Notes on 1997

Alan Bennett

2 January. I’m sent a complimentary (sic) copy of Waterstone’s Literary Diary which records the birthdays of various contemporary literary figures. Here is Dennis Potter on 17 May, Michael Frayn on 8 September, Edna O’Brien on 15 December, and so naturally I turn to my own birthday. May 9 is blank except for the note: ‘The first British self-service launderette is opened on Queensway, London 1949.’

4 January. George F. tells me that when Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Lord Lloyd Webber, as we must now say, bought his Canaletto at Christie’s he paid the £10 million bill by Access in order to earn the air miles – enough presumably to last him till the end of his days. Such lacing of extravagance with prudence has since become so common that Christie’s have now suspended credit card payments altogether.

6 January, Yorkshire. Ring Mr Redhead, the coal-merchant at Ingleton.

‘Hello, Mr Redhead, this is Alan Bennett. I’m wanting some coal.’

‘Goodness me! I am consorting with higher beings!’

Last time I rang Mr Redhead he said: ‘Well, I don’t care how celebrated you are, you’ll never be a patch on your dad.’ I remind him of this.

‘That’s correct and I reiterate it.’

13 January. Liam Gallagher, the younger of the Oasis brothers, has the kind of eyes in which the pupils are half-hidden under the eyelids; as if the eyes had stopped between floors. Spike Lee has similar eyes, which I find attractive, maybe because they give a sense of inhabiting worlds other than this; they are, of course, irritating for exactly the same reason.

A call from Barry Cryer, who claims to have heard a woman outside Liberty’s saying to her husband: ‘Remind me to tell Austin that there is no main verb in that sentence.’

15 January, Yorkshire. Trying to put my forty-year-old letters in order, I come across a diary for 1956-59. It’s depressing to read as very little of it is factual and most of it to do with my slightly sickening obsession with, coupled with a lack of insight into, my own character. It’s full of embarrassing resolutions about future conduct and exhortations to myself to do better. Love is treated very obliquely, passing fancies thought of as echoes of some Grand Passion.

My first inclination is to put it in the bin, though I probably won’t. I can see why writers do, though, fearful that these commonplace beginnings might infect what comes after with their banality. In this sense Orton (and to some extent Larkin) is exceptional, Orton’s early diaries written with the same peculiar slant on the world as his mature writings.

1957 was the year I should have come down from Oxford but didn’t and one thing I think reading this tosh is that if I hadn’t got a First (the circumstances undescribed in the diary) I would never have picked myself up to do much except possibly teach – and teach badly. It was the fairly spurious self-confidence I got from this fluke result, plus the breathing space it gave, that enabled me to go on doing silly turns, being funny and thus eventually to write.

20 January. Sheila J. up the road says that in last week’s fog she came upon two Brent geese grounded outside No 60. She rang the RSPCA, who said that since they were on the road they were the responsibility of the highways authority. Camden being Camden the highways department was unreachable and probably had better things to do anyway. So, remembering from fairy stories that goose-girls always carried a stick, Sheila got one from a garden; at which point Juliet C. emerged and the two of them herded the geese up the Crescent, eventually penning them in the garden of No 70. One settled happily in the ornamental pond there, but the other, taking advantage of the not very long lawn, took off for home, presumably Regent’s Park. In the morning its companion did the same.

26 January. Come back on an early train from Yorkshire to catch the last day of the National Art Collections Fund exhibition at Christie’s. Expecting St James’s to be empty, I find every street crammed with cars. Christie’s, too, is crowded, full of art-lovers more specially earnest than the general run so that something about the show repels – the homogeneity of the art-lovers, perhaps, their wholehearted worthiness and consistent middle-agedness. When I leave, the streets are full of disconsolate Roundheads and jubilant Cavaliers, the explanation for all the cars some mock-battle in Green Park. Note how one passes these far from sheepish figures without a second glance; the kind of extraordinary feature of ordinary life that never gets into a film except as part of the plot.

