The 18-year-old Antonia Pakenham in 1950. Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
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Antonia Fraser and David Lodge: A tale of two writers, posh and prole

New memoirs from Antonia Fraser and David Lodge show very different British upbringings.

Quite a Good Time to Be Born: a Memoir (1935-75)
David Lodge
Harvill Secker, 488pp, £25

My History: a Memoir of Growing Up
Antonia Fraser
Widenfeld & Nicolson, 304pp, £20

A couple of pages from the end of David Lodge’s lengthy memoir, his narrative finally crosses Antonia Fraser’s. It is 1975 and he is collecting the Yorkshire Post prize for fiction for Changing Places. The cheque is presented by Fraser’s father, Lord Longford, by now a celebrity for his campaign against pornography. It is clear that Longford has been shocked by Lodge’s comedy of two academics on an exchange who have affairs with each other’s wives. He is particularly upset by the scene in which the British lecturer Philip Swallow discusses his anxiety about the size of his penis with Désirée, the wife of his American opposite number, Morris Zapp. He indicates his disapproval in his presentation speech.

It is a nice vignette. Fraser’s father, an upper-class liberal socialist, has attached himself to a campaign for censorship. Lodge, a conformist lower-middle-class Catholic, is beginning to escape from the dutifulness of his youth and is dramatising his new tolerance in his fiction. Turning 40, Lodge is just starting to find some success as a novelist (one of the striking aspects of his memoir is his continual difficulty even getting his novels published). A sign of his success is that he is meeting some of the characters who fill the pages of Fraser’s memoir.

Longford, recalled with undiluted affection, is a major character in his daughter’s autobiography. Both of these books are, as Fraser’s subtitle has it, memoirs of “growing up”. Lodge is writing “another book” for his later years; Fraser, who has already published Must You Go?, covering her time with Harold Pinter, stops with her marriage, aged 24, to the Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser – though she cannot resist a triumphant epilogue describing the publication and popular success of her biography of Mary, Queen of Scots. The two writers were born in London within three years of each other: Fraser as Antonia Pakenham in 1932 and Lodge in 1935. Both were brought up as Roman Catholics, though Fraser only from her teens, when her mother, finally following her father, converted.

For Fraser, Catholicism is just lovely. The young Antonia prepares for her immersion in the faith by reading Antonia White’s Frost in May (a novel that also impressed the teenage Lodge) and sampling “the incense, the bells, the sound of Latin, and above all the feeling of mystery” at early-morning Mass with her father. She is sent to St Mary’s, Ascot, the poshest of convent schools, where she relishes “all the rituals”: the different veils for different services, the processions and banners, the feast days with their peculiar observances. Who would not enjoy being a Roman Catholic?

Lodge has turned Catholicism and its discontents into comedy in his fiction but in his memoir the business of being a Catholic sounds glum. Above all, it makes sex difficult – indeed, before marriage it was “simply not imaginable”. Even when he and his long-time girlfriend Mary are in their mid-twenties and she is living in her own flat, the best he can hope for is to “pop round on the Vespa for cocoa and a cuddle and to talk about future plans”. The intimacies of a bed bath from a comely nurse when he has an operation on an ingrowing toenail are more exciting than anything he is allowed to enjoy with his wife-to-be.

Lodge gives you the details: masturbation (abstention from), wet dreams, finally his wedding night (clumsy but a big relief). Lodge and his wife agree that using artificial contraception is a mortal sin and go to the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council to find out how to practise the “rhythm method”. Mary duly gets pregnant. Lodge reflects that, in the 1950s, only the upper classes were relaxed about sex. Fraser doesn’t exactly tell you if this is true. As an undergraduate, she enjoys a “grand passion” with the “dashing” (her word) son of an earl but the sexual mores of the time remain unspecified.

These are, naturally, books about class as well as Catholicism. Lodge is self-conscious about this, noticing the small gradations of privilege that separated his family from others in Brockley, south London. His father played sax and clarinet in London clubs and did well enough to be able to buy his own house but education allowed his son to do better. First, there was the Catholic grammar school and then University College London. Fraser’s upbringing, in contrast, was gilded. Her father inherits an earldom and an Irish estate. His childless great-aunt leaves him a handy estate in Sussex. Neville Chamberlain is her mother’s first cousin; Anthony Powell is her uncle. The young David Lodge relishes the novels of Evelyn Waugh that he borrows from Deptford Public Library; Fraser knows Waugh as a family friend. Lodge goes to Germany to stay with a rackety aunt; Fraser holidays in Italy with the country’s prime minister. Lodge studies T S Eliot at university; Fraser dances with him at a ball.

Senate House, part of Lodge's alma mater.

Both authors become Labour Party supporters, their complexions determined by their upbringings. Despite his Daily Express-reading parents, the teenage Lodge is converted by his approval of the new National Health Service and free secondary and tertiary education. He remains a “lukewarm” Labourite thereafter (but deserts to the SDP in the 1980s). Fraser’s aristocratic socialism is worn with more aplomb. She confesses a few incongruities. When her mother is about to stand as Labour candidate for a constituency in Birmingham, she and her brother find themselves sent for a week to a local state school in order to demonstrate “our mother’s egalitarian views on education”. It is a very brief PR gesture and soon Antonia is off to be one of a handful of girls at the boys’ prep school next to their Oxford home, where she excels, by her own account, at rugby. She plays on the wing and is proud of her hand-offs.

Fraser has an upper-class confidence that all the details of her youth will be of interest to readers. She lists the names and attributes of the masters at her prep school and the dons who taught her at Oxford. Lodge is circumstantial out of an obligation to historical truth. Though there is something Pooterish in his detailing of the dimensions of his family home or the exact travel arrangements for any of his journeys or the prices of any goods purchased, the social historian will be grateful for all the facts.

Misfortune as well as self-doubt are largely excluded from Fraser’s blithe and complacent narrative. The only exception comes in 1940, when her father, having enlisted for military service, suffers an unspecified mental collapse that returns him to life as an Oxford don. The children are told he has had flu. In contrast, Lodge’s story mounts to the birth of his third child, Christopher, who has Down’s syndrome. Here Lodge’s factuality about how the birth of a “mongol” child is treated in the 1960s is compelling. The event changes his and his wife’s minds about contraception and about Catholic doctrine more generally. Henceforth he looks back on the beliefs of his youth with increasing wonder. Lady Antonia, you feel, thinks the young Antonia Pakenham entirely familiar and congenial. Lodge finds his younger self a strangely distant being.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution