6 January 2014. Though I’ve learned never entirely to believe in a film until it actually happens, it does seem likely that this autumn we will be shooting The Lady in the Van. This is the story of Miss Mary Shepherd, the elderly eccentric who took up residence in my garden in 1974, living there in a van until her death 15 years later. Maggie Smith played Miss Shepherd on the stage in 1999 and all being well will star in the film with Nicholas Hytner directing. To date I’ve written two drafts of the script and am halfway through a third.
The house where the story happened, 23 Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town, is currently lived in by the photographer Antony Crolla though many of my belongings are still there. This afternoon I go round to start the lengthy process of clearing out some of the books and papers so that it can be used for the filming.
I first saw the house in 1968. Jonathan Miller lives in the same street and Rachel, his wife, saw the ‘For Sale’ sign go up. It belonged to an American woman who kept parrots and there were perches in the downstairs room and also in its small garden. Slightly older than the other houses in the crescent, like many of them it had been a lodging house, so every room had its own gas meter and some had washbasins. I did most of the decorating myself, picking out the blurred and whitewashed frieze in the drawing room with a nail file, a job that these days would be done by steam cleaning, though then I was helped by some of the actors in my first play, Forty Years On, which was running in the West End. One of the actors was George Fenton, who is doing the music for the film, and another was Keith McNally, the proprietor of Balthazar.
15 January. The police officer who shot Mark Duggan is to be returned to firearms duty just as was the officer who shot Jean Charles de Menezes. The Met doesn’t seem to understand what is wrong with this. It’s just one word. Tact.
20 February. The walls of the sitting room and the study in Gloucester Crescent are just as I decorated them nearly half a century ago. I have always been quite proud of my efforts, though aware over the years that the finish I achieved has often been thought eccentric.
In 1969, having stripped the walls down to the plaster I stained the sitting room blue, using a polyurethane stain. The plaster was the original lime plaster put on when the house was built in 1840. Lime plaster has many advantages: it’s grainy and doesn’t soak up the stain like blotting paper as modern plaster tends to do (and which is often brown or pink). All the blemishes of the lime plaster showed through, including the notes to themselves made by the builders and their occasional graffiti. None of this I minded, but blue was not a good colour; it was too cold and for a while I thought I had ruined the room and would have to paper it, which was the last thing I wanted. Then, as an experiment I tried some yellow stain on a small patch and this turned the wall a vibrant green, too strong I’m sure for many people but for me ideal, so that’s how I did the whole room. The study next door I did differently using water-based stains and as the walls here were lime plaster too I painted them in a mixture of umber and orange, yellow and green. This I then washed down and sealed so that the room ended up far better than I could have imagined, taking on the warm shades of the walls of an Italian palazzo (I thought anyway). I am sure a competent scene painter would have been able to achieve the same effects with much less trouble but I’m happy I did it myself. And in the intervening years the colour has not faded and will I trust continue to glow as long as any new owner suffers the original plaster to remain, which is not long probably as there are few houses on the street left in their original trim, today’s newcomers seldom moving in until they have ripped the guts out of these decent Victorian villas to turn them into models of white and modish minimalism.
5 March. On my walk I pass the Primrose Hill Community Library, which is closed to borrowers today but open for children, who throng the junior library, some of them sitting with an adult presumably learning to read, others in groups being told stories and at every table children reading on their own. This library is one of those institutions that Mark Littlewood, the head of the right-wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, said would make ‘a useful retail outlet’, a facility and a building for which there was no longer a social purpose. Most of the children reading here are black or Asian, with Somali children in the majority. As a so-called economist Littlewood presumably thinks the place would be better used as a Pizza Hut.
26 March. Wake this morning thinking affectionately of the spring in the grounds of Jervaulx Abbey which bubbles up below a stone sill installed by the monks before scampering away underground somewhere as it has done for I suppose a thousand years. I’m cheered by this as I am, even if only in recollection, by the spring at the top of the Raikes near Wilsill in Nidderdale which I first saw aged six in 1940.
