What I did in 1996

Alan Bennett

3 January. To ‘Dynasties’, the exhibition of Tudor portraits at the Tate. There are some superb pictures but, with the sitters shortly to die or be executed, many of them seem ominous or doom-laden. New to me and to R. is Antonis Mor, whose portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham looks like an Edwardian tinted photograph, and with the sitter so eerily present not entirely pleasing. All art is tiring and these paintings in particular as they’re crowded with detail and every dress and doublet draws you in to trace the embroidery or work out the folds and flourishes. The poster for the exhibition is Holbein’s portrait of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VI; he’s not the weed that he’s normally pictured but a big solid bully of a baby, the image of his father. On the Underground R. says he’s never known a poster so persistently defaced, the child’s brutal look seeming to irritate people. One poster that he saw had UGLY written across the forehead and another SPAM.

27 January. To Leeds by the 9.10 train with snow flurries much of the way. I call at the British Epilepsy Association, where I have to sign some books as prizes in a writing competition. The premises are in Hanover Square up behind the Town Hall and beyond the Infirmary, and, when I was a boy, one of the grander squares in Leeds, where the posh doctors and surgeons from the Brotherton Wing had their consulting-rooms. Nowadays the ring road makes the square difficult to get to and it’s in a bad neighbourhood, not far from the Hyde Park street which is said to hold the record for the most burglaries in England. The British Epilepsy Association is offices only but has a steel door, having been broken into three times, one of them a ram-raid; so, coming away, I’m perhaps more conscious of vandalism and urban decay than I otherwise might be. The result is, when I see a starved-looking boy of ten and his sister, twelve or so, tugging at a bollard round some roadworks before sending it flying, I wind down the window and say primly: ‘That’s a pretty silly thing to do.’ This releases a torrent of abuse from the two Bisto kids, the girl cold and dirty and in a thin anorak, the boy with snot dribbling down from his pinched little nose. I’m driving off when she gives me her parting shot: ‘Get a life!’ It’s a ready-made cartoon for the New Yorker.

At Addingham I turn off to Bolton Abbey, deserted this cold bright afternoon with the paths down to the river covered in untrodden snow and the Wharfe winding black between the drifts. Building at the priory must have been going on until the very eve of the Dissolution, with the uncompleted west tower begun by Abbot Moon in 1520. The confidence such plans imply still surprises me as I’ve never quite got rid of the notion that the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the Reformation altogether, was part of some general winding-down of the medieval Church. In fact, the future must have seemed bright, and when things did alter it was practically overnight.

10 February. When Stephen Fry took off last year I came in for one or two of the jobs he’d been contracted to do, notably a couple of voice-overs for children’s cartoons. Telephoned by the same company last week I agree to do another in a Posy Simmons animated film about a pig who acts a theatrical dresser; this seems right up my street. Except I am called today to say that, unaware of my interest, the casting director has approached someone else and ‘his agent is standing firm.’ Clearly Stephen F. is back in the market.

11 February. Turn on the radio this evening to find Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto just beginning, the unexpectedness of it taking me straight back to 1951, when I heard it for the first time. How lofty I thought my life was going to be then, just like this music; I saw myself modestly ascending shallow staircases to unspecified triumphs, with love disdained, or at any rate transcended, always a part of it.

It’s a live performance on Classic FM, a concert by the Liverpool Phil. with someone coughing badly throughout and a rather wayward account by the soloist, who sometimes slows it down so much that it almost stops, the swooning second subject in the last movement well over the top. These days audiences know a work so well that soloists must find public performance more nerve-racking than it has ever been. To play one of the great concertos in the concert hall must be like an actor having to do ‘To be or not to be’ before an audience which knows the text as well as he does.

But I loathe Classic FM more and more for its cosiness, its safety and its wholehearted endorsement of the post-Thatcher world, with medical insurance and Saga holidays rammed down your throat between every item. Nor does the music get much respect; I’m frequently outraged when they play without acknowledgment or apology a sliced-up version of Beethoven’s Ninth, filleted of all but the most tuneful bits. It’s like a Reader’s Digest condensation of the classics, defined on Monty Python once as ‘Great Books got down to Pure.’

