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The June 20 Group: Antonia Fraser’s time in opposition

On 20 June 1988, a group of left-wing novelists, playwrights and thinkers gathered at Antonia Fraser’s house, determined to do something about the lack of opposition in British politics.

The sofa in Antonia Fraser’s sitting room is a crowded space. A cat named Ferdinand, one half of a pair clearly named by the 84-year-old historian (the other, Isabella, is licking her paw over by the window), must be displaced before I can sit down. There are less tangible presences, too: Margaret Thatcher once sat in this very spot, Fraser informs me as I settle down into the cushions.

A decade after the Iron Lady attended a meeting of the Conservative Philosophy Group at Fraser’s house in Holland Park, London (her first husband, Hugh Fraser, was a Tory MP), a different kind of gathering was held in this room. On 20 June 1988, the first meeting of what came to be known as “the June 20 Group” took place. As many as 25 prominent novelists and thinkers, including Germaine Greer, Salman Rushdie, David Hare, John Mortimer, Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Drabble and Peter Nichols, as well as Fraser and her second husband, Harold Pinter, were present.

“We had a sort of buffet supper. There weren’t enough chairs,” Fraser tells me when we meet. “I think some people had to sit on the floor. The room looked roughly the same. It’s rather too heavily furnished to have a meeting.”

Empty now except for Fraser, myself and the cats, it isn’t hard to imagine Greer stretched out on the hearth rug and Rushdie sprawled on one of the two sofas in front of the fireplace. Built in the 1820s, this room has the high ceilings and broad windows typical of the Georgian period, as well as the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and tastefully expensive furnishings one would expect Fraser, a daughter of the 7th Earl of Longford, to have selected.

The idea for the meeting originated with John Mortimer, the former barrister and author of Rumpole of the Bailey. At dinner a few months earlier with his wife, Penny, along with Fraser and Pinter, Mortimer had spoken angrily about the growing irrelevance of left-wing thought in British intellectual life and his frustrations with the poor quality of both journalism and political debate. “Do you realise what you’ve been saying? What are we going to do about it, then?” Pinter interjected, according to his biographer Michael Billington.

The result of Mortimer’s ire was the meeting at the Fraser-Pinter house on 20 June – a date selected because it lay between the birthdays of Salman Rushdie (on 19 June) and Ian McEwan (on 21 June). A myth subsequently repeated by some right-wing critics surrounds the group’s name. It has been suggested that it was named after the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, and that the purpose of this meeting was a plot to bring down Margaret Thatcher (whom Rushdie called “Mrs Torture” in The Satanic Verses, which was published a few months after the first meeting).

Fraser laughs at the notion of her guests as von Stauffenberg-esque plotters. “Absolutely not. I find it humbling, as a historian, that should be said, because it means I’ve made mistakes like that.”

In reality, she explains, the purpose of the first meeting was to see if the idea of the group was viable, and whether they would meet again. The political journalist and former New Statesman editor Anthony Howard read a paper that evening that Billington records as being about the “decline of the left in Britain and the inconceivability of Labour ever winning another election”. In her diaries from the time, Fraser writes that Howard spoke for 40 minutes – “a bit long”. Other topics, including whether a writer of conscience could justify working for the Murdoch press (Greer, then a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, argued yes), were debated. The date for the next meeting, in September, was agreed upon.

After the second meeting, several journalists (including Peregrine Worsthorne at the Daily Telegraph) got wind of the group and wrote derisively about it. The attendees were ridiculed as “champagne socialists”.

“The slightly hysterical reaction to it in the press was very interesting,” Fraser says. “It was as though there was something wrong with the whole idea, as though philosophy groups could only be conservative.”

This often vitriolic criticism made the members feel rather self-conscious. “It was simply a place in which we might be able to thrash out ideas about what was happening in the country,” Rushdie told Billington in 1996. “It was never meant to be a pressure group or an intellectual support system for the Labour Party.”

Fearing that their association with the group was harming its aims, Fraser and Pinter stepped back from its organisation and the two subsequent meetings were held at the River Café in Hammersmith, west London, and then the Groucho Club in Soho. At that last gathering, held just before the 1992 general election, the members of the June 20 Group were addressed by the soon-to-be Labour leader John Smith.

Looking back, it was the hostility from the press to the idea of a left-wing intellectual society that Fraser found most instructive. She wrote in her diary: “It is difficult in retrospect to see that [the group] achieved anything at all except some hot-air balloons rising.”

Brexit makes it hard to compare today’s political situation with that of the 1980s, Fraser feels, but she hopes that an equivalent group is meeting today.

“I do feel a bit like, ‘Hello, where is the noble opposition we used to have?’ This is a democratic country and there should be an opposition. Maybe I think that more than I did then. Then, it was a belief: we are free to think and explore ideas – let us do so.”

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.