Lady Antonia Fraser launches Daily Express Christmas campaign

Lady Antonia Fraser launches Daily Express Christmas campaign to give away books

Lady Antonia Fraser launches Daily Express Christmas campaign to give away books (Image: reigate)

Now in her 91st year, books remain a constant for the widow of playwright Harold Pinter, who died on December 24, 2008.

“Books and literature meant everything to us,” he recalls of their intense 33-year relationship, once described by Pinter’s biographer as “the most celebrated modern literary marriage.”

Indeed, Lady Antonia says the biggest problem they faced when the lauded playwright moved into her Holland Park home in 1977 was finding the space to merge her two libraries.

“When I was writing, I would meet Harold at lunch and he was terribly good, showing him a chapter. He didn’t know anything about history, but he knew everything about language.

He adds with evident joy: “And since 1975 I was the first person to hear his new works. She would stand in front of me and represent them”.

In 2011 Lady Antonia agreed to become a patron of a new charity called Give A Book, which launched later that year and is partnering with the Daily Express for our Christmas 2022 charity drive.

“I read the name of the charity, Give A Book, and I thought those are two things I really like,” explains Lady Antonia, who insists that I drop her title when I address her. “One is giving and the other is books. Generosity and literature: it is an exciting contribution”.

The charity promotes the pleasure of reading in the hardest-to-reach places. His core belief is that passing on a good read, giving away a book, is a transaction of lasting value.

The charity's core belief is that passing on a good read

The charity’s core belief is that passing on a good read (Image: Daily Express)

“We work in prisons, schools and with disadvantaged young people across the UK. This is at the heart of everything we do,” says CEO Victoria Gray.

Victoria created the charity in tribute to her late husband, playwright and chronicler Simon Gray, who was the best friend of Harold Pinter. Antonia continues: “I found that the charity is run entirely by Victoria and a small team, and with very low overhead.”

Your work could not be more timely. Research from the National Literacy Trust has found that children without a book of their own are almost four times more likely to read below the average level expected for their age.

Meanwhile, the most recent data released by the Ministry of Justice shows that 57 percent of adult inmates who underwent initial assessments had literacy levels below those expected of an 11-year-old. Being unable to read makes them less likely to go to work and more likely to reoffend.

“All prison literacy campaigns are good,” insists Lady Antonia, who gives much credit to the work of Camilla, the new queen consort, in this area.

“Once you know how to read, you have power: the same goes for disadvantaged children. Books are magic carpets. They allow you to travel to unknown realms, which is the only thing you can’t
do in prison.”

Give A Book works in prisons in a number of ways, including the Making It Up initiative, in which prisoners create original storybooks to present to their children. This is based on research showing that inmates’ family contact is key to aiding rehabilitation.

“This project interests me a lot,” says Lady Antonia. “Parents connecting with their children through the power of imagination and creating something together. This is very positive.”

Antonia, the eldest daughter of the 7th Earl of Longford, the long-serving Labor politician and advocate for social causes and penal reform who died in 2001, is beginning to lose her hearing.

“But one thing I can keep doing for the rest of my life is reading,” he declares. “I could read a book a day; I spend all my time reading when I’m not doing anything else. I just finished a wonderful book on Ireland by Mary Kenny and am now reading The School That Escaped The Nazis by Deborah Cadbury, which is terribly good.

And she’s not averse to reading Trollope on a Kindle device, either: “Real books are lovely, but a Kindle is really handy for travel,” she insists.

Your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren receive book tokens as gifts. Her 30th book, a biography of Lady Caroline Lamb, the Victorian novelist who had an affair with Lord Byron, will be published in May. She can’t tell if there will be another book after that, she is so immersed in the current project.

“During lockdown, I was cleaning unknown places, very unknown places,” he laughs. “When a book fell hard on my foot: a brief life of Lady Caroline. So, she insisted that they write it down. So write it down that she did.

At 90, Lady Antonia Fraser says she can read a book a day

At 90, Lady Antonia Fraser says she can read a book a day (Image: Getty)

Antonia was the eldest of her parents’ eight children. Her mother, Elizabeth, Countess of Longford, was a British historian and biographer who became famous for her studies of Queen Victoria, Lord Byron, and the Duke of Wellington. She was 26 years old when Antonia was born.

“I could already read when I was three years old; my mother gave me the best gift that a father can give to a son.

“My memories are of her reading Walter Scott and skipping all the boring parts – I thought she was the most exciting writer in the world. Being a fast reader I would go downstairs and read in secret. The rest of my life has been reading books”.

Now that her six children are grown, her three daughters have become writers or biographers, she can read a book a day. “When he was a teenager riding the train, he would turn the pages so quickly that disapproving men, like parsons, would say, ‘I hope he doesn’t think he’s reading that.'”

She remains a devotee of libraries: she is vice-president of The London Library.

“As a teenager growing up in Oxford, I would walk to the public library, take out a book, read it, and come back the next day to get another one.”

Antonia’s first husband and father of her children was the Conservative politician Sir Hugh Fraser. Married in 1956, they divorced in 1977, three years before she married Pinter, who declined a knighthood in 1996 but became a Companion of Honor in 2002.

Three years later he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest award for any writer in the world.

By the time the couple met, in the mid-1970s, Pinter had already “written a lot of plays,” he says. “He was like a writer in a novel. He would just come up with an idea and then he would go and write it down.”

After they met, her own writing career evolved in a new direction when she began writing crime fiction.

“History is my life, it has been the focus, but crime novels were fun fun. I have read crime fiction all my life and I started writing it when Harold and I were on vacation together in the hot summer of 1976. I was supposed to be working on Carlos II.

In all, he wrote a dozen Jemima Shore novels, and they had a degree of convenience. “It meant that when Harold and I traveled to see her work, I could sit in a hotel room and write.”

This obviated the need to transport the copious research materials necessary for historical biography.

And she reveals that the creation of the fictional Jemima allowed for alter ego role-playing.

Lady Antonia with her late husband Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright

Lady Antonia with her late husband Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright (Image: Getty)

“I made her what she would never be: Single and childless, slim and tall, with wonderful red hair, she wore white pantsuits that never stood out.

“I would like to have a white pantsuit that never stands out”, he laughs, delighting in the other worlds that fiction allows; the reinvention of oneself, the ability to put on the clothes of another life.

“I love the idea that children can walk through the school libraries and take books. This excites me, the ability to discover for themselves and have that freedom of choice.”

He is concerned that there is currently no requirement for all elementary schools to have a library. Meanwhile, for his 90th birthday last August, she asked his friends to donate to a new Give A Book initiative: Project 90.

Named for his seminal birthday, it is a collaboration between the charity and the National Deaf Children’s Society to help families of deaf children learn to read with sign language.

“Everyone who came to my birthday party was asked if they wanted to give me a gift to make a donation instead,” she adds. “It makes me so happy. I love the idea, and I feel like I’ve done something good, maybe. After all, giving books is the best gift in the world.”

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