17 February. Catch part of BBC2’s celebration of French cinema and note how much more nostalgic and redolent of the past are these French clips than those from British films of a similar period; Les Enfants du Paradis, for instance, the first French film I ever saw and which we were taken from school to see at the Tower in Upper Briggate in Leeds. Then when I was on the Russian course during National Service at Cambridge we used to see French films at the Arts cinema – Une partie de campagne, Le Blé en herbe, films which were so much part of one’s life then as to be almost commentaries on it. Perhaps their vividness now has to do with the fact that they combined reading (via the subtitles) with seeing, thus reinforcing the memory.

In an interview before reading Doctor Dolittle on Radio 4 last year I mentioned how mysterious a character I find the Cats’ Meat Man, never having come across such a character as a child. Was the meat from cats, I wondered then, or for cats? I’d heard of dog meat but never cat meat. Since when I’ve had several letters telling me about real-life characters who used to sell such meat, generally on long skewers which were sometimes just put through the letter-box, one writer telling me how, as a child, finding this forerunner of the kebab on the doormat she had scoffed the lot. I don’t think there were such itinerant characters in Leeds, possibly because it wasn’t affluent enough or because this was during the war when cats had to pull in their belts along with everyone else.

2 March, Venice. Fur much in evidence in Venice, where they plainly have no truck with animal rights, old ladies in their minks queuing along with everyone else to get on the vaporetto. One reason Venice feels like a real democracy is the absence of private transport. It’s true there are taxis, but it’s much harder to get down into a speedboat than to walk onto a water bus and as a result taxis are avoided by many of those rich enough to use them. Rich and poor Venetians rub shoulders with each other much more than we do and the city feels better for it.

A nice carrier-bag from the Correr, red with yellow handles and on the front the signature of Leonardo da Vinci. There is a sticker inside saying ‘Used by permission of Corbis Corporation and Bill Gates’, to whom I suppose Leonardo, or his signature at least, now belongs.

Note the number of retired couples among the visitors, retirement more obvious in the British and the Americans than with the French, say (and where the Italians are concerned, utterly invisible). The British include, I’m sure, many listeners to Classic FM or, as Hugh Stalker calls them, Saga louts.

In the basilica all the seats are now roped off so that one can’t sit down and take it in (let alone pray) but just have to troop round, go with the flow, I suppose. Less magical now than once it seemed, the gold tawdry, the woodwork dusty, only the floors retaining their unfailing appeal. Nor is one any longer allowed along the marble-balustraded upstairs corridors that took you above the nave and much nearer to the mosaics. It’s still possible, though, at this time of year, to find the piazza virtually empty at II in the evening, the floodlighting of the basilica not at all harshly done, so that St Mark’s emerges from the gloom and seems to glow. And yet one gets a sense of the building sitting there like a spider, luring people in.

3 March, Venice. The Correr is an ideal museum, with just the right number of paintings, many of them superb, particularly the man in the red hat which I’d always thought by Carpaccio, but isn’t now, and also the Portrait of a Young Man by Baldassare Estense. I don’t care for Cosimo Tura, whom I usually find a sinister painter, the flesh and aspect of the living no much different from that of the dead; still, I like his funny little Pietà with the Virgin looking at the wounds in Christ’s hands as if he’s making a bit of a fuss about nothing, while above them, in what I suppose is an apple tree and cocooned in a huge spider’s web, is a tiny-headed devil. I’m puzzled by one painting of the Marriage at Cana where, hanging from the beams above the feast, are many rings with what seem to be labels fluttering from them. I ask the attendant, who comes over, looks at it glumly, shrugs and says: ‘Non so.’ It’s Madge H. who suggests, probably rightly, that the labels are flypapers.

10 March. I read the Sunday papers first thing, otherwise they hang about all day like an unmade bed. I find less and less in them to read and feel like somebody stood against a wall while a parade goes by. An article in the Garden, the journal of the Royal Horticultural Society: ‘Making Sense of the Celandine’.

11 March. Depressed by an item glimpsed on TV last night revealing that Railtrack, to save itself money (and the problems of ‘leaves on the line’), has sent in squads to cut down the woodland that grows along railway lines, a copse in Blackheath for instance sawn off level with the ground. Some of the squads for obvious reasons have begun their operations at four in the morning with any appeal to planning regulations of no avail as Railtrack claim public safety as a justification. If it happened to a wood that I was fond of I’d be inclined to find out the address of the local Railtrack manager, take along a chainsaw and do the same to his precious plot.

