Diary

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett reads his diary for 2016.

11 January. It’s not to disparage David Bowie, but if even a fraction of the tributes being paid to him and his influence were true we would never have had a Conservative government or indeed any government at all. Hearing the news on the Today programme this morning R. nearly cries. I met Bowie only once, at John Schlesinger’s sometime in the 1980s, and remember him as a slight, almost colourless figure, who was somehow Scots. M. calls later and recalls how someone he knew picked up Bowie when he was still David Jones. He offered to come round, bringing his guitar as he wanted to try out some songs. They had sex and then he wanted to play, only his host pleaded another appointment and sent him away. How long after this it was that Bowie had his breakthrough I’m not sure.

15 January. Alan Rickman dies. In the first week of The Habit of Art at the National in 2009 Michael Gambon, playing Auden, was taken ill and rushed to St Thomas’s. He recovered quite quickly, and indeed got out of the ambulance saying: ‘I know what they’re all doing now – sitting up in the canteen recasting.’ Which indeed we were, with my first thought Alan Rickman, I suppose because the rasping quality in his voice echoed Auden’s harsh tones. However, because Richard Griffiths was available and indeed anxious to play the part, the role went to him.

Emergency casting sessions such as the one Gambon knew we were holding are always mildly hysterical and often very funny as assorted names (often wildly unsuitable) are put forward, with the actors reacting variously, depending on their experience of acting with the person in question. ‘A sweetie? Are we talking about the same person?’ ‘Harold Pinter? Can you be serious?’ ‘She’s a bit …’ with a tipping of the elbow to indicate drink taken. I’ve often thought of putting such a session in a play, but unless the names of real actors are used it wouldn’t work.

24 January. Watch a DVD of Pride, the film, directed by Matthew Warchus, based on the support offered by lesbian and gay groups to the miners during the strike in the 1980s. It’s one of a trio of British films (the others The Full Monty and Brassed Off) spawned by the Thatcher era which benefit from having such a clear-cut political situation and a ready-made villain – ‘Margaret Fucking Thatcher’ in Bill Nighy’s words – giving all three films the feeling of being a crusade while still being very funny. I’d like to have written any or all of them. As R. says, the 1980s was such a simple world and the villains so plain, whereas these days it’s the system itself that seems unshiftable.

5 February. Looking through a 1981 desk diary from the Metropolitan Museum chiefly on account of its lavish illustrations, I come across a note of when Mary-Kay and her children, Sam and Will, came round to supper. ‘William in particular is very polite, manfully tackling a stew which he doesn’t like and finishing it. “Thank you very much,” he says as he gets up. “I actually prefer my vegetables raw.” He also talks of Leonora da Vinzi and lists his inventions: the helicopter, the aeroplane, the telescope.

“The hand grenade?” Sam says helpfully.

“No, Sam,” says William patiently.’

This isn’t included in Love, Nina but could well have been.

14 February. Watch part of the Bafta Awards. The fear is that when one gets to the Last Judgment, notwithstanding the presence of God, it will be like the Bafta Awards, as long and every bit as tawdry.

22 February. The Tories are determined not simply to defeat Labour but to extirpate it. This has never been part of English politics and it came in with Mrs Thatcher. It’s why I can never think of her as other than pernicious.

27 February. Good piece in this morning’s Guardian, a discussion between Will Self and Stewart Lee in which the latter describes the hostile reaction he sometimes has to face from audiences. At one point, ‘a guy got really angry. He said it wasn’t the audience’s fault they didn’t get what I was doing and I should be better at my job. I thought there was going to be a fight, as he came down to the stage and was hanging about in a menacing way. I had to come out of character and say: “Look, this is a construct.”’

This is true in all sorts of (less menacing) situations to do with writing. There are plenty of Larkin poems, for instance, in which the poet could add the same footnote: ‘Look, this is a construct (and I’m not as celibate as I pretend or maybe even as racist).’

