London became a better place to live after we became involved with our local church in a quest for a good school for our sons
St Mary Abbots, Kensington
The best things in life are free. But a good education in Britain is, in most cases, an exception to the rule. In the struggle to secure a place at an above-average state primary school, the parents’ location, location, location is often crucial. However, as many of the best primaries in inner London are denominational, church attendance also counts.
If you are from the Continent, the idea of struggling for education in a G8 country seems ludicrous. Parents in the rest of Europe happily send their children to the local primary school and later to the nearest equivalent of a grammar school. When our second son was on his way, we moved from a tiny third-floor flat on the rougher edges of Notting Hill to a hidden mews in the even rougher middle of Bayswater. It was 2004, the housing market was flat and somehow we were able to afford this gem of a house. It was like a bit of southern Italy in the heart of big, grubby London.
Schooling was then the least of our concerns. The day our eldest son would turn four seemed an eternity away. The social housing estate of Hallfield at the other end of Inverness Terrace had an integrated primary school. Hallfield’s inhabitants reflect Britain’s imperial heritage. I had grown up in Kenya, where we pupils sat cross-legged on the bare earth. The foundations of knowledge were laid by rote-learning. We repeated the words written on the blackboard after the teacher, who was my mother. Play time and outdoor endeavours, such as tunnel-digging, were important. Every child received an old metal spoon and off we went into the bush. I was the only white face in my class, which was OK in Africa. But was it OK for my sons in London?
The Princess Diana Playground in Kensington Gardens was our second living room. I started to listen to the other mums there, which is the easiest way to be driven to despair and madness. One little Hugo was three months young and already down for 12 schools. Would Poppy be happier in Pembridge Hall or Faulkner House, one mother wondered (she had opted for a Caesarean to meet the deadline for Pembridge Hall, which Poppy had been “down for” since birth)? Faulkner House offered circus lessons, essential for hand-eye co-ordination. George’s mum felt that no school was really up to him — and he was only 15 months old. He had a Chinese nanny, who kept up a relentless stream of Mandarin in order to expand the little boy’s brain. You could hear George’s synapses screaming. How on earth did Leonardo ever become Leonardo, I wondered.
I temporarily gave in, even though we couldn’t really afford to. I had chosen to end my career as a TV presenter — the glamour of which had waned very fast — and was now a full-time novelist. My husband was building up his own company in healthcare IT. Success came painfully slowly. My boys’ names were on the waiting list at both Wetherby’s and Hawkston House. I cringed while paying the £50 administration fee for each boy at each school.
Wetherby’s headmistress informed me curtly that a visit to the school was not possible until she felt that either boy had a real chance of gaining a place. Given the length of the waiting list, this would be at their retirement.
I remembered my compatriot Immanuel Kant and decided not to listen and not to follow, but to have the courage to apply my own reasonable judgment. It was then that a friend said: “Well, that church at the other side of the park, opposite Barkers, has a very good school attached to it. You’d have to attend, though.” Faith had always supported and helped me. During my studies in Paris, I was surprised to see how open and casual people were about faith.
Believing was an acceptable and done thing, even among the young. When visiting cities abroad, I make a point of entering the churches. I sit silently in the benches for a moment, before lighting a candle to give thanks for a rich and fruitful life. The idea of a Christian education for the boys was close to my heart. Both were christened, knew the stories of the Bible and were to attend St Peter’s Nursery on Portobello Road. They could choose not to believe later, but first they had to know what it was all about. At worst, a Christian education could help them appreciate three quarters of humanity’s greatest works of art.
I did my homework. The Anglican church and school on Kensington High Street were called St Mary Abbots. A child had to attend services and a crèche there regularly for at least two years, before it could be considered for registration at the school. I told my husband, who belongs firmly in the “big bang” camp as opposed to the “creationist” one, about the link between school and church. He said: “That’s great. We’ll attend, and you can have a lie-in.” What was a young mother to say? It sounded fantastic.