11 April. Sue Townsend dies, whom I count as a friend both on the strength of what she has written and because we were both part of a group of writers on a courtesy visit to the USSR, as it then was, in 1988, a party which included Craig Raine, Paul Bailey and Timothy Mo. I don’t remember laughing more on any trip before or since; we were a very silly group, so much so that we often mystified our hosts and sometimes behaved disgracefully. Sue – and I even noticed this in the photo the Guardian used for her obituary – had something of Elsie Tanner about her. She looked battered by life, and presumably by love, to the extent that the men in the various literary groups entertaining us on our Soviet peregrinations invariably took her for an easy lay. On one occasion we were treated to a picnic, with one of our hosts bringing with him his teenage son plus a bottle of wine, hoping that Sue would take the young man into the woods and initiate him into the arts of love. None of them had any doubt that this was a woman of the world whereas Sue was actually quite shy and couldn’t see that she had given them any cause to think otherwise. She hadn’t; she just looked like a Scarlet Woman.
15 April. Watch five minutes of Have I Got News for You with Nigel Farage the guest and Ian Hislop and Paul Merton their usual genial selves. I never quite understand why they are happy to sit on a panel with the likes of Farage, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Clarkson et al. Their reasoning would, I imagine, be that this gives them the opportunity to have fun at the expense of Farage and Co. And so they do. But the impression an audience comes away with is that actually nothing much matters and that these seemingly jokey demagogues are human and harmless and that their opinions are not really as pernicious as their opponents pretend. And even if they are what does it matter as politics is just a con anyway. Whereas Johnson, the bike apart, doesn’t seem to have a moral bone in his body and the batrachoidal Farage likewise. ‘So where’s your sense of humour? It’s only a joke.’
7 May. On the TV news footage of Stuart Hall arriving for the first day of his trial at Preston Crown Court; he is seemingly handcuffed with his hands held in front of him, but thus shackled has to negotiate the quite steep steps from the police van. At 84, he manages this without much help, which is more than I would be able to do even with free hands and four years younger. But why is he handcuffed in the first place? He’s no danger to anyone; he is not going to cut and run; it’s simply part of his humiliation. Nothing is too bad for him is the message.
8 May. Cheered this morning when Daniel, the young man from Detroit who lives opposite, wishes me a happy 80th birthday for Friday, saying he’d read the stuff in the papers about the BBC interview I did with Nicholas Hytner, the ‘shocking’ revelation that I don’t read much contemporary English fiction and all the tired old stuff about treason that I’ve been saying since 1988 and A Question of Attribution. ‘It’s great,’ says Daniel (who’s off to Cuba next week), ‘that you can still piss people off however old you are.’
18 May. Once upon a time when one saw an old couple walking along holding hands the thought was of Darby and Joan. Nowadays one just wonders which of them it is who has Alzheimer’s.
1 June, Cambridge. On parade (on King’s Parade in fact) just after ten, where the calming presence of Richard Lloyd Morgan, the chaplain of King’s, waits to shepherd me to the Senior Common Room. It’s already crowded with dons, some, since it’s the university sermon, presumably heads of houses.I manage to avoid a chat by settling into a corner to con my already much conned text, though I’m still not sure that what I’ve written is what’s expected or whether it’s too long or even if I can make myself heard. (‘You’ll be in trouble,’ the chaplain said, ‘if you have a voice like a moth.’) It’s a hot morning and various dignitaries now await us outside the Gibbs Building, where there’s a good deal of hat-doffing before we process along to the west door of the chapel – a nice sight, I imagine, if one is lucky enough not to have a part to play. Various tourists take pictures.
There’s not a soul in the ante-chapel as Richard LM had warned would be the case, though the chapel itself is full. Rupert is in the next stall and Rowan Williams slips in beyond him in his capacity as master of Magdalene. Comforting presence though he is, this means I will be preaching (sic) a few feet along from the ex-archbishop of Canterbury. Still, at least he’s not the dreadful Geoffrey Fisher who when I was young was for years synonymous with the office. R. has insisted that I keep sitting down for most of the service, which I do, the proceedings quite slow and choral and upstanding, the only time I feel I have to get to my feet, out of deference to my Anglican upbringing, during the Creed. Now after lengthy prayers from the dean I begin, thankful at least that the sun is pouring through the windows, making it easier to read my text than it was at the rehearsal last night.