5 March. Harold Nicolson, Diary, 9 November 1947 (after reading Pepys): ‘It is some relief to reflect that to be a good diarist one must have a little snouty sneaky mind.’

15 March. As I’m coming out after my cancer check-up there’s a beggar sitting opposite the door. I give him a quid, saying that I bet it’s a good pitch. He’s so set on giving me his spiel I don’t think he even hears. But I’m sure it is a good spot: people who’ve just got the all-clear giving him something out of gratitude and those who haven’t giving him something because they’re hoping for some luck in their treatment.

1 April. It occurs to me, reading the profile of Hartwig Fischer, the new director of the British Museum, that the person ideally suited to front the Remain campaign is Neil MacGregor, much loved, with a TV and radio profile and a charismatic speaker. It won’t happen, of course, and in this morning’s Guardian the name of the Duke of Edinburgh is put forward to spearhead the campaign. It’s only in the middle of the afternoon that I remember the date.

9 April. I’m waiting at the lights by St Mark’s Church when a family – grandfather, son and grandson – cross. The grandfather says he’s been trying to explain to his grandson what a Loiner is (i.e. someone from Leeds). I say I’m a Loiner but a bad example. ‘That’s all right,’ says the grandfather. ‘We’re from Wakefield.’ I say I don’t know what they call people from Wakefield. ‘Desperate,’ says the son.

20 May. On his way round here Antony Crolla comes across the railway bridge at the top of Gloucester Crescent, where an old lady is feeding the pigeons. Rounding the corner he finds a man at the edge of the flock of birds who, without any concealment at all, is taking out his cock to have a pee. Crolla, outraged at this, shouts: ‘Here, mate. You can put that away right now.’ The man, not surprisingly resenting the interference, begins to give Crolla some aggro. Crolla, a big man, is imperturbable. ‘You can talk for as long as you like but you want a pee. I don’t. So my advice to you is to clear off.’ Which, cursing, the would-be offender does, with the nearest toilets at the bottom of Parkway, where, as Crolla points out, there are also many pubs, which is probably why the man wants a pee in the first place. Through it all the old lady, bent double with scoliosis, continues doggedly feeding the pigeons.

23 May. I don’t have much time for Moleskine notebooks and the snobbery of stationery. Quite risky too. Writers who make a fuss about their notebooks are halfway to thinking that their jottings are Literature and headed towards posterity. It’s also ‘the wonderful world of words’ that Hector complains about in The History Boys.

25 May. About the only lie Boris Johnson hasn’t (yet) told is that if we leave the EU the weather will be better.

27 May, Yorkshire. The garden is at its best, just plumping out, with plenty of bluebells still, alliums and a huge bush of borage behind me as I write. My favourite water avens is slowly spreading from the clump we planted near the water trough along the path and between the paving stones, and having thought that like Larkin I could no longer hear birds I’m sitting here with birdsong coming at me from every quarter, though from what birds I’ve no idea. I’d like to line up all the birds concerned, get them to identify themselves and give me an instance of their call. As it is, I know the blackbird and the robin but that’s about it.

Stopped in the ticket office at King’s Cross yesterday by a Scotsman who I thought wanted to talk to me about Sophie. Which Sophie? I say. Not Sophie at all. He wants a selfie.

8 June. I suppose I’ve managed to die, he thought. After all, I never imagined I could pass the driving test but I managed that, feeling at the time, he remembered, that he had joined the human race. This could be much the same except that now he would be leaving it.

‘It won’t be quite yet,’ said the doctor.

‘Of course,’ he said, but almost as a precaution he took out his diary.

‘September is kind of empty. I’ve nothing on then at all.’

This is hardly a diary entry, though these days thoughts of death are seldom far away.

17 June, Suffolk. We call at Snape Maltings for some tea, the restaurant on a mezzanine looking over the interiors and posh fancy goods store on the ground floor. After tea we go downstairs and while R. looks round I get myself sat down in a (purchasable) easy chair, where I hear R. talking to what I take to be another customer. It’s in fact an old man, farmer-like in appearance who, as he straightaway tells R., used to work here when it was still a functioning brewery or malthouse. He’s obviously a frequent visitor and the staff greet him and are on friendly terms, and may even encourage him to wander about to give the place a bit of local colour. He’s the sort of character who would not be out of place in something Russian or a play by David Storey.

24 June. The day after the referendum, I spend sitting at the kitchen table correcting the proofs of Keeping On Keeping On, finishing them before going to Yorkshire in despair. I imagine this must have been what Munich was like in 1938 – half the nation rejoicing at a supposed deliverance, the other stunned by the country’s self-serving cowardice. Well, we shall see.

30 June, Yorkshire. T. in the village has made a real go of her vintage shop. She has a good eye, her stock is always changing and she isn’t dear. R. delights in the place and whenever we’re here pays her a visit.Word must have got round because she’s been approached by one of the TV antiques programmes to figure as one of the shops visited, an offer she has refused. She says that the bargaining that purportedly goes on between the stallholder and the contestants is not quite what it seems, with the programme-makers undertaking to pay the stallholder the asking price, the ‘What’s the best on this?’ entirely spurious. When we were in Southwold a few weeks ago I asked Mrs Schotte if this had affected her (always modest) prices and she confirmed that customers these days will make outrageously low offers – half the market price even – because that’s what happens (they believe) on TV.

10 July. When we drive from the village to Leeds on a Sunday afternoon we prefer to come the back way, via East Morton, Elslack, Cross Hills, and then if we’ve time in hand we go ‘the back back way’, turning off the Bradford motorway to Silsden then over the top so that the journey to Leeds is almost wholly rural.

Today we pass an idyllic scene: a cricket pitch high on a bluff above East Morton looking over Keighley and Airedale where an Asian cricket team regularly plays, and plays very traditionally with no lurid lycra kit but in immaculate white flannels and caps. The players seem to be largely taxi drivers, their cabs parked on the road or, as today, by the actual field. With no interest in cricket we’re both of us cheered by this old-fashioned spectacle and the players who go to the trouble to preserve it. It’s a tonic.

3 August (the date of Dad’s death 42 years ago). New counterterrorism measures announced, with the designated squad of police paraded in grey uniforms, faces half-obscured by grey handkerchiefs and of course armed to the teeth. Their function will be to be on duty and be seen to be on duty at tourist hotspots or any place the public congregate. How long, though, before these strictly limited circumstances become diluted, as generally happens when new powers are given to the police? So it was with the taser – an exceptional resource supposedly, but now in common use. Armed police were once a rarity and are now unremarkable. The earliest use of anti-terrorist procedures was against the eighty-year-old who spoke out of turn at a Labour Party Conference. This dove-grey force will get bored and start itching for action. How long before legitimate but potentially violent demonstrations come within its purview? No one asks Mr Hogan-Howe.

16 August. While waiting for the beans to cook for the salade niçoise I switch on TV and catch a clip of the always excellent World at War, and it’s Speer talking. Speer escaped the death penalty at Nuremberg and ultimately survived for one reason alone: class. He could have been an English gentleman. The person he most resembles is Kenneth (Civilisation) Clark.

19 August. Genuinely saddened last thing tonight by R. saying that Tom Daley hasn’t even reached the diving finals in Rio. He’s about the only competitor I cared about, feeling that for all his lustrous looks he’s had a difficult time and come through all the ballyhoo of the last few years. I feel he deserved the CBE, which he won’t get, though there’s much sense in using honours less to celebrate than to console.

26 August, Yorkshire. A lovely morning and (my favourite thing) we sit outside the back door and have our breakfast (porridge with poached pears, blueberries and bananas) in the warm sunshine. The butterflies don’t seem to stir until later on, but this year there have been dozens, particularly on the buddleia. There is a party of Hasidic Jewish boys staying up at the Field Centre. It’s odd to see these pre-eminently urban figures knocking about the village, though nobody stares at them or takes much notice. This afternoon R. wishes he had his camera as Sue up the street is emptying the frames on her beehives, clad in overalls and helmet and all the other gear, and watched by three Hasidic boys equally but differently exotically clad. It would have made a good picture and one impossible to pose. My first thought seeing Hasidic Jews is always how hot they must be. In the evening they play what R. describes as ‘loud Israeli music’ but which I can’t hear.

30 August. I am reading Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation, which is very good and in one sense readable though in another not. I’m reading (or trying to) the paperback published by Penguin, but it’s so cheaply done that the captions to many of the photographs are unreadable without a magnifying glass and some of the indented quotations in the actual text aren’t easy either. It’s ironic, because the chapter I’m currently reading is about Luther and the pre-eminence of the book.

7 September. Ed Kemp rings, thoughtfully it seems to me, to say that his mother has died aged 91. She was the widow of Eric Kemp, my tutor at Exeter College and later bishop of Chichester, though I don’t recall meeting her in Oxford, but only in Chichester where, though she was the bishop’s wife, she enjoyed working as an usherette in the theatre and thus (I hope) scandalising that Trollopean place.

17 September. Edward Albee dies. We met once, I think in 1972, when we were seated at the same table at the Evening Standard awards lunch. I was struck by how stylish and Ivy League he was (like Woody Allen, who wore similarly dapper outfits then), slim and neat in a look I always fancied. More striking was that Albee was there in company with his male partner, which was still a bold step in 1972 and only the second time I had come across such an open avowal of a gay relationship, the first time being Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.

19 September. Long piece in the Guardian sports section about Joey Barton, the difficult (and sometimes violent) footballer who has been transferred from Burnley to Rangers and is in trouble again. He is obviously clever, though in a slightly psychopathic way, and given to gnomic Muhammad Ali-like utterances. He’s rightly proud of his self-education and being smarter than most footballers while still being his own worst enemy. He habitually uses ‘critique’ to mean ‘criticise’ and would make a good character in something.

30 September. I don’t know what ‘memes’ are or what ‘skanky’ means. Whether it is worth finding out I’m not sure. Are they comfortably ensconced in the language already or are they just lodging there?

10 October. Hyperthymesia is a rare medical condition defined as being marked by ‘unusual autobiographical remembering’.

26 October. The (slightly dreaded) day of my first public reading of Keeping On Keeping On at the Union Chapel in Islington. It turns out to be a huge building, seating nine hundred and often used for pop concerts while still doing duty as a chapel. It’s a vast circular edifice like a pitch pine mosque with distant balconies and glimpses of stained glass windows and on the podium (I think) some monumental organ. The reading goes well enough and there are said to be lots of young people in the audience. I hope so but I’m not sure that helps. When it comes to the Q&A I’m less confident, with ‘What do you think of Brexit?’ the almost inevitable first question. I deplore it, is the equally obvious answer but after that I dribble off into silence and inarticulate despair.

2 November. On my bike this afternoon and toiling through Regent’s Park towards the Inner Circle a grey-haired woman labours past me before stopping a bit further on and saying: ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever overtaken.’ I excuse myself, blaming my bike and its weight and absence of gears, though hers looks much the same. We grumble about the speedsters who infect the Outer Circle, coming up behind you silently and far too close and nowadays in large packs. Insofar as I understand the new superhighway for bikes that is being proposed I’m not sure I approve. I’d like more paths opened up in the park itself, if only because I get bored biking dutifully up and down the Broad Walk every afternoon, though at least it’s not a route favoured by the speed merchants.

10 November, Venice. One way of going on post-Trump, though it’s hardly a solution, is to live without news: no papers, no TV, no comment. Not hard to do that for the four days we are here, though much harder for Lynn, whose inclination, I’m sure, is to be home in New York surrounded by fellow feeling. But after that? It’s not something I want to get used to, or for the outrage, the disgust, the despair to become blunted. Better raw. Lynn bears it well, not showing what must always be in her mind, momentarily forgotten as a bereavement is forgotten but there when one wakes and last thing before one sleeps. A background to everything – even Venice. Trudging painfully through the streets, up and down the steps to the bridges for what must surely be the last time, I think that even this will be at the mercy of Trump’s folly. America, as Lynn points out, is now virtually a dictatorship, with Congress and the presidency both in Trump’s hands and the Supreme Court packed for years to come, if we’re lucky enough to be granted years.

