Vol. 31 No. 1 · 1 January 2009

Bennett’s Dissection

Alan Bennett wishes for a different kind of fame

7642 words

1 January, Yorkshire. A grey dark day and raining still, as it has been for the last week. Around four it eases off and we walk up by the lake. The waterfall at the top of the village is tumultuous, though the torrent has never been as powerful as it was in 1967 when (perhaps melodramatically) I envisaged the lake dam breaking and engulfing the whole village. The lake itself is always black and sinister, the farther cliff falling sheer into the water. It was once more exotically planted than with the pines that grow here now, as the Edwardian botanist Reginald Farrer used to sow the seeds he brought home from the Orient by firing them across the water into the cliff with a shotgun. The church clock is striking five when we turn back, the waterfall now illuminated under its own self-generated power, the same power that once lit the whole village, and I suppose one day might have to do so again.

8 January. I spend a lot of time these days just tidying up and today I start on my notebooks. Around 1964 I took to carrying a notebook in my pocket in which I used to jot down scraps of overheard conversation, ideas for plays or sketches and (very seldom) thoughts on life. I stopped around 1990, by which time I’d accumulated 30 or so of these little hardbacked books with marbled covers. Today, barren of inspiration or any inclination to do anything better, I start to transcribe and even index them. In the process I’m reminded of one of the reasons I stopped, which was that so little of what I noted down ever found its way into print or into a play, the notebooks becoming a reproach, a cache of unused and probably unusable material and a possible testimony to the sort of thing I really ought to have been writing.

Some examples:

‘She had a face like an upturned canoe,’ said by the actor Charles Gray at breakfast in Dundee (though of whom I can’t remember).

A. I’ve been salmon fishing.

B. It’s not the season.

A. No. I thought I’d take the blighters by surprise.

‘Here we are. Fat Pig One and Fat Pig Two.’ Said by my mother when she and my father were sitting on the sofa in front of the fire.

‘They have one of them dogs that’s never got its snitch out of its backside.’ My father.

11 January. To Cambridge, where I talk to students about my medical history. It’s part of a course run by Jonathan Silverman, director of communications at Addenbrooke’s and himself a Cambridgeshire GP. As so often when I’ve spoken in schools I find I’m of more interest to the staff than I am to the students, and I don’t do it very well, haltingly recounting the more noteworthy episodes in my medical life without drawing out many lessons from them. As usual girls ask more questions than boys, though once I point this out the boys kick in. One story I tell is to do with the importance of language. Years ago I saw a specialist about a troublesome knee. Having examined me, he asked whether I had any trouble with my stomach. I hadn’t, but the question was alarming; my knee and my stomach: whatever I’d got must be more widespread than I’d imagined. What in fact the doctor was asking was whether I had a delicate stomach: had he said that, the answer would have been ‘yes’. Given the all-clear he then prescribed Feldene, a vicious anti-inflammatory drug which was later banned after it had killed off numerous pensioners. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault: he’d just phrased his question wrongly. Still, it meant that as a result of the havoc wrought by Feldene I had to be put on the acid-suppressant pills that I’ve been on ever since.

14 January. Tom Stoppard rings my agent Rosalind Chatto to tell her that when in last year’s LRB diary I quote an old lady in New York as saying ‘I zigged when I should have zagged’ the original remark came from the American sports reporter Red Butler, who reported it as having been said by Randolph Turpin after his defeat by Sugar Ray Robinson. How my old lady came to know this is a mystery, and how Tom comes to know it, too, as I’m sure boxing isn’t his thing.

22 January. I’m reading George Steiner’s My Unwritten Books, a series of chapters, some more autobiographical than others, on the books he wishes he’d written. The first section is on the Cambridge scholar and scientist Joseph Needham, microbiologist and expert on China, a man who fascinates Steiner and whom he wanted to write about in Frank Kermode’s Modern Masters series, published in the 1970s. Steiner had first seen Needham at a protest meeting against Anglo-American intervention in Korea in 1950, at which the distinguished scientist claimed to have incontrovertible proof of the use of germ warfare by the American military. Admiring Needham as he did Steiner was depressed by this, but when he went to see Needham in his rooms in Caius they got on well until Steiner raised the matter of his testimony on germ warfare. Needham then became cold and angry, Steiner was dismissed and they did not meet again. Other than this telling and disillusioning encounter, the tone of Steiner’s chapter on Needham is wholly laudatory.

