3 January, Yorkshire. The year kicks off with a small trespass when we drive over from Ramsgill via Ripon and Thirsk to Rievaulx. However the abbey is closed, seemingly until the middle of February, which infuriates us both, and though at 78 and with an artificial hip it’s not something I feel I should be doing, we scale the five-bar gate and break in. The place is of course empty and though it’s quite muddy underfoot, an illicit delight. It’s warm and windless, the stones of the abbey sodden and brown from the amount of moisture they’ve absorbed. Spectacular here are the toilet arrangements, the reredorter set above a narrow chasm with a stream still running along the bottom. Unique, though (or at least I haven’t seen another), is the tannery complete with its various vats, a small factory in the heart of the abbey and which must have stunk as tanneries always did. I remember the tannery down Stanningley Road opposite Armley Park School in Leeds which my brother and I (en route for the Western cinema) always ran past holding our noses. The site at Rievaulx is just over the wall from the abbot’s lodgings, which smelly though medieval abbeys were, must have been hard to take. Coming away we scale the gate again, happy to have outwitted authority, but since all that stands between Open and Closed is a five-bar gate it’s maybe English Heritage’s way of turning a blind eye.
11 January. The doorbell goes around noon. I’m expecting Antony Crolla, the photographer, so don’t look through the window and open the door to find what I take to be a builder with a loose piece of flex in his hand and what could be a meter. He says he’s working at a house nearby but needs to check our drain which may have a hairline crack. He makes to come in, but I say that if there is any work needs doing we have a builder of our own and in any case my partner deals with all that. He then claims to have spoken to my ‘boyfriend’ who says it’s OK. I shut the door on him and telephone R., the so-called builder meanwhile banging on the door. R. of course has never spoken to anyone, so I go back to the door where, as soon as I open it, the caller gets his foot in the door (literally). Bridget, who’s downstairs, now comes up and at the sight of a third party he takes fright, retreating to a white van waiting opposite with its engine running which drives off so quickly I fail to get the number. Thinking about it afterwards, where he went wrong was in not being ingratiating enough or trying to explain what the ‘drain problem’ was and graduating straight to the frenzied banging on the door; ‘your boyfriend’ didn’t help either. Like all crooks he was affronted when his honesty was questioned, if only because it implied a criticism of his performance.
4 February. I don’t imagine that my old Oxford supervisor, the medieval historian Bruce McFarlane, would be much exercised by the discovery of the body of Richard III, though there would be some mild satisfaction in finding the king exactly where the sources said he was. McFarlane wouldn’t have thought the body particularly informative as compared with the real stuff of history, some of the ex-duke of York’s receiver’s accounts, say, or records of Yorkist estate management.
The TV programme on Channel 4 was a lengthy and slightly spurious cliffhanger, culminating in the always conjectural reconstruction of what the famous corpse looked like. No different from the fanciful portrait, it turns out, but with enough humanity to satisfy the convictions of the Richard III Society, who were stumping up for the whole exercise. Bracketed in my mind with the ‘Bacon is Shakespeare’ lot, the Richard III fans seem not without a bob or two and with some of their barmier members on parade in the programme.
Just east of Leeds and not far from Towton and its bloody battlefield is Lead Church, a medieval cell of a chapel which possibly served as a refuge or a dressing station after the battle in 1461. I have known the chapel since I was a boy when I used to go out there on my bike. It stands in the middle of a field, the grass grazed by sheep right up to the south door and has latterly been in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. It was untouched as late as 2000 when it figured in an article I wrote for The World of Interiors. However, calling there a few years ago we found that the grass outside the south door had been replaced or supplemented by a patio not even in York stone but in some fake composition. Inside, draped in front of the altar was a gaudy banner advertising the Richard III Society. This I rolled up and had I had the means would have destroyed. I wrote to the CCT, who generally do a decent job, but was told the patio had been there for many years. It hadn’t and I suspect the culprits were the Richard III Society, who see the church as a Yorkist site on which they can lavish their presumably ample funds.
So had the last of the Yorkist kings been left under the car park I would not have grieved.
