Bennett’s Dissection

Alan Bennett wishes for a different kind of fame

1 January, Yorkshire. A grey dark day and raining still, as it has been for the last week. Around four it eases off and we walk up by the lake. The waterfall at the top of the village is tumultuous, though the torrent has never been as powerful as it was in 1967 when (perhaps melodramatically) I envisaged the lake dam breaking and engulfing the whole village. The lake itself is always black and sinister, the farther cliff falling sheer into the water. It was once more exotically planted than with the pines that grow here now, as the Edwardian botanist Reginald Farrer used to sow the seeds he brought home from the Orient by firing them across the water into the cliff with a shotgun. The church clock is striking five when we turn back, the waterfall now illuminated under its own self-generated power, the same power that once lit the whole village, and I suppose one day might have to do so again.

8 January. I spend a lot of time these days just tidying up and today I start on my notebooks. Around 1964 I took to carrying a notebook in my pocket in which I used to jot down scraps of overheard conversation, ideas for plays or sketches and (very seldom) thoughts on life. I stopped around 1990, by which time I’d accumulated 30 or so of these little hardbacked books with marbled covers. Today, barren of inspiration or any inclination to do anything better, I start to transcribe and even index them. In the process I’m reminded of one of the reasons I stopped, which was that so little of what I noted down ever found its way into print or into a play, the notebooks becoming a reproach, a cache of unused and probably unusable material and a possible testimony to the sort of thing I really ought to have been writing.

Some examples:

‘She had a face like an upturned canoe,’ said by the actor Charles Gray at breakfast in Dundee (though of whom I can’t remember).

A. I’ve been salmon fishing.

B. It’s not the season.

A. No. I thought I’d take the blighters by surprise.

‘Here we are. Fat Pig One and Fat Pig Two.’ Said by my mother when she and my father were sitting on the sofa in front of the fire.

‘They have one of them dogs that’s never got its snitch out of its backside.’ My father.

11 January. To Cambridge, where I talk to students about my medical history. It’s part of a course run by Jonathan Silverman, director of communications at Addenbrooke’s and himself a Cambridgeshire GP. As so often when I’ve spoken in schools I find I’m of more interest to the staff than I am to the students, and I don’t do it very well, haltingly recounting the more noteworthy episodes in my medical life without drawing out many lessons from them. As usual girls ask more questions than boys, though once I point this out the boys kick in. One story I tell is to do with the importance of language. Years ago I saw a specialist about a troublesome knee. Having examined me, he asked whether I had any trouble with my stomach. I hadn’t, but the question was alarming; my knee and my stomach: whatever I’d got must be more widespread than I’d imagined. What in fact the doctor was asking was whether I had a delicate stomach: had he said that, the answer would have been ‘yes’. Given the all-clear he then prescribed Feldene, a vicious anti-inflammatory drug which was later banned after it had killed off numerous pensioners. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault: he’d just phrased his question wrongly. Still, it meant that as a result of the havoc wrought by Feldene I had to be put on the acid-suppressant pills that I’ve been on ever since.

14 January. Tom Stoppard rings my agent Rosalind Chatto to tell her that when in last year’s LRB diary I quote an old lady in New York as saying ‘I zigged when I should have zagged’ the original remark came from the American sports reporter Red Butler, who reported it as having been said by Randolph Turpin after his defeat by Sugar Ray Robinson. How my old lady came to know this is a mystery, and how Tom comes to know it, too, as I’m sure boxing isn’t his thing.

22 January. I’m reading George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books, a series of chapters, some more autobiographical than others, on the books he wishes he’d written. The first section is on the Cambridge scholar and scientist Joseph Needham, microbiologist and expert on China, a man who fascinates Steiner and whom he wanted to write about in Frank Kermode’s Modern Masters series, published in the 1970s. Steiner had first seen Needham at a protest meeting against Anglo-American intervention in Korea in 1950, at which the distinguished scientist claimed to have incontrovertible proof of the use of germ warfare by the American military. Admiring Needham as he did Steiner was depressed by this, but when he went to see Needham in his rooms in Caius they got on well until Steiner raised the matter of his testimony on germ warfare. Needham then became cold and angry, Steiner was dismissed and they did not meet again. Other than this telling and disillusioning encounter, the tone of Steiner’s chapter on Needham is wholly laudatory.

