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17 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:50pm

Antonia Fraser’s Diary: Being moved to tears by Europe, how time healed Betrayal, and Mandela and me

By Antonia Fraser

I was terrified most of the time. This was during my first encounter with Europe in 1948 when I went on an exchange to a French family near Bordeaux. (The subject of Europe is for some reason much on my mind.) The idea was that my French girl contemporary would then come back and stay with us. Abroad was a remote, fearful, exciting place for people such as myself, whose childhood was dominated by the war. The idea of family holidays in Italy or Greece, for example! Or trips anywhere abroad unless by submarine (I had a secret dread of being abducted by submarine, and watched the sea off the Cornish coast with apprehension for a little black snorkel out to get me).

Now I was to spend my 16th birthday in the land of the New Look. And I did have the overcoat to prove that I knew all about it, the trouble being that overcoats are not much use in southern France in August, and that was my single New Look garment, the rest being strictly Utility (dread wartime word). Probably the worst feature was not so much the French language (had I not passed my French exams quite brilliantly?) but the fact that everyone spoke so unfairly fast. Why couldn’t Jacqueline and the rest enunciate clearly and slowly like the nuns at my convent school? Fortunately there was one magic moment that converted me at once and forever into a European.

On my birthday itself, after dinner, a senior member of the family, who turned out to have been in the Resistance, made a long emotional speech on the subject of England’s support for France in the war – well, I think that’s what he said, he certainly hailed me, “Mademoiselle”, as a worthy representative of my country. He ended in tears – and so did Mademoiselle.

Mutability’s sports

“The ever-whirling wheel of Change” was Edmund Spenser’s description of it in The Faerie Queene: after that he goes on about Mutability playing her cruel sports to many men’s decay. But not all Mutability’s sports are cruel. There is a wonderful example of the wheel of Change in the West End theatre at the moment. When Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal was first performed at the National Theatre in 1978, the reviewers almost universally disdained it as being bland and bourgeois (I am happy to report that the exception was Benedict Nightingale in the New Statesman). This was despite excellent direction by Peter Hall, and excellent acting. Now I am reliably informed by the people asking me for tickets that it is a sell-out, in an astonishing, exciting spare production by Jamie Lloyd with three stars in the cast, Zawe Ashton, Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox. The reviewers love them: and they love the play too. So what happened? Maybe something in Harold is to blame: after all, the original production of The Birthday Party in 1958 was taken off after a week thanks to the excoriation of reviewers.

Not the only fruit

Growing oranges and lemons in pots outdoors – all the year round – in my garden, is a passion of mine which I’m sure goes back to childhood and the bells of St Clements. The truth is that they weren’t always allowed to be so ostentatiously hardy. When I was first presented with a small orange tree in a pot by my brother Thomas Pakenham, who prefers his own trees bigger and writes about them, it was a thrilling moment. None of my children ever received the care of this dear little orange-bearing plant. Water, more water, black plastic if any threat of frost, indoors if the weather loured… then it began to wilt under my maternal attentions, particularly disliking the central heating. Recklessly I bought a lemon tree, as if company would make them both safer, and condemned them to winter outside, ghoulishly draped in their plastic. Gradually I added to their number until a positive colony arose, and that aroused generosity in my friends, who always knew the right present to give. Then came a bad winter in my life, when I hardly went into the garden. The oranges and lemons went undraped the whole winter without their plastic. And they loved it! Clearly they did not miss my attentions. And they still flourish. Perhaps they appreciate the fact that I have never picked off one fruit, despite all the helpful suggestions about home-made orange juice or even lemon slices in dry Martinis. And by the way, I do not have favourites: oranges and lemons have equal rights.

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Madiba’s noble hand

Links with history are an obsession of mine, and I admit that I allow a very broad definition of the word link. That is to say, I count myself as having met Nelson Mandela, on the strength of a genial handshake at a party in London before he became president in 1994, arranged by Anthony Sampson (who would later be his official biographer). Having observed that there was an impressive female escort – or perhaps guard – standing beside him, I inched my way past the queue and invoked her as Sister. After all what is feminism for? I begged a handshake – only that, not a word to be spoken. Equally silently she nodded and I duly shook the noble hand out of turn. I shall remember it forever, not only his marvellous smile (which somehow made me think that he had come from South Africa entirely to meet me) but also the tolerant kindness of his guard.