TV presenter, journalist, agony aunt and now literacy advocate – is there anything Mariella Frostrup can’t do? Alexander Larman isn’t so sure…

If ever I’m reincarnated as Loyd Grossman, the only pleasure I’d have in taking part in an unending series of Through The Keyhole would be in prying around the houses of the great and the good, and wondering what their homes say about them. In the case of Mariella Frostrup’s Bayswater flat, I’d be able to surmise quite easily that she’s someone who loves reading and literature in all its many forms. The first thing a visitor notices is a never-ending array of books on virtually every topic and by every writer imaginable, jostling for space with photos of her children and a couple of good-natured dogs that pad around the floor.

If ever she gets bored with her multi-faceted career, she’s got all the makings of a decent library at home. When she materialises, fresh from the hairdresser, she’s a warm, straightforward and decidedly unpretentious presence, with an open and friendly manner about her that puts one at ease straight away. We’re meeting to talk about her work with the National Literacy Trust to promote literacy and reading among young children, which is just the latest in a dizzying myriad of projects.

‘I’m associated with book projects because of both the work I’ve done in TV and radio, and also because in every interview I’ve ever done I’ve talked about how much I’ve loved books since I was little, and how wonderful an escape they can be.’

Mariella’s own experience of education and learning has been somewhat more complex than that of her many of Oxbridge-reared peers. After leaving school at 15, she’s flourished, thanks to her own intelligence and will, but claims that ‘if you’ve got a natural aptitude for learning, then you can succeed against all kinds of odds, but if you struggle with the basics, then far too often you end up being left behind.’ She worries that the ways in which children would once have been exposed to books – through libraries and smaller classes – are disappearing.

‘The need to tick boxes is beginning to make the wonder of discovering reading less and less available, ’ she says, before pointing out that it makes little difference whether the children in question live in Notting Hill or Newham. ‘The terrible dichotomy of this area is that you have the two extremes, the staggering wealth on the one hand, and these deprived housing estates on the other, cheek-by-jowl. I wanted to send my own children to a nearby state school, but they’re so incredibly over-subscribed, almost frighteningly so. ’

She should know. After all, she’s not only lived around Notting Hill for the past 30 years, but her nascent days here were spent in a squat on Stoneleigh Street by Latimer Road. (‘Obviously, the houses now sell for two million apiece – you couldn’t have given away the house we were squatting in!’) She’s got mixed feelings about the rapid gentrification that the area’s seen, saying, ‘Of course it’s a good thing, but it’d be better if it was relevant to everyone, instead of only really affecting the very well-off. The poor are as poor as they ever were.’ Nonetheless, Notting Hill is still an area that Mariella loves, ‘The nice thing about living here is that it feels like a small town, the community spirit people often talk about in other parts of London is really here – you can stop people in the street to chat without everyone thinking you’re mad.’


Mariella’s love of Notting Hill began 30 years ago, in a squat

Over the years, Mariella has built up her favourite local haunts, ‘It’s nice to be able to go to Tom’s for a coffee on Westbourne Grove or to the Moroccan café on the Golborne Road. I even cycle around here, which I wouldn’t in the rest of town, because I’ve got a slightly misplaced idea that it’s safer! I like living in Bayswater because there’s still the mixture of cultures, the Greeks and the Russians and the coffee bars that stay open all night. And the best Chinese restaurants in London – my favourite is the Gold Mine.’ The famously husky-voiced mother of two is one of those interviewees that it’s a pleasure to listen to as well as talk to, and her quick wit makes her a frequently hilarious host. 

As we part and she heads for the very glamorous Kensington Roof Gardens to be photographed for The Hill, I ask her what she’d like to be doing next. She smiles. ‘Oh, I have a little dream about starting my own little bookshop somewhere round here. It would be a fabulous thing to do, but I’m not unaware of the challenges in this particular area, so we’ll have to see! It wouldn’t be a trendy place, just the sort of old-fashioned shop that’s crammed full of books, like the much-missed Travel Bookshop round the corner.’ If it’s anything like her shelves at home, browsers and bibliophiles would be in for a treat.


Mariella Frostrup: Five books that changed me

1 The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

‘I can’t stand the new cover for the new edition, because I think it’s completely untrue to what the book’s supposed to be – the cover’s all glamorous and Mad Men-y, and the book itself is a fairly unflinching look at mental illness. It’s an extraordinary depiction of a constrained life of a woman in the 50s, and there’s nothing to compare to it. It’s also incredibly funny. It takes you to the heart of femininity, but unfortunately has been appropriated by her short-lived marriage to Ted Hughes.’

2 Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

‘I re-read it recently. When I was a teenager, I thought it was just a silly book about getting married, which I wasn’t very interested in at the time! But now what I can see is that Austen was so ahead of her time, especially with the central character of Elizabeth Bennett, and it’s such a profoundly rich and interesting look at women’s choices in the early 19th century. It’s utterly unsentimental, has a feisty female protagonist who speaks her mind and does well by doing so, and I’d say it’s a great feminist novel.

3 Unless, Carol Shields

‘This might be about a subject dear to me – a mother whose daughter takes to the streets with a placard, and she can’t understand what’s happened in her life – but the whole book is an incredibly measured but really effective look at women’s lives, and how they continue to be considered second class in many areas. What Shields has done with her narrator is to create a fascinating character, always writing angry letters to the papers about why literary pages are geared towards Philip Roth-esque white men. It’s a wonderful book, which will be regarded as a classic one day.’

4 Red Dust Road, Jackie Kay

‘Jackie Kay’s autobiography about a difficult but extraordinary childhood is somewhat reminiscent of Jeanette Winterson’s writing, and completely the opposite of a misery memoir. She finds purpose and humour, and enthusiasm, in a childhood that would have knocked a lot of that out of you, and she’s a great, warm figure, who’s written a wonderful book about an unconventional life, where she was the mixed-race adopted daughter of two Marxists in Glasgow. I love it.’

5 The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie

‘A truly epic story, and sometimes we forget that the best stories are the ones with the most richly dense narratives. He writes so beautifully throughout. It’s a shame that Rushdie’s public persona has got in the way of people’s attitudes to his writing, because I think this one’s up there with One Hundred Years Of Solitude and other great magic-realist works. Some people don’t like him because he’s perceived as being immodest about his remarkable talent and some of his most recent work’s been patchier, but this is a truly exceptional, rich novel.’

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