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Adopted Heritage

My Anglophilia set in about the time my father started reading me Winnie-the-Pooh when I was two; the hall table was my favourite piece of furniture, and it was English, too. Then I developed a strong taste for marmalade. I had a Scottish nanny, Bebe, whom I adored, and who made us trifle all the time. When I expressed interest in something excessive, my father’s usual reprimand was to remind me that I was not the Prince of Wales, and I had the vague idea that if I could only get to the UK, I would receive entitlements that I associated more with location than with an accident of birth. At four, I began inserting plummy intonations into my speech, and devised a hybrid dialect that, more than 40 years later, sounds English to Americans and American to the English; I like to say that the accent hovers over Greenland. I finally moved to England in 1985, and what I loved about England as a visitor was different from what I came to love about England after I had lived here. Among my thousand closest acquaintances, only a smallish proportion are based in the UK, but among my dozen closest friends, half are.

When I saw this house, in 1989, I knew it was home, despite decorative flourishes created by the owner, who ran a chain of pizza restaurants. In the main bedroom, the chimneypiece had been removed, and a sort of polystyrene baldachin had been attached to the chimney breast to support a cascade of black lace that spilt over the bed like the setting for a Spanish funeral. Lovingly stenciled on the bathroom wall was: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat.” The staircase had been “modernised” and resembled the emergency exit in a lesser state school, and the beautiful arches of the windows were disguised by neo-Sicilian nylon drapes. But the size of the rooms was perfect, and the place had an integrity that had survived every assault. When I saw the westerly sun streaming in at four o’clock, I knew I would have to live here.

I spent a year restoring it with a great deal of advice from my mother, but the week I moved in, she was diagnosed with cancer and I relocated to New York. My solicitor wrote a year later to say that I qualified for British citizenship so long as I met nine criteria. I had always paid taxes, had never committed a felony, and so on. But I fell down on the ninth, which was that I ought not to have spent more than three weeks a year outside the UK for seven years. So I wrote to the Home Office, stating that despite long absences, in my heart I was loyal to the Queen. I received my citizenship 10 days later. When civil partnerships became legal in the UK, my husband and I decided to marry here.

While the second passport and the seven British godchildren I amassed gave me an excuse for elongated vowels, it was the house that made my English life permanent; I could open its shiny front door and return to Narnia. It gradually acquired that feeling of inevitability that accrues to deep friendships. Aspects of the decorating I did with my mother remain 23 years later as a tribute to the fun we had, but the decades had gradually added a patina of grime; my English side believed this to be aristocratic, but my American side nonetheless found it distasteful.

So I turned to Robert Couturier, who is not only one of my closest friends but also the family architect, having by now designed seven houses for my immediate relatives and me. People with elegant taste in material things often lack discernment in the realms of the spirit, but Robert has always demonstrated not only an impeccable understanding of physical proportion and a rare ability to solve any confused space with precisely the right cornice, but also the ability to mollify everyone in the sometimes-fractious family. So often, architects and designers make their dreams come true in your house, but Robert has demonstrated the ability to make my dreams come true in my houses — always in much-improved fashion. He fixed the railway-carriage-like space of the drawing room by using glass bookshelves that exaggerate width instead of impinging on it. He dealt with the awkward beam in the dining-room ceiling with a double vault that made the room suddenly tall. He worked out how to make the steps to the lower floor feel light and open, and how to use unlikely materials — such as the stainless-steel dado rail that runs all the way up the staircase — without getting flashy. He gamely worked around my late mother’s needlepoint cushions and the picture “after Gainsborough” painted by my great-aunt Beatrice.

He led the parade, but Guy de Lotbinière, father of one of the aforementioned godchildren, found much of the furniture; he has a particularly good eye for disheveled things that require only a bit of love to recapture their blaze of glory, and he gets credit for the gilt sphinxes and winged lions. Our New York chum Erich Theophile designed all the door hardware for us, and a man I befriended in Madagascar made the passementerie to my specifications in Antananarivo. The rest reflects our peregrinations: the teapots from an exhibition of avant-garde ceramics in Budapest; the paintings by the Soviet artists about whom I wrote my first book; the Tanzanian masks we bought on our honeymoon; the fan I was given at a state dinner in Taipei; the Uzbek fruit bowl we found in Almaty.

I tend to write about difficult topics in my books, and I used to think that I had to reconcile two diverse impulses: to chronicle life’s challenges and to collect objects and houses that I found beautiful. Over time, I’ve come to think that one can look squarely at struggle and yet find joy in splendour. I used to think that I had to be American or British, but nowadays I think of myself as both; my children are both, too. I was mostly a son when I bought the house in Notting Hill; I inhabit it now as a father with my husband and our children. Whichever half of myself I’m being at any given moment, I’m rather enjoying a break from the other half.