The subject of the sermon is the unfairness of private education, hardly a tactful topic, particularly in King’s with its historical connection with Eton. Whether it goes well I’m not sure. Used as I am to audiences that make their feelings felt, I’m slightly unnerved at being heard in such reverent silence. True there is the occasional guffaw and sometimes the congregation mews where in more secular circumstances people might have laughed. But when after twenty minutes or so I finish it still seems strange to sit down without applause. In the past I’ve managed to wheedle a clap out of a congregation in Westminster Abbey and various lesser places of worship, though nowhere, I suppose, as august as this. Still, as we process through the west door to the stirring strains of Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, I’m just thankful it’s over.
11 June. For years now I’ve been periodically sent odd press cuttings by someone unknown to me, his name and the note that accompanies them almost illegible. I take it I’m not the only beneficiary of this bounty, which must be quite costly in time and postage and indeed papers. Not that the cuttings are those one particularly wants to see; they’re seldom from the ‘posh papers’ though frequently from the Mail and the Radio Times. So it is this morning, the bundle including various letters from the correspondence columns, so-called, of the Mail, occasioned by my remarks in the television interview I did with Nicholas Hytner exculpating the Cambridge spies. All the sometimes almost incoherent correspondents take this to include Philby, which was not my intention and whom I have in the past both in print and in interviews taken care to distinguish from Burgess, Blunt and their associates. Cold-hearted, devious and supposedly a good chap, Philby has never appealed to me any more than Graham Greene does, who was his friend and admirer. It’s ironical that even after his departure for Moscow Philby was always more sympathetically treated by journalists because he was a journalist himself, supposedly a good sort and of course he wasn’t homosexual. Unsurprisingly, none of this has registered with the Mail or its readers, one of them so incensed that he suggests that had I been older and at Cambridge not Oxford I might have been a spy myself. Not so, though it wasn’t age or university or sexual inclination that would have ruled me out. It was class.
5/6 July, Yorkshire. Watch various stages of the Tour de France on TV more out of an interest in the topography than the cycling itself, which is hardly a spectator sport and tedious to a degree. The route is thronged with spectators who seem highly excited and anxious to be part of the spectacle, leaning out in front of the bikers, flourishing flags in their faces and generally making the riding more hazardous than it has any need to be, so that when a rider comes off, as happens disastrously at the first day’s finish, it’s hard not to wonder how often the spectators are to blame. The countryside, particularly in Swaledale, is bathed in sunshine and looks spectacular, especially from a helicopter, though since part of the object of the exercise is to fetch more tourists in, I have mixed feelings about its attractions. Most memorable is the scene on Blubberhouses Moor when the cyclists stream over into Wharfedale watched by onlookers capping the most inaccessible crags.
15 July. Asked by Yorkshire Tea if I would like ‘a quick jaunt to King’s Cross Station’ to have my face modelled in cake and put on a plinth in the forecourt. It’s not a distinction that is to be conferred on me alone, though Yorkshire Tea does not specify who my fellow modèles en gâteaux might be – the late Freddie Trueman I would guess, Michael Parkinson possibly and Alan Titchmarsh (who’s so amiable he might even do it). A candidate for pâtisserie posterity would once have been that son of Yorkshire Jimmy Savile who seemed made from marzipan. But not now. No cake for James.
7 August, Oxford. To Oxford and the Holywell Music Room where Bodley’s librarian emeritus David Vaisey and I have a conversation about our time at Oxford in the 1950s. David and I were first aware of each other at the scholarship examination in Exeter College hall in January 1954. The hall was bitter cold but both of us managed to bag places near the open fire where, sitting next to him, I envied his handwriting which unlike mine was already adult and fully formed; he just remembers how much I wrote. I was halfway through my national service on the Russian course, David was a couple of years younger and having won an exhibition went off to Kenya as a second lieutenant in the King’s African Rifles. As undergraduates neither of us was entirely happy, both remembering how inadequately we were taught and how long it took us to learn how to teach ourselves. I briefly became a fairly hopeless tutor myself, eking out my research grant with pupils from Exeter and Magdalen, where I was appointed a lowly junior lecturer and thus a member of Magdalen senior common room. It was a daunting community, with A.J.P. Taylor, Gilbert Ryle and C.S. Lewis regularly met with on high table. I didn’t have much small talk but what was the point as one seldom got a word in with Taylor and had I had anything to chat to Ryle about it would have been like chatting to Mount Rushmore.
The food was delicious but meals could be a nightmare. I remember once we had mince pie but not, of course, the common individual variety but a great dish of a pie from which, having been handed a silver trowel by the scout, one had to cut oneself a tranche and manoeuvre it onto one’s plate. Next came another scout bearing a silver Bunsen burner and a ladle which a third scout filled with brandy which one then had to heat over the burner until it produced a wavering blue flame whereupon one poured it over the pie. A fourth scout then appeared carrying a pitcher of cream with which one doused the conflagration. It was a lengthy process and one which deprived me of all appetite for the end product, particularly since as the lowliest member of common room I was served last while Taylor, Ryle, Lewis et al having long since finished looked on in unconcealed impatience. If anything cured me of wanting to be a don it was this.
9 August, Oxfordshire. We turn off the Burford Road to look again at William Wilcote’s tomb at North Leigh, knowing, though, from our last visit that some well-meaning vicar has desecrated the little masterpiece of a chapel by kitting it out with serpentine-blue upholstered chairs and a garish triptych on the altar – the clergy so often no better custodians of their churches than farmers are of their fields. My supervisor Bruce McFarlane came out from Oxford to look at the church with A.L. Rowse in June 1944 and described the visit in a letter to his pupil Karl Leyser, then awaiting posting to Normandy just before D-Day. McFarlane knew a good deal about William Wilcote, describing his tomb as ‘one of the most beautiful tombs of the 15th century and made by the most expensive master mason of the day’ (who also built the Oxford Divinity School). Feeling himself on familiar terms with Wilcote, McFarlane ‘startled even Rowse by giving his alabaster cheek a great smacking kiss’. I don’t quite do this but touch his marble lips, an endearment meant as much for Bruce (who died in 1966) as for Richard II’s chamber knight.
24 September. Open the paper this morning to find that the Duchess of Devonshire has died, ‘has eventually died’ I nearly wrote, since she was virtually turned to stone a few years ago and was only alive because of the loving care of her long-standing PA and friend Helen Marchant who kept her, smitten as she was, still looking as grand and handsome as ever with nothing of the invalid about her and – her silence apart – no hint of dementia. Nor did her home, the Old Vicarage at Edensor, the Old Vic as she called it, have anything of the sick room about it, with nothing to suggest anything was wrong. Everybody called her Debo but I was privileged not to do so, feeling when I first got to know her that our acquaintance was too brief for such familiarity so ending up calling her ‘M/s Debo’ while I was ‘Mr Alan’. The darling of the Spectator and a stalwart of the Countryside Alliance she was hardly up my street, but when she wrote asking if I would write a preface for one of her books I could not have been more flattered had she been Virginia Woolf herself and I was soon eating out of her hand. Once the request was made I knew there was no refusing, saying that the only woman I had come across with a will of comparable iron was Miss Shepherd. Thereafter Debo signed all her letters to me ‘D. Shepherd’. I favoured postcards, looking out for any of grubby back streets and sending them as ‘yet another unsunned corner of the Cavendish estates’.
She was tough, kind and above all fun. The last time I saw her when she was still herself was in September 2010 at a reception at the Garrick for the launch of her book Wait For Me! She was ninety then but still sturdy and she could not be restrained from climbing onto a chair to address the party. And not a plain wooden chair either but an upholstered job on which she balanced precariously while she talked to a room which by that stage in her life she could no longer see.
By all accounts the funeral was as brisk and sensible as her life, with no elegy and the hymns old favourites that made for a good sing. Not wanting to set sail on a sea of cellophane she banned all wrappings for the flowers.
