A Shameful Year
1 January 2003. A Christmas card from Eric Korn:
This is the one about Jesus
And his father who constantly sees us
Like CCTV from above
But they call it heavenly love;
And the other a spook or a bird
Or possibly merely a Word.
Rejoice! We are ruled thru’ infinity
By this highly dysfunctional Trinity!
10 January. In George Lyttelton’s Commonplace Book it’s recorded that Yeats told Peter Warlock that after being invited to hear ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ (a solitary man’s expression of longing for still greater solitude) sung by a thousand Boy Scouts he set up a rigid censorship to prevent anything like that ever happening again. This is presumably the origin of Larkin’s remark that before he died he fully expected to hear ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ recited by a thousand Girl Guides in the Royal Albert Hall.
12 January. Read Macbeth for maybe the second time in my life (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it). Much of the language is as opaque as I generally find Shakespeare but I’m struck by how soon he gets down to business, so that within a scene the play is at full gallop. No messing about with Lady M. either. No sooner does she learn Duncan is going to visit than she decides on the murder. Oddities are Macduff’s abandonment of wife and family in order, seemingly, to save his own skin, though the scene in which his wife is discussing this with Ross is unbearably tense, the audience knowing she is about to be murdered. The ending is as abrupt as the beginning, with not much in the way of a dying fall from Malcolm, who’s straightaway off to Scone for his coronation. Most relevant bit:
Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself . . .
. . . where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy.
14 January. When I am occasionally stumped on a grammatical point, having no English grammar, I consult a copy of Kennedy’s Latin primer, filched more than thirty years ago from Giggleswick School. It’s only today that I notice that some schoolboy half a lifetime ago has painstakingly converted The Revised Latin Primer into ‘The Revised Man Eating Primer’. Perhaps it is the same boy who has inscribed across one of the pages: ‘G.H. Williams, Lancs and England’.
22 January. Watching Footballers’ Wives I see among the production credits the name Sue de Beauvoir.
I do so hope she’s a relation.
1 February, Yorkshire. Last time we visited Kirkby Stephen we were in Mrs H.’s shop when a clock chimed. I’ve never wanted a clock and this one was pretty dull, made in the 1950s probably and very plain. But the chime, a full Westminster chime, was so appealing that we talked about it on the way home and later asked Mrs H. to put it on one side. Today we collect it and it looks every bit as dull as we remember, but now on the table behind the living-room door it seems very much at home. And the chime is of such celestial sweetness that when it goes it’s hard not to smile.
9 February. To Widford in the Windrush valley near Burford for a second look at the church built on the site of a Roman villa, the mosaic floor (now covered over) once the floor of the chancel. There are box pews, aged down to a silvery grey, a three-decker pulpit, Jacobean altar rails and the remains of whitewash-blurred medieval wall-paintings. It’s an immensely appealing place, not unlike Lead in Yorkshire or Heath near Ludlow. Good graves on the north side, some for a family called Secker who seem to live in the manor house across the field, a romantic rambling house that looks unrestored and has oddly in its grounds an ornate seaside-looking Edwardian clock tower.
The Windrush tumbles through the weir on this mild winter morning, but the idyll is deceptive as once, at least, the river has seen slaughter. It was in 1388 that Richard II’s favourite, Robert Vere, led his army floundering along this flooded valley, desperate to escape his baronial pursuers, who eventually caught up and cut most of them down a little upstream at Radcot Bridge.
15 February. R. and I go down to Leicester Square at noon, the Tube as crowded as at rush hour, then walk up Charing Cross Road to where the march is streaming across Cambridge Circus. There seems no structure to it, ahead of us some SWP banners but marching, or rather strolling, beside them the Surrey Heath Liberal Democrats. Scattered among the more seasoned marchers are many unlikely figures, two women in front of us in fur hats and bootees looking as if they’re just off to the WI. I’m an unlikely figure, too, of course, as the last march I went on was in 1956 and that was by accident: I was standing in Broad Street in Oxford watching the Suez demonstration go by when a friend pulled me in.
