3 January. Alan Bates dies on 27 December and we break the journey from Yorkshire at Derby in order to go to his funeral. It’s at Bradbourne, a tiny village the taxi-driver has never heard of, and he and his Asian colleagues have a map session before we eventually head off into the Derbyshire hills. The cab is old and draughty, it’s beginning to snow and as we drive through this landscape of lost villages and frostbitten fields it gets more and more foggy and like a journey out of Le Grand Meaulnes.

It’s all of an hour before we reach the church and everyone has gone in, the undertakers with a policeman looking on just shouldering out the coffin. Since the bill is £40 I feel I need a receipt but while the driver ransacks his cab for pad and pencil the policeman saunters over: ‘The body is waiting to go in, sir.’

We make an undignified dash for the church where, hearing the door open, the congregation begin to rise thinking we’re the coffin then sink back disappointed as laden down with bags and both with backpacks on we are ushered down the centre aisle to seats in the chancel. It looks like the most upstaging of showbiz entrances, the only consolation being that the deceased would have been the first to laugh.

It’s a rather wandering service with plenty of time to reflect that, as always, it will be the jokes one will most miss and how at the regular suppers we used to have at L’Etoile we always told each other the same stories. They were generally of Alan’s romantic escapades or of other people’s bad behaviour, a favourite being how, after a performance in John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me at Chichester for which he had been much praised, Alan was sitting in his dressing-room when there was a tentative knock on the door. It was Alec Guinness. He shook Alan’s hand, said, ‘You must be very tired,’ and left.

Alan’s languid phone calls were often to do with professional humiliation. In the 1999 production of Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford the curtain rose with Antony on his knees pleasuring the Egyptian queen of Frances de la Tour. Even the jaded eyebrows of Stratford went up a bit at this and just before it transferred to the Barbican Alan rang and began without preamble: ‘I’m sure you will be relieved to learn that for our London debut the director has elbowed the offending cunnilingus and replaced it with a walk-down in kingly garb. It’s to be hoped this substitution doesn’t catch on generally or the sexual health of the nation might suffer accordingly. Goodbye.’

15 January. We now have a home secretary who, on being told one of the prisoners in his care has committed suicide, says he feels like pouring himself a drink. This is a statement deplorable on so many levels they’re too wearying to list. But it will delight the Sun and the Daily Mail which is its intention.

27 January. A reading of the new draft of The History Boys at the NT Studio gets off to a bad start when half the cast are found to be reading from a first draft and the rest from the revised version. It’s a scratch round-up of whoever’s available and an exercise we went through both with The Madness of George III and The Lady in the Van partly to find out how long the play is likely to be and also to get some notion of what it’s about. And it is helpful, though painful and embarrassing too as some sections are far from finished, the characters scarcely sketched in and the plot often nowhere. ‘It’ll be better than this,’ I keep wanting to say. ‘And shorter.’

10 February. I go through the play dealing with Nick Hytner’s comments, worrying that some of them are too literal: e.g. sixth formers wouldn’t do PE, even in the 1980s, when the play is set, thus ruling out the gymnasium scene I quite wanted. Nick backs up his judgment by asking the younger people at the National what went on at their schools. Which is fine, though I can’t counter with a constituency of my own, as the only person I know who was at school in the 1980s is R. and he never set foot in the gym anyway. But the imagination can’t be subject to plebiscite. Take a poll of all the playwrights at the National and you wouldn’t find one whose lover had shredded their masterpiece, fed it into the stove and then gone out and shot themselves. But that doesn’t rule out Hedda Gabler. Still I can see Nick is right to this extent, that once the audience start thinking, ‘But school isn’t like that,’ they’re off the hook.

20 February. We’re gradually assembling a class: James Corden, who’s plump and funny and at the audition entirely takes charge; Sacha Dhawan, an Asian boy from Manchester who complains that all he’s ever offered these days are Muslim terrorists or Afghan refugees; Jamie Parker, who is to play Scripps the religious boy, and doesn’t even bother to mention that he plays the piano; Andrew Knott from Wakefield, who comes in like the wind has blown the door open and knows the scene off by heart, as do several of the others.

This is new, as actors would normally expect to read the scene and if they are bad readers, as many actors are, this would have to be discounted when assessing their ability. Nowadays because competition is so fierce actors come knowing the audition scene by heart and so it’s much easier to gauge what they can do. It’s noticeable, though, that many of the boys from RADA and LAMDA and the other drama schools are middle class (two of our applicants Etonians). I imagine this is because, grants being so hard to come by, places go to students whose parents can support them, a situation not different from that prevailing at Oxford and Cambridge. The History Boys has nothing to say about this as I felt it was another play entirely, and also, I suppose, because I have no experience of it.

25 February. With Nick Hytner and the designer of the play, Bob Crowley, to the London Nautical School in Stamford Street just behind the National. It’s a naval school in origin, one of several set up after the sinking of the Titanic to improve standards of seamanship, and the boys still wear naval jerseys and a navy blue uniform.

Coffee with the headmaster first, who talks, as I imagine most heads of institutions do nowadays, about his financial problems. Then we watch the boys at break, the playground situated behind the old gate of Bethlem Hospital. My main impression is how burdened the boys are, humping all their possessions with them wherever they go so that they’re slung round with coats, togs, books and bags, none of them seemingly having their own locker or desk. R. tells me later that this was beginning to happen when he was at school, though backpacks then were thought to be nerdy and he, of course, the odd boy out, had a little attaché case.

We sit in on a history class of 13-year-olds, who are well-behaved, alert and attentive, though not always getting it right. They are doing the changeover from the domestic system to factory working in the Industrial Revolution: ‘If they couldn’t get enough money from work at home,’ asks the teacher, ‘what did they do?’

Up goes a hand. ‘Take in lodgers?’

Next is an English class of 15-year-olds, all of them past puberty and so less submissive, more anarchic and all over the place, though there is one self-contained boy, who is neat, smart and prematurely sophisticated, a boy out of Saki.

Finally the sixth form: half a dozen boys and one girl. Except not boys: one has a full-grown beard and though destined for Cambridge looks less like an undergraduate than a fully-fledged lecturer; another, ignoring us completely as they all do, sits working by himself and could be a young broker in the City. Their history teacher talks about them quietly and the problems she and they have, particularly non-attendance, and it all seems a long way from the sixth form that I’ve written.

1 March. In the accounts I have seen of Sir Andrew Turnbull’s reproving letter to Clare Short for breaching cabinet confidence, nobody has commented on his use of the word ‘disappointed’. The head of the civil service wasn’t dismayed by Ms Short’s revelations nor was he disconcerted; he didn’t say he disapproved (though he did); no, he was disappointed. It’s a headmasterly word implying a falling short (I know) and a failure to live up to standards that shouldn’t have to be spelled out, and thus very much a word of the establishment. This would hardly be worth saying did not Sir Andrew advertise his emancipation from the establishment by, among other things, chairing meetings in his shirt-sleeves. But shirt-sleeves only take you so far (the prime minister is often in them, after all). No, Sir Andrew needs to take the jacket off his language, too. Were I not on Clare Short’s side already, to read that the head of the civil service is disappointed in her would be enough to make up my mind.

6 March. A young man passes wearing a close-fitting leather cap meant to strap under the chin, the strap unfastened and dangling loose. He looks like 1. a racing driver at Brooklands in the 1930s; 2. someone out of Brueghel about to torment Christ. Neither, I would have thought, is the look he is aiming for.

13 March. The last of the History Boys to be cast is Russell Tovey, who is in the NT company and who took part in the first reading of the play. He reads Rudge, the athletic and supposedly stupid boy, effortlessly, but isn’t sure it’s what he really wants to do, having set his sights on playing the more glamorous part of Dakin. This makes me think again about the part and I rewrite it to accommodate some of the actor’s aspirations in the character, which both suits him and improves the play. This is one of the pleasures of writing plays which I can’t see writing novels or poems ever providing.

After the train bombs in Madrid T. Blair commends the Spanish for turning out in their millions to demonstrate against terrorism. These are the same people who thronged the streets in Madrid and in London also in their millions to demonstrate against the war but this is not said by the prime minister. Our fearless leader is a democrat only as and when it suits him.

20 March. Nicholas Hytner has shown the script of The History Boys to one of his former teachers at Manchester Grammar School, who says that teaching these days is so circumscribed that many traditional tools of the trade are now impermissible. Sarcasm, for instance, is out, pupils are never touched and there are often viewing panels in the doors (when there are doors), the classrooms of today not unlike the public schools’ doorless lavatories of yore.

31 March. We place a different value on the lives of Iraqi combatants, with the dead not even numbered or named. Our view of the Iraqis is not far off Falstaff’s view of his company: ‘They’ll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.’

22 April. An absurd direction from the ENO management requesting all employees at the Coliseum to cease from calling each other ‘darling’ and indeed from touching one another at all or using other terms of endearment.

News of this is gleefully received at the National Theatre where copies of the directive are given to everybody arriving at the stage door and announcements over the tannoy take on a husky intimacy. ‘Sweethearts. Could we have two of those delightful electricians to the stage of the Cottesloe. Hurry, hurry, hurry. A bientôt.’

27 April. R. and I drive over to Rievaulx where they are to video the titles of Irwin’s TV history series, Heroes or Villains?, in the sequence which opens the second act of the play. En route we stop and have our sandwiches at Byland, where we are the only visitors this cold and cloudy morning. As an abbey it’s always more peaceful because less dramatically situated than either Rievaulx or Fountains, on a flat and boggy plain backed by woods and always quite hard to find. A notable feature is an alleyway of reading carrels backing the cloister, together with many surviving stretches of medieval tiled floor, but much the most numinous object is a green earthenware inkwell found in the chapterhouse during excavations and now in the abbey museum; it was presumably used, possibly for the last time, to sign the deed of surrender handing the abbey over to Henry VIII’s commissioners. Over at Rievaulx we film in the rain and in the cavernous latrine below the monks’ dormitory. With a lighting cameraman this would have taken most of the day, but brought up in the brisker school of music video Ben Taylor, who looks not long out of school himself, polishes off the whole sequence in a couple of hours.