Unattributed, I lifted a detail of her life for my play People. Years ago a neighbour in London, Josie Baird, who had worked at the British Museum copying their jewellery, was asked by Chatsworth to do the same for them. Debo told her to nose around the house to see if she could find anything worth reproducing. Josie opened a drawer and found some beads wrapped in old newspaper. ‘Oh yes,’ said Debo (airily I’m sure). ‘It’s the rosary of Henry VIII.’
6 October. The first morning of filming for The Lady in the Van and I sit in what was once my study, the room now bare and cold, the walls plain plaster, just as it was when I first saw the house in 1968 though I’ve no memory of being shown it by the estate agent, which is an early shot in the film. Alex Jennings is playing me and looks remarkably like, with no hint of the outrageous blond there sometimes was in Cocktail Sticks when he played me on the stage.
Now Sam Anderson, ex-History Boy and a star of Doctor Who, does the opening shot as a Jehovah’s Witness:
‘Does Jesus Christ dwell in this house?’
Alex Jennings/AB: ‘No. Try the van.’
17 October. On one occasion Miss Shepherd claimed to have seen a boa constrictor in Parkway ‘and it looked as if it was heading for the van’. At the time I dismissed serpent-sightings as just another of Miss S.’s not infrequent visions … boa constrictors, Mr Khrushchev and (putting in regular appearances) the Virgin Mary; the dramatis personae of her visions always rich and varied.
It turned out, though, that on this particular occasion Palmer’s, the old-fashioned pet shop on Parkway, had been broken into so a boa constrictor on the loose and gliding up the street wasn’t entirely out of the question, though whether the glint in its eye meant that it was heading for the van was more debatable.
This morning we film the sighting of the snake in one of the Gloucester Crescent gardens. And a proper snake it is, too, a real boa constrictor, all of nine foot long and answering to the name of Ayesha, who has made the journey from Chipping Norton together with her slightly smaller friend and companion Clementine, both in the care of their handler.
I have had unfortunate experiences with animal handlers as indeed has Maggie Smith, who once had to vault over a stampeding porker during the shooting of A Private Function. Today’s handler, though, seems sensible and (unlike the pig handler) unopinionated and since Ayesha doesn’t have anything taxing to do in the way of acting, confines himself to making her and Clementine comfortable on a bed of hot-water bottles.
25 October. At noon comes Paul Hoggart to record some impressions of his father, Richard, whose memorial meeting is at Goldsmiths next week. He talks about his and his brother’s childhood in the shadow of The Uses of Literacy and how anyone meeting them would generally kick off by remembering what an impression the book had made on them, reminding me that on first meeting Simon Hoggart I had done just that. I first read The Uses of Literacy (1957) in New York in 1963, not out of any sociological interest but from homesickness. Marooned on Broadway with Beyond the Fringe, for me the book was a taste of Yorkshire and more particularly of Leeds. It wasn’t the Leeds I knew. We lived in Armley, which had some slums but was otherwise boring and comparatively genteel. Hoggart’s Leeds was Hunslet, poorer, slummier and an altogether more straitened environment, with Hoggart brought up by his grandmother and various aunties – in that respect not dissimilar to the upbringing of Karl Miller. Forget P.G. Wodehouse, for a working-class boy aunties can be no bad thing. Before I read The Uses of Literacy had I had any thoughts of writing, my own childhood – safe, dull and in a loving family – was enough to discourage me. My life, it seemed to me, was not conducive to literature, but it was reading Hoggart’s close account of his growing up in Hunslet that changed my mind.
Many years later Hoggart wrote asking to interview me for a TV series he was doing. To my lasting regret I turned him down, thinking as I often do with interviews, that I would at last be found out. So, I wrote back saying how much his work meant to me, but we never met, though he would often send me copies of books. Paul Hoggart tells me that late in life his father felt that he was a failure and that he ought to have been a novelist. Sad though this is, I can see why, and how a book as romantic as The Uses of Literacy could lead on to literature, as reading it did with me. It has some wonderful Hardyesque moments, Hoggart at one point standing on the edge of Holbeck Moor (the moors of Leeds, it should be said, as much cinder patches as haunts of heather) and looking across sees the great bulk of his school, Cockburn High School, lit up in the dusk and freighted with all those hopeful souls like himself, passengers on a liner waiting to sail away to a better future. I quoted to Paul Hoggart something I had come across the day before in one of D.J. Enright’s commonplace books, Injury Time. ‘Richard Hoggart has written of the “scholarship boys” of his and my generation: “Like homing pigeons, to a loft we knew only from hearsay, we headed for the humanities and, above all, for literature.”’ I am happy to have been one of those pigeons.
