays (or was it Saturdays?) my parents shared the housework while I skulked in my bedroom pretending to do Latin homework. My grandmother was 'houseproud', my mother much less so - but these were the times (early sixties) of grafting modern tiled fireplaces on to chimney breasts papered with mock stone, of ripping out interior door panels and substituting frosted glass, of thinking a fabric called 'uncut moquette' astonishingly smart. Like the brightly patterned carpets and my orange repp bedroom curtains, made by Mum whilst the Beatles sang 'Norwegian Wood' on my Dansette record player. Actually I thought we were quite posh. I didn't know any different.

An the time of my upbringing the home was seen as a woman's domain. She it was who would choose curtain and cushion material, just as she would buy the food and cook it. In my world men played no part in cooking the 'tea', no more than they could run up a dress on the Singer. They would have a view on the cost of things, of course, but women ruled the roost. The Victorian 'Angel of the House' merged into Betty Friedan's 'Feminine Mystique' and nobody 'ordinary' questioned it because, after all, it worked. Has all this changed so much? In motorcycle magazines you see lovingly-maintained machines advertised with the forlorn explanation 'New kitchen forces sale'. Her indoors has put her foot down and there's no help for it - the Triumph must go. Though middle class young men like my son now embrace with enthusiasm the idea that your home makes a statement, announcing to the world who you are (oh, praise the well-placed candle, or head of Buddha!) it is still a majority of women who pore over home magazines and sections, not men. With enthusiasm we design sets for our family dramas, only to find, sometimes that the script is riddled with cliche. Then the house lights dim, and that sudden gloom is terrifying....

I was a twenty one year old student when I got married in a purple mini-dress to a fellow student who was a grownup at twenty three. Children of the 'fifties, intellectual radicals in the late 'sixties (marching against the Vietnam War, challenging university authorities, and believing that a combination of journalism and the Labour Party could change the world) we nevertheless espoused the old roles without any thought. Our first proper home was a small Victorian villa in the unfashionable part of Fulham, rented cheaply from the dentist who practised in the basement. My tiny grandmother came up on a train to help me clean it - that being her expertise. I painted the rooms myself and made all the curtains - purple in the bedroom. We hired a sander for the sitting room floor, since stripped floors were de rigeur . Furniture was a mixture: an old sofa from my mother-in-law, scrubbed table and chairs from glorious Habitat, second-hand finds I stripped or painted olive green or brown. We afforded occasional half bottles of wine, set the red-checked table cloth alight with a wonky fondue set. Though we shared the housework I assumed my role was to go to the laundrette, shop and cook, and his was to sort out the bills and do what I called 'the boring stuff'. It would be the same for the next thirty five years.

Looking back, I can see how my houses defined me as surely as my grandmother's did. The first mortgage was on a largish Victorian semi in soon-to-be-gentrified Clapham South. We were working now, so this time we hired a builder to make alterations, take out all the meters from the old bed sits, strip the floor and paint the walls in the bright primary colours I copied from my sister-in-law because I didn't really know who I was any more. I wanted to mimic what people did in my new social class - which was both middle and declasse 'media'. So 'people' had William Morris fabrics and filled their houses with the bits of junk shop Victoriana my own people would have thrown out, wanting everything new. My parents haunted West Country sale rooms for us, buying a Victorian rosewood chaise longue, a mahogany bookcase. We put back a Victorian fireplace, because the idea of hearth and home were inseparable - and when I became a columnist The Daily Mirror snapped me in my new kitchen, pretending to beat cake mixture in an empty bowl.

What was the message? Competent wife and writer and (now) mother of a toddler son. It was all true too. I stuffed mushrooms for dinner parties, put cigarettes out in little pots for our guests to smoke at buzzing parties, wrote my first book, hired a succession of hopeless mother's helps, waved goodbye to my brilliant husband as he left for foreign assignments, cut out his rave reviews in the television columns, wrote rubbishy think pieces because it was easy to do that whilst at home with Daniel. If sometimes I turned to Plath....

I stand in a column
Of winged, unmiraculous women,
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust And dried plates with my dense hair......

that was only briefly. I had what I wanted. It wasn't uncomplicated, but we were doing fine.