We wake late this morning and wander past the queues waiting to get into San Marco, no season, even this wet November, uncrowded as once it was. Marvel as always at what a hotchpotch the place is, some of its looted stonework stuck on symmetrically, other bits, a figure of a water-carrier for instance, just popped on the front until it finds its proper niche.

11 November. Find S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni (never an easy task) and it’s open and empty, the frieze of Carpaccios ranged round this parish room, well kept now as once it was shabby, though with the paintings blessedly uncleaned. R. notices, as I never have, that one of the monks fleeing the lion has a wooden leg (complete with ferrule) and in the background to the funeral of St Jerome there is an armadillo and in the stampeding monks a touch of Vorticism.

Other visitors arrive, photographing the pictures almost before looking at them while I park myself on one of the benches, in Venice always happy to sit down. Grateful as always for the grace and good temper of the Italians and their friendliness, virtues on which we have so summarily turned our backs.

Thankful that I am old and have no children to leave in a world at the mercy of this lying and bellicose vulgarian.

12 November. The Correr has been reorganised so that the paintings which for me were its chief delight have migrated upstairs somewhere so we don’t find the anonymous man by a Ferraran painter of which we have a reproduction in Yorkshire, or the plump ladies with their dogs and crimped urine-dyed hair on their 15th-century rooftop. As ever, though, R. spots something extraordinary: a classical brooch of an owl remounted in an 18th-century setting which once belonged to Marie Antoinette. But oh the people, myself included.

The greed at breakfast in our hotel is also dispiriting, one young woman this morning with such a passion for fruit that she piles her plate with melon, pineapple, grapes and kiwi fruit and fills her pockets with tangerines to the extent that in the process nature itself is demeaned. Hard to be a waitress at breakfast and retain a respect for one’s fellows. Some of the well-to-do guests can’t wait to get the food back from the breakfast bar to their table, one young man downing a tumbler of orange juice en route and a boy stuffing himself with sausages before he even sits down.

An adventure. When I used to come to Venice in the 1970s I ate, sometimes every night, at Montin’s, now quite a celebrated restaurant and a short walk from the Accademia. We book for this evening, except I’m not sure if I’ll remember the way, all that remains is that one passed a cinema (long since closed) and took a short cut through a sottopassaggio before turning left onto the quay with the welcome red lantern outside Locanda Montin. In the circumstances we decide to splash out on a water taxi, the trip only taking ten minutes or so before the driver calls us up from the cabin to explain this is as close to the side as he can get. There’s a gap between the swaying boat and the landing stage of three or four feet down across water onto the stone. R. manages it first and with him on one side and the boatman on the other I launch myself into space, with time enough as I’m flying through the air to wonder with a bad ankle and at 82 how I’m going to manage. But it’s OK, though even Lynn, who’s normally so intrepid, is unnerved by the leap. It’s only when we get into Montin’s and compare notes that we realise how risky it’s been. Still, we have a nice meal though Italian food isn’t quite the same as it was. In the 1970s I invariably ate Parma ham and melon followed by liver and sage, neither of them on the menu tonight.

13 November. As we’re packing this morning R. watches a rat on the canal steps of the hotel just as a huge multi-storeyed liner slides past, the only one we’ve seen, though its waterborne high flats hardly make it a vessel of romance.

Note how melancholy most of these Venetian entries are and not merely because of Trump and Co. Venice, however ravishing, is ultimately a sad place.

14 November. A nauseating picture on the front of the Guardian of Trump and Farage together, with ‘nauseating’ in this case not just a word. It does genuinely make one feel sick.