Secrets are best kept by those who have no sense of humour

Alan Bennett resumes his diary

4 January. A Christmas letter from Cami Elbow, wife of Peter Elbow, an American college friend who teaches English at Amherst:

Life in Amherst is very placid. Even grammatically correct. In December the town decided to encourage shoppers to patronise the downtown stores with free parking. They ordered plastic bags to cover up the parking meters but the bags arrived with the message wrongly punctuated: ‘Season’s Greeting’s’. When the bag company refused to replace them staffers at the Town Hall spent hours pasting little pieces of adhesive tape over every offending apostrophe. My contradictory husband, who is sometimes known in his field as Write-it-Wrong Elbow, liberated a few of the apostrophes by pulling off the adhesive tape.

13 January. The canonisation of Dame Iris proceeds apace and the BBC are now preparing to show on Omnibus extracts from a video taken from an interview carried out by an eminent neurologist, Professor John Hodges, and presumably taped for research purposes. It’s sanctioned, one imagines, by John Bayley, whose efforts on behalf of his late wife and her reputation make Max Clifford seem timid and retiring. One lesson of this deplorable business is never to sanction the shooting of any video, however lofty its purpose, because once shot it will be shown. Professor Hodges seems to have arrived at his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s by, among other things, asking Dame Iris to recall which of her many books won the Booker Prize. This was The Sea, the Sea, the winner in 1978, a triumph the ailing author could not recall, but since the Booker Prize in 1978 was not the over-publicised proto-Oscars it tries to be today, this is hardly surprising. Still, that an artist’s state of mind should be assessed by his or her recollection of awards won adds a new terror to success. The test used to be recalling the name of the Prime Minister or counting backwards from 10 to 1. Now it’s whether you can remember winning the Evening Standard Award or something similar at Bafta. These sorry occasions have always been best forgotten; now their memory must be kept green against the possible arrival of the men in white coats.

19 January. Watch a video of Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the first time, I think, that I have watched it all the way through since I saw it as a child at a cinema in Guildford. Then its particular interest was that the village scenes featuring the local doctor (Roger Livesey) had been shot at Shere, a picturesque hamlet below Newlands Corner where we’d sometimes go on walks. Livesey watches the goings-on in the village via a camera obscura, though why he does this isn’t explained or the workings of the device either, which must have mystified most people at the time. The notion of eavesdropping keeps coming up in Powell’s work until with Peeping Tom it virtually ended his career. Other oddities in AMOLAD are the naked goatherd playing the flute, an unlikely sight on the Norfolk sands, I would have thought, even in 1945, and a man with wild red hair (looking like Léonide Massine in The Red Shoes) who brings Livesey and David Niven tea in the country house where some amateurs are rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This house seems to be set on a series of steps which, though the film was shot in the studio, relates it to Hardwick Hall and also to the dream sequences that follow with a stairway to heaven. The steps, coincidentally, chime in with a poem by the recently dead Ian Hamilton printed in the LRB.

We are on a kind of stair. The world below
Will never be regained; was never there
Perhaps. And yet it seems
We’ve climbed to where we are
With diligence, as if told long ago
How high the highest rung.

23 January. To Sotheby’s where I’m reminded of a lunch given for Alec Guinness in 1989 when I sat next to Lord Charteris, the Provost of Eton and previously the Queen’s Private Secretary. Talking of A Question of Attribution, then playing at the National, he remarked: ‘Of course, the question everybody asks is whether the Queen knew and whether he knew that the Queen knew. The truth of the matter is they both knew – but, of course, that’s not to be said.’

At the time I remember thinking this was sensationally indiscreet (and it would certainly have made the newspapers). Now it’s tame stuff. But thinking about Charteris, who was a funny man, one realises that it’s much harder if you have a sense of humour not to be indiscreet; the temptation to hang discretion and make jokes or be witty is too great. Secrets are best kept by those with no sense of humour.

2 February. A letter from a reader comparing her experiences of evacuation with mine. She was sent to Grantham and says that Alderman Roberts, Mrs Thatcher’s father, was thought to be into the black market and that Maggie used to hang out of her bedroom window and spit on the other children.

12 February. A shoddy programme about the conviction of Jonathan King for offences against young men dating back twenty-five years and more. While it features some of the police involved, it manages not to ask the pertinent question: if these 15-year-old boys had been 15-year-old girls and romping round in Rolls-Royces even more famous than those of Jonathan King, the Beatles’, say, or the Rolling Stones’, would the police have been quite so zealous in trawling for the supposed victims from a quarter of a century ago? King does himself no favours but I prefer his defiance and want of remorse to the odiously caring voice of the man who presents the programme. As it is, a succession of sad middle-aged men are encouraged to blame their failure in life on these ancient wanks, a service for which the state will now reward them far more munificently than King ever did.

16 February: Man on the phone opposite takes a piss by the wall, talking throughout. I wonder whether he tells the person he is talking to that he’s currently having a piss and, if it’s a woman, if this is some sort of come-on.

28 February. Spike Milligan dies and the nation’s laughter-makers queue up to testify to what it was that made his talents unique, how irreplaceable is his inspired lunacy, and how they personally have benefited from his instructive anarchy. All of which is, I suppose, true, though comedians are never reluctant to provide such posthumous attestations of one another’s genius. It happened when Peter Cook died and with the same maudlin affection. ‘Dear Cooky’, ‘Dear Spike’. The necessary element of suffering, the cost always sought for in the deaths of comics, and which in Peter’s case came with the drink, is here supplied by mental illness (‘No less than 12 nervous breakdowns’, ‘the price he had to pay’). There is no doubt that Milligan was very funny and inspired, particularly in the Q5 TV programmes he did in the 1970s, though his verbal dexterities I found less engaging and with unfortunate effects on some of his disciples, e.g. John Lennon’s In His Own Write. The disciples were always the problem, The Goon Show very funny, the people who liked it (and knew it by heart) not.

16 March. In the afternoon to the new British Galleries at the V&A, particularly to look at one of the surviving copes from the set of vestments given to Westminster Abbey by Henry VII. Anthony Symondson has written about its subsequent history in a piece in the Catholic Herald and how, via a 17th-century second-hand dealer in London and the Catholic college at St Omer, it eventually ended up at Stonyhurst. The vestments were designed apparently by Torrigiano, though this is not said on the label nor is a link made with the bust of Henry VII, also by Torrigiano, in a neighbouring showcase. Even the most limited imagination would find this cope evocative, though; worn presumably at Henry VII’s funeral and possibly, too, at the coronation of Henry VIII, it then went with the young King to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Smuggled out to Flanders in the 17th century, when it eventually came back to Stonyhurst it must have been seen if not worn by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who taught there. A propos Henry VII, what happened between 1485 and 1500? How did bold Harry Tudor of Bosworth Field turn into the crabbed penny-pinching accountant that is his usual representation?

24 March. A film beginning with a man being shepherded through a darkened hall; glimpses of paintings, a shaft of light on a plaster ceiling, the gleam of armour but so dark (lines of light around the shutters) that it’s hard to see anyone’s face. A distant murmur of sound. Odd muttered directions. ‘Steady, a step here,’ the man steered round sheeted furniture and up uncarpeted stairs. Then the group comes to a stop. Someone knocks on the shutter and it is thrown open, light floods in, there is the sudden roar of the crowd. Charles I steps out onto the scaffold.

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