How We Met: Lord and Lady Longford

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The Independent Culture
Frank Pakenham, 89, seventh Earl of Longford, has had many careers: as writer and politician, and as publisher, banker, and Oxford lecturer. He is best known for his campaigns for penal reform and against pornography. Avowed Intent, his volume of memoirs, has just been published.

Elizabeth Pakenham, 88, Countess of Longford, gave up a career in politics to look after her large family. She subsequently became an acclaimed historical biographer. Married in 1931, the Longfords have seven surviving children, 26 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

LADY LONGFORD: I saw Frank during Commemoration Week at my first Oxford Ball. It was 1927. I was walking with friends when I saw this figure asleep on a couch. He was dressed in the Bullingdon Club uniform, a blue coat with white facings. I was puzzled to see this staggeringly handsome young man with lots of brown curls, curled up. I wondered who his partner was and how she had allowed him to fall asleep like that.

Shortly afterwards, Hugh Gaitskell was my partner at the New College Ball. He and Frank shared digs, but, because of the Ball, Hugh had hired a room in college for the night. Once again, the handsome man with the brown curls was fast asleep on a sofa. I went up to him, bent over and kissed him on the forehead. He opened his eyes and said, 'I'd like to kiss you but I can't'

I was in my first year at Oxford; Frank and Hugh were in their final year. Both of them got Firsts. To celebrate, Frank gave a party at the Cafe Royal, to which I was invited. He got terribly drunk. Some of us were supposed to go to the theatre afterwards but he couldn't possibly join us in that state and had to be taken home.

Both of us were totally absorbed in our separate lives, Frank's in London and mine in Oxford. Although we didn't see each other, I used to think about Frank a great deal, and decided that I would like to invite him for a cup of tea at my college, Lady Margaret Hall. In those days, even something as innocent as afternoon tea meant that I had to ask a don and other people to be present. After endless arrangements, Frank arrived for tea, but I thought that he seemed rather taken with one of my friends.

At Oxford, nearly all of my male friends were gay, but of course we didn't have a word for it then. I was surrounded by a group of exciting men friends but it was a very cerebral life. Gradually, I came to realise that the old Oxford world was coming to an end. In my last year, things began to change very quickly. There was the slump - we didn't use words like recession - and many people were starving. There was no welfare state and it was all very shocking. This was the first time that party politics had ever entered my Oxford world.

Frank never wrote or telephoned, but one day, unannounced, he turned up in Oxford at the house of my tutor and his family, where I was living. The first I knew of his arrival was seeing a taxi stop outside. Frank got out and walked up the garden path. He explained that he had come to invite me to stay with his family in Ireland for a week.

Ireland was extraordinary, and I was captivated. I loved the family and their rather eccentric life. I thought Frank's sisters were absolutely wonderful and hoped that they liked me. There were terrific house-parties, where we sang and played charades. Intellectually, it was exciting because so many interesting people came to stay, including, on one occasion, the cast from the Gate Theatre.

Frank was a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) and suggested that it would be a good idea if I taught English Literature at the WEA summer school in Balliol. The WEA changed my life. At the classes I started meeting real people who had suffered. I felt myself being swept along on a tide and became passionately interested in politics. Frank saw all the suffering too, of course, but politically we were on opposite sides. Later on, we had a double conversion. I made him change his politics to Labour, and, through Frank, I became a Catholic.

After Oxford, I joined Frank as a teacher for the WEA in Stoke-on-Trent. We used to come back to London on Friday evenings. For a year, during the week, we lived in the same house. Today, nobody would think anything of the arrangement but in 1930 things were different. Naturally, there was never any sex between us.

One Friday, on the 1.15am train back to London, I accepted Frank's proposal of marriage. My parents were delighted and longing to have Frank as a son-in-law, but he suddenly changed. He said he felt trapped and nervous. Frank was lacking in confidence that he would make a good husband, so we agreed to postpone everything for a year.

It was during this time that a third Oxford Ball affected our lives. We went to the Balliol Ball with David Cecil and other friends. As usual, Frank felt the need to fall asleep so at midnight we found an empty bed. There was no hanky panky - both of us just fell asleep - but one of the scouts found us and turned us out. That really was the turning-point. Our engagement was announced in the newspaper and arrangements were made for our wedding.

LORD LONGFORD: During my time at Oxford, I never met a female undergraduate until the Commemoration Ball at New College in 1927. I shared digs in Isis Street with Hugh Gaitskell, but for the night of the ball he had taken rooms in the Great Quad, where I fell asleep on a couch. At about 3am, I felt someone kiss me gently on the forehead. I woke to find a beautiful vision bending over me. Sixty-five years later, I can fairly call it love at first sight.

I couldn't possibly kiss her back. I'd never kissed a girl in my life who was outside the family. I was terribly timid about sex. However, as a member of the Bullingdon Club, I did get rather drunk. Our motto was 'I like the sound of breaking glass', but we always paid for any breakages. Elizabeth refers to that period of my life as 'those old unregenerate days'.

After leaving university, I was totally absorbed in my London life, which was glamorous socially, although - compared with today's standards - very virginal. Sex was never involved. In 1929, I was appointed a WEA tutor, which I was later able to combine with a post in the Conservative Research Department. I didn't see Elizabeth during these years, apart from one crucial event, the one which was to determine my future: a visit to Oxford in the summer of 1930. I stayed with my great friends the Birkenhead family. I didn't go there with the intention of calling on her, but that night I saw Elizabeth in my dream. I don't think it was a dream associated with God, but it was very powerful, like one of the dreams in the New Testament, where Joseph is told to 'take your wife and young child into Egypt.' My dream said, 'Call on Elizabeth at 10 Chadlington Road, Oxford.' I don't quite understand how I knew where she was living.

Over tea at Chadlington Road I asked Elizabeth if she would come to Ireland for a week to meet my family, and she accepted my invitation. She loved the life in Ireland. Intellectually, it was always exciting because many of our friends were invited to Pakenham Hall, among them Evelyn Waugh, David Cecil, John Betjeman, Maurice Bowra and Anthony Powell. It was as if life in Oxford had been temporarily moved to Ireland.

Elizabeth's interest in politics grew, while my Conservatism was beginning to look rather suspect. Today I'd be considered a wet. In those days I had a more academic way of looking at politics, but from the moment we became engaged my Conservatism was doomed. If Elizabeth had stayed in politics she would have had a big career, but she wouldn't have been able to write her books. Although we were on different sides, I always supported her political activities. She stood for Parliament 10 years before I did.

Our relationship developed while we were both teaching for the WEA, in the Potteries, returning to London on Friday evening. Each week I wooed her in the waiting-room of the old North Staffordshire Hotel. One evening the manager was obviously embarrassed and pounced on me saying, 'Look here, Pakenham, I can't have this kind of thing going on in a respectable hotel.' We were barely holding hands, but even so we were ejected and forced to go to the station waiting-room, which was unbelievably dowdy. I've been back recently and I'm pleased to say it's been smartened up. It was there that I asked Elizabeth to marry me. On the train, she accepted.

I was nervous. It was generally assumed that I'd never make enough money to marry, and suddenly the whole prospect of marriage seemed rather beyond me. I thought I was too poor and never expected to have a large family. Eventually, my confidence came back, and we announced our engagement in 1931, after the Balliol Ball. We planned to get married on 27 October, but there was a general election so it had to be postponed for a week. It was a very posh wedding at St Margaret's, Westminster.

If you choose the right woman, marriage is very easy. Elizabeth is such a happy person, I couldn't fail to gain so much happiness in life. I'd have collapsed without her.

(Photograph omitted)