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’.

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