31 December 2009, Yorkshire. Call Rupert to the back door to watch a full moon coming up behind the trees at the end of the garden. It’s apparently a ‘blue moon’, i.e. the second full moon this month, which happens every two or three years. The next blue moon on New Year’s Eve won’t be until 2028 so it’s the last one I shall ever see – and it’s also the first that I ever knew about. The moon is strong enough to cast sharp shadows, with the sky blue except for occasional reefs of cloud so that with the snow still lying in drifts on the road earth and heaven seem one.
23 January. To the National where I watch the matinée of The Habit of Art. It’s a sharp and energetic performance, matinée audiences often the best and today’s helped because there are thought to be at least 130 blind people in the audience. Some of them have been up on the stage beforehand to familiarise themselves with the layout, handle the props and meet the cast, all of which helps to focus attention on the play and there’s scarcely a cough. I wait in the wings for the actors to come off then go up to the canteen and have a cup of tea with them, something I haven’t done since the play opened and have much missed.
24 January. Two boys from Doncaster have been sentenced for torturing two other boys from the same village. In sentencing them the judge gives them a stern lecture, though how much of it they understand must be debatable. It’s a shocking story, with one of the victims having been battered almost to death. David Cameron is quick to move in and claim the crime is evidence of ‘a broken society’, conveniently ignoring the fact that Edlington, the village in question, is smack in the middle of what was a mining community, a society systematically broken by Mrs Thatcher. As with the Bulger case the tabloids make a determined effort to find out the identity of the culprits, the crime frequently described as ‘unimaginable’. I don’t find it hard to imagine at all. When I was eight or nine I used to play torture games with two other boys at my elementary school up on the recreation ground in Armley. I would pretend to whip them or they me and with a forwardness that I never afterwards enjoyed was always the one to instigate the games. At ten I went to a different school and thereafter became the shy, furtive, prurient creature I was for the rest of my childhood.
10 February. Finish with some regret Frances Spalding’s book on the Pipers, John and Myfanwy, the latter figuring in The Habit of Art where she is to some extent disparaged. I’ve always been in two minds about Piper, liking him when I was young with his paintings ‘modern’ but representational enough to be acceptable, a view I trotted out years later when Romola Christopherson was taking me round Downing Street. ‘I suppose for Mrs Thatcher,’ I sneered, ‘Piper is the acceptable face of modern art,’ not realising that at that moment the lady herself was passing through the room behind me. Some of his abstracts I like, particularly a collage, Coast at Finisterre (1961), which is illustrated in the book, and some of his Welsh landscapes. I don’t care for his stained glass, though churches are always proud when they have a Piper window, the latest (and no more pleasing than the rest) glimpsed at Paul Scofield’s memorial service in St Margaret’s, Westminster. For all that, though, the book is immensely readable, drawing together so many strands of the artistic life in the 1930s and 1940s – K. Clark, Ben Nicholson, Betjeman and all the stuff to do with the genesis of the Shell Guides. Odd to think of Piper’s gaunt figure sketching in my own Yorkshire village, the paintings he did there reproduced (not plain why) in Osbert Sitwell’s Left Hand, Right Hand and now at Renishaw.
14 February. I am said in today’s Independent on Sunday to be ‘pushing 80’ with a photograph (taken at 70) in corroboration. The article is about the decline of Northern drollery, of which I am an example.
I pass the house in Fitzroy Road with the blue plaque saying that Yeats lived there but with no plaque saying that Sylvia Plath also died there. I look down into the basement where Plath put her head in the gas oven. And there is a gas oven still, only it’s not the Belling or the Cannon it would have been in 1963 but now part of a free-standing unit in limed oak.
It was this house where Eric Korn heard someone reading out the plaque as being to ‘William Butler Yeast’. ‘Presumably,’ Eric wanted to say, ‘him responsible for the Easter Rising.’
17 February. Stopped by a man outside the post office in Regents Park Road who fishes in his wallet and shows me a note I sent nearly 50 years ago to Bernard Reiss, the tailor in Albion Place in Leeds who made me my first suit in 1954. The note is about two 7/6 seats which I’d booked him for Beyond the Fringe, the man showing it me Bernard Reiss’s nephew. I tell him about the suit, which was in grey Cheviot tweed, the waistcoat of which I still have and which I took to show Mr Hitchcock at Anderson & Sheppard before they made me a suit last year. My first suit and probably my last.
3 March. Lunch at L’Etoile with Michael Palin and Barry Cryer, Elena Salvoni still presiding there at lunchtime and though she’s 90 not looking much different from when I first got to know her at Bianchi’s in the 1960s. Barry as usual fires off the jokes which are almost his trademark but today he also talks about how, when he was a young man in Leeds, he suffered badly from eczema and used to be swathed in bandages, face included. On one occasion he went out like this into the streets of Leeds but nobody stared at him, so correctly did people behave. He even went into a shop, looking, as he said, like the Invisible Man and the woman serving took no notice, just saying: ‘Well, it’s a bit better day.’ I ask him how he got rid of it and he says it went soon after he met Terry, his wife, so that he attributed it to the stresses of being young (and, I imagine, with eczema, unloved) and living in a bedsit with all the hardships of his young life. While he was in St James’s one of the patients on his ward hanged himself in the toilets, presumably driven mad by the intolerable itching. Michael P. is as kindly as ever and me as dull, three old(-ish) men having their lunch, next stop the bowling green.
10 March. To Durham where there are not many visitors this Wednesday morning and more guides than there are people to show round. See the line of Frosterley marble inset in the floor of the nave, the limit beyond which women were not allowed to approach the shrine of St Cuthbert behind the high altar with its wonderfully spiky Neville screen, which, when I came before, I took for some 1950s Coventry Cathedral-like installation and not a genuine 14th-century reredos minus its statues. Struck, though, as then by the marble hulks on top of the Neville tombs, which, as R. says, are more representative of dead and butchered bodies than their intact representations can ever have been. Previously these tombs, mutilated and covered in ancient graffiti, were said to have been casualties of the imprisonment here of Scottish prisoners during the aftermath of the Civil War. The new notes in the cathedral’s leaflet now specifically disavow this without at the same time explaining how such radical mutilation occurred. This is somewhat mealy-mouthed, and rather than the fruits of some breakthrough study of the circumstances of the Scots’ incarceration, their absolution sounds like political correctness. A good example of changing taste is that Pevsner, writing in 1953, says of the nowadays perfectly acceptable rood screen by George Gilbert Scott, ‘It should be replaced,’ and the faux-Cosmati pulpit similarly. Apropos guides we are using Henry Thorold’s Shell Guide to County Durham written in 1980 which recommends a visit to Finchale (pronounced Finkle) Priory set in a bend of a river just north of Durham, of whose remoteness and unspoiled beauty Thorold gives a lyrical description. No more – and when we eventually track it down on the far side of a housing estate it turns out to be on the edge of a caravan site that comes to within a few feet of the abbey. Visiting Byland we’d remarked, coming away, on the variety of lichens growing in the ruins, the stones blotted with their grey patches. In Durham I notice similar lichens, particularly on the paths leading up to the south door, only later realising it wasn’t lichen but chewing gum.
23 March. That Ted Hughes should have got into Poets’ Corner ahead of Larkin wouldn’t have surprised Larkin, though he must surely have a better claim. Two deans back, and not long after Larkin’s death, I remember Michael Mayne saying that Larkin had earned his place on the strength of ‘Church Going’ alone. Though Hughes fits the popular notion of what a poet should be, many more of Larkin’s writings have passed into the national memory.