Where was I in 1987?

Alan Bennett

London, 2 January 1987. Reg, who kept the junk stall in the market, has died and today is his funeral. Where his stall stood outside The Good Mixer there is a trestle-table covered with a blue sheet, and a notice on a wreath of chrysanthemums announces that Reg Stone passed peacefully away on Boxing Day and that his cortège will be passing through the market at three o’clock. Until I read the card I’d never known his last name.

Reg’s stall was a feature of the market long before I moved here in 1961. Then he had two prices, sixpence and a shilling. In time this went up to a shilling and five shillings, and latterly it had reached 50p and £1. To some extent he shaped his price to the customer, though not in a Robin Hood sort of way, the poorer customers often getting charged more, and any attempt to bargain having the same effect. I have two American clocks, both in working order, that were five shillings apiece and an early Mason’s Ironstone soup dish that cost sixpence and hangs on the wall of the kitchen. Local houses used to be full of treasures from Reg: model steam engines, maple mirrors, Asian Pheasant plates, rummers, all picked up for a song. Once I saw a can of film (empty) with ‘Moholy-Nagy’ round the rim, and only this last year Harriet G. got some Ravilious plates for 50p. Money didn’t seem to interest Reg. Scarcely glancing at what one had found, he’d take the fag out of his mouth, say ‘A pound,’ then take a sip from his glass of mild on the pub window-sill and turn away, not bothered if one bought it or not.

I go down at three. The table is now piled high with flowers, mostly the dog-eared variety on offer at the cheap stall in the market, petals already scattering on the wind. One or two of the long-established residents stand about, old NW1 very much in evidence. Thinking the cortège will arrive from the Catholic church, we are looking along Arlington Road when it comes stealing through the market itself. It is led by a priest in a cape and an undertaker bearing a heavy rolled umbrella that he holds in front of him like a staff of office or a ceremonial cross. The procession is so silent and unexpected that it scarcely disturbs people doing their normal shopping, the queue at Terry Mercer’s fruit stall gently nudged aside by the creeping limousines. The priest stops at the top of the street, turns and stands looking down the market as if the street were a nave and this was his altar. The flowers are now distributed among the various cars, more petals falling. In one of the limousines a glamorous blonde is weeping and in other cars there are children. Just as I never thought of Reg as having a name, so a family (and a family as respectable as this) comes as a surprise. And for a man I never saw smile or scowl, laugh or lose his temper, grief, too, seems out of place.

Egypt, 8 January. To Cairo to film a small part in the BBC’s Fortunes of War. The Ramses Hilton is on the site of the demolished Anglican cathedral, the view from the 16th floor taking in the Nile, the back of the Cairo Museum, three fly-overs and, dim shapes beyond the tower blocks, the Pyramids. On stand-by for filming, we take a trip down the Nile by three-decker river boat on which we have lunch. The boat never reaches even the outskirts of Cairo and since many of the buildings on both banks are in the process of demolition or construction, it’s like a boat trip down the Harrow Road. The streets are filthy, the pavements torn up, no architecture of any distinction and all of it in the same dusty, dun-coloured stone. And yet it is a delightful place, wholly redeemed by the people, who are open and friendly, the men tall and handsome, the women of a ripe Biblical beauty, heavy-eyebrowed, voluptuous and bold, none of them veiled and on seeming equality with the men. As for beggars, there are now more in London than in Cairo. The most striking feature of the boat trip is an entirely rural island of lush green fields and primitive cultivation with a mud-brick farmhouse at the edge of the water where boatmen are mending nets, women washing clothes and the farmer trots round the fields on a mule, all this virtually in the middle of the city. It looks almost as if it has been laid on for passing tourists and in the West that’s just what it would be: a folk park or an urban farm.

Cairo, 10 January. One of the company, Diana H., spent her honeymoon in Cairo. The marriage did not last long and when she learned she was to be filming in Cairo she wondered where the unit would be staying. It was the Ramses Hilton, where she had spent her honeymoon. When the desk handed her her key it was the same room.

Every day in the late afternoon the hotel fills with tourists and after breakfast empties again as they depart for Luxor and the boat up the Nile. Many are English. ‘Palm trees are nothing to us,’ one said today. ‘We’re from Torquay.’

12 January. To Gizeh, where, in hot sunshine, we ride camels and horses around the Pyramids. Not expecting much, I am not put off by the litter and trash, and even the dead dog my camel steps round does not seem out of place. The Sphinx, like a personality seen on TV then met in the flesh, is smaller than one had imagined and it’s quite hard to tell how tall the Pyramids themselves are. In the distance stand the towers and skyscrapers of Cairo, in the misty morning sunshine a sight every bit as remarkable as the Pyramids. Odd that one marvels at stone piled up in one shape but not in another, both of much the same height. Were our world largely wiped out, would tourists flock to Croydon as they do to Cairo? Beyond the Sphinx, on the edge of the desert, is a Coptic cemetery, and as we ride past, a funeral arrives. Painted green and looking like an ammunition locker, the coffin is handed out from an old Commer van to be passed over the heads of the crowd into the graveyard, the shrieks with which the women urge it on towards the grave not much different from the shouts the men use to encourage the camels. Mine farts continuously and on one occasion manages to spit down my neck.

