Diary

Alan Bennett

13 January. One of Peter Cook’s jokes, several times quoted in his obituaries, is of two men chatting. ‘I’m writing a novel,’ says one, whereupon the other says: ‘Yes, neither am I.’ And of course it’s funny and has a point, except that Peter, I suspect, felt that this disposed of the matter entirely. That people did write novels or poetry and were heartfelt about it didn’t make much difference; literature, music – it was just the stuff of cocktail party chatter; nobody really did it, still less genuinely enjoyed it when it was done. Forget plays, pictures, concerts: newspapers were the only reality – not that one could believe them either.

16 January. Listening to Michael Heseltine justifying the £ 475,000 of Mr Brown, the chairman of British Gas, I remember Joe Fitton. During the war Dad was a warden in the ARP, his companion on patrol a neighbour, Joe Fitton. Somebody aroused Joe’s ire (a persistent failure to draw their blackout curtains perhaps) and one night, having had to ring the bell and remonstrate yet again, Joe burst out: ‘I’d like to give them a right kick up the arse.’ This wasn’t like Joe at all and turned into a family joke, and a useful one too, as Dad never swore, so to give somebody a kick up the arse became known euphemistically as ‘Joe Fitton’s Remedy’. With Dad it even became a verb: ‘I’d like to Joe Fitton him,’ he’d say. And that’s what I felt like this lunchtime, Joe Fittoning Michael Heseltine, and Mr Brown too.

20 January. Note how much pleasure I get from anemones. I love their Victorian colours, their green ruffs and how, furry as chestnuts, the blooms gradually open and in so doing turn and arrange themselves in the vase, still retaining their beauty even when almost dead, at every stage of their life delightful.

I used to like freesias for their scent (and when I was at Oxford and bought them in the market two or three flowers would scent a room). But florists (and certainly Marks and Spencer) have now bred a strain which has no scent at all except faintly that of pepper. Considering this is a flower which is not much to look at, the whole point of which is its scent, this must be considered a triumph of marketing.

24 January. Somebody writes from the New Statesman asking me to contribute to a feature on Englishness, the other contributors, the letter says, ‘ranging from Frank Bruno to Calvin [sic] MacKenzie’. I wish, as they say.

26 January. The papers are full of the beastliness of Eric Cantona who kicked some loud-mouthed, pop-eyed Crystal Palace supporter and got himself suspended for it ... for ever, some soccer lovers hope. Currently Walker’s Crisps are running a TV advert in which Gary Lineker, returning home from Japan, sits on a park bench beside a little boy and then, saying ‘No more Mr Nice Guy,’ steals the child’s crisps. If Walker’s were smart they would make a sequel in which Lineker, making off with the bag of crisps, is stopped in his tracks by Cantona who kicks him and makes him give the crisps back. Then the British Public would be thoroughly confused.

13 February. To Westminster for the last two days of shooting The Abbey documentary. Happily they coincide with one of the rare showings of the 13th-century Cosmati pavement in the Sanctuary. Knowing it only from photographs, I’m slightly disappointed when the carpets have been rolled back to see the original. Portions of it, particularly the bits of opus sectile in black and white, I’d like to grub up and frame, but some of it seems crude and the colours vulgar and I’ve no means of knowing whether the parts I like are the original stones and the vulgar bits Victorian renovation or the other way round. Certainly the much later tiles round the altar are more faded and pleasing than the harsh reds and blues of ancient glass in the original work (which probably come from medieval Islam); and the purple and green porphyry, which must of its nature be original, isn’t to my taste at all. During the day the pavement is roped off but once the Abbey is closed I am allowed to walk across it in my stockinged feet.

14 February. A courier, a good-looking dark-haired boy, comes this Valentine’s Day with a single rose for someone next door. Having rung the bell, he waits with his rose and clipboard: today’s Rosenkavalier needs a signature.