5 March. So cold this week that I do what I haven’t done since I was in the army in Bodmin in 1954, get up and put on my clothes on top of my pyjamas.
29 March. Richard Griffiths dies. We’ve been away for a couple of days so are spared the unctuous telephone calls that always come from the tabloids on such occasions, ‘We’re sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings’ or ‘We hope we’re not intruding on your grief.’ Outside his family the person who would have known him best as an actor at the National and who would have been most acquainted with the logistic difficulties caused by his bulk was his dresser. No one will think to ask him, and I’ve never known him gossip about the actors he’s dressed (myself included), but he would have an angle on Richard and how he coped with his life that is unshared by any of the obituary writers.
Richard had an unending repertoire of anecdotes and an enviable spontaneous wit besides. I was working with him at the time when Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose was being laboriously raised from the depths of the Solent. This was being done by means of a cradle when suddenly a cable snapped and the wreck slipped back into the water.
‘Ah,’ said Richard. ‘A slight hiccup on the atypical journey from grave to cradle.’
6 April. Were there a suitable forum I would put in my own word for Dennis Stevenson, currently being pilloried with his colleagues for the collapse of HBOS. In the early 1990s when I was a trustee of the National Gallery Stevenson was a trustee of the Tate and must have seen me arriving at one or other of those institutions on my bike. I had no helmet in those days really because it made me look such a twerp. However one day a car arrived at the house and the chauffeur knocked at the door with a box so light I thought it could only be an orchid. It turns out to be a white crash helmet with a note from Dennis Stevenson saying how his son (with no helmet) had been knocked off his bike and suffered epilepsy as a result, though happily not permanently. Since then if he saw anyone he knew without a helmet he bought them one. So in this particular instance I won’t be joining in the howls of indignation.
8 April. The morning spent paying bills: British Gas (and electricity), Thames Water, Yorkshire Water, Camden Council, Craven District Council and Mr Redhead the coal merchant in Ingleton. Many of the bills are overdue, about which I am unrepentant. The only one I pay promptly and with no feeling of resentment is Mr Redhead’s.
It wasn’t always so. Before the public utilities were privatised one paid bills more readily, not just because they were considerably cheaper, which of course they were, but because one had little sense of being exploited. Now as I pay my water bills for instance, I think of their overpaid executives and the shareholders to whom the profits go and I know, despite the assurances of all such companies, that they are charging what they know they can get away with. Competition has not meant better service nor has it brought down prices, with some corporate behaviour close to sharp practice. British Gas, for instance, regularly omits to send me a first bill but only a reminder, which has no details about consumption. When challenged they say this may be because bills have been sent online. But how can this be when we have no computer? If one telephones and manages eventually to get through one is dealt with by someone always charming and even-tempered (and often Scots) who promises to look into it. But when in due course the bill comes again it is still with no details and coupled with threats of court action. So whereas once upon a time I paid my bills as Auden said a gentleman should, as soon as they were submitted, these days I put them off, paying sometimes only at the third or fourth time of asking or when I am assured (rhetorically, I know) that the bailiffs are about to call. I am no crusader but I wish there was a consumers’ organisation which could co-ordinate individual resistance to these companies, setting up non or late payment on such a scale that it would put a dent in the dividends of the shareholders and the salaries of the executives concerned.
This was written a few hours before I learned of Lady Thatcher’s death and it’s an appropriate epitaph.
17 April. Shots of the cabinet and the ex-cabinet at Lady Thatcher’s funeral in St Paul’s just emphasise how consistently cowardly most of them were, the only time they dared to stand up to her when eventually they kicked her out. What also galls is the notion that Tory MPs throw in almost as an afterthought, namely that her lack of a sense of humour was just a minor failing, of no more significance than being colourblind, say, or mildly short-sighted. In fact to have no sense of humour is to be a seriously flawed human being. It’s not a minor shortcoming; it shuts you off from humanity. Mrs Thatcher was a mirthless bully and should have been buried, as once upon a time monarchs used to be, in the depths of the night.
