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Where there's a Willesden

Published 1 September 1996
Style Magazine
165th article



Home grown: Michael Winner as a baby, top, with the Ogus sisters; and outside his childhood home In Alexander Avenue, Willesden (Vanessa Perry)

I have deeply upset Mrs Jill Epstein of Highgate, London. Her state of dudgeon is of such a height she must be wearing an oxygen mask. Mrs Epstein is so enraged she wrote not to me, but to the "Editorial Department" of The Sunday Times. Gosh! Have they got one? I've certainly never seen it. Her letter contains all the passion and vehemence of someone who has borne great injustice for such a period of time that it has become, at last, intolerable. "If Michael Winner once more states he is a poor boy from Willesden, I will blow my top," Mrs E opens. She continues: "As a child, having lived next door to him for several years, I can quite categorically state that he was not, and never has been, poor. He lived in a very nice house - his mother had great style - which was tastefully furnished and decorated, and by no means short of a bob or two. Hope this will silence him! Yours faithfully etc." (sic)

I am concerned that the probity of what I write should be brought into question. If I cannot be relied upon to inform you accurately of the circumstances of my own childhood, how can I offer you honest advice on food and other worldly matters? For a long time I referred to myself as a poor boy from Hertfordshire. It is the fault of Ms Helen Zahavi, the well-known writer of Dirty Weekend and other excellent works, that I transmogrified into a poor boy from Willesden. Ms Zahavi has described me, publicly, as her sister. We spoke many times a day until she moved to Paris. Her counsel is greatly missed. She rang me one morning some months ago. "You moronic Holland Park ponce," she began. "You are a brain-lobotomised, cretinous idiot." This was quite a mild opener for Helen, so I assumed she must be in a good mood. "Well, say something, you derelict. . ." she went on. "Er . . ." I spluttered.

"Why do you write you're a poor boy from Hertfordshire!" she exploded. "I went to school there, lived there, from five years old . . ." "Shut up, you idiot! You were born in Willesden, that's where you came from. You're so stupid you probably think people have at higher view of you if you . . ." We turned, shortly thereafter, to Ms Zahavi's domestic matters and, indeed, to my own. But when I replaced the receiver I decided to tell the whole truth. It was absurd of me to be ashamed of being born in Willesden. Although there is little evidence of it, I am sure some perfectly decent people come from that area. Besides, having written in The Sunday Times for almost 30 years, under four editors, I would feel silly indeed if the current supremo put his Insight team onto me and I was uncovered before I offered my own revelation.

It is the truth. In the mid to late 1930s Jill and her sister Valerie (nee Ogus) did live next door to me in a lovely little street of 1920s bijou mansions. I remember the girls having large bosoms, although I suppose that must have come later. They were both very beautiful and nice young ladies. Sadly we had lost touch. I wrote back to Jill, wishing Valerie well, too, pointing out that my modest scribblings were intended to be humorous and should not be relied upon by her friends as a solid declaration of her life as a deprived youngster. Jill, being the decent girl I knew her to be, wrote back most charmingly, saying I could publish her letter. "I don't know why my hackles rose," she said, going on to admit she enjoyed my cavalier attitude. "It is so different from the bourgeois life that most of us lead." She even named restaurants she had visited, happily, as a result of my recommendations. I am relieved this matter was cleared up with joviality all round. It just goes to show how difficult it is to please Jewish women. It is something I have long ago stopped attempting. But I assure you, they have hearts of gold. As far as I am concerned they were all brought up in luxury. And deservedly so.