At a much humbler level it reminded me of how as a schoolboy in Leeds in 1950 I went to a similar protest meeting at the old Mechanics’ Institute, where one of the speakers was Mrs Arnold Kettle. The Kettles were well-known left-wingers, Arnold Kettle a Communist and lecturer in English at the university. They lived not far from us in Headingley and were eventually, though not I think at this time, customers at our butcher’s shop. Like Professor Needham, Mrs Kettle denounced the invasion of North Korea by the Americans and their use of germ warfare, not a view I’d then seen put forward. I was at the meeting not because of any left-wing views, but because the war was of some personal interest to me, as in 1952 I was due to be conscripted and likely to find myself fighting in it.

What was so astonishing at the meeting – and also embarrassing – was to find Mrs Kettle weeping over the plight of North Korea and having to fight back the tears as she spoke. Never having seen anyone on a platform in tears before, I still wasn’t convinced of the righteousness of the North Korean cause, only that Mrs Kettle was good but soft-hearted and probably self-deceiving. That she was toeing the Party line didn’t occur to me, though it did to my companion, John Scaife, another budding conscript, who was much more scathing on the subject and cynical about the tears.

2 February. Ten days or so ago I did an interview for the Today programme in connection with the revival of The History Boys now playing at Wyndham’s, in which I reiterated my unease about public school education. This produced a mild stir and much silliness, Deborah Orr in the Independent saying that if I object to parents bettering their children’s prospects by paying for their education do I therefore object to parents sending a child to ballet classes. The Mail predictably labels me a hypocrite because I use both the NHS and private medicine, an admission I’d made myself on the radio, but with the Mail, as always, pretending it’s information it’s been clever enough to find out.

I’ve no relish for controversy, but what seems to me incontrovertible is that in the 50 years since I went up to Cambridge to take the scholarship examination there has been no substantial attempt to bring state and private education together. There have been cosmetic changes, an increased number of bursaries for instance and the (I would have thought very patchy) sharing of resources with which public schools have endowed themselves (swimming baths, squash courts etc) but the core problem – namely, that most privately educated pupils regardless of their abilities are better taught and provided for than pupils in state schools – has not been touched. The situation is the same and in some respects worse than it was when I was 17. Is public school education fair? The answer can only be ‘no’. And ‘Is anything fair?’ is not an answer.

4 February. More senior moments. I can’t find my pullover and don’t like the one I’m wearing because it has several moth holes. ‘I had another pullover,’ I say to R. ‘I was wearing it this morning.’

‘You still are. You’ve put the other one on top of it.’

Bike over to Gloucester Crescent and leave the bike there while I walk round to M&S. People often smile at me, but this afternoon nearly everyone smiles. It’s only when I come back to Parkway to have my hair cut that I realise I’m still wearing my crash helmet.

8 February. A row over some remarks the Archbishop of Canterbury has made about Sharia law. They’re perfectly sensible; the only thing for which he can be blamed is his underestimating the stupidity of the nation and its press. It’s proof, as Dorothy Wellesley wrote, that as ‘foreigners, especially the French, tell us, we have never acquired the adult mind.’

18 February. Ned Sherrin’s memorial service at St Paul’s, Covent Garden. A friendly service interspersed with songs, some from Sondheim, some from Sherrin and Brahms, but with none of them as tuneful as the hymns. The audience is very responsive, and it’s the only occasion in my experience that the lesson (Timothy West and Ecclesiastes) is given a round of applause. The best speech, regrettably, is David Frost’s, the best anecdote that Ned, questioned about the young man he had brought with him to supper, said: ‘If pressed, I would have to say he’s a Spanish waiter.’

Waiting at the lights this afternoon my bike slips out of my hands and slides to the floor, in the process tearing a piece out of my leg. Wendy, the nice nurse at the practice, tells me I should try and keep the dressing dry. The result is that when in the evening I have my bath I look not unlike Marat, except that whereas Marat has his arm hanging over the side of the bath, I have my leg.

14 March. Every day practically I bike past the two bored policemen who, armed and bullet-proofed, guard the house of the foreign secretary. I could give the address, and were I a Muslim and even had it in my possession, it would be enough to land me in custody. Passing the policemen so often, my natural inclination would be to smile. I never do because though I know they’re bored and it’s not their fault, I feel to smile condones a state of affairs (and a foreign policy) which necessitates ministers of the crown being under armed guard.

10 April. A correspondence in the Guardian about eating apple cores takes me back to the perilous school playgrounds of my childhood, when eating an apple core, like wearing boots, was a social indicator. Poorer boys (wearing boots) spotting you eating an apple would say with varying degrees of threat, ‘Give us your scollop, kid,’ and then hang about until it became available. I never begged a core myself, partly because I wasn’t that sort of boy, but chiefly because, like so much else in my childhood, it came under my mother’s prohibition against sharing food or drink with other children, TB always the ultimate threat. That ‘scollop’ had another meaning apart from apple core I never knew until I was in my twenties and started dining out.