Huge crowds at the Abbey for the unveiling of the Oscar Wilde window, both transepts full with people standing (some on chairs) to catch a glimpse of the speakers. The most notable is of course the 90-year-old Gielgud, black overcoat, velvet collar, a half-smile always on his lips as of someone prepared to indulge the world in its fondnesses but with his thoughts already elsewhere. Michael Denison and Judi Dench do the handbag scene from The Importance, J.G. reads from De Profundis and Seamus Heaney gives the address. The congregation look sober and worthy, Gay Pride not much in evidence with the wreath laid by Thelma Holland, Wilde’s daughter-in-law, a link which vaults the century.

After the congregation clears we do cutaway shots of the window, ‘the little patch of blue’, and that’s the end of our filming in the Abbey which has been going on, on and off, since last September. As the crew packs up I go and have another look at the tomb of Henry III’s children in the south ambulatory which I’ve just read incorporates one of the medieval relics of the Abbey, the stone supposedly with the imprint of Christ’s foot when he took off for the Ascension. I’m not sure if this is the square stone on the front of the tomb or the roundel on the top but I lay my hand on both as maybe pilgrims did once, though why I’d find it hard to say. It’s a beautiful tomb, the arch still with traces of vermilion paint and black and green foliage, the top studded with bits of mosaic. Not expecting any elegiac feelings (I will after all be coming back to record the commentary), I am surprised to find how sad I am the shoot is over and that I shan’t be coming here regularly as I have the last five months.

17 February. To Leeds where the decent cupola’d building on Woodhouse Moore that housed both the public library and the police station has been converted into a pub, The Feast and Firkin. The Woodman, the pub opposite St Chad’s, has been renamed Woodies Ale Bar, in homage, I suppose, to Cheers. The more real community has dwindled in the last twenty years the more cheap marketing versions of it have multiplied.

20 February. In the evening to the National Gallery for a private view of the Spanish Still Life exhibition which I don’t expect to like but do, very much, particularly the Cotáns, vivid vegetables of horticultural-show proportions (tight cabbages, huge cardoons) strung up in dark boxes as if for the strappado. There are some ravishing Zurbarán still lives, the most appealing a beaker on a dish with a rose belonging to the Saltwood Bequest and so to Alan Clark who is somewhere about, though I don’t see (or hear) him. Then there are lots of terrible flower paintings before some wonderful Goyas in the last room, including a heap of dead fish. The look in the eye of one of the dead bream seems familiar then I realise it’s also the look in the eye of the man throwing up his hands before being shot in The Third of May. Find no one to hand with whom I can quite share this (probably mistaken) perception so come away.

22 February. Switch on Newsnight to find some bright spark from, guess where, the Adam Smith Institute, proposing the privatisation of public libraries. His name is Eamonn Butler and it’s to be hoped he’s no relation of the 1944 Education Act Butler. Smirking and pleased with himself as they generally are from that stable, he’s pitted against a well-meaning but flustered woman who’s an authority on children’s books. Paxman looks on undissenting as this nylon-underpanted figure dismisses any defence of the tradition of free public libraries as ‘the usual bleating of the middle classes’. I go to bed depressed only to wake and find Madsen Pirie, also from the Adam Smith Institute for the Criminally Insane, banging the same drum in the Independent. Not long ago John Bird and John Fortune did a sketch about the privatisation of air. These days it scarcely seems unthinkable.

28 February. There have been football riots in Bruges, where Chelsea have been playing, with, responsible for their suppression, the commissioner of police for Bruges, one Roger de Bris. This gives quiet pleasure as it’s also the name of the transvestite stage director in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, who makes his appearance bare-shouldered and in a heavy ball gown.

7 March. Our pillar box is now emptied at 9 a.m. not by the Royal Mail van but by a minibus marked Portobello Car and Van Hire.

10 March. To Bradford for the provincial premiere of The Madness of King George. The Lord Mayor is present and R. sees him afterwards in the Gents, mayoral chain round his neck, trying to have a pee. His badge of office dangles just over his flies so that he has to take great care not to piss on it. Eventually he slings it back over his shoulder rather like a games mistress and her whistle.

29 March. Nell Campbell calls from New York to say that Don Palladino, maître d’ at the Odeon and Café Luxembourg, died last night. He was very gay in his concerns, even the historical ones. ‘Yes,’ Nell says, ‘we like to think he’s with Marie Antoinette now.’

