I’ve kept a sporadic diary for about ten years. Besides the occasional incident that seems worth recording, I put down gossip and notes on work and reading. These are some extracts from last year. London is Camden Town and Yorkshire a small village in Craven to which my parents retired, and where I still have a house.
8 February, Dundee. A day off from filming An Englishman Abroad and I go to Edinburgh with Alan Bates. We climb the tower near the castle to see the Camera Obscura. The texture of the revolving bowl and the softness of the reflection convert the view into an 18th-century aquatint, in which motor-cars seem as delicate and exotic as sedan chairs. The pace of the traffic is also rendered more sedate, and unreal for being silent. An element of voyeurism in it. The guide, a genteel Morningside lady, trains the mirror on some adjacent scaffolding where workmen are restoring a church. ‘I often wonder,’ she muses in the darkened room, ‘if one were to catch them ... well, unawares. I mean,’ she adds hastily, ‘taking a little rest.’
3 March, Yorkshire. I take a version of a script down to Settle to be photocopied. The man in charge of the machine watches the sheets come through. ‘Glancing at this,’ he says, ‘I see you dabble in playwriting.’ While this about sums it up, I find myself resenting him for noticing what goes through his machine at all. Photocopying is a job in which one is required to see and not see, the delicacy demanded not different from that in medicine. It’s as if a nurse were to say: ‘I see, watching you undress, that your legs are nothing to write home about.’
20 March, Weston-super-Mare. To see Mam at Weston. I sit in the dining-room of the home while they locate her coat. Two old ladies are waiting for their lunch, which won’t happen for at least another hour. ‘It went through my mind it was pineapple,’ says one, ‘but I wouldn’t swear to it.’ ‘You have to watch her,’ says the other, pointing to an empty place. ‘She’ll have all the bread.’ Mam’s memory has almost gone, leaving her suffused with a general benevolence. ‘I’ve always liked you,’ she says to one of the other residents and plants a kiss on her slightly startled cheek. It is a beautiful day and we walk on the sands. ‘Has Gordon been to see you?’ I ask. ‘Oh yes,’ she says, happily. ‘Though I’m saying he has, I don’t know who he is.’ ‘Do you know who I am?’ She peers at me. ‘Oh yes, you’re ... you’re my son, aren’t you?’ ‘And what’s my name?’ ‘Ah, now then.’ And she laughs, as if this is not information any reasonable person could expect her to have. But it doesn’t distress her, so it doesn’t distress me. We have our sandwiches on a hill outside Weston with a vast view over Somerset. She wants to say, ‘What a grand view,’ but her words are going too. ‘Oh,’ she exclaims. ‘What a big lot of About.’ There are sheep in the field. ‘I know what they are,’ she says, ‘but I don’t know what they are called.’ Thus Wittgenstein is routed by my mother.
28 March, London. A ‘vigorous but not bellicose’ war memorial is to be erected by the Falkland Islanders. It has been on view in High Wycombe. On the News, pictures of three ex-servicemen being taught to ski in Nevada. All have lost feet in the Falklands conflict. The instructor is American. He leads them off down the slopes with the words ‘All together now. Follow moi.’
17 April, London. George Fenton, who got an Oscar nomination for his Gandhi music, has been to Hollywood for the ceremony. By far the most striking people attending were young couples, faultlessly dressed and very glamorous, who stood in the aisles throughout the evening. When anyone in the audience left to go to the loo (the ceremony was interminable) their seat was immediately taken by one of these groomed and gorgeous creatures, who then gave it up without demur when the rightful seat-holder returned. Thinking they were hangers-on, George found himself slightly resenting them, as also their grooming and their glamour. Leaving for a break himself, George found a young man promptly sliding into his place and in his lapel a badge: ‘Seat-Filler’. They were all extras employed by the organisers to make sure nothing so shocking as an empty seat should ever appear on the television screen.
6 May, London. A second session doing a voice-over for a commercial for Quartz washing-machines. I spend half an hour trying to invest the words ‘This frog’ with some singularity of tone that will distinguish this particular frog from the previous frog, with which it is otherwise identical. It defeats me and the session is abandoned. Coming away, I feel just as badly as if I’d given a shoddy performance in a definitive recording of the Sonnets.
20 May, London. In the evening I often bike round Regent’s Park. Tonight I am mooning along the Inner Circle past Bedford College when a distraught woman dashes out into the road and nearly fetches me off. She and her friend have found themselves locked in and climbed over the gate. Or rather she has. Her friend Marie hasn’t made it. And there laid along the top of one of the five barred gates is a plump 60-year-old lady, one leg either side of the gate, bawling to her friend to hurry up. I climb over and try and assess the situation. ‘Good,’ says Marie, her cheek pressed against the gate. ‘I can see you’re of a scientific turn of mind.’ Her faith in science rapidly evaporates when I try moving her leg and she yells with pain. It’s at this point that we become aware of an audience. Three Chinese in the regulation rig-out of Embassy officials are watching the pantomime, smiling politely and clearly not sure if this is a pastime or a predicament. Eventually they are persuaded to line up on the other side of the gate. I hoist Marie over and she rolls comfortably down into their outstretched arms. Much smiling and bowing. Marie’s friend says: ‘All’s well that ends well.’ Marie says she’s laddered both her stockings and I cycle on my way.
30 May, Yorkshire. A boy is paddling in the beck. He has rolled up his trousers but not taken his socks off, thus refuting the soldier’s argument against contraceptives. I talk to G., a young poet who has come to live in the village. He has a wife and three small children and to make ends meet teaches at a prison, the mental hospital in Lancaster and a local school. He says that, compared with the schoolchildren, the murderers and psychotics are models of good behaviour.
12 June, Yorkshire. The verges full of Gypsies these last two weeks, on the road to and from the horse fair at Appleby. Someone must have gone into business reproducing their traditional hooped carts, as there are far more this year than previously. I pass some of them on the back road to Settle, two horse and carts coming down the steep hill above Swabeck. To brake the carts they trail an old car tyre behind with a child perched on it.
23 June, London. As A. and I are walking in Regent’s Park this evening we stop to watch a baseball game. A police car comes smoothly along the path keeping parallel with a young black guy who is walking over the grass. The police keep calling to him from the car but he ignores them and eventually stops right in the middle of the baseball game. A policeman gets out and begins questioning him, but warily and from a distance. The baseball players, unfortunately for the suspect, are all white and they mostly pretend it isn’t happening. Some laugh and look at their feet. Others break away and talk among themselves. Only a few unabashedly listen. Someone shouts: ‘What’s he done?’ ‘I want you to bear witness,’ the man shouts. ‘You all bear witness.’ For his part the policeman ignores the players, sensing that he is at a disadvantage and that the middle of a game is some kind of sanctuary and too public for the law’s liking. It’s the sort of refuge Cary Grant might choose in a Hitchcock movie. Meanwhile reinforcements are on the way and, as a second police van speeds over the grass, the first policeman gets out of his car and the two of them tackle the suspect. Still one watched, nobody saying anything, those nearest the struggle moving away, their embarrassment now acute. Eventually the police bundle the man into a van and he is driven off. The game is restarted, a little shamefacedly at first then gathering momentum, and we walk on. But it must have fizzled out soon after because the pitcher passes us with his baseball mitt, accompanied by a young man in a funny hat.
4 July, London. Recording Winnie the Pooh for Radio 4. One story ends: ‘ “I suppose Tigger’s all right really,” said Christopher Robin. “Yes,” said Pooh. “Everyone’s all right really,” said Pooh.’ The true voice of England in the Thirties.
8 July, London. The rebirth of the British cinema is announced again this morning with the film Another Time, Another Place. The British cinema is born about as often as the British theatre dies.
7 August, London. Two strips of pale blue shirt fabric arrive in the post with a letter asking me to wear them as an armlet on 25 August, which is Leonard Bernstein’s 65th birthday. This will testify to my regard for Lenny and my desire for peace. Actually I don’t know Lenny and fear that wearing a sky-blue armband is an opaque if not an ambiguous gesture, so I send my Van Heusen sample to Patricia Routledge, who does know Lenny and is as much concerned about dying from radiation as I am, but less concerned about dying of embarrassment.
1 October, London. I mend a puncture on my bike. I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs – mending a fuse, changing a wheel, jump-starting the car – because these are not accomplishments generally associated with a temperament like mine. I tend to put sexual intercourse in this category too. The contents of a puncture outfit are like a time capsule, unchanged from what they were when I was a boy, and probably long before that. Here is the rubber solution, the dusting chalk, the grater on the side of the box and the little yellow crayon I didn’t use then and don’t use now. I ask at the cycle shop if anyone has thought of making self-adhesive puncture patches. No one has.
15 October, Yorkshire. If Mr Parkinson and Miss Keays would only get together they could call the baby Frances Parkinson Keays.
20 December, New York. A sign on Seventh Avenue at Sheridan Square: ‘Ears pierced, with or without pain.’ I am reading a book on Kafka. It is a library book and someone has marked a passage in the margin with a long, wavering line. I pay the passage special attention without finding it particularly rewarding. As I turn the page the line moves. It is a long, dark hair.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.