10 May. Filling a pot with water to take a huge bunch of peonies L. has sent for my birthday I slip on the wet flags and fall down three or four of the stone steps into the area. It’s a fall long enough for me to think, ‘This is quite serious,’ as it’s going on, but when I get up I find I’m all right and it’s only when I’ve had a bath and am having a lie-down that I realise that this is one of those accidents that usually occur on or around my birthday, previous experience showing that I’d be well advised to spend the whole octave of that festival in bed and out of harm’s way.

18 May. We sit in the stalls of the Lyttelton having a last notes session before the press night. There are no nerves as we’ve had a week of enthusiastic and sometimes tumultuous previews, the theatre is sold out for the whole of the first booking period and the play will run on word of mouth regardless of what the reviews are like. This is no guarantee of good notices, though, and Nick H. explains this to the cast, particularly the boys, few of whom have had a first night before. He also says how he’s never had such a good time with a play. I say the same, though with more melancholy, as my part in it is almost over.

Afterwards I sit on the terrace outside the Lyttelton, reading my messages and watching the audience beginning to arrive. It’s only when I go inside for a dutiful drink with the sponsors that Bob Crowley tells me that the theatre is in chaos.

One of the recurrent themes of the play is the unpredictability of things or, as Rudge puts it, history is just one fucking thing after another – a point made in the play by the death of Hector on his motorbike and the crippling of Irwin, his unlooked for passenger. And all the time we were sitting joking in the stalls thinking it was all sewn up and everything taken care of, a fire was smouldering in the flies. An hour before the curtain, with the theatre empty and the stage management on their break, the flame sets off the sprinklers, and when next someone steps onto the stage it’s ankle-deep in water.

There is no light at all as the power has immediately to be switched off and when I go into the auditorium (the first night audience now waiting in the foyer ready for the start) there are dim figures moving about the sodden stage, torches flashing in the gloom and firemen clambering up the rig. It’s all very theatrical, though not quite theatre as we’d planned it.

Not all the firemen have actually found the supposed blaze. Backstage the various auditoriums of the National are notoriously difficult to locate and when I go through I come upon a helmeted fireman, axe at the ready, wandering down a dressing-room corridor and who asks me to point him in the direction of ‘this Lyttelton Theatre’.

Eventually all the stage crews from the other theatres are mobilised to mop the stage and the curtain goes up an hour late. The actors are dribbled on throughout the performance but the audience, possibly because of the free drinks they’ve been given while they’ve been waiting, are happy and responsive and the play goes well.

21 May. Give a talk at the London Review Bookshop and answer questions, in the course of which I mention how, when I was 17 and hitch-hiking through the Llanberis pass in Wales, I was rather ineffectually touched up on the back of a motorbike much as Hector’s pupils are in the play. The Sunday Times must have been lurking in the audience and a child reporter rings the NT press office the next day asking them to confirm that a master touched me up as a boy, thus blighting my schooldays. They don’t confirm it, and emphasise how trivial the incident was. No matter. The Sunday Times prints the story exactly as it wants it to be, making the whole play some sort of expiation. I often read and reread Anthony Powell’s Journals where a recurring theme is the stupidity and bad behaviour of journalists by whose crassness Powell was always unsurprised. So no change there.

26 May. Do a question and answer session at Warwick Arts Centre. The talk is preceded by a book signing at which, having had her book signed, a woman leans low over the table to confide in me: ‘I’d like to be buried in a little grave right next to yours.’

When I say that I hope this won’t be quite yet she says, ‘Well, I’m the same age as you,’ as if this somehow made our posthumous propinquity more of a likelihood.

27 May. Ashcroft, the US attorney general, applies for the extradition of Abu Hamza, the radical Muslim cleric. No friend to freedom and from the extremity of his utterances not an attractive figure Hamza is additionally demonised by the hook he has instead of a hand, so that his fellow prisoners at Belmarsh hang a sheet out of the window inscribed ‘Sling Your Hook’. At which point I suppose the home secretary pours himself another drink.

Under its current administration I would not extradite a dog to the United States, whatever the crime. In a country where the rule of law can be set aside by executive decree, prisoners kept outside the law and imprisoned for an unspecified time without trial or legal representation, Hamza is likely to disappear without trace. If there is evidence against him he should be tried here and if he’s found guilty, imprisoned here too.

The case comes up on BBC Question Time later on when the sleek and suited Peter Hain, now leader of the House of Commons, maintains that Hamza should be handed over to face justice (sic) in the United States, the same sort of justice (though nobody is indelicate enough to say this) as there used to be in South Africa at a time when Hain saw things rather differently.

Nor does anyone point out that while Hamza is an extreme Muslim fundamentalist the evangelical Ashcroft is his precise Christian equivalent, only Ashcroft wears a suit and is surrounded by young men in suits rather than disciples in jellabas and, having no hooks for hands, is the voice of respectability.