At a much humbler level it reminded me of how as a schoolboy in Leeds in 1950 I went to a similar protest meeting at the old Mechanics’ Institute, where one of the speakers was Mrs Arnold Kettle. The Kettles were well-known left-wingers, Arnold Kettle a Communist and lecturer in English at the university. They lived not far from us in Headingley and were eventually, though not I think at this time, customers at our butcher’s shop. Like Professor Needham, Mrs Kettle denounced the invasion of North Korea by the Americans and their use of germ warfare, not a view I’d then seen put forward. I was at the meeting not because of any left-wing views, but because the war was of some personal interest to me, as in 1952 I was due to be conscripted and likely to find myself fighting in it.

What was so astonishing at the meeting – and also embarrassing – was to find Mrs Kettle weeping over the plight of North Korea and having to fight back the tears as she spoke. Never having seen anyone on a platform in tears before, I still wasn’t convinced of the righteousness of the North Korean cause, only that Mrs Kettle was good but soft-hearted and probably self-deceiving. That she was toeing the Party line didn’t occur to me, though it did to my companion, John Scaife, another budding conscript, who was much more scathing on the subject and cynical about the tears.

2 February. Ten days or so ago I did an interview for the Today programme in connection with the revival of The History Boys now playing at Wyndham’s, in which I reiterated my unease about public school education. This produced a mild stir and much silliness, Deborah Orr in the Independent saying that if I object to parents bettering their children’s prospects by paying for their education do I therefore object to parents sending a child to ballet classes. The Mail predictably labels me a hypocrite because I use both the NHS and private medicine, an admission I’d made myself on the radio, but with the Mail, as always, pretending it’s information it’s been clever enough to find out.

I’ve no relish for controversy, but what seems to me incontrovertible is that in the 50 years since I went up to Cambridge to take the scholarship examination there has been no substantial attempt to bring state and private education together. There have been cosmetic changes, an increased number of bursaries for instance and the (I would have thought very patchy) sharing of resources with which public schools have endowed themselves (swimming baths, squash courts etc) but the core problem – namely, that most privately educated pupils regardless of their abilities are better taught and provided for than pupils in state schools – has not been touched. The situation is the same and in some respects worse than it was when I was 17. Is public school education fair? The answer can only be ‘no’. And ‘Is anything fair?’ is not an answer.

4 February. More senior moments. I can’t find my pullover and don’t like the one I’m wearing because it has several moth holes. ‘I had another pullover,’ I say to R. ‘I was wearing it this morning.’

‘You still are. You’ve put the other one on top of it.’

Bike over to Gloucester Crescent and leave the bike there while I walk round to M&S. People often smile at me, but this afternoon nearly everyone smiles. It’s only when I come back to Parkway to have my hair cut that I realise I’m still wearing my crash helmet.

8 February. A row over some remarks the Archbishop of Canterbury has made about Sharia law. They’re perfectly sensible; the only thing for which he can be blamed is his underestimating the stupidity of the nation and its press. It’s proof, as Dorothy Wellesley wrote, that as ‘foreigners, especially the French, tell us, we have never acquired the adult mind.’

18 February. Ned Sherrin’s memorial service at St Paul’s, Covent Garden. A friendly service interspersed with songs, some from Sondheim, some from Sherrin and Brahms, but with none of them as tuneful as the hymns. The audience is very responsive, and it’s the only occasion in my experience that the lesson (Timothy West and Ecclesiastes) is given a round of applause. The best speech, regrettably, is David Frost’s, the best anecdote that Ned, questioned about the young man he had brought with him to supper, said: ‘If pressed, I would have to say he’s a Spanish waiter.’

Waiting at the lights this afternoon my bike slips out of my hands and slides to the floor, in the process tearing a piece out of my leg. Wendy, the nice nurse at the practice, tells me I should try and keep the dressing dry. The result is that when in the evening I have my bath I look not unlike Marat, except that whereas Marat has his arm hanging over the side of the bath, I have my leg.

14 March. Every day practically I bike past the two bored policemen who, armed and bullet-proofed, guard the house of the foreign secretary. I could give the address, and were I a Muslim and even had it in my possession, it would be enough to land me in custody. Passing the policemen so often, my natural inclination would be to smile. I never do because though I know they’re bored and it’s not their fault, I feel to smile condones a state of affairs (and a foreign policy) which necessitates ministers of the crown being under armed guard.

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