2 January. I’m sent a complimentary (sic) copy of Waterstone’s Literary Diary which records the birthdays of various contemporary literary figures. Here is Dennis Potter on 17 May, Michael Frayn on 8 September, Edna O’Brien on 15 December, and so naturally I turn to my own birthday. May 9 is blank except for the note: ‘The first British self-service launderette is opened on Queensway, London 1949.’

4 January. George F. tells me that when Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Lord Lloyd Webber, as we must now say, bought his Canaletto at Christie’s he paid the £10 million bill by Access in order to earn the air miles – enough presumably to last him till the end of his days. Such lacing of extravagance with prudence has since become so common that Christie’s have now suspended credit card payments altogether.

6 January, Yorkshire. Ring Mr Redhead, the coal-merchant at Ingleton.

‘Hello, Mr Redhead, this is Alan Bennett. I’m wanting some coal.’

‘Goodness me! I am consorting with higher beings!’

Last time I rang Mr Redhead he said: ‘Well, I don’t care how celebrated you are, you’ll never be a patch on your dad.’ I remind him of this.

‘That’s correct and I reiterate it.’

13 January. Liam Gallagher, the younger of the Oasis brothers, has the kind of eyes in which the pupils are half-hidden under the eyelids; as if the eyes had stopped between floors. Spike Lee has similar eyes, which I find attractive, maybe because they give a sense of inhabiting worlds other than this; they are, of course, irritating for exactly the same reason.

A call from Barry Cryer, who claims to have heard a woman outside Liberty’s saying to her husband: ‘Remind me to tell Austin that there is no main verb in that sentence.’

15 January, Yorkshire. Trying to put my forty-year-old letters in order, I come across a diary for 1956-59. It’s depressing to read as very little of it is factual and most of it to do with my slightly sickening obsession with, coupled with a lack of insight into, my own character. It’s full of embarrassing resolutions about future conduct and exhortations to myself to do better. Love is treated very obliquely, passing fancies thought of as echoes of some Grand Passion.

My first inclination is to put it in the bin, though I probably won’t. I can see why writers do, though, fearful that these commonplace beginnings might infect what comes after with their banality. In this sense Orton (and to some extent Larkin) is exceptional, Orton’s early diaries written with the same peculiar slant on the world as his mature writings.

1957 was the year I should have come down from Oxford but didn’t and one thing I think reading this tosh is that if I hadn’t got a First (the circumstances undescribed in the diary) I would never have picked myself up to do much except possibly teach – and teach badly. It was the fairly spurious self-confidence I got from this fluke result, plus the breathing space it gave, that enabled me to go on doing silly turns, being funny and thus eventually to write.

20 January. Sheila J. up the road says that in last week’s fog she came upon two Brent geese grounded outside No 60. She rang the RSPCA, who said that since they were on the road they were the responsibility of the highways authority. Camden being Camden the highways department was unreachable and probably had better things to do anyway. So, remembering from fairy stories that goose-girls always carried a stick, Sheila got one from a garden; at which point Juliet C. emerged and the two of them herded the geese up the Crescent, eventually penning them in the garden of No 70. One settled happily in the ornamental pond there, but the other, taking advantage of the not very long lawn, took off for home, presumably Regent’s Park. In the morning its companion did the same.

26 January. Come back on an early train from Yorkshire to catch the last day of the National Art Collections Fund exhibition at Christie’s. Expecting St James’s to be empty, I find every street crammed with cars. Christie’s, too, is crowded, full of art-lovers more specially earnest than the general run so that something about the show repels – the homogeneity of the art-lovers, perhaps, their wholehearted worthiness and consistent middle-agedness. When I leave, the streets are full of disconsolate Roundheads and jubilant Cavaliers, the explanation for all the cars some mock-battle in Green Park. Note how one passes these far from sheepish figures without a second glance; the kind of extraordinary feature of ordinary life that never gets into a film except as part of the plot.

In the evening, read at St Mark’s, Primrose Hill in aid of the appeal against the demolition of the chapel of the old Boys’ Home in Regent’s Park Road and the construction of some frightful block of flats. Church packed, people standing at the back, and though the audience is a bit sticky to start with (heard it all before, I suspect), there is a good response at the end. I’d said no to an Evening Standard reporter who wanted to interview me and get a photograph. He’d been quite nice about it and gone away, but when I come out the photographer is still hanging about and asks me to pose with my bike. I say no, whereupon he starts snapping regardless. Even as I cycle off down Regent’s Park Road he runs after me snapping away. Why? On spec, I suppose, but the real reason he wants a photograph is that he knows I don’t. Whatever pictures he took would have me looking like a flustered turkey and presumably quite silly, so whether this is preferable to the Me and My Bike shot he wanted in the first place is debatable.

30 January. Meats is a form I don’t care for, the proper plural of meat being meat. Perhaps meats (on a van: ‘British Premium Meats’) means cooked meats, though meat would still be acceptable there, too. Meats suggests to me something not only cooked but sliced, and already beginning to curl at the edges. Odd that one should have any feelings, let alone care, about such usages.

31 January. The limpid theme which introduces the Agnus Dei in Fauré’s Requiem currently introduces the product in the Lurpak butter commercial.

Walk behind a tramp wearing no socks. Heels like turnips.