Things went well. The crèche, my husband told me, was a small group of mostly British children. Every Sunday, he now talked to more English people than he had done in our previous five years in London. Few foreigners in this international city have British friends. The crèche was run by fun and dedicated volunteers. The boys made arts and crafts, sang and played. Oh, and had I heard about the Friday morning playgroup? “Hm,” I said. Weeks and months went by. My husband started to greet people in the street I did not know, among them an attractive blonde woman. “Who was that?” I asked. “Her name is Mariella Frostrup. She’s a writer and TV presenter, just like you,” he kindly said. Next was a couple out shopping with their three children on Portobello Market. Their eldest seemed to be severely handicapped. My husband greeted them and we walked on. “And who was that?” I wanted to know. “That was David Cameron,” he answered. “Don’t you know him? He’s the leader of the Conservative Party.” To his endless amusement, I am, despite a prestigious PPE education, unable to identify key politicians. “Why don’t you come along to church next time?” he said.
We crossed Kensington Gardens on a clear Sunday morning. The air was crisp and the vast green lawns were empty. The waters of the round pond lay still. The powerful sound of the church bells came rolling towards us. We slipped in through a side gate. I settled next to my husband. Both boys were dressed in their Sunday best, which for me means lederhosen.
The Vicar, Gillean Craig, entered wearing the splendid gowns of the High Church of England and looking like an older and kinder John Malkovich. I was smitten. He was followed first by the choir and then by all the children. My boys settled on the stairs of the High Altar and then followed the playgroup leaders out of church. At coffee, talking to other parents came easily. At St Mary Abbots, you find all sorts: an Iranian heart surgeon, whose father was an eminent Persian poet; an English lawyer-turned-sculptor and mother of three, who shared her weekend cottage with a gay couple. I also saw the Camerons again. Samantha Cameron looks much better in the flesh than in photos, a real English beauty with a wicked sense of humour. Her husband would hold Ivan, their handicapped son, for two hours on his lap, talking to him and caressing him while checking his BlackBerry. His table won quiz night hands down and when he came to a “meet-the-parents night” he patiently listened over salad and lasagne to an old lady’s vision of healthcare.
I started to muck in. I attended playgroup on Friday mornings in Vicarage Gate. Mothers of all backgrounds and all nationalities brought tea and coffee for themselves and healthy snacks for the kids. Father Gillean would pop in and know us and our children by our names. I ran the Sunday crèche, which grew rapidly. The media had heard of the Camerons’ attendance and people flocked to the church to be close to impending greatness. Still, it was fun to involve the children and to make Christianity come to life for them.
It was then that the same friend who had initially recommended St Mary Abbots said to me: “It must be such a pain to suck up to the vicar every Sunday.” I just looked at her. She had got the wrong end of the stick. St Mary Abbots, its vicar and its congregation had performed a miracle. As a foreigner in London, I now felt that I belonged. We had become part of something bigger than just everyday life.
However, reality bit otherwise. Our mews was no longer a safe haven. Neighbouring Queensway brought rats in the night and discarded syringes in the morning. Pickpockets left the plundered wallets of tourists in our bushes. Every night, a drifter came into the mews. He yelled in Italian and was obsessed with cleanliness — he’d wash himself in the mews using a standpipe — and with lighting and extinguishing matches. One of our neighbours suffered a nervous breakdown and started relieving herself in full view of my fascinated boys.
One of the houses was renovated and rented out to Russians for £1,500 a week, more than our monthly rent. Property prices were booming so we were asked to leave. We were unwilling to live in a two-bedroom flat on some third floor again. Hallfield was still a threat, as St Mary Abbots had become so over-subscribed. We could not be sure of obtaining a place. “If we stay, the boys will go to the German school in Richmond later, won’t they? We might as well move there now,” my husband decided. In May 2007, a van with all our belongings left the mews.
On the boys’ last morning at St Peter’s Nursery I was in tears. A month later, when we had just unpacked the last boxes in Richmond, the allocation of primary school places in Kensington & Chelsea came through. Our eldest son was invited to join reception at St Mary Abbots, “the most sought after primary school in England,” as the Sunday Times gushed. A commute was out of the question. Richmond offered us a house with a garden, the park, the river, its very own intelligentsia — a relaxed set of people — and, last but not least, a place in reception at the brilliant Vineyard School.
My husband took the decision as I was unable to. Richmond it was, there was no moving back. I confessed to Father Gillean and at least I knew that our decision made another family on the waiting list of St Mary Abbots very happy. We now have a lovely life in Richmond. Yet each time I pass St Mary Abbots, I slip inside for a quiet moment. I still feel that I belong. London has forever become a much better place — thank God.