Sunday, May 4, 2014

The House Rules: novelist Justin Cartwright

My first home was in Cape Town, as my father worked there as a journalist. We lived in Newlands, near the estate of my great-grandfather, who was rather rich. He owned Fletcher and Cartwright, the town’s first department store; if you go down the main street, Adderley, you can still find Cartwright’s Corner.

But my parents were impoverished journalists and we lived in a series of flats jumbled up together. We moved when my father was made editor of the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, but I was sent to boarding school in Cape Town, 36 hours away by train.

I was still in South Africa in the Fifties when apartheid really took hold. I was 20ft behind President Hendrik Verwoerd [known as the ‘architect of Apartheid’], when he was shot in the head. To me, it makes the Oscar Pistorius story not extraordinary. South Africa has this undercurrent of violence.

Coming to Britain to read English at Oxford University was a complete and utter joy. The first house I bought with my wife Penny, in the late Seventies, cost £15,000. It was in Colebrook Row, Islington. We then bought a small Queen Anne house for about £60,000 and spent £30,000 doing it up.

I also purchased a huge old factory that backed onto the garden. We took out its entire front wall and used it as a study and a playroom for our two sons. It was magical. At the time, however, interest rates went up to 14 per cent, so we had to sell the house. Had I hung on to it, I would have ended up bankrupt.

We’ve since moved three times, always in Islington. I remember when Pizza Express came to the area, that was quite a thing. And seeing the first Range Rover. There was a lot of delusional thinking in Islington back then.

I work in a converted industrial building beside my house. I write on a Cape Dutch yellow-wood table from the 1820s, which I bought in London, although they’re very prized in South Africa. The door hanging on my wall is a Dogon door from West Africa and the motifs on it all have specific meanings.

I also have an album full of editions of the newspaper produced during the Seige of Mafeking in the 1899-1900 Great Boer War.

I'd love to have a house on the cold Atlantic side of the ocean in Cape Town. The water is freezing but there is a little beach called Llandudno, which is particularly nice. My dream house would be open to the sea. South Africa has some incredible architecture. I do like Cape Dutch houses, too, so it might be one of those.

I wouldn’t want to live in a row of houses, as I’ve done in London for the past 30 years. Everyone goes on about Georgian terraces but all they are is a box of bricks with a bit of decoration on the front. I love London but I sometimes feel a bit constricted here.

My books are one of the things I couldn’t live without. Some are from my father, and there’s a collection of Afrikaans books as my grandmother was Afrikaner.

I also love my fake Giorgio Morandi - which I assumed was an original until the Museo Morandi in Bologna proved me wrong - my garden and horse-riding. I have this picture of me, a rather good-looking young man, on the university polo team. Very dashing. I went to Mongolia last year and played polo on tiny Mongolian ponies. Great fun.

I don’t believe in chaos, but untidiness doesn’t worry me. The only thing I’m adamant about is keeping the garden in order and sitting down for meals to eat properly.

Justin Cartwright’s latest novel, Lion Heart (£16.99), is published by Bloomsbury

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