6 February. A. asks for help with finding questions for a charity literary quiz. Suggest:

Q. Who thought the Venerable Bede was a woman?

A. Field Marshal Haig, who said so after musing for some time beside the Venerable Bede’s tomb at Durham, presumably mixing up George Eliot and Adam Bede.

Q. Where in Oxford would you find a crucifix that had been gazed on by Pascal?

A. Campion Hall. (It is a Jansenist crucifix which comes from Port Royal.)

Q. What had A.E. Housman in common with the son of the author of Wind in the Willows?

A. A nickname: Mouse.

Tell the Bede story to Maggie Smith, who recalls some lines she had to sing in revue:

Oh, I am the Venerable Bede
I can scarcely write and just about read.

18 February. Listening to the last movement of Elgar’s First Symphony I’m put in mind of some huge submerged mass coming to the surface. What is this great sunken thing that now heaves itself into view, the water sluicing off it? England, is it? Destiny? A sense of purpose? This is how I used to think when I was 17: that music showed you how to live your life.

20-21 February. Two days filming my TV parables programme Heavenly Stories at Dulwich College, the setting the Masters’ Library, a galleried, High Victorian room adjoining the school hall, presumably where the masters foregather before assembly. Over the chimneypiece are two crude allegorical panels of Piety and Liberality, the ideals of Alleyn’s foundation. There are plenty of nice books, many with a Forties-ish feel, like Enthusiasm by Ronald Knox, one of the ‘wider reading’ books I swotted up for my scholarship. Remembering Bruce MacFarlane was at Dulwich, I wander into Charles Barry’s huge hammerbeam hall, the walls lined with honours boards of distinctions at Oxford and Cambridge chiefly; though there’s some mention of the Army and the Indian Civil Service, there is none of any other universities or places of higher education. And here is Bruce’s open scholarship to Exeter in 1922, his first-class degree three years later; his Senior Demyship at Magdalen in 1925 and the Bryce Studentship; then, in 1926, a fellowship at Magdalen. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t figure in any of the team photographs that line the corridors.

A woman is restoring some of the lettering on the honours boards and she tells me that until a few years ago they were covered in varnish and thick wallpaper, the work of an aesthetically-minded headmaster’s wife. Now they are being restored and, as inaccuracies are uncovered (ex-pupils assigned to the wrong colleges), she is at work on corrections. She seems vaguely familiar and I start telling her about a woman I’d talked to a year or so ago, having gone into a church at Inglesham near Lechlade and found her restoring the wall-painting there.

‘Yes,’ she says happily, ‘it was me.’ It seems an extraordinary coincidence. She tells me that two paintings over the fireplace are far from being the daubs I thought they were but reputedly come from Queen Elizabeth I’s state barge and may even have accompanied Drake round the world on the Golden Hind.

22 February. Jocelyn Herbert’s 80th birthday party at the Royal College of Art, the Senior Common Room packed with everyone Jocelyn has known or worked with. There is music that has been specially composed, a poem by Tony Harrison, the theme of which is all the toasts he and Jocelyn have drunk together in all the various places where they have worked around the world. They’re due to set off on Monday on another epic journey, the script, based on the Prometheus legend, is about a gold statue is transported from South Yorkshire (film of the demolition of some cooling towers near Barnsley) through Eastern Europe to Greece. Tony mentions in the poem her absent friends: George Devine, Ron Eyre, Tony Richardson, John and John (Dexter and Osborne), and at the conclusion a cake is brought in and Jocelyn is crowned with laurels. It could be thought pretentious but since Jocelyn is so far from pretentious it seems both fitting and moving.

I sit on a sofa with Alan Bates and Maggie Smith, thinking that no one would ever arrange such a do for me or get so many people to come. I turn to Maggie and she says: ‘Don’t say it. I know. I don’t think I could even fill the kitchen.’

26 February. It’s thought that most of the frocks that Princess Diana is selling off will end up in the wardrobes of transvestites. Were someone set to write a script which would persistently humiliate the Royal Family they could scarcely do better (or worse) than the one which circumstances have devised.

6 March. Sir Denis Mahon has been paying frequent visits to Discovering the Italian Baroque, the exhibition of his collection at the National Gallery, to whom he has bequeathed many of the pictures that are on show. The other day a warder watched him for some time then came up behind him and said: ‘I’ve had my eye on you. You get too close to the pictures.’ Sir Denis went to the Director and complimented him on the vigilance of his staff.

25 March, Yorkshire. Everybody else seems to have seen the comet, but though I’ve been up on the roof several times searching the Northern sky like Herod, I have seen nothing. We’re driving up from Leeds about eleven tonight when, without looking for it, I suddenly see it from the Addingham bypass, hovering, as it were, above Bolton Abbey. It dodges from side to side of the road all the way over into Airedale, then up to Settle and home. I can’t get over the spread of its tail, a great shower of light flying behind it, and also that the thing itself doesn’t look like a star but seems circular. In fact what is surprising is that a comet should look like the illustrations of comets. It’s so bright it’s as if there is a hole in the surface of the sky, a porthole through which the light is streaming from the shining world beyond. I look out again just before I go to bed and it’s still tearing through the clear sky with its 60-million-mile train.

Maundy Thursday, Yorkshire. See on billboards in Leeds that HMQ has been in Bradford washing the feet of selected pensioners from the Bradford diocese, or rather paying in order not to. Interviewed, all the pensioners say they are overwhelmed at the honour done to the region; one says she knew the invitation was something out of the ordinary as the envelope wouldn’t go through her letter box. When I get to the village I find that one of these pensioners was our ex-postman Maurice Brown. I ask him whether the Queen spoke to him. ‘No. She only stopped at people who had something wrong with them. I haven’t, so she just gave me the money.’

29 March, Yorkshire. Easter Saturday and an appropriately monastic day out, going first via Northallerton (a place to be avoided) to Mount Grace, which I had thought a remote spot but which is within sight and sound of the busy A19 to Teeside. Envy the nice life a Carthusian monk must have had in the early 15th century: meals brought to the door, sitting-room, study and bedroom looking out on a little garden with, at the end of the colonnade, the loo.

Then some delicious sandwiches (cold pheasant and stuffing) on the edge of a ploughed field near Masham, sun warm and the hawthorn just coming into leaf. We go down the hill to Well to look at the towering pinnacle of fretted wood over the font, 1352 and the second oldest in England. Then on to Jervaulx, one of the few monastic ruins not run by the Department of National Heritage but by its country-house owners, for whom it must once have been like an elaborate folly. The ruins are thatched with vegetation and herbaceous plants, and piled up round the grassy banks are great heaps of unlocated masonry. The plan of the abbey is quite clear, though, and I realise that any Cistercian monk could move from one abbey to another and not find himself puzzled as to his whereabouts. The component parts – cloisters, library, dormitory – might differ in scale, but the relationship between them would be much the same from one abbey to the next.

2 April, Yorkshire. Come across a thirty-year-old note from David Vaisey, at that time a postgraduate student at Bodley and subsequently its Librarian. The note just has a crudely drawn swastika and the slogan ‘A.L. Raus’.

14 April. Pass two slightly cheeky-looking middle-aged businessmen in Hanover Square, one of whom is talking about ‘the rodeo position’.

‘Yes, what is that?’ asks the other. ‘I don’t know what the rodeo position is.’

I take this to be a conversation about sex and it’s only later that it occurs to me that if there’s a company called Rodeo the discussion may well have been about a financial position rather than a sexual one.

16 April. Another day filming for Dance to the Music of Time, the location a crumbling neo-Gothic pile at Sonning with a vast view over the Thames Valley. Built by a Victorian millionaire MP, it was only briefly inhabited before it became what it was obviously suited for – namely, an asylum. It’s surrounded by various generations of outbuildings and Nissen huts but has a number of magnificent Gothick rooms, one of which is doing duty today as the House of Commons dining-room.

I play Sillery, now 80, though I can’t say I adjust the acting to the age, a white wig doing most of the work. I am supposed to be entertaining, or being entertained by, a group of young MPs, my only line being: ‘I will mention your name to the Italian Ambassador. I’m dining with him tomorrow night at Diana Cooper’s.’ Most of the time our table is ‘background action’ to a foreground scene of some talk at another table between John Standing, playing Nicholas Jenkins, and Jeremy Clyde, playing Roddie Cutts. Christopher Morahan wants our table to be having an animated and amusing conversation, with Sillery the life and soul of the party. There is one problem with this and that is that the MPs are played by London extras, a notoriously difficult, unco-operative section of the profession and about as helpful as, I’m told, the chorus is at Covent Garden. There are reasons for this unhelpfulness: though they’re not badly paid, the extras are seldom given much encouragement by directors and often treated as not much more than movable scenery. Certainly on this occasion they resent having to talk at all and I am left animatedly chatting to these four unresponsive young men, one expressionless, light-eyed young man making me feel a particular fool. John Standing and Jeremy Clyde look across sympathetically, knowing exactly what the situation is. Eventually I try and force some response by asking them who is the worst director they’ve ever worked with or the most unpleasant actor. This at least elicits something, including the interesting fact that very often leading actors (Tom Cruise is mentioned and, down the scale a bit, Jimmy Nail) require that the extras do not look at them while they are performing as they find it off-putting.

One of the extras asks me what I am reading. I show him my book, some Alice Munro short stories, whereupon he says, ‘I’m reading this,’ and takes out a paperback of My Secret Life, the saga of the sexual adventures of a middle-class gentleman in Victorian London. It’s a book with more sex per page than almost any other, and not a book I had thought that one reads, at least in any sequential way, as it’s just one fuck after another, with no plot or progression, not even that short journey from the simple to the complex, the straight to the kinky, that characterises most pornography. The matter of fact way he brings out the book slightly surprises me but we talk about it and I explain, rather in the manner of the character I’m playing, the doubts that have been expressed about its authenticity and the light it throws on the street life and topography of Victorian London. But now they are ready to start the scene and I look again into the dead eyes of my impassive neighbour, who did three days last week on The Bill, and tell him that I will mention his name to the Italian Ambassador, with whom I will be dining tomorrow night at Diana Cooper’s.

22 April. Filming again at Breakspears, the manor house near Harefield where last autumn we shot an earlier scene of Dance to the Music of Time. A Queen Anne house with later additions, it is now forlorn and neglected and has the CV of many too-large country houses, ending either as a conference centre or an old people’s home. This has been a home but has since been used for umpteen films, relics of which are scattered through its cold, damp and listed rooms. Judy Egerton at the National Gallery tells me that Breakspears was once the childhood home of Elizabeth Stephen, the bride of William Hallett, who together constitute Gainsborough’s Morning Walk, and that Reynolds’s Captain Tarleton used to hang in the house. Captain Tarleton is one of the paintings (another being Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella) which would figure in a dream exhibition, ‘Nice Legs’ (or rather ‘Nice Legs on Men’).