17 April. Easter Monday. On Saturday with T. and R. to Oxford, where we find most places (the University Museum, the Ashmolean) closed. Also all the colleges, and not just not open to visitors, but the gates actually locked. I ring the bell at Exeter but there is no answer so we hang about until an undergraduate goes in (entry now by Swipecard). An expressionless figure in the lodge, looking like a middle-ranking police inspector, says the college is closed. I say I’m a Fellow which produces no change of expression but at least procures us admission, and we go into the garden and look at the grandstand view of Radcliffe Square, now without cars much improved.

The day is redeemed when going back via Dorchester we call in at the Abbey to look at the 13th-century crusader tomb of a knight struggling to draw his sword in death. The naturalism of the pose and the fall of the draperies make it extraordinarily impressive and modern-seeming. I’ve no notion whether the sculptor was English or French though, as R. says, if it were in a German church he would certainly be known as the Master of the Crusader Tomb. What contributes to its freshness is that whereas a nearby 15th-century tomb is covered in centuries of graffiti, the knight, perhaps because he was originally under a grille, is virtually untouched.

24 April. The Tories are now in a great hurry to mop up any corners of the state that have not been privatised, presumably against probable failure at the next election. Next on the list is the nuclear industry, not a popular project as the de-commissioning of the older nuclear power stations has no commercial attractions and safety considerations are likely to be skimped. But of course it will provide the Government with some election pin-money, which is what it wants. The real driving force, against all common sense and reason, is ideology. When the Germans were withdrawing from Italy in 1944 and were short of trains, troops and every other resource, priority was given when crossing the Po not to military formations but to the transports involved in the last-minute deportation of the Italian Jews. The analogy will be thought offensive but it is exact. Ideology, as I think Galbraith wrote, is the great solvent of reason.

1 May. A drunk clinging onto the railings in Inverness Street gathers himself up to speak.

‘Excuse me, squire, but how far has yesterday gone?’

‘Sorry?’

‘How far has yesterday gone?’

I say helpfully that it’s six o’clock.

‘Six o’clock? Six o’clock? What sort of fucking answer is that?’

Of course I could have said: What sort of fucking question was it in the first place?

3 May. Invited to Speech Day at Giggleswick, where the Guest of Honour is to be Lord Archer. Write back and say I can’t come but I look forward to being invited next year when doubtless the guest will be Bernard Manning. Giggleswick doesn’t have many distinguished old boys though one which it never seems to acknowledge was the critic James Agate. This reticence may be on account of Agate’s well-known propensity to drink his own piss.

13 June. Three police acquitted in the case of Joy Gardner who died after being gagged with 13 inches of tape, a restraining belt and leg irons. It’s not unexpected. I can’t offhand recall any serious case in the last ten years in which the police have been found guilty and punished. Or even sacked.

20 June. Three jokes from George Fenton.

1. Man has bad pains in his bum. Friend says it’s piles so he applies various creams which do no good. Another friend says: ‘No, creams are useless. What you want to do is have a cup of tea then take the tea leaves and put them up your arse. It’s like a poultice. Do the trick in no time.’ So whenever the man has a cup of tea he puts the tea leaves up his bum. No joy. When at the end of the week he’s no better he goes to the doctor. The doctor tells him to take his trousers down, looks up his bum and says: ‘Yes. Well, there are two things to say. One is that you’re quite right, you do have piles. And the other is, you’re going to go on a long journey.’

2. Devout Jewish man is desperately anxious to win the lottery. Goes to the synagogue and prays that he may win. Saturday comes round, but he doesn’t win. Goes to the synagogue again and remonstrates with God, pointing out how often he comes to the synagogue, how devout he has been etc etc. Saturday comes round again and again he doesn’t win. Back he goes to the synagogue and prays again to God, this time in despair. Suddenly the clouds part and there is a figure with a grey beard leaning down between the clouds: ‘OK. So you want to win the lottery. But please, meet me halfway: buy a ticket.’

