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10 January. After supper at the National Portrait Gallery restaurant we go next door to the National Gallery, still after all these years a great luxury to be able to go in after hours. Walking through the galleries with the lights springing on as we pass through each door it’s always a temptation to turn aside and look at old favourites, but we press on to the basement of the Sainsbury Wing and the Late Rembrandt show. Oddly arranged in that there are half a dozen of the great self-portraits at the start which I somehow feel should be the climax of the show, but better for me as by the time we do get round this quite substantial exhibition I’m exhausted. As always with Rembrandt feel almost arraigned by the self-portraits and put on the spot. ‘And?’ he seems to be saying. ‘So?’ The self-disgust is there and the sadness, but in a very contemporary way he’s a celebrity, resenting being looked at while at the same time (and like any other celebrity) having put himself in the way of it in the first place. Bridget goes round pretty much at my pace, Rupert as always slower and taking more in, noting the tears brimming in Lucrezia’s eyes, for instance, and how she has had to half slip herself out of her heavily brocaded dress the more easily to stab herself. He marvels at the oath of the Batavii which (it not having much colour) doesn’t touch me in the same way, though I wish I had some of the smaller dry-points – Christ preaching, for instance, if only to examine the details: a child playing on the floor beneath Christ’s feet, some of his hearers transfixed, others just bored. But apart from marvelling at Rembrandt’s technical skill my appreciation doesn’t get much beyond the ‘people were the same then as they are now’ level. I can see how touching the Jewish bride is, while always thinking it looks awkwardly posed (‘Look, I’m permitted to touch her breast’), and the moist sadness of Bathsheba is wonderful (though R. of course notices as I don’t the absurd hat the serving woman is wearing). One of the saints, Bartholomew in the penultimate room, has always looked to me like Arnold Bennett (the author, not my cousin the policeman) but somehow I miss seeing one of my favourites, the Kenwood self-portrait against its two circles, which is there but I pass it by. I also miss because it is not there at all The Return of the Prodigal Son from the Hermitage which I have always wanted to see and about which I once wrote the rough outline of a script.

Shattered before the end and sometimes lying full length on one of the (relatively few) benches to ease my aching legs. The only other visitors we see are a couple of middle-aged ladies and a senior figure with four young people (which exactly describes them) all wearing Clockwork Orange type bowler hats and seeming, we all agree afterwards, insufficiently awed by the privilege being accorded them. Which we decidedly are not, twenty years after it was bestowed still the greatest honour that could have come my way.

15 February. Good reviews for Richard Wilson’s production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted at Sheffield. In such a violent play, though, I find myself spiked by my literalness (as I remember being by Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking). If a character is mutilated on stage, blinded, say, or anally raped or has his or her feet eaten off by rats, the pain of this (I nearly wrote the discomfort) must transcend anything else that happens on the stage. A character who has lost a limb cannot do other than nurse the wound, no other discussion is possible. Not to acknowledge this makes the play, however brutal and seemingly realistic, a romantic confection. If there is pain there must be suffering. (But, it occurs to me, Gloucester in Lear?) Another topic concerning me at the moment is Beckett’s sanitisation of old age about which, knowing so little of Beckett, I may be hopelessly wrong. But Beckett’s old age is dry, musty, desiccated. Do Beckett’s characters even smell their fingers? Who pisses? How does the woman in Happy Days shit?

21 February. When we went to see the Late Rembrandt show the other week I noticed that in none of the rooms at the National Gallery was there the usual chair for the warder. This was of personal concern to me as I need to keep sitting down, and with no warders on duty I’ll generally sit on their chairs. An article by Polly Toynbee in this morning’s Guardian explains why. Presumably as part of the sponsorship deal for the exhibition the wardering was outsourced so the first casualty was the warders’ chairs, and the warders’ comfort. (I’ve a feeling that the warders at the Met in New York don’t get to sit down either.) This outsourcing is presumably a prelude to outsourcing the wardering altogether, with it being done by Serco or some similar organisation. Toynbee says the warders are not surprisingly opposed to this development and that the trustees are too, as I hope when I was a trustee I would have been also. I’m mildly surprised that outsourcing still persists as these days it’s so generally discredited.