30 March. To Petersfield on a cold, blue day, the traffic thick over Hammersmith Bridge, where crowds are watching the crews practising for the Boat Race. Go via Midhurst to look at the Camoys tombs in St George’s Church, Trotton. Lord Camoys was a veteran of Agincourt where he commanded the left wing; he married Hotspur’s widow and both of them are buried in a massive and inconveniently placed tomb at the east end of the centre aisle, smack in front of the altar. There’s another much plainer tomb c.1478 on the north wall, carved with a symmetrically ruched frieze of draperies round the rim which seems very sophisticated for a village church, and more Italian than English.

Fragments of wall-paintings include one of Clothing the Naked, in which a man is taking off or putting on a shirt in a crude version of the man in Piero’s Baptism in the National Gallery. Nosing about I see leaned up against the back wall near the vestry a dusty reproduction of Botticelli’s Mother and Child from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It’s shielding a hole in the plaster and has an old label stuck on it: ‘From Professor Joad. BBC’.

11 April, Wandsworth. What strikes you about a prison is not that it’s unlike any other place you’ve ever been in, but that it’s quite like all sons of places you use quite regularly. It’s not unlike a hospital, for instance, or a state school, a big post office or even one of the new universities. Here are the same harassed but well-meaning staff, short-handed, crippled by lack of funds, struggling to make the institution work despite all the curbs and cuts imposed by a penurious and ill-disposed government.

After umpteen TV series the look of the place is quite familiar too, though not as lofty as the prison in Porridge, and cosier altogether than the prisons in the movies. But then this is the wing where most of the sex offenders are, or the prisoners who are likely to be attacked. Many of them are quite old or seem so anyway; maybe they’re just in their fifties. I look at them, bald, stooped, one of them only half there, and wonder what it is they’ve done, wishing that they carried a notice of their crime on their chests so that one could place them in some sort of spectrum, fit the face to the offence and so somehow make sense of it.

There’s no particular smell but this wing is said to be the cleanest, with no slopping out, the remand wing the worst because there the inmates are certain they are going to get off so treat the place like a pigsty. Decent bearded art-school teachers is what one or two of them look like but whether these are prisoners or civilian staff I can’t tell. Two gay men take me round the well-stocked library, dressers they could be on a film set or assistants in a provincial outfitters, opera buffs probably. There are two-tone walls, a century of paint over the bricks and lots of studded doors – cottage doors almost. Some dinky warders, in short-sleeved shirts, dark ties and epaulettes, not quite giving you the wink but certainly a cheeky stare.

Read and then answer questions though without feeling I do much good or do anything more than pass the time. I note, though, my presumption, made out of sheer politeness rather than liberal prejudice, that most of my audience have been wrongly imprisoned and that I’m anxious not to be thought personally responsible for that.

26 April. To Holland for the Vermeer exhibition. Travel to Delft separately from the rest of the group, who make up a coach party. R. hopes that this expedition, which includes prominent bankers, lawyers and industrialists, all benefactors of the National Gallery, will nevertheless be overtaken by the ethos of rather different English coach-parties abroad, chanting ‘’ere we go! ’ere we go! Ver-meer! Ver-meer!’ at the startled burghers of The Hague, while elderly connoisseurs moon out of the coach windows. One understands this did not happen.

With much of his life a mystery and the content of his paintings so simple and accessible, one reason for the popularity of Vermeer is that he eludes the art historians. With Vermeer expert knowledge doesn’t take you far. There may be symbolic significance in a discarded broom, say, or an unemptied laundry basket, but that is not the point of the painting. The paintings are about women and about loving women, as he must surely have done; most of the men in differing degrees ninnies. Miracles of light, the paintings are also miracles of space as, for instance, The Milkmaid, where the space behind the stream of milk coming from the jug is almost tangible. I have a sense of vertigo, though, in the presence of great paintings, as when standing on a cliff and feeling oneself pulled towards the edge. ‘If I were to put my fist through this painting,’ I think, ‘things would be irrevocably changed and my whole life seen as leading up to this act.’

