‘We were one of the first to get a television – the paper boy watched i through the letter box’: Dame Esther Rantzen, 83, shares memories of the street where she grew up in Hampstead
‘We were one of the first to get a television – the paperboy watched me through the letter box’: Dame Esther Rantzen, 83, shares memories of the street where she grew up in Hampstead
My parents moved from London to Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in 1939, realizing that London would be the target of bombs. I was born the following year. My earliest memory is standing in my crib, about 18 months old, listening to the wail of air raid sirens.
When I was five, we moved back to Hampstead, London, to Hocroft Avenue. It was a classic suburb.
My father washed the car on Sunday. We had a privet hedge and a tidy garden full of butterflies. I ran around with my fishing net, trying to catch them in the hollyhocks.
It was a neat row of semi-detached houses and middle class houses. The smart people lived in much larger properties across the street, which were a bit neo-Georgian, but ours was classic mock Tudor.
I was an avid reader and devoured every book we had. My parents didn’t censor anything, so I read short stories by Guy de Maupassant that gave me nightmares, and Ideal Marriage (by TH van de Velde), which was full of mystery – it was all about sex really.
Presenter, journalist and campaigner Dame Esther Rantzen, 83, shares her memories of Hocroft Avenue in London
Hocroft Avenue in Hampsteas as it appears today
My mother Katherine was not taught the facts of life until her older sister discovered the intricacies of life on her wedding night. My grandmother was a wonderful woman, but not the perfect mother.
When I was ten, my father got a job at the United Nations in New York, so we spent two years on Long Island. I loved America – still do.
I found the Americans free and easy compared to the stiff British.
After returning to London, we lived on a neighboring street, Hocroft Road. My father Henry was now head of the BBC’s technical design department and we were one of the first houses on our street to get a television.
But it was relegated to the auditorium because my parents felt that television killed the art of conversation. The paperboy sat for hours looking at it through the mailbox.
I had a close relationship with both my parents. My mother was funny and naughty. I once invited a friend to tea who had an anarchist husband. When my mother entered the room, he wouldn’t get out of his chair, so she tipped him forward.
My father was always smiling and extremely absent-minded. He attempted to witness at two family weddings on the same day, but forgot that he was expected to speak at the second reception. The bride never forgave him.
Her parents moved from London to Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in 1939. Pictured: Esther (far right) with her parents (center) and sister (second from left)
He also liked to invent things. He came up with a teapot without a spout because he said cleaning the spout was a pain. I pointed out it was a jug.
My dad banished our TV to the hallway because he thought it killed the conversation
I inherited my academic ambition from my father; my sister Priscilla and I were expected to have careers as if we were boys.
He taught me not to limit myself and go broke. We were the center of our parents’ world. When I discovered that this was not the case with many children, it prompted me to set up Childline.
I’ve been back on Hocroft Avenue and the privet hedge has been uprooted. I’d like to say my time in America has given me a taste for broader horizons, but my kids will tell you I hate change. If I’m happy somewhere, that’s the place where I’m happy.
- The Silver Line is the only free confidential helpline providing information, friendship and support to the elderly, open 24 hours a day, every day of the year; 0800 4 70 80 90.