1 May. Cast my vote early, the ballot paper longer than I ever remember and the party affiliations in very modest type. Though there are predictions of a Labour victory, even from the Tories, I am still nervous that factors like this will affect the result. Nor am I alone in my uncertainty. Go down to the National Gallery for a meeting of the trustees, where Keith Thomas tells me that his polling booth in Oxford is next door to a pub in Merton Street and that, it being May morning, he had to fight his way in through crowds of drunken revellers, an ordeal he feels might deter tamer spirits. As a historian he speculates whether such considerations are too subtle to be picked up by the psephologists, among whom David Butler figures, as he has done in every election that I can recall.

2 May, Chicago. Sitting on my bag at O’Hare waiting for the other to come round on the carousel, I become aware of a small white terrier sniffing round me. Thinking it might slyly cock its leg, I shoo it away, only to find it’s attached to a customs officer who politely asks me if I am carrying any prohibited merchandise. Having already declared on the form that I’m not, I suddenly remember two oranges I brought to eat on the plane and shamefacedly extract them. The customs officer examines them and says with no hint of reproach that he will have to confiscate the fruit but in return gives me a postcard with a picture of the dog and the compliments of the Beagle Brigade.

At the hotel, hoping to find some postelection coverage, I switch on CNN and indeed catch Tony Blair arriving at Downing Street (though not John Major leaving it, which I would quite like to have seen). However, it’s the briefest flash and is put in perspective by the next item, a much more extensive piece about how Eddie Murphy invited a transvestite prostitute into his car with a view to putting him/her on the right road.

3 May. To the Chicago Art Institute, a relatively modest museum but with superb paintings. It’s Saturday and very busy so I confine myself to rooms with benches and find myself sitting in front of a Cranach Crucifixion, notable because the Bad Thief is depicted as fat, a great beer gut sagging down from the Cross. Everyone – the Holy Family apart – is grotesque, while Christ himself is so idealised he belongs in a different painting, crucified against a blue and white sky that looks like a map of the world. His thighs are concealed by dancing draperies, and since I’m currently reading the new edition of Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, I scan the floating linens for the erection Steinberg often manages to detect, though not, I think, here. In the crowd at the foot of the Cross is a child who looks up as its father points at the figure of Christ. There is a father and son of similar age looking at the picture, but here it is the child who is pointing while the father explains what is happening. It is such a neat coincidence I note it diffidently – one might easily be thought to have invented it.

The star of the gallery is Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, which has a perpetual crowd, while ignored is a beautiful (and rather classical) self-portrait by Van Gogh, whom I don’t always care for, and also the Degas Hat Shop which was shown last year at the National Gallery.

6 May, New York. To the Frick, last visited in 1963. It hasn’t changed much and can’t change much, I imagine, by the terms of its endowment. What has changed is the number of visitors: in 1963 I was the only person there; today it’s crowded out, a large proportion of the visitors for some reason French, including two droll-looking, dikey, long-nosed ladies who might have run a bar or spirited away fallen flyers during the war. Few seats, or seats that can be sat on, so I end up in the picture gallery, where there are a couple of benches – and a couple of Rembrandts, too, and a brace of Turners, a Velázquez and a Vermeer, the arrangement, roughly, portrait-landscape-portrait-landscape all round this dark, glass-ceilinged room. None of the paintings is shown to advantage, most looking dull and hung so close to each other as to make them difficult to take in on their own. Thus there’s a painting of Philip IV by Velázquez hung next to Vermeer’s Lady with Her Maid and a self-portrait of Rembrandt in old age; none is lit, they don’t complement one another, and together look like a trio of mud-coloured pictures. It would be more sensible to arrange the collection chronologically: the way it is now, one is made more conscious of the fact that Frick had no particular taste and no eye for pictures, except the expensive ones, and that Duveen and Berenson and whoever else bought for him had no notion of putting together a group of paintings which, besides being masterpieces, were also a pleasure to live with. These were merely to be gloated over, so that Rembrandt and Van Dyck here seem vulgar and even Vermeer only just survives.

8 May, New York. The warders at the Metropolitan Museum are given no chairs and so are always on the move and, less mindful of the reverence due to art that pervades the National Gallery, hold lively conversations with the warder next door. ‘I mean,’ says one Hispanic warder, ‘this is a woman who changes her hair colour three times a week. Where are you with a dame like that? You don’t know.’

The names Americans visit on their children never cease to amaze me. One of Diana Ross’s daughters labours under the name of Chudney.

12 May, New York. Sit looking out of the bedroom window into the back garden of a house on the next block where an idyll develops. An elderly couple are unhurriedly setting the table for brunch, beginning with a huge jar of buttercups, perhaps bought in yesterday’s market in Union Square. Then as she brings out a bottle of white wine, the table setting is invaded and upset by a large Abyssinian cat, which has to be lifted off. Now comes lunch itself, omelette and salad, which he has prepared. The couple clink wine glasses before drinking, and each with a book, eat their brunch. They seem straight out of a short story in the (old) New Yorker. Now a squirrel appears, running some urgent, necessary errand and slightly lame in its left paw. The wild life in this garden – sparrows, squirrels, a blackbird – all belongs to the third division, drab, tame, unexotic, the wildlife of my childhood. The vegetation is middle of the road, too – ivy, sycamore, flowering currant and, of course, privet.