The rooms adjoining the Vermeer exhibition contain part of the Mauritshuis’s permanent collection, and passing from the presence of these few simple, utterly unassuming pictures into a room containing at least half a dozen Rembrandts, including The Anatomy Lesson, it’s startling to find how clamorous these other masterpieces now seem to be. Though there is often something going on in the Vermeer paintings (a woman reading a love letter, or writing one, or just admiring herself in the glass), the inner peace of the pictures and the unassertiveness of the sitters, nearly all of them women, are so simple and direct that even two of Rembrandt’s most famous self-portraits, one at either end of his life, seem almost coarse by comparison. I’m sure it’s the tranquillity of the Vermeers rather than its small size, that makes it an untiring exhibition to see. And how small some of the pictures turn out to be, some of them scarcely larger than the postcards on sale in the museum shop.

27 April, Delft. A tangle of bicycles dredged up from the canal. Grey with mould and mud and with bright patches of rust, they are dumped on the quay where, surrounded by chic galleries and art establishments, one isn’t certain that bicycles is all they are. Is this art?

The Dutch in the 17th century were famed for their neat houses and the orderliness of their lives, qualities celebrated not so much in Vermeer as in the paintings of his contemporaries, particularly de Hooch, which form a companion exhibition at Delft to the Vermeer show at The Hague. Though they’re as bad at drink as we are (the carriage from Rotterdam to Brussels dominated by a group singing and shouting), and though they’re as prone to graffiti, the Dutch are still noticeably neat in other aspects of their lives, as in the acres of carefully cultivated allotments which lie along the railway. The plots are quite modest, but all seem to come with a hut that is less of a garden shed than a summerhouse, outside which, this warm Friday afternoon, oldish couples in skimpy bathing costumes are taking the sun, with one old man naked except for a G-string. I imagine the owners of these plots and pavilions live in the high flats nearby, though such a tempting display of civility and order would not long survive proximity to similar flat in England.

9 May. Vanity: my 62nd birthday. Someone behind me in M & S says: ‘Are you all right, young man?’ I look round.

11 May. On the Leeds train the conductor announces: ‘The trolley will shortly be coming through with a selection of hot and cold snacks, tea and coffee and other beverages. For your information, pushing the trolley this morning is Miss Castleford 1996.’ And Miss Castleford duly comes through, though hardly the busty, brazen apparition one expected, but a rather quiet, shy-looking girl who, not surprisingly, is covered in confusion and fed up at having to cope with the jokes of the bolder passengers. Or customers, as we now are.

16 May. Classic FM continues to irritate. Tonight we have a recording of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, the gap between Parts One and Two filled with various promotions (‘The haunting music of the Pan pipes’). Gerontius having achieved death, his soul begins its journey to judgment, lucky, I suppose, not to be seen off with a cheerful message from Henry Kelly. With it being Gerontius I’m surprised the whole thing isn’t a plug for Saga’s ‘specialised insurance for those of 50 and over’.

Excepted from these strictures about Classic FM is Michael Mappin, who keeps the bad jokes to the minimum, isn’t wearingly cheerful and has some specialised knowledge, lightly worn, i.e. he is like an announcer on Radio 3. Most of the others are scarcely past the stage where they snigger at foreign names.

17 May. Despite the vindication of the National Gallery in the filmed restoration of Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the cleaning controversy rumbles on. One misconception that fogs the argument is to do with the nature of time. Michael Daley, the NG’s chief critic, represents time as a benevolent mellowing process whereby paintings grow old gracefully, their colours maturing, the tints changing, but all at the same rate and in the same fashion, so that the composition arrives in the present day, veiled a little perhaps but still much as the artist intended. This is of course nonsense. Paintings more often than not have quite violent and eventful lives; they are loved, after all, and so naturally they get interfered with and touched up and, their admirers being fickle, when they get to seem a little old-fashioned they are dressed up a bit to suit the taste of the time. They limp into the present coated with centuries of make-up but still trying to keep body and soul together. ‘Mellowing’ is just not the word.