3. Man buys green bottle at car-boot sale. Rubs it. Out pops genie. Offers him one wish. Man asks to be the luckiest man in the world. The wish is granted and the genie disappears. Next week the man wins millions on the football pools and takes his mates out to celebrate. He explains about his luck but they don’t believe him, saying: ‘Right, if you’re so lucky, try pulling that beautiful Indian bird.’ So the man goes over and chats her up and sure enough she’s all over him, they go back to her place and have a fantastic time. In the morning he wakes up, and looks down at her beautiful naked body and thinks how lucky he is. She is still fast asleep and as he gazes at her sleeping face, he sees the little red spot she has on her forehead. Gently he scratches it – and wins a Renault 5.

All these come from musicians, George the only one of my friends who still hears jokes or moves in circles that tell them, or make them up.

27 June. Most adverse comments on John Redwood’s appearance remark on his resemblance to Mr Spock or someone from outer space. Actually he looks like Kenneth Williams in one of those roles (Chauvelin, for instance) when the eyes suddenly go back and he goes wildly over the top. The smirking crew around Redwood are deeply depressing, Tony Marlow and Edward Leigh both fat and complacent and looking like two cheeks of the same arse. It’s all so sixth-form, the prefects in revolt.

14 July. Letter this morning saying the Tokyo production of Wind in the Willows is to be revived for two weeks in August, the revival to be supervised by a Nigel Nicholson. Mole and Ratty as Harold and Vita now (and Violet Trefusis as Mr Toad).

29 July, Ménerbes. Stripping some redcurrants this evening reminds me how when I was writing both Getting On and The Old Country I could never think of something for the wife to do while the husband was talking. In Getting On I think I made Polly top and tail gooseberries and in The Old Country I even gave Bron some flowers to press (I go hot with shame at the thought). Of course, if I’d had any sense I would have seen that if it was so hard to think what it was the woman should be doing then there was something wrong with the plays or that this was what the plays should have been about, as in a way it was. Neither of the wives had seemingly ever had a job, an omission I had to some extent rectified by the time I got to Kafka’s Dick, when the wife has at least been in employment at some period (she was an exnurse). But again the men did the jobs and most of the talking. In Enjoy, which is set in Leeds, the women do most of the talking, which is how it always used to be when I was a child. It was only when I got to London that the men started talking and the women fell silent.

8 August. A new strategy for not working: empty the fluff not only from the sieve on the dryer door, which is routine, but from the grilles on the machine itself. This involves prising off the plastic covers and poking about with a skewer to dislodge the fluff that has fallen through. A quarter of an hour can be made to pass in this way.

9 August. Surprised to find from today’s New Yorker that Madame Chiang Kai-shek is still alive at 97. My surprise is less surprising when I realise I have her inextricably confused with the Duchess of Windsor who I know is dead. Both, in Geoffrey Madan’s words, ‘part governess, part earwig’.

11 August. In the yard at the back of Camden Social Services in Bayham Street a mound of tangled Zimmer frames.

14 August. Toothache, and I make an appointment for the dentist. The trouble is almost inevitably deep under one of my many caps and bridges. It will be like having to go through the dome of St Paul’s in order to repair the floor of the crypt.

16 August. Life in Camden Town. As I come in this afternoon two young men are sitting by the garden wall drinking cans of beer. One looks like a Hong Kong Chinese, the other is Australian, fair, brown and not unlike the actor Jack Thompson who used to figure in sheep-shearing films. I sit and work at my table, where I can hear the murmur of their talk. Then the Australian, slightly reluctantly but egged on by the Chinese, goes over and has a piss in the gateway of number 61. Before they go the Chinese does the same; had they not seen me come in mine would doubtless have been the gateway they would have patronised. I groan inwardly at the loutishness of it all (the beer cans just left on the pavement), but a couple of hours later I am coming up Inverness Street when a large Mercedes draws up outside the Good Mixer and the two pavement drinkers get out. I suppose they’re from the fashionable music fraternity which now heavily patronises the pub, the crowd at weekends spilling right across the road which means the street is seldom effectively cleaned, and always littered with cans and broken glass first thing in the morning when I go down for my paper. The pleasures of drinking here must be diminished (or who knows, heightened) by the squalor of the setting, the recycling bins opposite, every doorway a urinal, the pavements caked in the market’s grease and muck. Such squalor is these days about average for Camden Town, the end of Inverness Street now a haunt for drug dealers.