A discussion of sex life uncovers the fact that in this unit of fifty and more people, most of them quite young, no one is known to be having an affair.

Luxor, 14 January. Tea on the terrace of the Winter Palace Hotel, a brown stucco building no different from the Winter Gardens of many an English seaside town because built around the same time and nowadays as rundown and deserted as they are. We watch the sun set over the Nile, a scene captured by dozens of tourists with film cameras who wait as if for the passage of royalty.

Cairo, 19 January. Early at Cairo Airport, we wander round the departure lounge where Christopher S. discovers a museum. It’s just one room, looking out onto the tarmac, and has a score or so of showcases of various periods – Ancient Egypt, the Copts, the Mamelukes – with only a few exhibits in each: a wooden tablet of a saint in glory, vases for viscera with smiling dogs’ heads, a fragment of Greek alabaster labelled ‘Man carrying something on his shoulder’. There’s more satisfaction in these few (I’m sure) inferior artefacts than in a morning spent traipsing round the tombs. It’s partly because we have time to kill and here is just one room and nothing else, no other objects queuing up for attention, no visions of rooms unvisited, treasures overlooked (Madame de Sévigné on sightseeing: ‘What I see tires me and what I don’t see worries me’). It’s also that the museum itself is something discovered, a found object, an oddity. It saves its best surprise until last: a painted limestone statue c.3000 BC of two monumental figures, Iuh and his wife Mary. They sit enthroned in their ceremonial wigs, the woman’s real hair peeping out from underneath, their expressions, insofar as they have expressions, solemn and unsmiling. Except that Iuh has his left arm round his wife’s shoulder, which is, according to the label, ‘a mark of affection’. It is another version of what inspired Larkin’s poem ‘On an Arundel Tomb’, where the effigies lie hand in hand. That turned out to be a bit of sentimental 19th-century restoration, whereas this husband from the Old Kingdom has had his arm round his wife for four thousand years. I think. I hope. As maybe Larkin hoped.

Our flight is announced, and when I come out of the museum the domestic departure lounge has emptied, travellers and airport workers gathered at the far end of the room kneeling in prayer.

London, 18 February. Children are less coy than the Department of Health. In the playground at Primrose Hill Aids is referred to as the Bum Disease.

R. on the subject of glasnost: ‘What I want to know is when is Mr Gorbachev going to be on Blankety Blank?’

Oxford, 14 March. To Oxford to cast my vote for Roy Jenkins as Chancellor. Only 9.30, but the line of voters is already round the Sheldonian and the atmosphere that of a cocktail party. The average voter is about my age, tall and armed with a beaming wife, both determined to make a day of it. Never was there such a feast of complacency, so many silly men showing off to their womenfolk in their robes. Some have got themselves up not simply in gowns but in hoods as well, remaining gowned long after they have voted and probably only to be persuaded out of them when they get into their pyjamas. And oh what a convivial queue, merry with the prospect of drinks in Oriel and lunch in Wadham, jokes shouted to friends, contemporaries spotted, isn’t this fun! It’s like the theatre at Chichester, the same tall families, the same assurance of happiness and their place in the world. That is Theatre, this is University, both their birthright. Inside the Divinity Schools there is a scramble to fill in the voting form, with a pig-faced university official bullying any dawdlers. We line up finally before the Vice-Chancellor, Patrick Neill, who looks about as lively as the mercury in a thermometer. He tips his hat, and twenty minutes later I’m heading back down the M40.

London, 16 April. A letter from the director of the Thorndike Theatre at Leatherhead, where they are producing my Forty Years On. The title of the play within the play is ‘Speak for England, Arthur’ and the schoolboy cast hold up letter-boards to spell it out for the audience. Part of the stage-directions is that before getting it right, one or two of the boys should get their letters jumbled. One of the 18 local schoolboys doing it at the Thorndike has discovered that if jumbled still further they can come up with ‘O Grandfather, Real Spunk’. This is not incorporated into the production.

13 May. Colin H. and I are chatting on the pavement when a man comes past wheeling a basket of shopping. ‘Out of the way, you so-called intellectuals,’ he snarls, ‘blocking the fucking way.’ It’s curious that it’s the intellectual that annoys, though it must never be admitted to be the genuine article but always ‘pseudo’ or ‘so-called’. It is of course only in England that ‘intellectual’ is an insult anyway.

28 May. Mary H.’s sister-in-law has cancer and is in intensive care at the Royal Free. Because of staff shortages her ward has to close down at weekends and on Friday she was wheeled across the hospital to a ward where, with men on one side, women on the other, there was scarcely room to move between the beds and several patients were dying. Here she stayed all weekend. If the Labour Party could fight the election on the state of the Health Service alone, it would win hands down.

29 May. A letter from N. at Oxford saying that John Carey thinks my ‘Kafka at Las Vegas’ too ‘ruminative and ambling’ to qualify for a university-sponsored lecture. N., though finding it ‘a good read’, tends to agree and suggests an undergraduate society might leap at the prospect. Or I could take my stand alongside the sellers of Socialist Worker in Camden High Street on a Saturday morning and deliver it there.

