Antonia Fraser

Diary - 15 March 2003

The pros and cons of Celebrity Recognition Phenomenon

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A non-stop drive for housing: when my father, then Frank Pakenham, fought as Labour candidate for Oxford in 1945, he hired a pony and cart and, stuffing his numerous children in the back, set forth along the streets with this striking placard. Unfortunately, the pony came to an abrupt halt quite soon and would not be budged. The stop as opposed to the non-stop was commemorated in a photograph in the Oxford Mail. Such is the emotive power of photography that I remember it well, as Maurice Chevalier would say, including the discomfort of the crowded cart, the tiresome behaviour of my scowling siblings, my mother in the cheerful red Socialist mac she wore for electioneering (as opposed to the politically incorrect grey squirrel which was her usual wear). Ah yes, I remember it well.

Actually, I was not present. It was the Photographic Memory Phenomenon which makes me think I was: I've gazed at the image so often that I know I must have been there. I was in fact at boarding school, although I had much enjoyed canvassing in the holidays. I knew we would win - we being the Labour party, of course, but also my father, facing the sitting Tory MP Quintin Hogg. Returning to Oxford station from my boarding school in Salisbury on the day the poll was declared, I therefore did something incredibly audacious - by our family standards - and took a taxi back to my north Oxford home. This was in order to sweep triumphantly past the town hall, see the great banner which would undoubtedly be hanging there - Pakenham first, Hogg second. Alas, my triumphal progress came to a halt, much like the pony cart, when I saw that Hogg had actually beaten Pakenham by 2,800 votes. As I burst into tears, I was crying as much for myself as for my father: me, who would shortly have to explain to my irate mother why I had taken a taxi in the first place, intelligence I had hoped to slip sideways into the rejoicing household at 8 Chadlington Road.

I learned a valuable lesson about elections from this experience. You always think you are going to win; it's probably essential to do so to keep yourself and the loyal workers primed. I can still visualise the illuminated address the Oxford Labour party had already prepared to congratulate my father on his victory. At the bottom the words 'Although Success was Elusive' had been visibly and hastily added. My parents between them stood for three general elections, my mother for Cheltenham in 1935, and Oxford in 1950. Success was and remained elusive. My mother also nursed the King's Norton division of Birmingham for seven years before giving it up for the sake of the family. During the nursing period, my brother Thomas and I attended Bourneville Junior School for a week in the spring of 1939. We were five and six respectively. All I can remember is that we sat glumly starving at the back of the class, disenchanted not so much by the large numbers (which we thought rather jolly) as by the fact that our mother, not without her Mrs Jellaby side, had failed to give us any milk money or dinner money....

These early electoral memories are prompted by the fact that my youngest son, Orlando Fraser, has just been adopted as prospective parliamentary candidate for North Devon. Like his father, Hugh Fraser (and, incidentally, like my father at the time of my birth), he is a Conservative. Of course I know he will win, although it is not at present a Conservative seat. Hugh, at the time of his death in 1984, had been Member of Parliament for Stafford and Stone, and various permutations of that constituency, for nearly 40 years. During the 18 years we were married, he fought - and won - five elections. Thus I was able to rediscover the joys of canvassing, if in a different cause, and was struck by the extraordinary similarity of both sets of party workers - in character, that is. Here were two devoted bands of selfless idealists, and volunteer idealists at that. Conservative workers tended to wear hats on smart occasions, Labour workers didn't, and that was about it.

I note from my mother's autobiography that my father, still a Conservative at the time of her 1935 Cheltenham foray, promised her supportive but secret 'canvassing raids' so as not to compromise his then membership of the Carlton Club. (He eventually resigned on the rather craven grounds that his wife was a Socialist, only to receive the deepest sympathy from the secretary of the club: 'If you are ever abroad and in trouble, don't forget that the Carlton Club will never let you down.') As for my own children, I have been told that they look back on those electioneering periods in Staffordshire as halcyon episodes, especially the square meals at the Tillington Hall Hotel. 'And you never dared speak a cross word to us in case the word got out that the candidate and his wife were child-beaters.'

The Photographic Memory Phenomenon is matched by another which I will call the Celebrity Recognition Phenomenon. You have seen someone in the press or on television so often that, if there happens to be an encounter, you feel you must know them. Most stories told about this phenomenon feature royalty: i.e., the hapless person asks Princess Margaret how her sister is, only to be told: 'She's still the Queen.' Recently I went along with Harold to Hyde Park where he was due to speak at the great Anti-War March of 15 February. It was freezing and drizzling, as the noble marchers know much better than me, so we were ushered into a smallish chrome caravan. It was extremely crowded, but fortunately there was one seat, next to someone I knew, although I couldn't at that moment place him. All the same, I sat down thankfully with the words, 'How nice to see you again!' My friend responded with enthusiasm: 'And how nice to see you again!' Minutes later I realised that I was, in fact, sitting next to Jesse Jackson, and of course we'd never met. Back in the caravan after Harold had spoken, I saw one of my heroes, Tim Robbins. At this point I decided that CRP can be put to good use, as well as causing embarrassment. Being so famous, how could Tim Robbins possibly remember who he had not met? So up I went. 'Tim, how nice to see you again!' I said, boldly and untruthfully. And sure enough, Tim Robbins was delighted to see me again, too.