3 May. I am reading Neil MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World. It’s very good, even overcoming my (A.L. Rowse generated) prejudice against reading about Shakespeare. I hadn’t realised at Richard Griffiths’s funeral in Stratford that Shakespeare’s father had been buried in the churchyard, the whereabouts of the grave now unknown. So when, waiting for the service to start, I went out for a pee under one of the yews in a sheltered corner of the cemetery I may well have been pissing on Shakespeare’s dad’s grave. More decorously, Richard’s massive coffin was resting where presumably Shakespeare’s coffin rested, a notion that would have pleased him though at the service it goes unremarked.
20 May. One of the many depressing features of George Osborne is that his rhetoric about the poor and supposedly shiftless can be traced in a direct line to exactly similar statements voiced in the 17th century and thereafter. Osborne may well be proud of being part of such a long tradition though I doubt, his St Paul’s education notwithstanding, that he’s aware of it.
2 June, Wiverton. This morning we are having our breakfast outside the hotel room in warm sunshine when we hear a cuckoo, and a cuckoo so persistent it becomes almost a bore, though it’s the first one I’ve heard in two or three years. Finish Ronald Blythe’s The Time by the Sea, an account of the time he spent at Aldeburgh as a young man. It’s uncritical of the regime, adulatory of Britten and Imogen Holst, though more muted about Pears. The fact is Aldeburgh was a court, and whether the ruler is Henry VIII or Benjamin Britten all courts are the same, with the courtiers anxious to indulge and to anticipate the whims and wishes of the ruler. So good or faithful servants are summarily dismissed or, if the king is prime minister, wars are found pretexts for because that is known to be the great man’s (or woman’s) wish.
3 June, Norfolk. In Salle Church the war memorial commemorates the dead in two world wars with, as is usual, the dead of the First War far outnumbering the dead of the Second. And particularly so in this case as there is only one local man who was killed in 1939-45. Perhaps because of this or just as a measure of economy the memorial reads, ‘In grateful remembrance of the men of Salle who died in the Great Wars’, the final ‘s’ plainly added much later. Nowhere else have I seen the Second War called a ‘great’ war.
10 June. I read somewhere that the Romans used to crucify tigers to discourage others of their species from preying on humankind. On much the same principle, though less epically, gamekeepers nailed up the carcasses of crows and moles. Nobody, so far anyway, has suggested nailing up the culled carcasses of badgers, though it might be as effective as what Defra is doing already.
21 June. Read the proof copy of Nina Stibbe’s diary of her time as nanny at Mary-Kay’s. It’s fresh and droll with Nina’s personality coming through very clearly. Sam and Will are funny (and funny together) as is Mary-Kay. I on the other hand am solid, dependable and dull, my contributions always full of good sense; I am said to be good at mending bikes (not true) and at diagnosing malfunctioning electrical appliances (certainly not true). None of this I mind much, though it is painful to be even so lightheartedly misremembered. I am the voice of reason, something of which I’ve never hitherto been accused. I’m also a dismal Jimmy who periodically puts in an appearance as like as not (and this at least is fair) bearing a rice pudding. Much is made of the charms of turkey mince which I never recall being offered and which, had I been, I would certainly have refused. Such is art.
22 June, Yorkshire. Around seven I look out of the window and there are six pheasants on the wall, two cocks, four hens, reminding me of the time when Mam, in the middle of a bout of depression, called upstairs to say there were three huge birds on the wall. I called back that she was imagining things and came crossly down to find that she was right, only in those days the birds were peacocks from the Hall. Today the pheasants don’t hang about, two of them skidding down the sloping roof of the hut like ski jumpers and launching themselves into space before stepping fastidiously round the garden expecting to be fed.
16 July. A book review in the LRB by Jonathan Coe of The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson edited by Harry Mount kicks off with some remarks about the so-called satire boom of the early 1960s. It recalls John Bird’s The Last Laugh, the Cambridge Footlights revue of 1959 (which I saw) and while recognising that it was too radical to be very funny, claims ‘it was undoubtedly a strong influence on Peter Cook (one of the original cast members)’, implying, I think, that in Beyond the Fringe, staged the following year, Peter was pushed in the general direction of satirical comedy. I don’t think this was quite the case, rather that John Bird’s show confirmed Peter’s reluctance to have anything to do with any subject, be it satire or not, which was not funny. Coe instances Peter’s lines in ‘Civil War’, the sketch that opened the second half of Beyond the Fringe. When Moore ‘voices disbelief that a four-minute warning would be enough’ – in the case of a nuclear attack – ‘Cook drawlingly retorts: “I’d remind those doubters that some people in this great country of ours can run a mile in four minutes.”’
