Saturday, November 11, 2017

My writing day / Antonia Fraser / ‘I was forced to learn typing as a punishment for being uppish’

‘Swimming is the best sport I know for reflecting on history’
Antonia Fraser. Illustration: Alan Vest

My writing day

Antonia Fraser: ‘I was forced to learn typing as a punishment for being uppish’

The award-winning author on morning rituals, the importance of a pleasant break at lunchtime and why she has not worked after dinner since 1968
Antonia Fraser
11 November 2017
close encounter with cats begins my writing day. Ferdy and Bella were originally Mayhew Animal Home rescue kittens; nowadays they have a way with technology that means that printing out overnight emails becomes a sophisticated version of cat-and-mouse. I eject them from my eyrie, as my writing room is known: they lie outside the door, hoping for another technological treat.

The room is on the fourth floor of the house, views both ways towards Southall and our beautiful garden square (my desk faces Southall) and was originally the nursery; so I changed the name firmly from nursery to eyrie to promote the notion of solitude.
Now the day will progress with total calm, won’t it, since the telephone bell is turned off, while the mobile is banished during the morning. I’ve also invested in a special computer for work, so that while I’m upstairs I do not receive those delightful distracting emails for which my baser self is secretly longing. I’ve always written on some form of typewriter, now a computer, since I was forced to learn typing on Saturdays at my convent school as a punishment for being uppish. In consequence I’m a touch typist – actually the most useful skill I ever acquired; so much for uppishness.
At this point in my day, I work with aforesaid total calm from about 9.30 until lunchtime. Ideally I then go out to a local Italian restaurant, preferably with someone who talks brilliantly about themselves, not totally impossible to achieve in London W11. I can then covertly mull over the morning’s work. I never work in the afternoon, preferring to go swimming in a local health club, for more mulling as I slowly and happily traverse the pool for 20 minutes. Swimming is the best sport I know for reflecting seriously on history. In the early evening I go back upstairs, but it will be for reading over the day’s pages, and correcting them, rather than something more creative.
I have never worked after dinner since 1968 when I was writing Mary Queen of Scots and my then husband [Hugh Fraser] was away in his constituency. I took the opportunity to work until 4am. When I read it through in the morning, it was total rubbish. This taught me a sharp lesson. Harold [Pinter] was the exact opposite: he regularly worked all night or half the night or most of the night, depending on where the inspiration took him. In that respect we were, like many happy married couples, the embodiment of Jack Sprat and his wife.

The reason that this pattern of work-in-the-morning-only is something so deeply ingrained in me, is that I began trying to write history seriously when I had six children born in 10 years. I have actually written all my life, but history was It. So I devised a way of working like a bat out of hell, or anyway a bat out of the nursery, the moment I could cram the children into cradles, kindergartens, schools ... with the wild hope they would stay there. (There are wicked stories of notices on my door saying “Only come in if you have broken something”, which I utterly deny.) Under the circumstances, I never ever suffered from writer’s block.
Today the discipline remains. I still feel odd if I don’t work in the morning, and if I am not alone in the eyrie (with Ferdy and Bella outside). The computer is quite companion enough: “Dear Google, what year did Robert Peel die?” So much easier than combing the four biographies of Peel I possess, looking at me reproachfully from the bookshelves that wallpaper the room. Although over the years I have collected reference books to which I am profoundly grateful, such as The Historyof Parliament in seven volumes (available online, but for serious work I still prefer cuddling up to a heavy tome), which was invaluable for my last two books.
I will end on the ideal break, since every routine needs the occasional interruption. For me, this would be attending a literary festival crowded with amiable well wishers, who have only one ambition, which is to buy my book at the end of the talk. For their sake, I will put up with the first question I am now most frequently asked: “Lady Antonia, are you still writing?” The answer is: “Yes. What else to do with my day?”

In brief

Hours: three ferocious, two milder
Words: 3,000 maximum, three minimum
Refreshment: a glass of pinot grigio at lunch to celebrate if things have gone well, and console if they haven’t

My writing day 



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