1 June. Success (like death) brings letters and I spend most of the morning trying to clear my table. Then, just as I’m putting stamps on a score or so of envelopes, the letterbox goes and another joram of mail cascades over the doormat. It’s a scene from a Frank Randall film I saw as a child when Frank is in the army, doing fatigues and peeling potatoes. He is just peeling the last spud with the shed all clean and bare when a trapdoor in the roof opens and another ton of potatoes comes cascading down.

10 June. Were I a schoolmaster like Irwin in the play, instructing pupils about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, I would begin with the ancient oak tree still standing at the crossroads at Caton on the Kirkby Lonsdale-Lancaster road. It was at this tree that the monks of Cockersands Abbey on the Lune estuary would sell their fish, the fish said to have been hung from its branches. One day in 1536 or so the fish-monks didn’t turn up, so for the people of Caton in the Lune Valley the Dissolution of the Monasteries simply meant no more fresh fish. Caton, though it has some good houses, is now a dormitory village of Lancaster. It’s also on the Lune just as Cockersands is on the estuary so perhaps it was that the monks brought up the fish by boat, sailing on the incoming tide. Easier anyway than humping it round Lancaster over the heights of Quernmore.

20 June. Sent a postcard this morning of a painting I’ve never seen reproduced by an artist I’ve never heard of. It’s of Napoleon in Hell. He’s wearing the usual hat and has his arms folded in the customary way and is looking very stern as wild women wave in front of him the severed limbs of their loved ones, presumably slain in his wars. The painting by Antoine Wiertz (1806-65) is in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, and though Wiertz is hardly an old master, about suffering he wasn’t wrong either.

25 June. As I leave Robin Hope’s birthday party at the Old Sessions House in Clerkenwell Square someone says that England scored in the first minute against Portugal. The pubs I pass seem oddly subdued, with none of the usual crowds spilling out onto the pavement or the roars from within, so I take it the match is all over, shouting included. It’s only when I get home to Camden Town and switch on the TV that I find it’s still going on, with a penalty shoot-out in progress. I catch Postiga’s elegant deception of the goalkeeper, who jumps the wrong way so that the Portuguese can just walk the ball in. It’s like an expert squash player who, after everybody else has been banging and smashing, casually trickles the winning shot down the back wall. As always, having dreaded an English victory I am mortified by their defeat; the truth is I want them neither to win nor to lose, though the frenzy after the first goal is a reminder of how intolerable we would have been in victory.

14 July. There seems scarcely a mention of President Bush in the Butler Report though there is no doubt that he did the original mischief and persuaded our blameless prime minister that he ought to make war. Nothing that I’ve read about the report alters the obvious verdict that, having decided on war, Blair then looked round for reasons to justify it. And had everybody else looking, too. Once he’d let it be known what his will was (the whole country knew) and government being what it is, there were plenty of people in the cabinet and outside it ready to help the prime minister along. And so much nodding, and from Jack Straw in particular, still nodding on the front bench today like a dog in the back window of a Fiesta. The newspapers fall for Butler’s smooth speaking even when they know how specious it is. One of his predecessors as master of University College, Oxford was another smooth operator, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, smoothness something of a University College tradition.

27 July. In good time, as I think, for Paul Foot’s funeral I get to Golders Green to find outside the station what seems like a political rally in progress, with trade-union banners and a steel band just leading off towards the crematorium. The crowd entirely fills the Finchley Road and as we trudge along in the hot sunshine the march, ragged, unceremonious and heartfelt, is almost Indian in its disorganisation and spontaneity, with people coming out of houses and leaning from cars to ask who it is who’s died.

I see no one I know and they’re an odd mixture. ‘He would be pleased by the turn-out,’ says a voice behind me. ‘Possibly,’ says a tall, stately old man, who sounds as if he’s from the East End, ‘but I am of the opinion the dead can’t see us anyway.’

At the crematorium, the mourners separate into those with cards and those (like me) without. I see the coffin in then go into the loggia where there’s another huge gathering listening to the relay, some sitting on the grass, others squatting down by the pillars or crowded round the relay screen. I manage to find a sort of golf cart and enthroned on that hear the proceedings in more comfort than if I’d been inside.

I never knew Foot well, though occasionally I would write to congratulate him after some vindication (and if one waited long enough he was generally vindicated and so often got things right). I’d last spoken to him when I was writing The History Boys a propos ‘Kek’, F. McEachran, the charismatic schoolmaster who had taught him and some of the Private Eye people at Shrewsbury. What was almost unique about Foot was that he was a crusader who never lost his sense of humour so that he could get the often very conservative audience of Any Questions on his radical side simply by being funny and running rings round the other speakers. He had a kind of moral charm which made one want his approval.

Now it’s the ‘Internationale’ and I get down from the golf cart and stand, a little self-consciously, astonished how many of this mild, unmilitant gathering raise their right arm in a clenched fist as they sing: a young man in front with a baby on one arm raises the other, and old husbands and wives clasp hands and raise arms together, and two boys, like Julian Bell and John Cornford, who’ve been lying out on the lawn get to their feet and sing – and moreover know the words.

30 July. In the week that Paul Foot is buried the Court of Appeal orders that the Hickeys, acquitted after being wrongly imprisoned for 18 years for the murder of Carl Bridgewater, and for whose innocence Foot campaigned, must now effectively pay board and lodging for the years they have spent in jail. It’s the kind of joke the SS would have played on a prisoner lucky enough to be released from a concentration camp, presenting him at the gates with the bill. We ought to know the name of the official who dreamed up this little wheeze so as to watch out for him in a forthcoming Honours List. As it is we can only be grateful that Nelson Mandela wasn’t imprisoned in England or he would have been bankrupted on his release.

12 August. While it ought to be a pleasant place to shop, Marylebone High Street is spoiled by the people who shop there, who are often pushy and heedless so single-minded are they about getting just what they want. As a result it’s a pretty graceless place and it’s noticeable today even in the hushed precincts of Daunt’s bookshop, where a man is talking on his mobile about some euros and so loudly it’s embarrassing. Villandry, which is on the other edge of Marylebone, has some of the same rich, pushy atmosphere though diluted by the number of office-workers who now use it. Biking back I stop for a pee at the London Clinic, where half a dozen hoods are hanging about the door. And that is what they are, not chauffeurs, not (certainly not) concerned relations, but bodyguards and hoods, possibly Russian with dark glasses and grim unsmiling faces. I go past them, cycle clips always a passport, though even so I half expect someone to want to go through my bag. Having had a pee I come away slightly cheered, if only to have managed something free at the most expensive hospital in London. But I am in a bad temper and biking through Regent’s Park with cars coming uncomfortably close I start writing letters in my head as to why there is no provision for cyclists in the park, no cycle lanes in the Inner or Outer Circle, no designated cycle path through the park, nothing, only a vigilant police force ready to fine any biker they can catch. Why? Is this the case in all the Royal Parks or in all the parks in London? No cycling. Dogs shit there. People fuck there. They even play football and put on plays. But no cycling.

16 August. The best films on TV are often in the middle of the day and at lunchtime today it’s The Stars Look Down (1939) with Michael Redgrave, which I would have seen in 1940 in one of Armley’s half a dozen picture houses. Like How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Emlyn Williams’s The Corn Is Green (1945), it’s the story of a working-class boy bettering himself through education and outgrowing his roots. They were none of them great films but they should figure in any account of the origins of the Welfare State as powerful myth-makers, particularly in our household where their message was taken for gospel, the value of education as a means of rising above one’s circumstances never questioned. So, trailing back from the Picturedrome in that first year of the war, we thought Michael Redgrave and Roddy McDowall were real heroes in whose footsteps my parents hoped my brother and I would one day tread.

7 September. Watch a documentary about Wodehouse, geared to the publication of the new McCrum biography. Though there’s some private newsreel footage there’s nothing that hasn’t been in previous programmes nor does it come to any different conclusions – namely, that Wodehouse was an innocent, unworldly figure who behaved foolishly over the famous broadcasts but no more than that. This was the verdict of an official inquiry which, had it been published at the time (c.1949), would have cleared his name and he would have been rehabilitated much earlier than he was. Or so the programme claims.

I’m not so sure. His famous innocence must have been pretty impregnable not to know by 1940 that there was more to Nazi Germany than a lot of bores dressing up in uniform and going round saluting one another. Did his wife, the notoriously canny Ethel, not read the papers either? Their unawareness doesn’t hold up even as the programme proclaims it, since it shows the Wodehouses making attempts to get away from their home in Le Touquet but turning back because of the number of refugees on the road, the columns divebombed by Stukas. Did the Wodehouses witness this or is it just stock programme padding? If they did it must have come home even to them that this was serious stuff.

I start off, though, at a disadvantage in that, inspired though his language is, I can never take more than ten pages of the novels at a time, their relentless flippancy wearing and tedious. I am put off, too, by the Wodehouse fans, particularly since they’re pretty much identical with the cricketing tendency. Waugh is entitled to call Wodehouse a genius but even with Waugh there’s some feeling of self-congratulation at being the one to point it out. Nor does it help that Muggeridge was such a fan and the general chappishness of it all.

No, I’m not an impartial judge, though in the actual business of recording broadcasts for American listeners and then finding that they’ve been broadcast to England Wodehouse seems scarcely culpable at all. Newspapers pull that sort of trick all the time.

16 September. Some of my irritation with the Commons pro-hunting protesters is antiquarian: that these callow young men should have been the first to invade the floor of the House of Commons since Charles I seems vandalism not so much of the Commons itself as of tradition, the more so because it’s in aid of such an ignoble cause. Though I feel much the same about another vandal, Lord Falconer, and the scrambled abolition of the office of lord chancellor.

About the sport itself Nancy Mitford, no opponent of hunting, was both perceptive and unsentimental:

The next day we all went out hunting. The Radletts loved animals, they loved foxes, they risked dreadful beating to unstop their earths, they read and cried over Reynard the Fox, in summer they got up at four to go and see the cubs playing in the pale green light of the woods; nevertheless more than anything in the world, they loved hunting. It was in their blood and bones and in my blood and bones, and nothing could eradicate it, though we knew it for a kind of original sin. For three hours that day I forgot everything except my body and my pony’s body … That must be the great hold hunting has over people, especially stupid people; it enforces absolute concentration, both mental and physical.

(The Pursuit of Love)

The most sensible approach would have been to ban stag-hunting and hare-coursing as soon as Labour got into power. Both are barbarous and indefensible, except if you’re Clarissa Dickson Wright, who presumably feels her casserole threatened. But what a feast of humbug it is in every department. ‘We do what we like. We always have and always will. That’s democracy.’

20 September. I am having my lunch outside the front door (salad of lettuce, beetroot, tomato and brown bread spread with olive paste) when Jonathan Miller passes en route for rehearsals at Covent Garden. He asks me what I’m reading. It’s actually re-rereading and telling him he would hate every page I show him James Lees-Milne’s Through Wood and Dale. I ask him what he is reading and he shows me The Origins of the Final Solution. Both are unsuitable books and, as I say to him, we would each of us derive more benefit if I were reading his book and he mine. My book is cosy, comforting and I know everything in it; his book is just as familiar and though hardly cosy is consoling, too, both of us happiest reading what we know already.

11 October. Stephen Page (Faber) and Andrew Franklin (Profile Books) come round to take delivery of the MS of Untold Stories, a collection of diaries and other memoirs which they are to publish jointly next September. It’s in a big box file with some of the stuff in manuscript and the rest as printed in the LRB. Opening the box Andrew remarks that it’s a long time since he’s seen one of these, manuscripts nowadays generally coming in the form of a floppy disc. For my part I hope they don’t notice the smear of jam on the box, the odd grease spot and even the faint odour of old milk, a consequence of the manuscript being put regularly in the fridge for safekeeping whenever we go away. I used to keep my manuscripts in boxes on the floor of the kitchen but about twenty years or so ago I had a burst boiler which flooded the kitchen and ruined half of them. I told Miss Shepherd, then living in her van, of this disaster. ‘Oh dear,’ she said mustering what she could in the way of fellow-feeling. ‘What a waste of water.’

16 October. Three former Natwest bankers in court over charges to do with the collapse of Enron and due to be extradited for trial in Texas. This doesn’t get much coverage in the papers, with none at all in the Independent and in the Guardian confined to the business pages. Nor, I imagine, will they receive much sympathy generally, bankers, whether innocent or guilty, not having much appeal. But that we now have regulations that allow the United States to bundle away whomsoever it chooses for trial in America without needing to show any cause at all or even set out the evidence seems a monstrous erosion of civil liberties and one that has passed into law virtually unnoticed. That such a procedure, designed to expedite action against supposed terrorists, should straightaway be used against defendants who are not terrorists at all points up its dangers. The legislation is, of course, not reciprocal, British courts having no such rights in the United States.

21 October. This evening to Camden Town Hall for a meeting of the planning committee which will decide whether the new Kentish Town Health Centre gets the go ahead. My doctor, Roy Macgregor, whose vision it is and who has spent the last ten years getting the scheme to this point, feels it may now fall at the last fence. Certainly he’s at the end of his tether, though the public gallery is full of staff and patients like me, all of whom wish the scheme well. It’s a crowded agenda and though the meeting starts at seven we don’t reach the Health Centre project until after half past nine, the previous proceedings of mind-numbing tedium, leaving one both wondering why these councillors choose this as a way of occupying their time and grateful that they do. Eventually a planning officer presents our scheme but is virtually inaudible; the opposition to it, chiefly from some local residents, is articulate and straightforward, so that though Roy makes a good and passionate speech it seems we shall lose. But when eventually at twenty past ten the vote is taken, against all expectations the building is accepted and we come out jubilant.

At one point I nearly blot my copybook when a councillor claims that the model is an inaccurate representation of the development because the trees are shown as too tall. ‘But trees grow, haven’t you heard?’ I mutter far too loudly, wondering how Repton or Capability Brown would have fared before Camden Planning Committee. ‘When will the trees reach this height, Mr Brown? In fifty years’ time? That’s an optimistic perspective surely?’

25 October. Due to go to Venice and Bologna for a week’s holiday I damage an Achilles tendon which makes walking difficult and Venice impossible. Instead we take a slow and stopping journey northwards, calling first at Burford in Oxfordshire to look at the church. I must have been before but have no recollection of it, particularly the unexpected Romanesque core of the building which from its Perpendicular exterior seems like a typical 15th-century wool church. At first the heart sinks to find the nave has lost its pews and is now filled with blue upholstered conference chairs arranged in a tell-tale semicircle. That churches should show any interest in God at all always puts R. off but there’s plenty here to outweigh any children’s cornery, particularly the early 17th-century Tanfield tomb where the free-standing angels above the columns are perched on pediments that are in fact breasts (nipple downwards). The memorial tablet to Edward Harman, Henry VIII’s doctor, is even more extraordinary, with figures in relief which are among the first representations of Native Americans but which seem less of the 16th than the early 20th century and which could well be mistaken for sculptures by Eric Gill.

27 October. We call at Stokesay Castle. It’s an English Heritage property, as one might deduce from the sheet of paper torn from an exercise book and stuck on the gate of the car park: ‘Closed today and tomorrow’. It’s exactly the same at a later stopping point, English Heritage’s Haughmond Abbey, only this time the torn sheet of paper reads: ‘Closed till next April’. English Heritage curators are an eccentric lot, which I don’t mind except that they seem to open and close their properties on a whim, ‘Well, it’s half-term,’ the probable excuse.

Still there are compensations, as denied access both to Stokesay Castle and Stokesay church we wander round the graveyard and come upon the war memorial. It’s of a soldier, solid and even squat, looking as much French as English and though it’s strictly representational with something of Vorticism about it, like a three-dimensional version of the figures that populate the paintings of William Roberts. There’s a reluctance about the soldier, too, the heaviness of the figure more to do with resignation than any eager embracing of the military calling. One of my fellow conscripts in the army used to maintain that the pose of soldiers on war memorials only made sense if you thought of them as just having been caught skiving. And certainly this soldier hardly looks keen and definitely not noble. I’ve often wished there was a comprehensive study of war memorials even if it were only in the form of a register; they go largely unnoticed in guidebooks and I’ve never seen this stocky little squaddy reproduced. It’s anonymous, too, with what seems like the name of the sculptor carved on the side of the plinth more probably an overflow from the list of the dead that fills the front.

8 November. Sitting in the barber’s chair this afternoon I wonder whether there were barbers in Auschwitz, Jews who were put aside before being killed to cut the hair not of the other Jews but of the officers and guards, and what such a barber’s might have been like. One could see a film opening like this, a man in the chair covered by a sheet while a thin, nervous barber puts the finishing touches to his hair, holds up the mirror, dusts the back of his neck, then takes the sheet off to reveal someone in SS uniform.

These thoughts are occasioned by my barber, who is Moroccan or Algerian, not Jewish, but is thin and delicate and quite nervous, too, but much to be preferred to his two colleagues because he has very little English and so does not expect me to talk.

Also in the barber’s chair I think about Alec Guinness. I don’t know where he had his hair cut but it was probably somewhere in Mayfair, Trumper’s possibly, or wherever smart, upper-class men go these days. Knowing Alec I imagine there would be a large tip, over-tipping his way of coping with his social unease. The tip would be so large and Alec so bald it would probably have been possible to put a price on each individual hair.

14 November. Appropriately for Remembrance Day I am reading Assault Division by Norman Scarfe, a history of the 3rd Division from D-Day to the surrender of Germany, first published in 1947 and here reissued (Spellmount, £20).

Norman, now 80 and our leading local historian, particularly of East Anglia, was at the time of writing not much more than a schoolboy. He’d spent a year at Oxford before he was called up and at 20 found himself a gunnery officer attached to the 3rd Division in the first wave of landings on D-Day, firing his guns as the incoming tide lapped around his boots. He stayed with the division all that last year of the war, then went back to Oxford, where he wrote this book in the intervals of doing undergraduate essays on medieval history.

Military history so soon after the war was more tight-lipped than it subsequently became but the young Scarfe’s exuberance keeps breaking in and with his jokes and digs and exclamation marks he’s like a new old boy writing back to his school magazine. It’s a humbling book, though, and an inspiring one, some of it unbearable to read, particularly the action on the first few days: Sherman tanks up-ended in the waves, drowning their helpless crews and the beach raked by machine-gun fire from the shabby seaside promenade. Who now would willingly walk into such a hail of bullets and without recrimination?

I’ve always thought acting and soldiering had much in common though I hadn’t realised it ran to a common interest in the reviews. Some units (and whole armies) were persistently unsung with journalists then as now incapable of the proper ascription of credit, opting for the showy (e.g. Lord Lovat’s arrival with his piper) rather than the death-defying slog that preceded it. This youthful book is both magnanimous and fair but later histories and memoirs were not so understanding and there would be much hoovering up of credit not least by Montgomery himself.

It was this second Second War, the fighting as seen through the prism of the 1950s and the films and clichés that came with it, that we were satirising in Beyond the Fringe. By that time the understatement that comes naturally to Norman Scarfe and the earliest chroniclers had turned into a trope, a specious and self-deprecating gloss applied to the many movies made about the war, and which nowadays seems comic.

With death everywhere this dry, factual book brings back the reality, as Remembrance Day and its attendant commemorations never entirely do, the sentiments attaching to these solemnities enlisted in whatever conflict we’re engaged in. This year both Blair and the fox-hunters are keen to dabble us in the long-spilled blood. ‘This was the freedom they died for.’ No, it wasn’t.

15 December. Handy hints: a garage I go to occasionally in Ilkley has a box of coppers by the till. If you’re short of a penny or two you take some from the box and, though there’s no obligation, if you get the odd penny in change you put it back. I am as happy getting rid of the odd penny as taking one since the end result is the same, reducing the amount of copper in one’s pocket. With many bottles of unused coppers at home I wish this practice was more widespread.

A propos shopping I note that this year Sainsbury’s profits have fallen. I have played a small part in this as I am increasingly reluctant to visit their Camden Town store, a grey, dingy steel and glass structure designed by Nicholas Grimshaw who, in order to make room for his little bit of Danzig, demolished a pleasing and easily convertible Art Deco bakery that was previously on the site. Visiting the store has always been lowering to the spirit, though alleviated somewhat by an old-fashioned flower stall outside the back door, kept by a mother and daughter and where one could always buy posies of anemones. It persisted for some years until Sainsbury’s itself decided to sell flowers (though not anemones), the mother and daughter lost their pitch, I lost any incentive to shop there and Sainsbury’s profits fell accordingly. Did I know about economics all this could probably be expressed in the form of an equation.

16 December. As I’m correcting the proofs of this diary the news comes of David Blunkett’s resignation. It’s hard not to welcome his departure, while at the same time deploring the manner of it; anyone hounded by newspapers has my sympathy, even though in Blunkett’s case the leaders of the pack were the very papers he had courted. Scarcely has he cleared his desk when the judges in the Lords condemn the indefinite detention of foreign nationals as unlawful, a judgment which it’s to be hoped signals some sort of turning of the tide. Santa may call at Belmarsh if not at Guantanamo Bay.

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Vol. 27 No. 2 · 20 January 2005

Alan Bennett wonders whether there were any barbers in Auschwitz (LRB, 6 January). If he were to visit the Jewish Museum in Finchley on a Sunday afternoon, he would be able to talk to Leon Greenman, now 94 years old, who actually was a barber in Auschwitz. Alternatively, he could read Greenman’s book, An Englishman in Auschwitz, published in 2001.

Rod Eastwood
Halifax, West Yorkshire

I was at the same meeting of Camden Council as Alan Bennett last October. I was there as a ward councillor, speaking in opposition to the planning development that he had come to support. Like him, I am a patient of the James Wigg Practice.

Bennett said that ‘trees grow’. Yes of course, but one has to be wary of the contrivances of artists’ impressions or developers’ elevation drawings. I was a member of this Planning Committee for eight years, and have never seen any such illustration include a street packed with cars or spread with graffiti. Indeed the trees are always in leaf (sometimes to conceal some detail that otherwise might be questioned), the passers-by are always smiling and the sky is always blue.

Gerry Harrison
London NW5

Vol. 27 No. 3 · 3 February 2005

Alan Bennett may be right about the surprise of many inhabitants of the Lune Valley at the suppression of Cockersands Abbey, and thus at the end to supplies of fresh fish, but the date of surrender was 1539, not 1536 (LRB, 6 January). Henry VIII’s commissioners, visiting the abbey in 1536 under the mandate of the Act of Suppression, found that the abbey’s income totalled £366 4s 1d – well over the £200 determined by the crown as the benchmark for a functioning abbey. They also reported the church and monastic buildings as being largely in good repair. Moreover, most of the 22 monks, aged between 29 and 60, petitioned to remain in the religious life. When the end came three years later, therefore, in the case of Cockersands at least, it wasn’t the mercy killing of a dying beast that some traditional views of the Dissolution suggest. Cockersands was founded in 1184 by a hermit on the beach near the Lune Estuary, and the last remaining abbey building, the octagonal chapter-house, which survives on a local farm, can be visited from the Lancashire Coastal Path. Because it was a Premonstratensian, not a Benedictine monastery, the monks had a pastoral role in the local community as well as a contemplative one within the cloister.

Andrew Jotischky

Alan Bennett, taking his tour around Burford church in Oxfordshire last October, must not have noticed the signatures of the Levellers who were briefly imprisoned in the church in 1649 after Cromwell had crushed their mutiny, and who scratched their names in the lead of the font while waiting to be shot outside the church door in the morning.

Christopher Small
Isle of Lismore, Argyll

Alan Bennett wishes there were a register of war memorials in this country. The UK National Inventory of War Memorials was established in 1989 and is an ongoing project to compile a comprehensive record of war memorials of all kinds. It currently has records for 50,000 of the estimated 54,000 memorials. The information in the inventory can be accessed by contacting the Imperial War Museum. It is intended to create online access, when funds permit.

Nick Chapple
London SE24

If Alan Bennett finds himself at Stokesay again, he should have another look at the war memorial in the churchyard: the side against the hedge has a list of the names of men who returned alive to the parish from World War One. I’ve never noticed a list of returnees on any memorial elsewhere.

Virginia Warren

Vol. 27 No. 4 · 17 February 2005

Alan Bennett complains that the Court of Appeal had ordered that the wrongly imprisoned Vincent and Michael Hickey ‘effectively pay board and lodging for the years that they have spent in jail’ (LRB, 6 January). However, the issue before the Court of Appeal was whether it was lawful to deduct from the Hickeys’ awards for pecuniary damages sums that had been awarded to them for their living expenses during the period of their imprisonment. The Hickeys did not have expenses for board and lodging when imprisoned and hence there was no ground to grant them an award for those expenses.

Harold Reynolds
Scarsdale, New York

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