Listen to this piece read by the author


6 January. The alterations we have been having done are now pretty much finished, thanks to Max, a young Latvian who’s unsmiling but an excellent carpenter and Eugene, much jollier and from New Zealand who has supervised it all. Walking round the job this evening R. is shocked to discover in the bathroom above the bath a crudely made wooden cross. He takes this to be the work of Max who, scarcely out of his teens, already has two children and is, I imagine, Catholic. R., whose feelings about religion are more uncompromising than mine, finds the cross disturbing and is determined to ask Eugene to tell Max to take it down. I’m less exercised by it, seeing it as some sort of dedication, the sort of thing (though more crude) that a medieval workman might have put up at the completion of a job. We are both of us wrong as when Eugene is approached he explains it is not a cross at all but a makeshift coathanger he has rigged up over the bath in order to dry his anorak.

14 January. George Fenton tells me of a memorial service he’s been to at St Marylebone Parish Church for Maurice Murphy, the principal trumpet of the LSO, who did the opening trumpet solo in the music for Star Wars. The service due to kick off at 11.30, George arrives with ten minutes to spare only to find the church already full, the congregation seated, silent and expectant. It begins promptly at 11.30 with everyone behaving impeccably and not a cough or a rustle throughout. And he realises it’s because they are all musicians and orchestral players for whom this is like any other concert and where the same rules apply.

21 January, Yorkshire. A creature of habit, en route home I generally stop and have some tea at Bettys in Ilkley where I also buy an organic white loaf. Today the assistant tells me that the café (and presumably the four or five other branches in the Bettys chain) no longer does organic produce as they’ve changed their flour miller. ‘However,’ she assures me, ‘the flour is locally produced.’ As are, presumably, its pesticide residues. When I ask why the flour could not be locally produced and nevertheless be organic she cannot explain. Money is, I imagine, the short answer with ‘locally produced’ a concession to the supposed cost (and carbon footprint) of transport. This is confirmed when I talk to the organic shop in our village who tell me that ‘locally produced’ is now the usual face-saver for firms wanting to economise on the provision of organic produce.

Years ago I might have been able to put my spoke in more effectively than I can today as at that time I was offered a non-executive directorship of Bettys. It was well remunerated and coming with as many buns as I could eat I came quite close to accepting. It was only when I found out that my duties would include sitting regularly in the café where I could be hobnobbed with by other patrons that I regretfully drew the line.

13 February. An oddity. Yesterday in the paddock at Newbury several horses are electrocuted, two fatally, with the accident put down to a forgotten cable under the grass which had been damaged when the turf was spiked. A week or so previously I’d watched on TV an episode of an American series, Diagnosis: Murder, starring Dick Van Dyke, with the plot concerning three athletes in Florida, two of whom were electrocuted on the playing field in exactly the same fashion as the horses. No one else has noted the coincidence, but then I don’t imagine there are many people so sad as to be watching the now rather aged Dick Van Dyke at half past one in the afternoon.

15 February. Not having a book on the go I take up again Larkin’s Letters to Monica which I’d tried to read when it first came out but given up. It’s more interesting than I’d thought then but not much more, with too many post-mortems on previous meetings, what he had said to her, what she had said to him and what they had both really meant. The letters date back to the late 1940s and early 1950s and bring back all the dreariness of digs and Oxford out of term, Sunday lunches in cafés up the Iffley Road and awkward evenings spent listening to records in the rooms of undergraduates one didn’t really know or even like but who just happened to be marooned in Oxford out of term.

One black mark against Larkin is that he no more cares for the work of Flannery O’Connor than Amis did: ‘The day didn’t get off to a very good start by my reading some stories by “Flannery O’Connor” in the bath … horribly depressing American South things.’ This is October 1967. I can’t see how Flannery O’Connor (which he perhaps thought was a pen name) could be so easily dismissed by someone supposedly appreciative of language. The colours were too bright perhaps.

7 March. Read and enjoy Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts about the lure of in-between places and the edges of cities and other communities. I feel I was on to this years ago in my play The Old Country, when Hilary, a spy in the Foreign Office, describes the venues where he met his Soviet contact; it’s also the same sort of no-man’s-land that figures in the film of A Question of Attribution. The authors of Edgelands are two Lancashire poets and there are frequent references to Lancaster and the estuary of the Lune including Salt Ayre, a huge landfill site to the west of the city now grassed over. The name takes me back to childhood when going by train from Leeds to Morecambe on holiday you knew you were nearly there when the porter came along the platform shouting the mysterious invocation ‘Lancaster Green Ayre’.

11 March. R.’s Aunty Stella rings from Edinburgh. She was 90 last week and apologises that she hasn’t learned a new Shakespeare sonnet to mark her birthday. However she recites off by heart, and with no mistakes, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ and promises to learn a new poem for when she sees him in the summer.

27 March. Fill in the census form to which I add this plaintive rider:

I have completed the census form while strongly objecting to the agency, Lockheed Martin, that is carrying it out. Information of this nature should only be divulged to a government agency under the direct control of parliament. Lockheed is basically an arms manufacturer and thus not the most scrupulous of organisations. This is an undertaking that should never have been outsourced.

That it was the last Labour government that outsourced it makes it even more depressing.

15 April. Seeing a banana skin on the pavement reminds me how when I first read the Dandy and the Beano the presence of a banana skin meant that inevitably it was going to be slipped on. No matter that at that time, in the early 1940s, few children had seen let alone eaten a banana, the skin was still shorthand for calamity. Other comic clichés were a fish, almost certain to be stolen by a cat and always represented as a perfect skeleton devoid of flesh but still with the head on; a string of sausages, destined to be grabbed by a dog, the sausages trailing from the dog’s mouth like a scarf in the wind; a bull (beware of) in a field, a billy goat similarly, with a ladder another portent of disaster. The bump on the head which might be the consequence of one of these mishaps was generally described as being ‘as big as a pigeon’s egg’, something else which like the banana I had never seen.

3 May. A distressing call today from Dr C., the oncologist who looked after my friend Anne during her last illness. He talks about hospital services being deliberately run down and the difficulties of ward care due to shortage of staff but it’s only gradually I realise that what he wants is for me to try and write a play about it. I explain what a slow worker I am and how long the trek from conception to execution but it still sounds like an excuse. He’s shy or I make him so and he plainly has difficulty in articulating his worries, but what comes over is his concern and indeed his despair. It’s alarming that doctors should be driven to such desperate measures and leaves me feeling both disturbed and inadequate and wishing I could just say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ and forget everything else.

21 May. A plumpish young man gets off the train at Leeds just behind me.

‘Aren’t you famous?’

‘Well I can’t be, can I, if you don’t know my name.’

‘It’s Alan something.’


‘From Scarborough?’


‘So which Alan are you?’

‘I’m another Alan.’

‘Are you just a lookalike?’

‘Well, you could say so.’

He pats my arm consolingly.

‘Be happy with that.’

24 May. Tim Lott collects me at 6.30 and we drive over to Kensal Rise where I am to do an evening to raise funds to help pay for a legal challenge to Brent Council’s plans to close Kensal Rise Library (and five others). Tim is pessimistic about their chances, libraries for him as much a haven in his childhood as they were for me, though he’s 30 years or so younger. The church is full, with Newsnight in attendance for which I give a rather scrappy interview before doing the reading, which goes well. Back home I’m in time to watch Newsnight and am depressed to see how scraggy I look, my neck in particular, with every shirt these days looking like a horse-collar. There’s a studio discussion between Tim Lott and some clown (Underwood, I think, his name) from the Institute of Economic Affairs. He’s an almost comical baddy, shifty and spivvily suited and maybe picked out by Newsnight because he’s so unprepossessing. He ridicules my assertion that closing libraries is child abuse, in the course of which he describes me as ‘this highly successful millionaire’ and suggests I should buy the library myself. He also claims as did Eamonn Butler back in 1996 that there is nowadays no need for libraries, for which other uses should be found, describing them as ‘prime retail opportunities’, which says it all.

