Sunday 25 February 2018

Historic voyage to the Holy Land with Mr Pinter

Memoir: Our Israeli Diary, 1978, Antonia Fraser, Oneworld, €15.00

Playwright Harold Pinter pictured with his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, before the opening of Harold Pinter's 'No Man's Land' in the Gate Theatre. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Playwright Harold Pinter pictured with his wife Lady Antonia Fraser, before the opening of Harold Pinter's 'No Man's Land' in the Gate Theatre. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter first met in January, 1975. After a dinner to celebrate the first night of a revival of The Birthday Party, she accepted a lift home. "I just must say hello to Harold Pinter," she told her lift-giver, "and say it was a wonderful play, wonderful actors, you're wonderful, blah blah blah". Having done so she told Pinter: "Now I must be off." He said: "Must you go?" She said: "No, it's not absolutely essential," and they spent the next 33 years together.

Lady Antonia was 42 when they met, and Pinter 44. They had both been married for 18 years, she to Sir Hugh Fraser, the Tory MP, and he to the actress Vivien Merchant; she had six children, and he had one. A few months later, when she told her husband about Pinter, he said he would like to meet him; they discussed cricket, which sent her to sleep. She married Pinter in 1980.

In 2010, two years after he died, she published Must You Go?, a memoir based on her diaries, from which he emerged as a poppet at home and rather a monster outside it. After his death, she found a note she had passed him at a dinner party: "Darling - You are right. So SHUT UP."

Our Israeli Diary is a slim addendum to Must You Go? Written over a fortnight in May 1978, it turns out to be entirely hers, typed up every morning on her portable typewriter. It merits its plural possessive, though, as Pinter looms throughout, irascibly silent, in "a new pair of prescription sunglasses, abnormally huge and rather sinister".

On the flight from London, Fraser prepares by reading about Israel, while "H, I sense, is just thinking..." Of what? Perhaps that his Jewishness was all the preparation he needed; we shall never know. He has packed "many pairs of bi-coloured leather and canvas shoes", and she writes that "we both believe we shall tramp through a great deal of history".

So it proves. In Jerusalem, "as we stroll though the Ages, Bronze, Iron and that sort of thing, the concentration of history here, as though this part of the world was some area furiously coveted by quarrelling children, strikes me anew".

Tel Aviv seems "more like the Golders Green of my youth, just after the War, push, push, shove, shove, but a Mediterranean version. I feel anti-social; H feels anti-everything". They go to the usual places - Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, and so on. At the foot of the rock fortress of Masada, "vast coaches are already drawn-up. Several bear the label: 'United Zionist Federation of South Africa' [...] a lot of rather menacing concepts!" The coaches disgorge passengers "in tiny hats, too tiny for their big heads, with 'Israel' on them, and plump women in v short sundresses. And the loud voices which make Harold flinch". He is, of course, more snobbish than she. On the descent, he suffers a bad case of vertigo and, having "brilliantly" removed his spectacles, has to be led, sweating and staggering, down the path, scattering indignant tourists.

As they tour the country in cars without air-conditioning, visiting "settlements full of aggressive and hot people", Fraser begins "to wonder with interest if I shall survive, spraying my face rather feebly with Evian water". Fraser later wrote a biography of Marie Antoinette, and here she strikes the odd Antoinette-ish attitude. In Galilee, for example, she is "suddenly seized with the most romantic thoughts of Christ's mission, and how happy He must have been in this comparatively fertile paradise, walking on this nice refreshing lake, having his picnics on the mount and so forth. How He must have hated going to that hot Jerusalem! Well, of course he did..."

Quite. In hot Jerusalem they meet David Mercer, Pinter's fellow working-class playwright, who tells them he hopes to bring up the daughter his new Israeli wife has presented him with in the Jewish tradition, but without the religion: "I also hope to give her good Yorkshire working-class Trade Unions traditions too."

"I agree with him profoundly on both counts," Fraser remarks, bafflingly, "whatever my equivalents of the Yorkshire TU movement would be". And so Our Israeli Diary, in a "What I did on my holidays" way, is unguarded and often quite funny.

Lewis Jones©Telegraph

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