17 August. ‘Grounded’ meaning a withdrawal of privileges is a word I dislike. It’s off the television (Roseanne notably) but now in common use. (I just heard it on Emmerdale Farm, where they probably think it’s dialect.) I would almost prefer ‘gated’, deriving from Forties public school stories in Hotspur and Wizard.

Other current dislikes: ‘Brits’; ‘for starters’; ‘sorted’; and (when used intransitively) ‘hurting’.

9 September. Drive into Oxfordshire, stopping first at Ewelme to look at the church. The village is too manicured for my liking, though the mown lawns and neat gardens don’t quite eliminate an air of rural brutishness I often sense in Oxfordshire. Note features in the church I’d forgotten – the gilded angel with out-stretched wings which acts as part of the counterweight for the font cover and the angels that spread their wings to support the aisle roof. Then on through terrible Didcot to Faringdon and Buscot Park which belongs to the National Trust. The house is well set with beautiful long vistas down alleys of trees to water gardens and a lake and from the terrace at the back vast views over Oxfordshire. Inside, though, it’s disappointing with a Rembrandt that I’m sure isn’t, a nice Ravilious of the house but none of the rooms informed by vision or individual taste and like a rather dull country house hotel. As we’re going out a scholarly man, whom I’d seen carefully studying the catalogue, pauses by the desk.

‘Could you tell me,’ he asks of the lady on duty, ‘how the first Lord Faringdon made his money?’

She gives him a vinegary look as if the question were in very bad taste: ‘I’ve no idea.’

11 September. Nick Leeson, the errant young man from the Singapore Stock Exchange, is interviewed in his Frankfurt prison by David Frost, the interview, made by Frost’s production company, broadcast by the BBC at ten this evening. The papers, which have had a preview, are full of Leeson’s self-justifications, but nobody seems to question the propriety of broadcasting such an interview in the first place; and like so many of the interviews Frost is involved with it’s a pretty seedy affair. Not that Frost isn’t highly respectable but his rise as a political commentator is in direct proportion to the decline of respect for politicians. Major, Blair and Ashdown meekly trot along to be lightly grilled by the heavily made-up Frost, and indeed use the occasion for statements of policy and matters of national importance. It’s as if Jesus were to undertake the feeding of the Five Thousand as contribution to Challenge Anneka.

[Much is explained when in October the filming of the Leeson story is announced, starring Hugh Grant and produced by D. Frost.]

14 September. The house next door is empty and I have got their mice. Having watched a mouse last night gambolling away among the poison pellets behind the gas oven, I find this morning that it (or a colleague) is in one of the humane traps. I have been told mice have a good homing instinct so I take the trap up to the railway bridge, give the box a shaking to disorientate the occupant (and teach it a lesson) then empty it onto the railway line. I find I am a little cheered by this.

19 September. A young man walks up the street dressed with casual care in blue T shirt and narrow jeans and with the loose bouncing walk I associate with an (albeit humble) assumption of moral superiority. Say this to K. ‘Yes. He walks like a vegetarian flautist.’

28 September. Pass a gown shop off Manchester Square called Ghost and Foale. Mention this to Mary-Kay as seeming an unusual name. Not at all, apparently, as both names are famous and fashionable in the world of frocks. More amusing to her was my calling it a gown shop.

19 October. To Accord near Poughkeepsie in New York State where Don Palladino had a house which Lynn has been clearing out before the new owner takes over next week. It’s a little clapboard cottage, idyllically situated on the bank of a broad shallow river backed by woods and looking across meadows to the distant Cat-skills. A huge catalpa shades the house and beyond it a derelict canal. We roll up matting and put it on top of the van along with two bikes, then pack the inside with bedding and books and lampshades. When it’s done I sit on the brick terrace in the warm sunshine looking across the river and watching the dozens of birds, most of them strange to me, even the pheasants looking more like turkeys, as they peck about among the sweetcorn.