19 May. Come out this morning (still grey, still cold) to find smack in front of my door a fish – a wet fish actually, about nine inches long, still glistening as if just caught. Pinkish in parts (a mullet?) dropped by a seagull perhaps or hurled into the garden by a dissatisfied customer? Except the wet fish shop in Camden High Street has long ago been ousted by yet another emporium selling leather jackets. Anyway, a fish. I leave it for a while to see if it catches a gull’s eye, then put it in the bin.

24 May. Run into Frank Dickens the cartoonist walking down the stalled escalator at Camden Town Tube. Says that in Bristow, his strip in the Standard, he’s about to introduce the concept of Desk Rage, with frenzied attacks on other people in the office. About the same age as me, he still cycles but not as sedately as I do: Frank goes racing cycling, and even wears lycra shorts. He has several bikes, and when someone else in his club admired one of them and offered to buy it, Frank made him a present of it. When they were out cycling next, the young man to whom he had given the bike kept just behind him, mile after mile, until Frank slowed down and waved him on, whereupon the young man streaked away into the distance far faster than Frank could go. Afterwards he asked him why it had taken him so long to pass and the young man said: ‘Well, I didn’t feel it was right to pass you on your own bike.’ The existence of such an unmapped social area and the delicacy required to negotiate it would have delighted Erving Goffman.

31 May, Chichester. The city has streets and streets of immaculate 17th and 18th-century houses, particularly round Pallant House; they’re manicured and swept clean and at night are as empty as a stage set. It’s quiet too, except (and this is a feature of English country towns) in the distance one suddenly hears whooping and shouting and the sound of running feet as young drunks somewhere make their presence felt and kick out against this oppressive idyll.

1 June. When Jeremy Sams directed Wind in the Willows in Tokyo he had many practical problems, chief of which being that the actors did not trouble to make themselves heard. He was well into rehearsals before he found out that this was because they were all miked, as actors generally are in Japan. Another dilemma was almost philosophical. The cast were anxious to know about other characters like their own – other Moles, for instance, other Toads. ‘But there are no others,’ explained Jeremy. This the actors were unable to grasp or the fact that Wind in the Willows was not a type of English play and that there was no other with which it could be compared. All the plays in Japanese theatre are genre plays, variations on a theme or set of themes; the idea that a play might be unique seemed to them very strange indeed.

27 June, Chichester. Talking to Maggie Smith about the number of grey heads in our audience, I compare them with a field of dandelion clocks. She says that she’s read or been told that the Warwickshire folk name for these was ‘chimney-sweeps’ so that Shakespeare’s ‘Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust’ is thus explained. I had always taken chimney-sweepers to be a straightforward antithesis, poor and dirty boys and girls the opposite of clean and bronzed ones. This, of course, doesn’t bear close examination, though what probably planted it in my mind was a nightmare I used regularly to have as a child in which a chimney-sweep or a coalman rampaged through our spotless house. I look up chimney-sweeps in Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora (shamefully out of print) and find that, the flowers being black and dusty, chimney-sweep and chimney-sweeper are Warwickshire slang for the plantain, particularly the ribwort, and that these were used to bind up sheaves of hay; children, whether golden or otherwise, used to play a game not unlike conkers with the flowers on their long stems, in the course of which, presumably, the flowers disintegrated, or came to dust.

1 July. Watch Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which was shot in England, the Isle of Dogs doubling for Vietnam. It’s remarkable chiefly for the language of the Marine instructor, a wonderfully written and terrible part, which takes language into areas certainly undescribed in 1987, when it was made, and not often since. For example: ‘You’re the kind of guy who’d fuck someone up the ass and not do them the courtesy of a reach-around.’

3 July. Silly programme on Timewatch last night attempting to rehabilitate Haig. (‘Acid-bath Haigh?’ ‘No. Blood-bath Haig.’) It was just historians playing see-saw with no new evidence forthcoming and no examination of the sources, his diaries, for instance, treated as trustworthy when it’s pretty certain Haig rewrote them to fit in with his version of events. If the fact that he never visited the actual Front was the only count against him it would be sufficient to condemn him. But how like a man not wanting to see the suffering lest he be upset. People always complain about muck-raking biographers, saying: ‘Leave us our heroes.’ ‘Leave us our villains’ is just as important.