12 March. This last week I finish reading Common Ground by Rob Cowen and The Places In Between by Rory Stewart, both books about wildernesses, Stewart’s in Afghanistan, Cowen’s in almost comical contrast in and around Harrogate. As he tells the story Stewart seems in regular peril of his life, Cowen less so as he just makes expeditions from his suburban home into the scrub and undergrowth that surrounds Bilton near Knaresborough. In a spell of unemployment and while his wife is pregnant Cowen goes native, lying out in the marginal areas around the town taking in the vegetation and the wildlife, some of it surprisingly copious – a large number of hares, for instance, owls, which he tracks, and roe deer which almost track him. It chronicles the inroads made by well-meaning planners and interest groups as they tidy up what they see as mess, laying a cycle path along an old railway line and the threat of a new housing estate always looming. It ends on a positive note with the awkward birth of Cowen’s baby vividly and movingly described. Cowen writes very well and with none of the stylistic elaboration of some of the other nature writers.

It’s hard to say why Stewart’s book is so enthralling. It’s partly the physical deprivation he puts himself through, cold most of the time and often soaking wet, regularly soiling his clothes with no mention of when he manages to wash them. Trudging across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul it’s rare he gets a square meal, his only regular companion a rundown mastiff that he adopts which, far from making life easier, requires more attention than a small child. Struck by his toughness and determination I wonder how he can stand his present-day Tory colleagues in the House of Commons. Both are cracking books and having finished them I now feel deprived.

1 April. Almost out of piety and a respect for tradition I filch a couple of branches from the base of a balsam poplar on the north side of Regent’s Park. The buds are hardly open and thus are briefly heavily scented. Now in a glass on the sitting-room mantelpiece they bring a flavour to the room as they have done every spring for the last forty years.

Easter Saturday, 4 April, Yorkshire. With a bad ankle I edge my way carefully down the stairs and delicately round the garden. I still have the absurd notion that as with any other ailment age and infirmity will run their course and I will recover from it. That there is no recovery – or only one – doesn’t always occur. Still the reopening of the village shop as a community enterprise means that I (and my stick) can once again trudge down for the paper (as I do in London with much less effort on my bike).

12 April, Yorkshire. The sheep round us have always seemed to me an unprepossessing lot, lank, shabby and not to be spruced up even for a show. What breed they are I’ve no idea though they’re still brought down through the village to be sheared, when the rams achieve a brief, even a Roman dignity, haughty, disdainful and looking not unlike Elizabeth I. We have a narrow strip of front garden and at the first sound of the approaching flock my father used to rush out flapping his apron and shouting his head off to protect his precious plants.

13 April. Rereading Portnoy’s Complaint I’m not surprised at Dad’s reaction when he found it in my bookcase at Wood Lane fifty years ago. In some misguided missionary zeal that makes me cringe even to remember I may actually have recommended it. Because if it shocked him then it shocks me now, though I don’t imagine he read more than a few pages before putting it back and never mentioning it again. He’d probably have been hoping it was going to be more along the lines of Nancy Mitford who, slightly to my surprise, he’d found very funny. Fifty years later Portnoy still makes me laugh and to anyone shy or (an unlikely thought) thinking themselves wicked for wanking the book is an emancipation, though without being in the least bit erotic. The style is still a delight.

8 May. A feeling of bereavement in the streets. I shop for supper and unprompted a grey-haired woman in the fish shop bursts out: ‘It means I shall have a Tory government for the rest of my life.’

In the library they say: ‘Good morning, though we’ve just been trying to think what’s good about it.’

I wanted a Labour government so that I could stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well-intentioned. Now we have another decade of the self-interested and the self-seeking, ready to sell off what’s left of our liberal institutions and loot the rest to their own advantage. It’s not a government of the nation but a government of half the nation, a true legacy of Mrs Thatcher. Work is the only escape, which fortunately moves along a little.

9 May. My birthday. A nice woman in a leopardskin coat who always speaks wishes me a happy birthday. I say that I wish it was. ‘Why? What’s happened?’ ‘Last Thursday. The election.’ ‘Oh, you don’t want to worry about that. They’re all the same.’ At which point (we are in Shepherd’s grocers) I hear myself as very rarely shouting at the top of my voice. ‘No, they are not all the same. This lot are self-seeking liars, the cabinet included, and we’re landed with them for another five years.’ She tries to calm me down but I tell her not to bother, with other customers peeping round the shelves to see who is making all this din.

She is waiting outside the shop with a cake she has bought me for my birthday and I kind of apologise. But as I walk back home I wonder how long it will be before this crew turn their attention to the BBC.

20 May, Yorkshire. Around seven R. shouts upstairs: ‘Look out on the lawn. Now.’ I look out of the bedroom window and there is something on the grass, but I don’t at first even recognise it as a bird. Then it becomes plain it’s a hawk which has brought down an unspecifiable bird which is still feebly fluttering as the hawk rips into it. What is strange is that the hawk, possibly in order to give it purchase for its pecking, is spreading its wings over its prey and as it were cloaking it from view though never letting up from tearing strips off the now dead bird. Eventually R. opens the back door and the hawk, a white flash on its breast, flies off with (R. thinks) a blackbird in pursuit. All that it leaves on the grass is a smear and some feathers, everything else – beak, claws, legs – has been eaten. It’s something neither of us has ever seen before and leaves us untalkative and slightly shocked.

