I have come to hold the belief that one of the most powerful and definitively human compulsions is that of being remembered: that when the physical reality of self has perished, that echo of appearance, the memory of self in other minds, should be confirmed in defiance of death. Hence the funeral, the oration, the headstone, the monument, the memorial service, the obituary and this, the personal memoire. That, and an expiation.
So I am not writing claiming I knew Antonia better than others – her mother and stepfather, her husband and her sons, her other family and many of her other friends had that privilege – but we had our moments over twenty or so years. I want to write down those I remember, and those I can repeat, before my recollections of them change and mutate any more than they already have. To ‘re-member’ to, as the word suggests, is to piece back together the members, the parts, of a dismembered whole. At best this is a jerry-rigged fiction that just about passes muster and at worst an outright lie, fuelled by want, and perspective, and sorrow.
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It was in her room in the top floor of Matthews Building I first met her, second on the right. A single bed, a desk, armchair and a basin in cupboard, divided by no more space than you could lie down in, loo and shower down the corridor. St. Peter’s College, Oxford, wasn’t exactly as glamorous as Brideshead Revisited, but Antonia was. Tall, lithe, exquisite faced which she fought against – admiring the strong more than the pretty – speaking with clipped St. Mary’s (Calne) tones and Eton-cropped black hair, which I would later cut to make her look more like Irène Jacob in Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs : Rouge the film we all fell in love with that year. Just as we all fell in love with her.
In that tiny room we were all packed, a group, almost exclusively male at its core, and regarded as deeply, almost hilariously pretentious even by the standards of Oxford undergraduates. However, looking back one can see it was just curiosity and fascination and youthful gaucheness.
There was Hugh Dancy, George Pendle and Paul Curran, all studying English under Dr Francis Warner, Dominic Elliot studying Archaeology and Anthropology, and Steven France studying Philosophy under Dr John Kenyon. Antonia would within her first year abandon Geography for English, and I would only make it to the end of my second before switching from Biology to Philosophy under Kenyon.
One of her first stories to me, a story which would have perhaps annoyed the more sophisticated and subtle person she became, was of her summer holiday, just prior to coming up to Oxford, in Kenya. I remember still the image she conjured so well of her sitting, dressed in white, smoking Cartier cigarettes, the only non-male, and indeed only non-Masai sitting around a camp fire in The Mara. She would have been eighteen years old.
I wonder if she viewed us like Masai too. She certainly preferred the company of us men, and although she was not a tomboy in the sense of climbing trees, her way of speaking was… well, like anti-aircraft fire – not always deadly accurate, but incessant and intimidating to fly amongst, the dark crumping bursts of her conversational shells peppering the night sky. And it was usually night sky – we sat up late into the night talking and talking, me smoking Marlboro, her Lights, me Coke, her Diet. She wasn’t much of a drinker, disliking the silliness, the loss of control, or so she claimed. When I did see her tipsy for the first time I was surprised at how girly she became. I think that was what she feared most.
It was inevitable that I would fall head over heels for her – I mean I was only a few months out of an all boys boarding school, grew up without sisters and had never had a girlfriend. And here was this stunning and exotic creature, fitting no standard feminine norm that I knew of – never a skirt or dress, but black boots and jeans on those very long legs, and almost invariably a black polo neck, channelling Juliette Greco with a hint of Audrey Hepburn. Of course, now in retrospect I can see that Antonia wasn’t oblivious to the effect she had on us boys – and we were just boys – wrangling us to some extent with those quirks honed to charms, equalising the gender imbalance using that weapon among all the others at her disposal. [Read more…]