Vol. 25 No. 1 · 2 January 2003

Secrets are best kept by those who have no sense of humour

Alan Bennett resumes his diary

6777 words

4 January. A Christmas letter from Cami Elbow, wife of Peter Elbow, an American college friend who teaches English at Amherst:

Life in Amherst is very placid. Even grammatically correct. In December the town decided to encourage shoppers to patronise the downtown stores with free parking. They ordered plastic bags to cover up the parking meters but the bags arrived with the message wrongly punctuated: ‘Season’s Greeting’s’. When the bag company refused to replace them staffers at the Town Hall spent hours pasting little pieces of adhesive tape over every offending apostrophe. My contradictory husband, who is sometimes known in his field as Write-it-Wrong Elbow, liberated a few of the apostrophes by pulling off the adhesive tape.

13 January. The canonisation of Dame Iris proceeds apace and the BBC are now preparing to show on Omnibus extracts from a video taken from an interview carried out by an eminent neurologist, Professor John Hodges, and presumably taped for research purposes. It’s sanctioned, one imagines, by John Bayley, whose efforts on behalf of his late wife and her reputation make Max Clifford seem timid and retiring. One lesson of this deplorable business is never to sanction the shooting of any video, however lofty its purpose, because once shot it will be shown. Professor Hodges seems to have arrived at his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s by, among other things, asking Dame Iris to recall which of her many books won the Booker Prize. This was The Sea, the Sea, the winner in 1978, a triumph the ailing author could not recall, but since the Booker Prize in 1978 was not the over-publicised proto-Oscars it tries to be today, this is hardly surprising. Still, that an artist’s state of mind should be assessed by his or her recollection of awards won adds a new terror to success. The test used to be recalling the name of the Prime Minister or counting backwards from 10 to 1. Now it’s whether you can remember winning the Evening Standard Award or something similar at Bafta. These sorry occasions have always been best forgotten; now their memory must be kept green against the possible arrival of the men in white coats.

19 January. Watch a video of Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the first time, I think, that I have watched it all the way through since I saw it as a child at a cinema in Guildford. Then its particular interest was that the village scenes featuring the local doctor (Roger Livesey) had been shot at Shere, a picturesque hamlet below Newlands Corner where we’d sometimes go on walks. Livesey watches the goings-on in the village via a camera obscura, though why he does this isn’t explained or the workings of the device either, which must have mystified most people at the time. The notion of eavesdropping keeps coming up in Powell’s work until with Peeping Tom it virtually ended his career. Other oddities in AMOLAD are the naked goatherd playing the flute, an unlikely sight on the Norfolk sands, I would have thought, even in 1945, and a man with wild red hair (looking like Léonide Massine in The Red Shoes) who brings Livesey and David Niven tea in the country house where some amateurs are rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This house seems to be set on a series of steps which, though the film was shot in the studio, relates it to Hardwick Hall and also to the dream sequences that follow with a stairway to heaven. The steps, coincidentally, chime in with a poem by the recently dead Ian Hamilton printed in the LRB.

We are on a kind of stair. The world below
Will never be regained; was never there
Perhaps. And yet it seems
We’ve climbed to where we are
With diligence, as if told long ago
How high the highest rung.

23 January. To Sotheby’s where I’m reminded of a lunch given for Alec Guinness in 1989 when I sat next to Lord Charteris, the Provost of Eton and previously the Queen’s Private Secretary. Talking of A Question of Attribution, then playing at the National, he remarked: ‘Of course, the question everybody asks is whether the Queen knew and whether he knew that the Queen knew. The truth of the matter is they both knew – but, of course, that’s not to be said.’

At the time I remember thinking this was sensationally indiscreet (and it would certainly have made the newspapers). Now it’s tame stuff. But thinking about Charteris, who was a funny man, one realises that it’s much harder if you have a sense of humour not to be indiscreet; the temptation to hang discretion and make jokes or be witty is too great. Secrets are best kept by those with no sense of humour.

2 February. A letter from a reader comparing her experiences of evacuation with mine. She was sent to Grantham and says that Alderman Roberts, Mrs Thatcher’s father, was thought to be into the black market and that Maggie used to hang out of her bedroom window and spit on the other children.