In the evening, read at St Mark’s, Primrose Hill in aid of the appeal against the demolition of the chapel of the old Boys’ Home in Regent’s Park Road and the construction of some frightful block of flats. Church packed, people standing at the back, and though the audience is a bit sticky to start with (heard it all before, I suspect), there is a good response at the end. I’d said no to an Evening Standard reporter who wanted to interview me and get a photograph. He’d been quite nice about it and gone away, but when I come out the photographer is still hanging about and asks me to pose with my bike. I say no, whereupon he starts snapping regardless. Even as I cycle off down Regent’s Park Road he runs after me snapping away. Why? On spec, I suppose, but the real reason he wants a photograph is that he knows I don’t. Whatever pictures he took would have me looking like a flustered turkey and presumably quite silly, so whether this is preferable to the Me and My Bike shot he wanted in the first place is debatable.

30 January. Meats is a form I don’t care for, the proper plural of meat being meat. Perhaps meats (on a van: ‘British Premium Meats’) means cooked meats, though meat would still be acceptable there, too. Meats suggests to me something not only cooked but sliced, and already beginning to curl at the edges. Odd that one should have any feelings, let alone care, about such usages.

31 January. The limpid theme which introduces the Agnus Dei in Fauré’s Requiem currently introduces the product in the Lurpak butter commercial.

Walk behind a tramp wearing no socks. Heels like turnips.

6 February. A. asks for help with finding questions for a charity literary quiz. Suggest:

Q. Who thought the Venerable Bede was a woman?

A. Field Marshal Haig, who said so after musing for some time beside the Venerable Bede’s tomb at Durham, presumably mixing up George Eliot and Adam Bede.

Q. Where in Oxford would you find a crucifix that had been gazed on by Pascal?

A. Campion Hall. (It is a Jansenist crucifix which comes from Port Royal.)

Q. What had A.E. Housman in common with the son of the author of Wind in the Willows?

A. A nickname: Mouse.

Tell the Bede story to Maggie Smith, who recalls some lines she had to sing in revue:

Oh, I am the Venerable Bede
I can scarcely write and just about read.

18 February. Listening to the last movement of Elgar’s First Symphony I’m put in mind of some huge submerged mass coming to the surface. What is this great sunken thing that now heaves itself into view, the water sluicing off it? England, is it? Destiny? A sense of purpose? This is how I used to think when I was 17: that music showed you how to live your life.

20-21 February. Two days filming my TV parables programme Heavenly Stories at Dulwich College, the setting the Masters’ Library, a galleried, High Victorian room adjoining the school hall, presumably where the masters foregather before assembly. Over the chimneypiece are two crude allegorical panels of Piety and Liberality, the ideals of Alleyn’s foundation. There are plenty of nice books, many with a Forties-ish feel, like Enthusiasm by Ronald Knox, one of the ‘wider reading’ books I swotted up for my scholarship. Remembering Bruce MacFarlane was at Dulwich, I wander into Charles Barry’s huge hammerbeam hall, the walls lined with honours boards of distinctions at Oxford and Cambridge chiefly; though there’s some mention of the Army and the Indian Civil Service, there is none of any other universities or places of higher education. And here is Bruce’s open scholarship to Exeter in 1922, his first-class degree three years later; his Senior Demyship at Magdalen in 1925 and the Bryce Studentship; then, in 1926, a fellowship at Magdalen. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t figure in any of the team photographs that line the corridors.

A woman is restoring some of the lettering on the honours boards and she tells me that until a few years ago they were covered in varnish and thick wallpaper, the work of an aesthetically-minded headmaster’s wife. Now they are being restored and, as inaccuracies are uncovered (ex-pupils assigned to the wrong colleges), she is at work on corrections. She seems vaguely familiar and I start telling her about a woman I’d talked to a year or so ago, having gone into a church at Inglesham near Lechlade and found her restoring the wall-painting there.

‘Yes,’ she says happily, ‘it was me.’ It seems an extraordinary coincidence. She tells me that two paintings over the fireplace are far from being the daubs I thought they were but reputedly come from Queen Elizabeth I’s state barge and may even have accompanied Drake round the world on the Golden Hind.

22 February. Jocelyn Herbert’s 80th birthday party at the Royal College of Art, the Senior Common Room packed with everyone Jocelyn has known or worked with. There is music that has been specially composed, a poem by Tony Harrison, the theme of which is all the toasts he and Jocelyn have drunk together in all the various places where they have worked around the world. They’re due to set off on Monday on another epic journey, the script, based on the Prometheus legend, is about a gold statue is transported from South Yorkshire (film of the demolition of some cooling towers near Barnsley) through Eastern Europe to Greece. Tony mentions in the poem her absent friends: George Devine, Ron Eyre, Tony Richardson, John and John (Dexter and Osborne), and at the conclusion a cake is brought in and Jocelyn is crowned with laurels. It could be thought pretentious but since Jocelyn is so far from pretentious it seems both fitting and moving.

I sit on a sofa with Alan Bates and Maggie Smith, thinking that no one would ever arrange such a do for me or get so many people to come. I turn to Maggie and she says: ‘Don’t say it. I know. I don’t think I could even fill the kitchen.’

26 February. It’s thought that most of the frocks that Princess Diana is selling off will end up in the wardrobes of transvestites. Were someone set to write a script which would persistently humiliate the Royal Family they could scarcely do better (or worse) than the one which circumstances have devised.

6 March. Sir Denis Mahon has been paying frequent visits to Discovering the Italian Baroque, the exhibition of his collection at the National Gallery, to whom he has bequeathed many of the pictures that are on show. The other day a warder watched him for some time then came up behind him and said: ‘I’ve had my eye on you. You get too close to the pictures.’ Sir Denis went to the Director and complimented him on the vigilance of his staff.

25 March, Yorkshire. Everybody else seems to have seen the comet, but though I’ve been up on the roof several times searching the Northern sky like Herod, I have seen nothing. We’re driving up from Leeds about eleven tonight when, without looking for it, I suddenly see it from the Addingham bypass, hovering, as it were, above Bolton Abbey. It dodges from side to side of the road all the way over into Airedale, then up to Settle and home. I can’t get over the spread of its tail, a great shower of light flying behind it, and also that the thing itself doesn’t look like a star but seems circular. In fact what is surprising is that a comet should look like the illustrations of comets. It’s so bright it’s as if there is a hole in the surface of the sky, a porthole through which the light is streaming from the shining world beyond. I look out again just before I go to bed and it’s still tearing through the clear sky with its 60-million-mile train.

Maundy Thursday, Yorkshire. See on billboards in Leeds that HMQ has been in Bradford washing the feet of selected pensioners from the Bradford diocese, or rather paying in order not to. Interviewed, all the pensioners say they are overwhelmed at the honour done to the region; one says she knew the invitation was something out of the ordinary as the envelope wouldn’t go through her letter box. When I get to the village I find that one of these pensioners was our ex-postman Maurice Brown. I ask him whether the Queen spoke to him. ‘No. She only stopped at people who had something wrong with them. I haven’t, so she just gave me the money.’

29 March, Yorkshire. Easter Saturday and an appropriately monastic day out, going first via Northallerton (a place to be avoided) to Mount Grace, which I had thought a remote spot but which is within sight and sound of the busy A19 to Teeside. Envy the nice life a Carthusian monk must have had in the early 15th century: meals brought to the door, sitting-room, study and bedroom looking out on a little garden with, at the end of the colonnade, the loo.

Then some delicious sandwiches (cold pheasant and stuffing) on the edge of a ploughed field near Masham, sun warm and the hawthorn just coming into leaf. We go down the hill to Well to look at the towering pinnacle of fretted wood over the font, 1352 and the second oldest in England. Then on to Jervaulx, one of the few monastic ruins not run by the Department of National Heritage but by its country-house owners, for whom it must once have been like an elaborate folly. The ruins are thatched with vegetation and herbaceous plants, and piled up round the grassy banks are great heaps of unlocated masonry. The plan of the abbey is quite clear, though, and I realise that any Cistercian monk could move from one abbey to another and not find himself puzzled as to his whereabouts. The component parts – cloisters, library, dormitory – might differ in scale, but the relationship between them would be much the same from one abbey to the next.

2 April, Yorkshire. Come across a thirty-year-old note from David Vaisey, at that time a postgraduate student at Bodley and subsequently its Librarian. The note just has a crudely drawn swastika and the slogan ‘A.L. Raus’.