30 May, Yorkshire. Asked to provide a foreword for a book of oral history put together by the people of the next village to ours, Austwick, I’m expecting it to be a bit of a chore. But the histories turn out to be funny and interesting with the memoirs vivid and specific, particularly about the Second War, which for many of these villagers was the time of their lives. At the centre of the book is an extraordinary adventure when in the early hours of Monday, 9 June 1941 the pilot of an RAF Whitley bomber returning from a raid over Dortmund got lost crossing the Pennines and, running out of fuel, had to make an emergency landing. Though it was the height of summer and should have been quite light, there was fog and cloud and the terrain is hilly and indeed mountainous, with the only flat land in the valley bottom criss-crossed with dry-stone walls. Miraculously there was a gap in the cloud and the pilot brought his plane down safely, coming to rest at Orcaber farm near Austwick. Thereafter it was like a scene from an Ealing comedy. Not knowing if the plane was British or German, one of the Home Guard with his rifle came running across the fields followed by a farmer with a pitchfork and, once the news got round, the entire village. None of the children went to school, ferrying each other on their bikes to the landing place, the village policeman, failing to rise to the occasion, riding after them shouting: ‘Stop, stop. Two on a bike, two on a bike!’

Preparations went on all day to get the plane up again: dry stone walls were taken down, trees felled and gates widened, and the plane was stripped out and refuelled. If it was a miracle that the plane had got down it was even more so that it got up again, taking off in the late afternoon and just clearing the trees at the end of the field. A plane crash might have meant a sad plaque in the village, like the several memorials to crashed aircraft that are up on the moors. Instead it was an idyllic and extraordinary day that Austwick has remembered ever since, and today at the annual street market I talk to two of the boys, now in their eighties, whom the policeman had chased for being ‘two on a bike’.

21 June. I dream I am back in the attic at Grandma’s in Gilpin Place, lying awake listening to the sound of trains shunted into Holbeck. Though Grandma’s was only two blocks from the railway line strange streets, particularly in Wortley, were always perilous and I never ventured over there to look at the railway. So the shunting was just a sound at night but one I was so used to that like the wind or the rain on the slates it was part of the natural world. And shunting, not that I ever hear it now, is a sound I associate with sleep and darkness.

3 July. A few weeks ago I caught on TV a few minutes of Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers (1939), the film of A.E.W. Mason’s novel. It’s a film I remember vividly from when it first came out, the few minutes that I see the scene in which Durrance, played by Ralph Richardson, loses his pith helmet as he’s climbing a cliff in the desert. The helmet bounces away down onto the sand leaving him exposed to the burning sun, which sends him blind. One other scene stands out. The hero, Harry Faversham (John Clements), fears he is a coward and having declined to go with his regiment to the Sudan goes native in order to prove himself by working unrecognised to assist his ex-colleagues who have sent him the feathers. To corroborate his disguise as a harmless native he has himself branded, the branding scene vividly depicted in the film, more so, I think, than it would be today.

Thinking about the film sends me to the book, which, published in 1902, is still in print as the most famous and successful of Mason’s many novels. Happily he lived long enough to enjoy some profit and fame from the film, dying in 1948. The book, unsurprisingly, turns out to be less straightforward than the film, spending a good deal of time on who knew about the four feathers and whether the soldiers who sent Faversham the first three feathers knew about the fourth feather-sender, his erstwhile fiancée, Ethne. All this gets pretty tedious and repetitive and rather Henry James-like in its moral ramifications. It’s gone through so often that one wonders whether the repetition is because the book came out originally in serial form. Each chapter certainly has a subheading: ‘Durrance hears news of Faversham’; ‘The House of Stone’; ‘Colonel Trench assumes a knowledge of Christianity’. The branding scene that terrified me the most aged five doesn’t occur at all, nor in the book does Faversham shepherd the blind Durrance across the desert to safety. Predictably the film ends more spectacularly than the book, with the Battle of Omdurman. So, unusually, it’s a film that’s better and more interesting than its book, which is altogether too languorous. The film also stars, almost inevitably, Sir C. Aubrey Smith who, as in many films before and during the Second War, stood for probity and honour (though with a twinkle).

5 July. Anna Massey dies. She was always fun and she got better as an actress as she got older, though I only worked with her twice. None of the obituaries mentions the performance of hers that I best remember, when she portrayed the painter Gwen John in a biopic. This included one of John’s self-portraits in which she painted herself nude. Not unlike Gwen John in looks and figure, Anna did it nude herself though she would have been well into her fifties at the time. It was superb and also courageous, actors who are so often mocked for their sentimentality sometimes deserving the VC for their nerve. The last time I saw her was in 1997 on King’s Cross Station. I’d just had an operation and was waiting to start chemotherapy, which I told her and then found I was unexpectedly in tears so hurried off to my train. What was heartening about her life was that quite late on she fell head over heels in love with a Soviet scientist whom she married and was very happy.

1 August. R. goes home to Wales for a family gathering. It’s only a small house and he shares a room with his Aunty Stella who, true to her promise made earlier in the year, has learned some new poems. So in the darkness of a Penarth bedroom this 90-year-old lady recites Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ and Browning’s ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’. And not a fluff in either.

8 August. It is the day after the Tottenham riots and waiting for a prescription in the pharmacy in Camden High Street I find that though it’s only four o’clock it’s already closing, with boards being put up against the windows and the nice young counter assistant, the daughter of the pharmacist who did Talking Heads for her O levels, hopes that I will be going straight home. For my part I’ve been looking round the shop to see what would come to hand should rioters burst in from the (utterly peaceful) High Street, deciding that something from a tub of walking sticks and fancy umbrellas would make the best weapon. Meanwhile a couple of addicts, indifferent to these adjustments to their routine, wait patiently for their daily ration of methadone as I wait for my Glucophage, which now comes, the door is unlocked and I’m again told to go straight home, which I don’t think anyone has said to me since I was a child.

11 August. A film clip seen three times today on the television news shows at least ten policemen, most in full riot gear, kicking in the door of a council flat in order to arrest a suspected rioter. The cameras have plainly been invited along to see the police in action but there are so many policemen that, rather comically, they have to queue to get into the flat, occasionally giving threatening shouts while waiting their turn. Eventually a black youth is brought out, feebly struggling, and is dragged away. It’s an absurd exercise and raises as many questions about the proper deployment of police resources as their inadequacy did yesterday. (It later transpires they got the wrong flat.)

19 August. In Karl Miller’s Tretower to Clyro Seamus Heaney keeps putting in an appearance either in person or via his poems. ‘Two Lorries’ has to do with a ‘tasty coalman’ who fancies Heaney’s mother, and another coal-hole poem, ‘Slack’, is about the coal dust used to bank up and damp down a fire, slack a feature of my own childhood as were the accessories that went with the sale of it: empty folded coalbags, a set of iron scales and a leather-aproned coalman as familiar in Armley, Leeds as they were across the water in Derry. I don’t remember our coalman being particularly tasty though I had dreams about him tramping through our spotless house in order, I suppose, to ravish my mother, not that in the dream she seemed to mind, or mind the dirt anyway (which would have been slack had there been more of it); he never got as far as the ravishing, probably because I didn’t know what that entailed. I am five years or so older than Heaney and, it being wartime, our coal came not on a lorry but from a cart drawn by a Shire horse. This cart – it belonged to the Co-op – visited many of the streets in Armley, including the Hallidays where we lived and the streets around the elementary school where my education began, stopping on occasion just over the playground wall.

There were several variables in this stopping and the spectacle it sometimes provided. The cart had to halt at the top of Christ Church View where we could all see it and this had to happen during the morning or the dinner-time break when all the school would be outside. Third, and most essentially, the Co-op horse had at this time to want to do a piss.

News that this was happening would spread rapidly. Lowry is not to my mind a naturalistic painter, but his depiction of a crowd gathering as in several of his factory paintings catches it perfectly, the coming together of a crowd like an abscess or an inflammation. There were only ever two reasons for a crowd to gather in the playground: one was a fight and the other the pissing of the Co-op horse.

There was a difference, though, in these two crowds, with a fight drawing a raucous, partisan and often quarrelsome throng whereas the spectacle of the Co-op horse was observed in almost total silence. The pissing of the Co-op horse is not an occasion for any agglomeration of persons that figures in Elias Canetti’s magisterial Crowds and Power. It may well occur in his fellow Nobel Laureate Heaney’s work, horses (and their penises) being more of a common sight I imagine in County Derry than they were in Canetti’s Hampstead. But to us children the spectacle of the Co-op horse and its immense dangling dick inspired something like awe. It was not merely the dimensions involved but also the horse’s noble indifference to scrutiny, even the scrutiny of the entire school. Sad it was if the whistle went for Lines before this magnificent member had been retracted and of all my memories of Upper Armley National the most vivid is the Co-op horse.

29 August. Hear a few minutes of the prom ‘in holiday mood’ devoted to Hollywood, which might have been quite enjoyable had not the music been dolled up in special arrangements. My prejudice against this goes back a lifetime to my father playing along on his violin to the wireless on a Sunday night and in particular to Tom Jenkins and his Palm Court Orchestra. Dad was fine if the numbers were performed as they had been written because, playing by ear, he could easily accompany the music since he knew where it was going. The problem arose when the music was ‘arranged’, generally by someone (first name forgotten) Hartley. No hope of following the tune through Hartley’s flights of fancy and Dad would (mildly) curse and put down his fiddle. In Sunday Half Hour, which generally followed, the hymns were not arranged so Hartley was never a problem.

1 September. The papers slightly unexpectedly have reviews of The Madness of George III which opened in Bath on Tuesday. The Independent is good and factual but Billington in the Guardian gives it the same failed ‘Play for England’ notice he did twenty years ago. That it’s not meant to be a play for England and can’t be wrenched into being one doesn’t occur to him. It’s history not allegory.

5 September, Mells. I knew about Mells from reading Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Ronald Knox and from all the First World War stuff which comes at the end of the first act of Forty Years On. The church closes off a short street of terraced houses which wouldn’t be remarkable were they in Rotherham, say, but are more so here, in that like the Vicars’ Close at Wells they turn out to be medieval. The church of course is medieval, too, with over the wall, and just visible in a traditional configuration of church and state, the manor house, home of the Horners. Opposite the church door is Munnings’s equestrian statue of Edward Horner, its Lutyens plinth like a smaller Cenotaph, though how the dates compare I’m not sure. But it’s only the most striking of First War mementoes in a church that is virtually a shrine: nearby is the white-painted wooden cross erected on Horner’s first grave and another similar cross for his brother, who was also killed in France and is buried outside the east end of the church with a tombstone by Eric Gill. Gill did the memorial to Raymond Asquith, too, a lettered inscription that blends into the tower wall opposite the Horner tomb. Everywhere is palpably Edwardian and Arts and Crafts including a relief of a peacock by Burne-Jones. A film about the First War could begin here, the whole place redolent of the dead and particularly the illustrious dead. And, yes, there are memorials to the men of the village and others round about, but it is these famously unfulfilled dead of the Lost Generation that dominate.

8 September. A directive must have gone out from the National Trust high command that in future notices telling members not to sit on the heritage chairs should be eschewed in favour of a more subtle message. These days seats that are not to be sat on sport the head of a thistle or a sprig of holly. Other possibilities that occur would be hawthorn, nettles (though they would have to be fresh) or even a stuffed hedgehog. One wonders whether this genteel initiative had the prior approval of Health and Safety.

16 September. I occasionally pick up the TLS to read on the train and today it’s a review of Ian Kershaw’s The End about the last days of Hitler. I turn the page and there is a photograph of Joseph Goebbels inspecting some troops of the Volkssturm in Silesia in March 1945. He’s shaking hands with Willi Hübner, a child of 16, which is unremarkable except that next to Hübner (and also in the Volkssturm) is Peter Cook. He is looking at Goebbels with the ghost of a smile and is much as he was around 1970, his face angular and handsome which it was before the drink took hold. Perhaps to someone who hadn’t known him the resemblance would seem less remarkable. To me it’s uncanny, though in an ideal world the child beside him would also look like Dudley Moore, than whom he is no bigger.

Joseph Goebbels, Willi Hübner and Peter Cook

20 September. The papers full of Murdoch’s rumoured payment to the Dowler family of £3 million or more, all the reports I’ve seen focusing on the inflationary effect this will have on other similar payments. Nobody comments that a settlement of this size simply reflects Murdoch’s view of human nature. However mortally he or his newspapers offend or injure, the victims can always be bought off.

14 October. Were I Adam Werritty and going into lobbying and PR I would have changed my name at the outset. Verity has the literal ring of truth about it, Adam Verity a dauntless fighter for justice, whereas all Werritty suggests is some anxious yapping dog which, whatever his faults, Werritty hardly seems to have been, but rather complacent in fact (and with a touch of Christopher Biggins about him). But so many Tories are now infected with the neocon ideology one wonders whatever happened to Tory pragmatism; wounded certainly by Mrs Thatcher but now wholly outmoded.

24 October. Judy Egerton sends me Among Booksellers by David Batterham. Batterham is a second-hand bookseller and the book a collection of letters to Howard Hodgkin from the places, some of them quite far-flung, where book-buying has taken him. There are letters from Spain, Finland, provincial France and even Istanbul, with Batterham’s picaresque adventures the connecting thread. There’s something of John Harris’s Echoing Voices about the book; a gallery of eccentrics, with Batterham himself the most notable, drunk, sometimes penniless, on occasion sleeping in doorways and always writing home about it. Lucky Hodgkin to have been the recipient of these letters and sensible Hodgkin for saving them.

26 October. In bed with a cold I’m rung by a television company putting together an obituary of Mrs Thatcher. I’ve not much to offer though mention the trip I made c.1990 along the M62 from Hull to Liverpool, a trail of devastation, decay and manufacturing slump that stretched from coast to coast, much of it the doing of the Iron Lady. It struck me then that no one had done such systematic damage to the North since William the Conqueror. This produces squeals of delight but they’re not enough to persuade me to say it on TV.

Deaf with (and these days even without) my cold, I hear a mention of the Stone Roses on the radio as Cold Moses which, as the name of a group, would serve just as well.

31 October. I’m reading a volume of letters from Richard Cobb to Hugh Trevor-Roper and others, edited by Tim Heald. Seeing it advertised and having devoured everything Cobb wrote I get hold of the book straightaway only to be slightly disappointed. It’s gossipy without being particularly funny with Cobb rather sucking up to Trevor-Roper (and his wife), though in the absence of Trevor-Roper’s replies (unsaved by Cobb) one doesn’t know how this was received. Cobb is also a Tory in the Ingrams mode – a Tory anarchist I suppose Ingrams would say – and one of those middle-aged men (A. Powell, K. Amis, Alan Clark) who claimed to find Mrs Thatcher sexually attractive. The book is suffused with that self-conscious political incorrectness that the Spectator made its own in the 1980s and 1990s and a good deal of drinking goes on, not least by Cobb himself, and while the scrapes this gets him into are funny and appealing – tomato soup down his suit, an airline meal tipped into his neighbour’s lap – the notion of the ‘heroic drinker’ is a bit hard to take. Still, Cobb was a great teacher and historian and an enviably good writer, never (possibly because of the drinking) as appreciated in England as he was in France. And (I’m two-thirds through) the book gets better. Still, it’s hard to warm to someone who lauds Pinochet (and even Botha) and is as much a bore about ‘lefties’ as ever Amis was.

7 November, Hinton St George. In the afternoon to Hinton St George, a remote village south of Ilminster lost in a maze of deep and narrow lanes. It’s absurdly picturesque with some terrific houses, Somerset better supplied with handsome buildings than anywhere I’ve seen and not universally knocked about or ‘improved’ as they would be in Yorkshire. The church is being repaired both inside and out and the Poulett chapel and its monuments, which we have particularly come to see, is under restoration and full of scaffolding. This turns out to be a blessing as the two restorers are here working and the senior of the two is delighted to talk about restoring a 17th-century Poulett monument. It’s described in Pevsner as ‘baroque’ but it’s much more peculiar than that, the fairground colours of Tudor and Stuart monuments revealed only when the restorers removed the grey and beige paint with which it had been covered in the 18th and 19th centuries. The pillars are decorated in crude scagliola, marbled in black and white with the side panels in bright reds, orange and yellows. Waiting to be treated are two ‘wild men’, figures that have lost their arms and had them mended with crude clay implants, and on the floor of the chapel is a tray of what look like grey drop scones but which are samples of clays and mortars in different shades ready for the restoration. Both the restorers learned their craft at a college in Lincolnshire of which neither of us had heard, there being (apart from the Courtauld) just one other such institution, at Gateshead. Also in the chapel, opposite the monument being restored, is a fine alabaster monument to an earlier Poulett which originally stood in St Martin-in-the-Fields. To protect the effigy against damage during the restoration a blanket has been thrown over it, leaving the head visible, so that it just looks as if it’s an old man happily asleep.

Having held up the work for too long we come reluctantly away, with both of us wanting to go back and see the completed monument. This may not be possible. All the monuments are in the Poulett chapel which is private (cf the Spencer monuments at Brington and the Russell tombs at Chenies); many of the villagers had never seen this monument until the necessity for restoration gave them the entrée. Now we go on to Crewkerne where there is a good bookshop, though not good enough to have what I always ask for, any old copies of Ivy Compton-Burnett novels.

20 November. Though he was ultimately headed for Scarborough, like Queen Eleanor, the wife of Edward I, Jimmy Savile’s journey to the grave was marked by several resting places, one of which was the foyer of the Queens Hotel in City Square in Leeds. I am in there regularly myself, generally waiting for R. off the London train, but though I’ve seen Sir Jimmy in the hotel as I have Eddie Waring and Don Revie (all of them celebrities of a similar sort), I missed the lying in state. This evening I head for the corner where I generally sit but am unsurprised to find an adjacent chaise-longue occupied by a half-naked young man with his chest festooned in wires and electrodes. Not giving this another thought I sit elsewhere, the foyers and function rooms of large hotels regularly taken over by displays of orthodontic equipment, investment opportunities in Qatar or, as in this case, I imagine, demonstrations of resuscitation techniques. The wired-up young man is obviously promoting something.

Later the manager passes, who points me out the exact spot where the Savile bier rested and I inquire about the cardiological demonstration. It turns out not to be a demonstration at all, the man having come in complaining of chest pains. Whether it was then an ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ job or that the hotel makes cardiograms available on request I don’t ask and in any case the pain has since abated and the young man has left. R.’s train is now imminent and with the foyer about to be taken over by a posse of middle-aged men in curly wigs and flares plus a couple of Alma Cogan lookalikes I leave too.

25 November. A week or so ago someone from Occupy London telephoned to ask me to come and speak to the campers outside St Paul’s. I’m mildly surprised by this because, though I’m wholly sympathetic, I don’t normally figure on any roster of letter-signers or rally-rousers. One who does is Vivienne Westwood who, the following day, addresses the throng from the steps of the cathedral. We agree that reading is more my line and I’m given a time for this afternoon. However, when I arrive, I find they’ve forgotten I’m coming, so I wander down the colonnade, stumbling around among the igloos until someone spots me and takes me into the tea tent. Here I sign various books and reflect that, apart from the patchwork of notices plastered up everywhere, this supposed hotbed of terrorism doesn’t seem much different from similar tented assemblies I’ve visited at Hay-on-Wye and the yurts of the literary festival at Edinburgh, though neither of those has posters warning of the plain-clothes policemen operating on the site together with their mug shots. Now I graduate to a slightly larger tent where I read and answer questions, most of them literary and none to do with the politics of the situation, though I do say that the Corporation of the City of London deserves very little sympathy and that its stance as a guardian of the environs of St Paul’s is utterly hypocritical. Hitler generally gets the blame for the destruction of the City of London, but by comparison with the demolition wrought by the banks and the City corporations the Führer was a conservationist. Though I know this isn’t what the encampment is about, I remember in the 1970s long before these young people were born, writing letters to the Times about the destruction of the City at a time when I still thought letters to newspapers did some good. Camping out might have been more effective then; at least there were still remnants of Paternoster Square left to camp out in.

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. 34 No. 2 · 26 January 2012

Alan Bennett reminisces about the ‘arrangements’ by ‘someone (first name forgotten) Hartley’ (LRB, 5 January). It was Fred Hartley (1905-80), who also published under the name ‘Iris Taylor’. He was appointed head of BBC Light Music in 1946. You can hear him on the British Light Music Classics Series, though I ought to be wary about publicising this, since one of those tasteless sparks who choose the music for Essential Classics on Radio 3 might decide to slap one of these vile concoctions slap bang next to a movement from a Beethoven sonata, say, or a snippet of Missa Solemnis.

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford

Alan Bennett misunderstood the few minutes he heard of the 29 August Prom devoted to Hollywood music. When MGM sold some of its real estate in the late 1960s all the original scores of its musicals were destroyed. The music he heard that night has been resurrected by John Wilson, who spent a year watching the films over and over so that he could painstakingly reconstruct the original scoring. He would spend a whole weekend on just four bars. To equate this with what Fred Hartley used to do for the Palm Court Orchestra on the Home Service every Sunday night belittles Wilson’s remarkable achievement.

Patrick Renshaw

I was very pleased to read Alan Bennett’s thoughtful mention of the passing of the great British trumpeter, Maurice Murphy. Murphy was one of the greatest trumpeters of the last hundred years. Recognition of his artistry extended far beyond the fame he acquired for his performance of the trumpet solo in Star Wars. His passing was mourned around the world, not only by those of us who are members of the professional trumpet community, but by many who listen to and love great orchestral playing.

Keith Johnson
University of North Texas, Denton

Alan Bennett tells us that in the TLS review of Ian Kershaw’s The End there is a picture of Goebbels, during an inspection of the Volkssturm in Silesia in 1945, ‘shaking hands with Willi Hübner, a child of 16’, who happens to be standing next to a Peter Cook lookalike, also in the Volkssturm. In my copy of The End the only picture of Goebbels and the Volkssturm shows a wide street on a very rainy day in Berlin on 12 November 1944, and a long column of middle-aged men parading past the dais, months before the battle of Lauban in Silesia in March 1945. However, in Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945, there is a picture identical to the one you reproduced, which shows the same smiling Goebbels decorating ‘a Hitler Youth after the recapture of Lauban’, but we are not told the name or age of the child standing next to ‘Peter Cook’. How did Alan Bennett or the TLS know the name and age of that child?

John Amson
Anstruther, Fife

Vol. 34 No. 3 · 9 February 2012

Alan Bennett writes in his Diary about an RAF Whitley returning from a raid over Dortmund that had to make an emergency landing near Austwick in Yorkshire (LRB, 5 January). The pilot of the plane was Leonard Cheshire’s younger brother, Christopher, whom my husband met when he was writing a biography of Leonard. His airfield was Middleton St George, but they overshot it and became lost, flying on until the fuel tanks were nearly dry. He had to take a chance, found a field and glided down into it. He recalled how the aircraft rolled to a stop just a few feet from the dry-stone wall at the field’s end. That was in 1941. In August that year he was shot down, taken prisoner and became a member of the team that organised the Great Escape.

Jane Morris

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