12 February. A shoddy programme about the conviction of Jonathan King for offences against young men dating back twenty-five years and more. While it features some of the police involved, it manages not to ask the pertinent question: if these 15-year-old boys had been 15-year-old girls and romping round in Rolls-Royces even more famous than those of Jonathan King, the Beatles’, say, or the Rolling Stones’, would the police have been quite so zealous in trawling for the supposed victims from a quarter of a century ago? King does himself no favours but I prefer his defiance and want of remorse to the odiously caring voice of the man who presents the programme. As it is, a succession of sad middle-aged men are encouraged to blame their failure in life on these ancient wanks, a service for which the state will now reward them far more munificently than King ever did.

16 February: Man on the phone opposite takes a piss by the wall, talking throughout. I wonder whether he tells the person he is talking to that he’s currently having a piss and, if it’s a woman, if this is some sort of come-on.

28 February. Spike Milligan dies and the nation’s laughter-makers queue up to testify to what it was that made his talents unique, how irreplaceable is his inspired lunacy, and how they personally have benefited from his instructive anarchy. All of which is, I suppose, true, though comedians are never reluctant to provide such posthumous attestations of one another’s genius. It happened when Peter Cook died and with the same maudlin affection. ‘Dear Cooky’, ‘Dear Spike’. The necessary element of suffering, the cost always sought for in the deaths of comics, and which in Peter’s case came with the drink, is here supplied by mental illness (‘No less than 12 nervous breakdowns’, ‘the price he had to pay’). There is no doubt that Milligan was very funny and inspired, particularly in the Q5 TV programmes he did in the 1970s, though his verbal dexterities I found less engaging and with unfortunate effects on some of his disciples, e.g. John Lennon’s In His Own Write. The disciples were always the problem, The Goon Show very funny, the people who liked it (and knew it by heart) not.

16 March. In the afternoon to the new British Galleries at the V&A, particularly to look at one of the surviving copes from the set of vestments given to Westminster Abbey by Henry VII. Anthony Symondson has written about its subsequent history in a piece in the Catholic Herald and how, via a 17th-century second-hand dealer in London and the Catholic college at St Omer, it eventually ended up at Stonyhurst. The vestments were designed apparently by Torrigiano, though this is not said on the label nor is a link made with the bust of Henry VII, also by Torrigiano, in a neighbouring showcase. Even the most limited imagination would find this cope evocative, though; worn presumably at Henry VII’s funeral and possibly, too, at the coronation of Henry VIII, it then went with the young King to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Smuggled out to Flanders in the 17th century, when it eventually came back to Stonyhurst it must have been seen if not worn by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who taught there. A propos Henry VII, what happened between 1485 and 1500? How did bold Harry Tudor of Bosworth Field turn into the crabbed penny-pinching accountant that is his usual representation?

24 March. A film beginning with a man being shepherded through a darkened hall; glimpses of paintings, a shaft of light on a plaster ceiling, the gleam of armour but so dark (lines of light around the shutters) that it’s hard to see anyone’s face. A distant murmur of sound. Odd muttered directions. ‘Steady, a step here,’ the man steered round sheeted furniture and up uncarpeted stairs. Then the group comes to a stop. Someone knocks on the shutter and it is thrown open, light floods in, there is the sudden roar of the crowd. Charles I steps out onto the scaffold.

30 March. Obituary of Dudley M. in yesterday’s Independent by Harry Thompson, the biographer of Peter Cook, whose side one might therefore expect him to take. Instead Thompson very much takes Dudley’s line on himself: namely, that he was only brought into Beyond the Fringe as a musical afterthought. In fact he came in as the acknowledged star of the Oxford cabaret circuit, and right through the run of Beyond the Fringe remained the darling of the audience. Cheerful, extrovert and on his own musical ground very sure of himself, he only started to play up the melancholy and portray himself as a tortured clown, a line journalists are always happy to encourage, after he’d teamed up with Peter and subsequently gone into analysis or psychotherapy. Obviously Dudley did get sadder as he got older and coping with Peter’s drunkenness can have been no joke. But portraying himself as shy, put upon and intimidated by Jonathan, Peter and to a lesser extent myself was a construction that came later. On and off the stage during Beyond the Fringe he was sunny, social and effortlessly successful. A sad clown he wasn’t.

5 April. I persevere with Sebald but the contrivance of it, particularly his un-peopling of the landscape, never fails to irritate. ‘It was already afternoon, six in the evening when I reached the outskirts of Lowestoft. Not a living soul was about in the long streets.’ In Southwold ‘everybody who had been out for an evening stroll was gone. I felt as if I were in a deserted theatre.’ Maybe East Anglia is like this (or more like it than West Yorkshire, say) but Sebald seems to stage-manage both the landscape and the weather to suit his (seldom cheerful) mood. Kafka has been invoked in this connection, but Kafka dealt with the world as he found it and didn’t dress it up (or down) to suit him. ‘The heights of epiphanic beauty normally only encountered in the likes of Proust’ is another comparison, and equally unwarranted because there is no one more grounded in the everything that is the case than Proust. Once noticed Sebald’s technique seems almost comic. ‘Never yet on my many visits . . . have I found anyone about.’ The fact is, in Sebald nobody is ever about. This may be poetic but it seems to me a short cut to significance.

6 April, Yorkshire. The new organic shop in the village continues to do well, the walk down the lane to the Nissen hut always a pleasure even in the bitterest weather. There are sheep in the adjoining field, the occasional bull and (despite the bypass) a lovely feeling of open country. The shop has fresh-picked salad with more to be gathered while you wait, three or four kinds of apple plus sprouts on the stalk that look so sculpted and swag-like they could have inspired Grinling Gibbons. Today there are one or two customers in the shop. Everyone speaks, a little too readily for me sometimes, this friendliness engendered by the nature of the enterprise. It’s a kind of camaraderie biologique. In the same way, halted on my bike at traffic lights I will occasionally chat to another cyclist, cycling a similar undertaking with a creed and an agenda and its own esprit de corps de vélos.

9 April. The Queen Mother interred.

Scene: Windsor. A vault. A dusty coffin. A flagstone in the roof is drawn back and a new coffin is slowly lowered down beside it. The flagstone is replaced and there is silence. Voice from old coffin: ‘Y-y-y-you’ve t-t-taken y-y-your t-t-time.’

5 May, Yorkshire. Michael Bryant has died, who I’d known was ill but had never enquired after, from superstition largely, hoping he would pull through. Sardonic, sceptical, tough, he was not an easy man to praise and so much a staple of National Theatre productions and so consistently good that when it came to honours, national or theatrical, he was overlooked. True, he got the CBE in 1988, but not the knighthood he deserved because he was too unshowy. As a young actor (e.g. with Judi Dench in John Hopkins’s Talking to a Stranger) I thought him dull but he got better and better, though it would have been hard to say so to his face. Not – emphatically not – a university actor like Jacobi or McKellen, he used to call me (not to my face) ‘College’ Bennett. His was a non-commissioned life and, of course, a straight one. The list of roles he took on and the productions he was part of are a history of the Old Vic and the National Theatre over the last forty years and the quality and sheer volume of his work bestowed on him a mantle of wisdom and experience no one else at the NT could touch.

He was also a joker and on the night that Judi Dench was elevated to her damehood he was playing Enobarbus to her Cleopatra. As they turned upstage he growled: ‘I suppose a fuck’s quite out of the question now.’ Except that he had got slightly deaf and so said this louder than he should and was heard by the first five rows.

25 May. Thinking about Dudley M. since his death I’m struck by how little was said at the time of his musical abilities, in particular his talents as a jazz pianist. This would have come as no surprise to him as his success as a comedian and subsequently as a movie star put his musical accomplishment in the shade; jazz became marginal.

Something of a prodigy as a boy but with no specialist musical background, Dudley landed what I imagine was a strongly contested organ scholarship at Magdalen. He was a working-class boy but there was no trace of it in his voice or indeed of any class at all, though the fact that his parents had kitted him out with three Christian names may indicate their ambitions for him. This was a time, with boys anyway, when two initials were the standard, boys equipped with three likely to be from a public school or one of the grander grammar schools. But he was D.S.J. Moore and without it being the least bit ‘put on’ there was nothing in his voice to betray that he was from Dagenham. This may well have helped at Magdalen, which was at that time socially quite smart as well as being academically grand, and though in later life he tended to represent his time at Oxford as uneasy and not altogether happy, he was popular and gregarious, taking part in college and university drama productions as both actor and musician.

Modest and unassuming, he was immensely appealing and, of course, always very funny but with regard to his area of expertise never very forthcoming. Presumably he talked to fellow musicians about jazz and its techniques but it was not a subject that came up much when he teamed up with the rest of us in Beyond the Fringe. We all professed to like jazz, though it was not as modish as it had been for the generation of Larkin and Amis a few years before. Jazz was no longer the anthem of youth and disaffection. Now there was Elvis, Bill Haley and even our own Cliff Richard. Still, we would go along to hear Dudley play, particularly when Peter Cook’s The Establishment opened in New York where Dudley alternated at the piano with Teddy (‘Fly Me to the Moon’) Wilson. But knowing nothing of its history or development and never having listened to it much, I was baffled and bored by jazz, while Jonathan Miller’s experience of it didn’t stretch much beyond undergraduate hops where it served as a background to his vigorous though unco-ordinated attempts to jive.

Perhaps because he was the youngest of the four of us Peter’s lack of interest in jazz was the most obvious, though he would later have heard a good deal more of Dudley’s playing than Jonathan or I did. When in old clips of Not Only . . . But Also Dudley is seen playing or parodying jazz as the play-out at the finish, Peter will sometimes be standing by the piano with a sophisticated smile, clicking his fingers to what he hopes may be the beat. This was both a pose and a piss-take but it came closer to the reality than Peter would perhaps have liked to admit. Despite their long working relationship he continued to know nothing of jazz and, like the condescending figure at the piano, always slightly disparaged it. His music was pop not jazz; he would have liked to have been a pop singer and fancied himself as such, hence his truly dreadful imitation of Elvis Presley.

None of which is of much interest except to make plain that whatever the public’s appreciation of his musical talent, Dudley was nevertheless corralled for four years with three other performers who didn’t share his enthusiasm and then for ten or a dozen years more with Peter who regarded his music as at best an interlude between the comedy. So when later in life with that slightly aggrieved air with which he discussed his early career Dudley complained of being unappreciated by his colleagues in Beyond the Fringe, this was partly what it was about. He was a very funny instinctive comedian but he was not a writer and, no good at one sort of language, he found that music, the language he was good at, was largely discounted. And when on chat shows and interviews he gave his always defensive account of himself, complaining of the inferior status he had been accorded, particularly by Peter, music was at the heart of it.

Of course, words and music are not the only languages and at this time, when we were all in our twenties, what ranked him above the rest of us and indeed anyone I’ve come across since, was his sexual success. This, unlike his musical accomplishment, was the subject of constant discussion and enquiry and it was a topic on which, while not boastful, Dudley was always frank, informative and very funny.

That Dudley, given the chance, could talk illuminatingly about music was brought home to me in almost the only conversation I had with him about jazz, when he explained the difference, as he saw it, between a good and an average performance. It had to do with the musical beat, which he told me to think of not as a brief and indivisible moment but as an interval with a discernible length, and a beginning, a middle and an end. The art of playing good jazz, he explained, was to try and hit the beat as near as possible to its ending.

To musicians this may well be a truism but I had never come across the notion before, and it linked, as Dudley then linked it, with comedy timing in the theatre, where the same applies and which I did understand and practised, though instinctively.

This conversation would have taken place in New York sometime in 1963 in the apartment which he was then sub-letting on Washington Square and where he also taught me to add a spoonful of water to the mixture of the scrambled eggs we invariably had for lunch. It was there too that, possibly in order to wean me off Elgar, he played me the long sinuous romantic theme that begins Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. Though I still add the water when scrambling eggs, I have never got much further with Bruckner and the opening of the Seventh is still all I know.

1 June, Yorkshire. I try out my new slug killer: a cane with a sponge tied to the end with which, dipped in a strong solution of salt and water, I douse the slugs. I’m not sure if it works as this morning there’s no trace of any of the dead. This may mean they’ve crawled home to lick their wounds or their corpses have been eaten by the early birds. Another device is a big darning needle fixed to the end of a cane on which I impale the blameless creatures.

11 June. Make notes for the Tate Britain sound guide, my chosen picture Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (or ‘The Carpenter’s Shop’, as I think of it). It’s one of those paintings – Holman Hunt’s Shadow of Death is another – when Jesus’ childhood or youth skids to a halt at some rather vulgar prefiguring of what is in store, in this case the boy Jesus snagging his hand on a nail and the blood dripping onto his foot. What’s always struck me particularly about the picture is the glum boy on the right fetching in a bowl of water. He’s John the Baptist but I’ve always thought of him as like ‘the lad’ in my father’s butcher’s shop who was already working for his living while I was, like Jesus, a namby-pamby figure in a nightdress who had plainly never done a stroke of work in his life. Dickens disliked this Jesus figure, too, apparently, though with less justification as he was always inventing boys like this himself. As with so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings the feeling is one of impending doom with even Joseph a slightly sinister figure.

4 July. The Home Secretary announces that because of ‘public concern’ (which probably means one article in the Daily Mail) he has decided to make it known that Dr Shipman will remain in prison for the rest of his life. This is not more than anyone, including Dr Shipman, can have expected but why announce it? Who benefits? All it does is satisfy the desire for revenge of the public (or the public as imagined by the Daily Mail). It seems sheer sadism and not for the first time I wonder if Blunkett would be a more liberal man if he were not blind.

22 July, L’Espiéssac. I did not think my hearing had deteriorated at all but at some relatively refined level it has, as at nights here I can no longer catch the sound of the crickets. It is the sound most evocative of the South or any warm climate and on our first night I put down its absence to the usual suspects – mechanised farming, fertilisers, the decline of nature. But standing at the top of the steps yesterday night, R. asks me if I can hear the crickets and cannot believe that, the night tingling with the sound, I am dead to it. I strain to hear . . . and I can catch the bark of a distant dog, a car on the road to Nérac and the dishwasher still going in the kitchen. But crickets, no.

23 July, L’Espiéssac. Hornets are building a nest in a tiny hole in the wall bordering the window frame of the pigeonnier where we sleep. And it is a nest, too, with the hornet and/or a colleague bringing pieces of straw which it draws into the hole and presumably incorporates into the fabric of the nest. I have never seen insects do this (except ants possibly), imagining that wasps and such creatures somehow extruded the materials for their nests as bees do for their hives. I have a strong impulse to disrupt the process, even stop up the hole with chewing gum but resist it. Another sunny warm day but with a strong wind that ruffles the lavender (and makes landing for the hornets tricky).

1 August. A propos Jeffrey Archer. I am rereading the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters and come across this remark by George Lyttelton: ‘Sprinters always try to beat the pistol, therefore are essentially unscrupulous and unreliable.’

30 August. A commercial for Carte D’Or ice cream I would have been very pleased to have written. A family which includes the aged grandmother is having Sunday dinner. ‘Pass your father the potatoes,’ the mother says to the grown-up son. ‘He’s not your father,’ snaps the grandmother. ‘We never knew who your father was.’ There is an awkward silence, then the mother ushers the grandmother from the table saying: ‘Come along, mother, I’ll take you upstairs.’ On the way out of the room the old lady passes an open piano on which (this is the stroke of genius) she suddenly hits a petulant discord. It lasts all of a minute and is worth a dozen pages of dialogue. Why it’s advertising ice cream I’m not sure.

26 September. A call from Channel 4 wanting to know if I’d like to be one of the participants in Celebrity Big Brother. In view of the status of previous participants I suppose this indicates that in celebrity terms I’m pretty low grade so I don’t say no immediately but ask my agent, Ros Chatto, to find out who else they have in mind. They smell a rat, of course, and won’t let on, promising only ‘someone quite high up in the music business’. (This turns out to be an ex-member of Take That who eventually triumphs.)

30 September, Yorkshire. Glimpsed in Crosshills, en route for Leeds: a young man in a wheelchair with a girl (-friend, possibly) on his knee, giving her a lift – the wheelchair playing the same role as the crossbar of a bike. I’ve never seen this before and find it cheering.

1 October. I am reading Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book on the Pilgrimage of Grace and have reached the point in October 1536 when Robert Aske and the huge rebel host are at Doncaster waiting to move south, virtually unopposed. It’s a campaign that would surely have changed the course of history and might even have deposed Henry VIII, though this was not the rebels’ aim. They hesitated, and the chapter in question will presumably explain why. I can scarcely bear to read it and put the book to one side. Meanwhile Bush edges daily closer to war and I can’t bear to read about that either.

2 October. The bin men in Camden come on Mondays and Thursdays and on Mondays too comes the recycling lorry, taking away the weekly hoard of paper and glass. Ludicrously I assumed that these recycling men would (because greener) be a cut above the ordinary bin men. In fact it’s the reverse. The traditional crew is jolly, know me by name and call out if they see me in the street. They also close the gate and don’t leave any mess. The green men are unsmiling, wanting in any obvious conviviality, shove the crate back any old how and don’t close the gate. Green, in Camden anyway, isn’t necessarily nice.

15 October. Insofar as Bush (and therefore Blair) has any strategy within Iraq it is to depress the condition of the people to the point where they rise up against their leader. It’s a deplorable policy on humanitarian grounds but it’s also historically unsound. Revolutions happen not when people are at their most desperate but when conditions are just beginning to improve. The best way to topple Saddam would be to send Iraq aid.

24 October, Yorkshire. To Fountains on a day of tearing wind and sudden storms with skies periodically swept to a clear Mediterranean blue. The tower at Fountains never fails to surprise, the last two stages so tall that they stand clear above the top of the valley, and so look like a rather squat parish church surrounded by trees. Avoiding the Visitors’ Centre, we go in at the bottom gate where the bus from Ripon first deposited my mother and me c.1947. It’s half-term and the outer court is full of children and family parties, though never as busy as it must have been in its medieval heyday. In the slype, the passage next to the chapter house, we find traces of the original paint (I am actually rather pleased that I know the word ‘slype’ – a slip, I suppose it means, or a short cut). The passage doubled as sacristy and library and, having been protected from the weather, some of the stone is still painted the original greyish white that once covered most of the masonry. This is overlaid with black decorative lines that impose a pattern of painted masonry irrespective of and unrelated to the stonework underneath. It feels glossy, almost waxy and the thought that this is just as it was at the Dissolution nearly five hundred years ago I find absurdly satisfying. As I’m stroking this paint I become aware of a small child cowering in an alcove, playing hide and seek and who obviously thinks I am mad.

On the hill south of the main buildings is the Applegarth, where there are two yew trees, unvisited by any tourists but survivors of a group of seven such trees that had long been growing here in the 12th century when a band of monks from St Mary’s at York camped out on this hillside before founding the abbey. That the yews have survived both the building of Fountains and its dissolution and all that has happened since makes them more objects of wonder than the abbey itself. Since they are not highlighted or on any ‘trail’ I suppose my wonder has a touch of snobbery to it, too.

31 October, New York. Upgraded to first on American Airlines, I am early down to Immigration, to be met by a large emerald-green bird, fully feathered and with an orange beak. It flaps its wings and motions me onwards. I take the creature, just discernible as a middle-aged woman, to be a loony and, always nervous at Immigration, remain firmly behind the yellow line. The bird gets extremely agitated, flaps both its wings and indicates that I should proceed through one of the few gates that are manned. I now realise it’s Halloween, though the festive spirit doesn’t extend to the guy in the booth, who is mean-faced, unwelcoming and possibly more pissed off than he usually is because he has had a whole day in the company of this demented barnyard fowl, which is now clucking up and down the waiting line of jaded travellers, all of them as mystified as I was. Still, compared with others I see later that evening in New York she’s a fairly low-level eccentric; there’s a man with a pan on his head, another dressed in (or as) a condom hand in hand with two of the sperms he has presumably frustrated. None of them, though, seems much in party mood, the festivity almost an obligation.

‘Foreigners,’ says the cab driver of some other (normally dressed) group. ‘Europeans. Do you know how ya tell? They’re smoking.’

Promotion to first class gives me my first experience of a pod, the extendable seat which is supposed to make sleep possible. In fact it’s about a foot too short for me and my feet hang off the end, the whole contraption not unlike a stationary version of the fairground Waltzer.

‘Would you like hot nuts?’ asks the stewardess.

The purpose of this very much flying visit, paid for by Random House, is to do a five-minute ‘segment’ on the Today show, the book club of which has selected (or had selected for them) The Lady in the Van and The Clothes They Stood Up In as their this month’s read. It’s actually the choice of Helen Fielding, whom I’d imagined utterly metropolitan but turns out to come from Morley, though now living in Los Angeles presumably on the proceeds of her two bestsellers. After the segment we have tea in the Pierre and talk about Leeds, and I walk down the corridor where 40 years ago Dudley Moore and I saw Stravinsky.

I avoid downtown and notice how, in the car to the airport, I don’t look back to take in the view of the towers of Manhattan. It’s something I’d always done as a kind of farewell every time I came away from New York. Not today. Brooklyn cemetery on the right, Queens on the left, Manhattan maimed and so not to be stared at.

5 November. To the British Library to record an edition of Radio 4’s Bookmark in which a panel of readers, chaired by James Naughtie, questions me about my stuff, some of which figures in a little exhibition laid on by the Library, including the original script of Beyond the Fringe and another of Forty Years On, both now part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office archive. Back in 1960 the reader pencilled a note on the Beyond the Fringe MS that it was ‘full of silly pseudo-intellectual jokes’. Forty Years On maybe deserved a similar comment but as censorship was abolished while it was still waiting to be read it is unmarked. More thrilling by far is Anne Boleyn’s copy of Tyndale’s English Bible, a compact and handy volume along the fore-edge of which she has written in red ‘Regina Angliae’. I am allowed to hold this Bible, as she must often have held it, and wonder if it’s the Bible she had with her in the Tower or on the scaffold.

11 November. Much talk of republicanism, recalling Brooklyn-born Joan Panzer’s remark twenty years ago: ‘England without the Royal Family? Never. It would be like Fire Island without the gays.’

13 November. A propos the Queen’s Speech Andrew Marr on The World at One talks of the future saying, ‘If the war with Iraq goes well . . .’’ the conditional not to do with the likelihood of war but only with its conduct. No one demurs. But Bush is extraordinary. Seldom can there have been a leader of a modern democratic nation who showed such unfeigned eagerness and enthusiasm for war. He must be Saddam Hussein’s biggest asset.

22 November, New York. I am reading Wittgenstein’s Poker, an account of the events leading up to the clash between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper at a meeting of the Moral Sciences Club in Cambridge in 1946. It’s fascinating but as with all accounts of philosophy I can never get my mind round the questions at issue – Popper the general, Wittgenstein the particular is how I make sense of it. Both were bullies and in a gender-specific way: I can’t imagine two women going head to head like this or being so single (and so bloody) minded. I had not known that Wittgenstein’s attitude to his wealth (or his ex-wealth) was as ambiguous as it appears to have been, or of the high-level negotiations that bartered much of the Wittgenstein fortune for the lives of his two sisters, who remained in Vienna throughout the war. With both philosophers holding forth to their respective circles and riding roughshod over any opposition I long for some bold student to stand up and say that this way of teaching philosophy defeats its own purpose and isn’t worth the bruised feelings and human diminishment arguing with Wittgenstein or Popper seems to have involved.

It’s encouraging, though, to find that Wittgenstein’s mature (but coded) thoughts about being in love seem scarcely above my own 16-year-old level. One of his last unrequited passions was a medical student, Ben Richards, who is pictured in the book looking remarkably like Ted Hughes – who was almost Wittgenstein’s contemporary at Cambridge. Wittgenstein died in 1951: had he survived a year or two to coincide with Hughes it would have been an interesting conjunction. One anachronism (I think) is that the authors imagine Wittgenstein buying tomato sandwiches from Woolworth’s. If there was a café in Woolworth’s in Cambridge he might well have bought sandwiches to eat on the premises but I don’t think in 1946 Woolworth’s were doing takeaways. (More reports please.)

23 November, New York. Back for another ‘segment’ on the Today show, I stop and talk to a handful of peace protesters who have unfurled their home-made banners around the statue of Lincoln on the north side of Union Square. They are standing in the middle of the farmers’ market and are of a muchness with most of the stallholders: worthy, decent unmetropolitan figures in late middle age, muffled up against the biting wind but not chanting or speechmaking, just a group of twenty or so standing there in silence. I ask a woman if they have come in for much abuse. ‘No. Not here. This is a liberal neighbourhood, you see.’ She has a petition which I offer to sign but since I’m not resident there is no point. I say, rather futilely, that many if not most people in England feel the same and wish them luck. Like dissidents seen once in Moscow they make me feel both comfort-loving and inadequate.

3 December. My old school, Leeds Modern (subsequently Lawnswood) School, is about to be demolished, new premises having been built on the playing fields in front of it. It doesn’t look much of a building whereas the old school is a handsome example of its period (c.1930). Its demolition illustrates almost to the minute what Brendan Gill, late of the New Yorker, christened the ‘Gordon Curve’ after the architect Douglas Gordon of Baltimore. ‘This posits that a building is at its maximum moment of approbation when it is brand-new; that it then goes steadily downhill and at 70 reaches its nadir. If you can get a building past that sticky moment, then the curve begins to go up again very rapidly until at 100 it is back where it was in year one. A 100-year-old building is much more likely to be saved than a 70-year-old one.’ Nowadays presenting itself as sensitive to its surroundings and careful of its inheritance, Leeds has been happily demolishing decent architecture for most of my life. Still, all it will mean now is that in order to avoid passing the scene of the crime I’ll not take the Otley road out of Leeds but instead go past Kirkstall Abbey, which Leeds would probably have demolished too had Thomas Cromwell not saved them the trouble.

5 December. My fears as to my celebrity rating earlier in the year are happily allayed this morning by an invitation to appear on Through the Keyhole, Sir David Frost and Paradine Productions’ series for BBC 1. This is not, the letter assures me, Sir David in interrogatory mode. Gravitas has been laid aside and when he comes through the keyhole in the person of his proxy, Loyd Grossman, it’s ‘just a bit of fun and promotion’. Though previous guests have included Eartha Kitt, Gloria Gaynor and Neil Sedaka, I have to say no and write explaining how, as so often happens in our wacky showbiz world, in the same post came another offer, the chance of some temping as a tripe dresser in Hull. Showcase though Through the Keyhole assuredly is, most reasonable people would, I think, agree that the latter is a more tempting proposition. I send my regards to Sir David and to Mr Grossman, whom I have never met but whose sauces often enliven my lonely dish of spaghetti.

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Vol. 25 No. 2 · 23 January 2003

Alan Bennett’s diary entry about the diagnosis of Iris Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s (LRB, 2 January), reminded me of a psychogeriatrician’s comment in the late 1980s. She told me that she no longer relied on her patients’ recollection of the name of the Prime Minister: they might not be able to count backwards, know the day and year, or identify a skirting board, but they could all name Margaret Thatcher.

Elizabeth Clowes
London E9

Vol. 25 No. 4 · 20 February 2003

Elizabeth Clowes (Letters, 23 January) reports that the psychogeriatrician’s question, ‘Who is the Prime Minister?’ lost its usefulness in the 1980s – even the seriously confused knew it was Margaret Thatcher. The question still wasn’t working well into the 1990s: even those whom subsequent examination proved fully compos mentis were inclined to answer: ‘Margaret Thatcher.’

Andrew Sheppard
University of Exeter

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