Diary

Alan Bennett

28 January 2005. Fly to Rome for a British Council reading. It occurs to me that a lot of the camp has gone out of British Airways and that as the stewards have got older and less outrageous so the service has declined. This morning there is scarcely a smile, not to mention a joke, the whole flight smooth, crowded and utterly anonymous.

The British Council reading is packed, with two hours of radio and TV interviews beforehand. All the interviewers are well-informed, with sitting in on the proceedings a simultaneous translator, Olga Fernando. She’s astonishingly clever, translating aloud while at the same time taking down a shorthand transcript of what is being said, a skill she normally employs in much more exalted circumstances; next week for instance she is accompanying the Italian president to London to meet Jack Straw and she also translated for Bush on his visit to Italy last year.

The library at the British Council is busy and full of students who only leave when it closes at 8 p.m., and seeing these young Italians reading English books and magazines, watching videos and generally finding this a worthwhile place to be is immensely heartening. The British Council can still be thought a bit of a joke but like the World Service it’s a more useful investment of public money than any number of state visits, or, in Blair’s case, holidays with Berlusconi (who, incidentally, I never hear mentioned throughout).

29 January, Rome. Seduced by its name, first thing this morning we go to look at Nero’s Golden House, or such parts of it as have been excavated. It’s a mistake. Walking through these tall narrow chambers, none with natural light and few with more than the faintest fresco, I feel it’s no more inspiring than a tour round a 19th-century municipal gasworks, which it undoubtedly resembles. Most of the party wear headphones and follow the cassette guide and so become dull and bovine in their movements with sudden irrational darts and turns dictated by the commentary. Deprived of one faculty they become less adept with the others, and when they talk do so in loud unregulated voices. Wayward and dilatory in their movements they are seemingly without purpose, though of course they are the purposeful ones. What to us are featureless alcoves of scrofulous masonry (and with no evidence of gold) presumably echoed to the orgies and barbarities which are even now being detailed on the cassettes to which everyone else is listening intently.

4 February. Condoleezza Rice announces that the US has no plans to attack Iran at the present moment, the implication being that we should be grateful for such forbearance.

9 February. I use proof sheets as scrap paper and today it’s one from Afternoon Off (1978), a TV play we shot at Whitby with a scene in a café and a long speech by Anna Massey. Stephanie Cole plays the other part, but it’s hardly a conversation as she only has one line with Anna doing all the talking. And I realise, as I haven’t until now, that I was writing monologues long before I specifically tried to, only in the earlier plays they were just long (long) speeches. Afternoon Off has several, because the leading figure is a Chinese waiter with very little English so everybody talks at him.

13 February. As with Havel once, I seem to be the only playwright not personally acquainted with the deceased Arthur Miller and with some line on his life and work. Many of his plays I still haven’t seen, though years ago when I was reading everything I could get hold of on America and McCarthyism I came across Miller’s novel Focus, in which a character begins to look Jewish when he takes to wearing glasses. It’s a powerful piece and in retrospect rather Roth-like. No one quite says how much of his street cred came from his marriage to Monroe, though paradoxically more with the intellectuals than with Hollywood.

21 February. Snow arrives on cue around four but alas doesn’t lay; ‘It’s laying!’ one of the joyous cries of childhood.

22 February. To the private view of the Caravaggio at the National Gallery. Crowded, but because only the paintings are lit and not the rooms the crowds melt into the gloom, or form a frieze of silhouettes against the pictures. Only 16 paintings on show and whereas in some of the earlier paintings that we saw in Rome one was struck by how clamorous they were – boys howling, heads screaming – here the pictures are much calmer and it is character that prevails. Some of the expressions are so subtle as to be beyond interpretation: in the Supper at Emmaus (1606) from Milan, a more tranquil picture than the same subject in the NG, the figure to the left of Jesus has a look both of interest and concern far more intriguing than the mere wonder and astonishment evident in the NG’s 1601 version. And right at the end of the exhibition (and Caravaggio’s life) there is Goliath’s head, which is supposedly Caravaggio’s own, and whether it’s that but the look on the young David’s face is so troubled and so overwhelmed he seems only to regret what he has accomplished.