27 October. Late going round to the unit this morning to find them about to film the scene when manure was being delivered to No. 23 whereupon Miss S. came hurrying over to complain about the stench and to ask me to put a notice up to tell passers-by that the smell was from the manure not her.
Having done one take we are about to go again when it occurs to me that the manure, if fresh, would probably be steaming, as I seem to recall it doing at the time. While this is generally agreed, no one can think of a way of making the (rather straw-orientated) manure we are using steam convincingly. Dry ice won’t do it and kettles of hot water prove too laborious. So in the end we go with it unsteaming, the net result of my intervention being that whereas previously everybody was happy with the shot now thanks to me it doesn’t seem quite satisfactory.
13 November. One of the small pleasures of living in Gloucester Crescent/NW1 and one which went unmentioned in the (ever more lavish) brochures put out by the (ever more present) estate agents was waking around six in the morning to the sound of distant horses. Still in those days billeted in St John’s Wood the King’s Troop regularly exercised in Regent’s Park which would occasionally bring them along Oval Road and down the crescent. The ancient sound of horsemen carried in the early morning air so one would hear the troop long before they cantered into view, twenty or thirty horses, with each khaki-clad soldier leading another riderless mount. The mood of this troop was often quite festive and carefree, in spring a rider plucking down a gout of cherry blossom and putting it in his hat, and in winter there would be some sly snowballing. I always got up to watch them go by and on occasion Miss Shepherd would observe in her own stand-to, a young soldier once giving her a mock salute. In summer I fancy they were in shirt-sleeve order, but even when they were more formally dressed it was a relaxed performance, which in winter was made more romantic as the riders materialised out of the gloom, preceded by a lone horseman with a lantern, another outrider with a lamp bringing up the rear. Somewhere in London I imagine this spectacle still goes on but St John’s Wood Barracks has gone and it’s Camden Town’s loss – and since the Guards can’t trek over from Hyde Park, the film’s loss too.
28 November. We travel regularly on the East Coast Line. It’s hugely expensive, as what line isn’t, but that apart it’s a very good service – generally punctual, the staff, some of whom we’ve got to know, cheerful and obliging and sometimes engagingly silly, making train travel as pleasant as it can be these days. For the last five years the line has virtually been nationalised with its profits going to the public purse and there is no economic reason why this state of affairs should not continue. But just as in the last months of his government John Major made haste to privatise (disastrously) the railways so this contemptible administration has sold off the line yet again, this time to Stagecoach and Virgin. There is no way this can be presented as being in the public interest: it’s putting yet more money in private pockets already well lined from previous deals. It’s ideology masquerading as pragmatism. I have always thought Branson a bit of a pillock and presumably (if they’re as gay-unfriendly as they ever were) Stagecoach isn’t much better. The prudes and the pillock. I look forward to the logo.
16 December. I’ve never much wanted a dog, feeling life is quite complicated enough. Rupert craves one, and other people’s dogs always like him as they seldom do me. Today I’m coming along Regent’s Park Road past the delicatessen when a woman stops me, wondering if I would mind holding her dog while she goes in and gets some pasta. It’s a dachshund and harmless-looking, so I stand there, holding the lead of this (to me) entirely unsuitable dog as people go by, and whether they’re being friendly to me or to the dog or to the pair of us together, stop and chat as I suppose dog owners do. Except I have to explain it’s not my dog at all and should we ever get a dog it certainly wouldn’t be a dachshund. Though actually the dog is sweet and affectionate, licking my hand and nuzzling me much in the way Hockney’s famous Stanley does (or did). In a short story the owner would never come back, leaving me and the dog to make a life together, but here she is, having got her pasta, and duly grateful. ‘I knew I could rely on you because you’re from the North.’ R., of course, is delighted by this incident, seeing it as a possible chink in my armour. I think not.