4 July. In the evening go across the road to the newly empty No 55 for a kind of book fair. Francis Hope died in the Paris air-crash in 1974; pressed for space, his widow Mary Hope is now, 22 years later, disposing of his books and has asked some of his friends round for a glass of wine and to take away whatever they might want. It’s an odd occasion, the sort of thing that might kick off a novel, with a group of middle-aged friends revisiting their youth and remembering some of the books they read then. There’s Camus and Sartre, Colin Wilson and Lawrence Durrell – not quite the literary equivalent of flares but inducing something of the same incredulity: ‘Did we really read/ wear these?’

I miss the atlas I really wanted and come away with one or two biographies, including a memoir of David Winn, an Etonian contemporary of Francis who also died young.

26 August. Do not renew my subscription to the Friends of Regents Park, one of whose aims seems to be to enforce the regulations against cycling in the Park. Ten years ago A. was fined £25 for riding her bike to the tennis courts at 7.30 in the morning, a piece of officiousness that could only happen in England. I have always thought that if the Prince of Wales or the Duke of Edinburgh meant what they say about the environment they’d long ago have put their weight behind a cycle track through the Park. Now it’s out of their hands as the Park is run by some private concern which would, I’m sure, be only too happy to put a cycle track across the Park provided they could charge for the use of it.

10 September. Thinking about the comics I read as a boy, I remember how comedians only appeared in Film and Radio Fun long after their vogue had passed. Jack Warner with his catchphrase ‘Mind my bike’ and Joe E. Brown were known to me only as personalities from the comics not from the medium which had originally made them famous. I suppose this might be taken as an extension of the Hegelian doctrine that the owl of Minerva takes her flight only when the shades of night are already falling. By the time they figured as cartoon characters the day of such comic duos as Gert and Daisy or Revnell and West was long since over and they were enrolled into a sizeable squad of supposedly funny comedians (all too often Cockneys) who never raised a smile from me, with Tommy Handley the most notable and Tommy Trinder the longest lived.

1 October. I have just finished reading A Passionate Prodigality by Guy Chapman, one of the books belonging to Francis Hope that I picked up in the summer. From its less than snappy title it would be hard to guess what the book is about and this perhaps explains why, so far as I’m aware, it has no reputation. Originally published in 1933, it is Chapman’s account of his experiences in the First War, when he served as a young subaltern from July 1915 right through until 1920, ending up in the Army of Occupation in Germany. It’s one of the best accounts of the trenches I’ve read, with Chapman, despite himself, falling in love with his platoon and their life together much as Wilfred Owen did. He went on to become a professor of history at Leeds, where he married the novelist Storm Jameson, and thinking about it, I realise he must have taught the man who taught me history at school, H.H. Hill. So exhilarated have I been by the book, I find myself absurdly pleased at the connection.

17 October. Lunch in a restaurant in Chelsea with Maggie Smith and Beverley Cross. As Bev is paying the bill the proprietor murmurs that General Pinochet is lunching, as indeed he is, just round the corner from our table, though not quite within spitting distance. It’s a table for eight or so, Pinochet with his back to the window, which might seem foolhardy except that in the first room of the restaurant are three fairly obvious bodyguards, who scrutinise Bev and me carefully as we come out (and particularly, for some reason, my shoes). There’s also a table nearby with four big young men, who might be heavies or might be businessmen, the fact that one can’t tell maybe saying something about both. I cause the bodyguards some unease after Maggie comes out saying that sitting at an adjoining table had been Don Bachardy, so I go back in and have a word, last having seen him with Christopher Isherwood 35 years ago. Then he was an olive-skinned doe-eyed boy who came round and did a drawing of me. Now he looks exactly as lsherwood did, even down to the little schoolboy sprout of hair at the back.

A propos Pinochet, anybody brought up on Hollywood films of the Forties would know instantly he was a villain. Distinguished, grey-haired and seemingly genial, he is the image of those crooked lawyers, ostensibly pillars of the community, who turned out to be the brains behind the local rackets and vice-rings. They were played by actors like Edward Arnold, Thurston Hall or Otto Kruger; rich, kindly, avuncular figures, they deceived everyone in the film but nobody in the audience, who were not at all surprised to see them taken away at the end, snarling with impotent fury. Not so General Pinochet and his cronies, tucking into their fish this October afternoon, the murmur of polite conversation drowning the screams from the cellar.