The next step seemed inevitable: the country house. In 1980 we moved to a village outside Bath, because I wanted to bring up our sick daughter in the country near to my parents. Simple. Curiously, the former rectory was a similar size and shape as the whole block of flats I had lived in as a child, containing six dwellings. It had french doors opening on to sweeping lawns, an orchard, a gothic front door. Yet again I supervised exhaustive - and exhausting - restoration, chose the then-fashionable stripped-pine Smallbone kitchen, and paid somebody else to make chintzy curtains. My all-generous husband let me do just what I wanted, and this home was the apotheosis. It epitomised stability, family, good neighbours and 'the evening with the photograph album' - a village idyll far from the trivial, seductive frenzy of London. I look back on fifteen years of complete happiness within those walls....but surely it couldn't have been? There is no such thing as perfection. And what on earth made me start to wear tweed skirts, Laura Ashley and sensible shoes? Glebe House was turning me into something I wasn't quite. It even propelled me down the hill into the village church to give thanks to a God I wasn't at all sure about. He never spoke back.

Along the way we had acquired a series of London pads, bigger each time, culminating in the Notting Hill town house (more builders, more restoration of fireplaces) we made our main base for eight years, retreating to the Bath rectory (which my parents now lived in) for weekends and holidays. Then in 1995 my husband reached that point in his life where a dream floats within grasp - and we bought the early eighteenth century farmhouse, high on a windy hill a short distance from Bath, where he could try to fulfil his ambition to create an organic oasis in the beautiful countryside on the edge of the Cotswold Way. There was a long hot summer of builders; everything - but everything - had to be done to the place to create the home I required. 'You're in charge of the inside, I'm in charge of the outside', he said. When it came to the actual move I was in a state of grief, but it had to be done - because if you resist all change you might as well die. And I tried so hard to become the superwoman farmer's wife, even buying green wellies and (once) rounding up the cows. The pets increased to six. We got chickens. Tractors trundled past the library windows into a view of heartbreaking beauty. On winter nights the stars were as bright as my joy but as piercing as my isolation.

I am not there any more. When the unthinkable occurred Life in a Housethe only thing that sustained me was the prospect of living within the city boundaries of Bath, and I fantasised about big windows, a walled garden and a door in the middle - like those pictures of dream homes I was forever sketching as a flat-dwelling child. Hardyesque fate played a role. My grown up children found the very same Regency, double-fronted town house for me, exactly where I wanted to be - which was near my parents and near the man who (after thirty five cracking years) will always have my love and respect. But he would never have chosen a house like this - 'done up' with downlighters everywhere. glass basins and a state-of-the art kitchen, whilst retaining all the original fireplaces and cornices. Why, it even came with cream carpets and curtains, so (apart from bookcases) there was little to do. 'Oh. but don't you want to create a nest again?' asked a friend. I gave an emphatic No.

But already it's recreating me. Before I moved - in another state of grief - I found myself lured irresistibly into shoe shops to buy killer heels: purple suede with ankle ties, turquoise frou-frou, rainbow stripes, shiny black ones that warn 'Don't mess' and savage vintage scarlet. The point being that these were not shoes for a farm, or even a rectory, these are for clicking along the Bath stone floors and cantilevered staircases of the coolly elegant dwelling I share with my precious Maltese, Bonnie - who's into laps, not country walks. I wake to the sound of buses, the distant hum of a small city. There is nobody to consult over the colour scheme in the bedroom - which happens to be lilac and purple again, after all these years. If I want to festoon the place with butterflies and fairy lights, then so be it. I pay my own bills and turn the key in the door to a new world - awe struck by the generosity of its consolations.

I have a self to recover, a queen’....

And - now it's got my number - this house is telling me the meaning. That all the joys and sorrows of the generations who lived in it are recorded since 1820 on its stone tapes. That the pleasures and pains of all the homes in my life were burnt on the CDs of their walls as well as on my spirit, and I carry it all with me, to dance to the old tunes here. I've have already abandoned my plan to replace the 70s green 'dralon' covering my mother chose for the rosewood chaise longue with something more.... well...designer. I can't be bothered. There may be smart skirting level lighting up those pale stairs, and brushed chrome plugs and switches, yet my Nan's brass hearth set and trivet stand by the marble fireplace, and will remain polished to a glimmer. Nothing demolished. Everything reclaimed. Now I can gaze back through those lighted windows, glad for the bricks and mortar of what we all built together - grandparents, parents, Jonathan, Daniel, Kitty, all the dear friends who shared the good times. And I know that moving is (after all) only a single letter away from loving.




Contact Bel

To get in touch regarding journalism please email:

or write to: Bel Mooney
The Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street
London W9 5TT

For other enquiries please email: