12 January. A New York producer sends me Waiting in the Wings, Noël Coward’s play about a theatrical retirement home – Denville Hall, I suppose it is. He wants me to update it, though lest I should think this kind of thing beneath me what he says he wants is ‘a new perspective on the play’.

The perspective will have to be a pretty distant one as it now seems a creaking piece all round, the only character not requiring updating (or a new perspective) is an old actress, Sarita Myrtle, who’s gone completely doolally, and so still seems contemporary. The most startling revelation is that it includes a character called Alan Bennet (sic) who is described as ‘in his late forties. He is neatly dressed but there is an indefinable quality of failure about him’.

Coward’s play was staged in September 1960, a month after Beyond the Fringe, and a year after I had appeared on the stage for the first time with the Oxford Theatre Group. (I am just thinking how the name might have lodged in Coward’s mind.) Nobody has ever noticed it before – not even Nora Nicholson who played Sarita Myrtle and was with me in Forty Years On.

13 January. Humphrey Carpenter comes round to do some fact-checking for his forthcoming book on satire and after. He asks me if we ever had any alternative titles to Beyond the Fringe, which was Robert Ponsonby’s contribution and not popular with us at the time. I can’t think of any but J. Miller later remembers ‘At the Drop of a Brick’, a reference to Flanders and Swann’s At the Drop of a Hat and Peter Cook’s suggestion that we call it ‘Quite the best revue I’ve seen for some time. Bernard Levin’, the point being that whatever the notices this could go up at the front of house.

27 January. A woman writes to me saying that having read a piece I’d written about him, she has tried to read Kafka but without success. For the same reason she asked at the library for something on Larkin but seeing his photograph gave the book straight back: ‘He looked too much like Sergeant Bilko.’

28 January. I switch on the Antiques Roadshow where someone is showing an expert a drawing by E.H. Shepard, the illustrator of Winnie the Pooh. It’s a cartoon or an illustration dated 1942, entitled ‘Gobbling Market’ and meant as a satire on black marketeers. It was for Punch but it could just as easily have been for Der Stürmer, as all the black marketeers are strongly semitic in features, some as demonic as in the worst Nazi propaganda. The expert makes no reference to this, except to say: ‘It’s very strong.’ When the owner bought the drawing he’d had the chance of getting a Winnie the Pooh cartoon instead: that would have appreciated in value a good deal but ‘Gobbling Market’ not at all, which is encouraging.

February. Yesterday evening to the National Gallery’s Ingres exhibition. Some glowing early portraits ... the earliest like Fabre or Géricault and the best an extraordinary painting of his friend J.B. Desdéban. Redhaired, orange-jacketed and against a russet background he’s not unlike the Chicago Degas of the woman having her hair brushed, which is another exercise in red. Ingres is supposed to have said it was the best thing he ever did and it could be taken for an early Picasso. Lynn points out how bony and articulated the hands are in the drawings whereas in the paintings the hands become fat, boneless and almost claw-like.

Dame Iris Murdoch dies and gets excellent reviews, all saying how (morally) good she was, though hers was not goodness that seemed to require much effort, just a grace she had been given; so she was plump and she was also good, both attributes she had been born with and didn’t trouble herself over. I wonder if it’s easier to be good if you don’t care whether you’re wearing knickers or mind, as Wittgenstein didn’t, living on porridge; goodness more accessible if you’re what my mother used to call ‘a sluppers’.

Nobody explains (or seems to think an explanation required) how this unworldly woman managed to be made a dame by Mrs Thatcher and was laden with honorary degrees; sheer inadvertence perhaps.

In a later obituary it’s said that she approved of the Falklands War and one begins to see that for all her goodness and mild appeal she may have trod the same path as her contemporaries Amis and Larkin. Masked though she was in kindliness and general benevolence she may have ended up as far from her radical beginnings as they did, Dame Iris’s spiritual journey not all that different from Paul Johnson’s.

10 February. At Christmas G. and R. gave me a subscription to This England (‘Britain’s Loveliest Magazine’), which at first seemed a conventional magazine of the countryside with thatched cottages, country houses and even Patience Strong. Closer examination shows it to be more sinister: it is seemingly the house magazine of the Society of St George and dedicated to the preservation of the English identity. A second number comes today, more virulent than the last with columns of correspondence all fervently opposed to the European connection, denouncing Labour (and half the Conservatives) as traitors. It’s the usual stuff except to find a magazine ostensibly devoted to singing the praises of the countryside but peddling such rot is quite disturbing. And of course not a black face to be seen. It’s the kind of publication one laughs about, but go a thousand miles across Europe and sentiments no more rancid and parochial are inspiring neighbours to slit each others’ throats.

12 March. Reading P. Ackroyd’s Thomas More, which I finish today, leaves me in two minds, the tolerance and scepticism of the author of Utopia and the dogmatism and heresy-hunting of the lawyer never adding up and not short of hypocrisy. It’s hard not to feel there is something specifically English about this two-mindedness (More’s not mine). Ackroyd writes how during his time in prison More was tormented by fears of torture and the barbarities of his possible punishment, without it seeming to occur to him (or to Ackroyd) that the torments he had himself visited on heretics were just as terrible. Nor did these have a dogmatic justification as intended to save the victims from the pains of hell; More rejoiced in the cruelties since they gave the poor souls a foretaste of eternal fire. However noble his conduct in the face of death it’s difficult to feel much sympathy with him. Henry VIII is a devil but that doesn’t make More a saint.

In the afternoon to Kendal and the Abbot Hall Gallery, notable for its collection of Romneys (Romney born in Kendal). Less taken by the finished portraits, which are staid and wooden, than by his preliminary sketches, some of them so rough and full of energy they’re reminiscent of Frank Auerbach, though none of this dash survives into the finished portraits. Occasionally funny, too, particularly a sketch of Two Lovers Startled by a Young Person, a child gazing at a snogging couple.

22 March. Good example of journalistic spite last week when I was rung by the Independent (journalist’s name forgotten) wanting my comments on a movement for Yorkshire independence. I say I have none. ‘What, none at all?’ ‘No,’ and I put the phone down. In the item the next day it is recorded that I have no comment despite having written such ‘treacly’ plays about the region. An untreacly (and incorrect) joke about Yorkshire via George Melly:

A driver lost near Leeds stops to ask a local the way.

‘Excuse me. Do you know the Bradford turn-off?’


‘I should do. I married her.’

April. I call at the Regent Bookshop in Parkway to find Peter the proprietor’s mother there with a bundle of papers she’s brought in for him to photocopy. She is from Vienna, which she left in 1938 at the age of 20, her parents having managed to find someone in England who would employ her and her two sisters as domestics and so procure them visas.

Here is her passport stamped with a large red J and the letters she wrote after the war trying to find out what happened to her parents, both dead in a camp. I come away thinking about the supposed shame stamped on the passport and the grudging visa that had saved her life. The issues all seem so clear and so much more shocking than what now happens every day on the borders of Yugoslavia. Easier to be indignant about, too, with, sixty years ago, the rights and wrongs so unquestionable. Whereas nowadays one says: ‘Well they’ve always been at each others’ throats’; and: ‘If the Serbs weren’t doing it to them they would be doing it to the Serbs.’ And so I often don’t read any of the five or six pages the papers devote every morning to Kosovo, as maybe I wouldn’t have read about the Jews clamouring to get out of Germany and Austria in 1938.

13 April. Watching Great Expectations on TV, I found it lacked (and rather prided itself on lacking) the element of the grotesque that Dickens needs, one reason being the costume design. Most costume dramas, whether on stage or film, tend to assume that fashions came and went in the past much as they do today. But it’s only in the last fifty or sixty years that there’ve been large retail outlets like Burton’s or M & S which have homogenised fashion. Before that, the latest thing must have impinged on ordinary lives much less, so that there would be characters in 1830 going around in the fashions of 1800. My grandmother in 1949 was still wearing the long duster coats she had worn in 1920 and Queen Mary looked like an Edwardian lady all her life: dying in the Fifties, she still dressed as she had in 1910. Look at Ford Madox Brown’s Work: only the middle and upper classes are dressed in a contemporary way; the workmen, the flower-seller and the poorer characters are dressed in what comes to hand – fashion doesn’t enter into it. Portraits, too, are deceptive as the sitters generally choose to be in their Sunday best. Apropos of which one of the many pleasures of Judy Egerton’s Catalogue of British Paintings in the National Gallery is her dissection of the hunting gear worn by Lord Ribblesdale in Sargent’s famous portrait. Though he seems the epitome of high fashion, in this as in much else he isn’t typical and certainly isn’t wearing what the well-dressed Master of Foxhounds might have chosen but an assemblage of favourite garments that are no less striking for being utterly individual.

16 April. Foul young businessman on the train making arrangements for the evening with a girlfriend via his mobile phone. ‘Save some for me,’ he says, and as he signs off: ‘Be kissed.’

1 May, Oxford. Outside the Museum of Natural History in Parks Road is a large stone disc curved, faceted and looking like a giant turtle shell. The label says it’s a ‘septarian concretion’, consisting of limestone formed 165 million years ago and found in the Bicester clay in 1984. Similar limestone concretions, though more the size of tortoise shells, are in various gardens and borders in our village in Yorkshire having been found in the bed of the village beck, where they’re unsurprisingly not called ‘septarian concretions’ but ‘pudding stones’.

We look round the Museum, much more spick and span than it was when I was last here as an undergraduate, when the cast-iron roof and elaborate arcading were less well thought of and more of a piece with the dusty dinosaur skeletons down below. Wanting to ask about porphyry, I spot a middle-aged man rearranging one of the showcases and ask him if he knows anything about stones. ‘I should do,’ he says: ‘I’m one of the curators.’ I tell him about visiting Chastleton, the 17th-century house near Chipping Norton newly restored by the National Trust, and it turns out he was the expert called in to advise on the conservation of the stonework. The Trust was anxious to know where the stone had originally been quarried. He told them to walk across the field opposite the house and when they came to a dip in the ground and the house disappeared from view that would be where the stone came from. And so it was.

12 May. I go to the post office for my bus pass. The woman behind the counter leans over and says confidentially: ‘Is it your first time?’ It’s as if I’m going to a brothel. Except that in a brothel they don’t require proof of residence or identity and I’m sent home to get them.

14 May. A piece in the Independent about David Blunkett tackling falling standards in education. I am pictured, though whether as evidence of decline or hope for the future I can’t make out. Either would please me.

Judging from newspaper reports, the congregation at Ted Hughes’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey was an odd mixture, with a surprising number of old aristocratic biddies (the oldest being the Queen Mother), and society (the dead poet’s society, I suppose) well represented. It’s no secret that the Laureate had put it about a bit, which, of course, isn’t mentioned in the tributes, though there is some comment afterwards that the service had more of Hughes than it did of God and that it was altogether too free-form. I rather wish it had been more so, and done on the lines of Graham Norton’s current TV show, so that the priest in charge could have said: ‘All sit ... but remain standing those who had any sort of fling with the deceased.’

15 May. Finish reading A Pacifist’s War by Frances Partridge and start reading Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor, both books covering the same period though from different angles, foxholes at Ham Spray and foxholes at Stalingrad hardly the same. Stalingrad is unsurprisingly a bestseller, the course of the conflict making it compulsive reading and almost Homeric, the two vain and wilful leaders like the gods meddling with and frustrating the best efforts of their generals, and the troops on both sides suffering unimaginable hardships. So, though I’m feeling quite low this morning, I look round my cosy book-lined room and think: ‘Well, at least it’s not Stalingrad: it’s warm and I don’t have lice.’

The struggle in the ruins of Stalingrad I think I knew about as a boy from a series in the Hotspur or Wizard; there was certainly a storyline set in the tunnels under Odessa and I think Stalingrad, too. This can’t have been much later than 1943, the war I suppose a godsend to comics whose writers kept up with its progress. The setting of ruined cities, though, may have eventually got monotonous or confusing; I’m not sure now, for instance, that I’m not mixing up Stalingrad with a slightly later series of stories set in the ruins of Monte Cassino.

11 June. Watching them Beating the Retreat on TV last night I remember how, when I was doing basic training at the start of National Service, against all my inclinations and instincts I came to enjoy drill and how (had I played the trumpet) I might have been quite happy as a military bandsman.

July. It seemed unlikely that Classic FM could get worse but it has. I switched on briefly yesterday to hear an announcer (all of whom feel it necessary to have a smile in their voices) saying: ‘That was the very catchy third movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.’ Still, one should no doubt be grateful their pronunciation has improved. I was startled in its earlier days to hear a presenter announce the ballet music from ‘The Female Guardee’. This turned out to be La Fille mal gardée.

Actually a ballet called ‘The Female Guardee’ might be quite interesting. Better than Giselle anyway.

24 July. Wake this Sunday morning with what seemed in my dream a superb title for a play: ‘The Fun to be Had with Models of Dubious Sensibility’.

30 July. Jessye Norman has been appearing at the Barbican. She is touchy about her size, and having difficulty getting into a small aeroplane, is supposed to have been told by air hostess to try getting in sideways. ‘Lady,’ she is said to have remarked, ‘I ain’t got no sideways.’

It would be a nice joke if she had ever made it, which she hotly denies and seemingly rightly as today I come across the same joke in a 19th-century Punch cartoon by L. Ravenhill, the vehicle the fat lady was trying to get into then a horse-drawn omnibus.

10 August. Any war that is fought these days, in the Falklands, the Gulf, the Balkans or wherever, must as a matter of course become straightaway the subject of tactical analysis, seminars at Sandhurst and a general post-operational picking to pieces. This is for the benefit both of the military and the armaments manufacturers and it is not new. I am reading Alabaster Tombs by Arthur Gardner who, discussing the representations of 15th-century armour on church monuments, writes: ‘It is recorded that after a battle the squires and armourers held a sort of inquest over the bodies of the slain in order to discuss how best to prevent or ward off the blows that had proved fatal in the fray.’ So among the camp followers finishing off the dying and stripping the dead there would be a more purposeful and professional group making notes. And as with the more sophisticated developments in today’s armaments, so the adjustments consequent on these medieval inquests were a mixed blessing: ‘The results of their conclusions were not always satisfactory as armour became so heavy that in some fighting the knights were found dead from exhaustion without any sign of blow or wound.’

Gardner’s book was sent to the publishers in November 1939, and like the excavation at Sutton Hoo earlier that year, must have seemed an almost quixotic gesture of faith in permanence and continuity at a time when general destruction was in prospect and alabaster tombs and Saxon burial ships were hardly top priorities.

26 August. Switch on the radio after supper and catch most of Elgar’s First Symphony, music which invariably transports me back to boyhood and walking up Headingley Lane on a summer evening after a concert in Leeds Town Hall. The evocative power of music is, I suppose, greatest when heard in live performance. This is a recording but it still casts a spell because I have come on it by accident. Had I put on the recording myself the spell would have been nowhere near as powerful because self-induced. Why this should be I can’t think, though doubtless Proust would know.

7 September. Alan Clark dies. I never met him, though I saw him once in the street, noting then that he shared a walk with Denis Healey, both of them swinging their arms laterally as they walked in the manner of Soviet soldiery. Except I fancy Clark swung his arms more slowly than Healey, this putting him in a slightly King of the Apes mode.

10 September. Catch part of the revamped Round Britain Quiz, none of the contestants a patch on the team of Eric Korn and Irene Thomas with their personalised and often over-informative answers. There is a question on the trivium, the discipline of the Latin schoolmen, which takes in Oedipus. Had Eric Korn been on the team I’m sure he would have been the one to point out that the earliest recorded victim of road rage must have been Laius, Oedipus’ father.

15 September. Having finished the rewrites on The Lady in the Van, I begin reading through Larkin for a selection of his poems I have agreed to do for Faber. Instantly I feel like hanging up my pen. Even in the turgid and sometimes incomprehensible early poems phrases demand to be noted (‘each slovenly grief’, ‘the dingy hospital of snow’) so that one’s tempted to include the whole poem, if only to preserve the phrase. Not that Larkin would thank one for saying so (or saying anything), the awareness of his contempt, even though it’s posthumous, a real deterrent.

Cars abandoned by the road nowadays often bear a notice saying ‘Police Aware’. Maybe one could slap ‘Poet Aware’ on a beauty spot or even on some particularly touching vagrant.

October. Finish reading The Jew of Linz by Kimberley Cornish, ‘an investigation of what may prove to be the century’s most significant coincidence, the hitherto over-looked fact that its most evil politician (Hitler) and its most brilliant philosopher (Wittgenstein) were at school together’. Not overlooked by me, as it occurs in Kafka’s Dick (1986), where it’s almost thrown away since I assumed, I’m sure rightly, that this wasn’t much of a revelation.

More controversial is Cornish’s assertion that Hitler and Wittgenstein were actual classmates at the Linz Realschule c.1904. This may have been true, but even if they weren’t and were just in the school at the same time it seems likely that Hitler would have heard of the philosopher-to-be, whose schooldays sound to have been pretty disastrous. Socially and intellectually, he was a cut above his fellows, while being unhappy for the conventional reasons, not being good at games and so on, and it seems probable that the ‘one Jewish boy’ mentioned early on in Mein Kampf was, as Cornish asserts, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The trouble is Cornish makes his case in such a tendentious and overheated fashion, and utterly without humour, that he invites scepticism. To add to all his other problems the young Wittgenstein had a double rupture so if Hitler really did only have one ball it’s tempting to think of the pair of them behind the bikesheds comparing notes.

Cornish goes on to suggest that (while at Cambridge) Wittgenstein may have been the master spy who recruited for the Soviets, this line of reasoning having much to do with Wittgenstein’s homosexuality. So we have lists of Trinity men who were Apostles, which of them were homosexuals and so on, Cornish dodgily assuming, as did Andrew Boyle and John Costello before him, that homosexuality is itself a bond and that if two men can be shown to be homosexual the likelihood is that they’re sleeping together. So we trail down that road looking for cliques and coteries with even G.M. Trevelyan’s sexual credentials called into question because he happens to have recommended the homosexual Guy Burgess for a job at the BBC.

I wonder apropos of this whether hunting the spies would have taken the same turn if it had not been for Lewis Namier. His work on the 18th-century Parliament pioneered the study of friendship and connection as the building blocks of 18th-century Parliamentary politics, a method that was quickly taken up and adapted for other periods, the 14th and 15th centuries included. Sussing out who slept with whom in the Thirties, sex and friendship as a preliminary to recruitment, looks like the Namier method debased, less spy mania than spy Namier.

It’s hard to believe that the author of the Tractatus was a master spy, though not much harder than accommodating to the known fact that he was a big fan of Betty Hutton and Carmen Miranda (Judy Garland one would have understood). And even though Wittgenstein was never big on small talk, he must have been tempted in those dark days of the war to drop the name of his former schoolmate, which he never seems to have done – or not to anyone who mattered. But who knows? Say when Wittgenstein is doing his stint as a hospital porter at Guy’s and he’s wheeling some wretched casualty of the Blitz back from the operating theatre. Still dozy from the anaesthetic the patient comes round and is alarmed to find the frail porter with the burning eyes bending over him.

‘Air raids nothing,’ he whispers. ‘What do you expect from that Adolf? I used to see him in the playground and he was Mr No-Good then already. Still’ – he spies Matron approaching – ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

11 October. The Larkin selection falls through, a casualty of Larkin’s early connection with George Hartley and the Marvell Press, which originally published The Less Deceived, the rights in which Hartley has understandably hung onto ever since. Sometimes he gives permission for the poems to be reproduced, sometimes not: this time not.

Writing an introduction has forced me, reluctantly, to think about Larkin again. His gloom has to be faced and sometimes, I’ve come to think, faced down. It gets under the skin as Hardy’s never does. Though this may be because he’s our contemporary, it’s also that where melancholy is concerned Larkin is such a missionary. It’s not enough that he sees the world as he does: we must see it, too, and feel as depressed about it.

He defends this: ‘People say I’m very negative and I suppose I am, but the impulse for producing a poem is never negative, the most negative poem in the world is a very positive thing to have done. The fact that a poem makes a reader want to lie down and die rather than get up and sock somebody is irrelevant.’ Of course, a poem sometimes does both and the person one wants to get up and sock is Larkin himself.

Thus it is that whereas when I first read him it was his sadness that appealed, these days the poems I prefer are those in which his depression and disenchantment are least in evidence – ‘Churchgoing’, for instance, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, ‘Maiden Name’, ‘MCMXIV’ and ‘The Explosion’ – none of them poems that can be said (perish the thought) to be cheerful but all poems in which the reader is not required to endorse or concur in what in some poems, ‘Aubade’ to take one example, I now think of as a bullying (and specifically male) despair.

My perspective on this is of someone who has had to stand on the stage and read the poems, when it becomes a predicament. Declaiming lines like ‘Life is first boredom then fear’ or ‘Courage is no good/It means not scaring others,’ and sensing an audience happily concurring, I feel a tart: it’s just giving them a cheap thrill. The despair is too easy.

24 October. In an interview for the Observer this morning Robert McCrum congratulates Michael Frayn on being more of a free spirit than others of his generation, ‘Michael Winner and Alan Bennett being prisoners of their own celebrity’.

Prisoners possibly but I hope we’re not in the same cell.

14 November. Watch part of the Remembrance Day ceremony with the usual mixed feelings, hating the seven-foot-tall never cheating, never doubting generals stalking onto the parade (the Army always harder to take than the Navy) and the hard-faced high-ranking veteran (younger than me, I note) who marches out on behalf of the British Legion. Untelevised is the planting of pink triangles on behalf of the gay dead, the consequence, it seems, of a refusal both by the British Legion and the MoD to allow surviving same-sex partners of the dead to take part in the parade. I find myself out of sympathy with both sides, though more angered by the intransigence of the old guard from whom only a small effort of the imagination was required. The dead would have more sense, a great posthumous shrug the proper answer. (And a shout from somewhere in the ranks of ‘What the fuck does it matter now, anyway?’)

Untelevised, too, is the protest of Mr John Hipkiss, a dedicated Geordie pensioner who is, shamefully, having to campaign for the pardon of those shot for cowardice on the Western Front, and in particular for the boy soldiers who were executed, some as young as 16. Shown in tonight’s Everyman programme is Dr John Reid when Armed Forces minister and still managing to pretend that there was some justice in these executions, no doubt because one of the seven-foot-tall generals in the MoD has bullied him into compliance. So Dr Reid presumably knows more about cowardice than some of the boys who were shot. Shown on the programme is one of the death sentences passed by a court martial on a 17-year-old carrying with it a recommendation for mercy. Except that the recommendation is personally countermanded by Field Marshal Earl Haig, that old brute whose children are still (despite his earldom, his country estate and a grateful nation’s pension) complaining how unfairly history has treated their papa.

18 November. In one of the scenes in The Lady in the Van Nicholas Farrell, playing me, is briefly interviewed at home by a visiting journalist, the scene beginning with her returning from the loo and saying: ‘Pictures in the lavatory! That to me spells civilisation!’

Watching today’s dress rehearsal at the Queen’s through a haze of flu, I think I hear: ‘Victor’s in the lavatory! That to me spells civilisation!’

Well, I fluily think, it could have been, as this was in 1974 and at the time V.S. Pritchett was living round the corner and I suppose the presence of our leading literary critic and short-story writer in one’s loo would testify to some degree of sophistication. Or, I doze, perhaps there’s no apostrophe and it’s ‘Victors in the lavatory!’ – a successful skirmish in the war against constipation, a war Miss Shepherd fought virtually on my doorstep.

Meanwhile the play has moved on and Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd is now driving the van onto the stage and as it were into my garden. That I can’t actually recall this happening I put down to my assumption that it was only going to be for three months. Had I known at the time that it would be for 15 years the moment must surely have etched itself on my memory.

25 November. Multiplied on the stage I now seem to be multiplying in life. At rehearsal today Ben Aris, who plays Miss Shepherd’s brother, asks me about my time as a chorister at King’s, Cambridge, some of my memories of which are printed in December’s Gramophone. He shows me the magazine and there is my photograph and an account of my time as a chorister (and indeed senior chorister) from 1937 to 1941 when, nothing if not precocious, I would have been all of three years old. It turns out to be a mixup between words and pictures: there is an Alan Bennett, an ex-chorister whose reminiscences these are, and seeing the name, the picture editor has slapped on my photograph. I imagine the singing Alan Bennett gets more grief from his name than I do but it does leave me with a small regret as I would have liked to have taken part in the ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols during the darkest days of the war along with Dadie Rylands, perhaps, E.M. Forster and Maynard Keynes. As it was, come 1941 and all I was doing was giving my shepherd abiding in the fields in the Upper Armley National School nativity play.

27 November. The wife of Nicholas Farrell is having a baby and it had been agreed before rehearsals started that he should have time off to attend the birth. This ought to have been a fortnight ago, well before the start of previews, but the baby is overdue and labour began last night and looks like going on throughout the afternoon. His understudy has had no chance to rehearse and I therefore go on with the book at the matinee and play myself.

It’s a salutary experience. I tend to under-estimate the energy required by acting, my own efforts on the stage fitting well with Gerald Du Maurier’s definition of acting as ‘overpaid casual labour’. I stand at the van door, a foot or so from Maggie Smith who is in full flow, her face working, her eyes popping, grimy hands clenching and unclenching, and the force and energy coming off her so palpable that were I not required to stand there in the script I would certainly move back out of range. I am thankful I have the book to shield me and let me occasionally look away from this fierce, demented, deluded woman.

In other respects the performance seems gentler than normal with Kevin McNally, who plays my other half, often putting his hand on my shoulder or stroking my back. This is an illusion. The arm round my shoulder grips me with fingers of steel and steers me to where I should be standing on the stage and the stroking of the back firmly pushes me out of the way.

Luckily it is not an experience I have to repeat as Baby Farrell has been born just as the curtain goes up for the matinee and her proud father is back on stage for the evening performance.

11 December. Tidy my desk, going through piles of papers accumulated during the rewrites and rehearsals of The Lady in the Van and feeling, as I often do when a play has been mounted, that it’s slightly to the side of the play I wanted to write and that, now it’s on, here among the cuts and alterations is the real play.

There are odd lines I have forgotten to include. ‘I know the difference between urine and honeysuckle’ (my anguished retort when Miss S. attributed the smell from the van to the creeper on my neighbour’s wall) and a remark of my mother’s: ‘By, you’ve had some script out of me!’ I find a note about my fear of Catholic churches as a boy, which I always entered warily and with some sense of a spell cast. They were exotic places, tasteless and vulgar, the incense and images and explicit devotion making me nervous of stopping long in such an idolatrous lair.

‘Try and get some silliness in’ is another note.

And a vision of Miss Shepherd on some dream outing, stood sentinel by her van on top of the Sussex Downs. The light shafts throught the clouds and she gazes across the Channel like a figure from a Shell poster in the pioneer days of motoring.

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Vol. 22 No. 4 · 17 February 2000

Alan Bennett wonders right about Iris Murdoch (LRB, 20 January). Sitting in a crowded Oxford to Paddington train with her one morning in, I suppose, 1981, I said something in favour of the miners, who were already being a nuisance to Mrs Thatcher. She turned her not un-Amis-like eyes on me and said briskly: ‘I think they should be put up against a wall and shot.’

Jeremy Treglown
London NW3

Alan Bennett’s version of the mispronunciation of La Fille mal gardée had me grinning, not least because of its perfect timing. The 20 December 1999 A.Word.A.Day e-mail featured the term ‘mondegreen’ – used to describe a word or phrase resulting from mishearing a word or phrase. The coining of the term followed the admission by the British writer, Sylvia Wright, in the November 1954 issue of Harper’s magazine, that she had long misheard the words of the Scottish folksong: ‘They hae slain the Earl of Murray/And laid him on the green’ as ‘They hae slain the Earl Amurray/And Lady Mondegreen.’ Since Wright’s confession, Jon Carroll, a journalist on the San Francisco Chronicle, has made ‘mondegreens’ into something of a cottage industry, devoting two columns a year to them. The most fertile sources are the lyrics of popular songs, hymns, prayers and company slogans, and the most often quoted mondegreen is ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear’. I wonder whether the term has earned a legitimate place in the English language. It certainly wasn’t recorded in any of the dictionaries I consulted.

Pat Hutley
Kelkheim, Germany

Poor Alan Bennett meets up with a ‘foul’ young businessman on the train who talks on his mobile to his girlfriend and says to her: ‘Be kissed.’ Am puzzled why the ‘foul’ – sounds lovely to me.

