What I did in 1999

Alan Bennett

12 January. A New York producer sends me Waiting in the Wings, Noël Coward’s play about a theatrical retirement home – Denville Hall, I suppose it is. He wants me to update it, though lest I should think this kind of thing beneath me what he says he wants is ‘a new perspective on the play’.

The perspective will have to be a pretty distant one as it now seems a creaking piece all round, the only character not requiring updating (or a new perspective) is an old actress, Sarita Myrtle, who’s gone completely doolally, and so still seems contemporary. The most startling revelation is that it includes a character called Alan Bennet (sic) who is described as ‘in his late forties. He is neatly dressed but there is an indefinable quality of failure about him’.

Coward’s play was staged in September 1960, a month after Beyond the Fringe, and a year after I had appeared on the stage for the first time with the Oxford Theatre Group. (I am just thinking how the name might have lodged in Coward’s mind.) Nobody has ever noticed it before – not even Nora Nicholson who played Sarita Myrtle and was with me in Forty Years On.

13 January. Humphrey Carpenter comes round to do some fact-checking for his forthcoming book on satire and after. He asks me if we ever had any alternative titles to Beyond the Fringe, which was Robert Ponsonby’s contribution and not popular with us at the time. I can’t think of any but J. Miller later remembers ‘At the Drop of a Brick’, a reference to Flanders and Swann’s At the Drop of a Hat and Peter Cook’s suggestion that we call it ‘Quite the best revue I’ve seen for some time. Bernard Levin’, the point being that whatever the notices this could go up at the front of house.

27 January. A woman writes to me saying that having read a piece I’d written about him, she has tried to read Kafka but without success. For the same reason she asked at the library for something on Larkin but seeing his photograph gave the book straight back: ‘He looked too much like Sergeant Bilko.’

28 January. I switch on the Antiques Roadshow where someone is showing an expert a drawing by E.H. Shepard, the illustrator of Winnie the Pooh. It’s a cartoon or an illustration dated 1942, entitled ‘Gobbling Market’ and meant as a satire on black marketeers. It was for Punch but it could just as easily have been for Der Stürmer, as all the black marketeers are strongly semitic in features, some as demonic as in the worst Nazi propaganda. The expert makes no reference to this, except to say: ‘It’s very strong.’ When the owner bought the drawing he’d had the chance of getting a Winnie the Pooh cartoon instead: that would have appreciated in value a good deal but ‘Gobbling Market’ not at all, which is encouraging.

9 February. Yesterday evening to the National Gallery’s Ingres exhibition. Some glowing early portraits ... the earliest like Fabre or Géricault and the best an extraordinary painting of his friend J.B. Desdéban. Redhaired, orange-jacketed and against a russet background he’s not unlike the Chicago Degas of the woman having her hair brushed, which is another exercise in red. Ingres is supposed to have said it was the best thing he ever did and it could be taken for an early Picasso. Lynn points out how bony and articulated the hands are in the drawings whereas in the paintings the hands become fat, boneless and almost claw-like.

Dame Iris Murdoch dies and gets excellent reviews, all saying how (morally) good she was, though hers was not goodness that seemed to require much effort, just a grace she had been given; so she was plump and she was also good, both attributes she had been born with and didn’t trouble herself over. I wonder if it’s easier to be good if you don’t care whether you’re wearing knickers or mind, as Wittgenstein didn’t, living on porridge; goodness more accessible if you’re what my mother used to call ‘a sluppers’.

Nobody explains (or seems to think an explanation required) how this unworldly woman managed to be made a dame by Mrs Thatcher and was laden with honorary degrees; sheer inadvertence perhaps.

In a later obituary it’s said that she approved of the Falklands War and one begins to see that for all her goodness and mild appeal she may have trod the same path as her contemporaries Amis and Larkin. Masked though she was in kindliness and general benevolence she may have ended up as far from her radical beginnings as they did, Dame Iris’s spiritual journey not all that different from Paul Johnson’s.

10 February. At Christmas G. and R. gave me a subscription to This England (‘Britain’s Loveliest Magazine’), which at first seemed a conventional magazine of the countryside with thatched cottages, country houses and even Patience Strong. Closer examination shows it to be more sinister: it is seemingly the house magazine of the Society of St George and dedicated to the preservation of the English identity. A second number comes today, more virulent than the last with columns of correspondence all fervently opposed to the European connection, denouncing Labour (and half the Conservatives) as traitors. It’s the usual stuff except to find a magazine ostensibly devoted to singing the praises of the countryside but peddling such rot is quite disturbing. And of course not a black face to be seen. It’s the kind of publication one laughs about, but go a thousand miles across Europe and sentiments no more rancid and parochial are inspiring neighbours to slit each others’ throats.

12 March. Reading P. Ackroyd’s Thomas More, which I finish today, leaves me in two minds, the tolerance and scepticism of the author of Utopia and the dogmatism and heresy-hunting of the lawyer never adding up and not short of hypocrisy. It’s hard not to feel there is something specifically English about this two-mindedness (More’s not mine). Ackroyd writes how during his time in prison More was tormented by fears of torture and the barbarities of his possible punishment, without it seeming to occur to him (or to Ackroyd) that the torments he had himself visited on heretics were just as terrible. Nor did these have a dogmatic justification as intended to save the victims from the pains of hell; More rejoiced in the cruelties since they gave the poor souls a foretaste of eternal fire. However noble his conduct in the face of death it’s difficult to feel much sympathy with him. Henry VIII is a devil but that doesn’t make More a saint.

In the afternoon to Kendal and the Abbot Hall Gallery, notable for its collection of Romneys (Romney born in Kendal). Less taken by the finished portraits, which are staid and wooden, than by his preliminary sketches, some of them so rough and full of energy they’re reminiscent of Frank Auerbach, though none of this dash survives into the finished portraits. Occasionally funny, too, particularly a sketch of Two Lovers Startled by a Young Person, a child gazing at a snogging couple.

22 March. Good example of journalistic spite last week when I was rung by the Independent (journalist’s name forgotten) wanting my comments on a movement for Yorkshire independence. I say I have none. ‘What, none at all?’ ‘No,’ and I put the phone down. In the item the next day it is recorded that I have no comment despite having written such ‘treacly’ plays about the region. An untreacly (and incorrect) joke about Yorkshire via George Melly:

A driver lost near Leeds stops to ask a local the way.

‘Excuse me. Do you know the Bradford turn-off?’

Pause.

‘I should do. I married her.’

7 April. I call at the Regent Bookshop in Parkway to find Peter the proprietor’s mother there with a bundle of papers she’s brought in for him to photocopy. She is from Vienna, which she left in 1938 at the age of 20, her parents having managed to find someone in England who would employ her and her two sisters as domestics and so procure them visas.

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