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

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood