Where I was in 1993

Alan Bennett

4 January. On BBC’s Catchword this afternoon, one of the questions apparently consists of anagrams of playwrights. Mine is Annabel Tent. Nobody guesses it.

A joke about the Queen Mother who in an old people’s home finds herself not treated with the proper respect. She approaches a nurse:

QM: Don’t you know who I am?

Nurse: No, dear, but if you go over and ask the lady at the desk she’ll probably be able to tell you.

14 January. Most of the headlines this morning quote Bush’s remark that they have given Saddam Hussein ‘a spanking’, a homely term which nicely obscures the fact, nowhere mentioned, that people were killed, spanked in fact to death. A couple of days ago one of our peace-keeping troops was shot in Bosnia and he is pictured everywhere. Maybe the Serbs or the Croats, or whoever it was shot him, think this was just a bit of a spanking too.

16 January. Now the papers are full of the latest scandal, the bugged phone call between the Prince of Wales and Mrs Parker-Bowles. I read none of it, as I didn’t read the earlier Diana tapes, not out of disapproval or moral superiority, just genuine lack of interest. I wish it would all go away. Sickened by the self-righteousness of the newspapers, which, though it takes a different form, is as nauseating in the Independent as it is in the Sun. Depressed too by the continuing corruption of public life, ex-members of the Government moving straight onto the boards of the ex-public utilities they have helped to privatise and reckoning to see nothing wrong in it. Meanwhile the Government keeps at it, relentlessly paring and picking away at the proper functions of the state; ‘lean’ is how they like to describe it, but it’s gone beyond lean; now it’s more like the four-day-old carcass of the Christmas turkey. Then an item today about babies born without eyes in Lincolnshire makes me want never to read a paper again and go and live in the middle of a field.

20 January. Collected by the New Yorker and taken to be photographed by Richard Avedon, now a grey-haired faun of 72 who says he’s bored with taking snapshots in the studio (this morning Isaiah Berlin and Stephen Spender) and wants to photograph me outside. ‘Outside’ means that eventually I find myself perched up a tree in Hyde Park. Avedon’s assistants bustle round with lights, Avedon himself scarcely bothering to look through the lens, just enquiring from time to time where the edge of the frame is. He explains he wants me to seem to sit on the branch but actually to lean forward into the camera at the same time. I try.

‘You’re game,’ says Julie Kavanagh of the New Yorker.

Actually I’m not game at all, just timid; and, short of taking my clothes off, ready to do anything, even climb trees, rather than be thought ‘difficult’.

A propos of which is Whitman’s description of himself to Edward Carpenter: ‘An old hen … with something in my nature furtive’.

2 February. Late for a final rehearsal for the tour of Talking Heads I rush out of the house on this bright spring-like morning to be confronted by a large pile of excrement on the path. Thinking it’s a dog, I swear and am about to go in and get a bucket to swill the path when I see that shit has been smeared on the car, and the paper whoever it is has used to wipe his or her bum has been carefully stuffed into the door-handle. I swill the flags, wash the car, and returning home this evening, wash it again with Dettol, reflecting that if my mother were in a state to know of this she would never get into the car again, would want it sold or at the very least a new door fitted. Wonder if the person who did the shitting is the same person who stove in the car window on Saturday night but decide this is paranoia.

8 February, Newcastle. Coming back to the hotel from the dress rehearsal, I call in at the cathedral, the parish church as it must have been until about 1900. A grand medley of church and state, the army and the professions, it’s an old-fashioned place too in that you’re not blitzed with information, exhibitions and outreach as soon as you set foot in the door. Here is Collingwood, Nelson’s admiral, and an 18th-century general in the Deccan Rifles, dead on the voyage out; surgeons and solicitors of the town, neat, kneeling Tudors, plump Augustan divines and an atmosphere of piety, property and Pledge never quite caught by anyone, even Larkin, whose life I must get on and review, I wanted Forty Years On to be like this cathedral, studded with relics and effigies, reminders and memorials, half-forgotten verses and half-remembered hymns. Everything fits: the crypt chapel nicely restored in the Thirties, the memorial to Danish seamen dead in the war, the brasses rubbed to extinction before a lavish Twenties altar rail; time and what it has deposited.

11 February, Yorkshire. Am periodically sent statements of profits (sic) by Hand Made Films, which produced A Private Function. Each year the loss escalates and now runs at some two million pounds for a film that cost two-thirds of that. Write back suggesting they submit the statement as an entry for this year’s Booker Prize and saying that if it won they’d be able to convert the prize money into a loss too.

Remember at supper in Giggleswick that, when I was a boy in Armley, the clothes horse was called the ‘winter edge’, actually the ‘winter hedge’. W. suggests, poetically, that it was because, laden with clothes, it would look like a hedge covered with snow. More plausibly, it was because in summer clothes could be spread on the hedge (though not in sooty Armley) and in winter on the horse. The other name for it, remembered by W.’s 85-year-old mother, is ‘clothes maiden’.

16 February. A child lured away by two boys in Bootle and found battered to death and run over by a train. A boy is taken in for questioning and crowds gather outside the house, jeering and hurling stones, so that the family have to be taken away to a place of safety; the boy is later released. The ludicrous Mr Kenneth Baker blames the Church, and in particular the Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, probably because he’s the only socialist in sight.

22 February. A large crowd gathers outside Bootle Magistrates Court, to jeer as the vans carrying the two ten-year-olds accused of the toddler’s murder are driven away. One man eludes the police cordon and manages to bang on the side of the van, and six others are arrested. Yesterday Mr Major appealed for ‘less understanding’, as indeed the Sun does every day of the week.

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