25 May. A woman in front of me in the greengrocer’s: ‘I’ll be ninety tomorrow. It’s disgusting.’

27 May. Go through my papers looking for anything I may have overlooked about Miss Shepherd prior to the filming of The Lady in the Van. I find some notes on Miss S.’s costume in the 1980s plus a few of her odder remarks. As I occasionally did I must have complained about the smell: ‘Well there are mice, I know that and they make for a cheesy smell, possibly.’

I have builders and knowing they must think I’m crazy to accommodate her feel I must complain about the stench of urine: ‘Well what can you expect when they rain bricks down on me all day.’

5 June. Finish Adam Nicolson’s book on Homer, The Mighty Dead, which is occasionally over-rich but very enjoyable. It ends as the Odyssey ends with Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors and the hanging of her maids, scenes of such horror they alienate whatever sympathy one might have for the returning wanderer. Which is not much in my case as he seems a colossal bore – and likely to be more so as time goes on. If he and Penelope had an old age has anyone written about it? It would be like growing old alongside Field Marshal Montgomery.

Otherwise life at the moment is what my mother would have called ‘a bit of a fullock’, fullock meaning a hurry or a rush with fullocky its adjective. One thing piled on another.

27 June. Shortly after the East Coast franchise has been sold off to a tie-up between Virgin and Stagecoach I am sitting at Leeds station waiting for Rupert when a notice is flashed up on the Sky screen: ‘Hello Leeds. Meet Virgin trains. We’ve just arrived and we can’t wait to get to know you.’

And take you for every penny we can.

7 July. Run into Philip and Kersti French in M&S with Philip bent tight over his trolley and using it as a walker. I ask him how he is. ‘Dreadful’. ‘Anything specific?’ ‘Knees. Legs. Lungs. Kidneys … Shall I go on?’ The recital so fluent it’s partly a joke, but looking at him it’s hard not to believe every word. I come out not, I’m sure, having cheered them up, thankful that I can still at least mount my bike and cycle away. Sixty years since I first met him when he was a self-assured ex-paratrooper of an undergraduate at my college, his stutter used to emphasise his machine-gun wit, and already knowing everything there was to be known about films and quite definitely a man of the world.

18 July. Not having a mortgage or being otherwise in hock to the bank I am not particularly perturbed when the governor of the Bank of England predicts a likely rise in the interest rate. What does bother me is that for no obvious reason that I’ve seen mentioned Mr Carney should have made his announcement in Lincoln Cathedral. Why there? And why in a cathedral at all? Are cathedrals for hire nowadays whatever the occasion? How long before one of Mr Osborne’s rallying calls to the nation is embedded in Sung Eucharist?

19 July. The heron has been fishing in the beck every morning this weekend. I’ve never actually seen it catch anything or even seemingly take much interest in what’s going on in the water, and it’s so still that though quite a few walkers go across the packhorse bridge very few of them actually pick it out. An untidy Dickensian-looking bird, like a half-folded grey umbrella, if disturbed it unhurriedly takes off, sailing languidly upstream towards the waterfall, never quite knowing what to do with its legs.

25 July. ‘Your honesty will die.’ This is a woman at the annual village street market when she sees Rupert buying an honesty plant. It will, of course, which Rupert knows, but he also knows that the dead flowers will then turn into the translucent seed pods which are its attraction. As it is (and because she somehow comes up from below) she seems like the voice of doom and the phrase becomes a family joke (if the two of us constitute a family).

3 August (the day of Dad’s death, 41 years ago). To Gosford Street to record Sue MacGregor’s programme Reunion about the two series of Talking Heads. The best anecdote to come out of the first series was told me by Tony Cash, who heard A Lady of Letters translated on French radio. In the original version Miss Ruddock, talking about her dubious neighbours on whom she spies, remarks: ‘Couple opposite having their tea. No cloth on. Milk bottle stood there waiting.’ This had been translated: ‘Couple opposite having their tea. No clothes on. Milk bottle stood there waiting.’

11 August. A strike of wardering staff at the National Gallery where it’s now planned to outsource the wardering to Securitas, a firm supposedly with a wealth of experience in the field. No matter that the field also includes airports, car parks and whatever. I’ve seen no protests from the trustees or anyone making the point that the warders at the NG are a resource worth conserving, so various, interesting and eccentric they are that they don’t just keep an eye on the visitors and the paintings but are themselves part of the NG’s ecology. I don’t know how the strike can succeed but I hope it does. Not a good trustee myself I hope I would have made more of a public fuss.

12 August. I’m not a member of the Labour Party and so can’t vote. If I could, though, I’d vote for Jeremy Corbyn if only out of hope, the hope that the better part of salvation lies not in electoral calculation but in people’s aspirations.

15 August. Rain stops me doing my usual half-hour cycle ride in Regent’s Park and when I do go later on it’s so busy I divert to the Nash terraces which are always deserted. Seats overlooking the (very dull) gardens would add to their amenity but since this would fetch more people in I imagine it’s the last thing the well-to-do (and the well-to-do diplomatic) tenants would want. There are generally one or two cars parked with their engines running and the chauffeurs asleep but no other sign of life.

In the evening I watch a programme about VE Day (though today has been marked by celebrations for the 70th anniversary of VJ Day). Both of these I remember as I was 11 on 9 May 1945, i.e. VE Day + 1, but VE and VJ Days are indistinguishable in memory, my lasting impression of both the sudden availability of light, shone on public buildings and streaming away prodigally into the night sky. This was a regular feature thereafter and still an object of wonder into the early 1950s.

16 August. This aspect of things comes up again when I go round to the Millers this morning for coffee. Christina Noble is there, who is working on some sort of family history, and she treats me as a living witness to times past.

Was venison ever on the ration? I think not, though Leeds butchers wouldn’t in any case be its usual retail outlet and certainly not Bennett’s High Class Meat Purveyors of Otley Road. What about trotters, were they on the ration? No, and tripe certainly wasn’t, though even at 81 it still seems droll to me to be regarded as a historical repository or the oldest inhabitant. The VE Day programme treated rationing as a national ordeal when it was nothing of the sort, butter short admittedly but the availability of food was seasonal and deliciously so, with new potatoes, strawberries and all soft fruit tastier then than they have ever seemed since.

23 August. Countryfile touches on (it hardly tackles) the now permitted potash mine in the North York Moors National Park, with John Craven posing against the idyllic landscape and asking some toothless questions. The usual justifications are put forward – local employment (no one says how much or how guaranteed), local prosperity – though with no questions as to who the shareholders are and where based, certainly not in the North Riding and probably not even in the country. No wonder Corbyn is ahead of the rest.

1 September. Oliver Sacks dies, my first memory of whom was as an undergraduate in his digs in Keble Road in Oxford when I was with Eric Korn and possibly, over from Cambridge, Michael Frayn. Oliver said that he had fried and eaten a placenta. At that time I don’t think I knew what a placenta was except that I knew it didn’t come with chips.

11 September. David Cameron has been in Leeds preaching to businessmen the virtues of what he calls ‘the smart state’. Smart to Mr Cameron seems to mean doing as little as one can get away with and calling it enterprise. Smart as in smart alec, smart of the smart answer, which I’m sure Mr Cameron has to hand. Dead smart.

14 September. Watch, though without intending to, J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, without intending to, I suppose, because I never feel Alastair Sim’s performance in the film can be bettered. Tonight it’s David Thewlis who’s very very good, bleak, unmannered and while I miss some of Sim’s silkiness just as memorable. It’s a play I’d dearly love to have written (as also his When We Are Married) and gives me a pang of conscience. Back in the late 1990s when I was doing some programmes on Westminster Abbey the dean, Michael Mayne, talked to me about whether Larkin should be in Poets’ Corner, an obvious yes on the strength of ‘Church Going’ let alone the rest. He also wanted my thoughts on another candidate, J.B. Priestley, whom several supporters were pushing but on whom Michael M. wasn’t keen. I hedged, I think, certainly not pressing Priestley’s claim which on the evidence of tonight’s An Inspector Calls fills me with regret and self-reproach.

23 September. A minor breakthrough today when I go to my barbers, Ossie’s in Parkway, and the first time in my life I allow Azakh the barber to trim my eyebrows. It’s a cosmetic refinement I’ve always resisted on the assumption that once cut the eyebrows would grow more luxuriantly and I should end up looking like Bernard Ingham or (this in the interests of balance) Denis Healey. However, I am getting on and there will scarcely be time for the development of comparable thickets so today I am tidied up. The last time I remember having related thoughts was when I was 17 and had not yet started to shave. Though most of my contemporaries had been shaving for years being fair and rather behind the rest, in my case there was no need and I knew that once I started I should have to go on. A few months later I was in the army when the decision was taken out of my hands.