Today it’s bitterly cold, particularly since the march keeps stopping or is stopped by the police, who seem bored that they’ve got so little to do, the mood of the march overwhelmingly friendly and domestic and hardly political at all. I’d have quite liked something to march to, even (however inappropriately) ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, but the nearest we get is (to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’) ‘We all live in a terrorist regime,’ which isn’t a chant I feel entirely able to endorse. At Albemarle Street we split off and go and have lunch at Fenwick’s, having, I suppose, walked a third of the route.
On the TV news the police estimate the numbers at 750,000, the organisers at two million, the true figure presumably somewhere in between. Whether anyone has ever nailed the police on why they routinely overestimate the numbers for demonstrations they approve of (like the so-called Liberty and Livelihood March) while marking down more dissident movements I don’t know. They would presumably deny it as vigorously as their not infrequent throttling of black suspects.
26 February. For much of last year the post in Gloucester Crescent was delivered by a delightful French girl, Stephanie Tunc; blonde and pretty, she was chatty, funny and also very efficient. Unique among the French of my acquaintance she didn’t like France one bit and pulled a face if you told her you were going on holiday there. Before Christmas she and her sister took off for South America and this last week the market men in Inverness Street got a postcard from Stephanie in Peru, which they pinned up on one of the stalls.
Then yesterday the new postman told us that having run out of money in Peru she and her sister had come back from South America to Miami. Sunbathing on the beach they had been run over by a police car, which had then reversed over them. Stephanie was dead and her sister in a critical condition.
‘Add something,’ I note as I transcribe this entry. But there is nothing to add. A lovely, lively girl is senselessly dead. That’s all.
8 March. A phrase often in the mouth of Bush and Blair is ‘Our patience is exhausted.’ It’s a phrase that is seldom used by anyone who had much patience in the first place; Hitler was quite fond of it.
14 March. To Oxford to vote for the chancellor, though it doesn’t seem very long since I did the same for Roy Jenkins. At Bodley I’m overtaken by A.N. Wilson, who’s brought his gown in a Sainsbury’s bag, though it’s part of Roy Jenkins’s legacy that gowns are no longer required on such occasions. This doesn’t stop many of the voters swishing about in them for the benefit of their families, who are then left at the door of the Divinity Schools while the graduate goes in to participate in the mystery. Not much of a mystery now, though, as in another of Jenkins’s reforms there is no ceremony at all and certainly no vice-chancellor enthroned in Convocation waiting to take your voting paper and lift his hat as Patrick Neill tipped his twenty years ago. Now Neill is himself a candidate in what feels more like a local council election, with trestle tables, ushers and the proctors taking the votes. One of Tom Bingham’s proposers, I vote for him and no one else, the single transferable vote (another Jenkins inspiration) likely, it’s thought, to favour Bingham’s chief rival, Chris Patten. At the table I hand in my paper to one of the junior proctors, a weary-looking don who, in what is perhaps a ritual humiliation, demands some evidence of identification. I hand over my Camden bus pass which he scrutinises as grimly as an Albanian border guard, even checking the likeness. Andrew Wilson sails through unchallenged.
I walk back through the streets of Oxford and as always I have a sense of being shut out and that there is something going on here that I’m not a part of; not that I was a part of it even when I was a part of it.
16 March. One of the lowest moments this year was Tony Blair and Jack Straw misrepresenting the French and German position on Iraq in order to encourage xenophobia and get more support from the Murdoch papers.
17 March. A bin Laden associate reported as being ‘quizzed’ by American agents in Pakistan. Were suspects ‘quizzed’ by the Gestapo, I wonder. Other people torture; we quiz.
19 March. What is particularly bitter is to hear one’s own moderate, pragmatic and indeed patriotic sentiments in the mouth of the Foreign Minister of Germany, Joschka Fischer, while our own Prime Minister parrots the American line, a case, I suppose, of Speak for England, Joschka. Meanwhile the troops get ready to ‘rock and roll’, as they call it this time; last time it was ‘shooting fish in a barrel’.
21 March. The first soldiers killed. If our army had been made up of conscripts no one would have tolerated this war for a moment. However much these are ‘our boys’, the war can only be waged because the US and the UK have armies of mercenaries.
24 March. G. was on the bus en route for Camden when a woman opposite leaned across and said: ‘I suppose you think I’ve got this sore throat because I’ve had a cock in my mouth? Actually I’ve been in Germany, but I wasn’t going to let them rearrange my face.’