11 April. From my notebooks:

‘I never fathomed the lav and we were there two weeks. It could never make up its mind when to flush. Well, you can’t be standing there playing Russian roulette with it can you?’

Reading a letter:

A. Love and Kierkegaard?

B. (snatching it) Love and Kind Regards.

My life does seem right staccato somehow.

‘Get the cattle prod and wake your father.’ My mother.

When we say life we often mean risk.

12 April, Yorkshire. Snow in the night, which covers the lawn and clinging to the half-opened leaves makes the trees bulky and seemingly as laden with blossom as in a Samuel Palmer. In the afternoon we go over to Austwick and walk down the muddy lane to the clapper bridge. There are sheep and lambs everywhere and the beck is very full, gliding wickedly between the stones before flattening out over the fields. It’s a perfect scene and R. is just saying how we must try and keep it in mind next week (when I have to go into hospital) when deep in the water comes the spectral body of a lamb. Though tagged, it’s not long born, and must have slipped into the beck in its first days of life. I suppose we must try and keep that in mind, too, as pale and ghost-like, it is swept out now into the flooded meadows.

14 April. Regular check-ups for cancer sometimes turn up other problems: looking for one thing the doctors find another. Thus in February I was found to have a stomach aneurysm, and though it’s my inclination to leave things as they are, it apparently needs to be seen to. Aneurysms these days are often quite straightforward, remedied with the fitting of a stent in what is often just a one day job. Mine, though, is not straightforward at all and will need an open operation, and the surgeons who see the scans and angiograms get very excited as they have never seen an aneurysm in this particular spot before. The operation is scheduled at UCH and arrangements made for other doctors to observe the procedure, the chirurgical equivalent, I suppose, of additional priests present at a funeral or memorial service being described as ‘robed and in the sanctuary’. I am robed and ready myself today and indeed halfway to the operating theatre when we have to come back as no post-operative beds are available in intensive care. This means I can quite happily go home and return next week.

15 April. I have given all my literary archive to the Bodleian Library and this afternoon Richard Ovenden, the keeper of special collections, comes round to load up the hundred or so box files and take them to Oxford. There will be more in due course, including all my notebooks and the annotated copies of the printed stuff, but I’m very happy to see the back of this first tranche. When I get home later on Richard Ovenden is calling. ‘I thought you would like to know that this evening your MSS are reposing in Bodley’s strongroom on the next shelf to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.’

17 April. George Fenton comes round with a present, an overcoat from John Pearce, the fashionable tailor in Meard Street who specialises in remaking or renovating old clothes. The coat is French, long, black and once having had an astrakhan collar. It’s a lovely thing, but what made George buy me it (and I don’t like to think of the price) is that it was made by Proust’s tailor.

18 April. A pre-operation session at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson wing of UCH down Huntley Street, in which Siobhan, a nice, cheerful and silly nurse, takes me through the same questionnaire I answered twice last week. She then takes me in to see the anaesthetist, and he goes through the same questionnaire. He’s Scots, so everything is ‘a wee …’ – a wee while, a wee op (which it plainly isn’t). I’m coming away a wee bit depressed, though it’s slightly alleviated when Siobhan says: ‘I’ve just got one more question. Do you dye your hair?’

22 April. Before ‘the procedure’ (which ends up lasting seven hours) there is a slightly comic scene in which the nurse goes round the various wards gathering up the patients due to be operated on this afternoon. We are told to take a pillow with us so, clad in our hospital gowns and each clutching our pillow, we walk in single file behind the nurse across the bridge above the atrium that leads to the surgical wing. We look like medieval penitents on the way to public humiliation and an auto-da-fé. The technical description of the aneurysm is ‘a dissection of the superior mesenteric artery’. Since its location is unique, before the operation I ask the surgeon if I can give my name to this particular spot. He is not encouraging, perhaps having thoughts of that for himself. It’s a pity. ‘Bennett’s Dissection’ sounds rather good I think as I drift off; it might serve as a description of (some of) my life’s work.

24 April. I like uniforms. I preferred nurses when they looked like nurses not just ward cleaners. I found the sight of district nurses in their navy blue raincoats both reassuring and appropriate. White coats have gone too now, with doctors indistinguishable from patients except that the doctors are in shirt-sleeves. I like white coats. But then I’m a butcher’s son. White coats have no terrors for me.

1 May. Home, and my first outing is to the local community centre to vote against the dreadful Boris. I wear an overcoat over my pyjamas, something I’d never have the face to do if I was well. But I’ve been ill, I think, and now I’m getting better. Home to a nice supper of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, followed by stewed apple and yogurt.

24 May. Clearing out some shelves, I find a note from Kevin Whelan dated Dublin 3 October ’05. It’s a poem headed ‘Getting it off my chest’.

I’m bruised inside
from the
punches I’ve pulled.

I’d have liked to have written that, though I’ve no idea who Kevin Whelan is.

8 June. John Fortune rings, just back from a gig with John Bird in (I think) Dubai. It’s for a group of super-rich Arabs, few of whom speak English and who have to have the satirical barbs simultaneously translated via headphones. Unsurprisingly there are not many laughs.

The wives are startling, traditionally dressed in burqas etc but in the costliest materials and styled by top Arab fashion designers. ‘Oh,’ I pertly quip, ‘you mean like Yves Saint Laurent of Arabia.’ Both Fortune and I are impressed by the promptness of this impromptu joke, but it comes about because when he rings I’m just listening to Last Word, the obit programme on Radio 4 which includes a section on the dead Yves, who, so his partner says, was born with a nervous breakdown.

14 June. Watch the TV coverage of the Trooping of the Colour, done this year by the Welsh Guards. The BBC in the person of Huw Edwards is at pains to point out that these are working soldiers, and to prove it there’s a lot of film, some of it live, of the regiment in action in Afghanistan.

Whether there are Guards in action in Baghdad I don’t know, but if there are, the forces there scarcely get a mention, or Baghdad either. Afghanistan, though a campaign every bit as futile and mistaken as the war in Iraq, has somehow become the acceptable face of war. It’s maybe because Prince Harry was there (of which there’s some discussion with the Prince of Wales). But I suspect it’s more because we don’t hear much of the civilian population of Afghanistan and that ‘Johnny Taliban’ (in Prince Harry’s phrase) is more of an identifiable bogeyman than the factions in Iraq.

But it’s a sunny day, the Queen is in a nice turquoise frock and appears to enjoy herself, even tapping her foot to some indifferent Welsh brass-band compositions before being driven back to the Palace to watch the fly-past from the balcony and then have a spot of lunch. Nobody likes to ask any of the throng in the Mall if they know why we are engaged in Afghanistan or if they approve (as many would, I imagine). No grieving mothers, of course, and the deaths that have been mentioned have all been noble ones and not due to inadequate equipment, friendly fire, or anything ignoble at all.

And today, 15 June, comes George Bush paying a courtesy call on the Queen and Gordon Brown before having a cheering conscience-free get-together with his old mate Tony Blair. And here are the helicopters flying over Regent’s Park to prove it.

26 June, Espiessac. I sit in the wicker rocking-chair in the shade of the willow by the pool. Except that I’m slightly pestered by insects it’s an ideal situation, with the lavender bank just coming into bloom and the trees and grass fresh and green after a week or two of rain. It’s one of the perfect places of the earth, utterly silent and private, the twitter of a hawk the only sound. And it’s the last time we shall be able to come.

It’s a warm afternoon and with no one around I swim dutifully around the pool. I’ve never much cared for swimming (or known what to think about while I was doing it). I ought to be a better swimmer as I’ve got broad shoulders, but my arms were always too thin, I reflect, and I’ve never mastered the crawl. Today, though, I think of it less as swimming than as taking my scar for an airing, the long wavering pleat that now runs from navel to sternum. I reflect, as I labour messily round, that this will be one of the last swims I shall have here or anywhere else. I can’t imagine ever finding anywhere as perfect or as private as this, and having swum in a pool bordered on the one side by a bank of lavender and on the other by fruit trees and a field of ripe corn, who could bear to swim municipally?

Tomorrow we leave as the house is now sold, putting me in mind of Francis Hope’s poem about the holidays we had in rented villas back in the 1970s:

Goodbye to the Villa Piranha

Prepare the journey North,
Smothering feet in unfamiliar socks.
Sweeping the bathroom free of sand, collecting
Small change of little worth.

Make one last visit to the tip
(Did we drink all those bottles ?) and throw out
The unread heavy paperback, saving
One thriller for the trip.

Chill in the morning air
Hints like a bad host that we should be going.
Time for a final swim, a walk, a last
Black coffee in the square.

If not exactly kings
We were at least francs bourgeois, with the right
To our own slice of place and time and pleasure,
And someone else’s things.

Leaving the palace and its park
We take our common place along the road,
As summer joins the queue of other summers,
Driving towards the dark.

20 July. Although the East Coast rail franchise has now passed from GNER to National Express eccentricity happily persists: the trolley attendant this afternoon warns against too sudden opening of the sparkling water lest it be a bit ‘Vesuvial’.

23 July. I’m pushing my bike through the gate of Gloucester Crescent this morning when a heron flaps up from the creeper on top of the pergola. It flies down the street getting all the seagulls agitated, and when I come out five minutes later the gulls are still making a din. The bird, having hidden round the corner, now takes off again and flies to No. 62 and perches on the fanlight above the door. The seagulls haven’t seen where it has gone so it stays hunched up there in perfect silhouette (and in a setting not found in Audubon) while they scour the skies above the crescent. I fetch a neighbour to see it and we watch it for a while, but the heron obviously feels this is getting a bit too what cameramen would call clubby and takes off again up the crescent where we (and I hope the gulls) lose sight of it. It doesn’t quite match R.’s experience when a heron mobbed by crows near Primrose Hill missed him by inches, but as with any evidence of urban rurality, I find it cheering. It confirms, too, my detestation of gulls, which I would happily see hounded out of cities and back to their proper stamping ground.

28 July. I’m just finishing the Collected Stories of John Cheever, all 892 pages of it. Full of casual profundities and lightly worn insights, few of the stories have the poetry of his novels or their leaps of language, but taken together they furnish an almost documentary account of what American East Coast society was like in the 1940s and 1950s. And not merely the society of the well-to-do. One of the most striking and unexpected insights is how precarious were these seemingly secure suburban lives, financially precarious and ridden with debt, and though they have cooks and maids, the loss of a job means ruin and departure; emotionally precarious, too, nothing in Updike that isn’t in Cheever first. And these aren’t just suburban lives in Cheever’s enclaves of Shady Hill or Bullet Park. There are stories about elevator men, building superintendents and casual burglars, few of these apparently respectable lives that don’t have a seamy side. As indeed Cheever’s own life had. Plenty of drink, too, which is another slice of his own life, though his homosexual double life would be harder to deduce from the stories than it is from the novels. Most of them were written to order, chiefly for the New Yorker (which never paid him enough), and he probably wrote better when he had more room to spread himself. But there are extraordinary tales: a casual office fuck leads to a woman being sacked, whereupon the culprit finds her stalking him until in the shadows of his suburban railway platform she makes him literally eat dirt. There’s a story told by the belly of a man named Farnsworth and in Bullet Park a boy narrowly escapes crucifixion on the altar of his local church.

31 July. A depressing judgment in the House of Lords. This is the not unexpected rejection of the appeal against extradition to the USA of Gary McKinnon, the computer programmer who, for no other reason than that it was there, hacked into the Pentagon computer. Unless the European Court has more courage and more sense than the Law Lords he faces an American prison. And for what? Cheek.

14 August. On Thursday (hoping for Dad’s Army) we caught a live broadcast from the Proms of Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing Brahms’s Fourth. It was a terrific performance, broadcast in real time with no editing, so that one got a good deal of what Goffman called ‘by-behaviour’, the players off-duty, between movements for instance, or waiting for Barenboim to return to the podium for the encore. It helps that they are all young people, and some incredibly young, one violinist not much more than 12, though Barenboim himself is now serious and unsmiling and looks not unlike Rod Steiger.

Tonight the broadcast is repeated and though it’s edited it is still enthralling, one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in his turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throws himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter of fact about this ethical burden. But as with similar experiences in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

28 August. N. brings me the review of the revival of Enjoy from the Mail. It was first put on in 1980, and while generally enthusiastic the Mail assumes, as did James Fenton at the time of the first production, that by putting the main young man in drag I am signalling my own (presumably suppressed) desire to get into a frock. It may be that the Mail assumes all homosexuals would like to be in skirts (or ought to be, possibly as a measure of public safety), but I’ve never had the slightest inclination in that regard, and even as a child would never have thought to dress up in my mother’s clothes. But I wrote the play, so that proves I must harbour these unfulfilled longings.

The truth is I needed the young man to come home after some years’ absence and not be recognised by his parents, so drag seemed the easiest answer. The young man may not even be gay; I actually can’t remember whether there’s anything in the script to suggest this. He could be like Eddie Izzard or indeed Grayson Perry, both of whom prefer to dress as women without it being an indication of their sexual preferences, though in 1980 the audience wouldn’t have understood that and nor, I think, would I. But I remember in 1980 meeting one of the cast who said that they were having a discussion at rehearsals about transvestites, and knowing even then that the play had taken the wrong turning. Buried in the play, which I’d forgotten, are echoes of Oedipus. The father is disabled, having been the victim of a hit and run accident at Four Lane Ends; the young man might be responsible and he certainly flirts with his mother. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that. I thought of it then as just something to spice up the mixture.

31 August. From my notebooks:

‘It’s one of those churches in the City like My Aunty by the Wardrobe.’

‘If only one could do it with some clean part of the body, like the elbow.’ Frith Banbury’s mother.

‘It’s no good. The larger Florentine churches of pre-Renaissance date are not a success.’ Roger Hinks.

2 September. I seldom make a note of meals, particularly when I’m on my own, and today’s lunch wasn’t in any way memorable, but for once I’ll record it. I’ll normally have my lunch at one. Today it’s a large granary roll which I slice up thinly for sandwiches, one side of which I spread with butter, the other mayonnaise. Then I put on some cos lettuce and smoked salmon, while in the centre of the plate is some carrot and apple salad left over from last night’s supper. Sometimes I’ll have a glass of water but today not. To finish I have a sliced-up banana topped off with vanilla yogurt and half a spoonful of blackberry jam. All this I put on the French tin tray R. bought earlier this year (when I was ill and having meals in bed) and bring it upstairs to my table, where I listen to BBC7’s This Sceptred Isle, a history of England read by Anna Massey, Peter Jeffrey, Christopher Lee and Paul Eddington. Afterwards I take the tray back downstairs to get my midday pills: two Omega 3 tablets, one selenium and one Saw palmetto plus a piece of dark chocolate and a cup of green tea.

It probably sounds nicer than I actually find it, which is rather routine, but some of the most memorable passages in Anthony Powell’s Journals and James Lees-Milne’s Diaries are to do with meals, particularly with Lees-Milne’s meals during the war or the years of austerity. Somewhere he talks about a pudding of treacle pancakes and cream which even now makes my mouth water, though one of the revelations (to me anyway) of his Diaries is how much better the upper classes ate during the war than we did in Armley. Treacle pancakes and cream didn’t figure with us, though the basics, particularly food in season like new potatoes and fresh strawberries, were far tastier then than they have ever been since.

4 September. A good deal in the Guardian about the Booker Prize and the experiences of those who have been its judges. I was once asked and had no hesitation in turning it down, the prospect of reading ten novels let alone a hundred quite enough to put me off. Later I read somewhere that Martyn Goff had said that no one had ever turned down the chance of being a judge, which confirms what several of the judges say – namely, that he’s a tricky customer. Happy to see Rebecca West stigmatised as a bully as I’ve never understood why she was and is made such a fuss of – a sacred cow, I suppose. Roy Fuller gets some stick, too, which chimes with my remembrance of him when he was briefly a television critic. The whole thing reinforces what I always feel – that literature is a much nastier profession than the theatre.

6 September. In a shop in Petworth we are shown a chair that had belonged to Edward VIII and which came from Fort Belvedere. It’s a monstrous thing, so decayed as to be undatable, the stuffing bursting out of the sides, the embroidery gone on the arms and with no character to it at all; it could have belonged to Henry VIII rather than Edward VIII. ‘It’s very comfortable,’ the antique dealer says. ‘Try it.’ So I sit in it, this chair that the Duke of Windsor may well have sat in on the night of his abdication, though I feel no thrill on that score. And it is comfortable.

11 September. The sister of the divorce lawyer Mark Saunders, shot by the police in May, brings a case against the Independent Police Complaints Commission on the grounds that the officers involved were allowed to confer before giving their accounts of the incident. I hope she wins, and in her favour she’s white and middle-class. If she were poor and black there would be no chance and not even a case. In Britain the police shoot people with impunity. They always have.

15 September. From my notebooks:

A. They’re very nice. They have a Brancusi in the bathroom.

B. Do you mean a Jacuzzi?

A. No. They have one of those as well.

‘I’ve been to Australia. It was all I could do to be civil.’ Ursula Vaughan Williams.

‘Shall we remind ourselves of the earlier history of this picture?’ Anthony Blunt with a group of 11-year-olds in the National Gallery.

Madman: If you ever want some good petrol, this is the place. I’ve had some really good petrol from here in my time … economical smooth-running stuff. They make a speciality of it. Just mention my name.

‘It’s like octopus pee.’ My mother on a poor cup of tea.

20 September. I collect a belt from Nelson’s, the cobblers on Duke Street in Settle. It’s a belt I bought thirty years ago at Brooks Brothers in New York, the sort of belt that when I was a boy used to be fastened with a silver snake buckle. It doesn’t have that, but with its blue and red stripe it’s been virtually the only belt I’ve worn since the 1970s. The tongue gave out about 15 years ago and old Mr Nelson repaired it. He was a lovely comfortable-looking old man, like the cobbler in Pinocchio, and his shop was old-fashioned to match, with a green glass 1930s shop sign that must once have been the last word and now I hope is listed. Today it’s his son, who’s equally characterful, his shop window full of assorted and sometimes eccentric boots and shoes for ladies and gents that he’s made, one feels, just for the love of it. He wears a heavy linen smock, and when I say his father has mended the belt once already he says he hopes we’ll both be around long enough to see it mended again. £8.

17 October. The new film of Brideshead seems to have fared badly. I’ve always thought the house in the original television series, Castle Howard, was ill-chosen, though it’s a mistake the new version replicates. I may have told this story before (I feel I’ve told most stories before), but when Derek Grainger, the producer of the TV version, asked me to adapt it he admitted a little shamefacedly that they would be filming it at Castle Howard. I thought at the time that this was typical of the inflation a novel suffers when it’s adapted for television and, priggishly probably, turned it down. I don’t know that there was any suggestion that Castle Howard was in Waugh’s mind when he was writing the book, though such identifications are anyway approximate, a back-projection as much by the author as by literary critics.

The new adaptation sounds cruder than the first version which, written by Grainger himself, did at least retain much of the original text in the form of voiceover. John Mortimer no more wrote the script than I did, though he at least was smart enough to say he would write it and maybe even did a draft. That was really all Grainger wanted, giving him a basis on which to write it himself. A nice man, he gave me supper in Rome on one occasion but took a long time before he could settle on a suitable restaurant, going into several, and walking round critically, coming out of one shaking his head saying: ‘No good. Too many lampshades.’

27 October. A lovely morning, and around 11 we drive out on the M40, turning off at Stokenchurch and then along the Adwell road, where we eat our sandwiches above the Georgianised medieval church at Wheatfield. It’s a church we’ve found open only once, but it’s a good picnic spot overlooking the flat lands below the Chilterns and around Thame. It’s somewhat spoilt this bright morning, though, because the church is now completely surrounded by ugly timber fencing and three strands of barbed wire. There seems no break in the wire (which pretends to be electrified), so there’s no entry into the graveyard still less the church itself, so how anybody worships there is a mystery. Still, the sandwiches are delicious – lettuce, tomato, avocado, black olives and Parma ham – and we drive on past Stoke Talmage to Easington, a church that is open and seemingly unchanged from when we last came 15 years ago: two-decker pulpit, moss-grown font, medieval tiles in the chancel, and a framed account of how in the storms of 1992 the roof was badly damaged. It has since been repaired, if not entirely by parishioners, certainly by those who cherish this obscure little building – and a very grand lot they are, including J. Paul Getty, Jeremy Irons and a Rothschild or two, so that one just wishes they could take Wheatfield under their wing.

All this, I have to say, is overhung by the thought of the reception at Oxford this evening and the speeches, dinner etc consequent on the formal handing over of my manuscripts to the Bodleian Library.

This takes place in the Divinity School, where my praises are duly sung, the problem always on such occasions where to look, and how to look too: modest, sceptical, bashful, I can do all those – it’s appreciative I can’t manage. The credit for the manuscripts going to Bodley belongs to David Vaisey, who long before he was Bodley’s Librarian, asked me if when the time came I would think of depositing them here. Lest it should be thought there had been any sort of competition, this is the only inquiry I’ve ever had. Nothing from the British Library, nothing from Austin, Texas, nothing from Leeds. One offer in 40 years makes me some sort of bibliographical wallflower. Finally, I tell the story of Richard Ovenden telephoning to say my manuscripts were resting that evening on the next shelf to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, adding that the only other time in my life when I’d been in such proximity to ancient memories was one evening in New York when I’d found myself sitting next to Bette Davis. And I add confidently that this will be the only occasion when the audience will ever hear Bette Davis and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle included in the same sentence.

8 November. Listen to The Archive Hour on Radio 4, with Stella Rimington the ex-head of MI5 taking us through the material the BBC holds on the Cambridge spies, particularly the so-called fifth (or is it sixth) man, John Cairncross. It’s all pretty factual, with Rimington banging the treason drum and making the mistake writers on the spies always make: that the whole lives of Burgess, Blunt, Maclean and Co were taken up with spying. Maybe they should have been and had they been dutiful Marxists ought to have been. But spies have lives too, and were (even Blunt) often quite silly and like everybody else out to have a good time. Arthur Marshall and Victor Rothschild (whose secretary Arthur Marshall briefly was) were the only sensible voices, with Marshall recorded as saying (on, I think, Woman’s Hour) that just because someone you like and are fond of does something you disagree with doesn’t mean you turn your back on them. Stella Rimington is shocked by this evidence of loyalty and good sense and asks us to be shocked too. A short extract from An Englishman Abroad ends the programme only, I think, because it points up how lost and lonely Burgess found himself in Moscow. Astonishing that the ex-head of such a disreputable organisation as MI5 can still expect anyone to care.

20 November. John Sergeant retires from the Strictly Come Dancing competition. I have no views on this but, having worked with Sergeant on a BBC comedy series in 1966, I can truthfully say that whatever he knows about rhythm and dance he learned from me.

24 November. To Downing Street and a reception for Fanny Waterman, founder of the Leeds Piano Competition. The last time I was here was in Harold Wilson’s time, when Denis Healey was in the cabinet. And here still is Denis Healey, thinner but with the eyebrows intact, shaking hands with R. saying: ‘And is this your Young Man?’ The place is more corporate than I remember, and while in the other room a plump solemn Georgian boy gives a cello recital we take the handbook, and wander round looking at the pictures. Andy Burnham, the minister for the arts, who with his heavy dark hair looks as if he’s strayed out of an early Pasolini movie, makes a speech standing in for Gordon Brown, who’s running late. Except that now here is Gordon Brown, young, tousled and despite the financial crisis almost carefree. It’s a revelation. He straightaway has the audience laughing, and makes an excellent speech, harder to do since these are not his natural supporters, rich North Leeds rather than the poorer South, but they’re completely won over. Later he shakes my hand, telling me I’m an institution. What he means, says the Young Man, is that you’re not in one yet. We’re both of us astonished at how different Brown is in private from the dour figure he presents in the Commons. Before coming away we look in the cabinet room, the lighting of which is pitilessly bright. ‘It’s like a night bus,’ says R. to a lacquered Alwoodley lady who, never having been on a night bus (or possibly a bus at all), looks suitably blank.

4 December. From my notebooks:

‘… where we dedicated a glass of wine to Artemis and generally conjured up the spirit of things long ago. They also do a nice curry and chips.’ I think said by John Fortune.

‘I wouldn’t want to be as bald as that. You’d never know where to stop washing your face.’ My mother.

A. I’m working on the structure of the cell.

B. Oh yes. Whether it has bars on the windows, that kind of thing?

Send Letters To:

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


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 31 No. 2 · 29 January 2009

Department of Chinese Whispers (LRB, 1 January): ‘He zigged when he should have zagged’ was written about (not said by) Randolph Turpin, by Red Smith (not Butler).

Tom Stoppard
London SW10

I accept Alan Bennett’s rebuttal of my coarse suggestion in the Daily Mail that the frocked man in his 1980 play Enjoy is in fact his homosexual alter ego slipped into something more comfortable. But I am reminded of the old psychoanalytic joke about the analysand who tells his shrink: ‘Whoever this woman is in my dreams, she’s got nothing to do with my mother.’

Patrick Marmion
London NW10

Alan Bennett is absolutely right to express unease at the unfairness of private education. But I’m a bit mystified at his remark that privately educated pupils are ‘better taught’ than those in the state system. I teach at a sixth-form college in West London that was recently rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. What the students at our school don’t get is the cultural and social capital that the private school system is so effective at reinforcing and transmitting. School fees buy social advantage, not better teachers.

Chris Horner
London WC1

Alan Bennett calls for seagulls, which he comes across terrorising a heron in Camden, to be dispatched back to the seaside towns from whence they came. But surely the magpie is a far greater menace? I once came across a gang of them stamping on a fellow magpie they had pinned to the pavement in my street. Mind you that was in Tottenham not Camden, so perhaps it was only to be expected.

Keith Flett
London N17

Vol. 31 No. 3 · 12 February 2009

Chris Horner says that he is ‘a bit mystified’ by Alan Bennett’s suggestion that pupils in private schools are better taught than those in state schools (Letters, 29 January). He explains his bit of mystification by the fact that the state school in West London where he himself teaches was recently told by the Ofsted inspectors that it was ‘outstanding’. Very well done, those teachers. I wouldn’t begin to know how Ofsted inspectors go about their duties, or how consistent their ratings may be, faced as they are with visiting schools in such widely disparate social settings. Horner’s personal experience takes nothing away from Bennett’s comment in any case, since none of those many of us who share Bennett’s ‘unease’ over the continued prestige or indeed existence of private schools would doubt that there is an overlap in terms of the quality of teaching between the two sectors, with the worst private schools teaching less effectively than the best state ones. But taking the sectors as a whole, we wouldn’t doubt either that the private schools do better, as examination results remind us year in year out. It would be nice to think that Bennett’s unease, and my own, might be lessened by what is currently going on in the economy. One of the green shoots I have enjoyed reading about in the past few weeks was one not of economic recovery but of the reverse, if you like, of the likely demise of some of the more tottery private schools, à la Woolworths, as the families of their pupils start finding it beyond them to go on paying the fees. May the next Tory government not get into office in time to bail them out.

John Scott
London N6

send letters to

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


Please include name, address and a telephone number

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

Sign up to our newsletter

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

Newsletter Preferences