Home, they say, is where the heart is. I’m not so sure. I’ve had lots of homes and I don’t consider my heart to be attached very firmly to any of them. What is meant, of course, is that home is wherever you choose to place it – in which case I suppose I’ve always been homeless: many decades ago I left my heart somewhere on a Swiss mountainside, but the rest of me has foolishly failed to follow. Still, among my deracinated roots there is one that protrudes a little above the heap and may even constitute a grounding of sorts. From 1952 until 1958 my family lived in the south-west London district of Putney and I recall it with affection.
I did not know it at the time, but Putney was a good address to grow up in. A hundred yards north of our flat stood St Mary’s Church, a squat, elderly parish establishment notable for the debates held there in October 1647 at the height of the English civil war. It was here that Colonel Thomas Rainsborough famously warned his interlocutors that “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he . . . every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government . . .” Exactly three centuries later the Labour government of Clement Attlee would inaugurate the welfare state that was to guarantee to the poorest he (and she) a life worth living and a government that served them. Attlee was born in Putney and died only a few miles away; despite a long and successful political career he remained modest in demeanour as in wealth – in revealing contrast to his grasping, fee-gouging successors: an exemplary representative of the great age of middle-class Edwardian reformers – morally serious and a trifle austere.