7 June. With Mrs Thatcher safely in the lead, that voice and the little scuttling walk threatening to lead us into the next century, Conservative commentators like P. Worsthorne feel it now safe to admit that perhaps there is just a little truth in the general distaste for Thatcherism, the decay of manufacture, the throttling of the Health Service etc, and in the last few days of the campaign it might be as well to look at these details. The well-being of half the country and all it is now is an election garnish.

17 June. Lord Hailsham, the Arthur Negus of the English law, is at 79 put out of office. Not before time, some might think, but on News at Ten he is feeling a bit sorry for himself. He was just the same the only time I met him, after one of Ned Sherrin’s shows in the Sixties, but then his complaint was not neglect or ingratitude but poverty. Very much one of the ‘You must grin and bear it’ school (inequities dismissed with a chuckle), he doesn’t like it when he gets the mucky end of the stick. Not that most people would consider the House of Lords and the Lord Chancellor’s pension exactly mucky.

2 July. All the life has gone out of politics. I switch on the televised debates from the House of Lords and it is like a clip from a Hollywood epic of Ancient Rome. While Nero or Caligula rules, the footling Senate goes through the motions. Like the trams at Beamish or the mills of Ironbridge, democracy, once part of the English heritage, will soon be part of English Heritage – a property of the Department of the Environment.

3 July. My TV film The Insurance Man has won the ‘Beautiful Human Life Award’ in Japan and Robert Hines, the young actor who starred in the film, has been out to Tokyo to collect the citation. He calls round with a souvenir for me. It is a headband as worn by Kamikaze pilots.

In the market today: ‘Listen, there’s nothing you can teach me about road-sweeping.’

16 July. Watch the first of two programmes by Tony Harrison about death. It begins at Blackpool, where Harrison was conceived in August 1935. Harrison comes from Leeds, as I do, and August Bank Holiday at the seaside was when I was conceived. So, too, was my brother: three years older than me, he has the same May birthday. With us it was Morecambe not Blackpool, which my mother always thought a bit common. If we ever went to Blackpool, she made sure we stayed at Cleveleys or Bispham, ‘the refined end’. The era of package holidays came too late for my parents and they never went abroad, but had they done so the same standards would have applied. Mam would soon have sussed out the refined part of Torremolinos or a select end to Sitges.

2 September. Evidence of madness: a woman entering Marks and Spencer’s and saying brightly: ‘Good morning!’

A young mother passes the house wheeling a pram. She is wearing headphones. The baby is crying desperately.

14 September. A.’s dog is run over and she takes it to the vet. The dog’s name is Lucky and in this particular practice people are called in not by the name of the owner but by the name of the pet. So the receptionist comes into the waiting-room and says: ‘Lucky Davies?’

Switzerland, 1 November. On the train from Gstaad to Montreux. It is the train panoramique, and since this is Sunday it’s crowded out, with people standing in the aisles. In front of me sits a man about forty, French or possibly American, reading a magazine of pornographic stories in English. ‘Her body arched to receive his quivering member’ is one paragraph heading. Beside him sits a businessman, who glances curiously at the magazine and once or twice at its reader but makes no comment. He eventually gets off at the same moment as the porn-reader decides to go to the buffet car for some coffee. He leaves the porn magazine on the seat to keep his place. Not having seen him go, a middle-aged couple take the seats and the husband picks up the magazine and starts leafing through it. He shows it his wife and they are still looking at it when some time later the French/American returns with his coffee. ‘I see you’re having a good time with that,’ he says in French, completely unabashed. Equally unembarrassed, they agree that they are and some discussion of the magazine follows. In the middle of this the magazine-owner points out without rancour that the husband is actually sitting in his place. The husband promptly gets up, the porn-reader sits down and he and the wife (ankle socks, anorak, a schoolteacher possibly) carry on their amicable conversation about the magazine with the husband occasionally joining in. It’s a curious scene for a Sunday afternoon and one hard to imagine taking place in England. In its directness it is like the beginning of a film by Bertrand Blier except that there sexual connections would be being made. There is none of that here, just human beings confronting each other without judgment or preconception. Not so much humanity as specimens of humanity. And not what the Swiss are supposed to be like at all.

Yorkshire, 15 November. This Week’s Cause of Cancer in the Sunday Times is bracken, the spores of which are said to affect the lungs. The Department of Health is reported to be concerned about ‘how to get this message across’ without causing a mass exodus from the countryside. One reason for mass exodus being as good as another, it’s also been disclosed that after Chernobyl an area of fifty miles centring on Skipton, and therefore including our village, was (and possibly still is) a radiation blackspot. The weekend after Chernobyl local CND had organised a barbecue and I remember Graham M. telling me how it had rained so hard he and his family (three children under six) had given up trying to shelter and got happily soaked. It was this rain that carried the radioactivity which is now said to be still present in the bilberries on the moors. Along with the bracken spores, of course.