24 February. To a Faber meeting for their sales reps at the Butchers’ Hall, which is just by the back door of Barts, bombed presumably and rebuilt in undistinguished neo-Georgian some time in the 1960s. Doorman sullen and no advertisement for the supposed cheerfulness of the butchering profession. Early so have a chance to look at the occasional paintings, including a couple of nice early 19th-century old masters (of the Butchers’ Company, that is), besides various ceremonial cleavers including the one used to cut up the first New Zealand lamb brought to England and served to Queen Victoria in 1880. Nicest though are two Victorian or Edwardian toy butchers’ shops. They’re bigger and grander than the one Dad made for Gordon and me c.1940 but whereas these joints are nailed into place, Dad’s were all made to unhook so we could serve them to our imaginary customers at the counter.

25 February. A propos civil liberties the government spokesperson most often put up, particularly on television, is the junior minister at the Home Office, Hazel Blears. With a name that combines both blur and smear and which would have delighted Dickens the lady in question has always shown herself to be an unwavering supporter of Mr Blair, though lacking those gestures in the direction of humanity with which her master generally lards his utterances.

12 March. A cold bright day in Yorkshire and I sit briefly at the end of the garden, watching a plane cross a vast sea of blue sky, leaving a single unfurled trail behind it. A plane such as this moving across virgin space must be more of a treat for the spectator than the pilot; it puts me in mind of myself as a child longing to be the first to jump (never dive) into the still swimming-bath at Armley. The pleasure there was in disrupting the calm but also in being able to see through the undisturbed water to the murky end of the bath.

15 March. To Rousham in the morning to look at the gardens then to Daylesford Organic Farm Shop for lunch. The colour scheme is that greyish green one was first conscious of 40 years ago when Canonbury and Islington took it up and then the National Trust: ‘tasteful green’ it might be called (it’s the colour of the coalhouse door in Yorkshire). It’s a definite spread – shop, restaurant, a cloister cum herb garden, together with barns, farm buildings and, one presumes, living quarters for the many employees. It’s cheering to think that, if Nigel Slater is to be believed re residential catering establishments, the young people who largely staff the place will be screwing each other rotten. Not that there’s a hint of that front of house, which is chaste, cheerful, middle-aged, middle-class and above all well-off, the car park full of four-wheel drives, Pioneers, Explorers, Conquerors, Marauders, all of which have blazed a fearless trail across rural Oxfordshire to this well-heeled location a mile or two from Chipping Norton where the best is on offer in the way of lifestyle choices: delicious, wholesome food, multifarious cheeses, 15 different types of loaf. ‘Look, darling. Look what they’ve got,’ calls one loving middle-aged wife to her browsing husband and then to the assistant: ‘He’s a real cheese man.’

Odd how I could take such a place without question did I come across it in New York, say, or California. But here it’s so bound up with class and money and all one’s complicated feelings about England I hold back. Like Saga, another rich and popular establishment catering to an obvious demand, it’s so successful it becomes slightly sinister – the Daylesford Experience like the Saga one a perfect front for subversion of some kind, with the Daylesford philosophy that sort of bland and smiling philanthropy which in thrillers always masks elaborate villainy.

16 March. To St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place for the funeral of Anna Haycraft (aka Alice Thomas Ellis) who died a week or so ago in Wales and whose body had therefore to be brought down for the funeral and then presumably taken back to Wales to be buried beside Colin, her late husband, at their Welsh farmhouse. This, I gather, is pretty remote and the track to it hardly hearse-friendly so the grave when she eventually achieves it likely to be something of a relief.

The church is interesting, though only the shell is the 13th-century original, with the blind arcading and crocketed pinnacles particularly pleasing. Nor is there a lot of garish statuary, the images of English Catholic saints standing on medieval corbels round the walls are soberly painted and quite secular. Note how these occasions flush out the devout, the fluent genuflection before entering the pew the first indicator. Charles Moore sinks to his knees straightaway and prays for a considerable period of time, and Piers Paul Read similarly. Some admiration for this, men who pray in public not uncourageous, though more often met with at Catholic rather than Anglican services.

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