4 January, Yorkshire. A heron fishes by the bridge as I walk down to get the papers this morning, but when I draw nearer it takes off and flaps up the beck. Not a rare bird, the heron’s size is never less than spectacular, and grey and white though they are they still seem exotic.
Bitterly cold with snow forecast later so we get off early up the M6 to Penrith and Brampton, hoping to have a look at the Written Rock, a quarry by the river at Brampton with an inscription carved by the legion that cut the stone here for nearby Hadrian’s Wall. But it’s too cold to go looking for it and it’s said to be overgrown and eroded now, but somehow to see the place that supplied the stone and the mark the men made who quarried it seems much more evocative than the actual wall itself. Instead we buy a couple of George III country chairs very reasonably in an antique shop before going round the much larger antique centre in Philip Webb’s parish hall.
6 January. Papers full of Charles Kennedy being, or having been, an alcoholic. I’d have thought Churchill came close and Asquith, too, and when it comes to politics it’s hardly a disabling disease. Except to the press. But less perilous, I would have thought, to have a leader intoxicated with whisky than one like Blair, intoxicated with himself.
17 January. At the Annual General Meeting of the Friends of the British Library I read (rather haltingly) a piece I’ve written about the libraries I’ve worked in, including the Round Reading Room at the old Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. The memoranda rolls on which I spent most of my time were long, thin swatches of parchment about five foot in length and written on both sides. To turn the page required the co-operation and forbearance of most of the other readers at the table, so it would sometimes look like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party struggling to put up wallpaper when all I was doing was trying to turn over.
A side effect of reading these unwieldy documents was that one was straightaway propelled into quite an intimate relationship with the readers alongside, and one of those I got to know in this way was the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith. The author of The Great Hunger, an account of the Irish famine, and The Reason Why, about the events leading up to the Charge of the Light Brigade, Cecil was a frail woman with a tiny birdlike skull, looking more like Elizabeth I (in later life) than Edith Sitwell ever did (and minus her sheet metal earrings). Irish, she had a Firbankian wit and a lovely turn of phrase, ‘Do you know the Atlantic at all?’ she once asked me, and I put the line into Habeas Corpus and got a big laugh on it. From a grand Irish family she was quite snobbish and talking of someone she said: ‘Then he married a Mitford … but that’s a stage everybody goes through.’ Even the most ordinary remark would be given her own particular twist, and she could be quite camp. Conversation had once turned, as conversation will, to forklift trucks. Feeling that industrial machinery might be remote from Cecil’s sphere of interest I said: ‘Do you know what a forklift truck is?’ She looked at me. ‘I do. To my cost.’
20 February. One of the pleasures of painting, even if it’s only the wall which I’m currently engaged on, is to be able to visit Cornelissen’s shop in Great Russell Street, which sells all manner of paints and colours and where I go this morning in order to find some varnish to seal the surface of the plaster.
After I’d finished putting on all the greenish-yellow colour yesterday I did some trial patches of varnish on it. I knew, though it’s twenty years since I last stained a wall, how this transforms and enlivens the colour but I am astonished all over again at the depth and interest it gives to even the most ordinary surface. There’s no literary equivalent that I can think of to this vernissage, no final gloss to be put on a novel, say, or a play which will bring them suddenly to life. Today when I go down to Cornelissen the assistant suggests that as an alternative to the gloss I try shellac, which has even more of a surface. It’s one of the pleasures of the shop that you’re served by people who know what they’re talking about and who, one gets the feeling, go home from work, don a smock and beret and go to the easel themselves. Which reminds me how when I first stained some walls, back in 1968, I had no need to come all the way down to Cornelissen. Then I just went round the corner in Camden Town where Roberson’s had a (long gone) shop in Parkway. They were old established colourists and had in the window a palette board used by Joshua Reynolds. Whatever happened to that?
Further to the painting, though, for which I scorn to don the Marigolds, I am buying bread in Villandry when I see the assistant gazing in horror at my hands, the fingers stained the virulent yellowish green I’ve been sponging on during this last week. As a young man my father smoked quite heavily and his fingers were stained like this by cigarettes – and a nice brown it was, and one which I wouldn’t mind seeing on the wall; if he were alive still and the man he was when I was ten I could take him along to Cornelissen where I’m sure they could match his fingers in water, oil or acrylic.
