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

Photo: Getty
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Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.