Sylvia Elias
London SW3

Vol. 22 No. 3 · 3 February 2000

Alan Bennett infers from Iris Murdoch's approval of the Falklands War that she underwent an ideological transformation as radical as Paul Johnson's (LRB, 20 January). I like to regard myself as being the very epitome of liberal values, both personally and professionally, but I, too, approved of the Falklands War (while being vehemently opposed to Israel's invasion of Lebanon which followed shortly afterwards). Approval had nothing to do with defending democracy, striking a blow against dictators, supporting our gallant lads, or whatever other jingoistic propaganda was spouted at the time, but was simply based on the judgment that whenever possible, and having considered the risks involved and alternative strategies, it is better for personal and international relations if we stand up to bullies, rather than let them take what they want by force. If Iris Murdoch reached a similar conclusion, that of itself no more makes her a political reactionary than my observation that Lord Carrington was the last British politician to accept the doctrine of ministerial responsibility makes me a dyed in the wool Tory.

David Goldberg
Liberal Jewish Synagogue
London NW8

Vol. 22 No. 5 · 2 March 2000

Alan Bennett’s waspish aside (LRB, 20 January) about the ‘children’ of Field Marshal Haig – he must mean Haig’s son, aged 81 – suggests the neglect of two principles usually dear to the liberal mind. One is that you do not visit the sins of the fathers on the children. The other is that at the bar of history, as at the Old Bailey, a man has a right to be judged by his peers. That is, by the standards of his own age. Perhaps the present Earl is as puzzled as I am about what is considered uniquely ‘brutish’ about his father compared with all other commanders of all nations in an age when heavy casualties were considered inevitable.

Douglas Hall
Morebattle, Roxburghshire

Timothy Knapman
Weybridge, Surrey

Vol. 22 No. 6 · 16 March 2000

It is true, as Pat Hutley (Letters, 17 February) writes, that Sylvia Wright coined the word ‘mondegreen’ in an article in Harper’s magazine in 1954. But she was not a British writer. Sylvia Wright (1917-81) was an American writer and my sister. Moreover, in the original article (later included in the book Get away from Me with those Christmas Gifts) she did not make an ‘admission’. Indeed she proudly maintained that the misheard version of many phrases is better than the original.

Phyllis Wright King
New York

Pat Hutley describes the ‘mondegreen’ as the result of the unintentional mishearing of a word or phrase, but there have also been deliberate attempts to produce them. Frank Muir and Denis Norden were each given a phrase at the beginning of My Word and had to produce a ‘mondegreen’ of it by the end, 30 minutes later. My favourite was Frank Muir’s version of ‘honesty is the best policy’ which, by circuitous allusion to the optimum method of making flag-poles for golf greens, became ‘on his tee is the best pole I see.’ Another example was the TV ad for Maxell cassette-tapes which involved a young man – copying Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video – holding up cards purporting to be the lyrics to various songs, including Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’, one of which reads: ‘Uh, oh, my ears are alight.’

Michael Coates
London N19

Vol. 22 No. 7 · 30 March 2000

How fortunate was Douglas Haig to be born in this country. In what other country could a general lose 20,000 men in a morning (1 July 1916) and be promoted only a few months later?

R.E. Bye

Vol. 22 No. 8 · 13 April 2000

Good on Michael Coates (Letters, 16 March) for adding to the stock of ‘mondegreens’ by including Muir and Norden’s clever My Word productions. I think, however, that the genuine article is a product of childish misunderstanding, perhaps aided by a sprightly unconscious. Here’s a true story. A child in Melbourne produced a drawing of a nativity scene in class last Christmas. The teacher recognised the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus but, puzzled by a fat monk hovering nearby, asked who he was. ‘Round John Virgin’, the child replied.

John Ross
Claremont, Australia

Vol. 22 No. 9 · 27 April 2000

Another true story: a highly educated and linguistically gifted acquaintance, born and raised in Ohio, thought until adulthood that the opening line of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was a homage to the Hispanic element in the US melting pot: ‘José, can you see…’

S.A. Skinner
Balliol College, Oxford

Vol. 22 No. 11 · 1 June 2000

John Ross (Letters, 13 April) tells us his ‘Round John Virgin’ mondegreen is a ‘true story’ about a child’s drawing in a Melbourne school last Christmas. My wife heard the same story as a child in Massachusetts, and I heard it while growing up in the West of England. Is Claremont, Australia really that far behind the times?

Michael Brookes
Forest Hills, New York

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