And it stirs another memory from the 1970s, or whenever it was that the IRA conducted their ‘dirty protests’ at the Maze prison, smearing the walls of their cells with excrement. Occasionally one would see edited shots of these cells on television when I was invariably struck by what a nice warm and varied shade the protester had achieved. ‘Maze brown’ I suppose Farrow and Ball would tastefully have called it.
4 March. We stay the night at Lacock, as R. is doing a shoot at nearby Corsham Court. In the morning we walk round this picture-book village wholly owned by the National Trust since 1944. It’s not yet ten o’clock but there are already cars in the car park and visitors strolling about; the bells are ringing for matins and, mingling with the visitors, a family, prayer books in hand, makes its way to church. Except is it a family, or is it like everything else in the village a dependency of the National Trust? It’s not that the place is manicured particularly, though there is no stone out of place, just that its beauty and its settled tranquillity are in themselves slightly sinister.
15 March. After the murder of Mr de Menezes Tony Blair claimed that he ‘entirely understood’ the feelings of the young man’s parents. Today it is the 80,000 people who, following the government’s urgings, subscribed to their employers’ private pension schemes. When the firms went bust or were unable to pay, their workers unsurprisingly turned to the government to make good their lost annuities, except that now the government claims it’s not its responsibility. However in the Commons today Mr Blair reassures the aggrieved 80,000, telling them that he entirely understands their indignation. Is there any limit, one wonders, to the entire understanding of Mr Blair? Heaped naked in a pile on the floor of an Iraqi prison it must be comforting to know that you have the entire understanding of Mr Blair. Hooded, shackled and flown 14 hours at a time across continents do you reside in the entirety of Mr Blair’s understanding? No, presumably, because of course this does not happen.
18 April. To New York for the opening of The History Boys. The plane is not full and unexpectedly comfortable but I miss the now archaic ritual of transatlantic flights in the days before videos and iPods: the coffee and pastries when you got on, the drinks and the lunch before the blinds went down and they showed a film. Once that was over you were already above New England and there was tea and an hour later New York. Now there’s no structure to it at all, just choice – choice of programme, choice of video and no tea either, just today, a choice of pizza or a hot turkey sandwich. I browse through Duff Cooper’s diaries dosed up on valium.
An odd incident at Heathrow. There is a long queue to go through security and a boy of eighteen or so comes down the line asking if he can go to the front as his plane takes off in twenty minutes. This he’s allowed to do, my own flight not due to go for well over an hour. I am among the first off at JFK when I see this youth again, now hurrying to be ahead in the immigration queue also, so his claim to be on an imminent flight must have been a lie, and had anyone else spotted him who had previously let him through there might have been words spoken. Just in T-shirt and jeans he doesn’t look as if he’s been in First or Business so he must have parlayed his way off the plane ahead of everyone else just as he did earlier. But he has luggage and there is no avoiding that, and as I spot my name on a card and see a driver waiting he is still hanging about restlessly at the carousel. Disturbing, though, and it leaves me wanting an explanation and a notion of his life.
21 April. Persisting with the Duff Cooper diaries, which, though they’re more than frank about his innumerable liaisons, are utterly silent on more interesting topics, the cruise of the Nahlin, for instance, in 1936 when Duff Cooper and his wife accompanied the King and Mrs Simpson around the Mediterranean. Years ago Russell Harty had supper with Diana Cooper and she told him that she and her husband had had the adjoining cabin to the royal couple (or rather one royal, the other not) and that she had had her ear pressed to the wall half the night to see if there was any action, but heard not a thing. The other guest at supper was Martha Gellhorn, both of them getting on and quite pissed, so that Russell spent the meal rushing from one end of the table to the other as each in turn slowly toppled off her chair.
Duff Cooper’s philanderings are often quite funny. Having rekindled an old flame, Lady Warrender, he adjourns with her to his Gower Street house, now emptied of furniture and up for sale. Suddenly, while they’re at it, there’s a loud banging on the door downstairs which Duff Cooper eventually has to answer and it’s the estate agent with some prospective buyers wanting to see the house. It’s made funnier (and rather Buñuelesque) by Duff C. and Lady W. being so middle-aged and ultra respectable. John Julius Norwich puts his father’s sexual success down to his ability to write bad sonnets to his lady-friends but one wonders if it was a more basic attraction. The moustache is hardly a plus, the photograph on the book jacket making him look like a 1940s cinema manager.