14 April. Pass two slightly cheeky-looking middle-aged businessmen in Hanover Square, one of whom is talking about ‘the rodeo position’.

‘Yes, what is that?’ asks the other. ‘I don’t know what the rodeo position is.’

I take this to be a conversation about sex and it’s only later that it occurs to me that if there’s a company called Rodeo the discussion may well have been about a financial position rather than a sexual one.

16 April. Another day filming for Dance to the Music of Time, the location a crumbling neo-Gothic pile at Sonning with a vast view over the Thames Valley. Built by a Victorian millionaire MP, it was only briefly inhabited before it became what it was obviously suited for – namely, an asylum. It’s surrounded by various generations of outbuildings and Nissen huts but has a number of magnificent Gothick rooms, one of which is doing duty today as the House of Commons dining-room.

I play Sillery, now 80, though I can’t say I adjust the acting to the age, a white wig doing most of the work. I am supposed to be entertaining, or being entertained by, a group of young MPs, my only line being: ‘I will mention your name to the Italian Ambassador. I’m dining with him tomorrow night at Diana Cooper’s.’ Most of the time our table is ‘background action’ to a foreground scene of some talk at another table between John Standing, playing Nicholas Jenkins, and Jeremy Clyde, playing Roddie Cutts. Christopher Morahan wants our table to be having an animated and amusing conversation, with Sillery the life and soul of the party. There is one problem with this and that is that the MPs are played by London extras, a notoriously difficult, unco-operative section of the profession and about as helpful as, I’m told, the chorus is at Covent Garden. There are reasons for this unhelpfulness: though they’re not badly paid, the extras are seldom given much encouragement by directors and often treated as not much more than movable scenery. Certainly on this occasion they resent having to talk at all and I am left animatedly chatting to these four unresponsive young men, one expressionless, light-eyed young man making me feel a particular fool. John Standing and Jeremy Clyde look across sympathetically, knowing exactly what the situation is. Eventually I try and force some response by asking them who is the worst director they’ve ever worked with or the most unpleasant actor. This at least elicits something, including the interesting fact that very often leading actors (Tom Cruise is mentioned and, down the scale a bit, Jimmy Nail) require that the extras do not look at them while they are performing as they find it off-putting.

One of the extras asks me what I am reading. I show him my book, some Alice Munro short stories, whereupon he says, ‘I’m reading this,’ and takes out a paperback of My Secret Life, the saga of the sexual adventures of a middle-class gentleman in Victorian London. It’s a book with more sex per page than almost any other, and not a book I had thought that one reads, at least in any sequential way, as it’s just one fuck after another, with no plot or progression, not even that short journey from the simple to the complex, the straight to the kinky, that characterises most pornography. The matter of fact way he brings out the book slightly surprises me but we talk about it and I explain, rather in the manner of the character I’m playing, the doubts that have been expressed about its authenticity and the light it throws on the street life and topography of Victorian London. But now they are ready to start the scene and I look again into the dead eyes of my impassive neighbour, who did three days last week on The Bill, and tell him that I will mention his name to the Italian Ambassador, with whom I will be dining tomorrow night at Diana Cooper’s.

22 April. Filming again at Breakspears, the manor house near Harefield where last autumn we shot an earlier scene of Dance to the Music of Time. A Queen Anne house with later additions, it is now forlorn and neglected and has the CV of many too-large country houses, ending either as a conference centre or an old people’s home. This has been a home but has since been used for umpteen films, relics of which are scattered through its cold, damp and listed rooms. Judy Egerton at the National Gallery tells me that Breakspears was once the childhood home of Elizabeth Stephen, the bride of William Hallett, who together constitute Gainsborough’s Morning Walk, and that Reynolds’s Captain Tarleton used to hang in the house. Captain Tarleton is one of the paintings (another being Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella) which would figure in a dream exhibition, ‘Nice Legs’ (or rather ‘Nice Legs on Men’).