25 October. A figure (often of fun) who keeps cropping up in memoirs of the Second War such as those of Nancy Mitford and James Lees-Milne is Stuart Preston, nicknamed the Sergeant, an American serviceman who came over to work at US HQ in London, later taking part in the invasion. He seems to have very rapidly become a feature of the upper-class English social scene, setting hearts of both sexes a-flutter. Lees-Milne notes (Friday, 2 April 1943) how Preston once came to see him off at Euston; Lees-Milne was actually going to Preston but he doesn’t make anything of the coincidence. What happened to the Sergeant? Did he go back to America? Is he still around? Certainly his memories of that period would be interesting.

Being seen off for Preston by someone called Preston reminds me of a party given for Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy by Robin and Francis Hope in their flat in Goodge Street in the Sixties. As the doorbell rang, Robin saw to his horror that there was on the table a bottle of Bacardi rum, which he whisked away just in time. It was only afterwards that he found himself unable to analyse or locate the faux pas that he thought he had narrowly avoided making. Why would it have mattered?

7 November. To Whitemoor High Security Prison near March in Cambridgeshire, March that fogbound halt where I used to change en route from Leeds to Cambridge 45 years ago. The station has gone now and the prison is built over what once were the marshalling yards, the ground too saturated in mineral waste for much else. Not that this makes it very different from the surrounding countryside, as that’s pretty thoroughly polluted too, all hedges gone, the soil soused in fertiliser, a real Fison’s Fen. And it goes on: as I have my sandwiches by a raddled copse, two tractors in tandem ply up and down a vast field, conscientiously soaking the soil with yet another spray. From a distance the prison might be an out of town shopping mall, Texas Homecare, Do It All and Toys R Us. There’s a crèche at the gate and a Visitors’ Centre, as it might be for Fountains Abbey or Stonehenge. Reasoning that I am a visitor myself, I battle across the windswept car-park but when I put my head inside I find it full of visitors of a different sort, the wives and mothers (and very much the children) of the inmates, Birds of a Feather territory, I suppose. At the gate proper I’m frisked, X-rayed, my hand-prints taken, and am then taken through a series of barred gates and sliding doors every bit as intimidating as the institution in The Silence of the Lambs. The education officer says that this is just the outer prison and that at the heart of it is an even more secure compound, the one from which some IRA prisoners escaped a couple of years ago. It’s oppressively bleak and intimidating, the odd flowerbed or shrubbery only emphasising how soulless it is. It could be a business park or a warehouse at an airport – Brinksmat, I imagine, something like this.

While the prisoners are brought down I wait in a little common room with one or two instructors and interested parties: a blind boy who teaches maths; Anne Hunt, who has been seconded from UEA; and another teacher who has come over from Blundeston Prison near Lowestoft to hear the talk. Which is actually no talk at all, as the prisoners rather than be lectured at prefer to ask questions.

There are about two dozen, mostly in their twenties or thirties, the most interested and articulate a Glasgow boy with a deep scar on his left cheek, who did Talking Heads as an A-level setbook last year and is counted one of their successes. He kicks off straightaway with questions, which then come without any of the awkwardness or silences there were at Wandsworth. There’s a sophisticated Indian with a vaguely American accent, one older man who from his questions has had something to do with the film industry and a young man in a track suit with a lovely lit-up face who seems unable to stop smiling. There’s lots and lots of charm, which one detects as charm and so is wary of, being made to wonder what part charm has played in whatever crimes these men have committed; at the same time it’s hard not to be touched by this strong desire to please.

The teachers, while gratified that their pupils are so responsive, are anxious that one doesn’t think them angels. The young man with the scar is here for armed robbery, the smiling boy has been convicted of a particularly nasty murder (‘He was quite famous for a time,’ says one of the teachers). Afterwards I regret not asking the men more questions myself, particularly about why they’re here, though aware that it’s not the form to do so (not the form to ask about form). The predominant feeling is one of waste, that these men have been locked up and nothing is being done with them. With resources stretched to breaking-point, these classes are the next target in the event of further cuts. And that is the other impression one comes away with: the universal hatred and contempt for Michael Howard – prisoners, warders, teachers, everybody one speaks to complaining how he has stripped away from the service all those amenities which alleviate the lives of everyone cooped up here, warders and prisoners alike. Indeed one gets the feeling that the only thing that is holding the prison service together and making it for the moment work is this shared hatred for Michael Howard.