13 May, New York. Dining at Balthazar, Keith’s new restaurant, we are across the aisle from Calvin Klein. I have half a mind to step across and say: ‘I don’t suppose you’d be interested, Mr Klein, and I don’t want to intrude on your privacy, but we’re both wearing your underpants.’ Calvin Klein is sitting with Susan Sontag. Actually he isn’t but if he were it would sum up what celebrity means in New York.

22 May. Watch the second programme in the BBC2 series It’s Not Unusual, in which gays and lesbians, many in their seventies and eighties, recall their experiences in the Second World War and the lives they led. It’s both droll and inspiring; the unself-conscious way these eighty-year-olds recall experiences in the WAAFs or as seamen on the Western Approaches makes one want to raise a cheer, not for gay liberation particularly, but for toleration and common sense, and also for courage.

In tonight’s programme there’s an unlikely homosexual, a Doncaster miner, Fred Dyson; photographs show him as a merry-faced boy built like the proverbial brick shithouse, now recalled by the grey-haired, monumental figure he has since become. Arrested for propositioning a policeman in a lavatory when he was in his twenties, he was brought up before a lady magistrate in Doncaster – this would be in the Fifties – who asked him how long he had had ‘these feelings’.

‘All my life, Your Worship.’

‘Have you ever thought of trying for a cure?’

‘A cure? Listen, love. If there was a cure for this there’d be a queue miles long.’

He was fined £50, and because he’d spoken up, the case was extensively reported in the local papers. He went to work next day (shots of miners soaping each other in the pithead baths) and talked to a union official about whether he could go on working there, or show his face in the social club. The union official offered to go to the social club with him and they were standing at the bar when one of his fellow miners came up and shook his hand and after that it was all right.

31 May. A late birthday present, a mug dated January 1889, commemorates the gift by Colonel North of the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey to the then borough of Leeds. There is a picture of Kirkstall and the inscription: ‘Built in 1147. Destroyed by Oliver Cromwell in 1539.’ This was what most people believed in Leeds when I was a boy, the notion that there could have been two iconoclasts named Cromwell but a century apart too much of a coincidence for them to take. The idea that it was ‘built in 1147’ is equally silly.

Run into Edmund White, who tells me what a revelation Beyond the Fringe was when he saw it in New York in 1963, how sophisticated it seemed and how camp. He ends up by asking me, as Harold Wilson once did: ‘Were you one of the original four?’

I wonder whether there were any shy, retiring Apostles: ‘Were you one of the original twelve?’

Does the Holy Ghost resent God the Father and God the Son being better known (and certainly more identifiable) than he is? Or he/she is?

14 July. I wish there had been roller blades in my time (though I would probably have thought them ‘not my kind of thing’). They seem the epitome of grace. Skateboarding, on the other hand, now looks clumsy and, however skilfully done, somehow desperate and without art.

25 July. Dubbing the kind of characters I write about – denizens of retirement homes, ageing aunties, old people on their last legs – I choose suitably solid, old-fashioned names: Frank, Harold, Arthur, Nora, names of their period. Just. Because, of course, the personnel of these designated scrapheaps is altering. Ranged in vacant rows or stood immobile by a radiator, these shrunken creatures still answer to Hannah, Arthur, Peggy and Bill. But soon it will be Melanie and Karen, Dean and Sandra Louise. Somewhere I wrote some half-heard dialogue on the edge of a scene outside an old people’s home: as the middle-aged children of one deceased resident come away carrying his meagre possessions the matron is helping another old man out of the ambulance, saying: ‘Hello! Welcome! You’re our first Kevin!’

12 August. The BBC are planning some élite channel, and have written to Anthony Jones, my literary agent, saying that since I was so distinguished and award-winning etc they would be happy to pay £3500 for my entire oeuvre. What happens if you’re not distinguished and award-winning? my agent wonders. Do you pay them?

Read an article suggesting that Giotto’s frescos in the Arena Chapel were largely done by another painter, Cavallini, now forgotten because, unlike Giotto, he was not singled out for mention by Vasari. I don’t believe this, if only because the name Cavallini lacks substance. He sounds like a juggler or a conjuror appearing on the halls: The Great Cavallini.

14 August. From time to time, sitting in the garden chair outside my front door, I hear an audible thud and a fat, emerald-green caterpillar drops from one of the lime trees onto the car bonnet. Today one lands on the flags and is straightaway assailed by a wasp which either bites or stings it so that the caterpillar wriggles in pain. I watch this process for a while, then stamp on the caterpillar to put it out of its misery. Later another caterpillar falls and is picked up by the resident blackbird, which pecks away at it. There is more flinching from the caterpillar but this I watch with no distaste at all, just glad that the blackbird has found a decent meal. The hen blackbird which was rather stupid, and which I thought the cats had got, is now about again.

31 August. An American woman who witnessed the accident to Princess Diana is interviewed on television, and says that she noticed that the air bag was ‘fully deployed’. An entirely correct usage, I’m sure, but who in England other than a technician would think to say it?

2 September. Hysteria over the death of the Princess continues, people ‘from all walks of life’ queuing down the Mall, not merely to sign the book but to sit there writing for up to 15 minutes at a time. Others, presumably, just write ‘Why?’, which suggests a certain cosmic awareness while at least having the merit of brevity.

‘What a treasured possession these books will be for her two sons,’ says the BBC commentator, which has echoes of Ernest Worthing and the Army Lists. It also summons up the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the thousands of tea-chests in a dusty unvisited cellar. Apparently, similar volumes are to be opened all over the country and it will be possible to analyse regional differences in the degree of mourning.

3 September. The order of service is published for the funeral, the music to be played, Albinoni, Pachelbel and Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’. It’s the apotheosis of Classic FM. The Dean: ‘And now from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, “Nimrod”, which is on page two of your Order of Service and No 17 in this week’s Classic Countdown.’ The poor Queen is to be forced to go mournabout. I suppose it is a revolution but with Rosa Luxemburg played by Sharon and Tracy.

4 September. ‘God created a blonde angel and called her Diana.’ This is one of the cards on the flowers outside Kensington Palace that the BBC chooses to zoom in on. It purports to be from a child, though whether one is supposed to be touched by it or (as is my inclination) to throw up isn’t plain.

HMQ to address the nation tomorrow. I’m only surprised Her Majesty hasn’t had to submit to a phone-in.

5 September. HMQ gives an unconvincing broadcast: ‘unconvincing’ not because one doesn’t believe that her sentiments are genuine (as to that there’s no way of telling), but because she’s not a good actress, indeed not an actress at all. What she should have been directed to do is to throw in a few pauses, seem to be searching for her words and the speech would have been hailed as moving and heartfelt. As it is she reels her message off, as she always does. That is the difference between Princess Diana and the Queen: one could act, the other can’t.

I remember, regretfully now, one of HMQ’s lines in A Question of Attribution which, when we were looking for cuts, we took out: ‘I don’t like it when people clap me because there may come a time when they won’t. Besides I’m there. It’s like clapping Nelson’s column.’

After supper we go down to look at the scene in the Mall, which is full of people not particularly silent, no mood at all, really, just walking up and down as if coming away from an event, though it’s also like a huge passeggiata. People crowd to the walls and hedges, where there are flowers and little candlelit shrines; flowers fixed to trees, poems, painted messages; a Union Jack and teddy bears (which always bode ill). Many are Asian and the populousness of it, as well as the random milling about, make me think that this is perhaps what India is like.

The evening is redeemed by an extraordinary sight. Despite the hundreds and hundreds of people trooping past, there, on the grass by the corner of Stable House Street, is a fox. It is just out of the light, slinking by with its head turned towards the parade of people passing, none of whom notice it. It’s quite small, as much fawn as red, and is, I imagine, a vixen. It lopes unhurriedly along the verge before diving under the hedge into St James’s Palace grounds. Besides us only one woman notices it, but that’s probably just as well: such is the hysteria and general silliness it might have been hailed as the reincarnation of Princess Diana, another beautiful vixen, with whom lots of parallels suggest themselves. We walk back through Green Park where, set back from the Victoria Memorial, is a bright little bivouac, which I take to be people pitching camp and staking a claim for the procession tomorrow. In fact it’s the HQ of British Telecom, half a dozen technicians squatting under this orange canopy, their interest focused on computer screens. It’s the kind of subject Eric Ravilious would have picked out, or Ardizzone in the Western Desert.

Walk back through Shepherd’s Market, now smart and gentrified, cafés on pavements and all that. Except it hasn’t altogether changed, as in one corner there’s an open door, a lighted staircase and a notice: ‘New Tasty Babe Upstairs’.

15 September, Yorkshire. Blackberrying up Black Bank, taking with me one of Miss Shepherd’s old walking sticks. Huge clusters of berries so that one can gather them almost by the handful. Never so utterly at peace as when picking blackberries or looking for mushrooms, the spread of Ingleborough and Penyghent still sunny while black clouds gather over Morecambe. A flock of sheep comes up the road and won’t pass me until I stand in the ditch. The pretty farm girl who is bringing up the rear seems almost as reluctant to pass as the sheep, just giving me a shy ‘Hello’ and running on. A mountain ash tree, weighted down with huge swags of crimson berries, catches the last of the sun. It’s like something by Samuel Palmer; paint it as bright and glowing as it is and it would seem like a vision.

25 September. The Bradford Telegraph and Argus rings at about 10.30 to say that Jonathan Silver has died. I last spoke to him in July, when he rang to say that I had been much in his mind since he was now wholly at the mercy of his doctors and so was feeling like George III. Some of their procedures (a baseball cap filled with ice worn for some hours to preserve his hair from radiotherapy) would not have been out of place in the 18th century. I am normally immune to enthusiasm and even recoil from it but Jonathan’s was irresistible, and I admired the fact that he had created at Salt’s Mill an arts centre, a bookshop, a restaurant and a gallery crammed with Hockneys, and that it wasn’t simply pious or well-intentioned but worked well on every level, artistic and commercial. He was proud of the success of Salt’s Mill and delighted to show it off, even taking one round the premises of the various firms whose rents made the running of the gallery possible. A look of patient indulgence would come over the faces of these Northern executives, knowing that he was obsessive and bearing it patiently, because, had he not been so, the Mill would never have taken off. In a way it’s fitting that the setting for all this should have been Saltaire, the inspiration of the 19th-century mill-owner and philanthropist Sir Titus Salt. Voluble, pony-tailed, brimming with enthusiasm, Jonathan Silver was his worthy successor.