I feel both small-minded and obsessive in being able to recall this after more than fifty years, but the four-minute joke was not Peter’s but mine. Peter’s more characteristic contribution to the sketch and its uproarious ending was when, in accordance with official instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear explosion, he got into a large brown paper bag.
Coe also says that in Beyond the Fringe ‘the tensions and contradictions inherent in the movement were already visible.’ This is certainly true, and I learned early on that one had to be quite defensive of one’s own material lest it be usurped by colleagues. Peter, who was by far the most prolific of the four of us, was already in 1960 established as a successful sketch writer for revues in the West End. This meant that at that time he had no wish to offend an audience and shied away from sketches that did. It was only later in his career that, as his humour became more anarchic and audiences in their turn more fawning and in on the joke, he ceased to care. Showbiz dies hard and in these toothless stand-up days I think Peter might just have liked Jeremy Hardy but would have drawn the line at Stewart Lee.
19 July. Depressed by the latest government privatisation as the NHS-owned company supplying safe blood plasma is sold off to a US firm which is ultimately owned by Mitt Romney and so likely to be asset-stripped and disposed of. The clowns who have come up with this wheeze in the Department of Health, including the simpering Jeremy Hunt, have presumably no knowledge of the history of the NHS and the part played in it by the blood transfusion service. Richard Titmuss’s The Gift Relationship (1970) demonstrated conclusively that voluntary and unpaid blood donation was in itself the greatest safeguard against the contamination of blood such as occurs in the US where blood is a commodity and so sold by anyone anxious to make a quick buck. While this sell-off by the Department of Health hasn’t yet negated the voluntary principle it’s the beginning. And what reassurances are there that the supply of plasma will continue to be as free as it is under the NHS? When will fees be introduced and when they are whom will the hapless Hunt blame? The NHS.
21 July. Now find myself enrolled in the campaign to save some of Smithfield Market from developers, the culprits the planning committee of the Corporation of London. Who are these people? Where do they live that they so blithely sanction the wrecking of yet another corner of London? Their names and addresses should be printed alongside the senseless decisions they make. Safe in Surrey, I imagine, or the Chilterns and nowhere near the architectural rubbish tips they sanction.
The decision about Smithfield will presumably end up on the desk of the planning minister, Eric Pickles, a native of Bradford. In the 1960s Bradford, having already castrated itself via a motorway welcomed into its very guts, embarked on a programme of wholesale destructions which included the delightful covered market in Kirkgate. Bradford’s neighbour and rival, Leeds, was slightly more canny and did not demolish its own City Market, which is now, forty years later, one of the showplaces of the city. One might hope that Mr Pickles will have learned from experience but like the rest of the coalition he is doubtless in the grip of ideology and ideology drives out thought.
18 August. Watching the run-through of the touring version of People at the National I reflect that there isn’t much swearing in my plays. I imagine the characters in a play by Mark Ravenhill, say, get through more ‘fucks’ in the first five minutes than there are in my entire oeuvre. The first time I wrote ‘fuck’ in a script was in my second play, Getting On, and Kenneth More, who was the star (and swore all the time himself), refused to say it on the understandable grounds that it would reduce the takings at the matinées, and since he was on a percentage this mattered.
1 October. That so much of what I’ve written has been in the valedictory mode ought to make these latter days seem nothing new. I was saying farewell to the world virtually in my teens and my first play (when I was aged 34) was a lament for an England that has gone. My last play (aged 79) was still waving the same handkerchief. Better I suppose than always hailing a new dawn.
19 October. Back from Yorkshire on a Saturday for a change. We’re used to repairs on the line on a Sunday but today they’re so widespread that nobody at Leeds seems clear about the best way to get to London, one desk suggesting via Sheffield, another via York, so that we eventually get on a Newark train and get off at Doncaster. Here we wait for an hour but it’s warm, and a Saturday afternoon at an empty railway station has seemed to me one well spent ever since I was a boy of 14 with a Runabout ticket. When it finally arrives the train is from Aberdeen and chugs off at a stately pace with no hint of which way it’s heading. About an hour later I look up to a wonderfully unexpected view as the train slides below the great mass of Lincoln Cathedral, looking like some city in the middle of France. Then as slowly as any little local train it chugs through Lincolnshire past Sleaford and Spalding to Peterborough when at last it puts on speed and we’re back in London by 6.30. Not a wearisome journey at all.
1 November. Never having worked in the Olivier, coming in for the dress rehearsal for tonight and tomorrow night’s National Theatre Gala I immediately get lost and end up clambering about in the band room. The dressing rooms, when I reach them, are cells arranged round a central well, with the actors often shouting across to one another from their uncurtained cubicles. Coming in this afternoon Maggie Smith said: ‘Oh God. It’s like a women’s prison.’ She didn’t mean just any women’s prison but the penitentiary that used to stand on the corner of Greenwich and Sixth Avenues in New York. Relations of the inmates used to gather on the sidewalk to shout up to their incarcerated loved ones in a performance that was a tourist attraction in itself.
Opposite my dressing room across the well is Judi Dench, one storey down are Alex Jennings and Penelope Wilton, with the next dressing room dark, the window slightly ajar and a thin skein of smoke ascending: Michael Gambon. I envy them all, since appearing regularly on the stage as most of them do this occasion is almost routine. I haven’t acted onstage for twenty years and am petrified. That the extract from The History Boys isn’t until ten minutes before the end makes it no easier. Still the dress rehearsal goes well, after which Nick Hytner rehearses an elaborate curtain call that grows out of Frances de la Tour’s final stage manager’s speech (‘Plays, plays, plays’) from The Habit of Art. I’m genuinely proud that it’s my words that end this remarkable show even though I wish I didn’t have to perform in it.
8 November, Leeds. Walking along Wellington Street towards City Square I pass the offices of the probation service, now plastered with protest leaflets and posters from Napo against the selling off of the service, protests that in my view are wholly justified. The notion that probation, which is intended to help and support those who have fallen foul of the law, should make a profit for shareholders seems beyond satire. As indeed is the proposal to take the East Coast line out of what is virtually public ownership and reprivatise it for the likes of the expatriate Branson. I never used to bother about capitalism. It was just a word. Not now.
27 November. We were supposed to be in New York this week but that falls through so instead we’re on a roundabout progress north that takes us this morning to Tong, a tiny village off the M62. It’s a treasure house of 15th and 16th-century tombs. Stanleys, Vernons, Pembrugges … some immaculate and unscribbled over, others with a patina of centuries of graffiti. Tong actually holds the secret of the English Reformation, as buried here is Sir Henry Vernon, guardian and treasurer to Arthur, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Henry VII who was married to Catherine of Aragon. Vernon was in the best position to know if his young charge had actually slept with his Spanish bride, as the boy claimed and Catherine later denied. The boy, of course, died and his brother Henry VIII succeeded him, with Vernon himself dying in 1515, ten years or more before his knowledge would have been crucial, though, courtier that he was, he would probably have had the sense to keep it to himself.
1 December. On a slow and stopping journey southwards we call at Barnack near Stamford to have another look at its Saxon tower. Few churches we’ve seen have been without a food bank, which depresses, but today’s visit is enlivened by two leafleting members of Ukip, whose campaign wagon is parked outside. They come in, inspect the church and quickly leave, and it’s only when they’ve gone we discover pinned to the church noticeboard a Ukip leaflet with another on the bookstall. Any party using church premises for its propaganda seems to me out of order, particularly since the gist of the leaflet is how unwelcome immigrants are, hardly appropriate in an institution that purports to welcome all-comers, even Romanians. We leave and I put both leaflets in the receptacle for dead flowers.