Vol. 26 No. 2 · 22 January 2004
Like Alan Bennett I first came across Andy Goldsworthy's sheepfolds by chance, on the moor road between Brough and Middleton-in-Teesdale (LRB, 8 January). I fear, however, that Bennett may have been misled by his market gardener: I obtained a leaflet, produced by Cumbria County Council, giving the locations of the folds, from the Tourist Information Centre in Middleton-in-Teesdale.
I, too, was captivated by the video of planes flying through an apartment that Alan Bennett reports seeing at Kettle's Yard; it was part of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition at the Barbican about a year ago. Unfortunately there were no catalogues available, and, like Bennett, I failed to make a note of the artist's name. Perhaps it was the hypnotic effect of the planes. Later, I discovered that he is called Hiraki Sawa.
The title of Alan Bennett’s copy of Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer was changed to ‘Man Eating Primer’. At my school, we had to manage with the Shorter Latin Primer. The covers of this had been amended, more palatably, to ‘Shortbread Eating Primer’.
2003 was notable for many things, but in particular I see that Alan Bennett and myself were on two of the same demonstrations in Central London. All the more reason, surely, to get an LRB banner for concerned readers to march behind on such occasions.
Alan Bennett's references to the Iraq debacle were admirably restrained. Even so they should remind the previously loyal Labour voters among us to consider more carefully than usual how we vote at the next general election.
King’s Lynn, Norfolk
‘Shameful’ is the word that comes to mind on reading the extracts from Alan Bennett’s diary for 2003 – but for the opposite reasons from the ones he gives. Shameful to hear two democratic leaders, George Bush and Tony Blair, slyly likened to Hitler through their common use of a phrase; shameful that one who publishes his comments on current events should so unthinkingly parrot the charge that the Prime Minister is ‘parroting the American line’; shameful, way above all else, that he should wish to see published a paragraph, the relevant part of which reads: ‘The news breaks of the arrest of Saddam Hussein. It ought to matter, and maybe does in Iraq, it certainly does in America. But here? Whatever is said it does not affect the issue. We should not have gone to war.’ It ought to matter that the larger part of the British intelligentsia – at least that which is published – thinks like Bennett, but the emptiness of the views expressed makes it matter less and less. That the arrest of one who murdered and tortured on the scale of Saddam; who attacked two neighbouring states with the consequence of hundreds of thousands of deaths; who gassed tens of thousands of his own country’s inhabitants (they were never allowed the status of citizens); who took personal, sadistic delight in the tortures he inflicted on his opponents; who sought to build up stocks of weapons of mass destruction so that he could cow the region; who starved his country to build palaces – that this should not matter to the British, who joined the war against his hideous regime, is a stupefying conclusion to come to at the end of a year’s diary writing. That this should be the response – world-weary, cynical, smugly and narrowly certain of the outcome and meaning of a series of events whose consequences for good and ill cannot be known but which has included, at the very least, the nailing of one monster of a man – is shameful. That some readers would find this response agreeable is shameful. That so many who opposed this war should be so immured in the righteousness of their contempt for Bush and Blair as to be incapable of recognising that the world as a whole, and Iraq in particular, is the better for the capture of Saddam Hussein, is shameful.
Alan Bennett's eminence as a dramatist is beyond question. It is a pity therefore that his diary displays the political outlook of a hysterical schoolgirl.
Vol. 26 No. 3 · 5 February 2004
Over the last year, comment on the Iraq war in the liberal intelligentsia's house journals has been so unreflective and spiteful that the aside in Alan Bennett's recent diary provoked no more than a resigned shrug. How welcome, then, that Bennett's position should be demolished so swiftly and thunderously by John Lloyd (Letters, 22 January). What will puzzle historians a century on is not that opposition to the war was so widespread – after all, postwar US foreign policy had generally been incompetent when not actually brutal, the war's legality was at best dubious, and our Governments did exaggerate the threat Iraq presented and, in cuddling up to other dreadful regimes, had indeed helped make Saddam the monster he became. Instead, it will perplex them that so many people preferred to turn a blind eye to the likelihood that a war to remove Saddam would result in far fewer casualties than even a year or so of his own continuing rule. The logic which says that it's worth killing ten or twenty thousand Iraqis to prevent the deaths of more than a hundred thousand is a brutal one, but one which the anti-war faction prefers nevertheless not to contemplate.