Emptied, the little house still manages to be a temple to Marie Antoinette. Her bust is on the mantelpiece, books about her line the stairs and there is French wallpaper incongruously on the walls and a few damp tapestried chairs marooned in the dining-room. Most of this is to be left for the new owner, though a garrulous handyman hangs about hoping to pick up what he can. ‘Of course he loved it here, only I gather he got sick.’ We walk along the dried-up canal for a bit, before driving to Rhinebeck for some tea then back along the Topeca Parkway through the famed autumn tints to a huge red sun setting over New York.

21 October. Lynn has some firewood delivered, around thirty neat boxes, panniers almost, which, stacked in the hall, look so tidy and pleasing they might be an installation or an art object. These thirty or so boxes apparently constitute a cord of wood (128 cubic feet), which is how wood is still ordered in this old-fashioned city. I doubt if it is in London and certainly not in rural Yorkshire.

Language: Disabled Toilet in America becomes Handicapped Bathroom.

22 October. We pick up a cab at Lincoln Center tonight and drive down to 19th Street. The cabdriver says into a small microphone: ‘The fare is five dollars fifty. Would you please pay the cashier?’, whereupon a white rabbit, presumably a glove-puppet, appears in the interconnecting hatch and makes a bow. Lynn pays the rabbit, the rabbit bows again, the cab-driver says, ‘Have a good evening,’ and off he goes.

31 October. At the bottom of the moving walkway in the local Marks and Spencer’s there often lurks a security man. He will be squinting under the plastic partition at the upper floor, keeping an eye on putative shoplifters (or, at any rate, their ankles). This particular corner of the store is where they sell underwear, the theft of which is, I suppose, more common and more of a thrill than nicking the broccoli, say. The security men wear beige uniforms, short-sleeved shirts and peaked caps with that steep neb which I still associate with redcaps, the military policemen who, when I was in the Army, were one of the hazards of mainline stations, always lying in wait for timid and slipshod soldiers like me. The other paramilitary force in Camden are the parking wardens who are also kitted out in peaked caps, theirs having scarlet ribbons. Though inoffensive-looking there’s something not quite right about them either; they remind me of the forces of the wicked Regent in films like The Prisoner of Zenda, decent enough but misled.

12 November. The judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues in Nigeria properly outrages world opinion. Quite apart from the merits of his case the death of this writer has more readily caught the public imagination for a very simple reason – the euphonious nature of his name. Ken is a good ordinary start but with Saro-Wiwa the name takes flight and, unlike many African names, is both easy to say and brings with it an almost incantatory pleasure. So in the last few days many people have been enjoying saying his name. Not, of course, that this did him any good.

28 November. Cycling down to the West End, I’ll often cut out the boring windswept stretch of Albany Street by going the back way along Stanhope Street, through the council estate that was built in the Fifties over what was once Cumberland Market. The tower blocks are named after beauty spots: Derwentwater, Dentdale, all of them (I see the connection now) places in what was Cumberland. Between two of the blocks is a grass plot and in the far corner of it a curved concrete screen about ten foot high with a doorway opening on either side, this screen, and the slightly raised platorm on which it stands, converting the unkempt patch into a kind of auditorium. There’s no sign that it’s ever used as such but I imagine that this is what it was intended for, part of some vision for this estate back in those still-hopeful days after the war. Did the architect, I wonder, in his presentation to the planners, sell this podium as a place where pageants could be held, bonny babies paraded or even Shakespeare performed? Probably, as architects fleshing out their bleak vision are ever sanguine and never modest. Nowadays this little Epidaurus off the Hampstead Road looks a touch forlorn; the scrubby grass is strewn with litter and matted with dog-dirt, the shops opposite operate behind steel shutters, the estate is riven with racial conflict and nobody takes the stage.

8 December. Trying to find someone a Meccano set for Christmas, I’m reminded of a couple, friends of Russell H., who had a son of twelve or so who they were worried might be growing up gay. However, they were greatly heartened when the boy said that what he wanted for Christmas was a Meccano set. Delighted by what they saw as an access of butchness, they bought him the biggest set they could find; it was a huge success and he took it to his room and played with it for hours. The day came when the boy asked to show them what he had been making and they were made to wait with their backs turned while he manoeuvred it carefully into the room. When they turned round the boy stood there shyly peeping at them from behind a vast Meccano fan.