26 September. Listen to a superb recording of Tristram Shandy read by John Moffatt, who manages to make sense in the reading of stuff that is almost incomprehensible on the page. John was once doing some Chekhov in Edinburgh and heard a lady coming away afterwards say: ‘There was a lot of laughter at the end of the first act, but I soon put a stop to that.’ He also played in Perth, where The Cherry Orchard was billed as The Cheery Orchard.

30 September. Read The Birth of Shylock and the Death of Zero Mostel by Arnold Wesker, an account of his attempts to get his play, Shylock, produced and how it flopped on Broadway. Much of it I find sympathetic, though the only lesson I can draw from it is that playwright and director should never correspond. The text is full of letters from Wesker to Peter Hall, from John Dexter to Wesker and from Wesker to anyone who would listen. The last letters I wrote concerning a production of one of my plays was in 1977, when I tried, with the permission of the director, to change the performance of one of the actors in The Old Country. It didn’t work, as letters in my experience never do work; however larded with praise, they almost invariably cause offence. You can say what you think or not, but never write it down.

6 October. Rowse dies, the obituary in the Independent by Jack Simmons much kinder than one might have expected. I only met him a few times, first in 1973 at All Souls, when he was so pleased with himself and so concerned to strike the ‘me me me’ note that he was untalkable to. When I used to see him as an undergraduate I was always struck by his massive forehead, a feature that doesn’t come out in photographs. Bruce MacFarlane, while he made fun of him, says somewhere in his letters that there was another side to him, one of great kindness and consideration. There must have been more than met the later eye because as he got older he was a terrible bore, one reason he was passed over for honours for so long presumably being that the great and the good who decide such things had been given too many earfuls when dining at All Souls.

He was a compulsive diarist, Bruce saying that when he was out walking Rowse often fell behind in order to write down one of his remarks. It’s said in the obituaries that Eliot liked his poems but this doesn’t accord with Charles Monteith’s story of coming into Eliot’s office at Faber’s one morning and finding him pacing the room, groaning. ‘More poems from Leslie Rowse. Oh God.’

He came up to Oxford (as he never tired of telling you) as a scholarship boy from Cornwall, the son of working-class parents and with what was presumably a broad Cornish accent. What I’ve always wanted to know is when exactly his native tones gave way to the exaggerated Oxford accent he always affected. Was it a sudden change or did it happen gradually? It’s one of the many questions I should have asked MacFarlane but never got round to.

24 October. Headline in the Observer: ‘Boy, six, raped by girl 14.’ This is the main front-page headline and presumably what the Observer thinks is the most important item of news this weekend.

7 November. Isaiah Berlin dies. I’ve never understood (as he claims he never understood) why he should have been held in such high intellectual esteem. His writing is windy and verbose and the only one of his books I’ve managed to get through is The Hedgehog and the Fox, read when I was 20. He was the darling of the New York Review of Books, which in the Eighties seemed to carry pieces about him in virtually every issue. I’m currently reading Errata, the intellectual autobiography of George Steiner. I wish it wasn’t quite so intellectual, as the purely autobiographical sections – e.g. his early days at the University of Chicago – are fascinating. Steiner, in contrast to Berlin, never fails to embroil you in his language, making the reader feel that his thoughts have been hewn from the living flesh, as Kafka and Wittgenstein felt they should be. But again in contrast to Berlin, Steiner has not had much luck in commending himself to the English, partly because he’s awkward and, I imagine, touchy; and as he himself admits, the breadth of his approach, and not being modest or self-conscious about his intellectual equipment, have provoked ‘distaste, professional suspicion and marginalisation’. Berlin and Steiner would make good protagonists in a play, the two Jews, both supremely intellectual but one modest, self-deprecating and social, the other chippy, difficult and wholly unassimilable, so never given his due.

A propos Steiner, there was a time in the early Seventies when some friends and their families, including Brian Wenham, Derrick Amoore and Francis Hope (all dead before their time), used to rent a villa on the Mediterranean every summer. One year they were most excited to learn that Steiner was due to rent the villa next door. All of them, particularly Francis, were mettlesome intellects and they looked forward to the advent of Steiner and some off-the-cuff seminars.

Steiner duly arrived but turned out to be the Steiner the hairdresser.

16 November, Yorkshire. I watch two unlisted and unadvertised programmes on BBC2 in which Isaiah Berlin is interviewed by Michael Ignatieff. Never having seen Berlin or heard him (except in frequent imitation), I fall straightaway for his charm and see how one would want to think that here was a good man living the true life of the mind. It had occurred to me that Berlin was the antithesis of Wittgenstein and that Berlin in spate, as it were, would have been intolerable to a philosopher who was, to say the least, somewhat more terse. It transpires that they did once meet and that even Wittgenstein succumbed to the spell, not much caring for what Berlin said, but welcoming the honesty with which he said it. His mode of utterance is endlessly fascinating. Down the road from here is a spring called the Ebbing and Flowing Well, which bubbles up and falls back much as Berlin does, words overflowing from his mouth rather like a baby bringing back its food. He would have been almost impossible to dislike and I find myself greatly cheered.