John Lloyd is wrong. It is shameful that, in 2003, our Government lied to us about a non-existent threat from non-existent weapons of mass destruction; shameful that, as a result, hundreds of British and American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians died in an illegal, unnecessary, unjustified, immoral war; shameful that the President of the United States should now take credit for the capture of a tyrant who was actively supported by members of his current Administration until it no longer suited their interests; shameful that the same Administration continues to support tyrants across the world in the defence of its interests; and, above all, shameful beyond belief that these cynical, evil actions should have been justified in the name of democracy, human rights and morality. The only thing that is not shameful is that millions of people all over the world took to the streets in 2003 because they could see all this, and they knew that it was wrong. That makes me proud.
John Lloyd’s petulant outburst at Alan Bennett will surprise no one familiar with his petulant outbursts. I recall the time when he took his ball home from the New Statesman, refusing to write further for such pinko subversives and anti-Americans.
There is no reason for the capture of Saddam to register heavily with Alan Bennett or anyone else familiar with the essential history. Saddam’s wickedness was blazingly familiar when Donald Rumsfeld (as Secretary of State for Defense last time round) shook his hand on camera and assured him of America’s continuing goodwill. His crimes were then without weight or notice to the US Government. It took another of the lefties whom Lloyd delights to savage, Dafydd Elis Thomas, then a mildly Marxisant Welsh Nationalist MP, to raise the Halabja gassings in the House of Commons in 1987, only to receive an embarrassed, unhelpful non-acknowledgment from the Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe. British foreign policy, then as now, lacked any capacity for civil dissent from the US view.
The little reported, not at all denounced Halabja gassings had taken place while the Iraq-Iran war was still going on. At that time, the object of hostility for the US was Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini had taken American hostages, denounced the US and given all-round offence. Saddam, as a man fighting the identified enemy, was indeed a criminal and conductor of massacres. But ‘objectively’, as they used to say in Stalin’s day, Saddam was on the side of peace, light and democracy. And he was killing Iranians. During that eight-year war, 800,000 people are thought to have died, something regarded in official American circles as an acceptable price for setting back an enemy of the US. Saddam Hussein was, in the term coined to describe the Dominican gangster dictator Raphael Trujillo, ‘a bastard but our bastard’.
It was only on his invasion of Kuwait that Saddam became a bastard against US interests, and American politicians, four years late, began to talk about Halabja. Alan Bennett recognises cosmic humbug when he sees it. John Lloyd, exemplifying what Orwell called ‘transferred nationalism’ and doing his bit as a pom-pom girl for the invasion, does not.
Thormanby, North Yorkshire
If, as Colin Armstrong puts it, Alan Bennett displays the political outlook of a hysterical schoolgirl (Letters, 22 January), the sooner one is lined up to replace Tony Blair the better. Would Armstrong, I wonder, hold the political outlook of a priapic schoolboy in higher regard? Possibly so, since another implication of his letter is that he finds Alan Bennett insufficiently manly for his taste. If Mr Armstrong would let us know his age and occupation (we know his gender), we might have the formula for a brand-new insult. Wouldn't that be nice?
It’s a tough call, but if it comes to choosing between the ‘likes’ and ‘unlikes’, put me in a gymslip and I’ll scream at the sight of Virginia Wade.
Vol. 26 No. 4 · 19 February 2004
I can quite believe that Alan Bennett's patience with Tony Blair is exhausted, but when he and Graham Brown (Letters, 22 January) want me to consider carefully how to vote at the next general election I need further advice. Have I missed Michael Howard's anti-war speeches, can I imagine Charles Kennedy in Number 10, or should I believe in the miracle of St Gordon, sitting in cabinet, providing the money yet somehow not implicated? Staying at home isn't an option for me.
Vanessa Coode may rest assured that I intended to impugn only Alan Bennett’s politics (Letters, 5 February). ‘Hysterical schoolgirl’ as a term of political abuse is not original. Attacking Lord Carson’s speech against the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the House of Lords on 14 December 1921, the Earl of Birkenhead said that ‘as a constructive effort of Statecraft’ it ‘would have been immature upon the lips of an hysterical schoolgirl’. It is unlikely that Birkenhead thought Carson insufficiently manly.