Alan Bennett Eats a Poached Egg

1 January, Yorkshire. Ill over Christmas I say to Ernest Coultherd, a farmer in the village, that my Christmas dinner consisted of a poached egg. ‘Oh. Credit crunch,
was it?’

Two dead salmon in the beck just above Mafeking Bridge, both of them huge creatures, nearly two feet long, so big that one wonders how the beck at low water can accommodate them, though there are a few deepish pools. It’s thought at first that an otter is responsible, and as otters have been seen I suppose it’s cheering that there are both otters and such large fish for them to prey on. However I talk to Dr Farrer this morning and he thinks the fish probably died after spawning and wonders if they’re sea trout. Salmon have not been known to come up so far, as they can’t negotiate the waterfall and the weir before the lake.

21 January. Working in the BBC Studio at Maida Vale I don’t watch President Obama’s inauguration and am astonished when I see on the news in the evening the vast concourse of people gathered in Washington. I don’t read any official estimates of the numbers though it’s to be hoped they estimate more accurately in the US than they do here, where any demonstration of which the police disapprove – the Stop the War marches, for instance – is routinely marked down whereas demos on which the police look kindly, the Countryside Alliance, say, are correspondingly inflated. If there had been a police presence at the Feeding of the Five Thousand there would have been no miracle. ‘Listen, there were only a dozen or so people there. Five loaves and two fishes perfectly adequate.’

28 January. A photograph in the Independent of Picasso painting Guernica in 1937 in a collar and tie.

30 January. My friend Anne’s funeral and we are about to set off for the crematorium in the pouring rain when as we turn the car round a young pheasant skitters across the road. Nothing unusual in that except that this pheasant is pure white. I’m not given to a belief in signs or portents but it’s nevertheless quite cheering to feel that she’s still around.

The service in the village church in the afternoon is packed. I give an address but the whole occasion is wonderfully and unexpectedly rounded off by Ben, her middle son, who despite grief and nerves manages to say what his mother had meant to him and his two brothers. I couldn’t have spoken impromptu as he did and the congregation quite properly gave him (and Anne) a great round of applause. The boys then take the flowers that have been on the hearse and decorate the front of her café.

1 February. Entertaining Mr Sloane, Orton’s first play, is being given another outing, this time at the Trafalgar Studios. I saw the first production at Wyndham’s in 1964 with Madge Ryan, Peter Vaughan and Dudley Sutton. Good in the part Sutton was already too old, as have been most of the actors who’ve played in it since. It’s a play I would dearly like to have written, though these days for it to retain its shock value the young man should not be much more than a boy. As it is he’s always cast as someone already well corrupted and who knows exactly what he’s doing whereas from a boy of 15 the flirtatiousness would be much more shocking. All productions put him in black leather and a little cap such as Orton himself used to wear. Here too an outfit that is not so self-conscious would serve the play better. The more ordinary it is the more shocking it will seem.

3 February. One of the cards of condolence we get on Anne’s death is unintentionally comical. ‘Sorry to hear your bad news!’ The exclamation mark is hilariously inappropriate though it’s quite hard to pinpoint why.

20 February. It’s years since I was on Desert Island Discs but these days I’d find it much easier to choose the eight records I don’t want than those that I do. I don’t ever want to hear again:

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade
Schubert Fifth Symphony
Beethoven Pastoral Symphony
Mozart 40th Symphony

And it isn’t that I’ve heard them too often. I just don’t care for any of them.

7 March, Yorkshire. To Oxenholme, half an hour from home and on the edge of the Lake District, where we catch a Virgin train to Glasgow. It’s a brisk ride, only two hours and seems less than that because the scenery is so uninterruptedly rural and sometimes spectacular. Virgin trains, though, are designed on the American model with dark interiors and small windows and are nowhere near as comfortable as GNER. I’ve never had much time for the spurious populism of Richard Branson: his jolly japes and toothy demeanour can’t disguise the fact that he is a hard-faced entrepreneur. These thoughts recur when we come back from Glasgow the next day and have to travel by bus two-thirds of the way (‘track repairs’) and with a driver who has the radio on throughout. It rains, too, but the journey is redeemed when back at Oxenholme we drop down into Kendal and the Abbot Hall gallery, where there is a touring exhibition of Robert Bevan pictures. The shows at Abbot Hall are just the right size, and never more than three or four rooms. The Bevans are shown alongside other Camden Town paintings, the best of which is a lovely, glowing, slightly abstract picture by Spencer Gore, The Beanfield, Letchworth, which is from the Tate. There’s a Gilman Mrs Mounter, some Nevinsons and lots of Bevans of horses and their hangers on – horse copers, idlers and jockeys in civvies and large caps.

‘I like Bevan,’ says R. ‘He wasn’t afraid of mauve.’

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