19 November. A cool, showery day but on the M40 going towards Oxford we drive out of the rain into a perfect autumn day, windy and cold with the sky swept clean of clouds. First to Easington, a remote church by a farmyard. I last came here twenty years ago, and since then the roof has been almost blown off and restored, but though there’s a new and brutal farm building within a few yards of the south wall it’s still a delightful place. Driving back over the hill to the road we see two huge birds with a wingspan of three or four feet, much larger than hawks and certainly not herons, which are clumsy fliers and trail their legs, whereas these bank and soar and circle and eventually make off across the fields. We turn into a field to have our sandwiches and there they are again, about a quarter of a mile away, circling around a ploughed field and occasionally alighting, once coming close enough for us to see the white bars under their wings. Then on to Great Milton to see the Dormer tomb. The church is locked, and when we get the key from a nearby cottage, the woman tells us that it’s because the helm and sword of Sir Michael Dormer, which have hung above his tomb for nearly four hundred years, were stolen two weeks ago. This makes me feel murderous, but it’s a superb tomb, a double decker repositioned in the 19th century so that the feet of Sir Michael, Dorothea his lady and Ambrose his father are all turned firmly towards the altar. Wonderful though it is, it’s not quite in the same class as the Fettiplace tombs at Swin-brook, where the effigies are stacked one on top of the other as if in a sepulchral couchette.

20 November. I tell my agent Rosalind Chatto about seeing the huge birds and ten minutes later her partner, Michael Linnit, rings to say that what we saw were red kites. He lives on top of the Chilterns and often sees them and has even had them on his lawn. A few years ago a pair migrated or were brought from Wales, their only surviving habitat, and flourished in their new surroundings to the extent that there are now five or six pairs. They take voles and pigeons even, and are fearless in the presence of humans, their only enemy nowadays egg-collectors.

4 December. To the funeral at St Dunstan’s, Canterbury of John Williams, whom I have known since we were at Oxford and whose character is summed up in an incident during his National Service. Entered for officer selection, he found himself pitted against another candidate on an obstacle course. Arriving at a hanging rope at the same time as the other man, John stood back politely and said: ‘After you.’ Which would have been all right except that a major-general who was observing the proceedings went purple in the face and immediately put an end to John’s prospects.

I am early for the service and wander round the church, ancient-looking on the outside but heavily Victorianised within and seemingly without much of interest. However, in the south aisle are a couple of 16th-century tombs, beneath which is the vault of the Roper family. William Roper was the son-in-law of Sir Thomas More, and after More’s execution in 1535, his daughter Margaret, who was married to William, bribed someone to remove his parboiled head from London Bridge and kept it in spices for the rest of her life. Investigations in the 19th century revealed a grille in the Roper vault behind which was a skull, thought to be that of Sir Thomas. St Thomas, as he now is, so the chapel in this undistinguished-seeming church is a place of Catholic pilgrimage. None of which has much to do with John Williams, whose coffin now waits in the porch. The church is full of his friends, few of whom know each other. Were he here (which he is and he isn’t) he would have been going round the pews apologising to his friends that they had had to go to the trouble of attending his funeral.

‘We’ve got a stone hot-water bottle,’ John wrote to me in 1959. ‘Mother uses it for airing the beds. I have filled it with flowers – it makes a good vase – at least, quite a good one and anyway it’s nice to think that the hot-water bottle is being admired for what it is rather than for what it does. I really think it is grateful, though this must sound very silly in a letter.’ This catches some of the qualities that were peculiar to him: his odd angle on the world and sympathy for both people and things that were unregarded in it; his ability to see form and beauty in the most mundane objects and which one saw again and again in his house, in the furniture he restored and the tools which he almost obsessively collected. It catches too, a divine silliness about him which struck me forcibly when he was a young man at Oxford, though it was a quality he happily retained all his life.

He was a craftsman of a kind that has nowadays disappeared. Largely self-taught, he knew the nature of the materials with which he worked and lavished care and affection on them. He haunted car-boot sales and couldn’t resist rescuing old tools, of which he eventually had a vast collection and which now happily is to go to the National Trust. The V and A has some of his leather work as do a dozen great houses – and once he made a guitar sling for Paul McCartney.

Coming away from the gathering afterwards, I find that just as there isn’t an object in his house I wouldn’t want, so there isn’t a person I’ve talked to whom I haven’t liked. Trying to extract some sort of message from his life I think it’s something to do with privacy and diversity and the persistence in an increasingly homogeneous world of rarity, individuality and character. John was like someone out of the 19th century, out of Dickens in particular, so much was he his own man.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 20 No. 5 · 5 March 1998

Alan Bennett wonders (LRB, 1 January) whether the Holy Spirit resents the other two Persons of the Trinity for ‘being better known (and certainly more identifiable) than he is’. The answer is that he doesn’t, being less interested in the visual arts than in music, where – as almost any celebrated setting of the Lesser Doxology demonstrates – the Father and the Son are summarily ticked off on the register as present before the composer settles down to show us his stuff in an elaborate and lengthy exposition of the et Spiritui Sancto.

Michael Dibdin

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences