The Worst of Times: From high society to decay and disarray: When the money and servants had gone and a childhood of Eton and insecurity was over, there was still another surprise to come - Derek Malcolm talks to Danny Danziger

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I WAS sent away to boarding school at the age of four, and didn't come out until I left Eton at 18, when I went to university. I loathed school most of the time, and I didn't much care for home.

My mother trained as an opera singer. She in fact had an offer to go to Rome and become an opera star. According to Toscanini, she was capable of great things, being beautiful and having a beautiful voice; instead of which she married my father, who was a member of the Scottish landed gentry, and had about as little in common with her as you could possibly imagine.

So the two of them - one beautiful, artistic and rather flamboyant, and the other a typical Scottish country gentleman who loved fox-hunting and never did any work all his life because he had sufficient money not to - lived together for some 50 years in total disarray, most of the time, I imagine, disliking each other a great deal, and telling me as a child that they stayed together largely because of me.

I was temperamentally much more like my mother, in that she was very artistic and I felt I was, too. We used to laugh at the same things.

At one time it was a kind of conspiracy between myself and my mother against my father. But although I was quite close to my mother, she was one of those people who blew hot and cold, and it wasn't very often that I received much affection from her. In a strange sort of way, despite the fact that he, too, was unable to show any affection, I grew away from my mother and towards my father. He didn't understand me and I didn't really understand him, but I realised he was a more rounded person than my mother.

They lived separate lives. My father would play golf or bridge, or go hunting, and my mother would lie in bed until 12 o'clock, and do practically nothing all day long. At night, she had a private life with various friends, who would come round and tell fortunes and go out to parties, but her life was virtually a closed book, both to my father and to myself.

My father was hopeless with money; he didn't seem to have many talents, apart from fox hunting and losing money on the stock exchange. If ever there was a share that was likely to go up, he would be out of it, anything that was going down he would put all his money in it.

And as our lives progressed we went from riches to comparative poverty. The progression right through my childhood was one of decay, moving into smaller and smaller houses, dispensing with more and more servants, finding ourselves unable to get any servants at all, and finally living in an atmosphere of decay that frightens me even now when I think about it.

We first lived in a vast mansion in Northamptonshire and had a very fashionable flat in Charles Street, London. There were stables, we had 24 horses, and God knows how many grooms. We had a private laundry and a dozen servants.

During the war, to escape the bombs in London, we went down to Bexhill in East Sussex, the most dismal seaside resort I have ever known.

It was a small house on the seafront. When we started there were three servants in this little house. We used to have seven- course breakfasts served up to us - porridge and kedgeree, and bacon and eggs and toast - and a large lunch and a vast tea, and a large supper, and then a little bit before going to bed.

Life was like it was in the big country house, and we were clinging on to the remnants of it. A butler in Bexhill? Ludicrous. And gradually, when the last three servants eventually decamped, my parents could no longer find anybody to come in and clean for them, and the place was in a terrible state.

I used to come home from school to find the house absolutely filthy. You couldn't even go to the bathroom it was so dirty, and you could scarcely go into the lavatory.

Everything was broken down, the furniture was in ruins. It was like going into the house of two eccentric tramps who had found themselves in a dilapidated building. It was a disaster.

It had a terrible effect on me, a feeling of insecurity and terror, that the world was simply falling apart around me. You can imagine: to find everything getting less and less secure was very frightening.

I'd been off to school so I needed the security of home, only to find that home was decaying in the most appalling manner - in the end, the decay set in in my mother's mind.

I was terrified of the awful, stinking, revolting house. I still have a fear of decay. I have a fear that one day I might go the same way, and everything will become dirty and filthy and ghastly and awful. Oh, it was dreadful, absolutely dreadful.

My mother began to lose her mind in this terrible decaying house in Bexhill. I think it might have been Alzheimer's. When she came to my wedding, I remember her saying, 'What is happening today? Who is that pretty girl?'

Finally, my mother died, strangely, on one of my rare visits home.

When I arrived, she scarcely knew who I was. Everything was filthy. My father lived in one room and my mother in another, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night, with my father saying, 'I think something is happening to your mother.'

We went into her bedroom and I realised instantly when I saw her that she had had a stroke. She was unconscious and breathing in the most appalling manner. We rang the doctor, but before the doctor came, my father walked into her bedroom, kissed her on the forehead and said, 'Well, it is goodbye, Dorry, dear. We have had some terrible times together, but that is life.'

She was probably already dead, but that is what he said. The doctor came a few minutes later and pronounced her dead.

My father was incapable of staying in the house, and moved from one hotel to another until he grew too ill to be accommodated in a hotel at all, and had to go into a nursing home in Hastings.

I remember the horror of having to take him to the nursing home, which was run by an old Polish man and his extremely fat wife, who said he would be the first of their patients, but he would be made comfortable, and be joined by others.

I found six or eight months later that he was still the only person in this huge house, and in fact they had been taking a lot of money from him, much more than they had the right to take, and had been keeping him in a room where they refused to give him the shillings he needed for the gas fire.

In the end he got pneumonia and was taken to hospital and died there, and I successfully sued the home for malpractice, and they were struck off the list.

About a fortnight after my father died, the post came and on to the mat plopped an open postcard in which an aged aunt of mine wrote: 'Dear Derek, your mother asked me to tell you when your father died, but not before, that he was not your real father. Your real father was an Italian at the embassy in London in the early Thirties.'

The shock I had was nothing to do with the fact that my father was not my father - maybe subconsciously I rather suspected that anyway - but that anybody could write this on an open postcard and send it in that form. An astonishing thing to do.

I have never had any inquisitiveness as to who my real father was, because the thing that really made me love my father was when I realised he wasn't my father.

I felt, well, here was this man who must have known I was not his son, but behaved, according to his lights, as a father would behave. So he remains totally my father.

Derek Malcolm is film critic of the 'Guardian'.

(Photograph omitted)

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