Confused and depressed, I have my handprints checked to ensure I am the same person now as the one who came here two hours ago; then I drive in high winds across the chemical countryside and down the AI, managing a quick bath before I bike down to the Comedy, where I’m filling in for Maggie Smith who has laryngitis.

9 November. To New York, travelling economy on British Airways as I generally do, though always in the hope (seldom realised) that I might be recognised and up-graded. It isn’t that I can’t afford the club-class fare but £2000 seems a lot of money to pay for something I dislike as much as I do flying, even though the alternative is seven hours of discomfort. There’s a Yorkshire dialect word that covers this feeling more succinctly than any phrase in standard English. When you can afford something but don’t like to see the money go in that particular way you say: ‘I can’t thoil to pay it.’ Which is exactly what I feel about club class. Most of my contemporaries seem to find organisations willing to pay their transatlantic fares for them, but I don’t do very well here either and when Random House brought out Writing Home in the US last year they claimed their budget didn’t run to flying me over for the occasion be it club-class or economy.

17 November, New York. I sit in Dean and Delucca on Prince Street, reading how the men in brown coats have finally come to Westminster Abbey and carted off the Stone of Scone. No one in Scotland seems in the least impressed with John Major’s imaginative gesture: they’ve got more sense, though with the relic up for grabs there was an undignified scramble between various venues wanting it for its commercial and tourist potential. In this sense it’s very much in the tradition of all the other Tory sell-offs.

The return of the largely unwanted Stone was intended to buoy up the hapless Mr Forsyth, though any favour the Government might have hoped to curry north of the border has since been wiped out by the aftermath of Dunblane. Sometimes feeling I am the last person in the country to believe in the monarchy, I am surprised the Queen didn’t make more fuss. The Stone, if only by association, must be considered a part of the royal regalia over which the Government, constitutionally, has no say at all. J. Major obviously didn’t think of it as of much consequence, as the original decision was conveyed to the Dean of Westminster by some lowly official with a chitty. Whatever one expects from this government it’s not a sense of history, and with a Japanese hotel opposite the Houses of Parliament and a Ferris wheel dwarfing Big Ben, who cares that the shrine of Edward the Confessor has been robbed of its most ancient relic? As it is, the Coronation Chair is left looking like an empty commode. In view of the current state of the monarchy this may seem appropriate and please a lot of people, but not me.

1 December, New York. To the Brooklyn Museum to see ‘In the Light of Italy’, plein-air paintings by Thomas Jones, Valenciennes and the predecessors of Corot. It’s a vast building with wide corridors and huge airy galleries, though without much atmosphere and no sense that the building itself might be of interest; the museum just a series of plain rooms within its shell. Take my canvas stool, which is a great talking-point with other gallery-goers, mostly elderly and female and wanting the same.

On the way home we stop for some tea at Barnes and Noble on Union Square. All the Barnes and Noble bookshops have lately been transformed, turned into what are virtually free libraries. There are easy chairs in which people are encouraged to read the books on display; tables at which students are sitting, making notes from the books, and, upstairs in the café, a huge rack of every conceivable magazine and newspaper which you are encouraged to take to your table to read with your tea. Though you don’t even have to buy tea, reading all that is required. Nor is it simply patronised by what one might think of as the reading public. A workman in overalls is sitting looking at a book on Chardin, the little black boy in Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus who came into the library to look at a book on Gauguin now grown up. But it doesn’t have to be as worthy as that: the boy at the next table is leafing through a muscle mag. The feeling is overwhelmingly democratic and lifts the spirits. It’s said that the experiment has improved business. I hope so, as it’s inspiring to see and, as so often in America, one is shamed by a civic sense which, if we ever had it in England, we don’t have now. Dutifully readers clear their tables, put the trash in the bin and the magazines back on the racks and behave in a way that is both more civilised and considerate and (this is where we would really fall down) unselfconscious than we could ever manage. God bless America.