My Home: Carmen Callil
Carmen Callil has lived in a lot of London houses over the years - but her books always follow her wherever she goes
Wednesday 03 May 2006
Writer and publisher Carmen Callil lives in Notting Hill, with her two border terriers, Deborah and Louis.
London feels like my best pair of slippers, it's so comfortable, all my friends are here and I have lived here for more than 46 years. Paris is more like a slightly uncomfortable but elegant high heel, but London is where I feel most at home.
I was very well read as a child, both my parents were omnivorous readers, but I had a picture of England that was quite erroneous. Charles Dickens and Jane Austen had portrayed a completely different place to what I arrived to in 1960: it seemed very small, cold and dark.
When I first moved here I lived in various flat shares with lots of other Australians. It was like something out of a Muriel Spark novel, The Girls of Slender Means, or something like that. We lived in a house on Edith Grove, five girls all together, in a tiny flat up about 1,000 flights of stairs, and we were always falling in and out of love and weeping in the bathroom.
I have lived in this house for four years. I have lived in seven different places in London, and each time I have moved on I have made a profit on the house.
The very first place I bought was a little bedsit, above a salt beef shop in St John's Wood high street. From there I moved to a one bedroom in Chelsea, and then to a cottage in Hammersmith, each time I moved to a slightly larger house. The last place I lived in before here was a huge house on Lancaster Road.
It had about 10 rooms, which I then converted to two flats before I sold it. I managed to get it for a great price as at the time of the sale, the AIDS centre, the Lighthouse, was being built opposite. These crazy lawyers that lived there somehow thought that they would catch AIDS just from living near it, so they were desperate to sell to me.
I have made a lot of changes to this house. One of the first things I did was put in a whole new floor on the upstairs, that was once the attic, so I could have a spare bedroom. Since I adore being able to have my friends to stay, it was essential for me to have another bedroom installed.
Upstairs has its own bathroom, TV and everything that a guest could need. All I do is give people a key, and then they can come and go as they please, as I like people to feel free.
My friend Jenny Ledger, who is a retired interior designer, has helped me with all my houses, and especially with this one. She advises me on colour, and helps me bring my ideas to fruition.
The other area that I completely altered was the kitchen. I knocked through from the sitting room to make it one large open area, and then put in french windows that open right on to the garden. I have an Everhot cooker, which is the English equivalent of an Aga - it is great for the dogs.
The other thing that I have for them is a little dog-flap at the bottom of the door leading to the garden, so that they are able to come in and out with out bothering me. The kitchen is decorated in a Scandinavian style; I love the way the Swedish use yellow, blue and grey together. I bought the kitchen chairs from a junk shop and then I painted them light grey.
One thing that has followed me from house to house is my books. They are my one main luxury, at one point I had over 10,000. I still have loads, but I have managed to edit them slightly.
Books take up a lot of space, but I just couldn't imagine life without them. I get very attached to books. I don't mind giving books away, but I don't like it when people take them without asking.
It took about 18 months for this house to be totally renovated, and during this time I stayed at my house in France. Sadly I had to sell it in the end as I needed the money to pay for this house to be finished off, but while I owned it, for over 15 years, it was a fabulous luxury.
It was near to Beziers and Narbonne in South-west France. Many of the furniture and fabrics have come from that house, and from shops and markets in that region. I first came across the area with my friend, the publisher Liz Calder. We had gone in search of a place in the sun. We took the train down one Boxing Day, she bought a place opposite the station and I found somewhere in a village nearby.
I have many artworks that have been given to me by friends and writers, and that are special to me. I have a picture of Virginia Woolf in her bath, which is an etching by Trekkie Parsons. Also, Rosamon Lehmann gave me two paintings by Simon Bussy, and I have some lovely hand-drawn postcards by Quentin Bell. I have a Picasso tile on my mantelpiece that I bought when I first went to France in 1960, it is part of an edition of 200 from Vallauris, where he had a pottery. I also have a Jean Cocteau painting that I bought from the same period.
My favourite room is my study. I spend most of my time there working. It looks out on to the garden. Sometimes I think I should change the rooms around, and have my bedroom there, as it would be a lot quieter, and my study facing the front. Perhaps when I have a lot more money and time I will change it.
I love living in London, but I do miss my house in the South of France. But who knows? Life isn't over yet; I may go back there again.
Bad Faith by Carmen Callil is published by JonathanCape, priced £20.
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