Most of my childhood was spent in a house by the river in London. It was very close to Putney Train bridge and the walls used to shake every time a train went over. My father, Peter Zinovieff, had an electronic music studio (EMS) in the basement, and throughout the 1970s, it was a gathering point for many of the liveliest musicians in the popular and avant-garde world. I’d be having tea in the kitchen with my two younger brothers, when people like David Bowie, Paul McCartney or Pink Floyd would pass by on their way to the studio to play the latest synthisizers that were coming into fashion. There were also the more “serious” modern composers like Harrison Birtwistle or Hans Werner Henze, who got drawn into family life, and who created extraordinary music with these new machines.
This photograph was used as an advertisement for some equipment by my father. It shows me and my brothers, Leo (blonde) and Kolinka, dressed in our pyjamas (I’d borrowed my mother’s nightie), pretending to take part in a futurist performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I’m holding a glass of champagne and looking at a score. On the wall behind me is a “modernist” painting that was one of a series I did when I was about four. My parents had instructed me to paint one every day at nursery school and then framed them all and had an “exhibition” going up the stairs at our house. It was a characteristically extravagant act, but I think it probably gave me the biggest, most useful injection of confidence I’ve ever had.
As a child and teenager, almost all my holidays, winter and summer, were spent on the remote Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides. Our croft house had no electricity or telephone, but we installed a wind generator for a gramophone. There was always music playing, but it tended to be Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert rather than the kind of thing that was composed and recorded at the studio in London. The steamer boat called at the island three times a week – weather permitting – and it was enough of an event for many of the 150 islanders to go to the pier for the entertainment value.
This somewhat eccentric photograph was used by my father for a advertisement for his “Synthi”. It shows a group of family and friends outside our house on a hill on the Isle of Raasay. My father is playing a keyboard attached to a synthesizer. The child of Russian émigrés, he felt quite comfortable dressing up in a kilt – we were just off to celebrate some friends’ wedding – hence the demijohn of Italian wine and the huge loaf of homemade bread in a basket. I am looking down under a fringe, behind the wine, my mother is cuddling my youngest brother, Kolinka, in the forefront. Norman Macleod, retired postman, clutches a “nip” of whisky at the bow of the boat. My parents were soon to separate, but you wouldn’t know it from the happy atmosphere here.
As a young child, I attended an unusually free Froebel school called Ibstock Place, where pupils were encouraged to play in the woods rather than do lessons, if they were so inclined. Later, I went to three secondary schools – Putney High School, Wheatley Park Comprehensive in Oxfordshire and Oxford High School.
This is me outside the house in Putney aged about twelve. My hair is growing back after a radically short cut and I am wearing the highly desirable Oshkosh B’Gosh dungarees.
At Cambridge I studied social anthropology at New Hall, got a first in my degree, and then did a PhD. It was my doctoral research on modern Greek identity and tourism which took me to Greece, and I lived in Nafplio in the Peloponnese. It was there, in the late 1980s. that I learned Greek and came to love the country that has played such an important part in my life ever since. It was on a trip to discover my own Russian roots that I met Vassilis Papadimitriou, who later became my husband. My father’s parents had both fled St Petersburg as children, following the 1917 Revolution and had settled in England, where they later met and married. My first visit to Russia was in 1990, and I bumped into Vassilis in Moscow’s Greek Embassy, where he worked in the Press Office and I was interviewing the consul for an article about Greeks in the Soviet Union. Not very many months later, I’d returned to Moscow to live there with Vassilis. Over the next 18 months, I worked as a freelance journalist writing mainly for British publications including The Independent Magazine, The Telegraph Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, The Financial Times, The London Magazine.
We moved to London in 1992 and our two daughters, Anna and Lara, were born in England. We spent five years living in Rome at the end of the millennium and moved to Greece in 2001. We now live by the sea outside Athens.
This is a picture of us all a few years ago, with our dog, Lily, at Prophet Ilias, the highest point in Patmos.
I am currently writing a book about the intriguing story of my maternal grandparents, with the working title, Lord Berners, Mad Boy, My Grandmother and Me. Robert Heber-Percy, or Mad Boy was my grandfather and as a young man had been the lover of the famously eccentric composer, writer and painter, Lord Berners. An unlikely couple, Gerald Berners was highly cultivated and creative, writing music for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and having friends as varied as Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Cecil Beaton, Elsa Schiaparelli and Nancy Mitford (who immortalised him as Lord Merlin in The Pursuit of Love). During the war, Mad Boy unexpectedly got married to Jennifer Fry, my grandmother, and the result was one of the more unlikely ménages a trois. They all lived together at Gerald Berners’ beautiful Oxfordshire home, Faringdon House, where the doves were dyed all colours of the rainbow, dogs had pearl necklaces and there was a folly tower recently built up on the hill. My mother, Victoria, was born there in 1943. The marriage was a disaster, and within 18 months, Jennifer and Victoria had been packed off in a van with their belongings.
The photograph above shows what might look like a conventional family group at Faringdon – Mad Boy as the proud father, and Lord Berners as the presumed “grandfather”, reading on the sofa. Jennifer looks stunning for someone who has recently given birth in a clinic in bomb-damaged London and who is coping with rationing for food and clothes.
I only got to know Mad Boy when I was 17, as my mother did not get on well with her father. It was an extraordinary experience to visit Faringdon House for the first time and to enter what seemed like an enchanted world – the coloured doves still fluttered around the house and meals recalled the culinary extravagance for which Lord Berners was famous. It was an even more extraordinary experience, when 8 years later, Robert made his last mad-cap decision before he died, and unexpectedly bequeathed Faringdon House to me. The book will focus on the story of my grandparents and Lord Berners, but will also describe something of what it was like for me as a young woman from a very different sort of background, to become involved with a country house with such a remarkable history.