Magazine article The Spectator

A Split Personality

Magazine article The Spectator

A Split Personality

Article excerpt

In Search of a Past

by Ronald Fraser

Verso, £20, pp. 187,

ISBN 9781844675975

By the 1970s Ronald Fraser had established himself as an expert on modern Spain and an authority on its oral history, when that discipline was an exotic new concept. As a radical socialist, and a friend of the Marxist historian Perry Anderson, he published a series of distinguished books on popular risings and guerrilla warfare in 19th-century Spain. It was society seen from below.

But no one reading the first edition of Fraser's memoir, published in 1984, would have guessed any of this. Only in a new introduction does he mention his friendship with Gerald Brenan, whose The Spanish Labyrinth was a sacred text to all of us who wrote on 20th-century Spain.

In Search of a Past concerns Fraser's life as a boy and adolescent in a Hampshire manor house in the late 1930s and during the second world war. It is constructed from his childhood memories and his extensive conversations with the surviving members of that world, which he recorded on revisiting his old home 34 years after he'd left it. What is revealed is that upstairs, downstairs way of life so beloved of television producers. Above stairs were his father, a crusty, conservative army officer, and his mother, a more elusive American heiress. Below stairs were eight domestic servants.

Neglected by his parents, who were deeply engaged in the social and sporting world of the local gentry - they were enthusiastic fox-hunters, an occupation which Fraser came to despise and fear - the young boy naturally found companionship with the groom and the gardener, the latter a Jack-of all-trades who also served as a car mechanic and driver. Fraser's father was a mean-minded master, paying miserable wages to his overworked staff. The gardener reckoned them 'no more than a heap of dirt'. But the groom, much to his wife's fury, accepted life as it came - though, in the depression years of the 1930s, it is hard to see what else he could have done.

As Fraser admits, 'the absent pressure I've always known is my mother's'. …

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