1 May. Cast my vote early, the ballot paper longer than I ever remember and the party affiliations in very modest type. Though there are predictions of a Labour victory, even from the Tories, I am still nervous that factors like this will affect the result. Nor am I alone in my uncertainty. Go down to the National Gallery for a meeting of the trustees, where Keith Thomas tells me that his polling booth in Oxford is next door to a pub in Merton Street and that, it being May morning, he had to fight his way in through crowds of drunken revellers, an ordeal he feels might deter tamer spirits. As a historian he speculates whether such considerations are too subtle to be picked up by the psephologists, among whom David Butler figures, as he has done in every election that I can recall.

2 May, Chicago. Sitting on my bag at O’Hare waiting for the other to come round on the carousel, I become aware of a small white terrier sniffing round me. Thinking it might slyly cock its leg, I shoo it away, only to find it’s attached to a customs officer who politely asks me if I am carrying any prohibited merchandise. Having already declared on the form that I’m not, I suddenly remember two oranges I brought to eat on the plane and shamefacedly extract them. The customs officer examines them and says with no hint of reproach that he will have to confiscate the fruit but in return gives me a postcard with a picture of the dog and the compliments of the Beagle Brigade.

At the hotel, hoping to find some postelection coverage, I switch on CNN and indeed catch Tony Blair arriving at Downing Street (though not John Major leaving it, which I would quite like to have seen). However, it’s the briefest flash and is put in perspective by the next item, a much more extensive piece about how Eddie Murphy invited a transvestite prostitute into his car with a view to putting him/her on the right road.

3 May. To the Chicago Art Institute, a relatively modest museum but with superb paintings. It’s Saturday and very busy so I confine myself to rooms with benches and find myself sitting in front of a Cranach Crucifixion, notable because the Bad Thief is depicted as fat, a great beer gut sagging down from the Cross. Everyone – the Holy Family apart – is grotesque, while Christ himself is so idealised he belongs in a different painting, crucified against a blue and white sky that looks like a map of the world. His thighs are concealed by dancing draperies, and since I’m currently reading the new edition of Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, I scan the floating linens for the erection Steinberg often manages to detect, though not, I think, here. In the crowd at the foot of the Cross is a child who looks up as its father points at the figure of Christ. There is a father and son of similar age looking at the picture, but here it is the child who is pointing while the father explains what is happening. It is such a neat coincidence I note it diffidently – one might easily be thought to have invented it.

The star of the gallery is Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, which has a perpetual crowd, while ignored is a beautiful (and rather classical) self-portrait by Van Gogh, whom I don’t always care for, and also the Degas Hat Shop which was shown last year at the National Gallery.

6 May, New York. To the Frick, last visited in 1963. It hasn’t changed much and can’t change much, I imagine, by the terms of its endowment. What has changed is the number of visitors: in 1963 I was the only person there; today it’s crowded out, a large proportion of the visitors for some reason French, including two droll-looking, dikey, long-nosed ladies who might have run a bar or spirited away fallen flyers during the war. Few seats, or seats that can be sat on, so I end up in the picture gallery, where there are a couple of benches – and a couple of Rembrandts, too, and a brace of Turners, a Velázquez and a Vermeer, the arrangement, roughly, portrait-landscape-portrait-landscape all round this dark, glass-ceilinged room. None of the paintings is shown to advantage, most looking dull and hung so close to each other as to make them difficult to take in on their own. Thus there’s a painting of Philip IV by Velázquez hung next to Vermeer’s Lady with Her Maid and a self-portrait of Rembrandt in old age; none is lit, they don’t complement one another, and together look like a trio of mud-coloured pictures. It would be more sensible to arrange the collection chronologically: the way it is now, one is made more conscious of the fact that Frick had no particular taste and no eye for pictures, except the expensive ones, and that Duveen and Berenson and whoever else bought for him had no notion of putting together a group of paintings which, besides being masterpieces, were also a pleasure to live with. These were merely to be gloated over, so that Rembrandt and Van Dyck here seem vulgar and even Vermeer only just survives.

8 May, New York. The warders at the Metropolitan Museum are given no chairs and so are always on the move and, less mindful of the reverence due to art that pervades the National Gallery, hold lively conversations with the warder next door. ‘I mean,’ says one Hispanic warder, ‘this is a woman who changes her hair colour three times a week. Where are you with a dame like that? You don’t know.’

The names Americans visit on their children never cease to amaze me. One of Diana Ross’s daughters labours under the name of Chudney.

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