3 October. Denis Healey dies, whom I would have been happy to see prime minister. Met twice, once when I was cycling briefly (and slowly) on the pavement in Gower Street where he was waiting for a bus and he stopped me, saying: ‘Now then, young Bennett’ (I would have been fifty at the time). Then twenty years later we were both at a reception in Downing Street for Fanny Waterman, founder of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. I was with Rupert and the joke was the same as at the bus stop as he shook hands with Rupert before indicating me and saying: ‘And is this your young man?’

11 October. In Primrose Hill Books I glance through Volume II of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, noting that it recycles Graham Turner’s mendacious interview with me and other so-called artists and intellectuals in which we are supposed to have dismissed Mrs T. out of snobbery. This was the thesis Turner had come along anxious to prove and bore scant relation to the interview itself, which concentrated on her actual policies. It’s only worth noting because it’s an interview that often gets quoted, e.g. in Noël Annan’s Our Age. I did detest Mrs Thatcher and deplore her legacy. But she was a grocer’s daughter as I am a butcher’s son. Snobbery doesn’t come into it.

13 October. As floor-covering the red carpet is pretty unprepossessing, threadbare, stabbed by too many high heels, and, I imagine, weed on by dogs. It fronts the Odeon, Leicester Square for the premiere of The Lady in the Van and penned at its edges are dozens of reporters and photographers from the nation’s press. I am put to begin at one end, Alex Jennings in the middle and Nick Hytner at the other and the three of us work the line, though the journalists, both newspaper and radio, are so jammed together that as one is questioned and photographed by the chosen reporter the questions and one’s answers are overheard by the next who often just reiterates them. To begin with I try and vary my replies but invention soon flags and nobody seems to mind if I say the same thing three times over with three minutes max per interview. It’s all very jolly, some of them shake hands and there are occasional selfies, but even when we’ve been at it an hour we haven’t reached the end of the line. Then we are called inside to be shepherded with Maggie Smith through the foyer down the back stairs and onto the stage, where we are introduced and shown to the audience by Nick. We don’t have to speak and are a bit nonplussed, with the audience just wanting to get on with the film. So by the time we get to our seats in the balcony the film has started. It goes well, though as with other films I’ve done I worry that one laugh treads too closely on the heels of the next. Still, some people are crying at the end and people seem to be happy.

Alan Bennett and Alex Jennings work the red carpet for The Lady in the Van.

Alan Bennett and Alex Jennings work the red carpet for The Lady in the Van.

23 October, Yorkshire. With the trip to New York looming, I am unsurprised when on my way home I sprain my ankle, such avoidance mechanisms a not unusual prelude to major departures. I phone my GP, who is concerned that it might be a clot and recommends going to A&E at Airedale Hospital where I should have an X-ray. It’s early Saturday evening and casualty very quiet, raising hopes we may be in and out quite quickly. We sit there, slowly doing the quick crossword, noting as so often in institutions the presence of characters who seem habitués, knowing the procedures, familiar with the staff, A&E their scene. Quiet though it is it’s a couple of hours before we’re seen by a youngish consultant who briskly disposes of any likelihood of a clot and sees no point in doing an X-ray as it would just reveal wear and tear, ‘the wear and tear of being’ – and he glances at my form – ‘of being 81’. He’s not unfriendly but not chatty either and I wonder whether we are unwittingly contributing to one of the problems of the NHS, namely GPs referring patients to A&E just to be on the safe side. Out by nine o’clock we go the back way home again, with an owl flying across the road near West Marton. Curry for supper after which I limp to bed, the hospital episode not as wearisome as might have been expected and R. even enjoying it.

27 October. To record Private Passions, Michael Berkeley’s Radio 3 programme which I’ve always liked as more relaxed and less formulaic than Desert Island Discs, which was apt, particularly in the days of Sue Lawley, to bowl one a googly (‘And would you say you were gay?’). Mind you, I’ve always resisted Private Passions too, if only because my musical appreciation is so adolescent and tied to memory, with no specialised musical knowledge to it at all. Under Berkeley’s informal and benevolent eye the programme is a real contribution to the reputation of the BBC, or the old BBC anyway. The studio is in a little house off Shepherd’s Bush Green, putting me in mind of those days in the 1960s when I worked two days a week for Ned Sherrin and Not So Much a Programme in Lime Grove. It’s a nice group of people and a happy atmosphere, and I’m grateful to the young assistant Oliver Soden whose opportune postcard persuaded me to do it. I talk about Dad playing his fiddle to the wireless on Sunday nights during the war and musical evenings at my grandma’s on Gilpin Place when Aunt Eveline, a sometime pianist for the silent films, would regale us with the latest hits from Ivor Novello and latterly Oklahoma. I had wanted some Kathleen Ferrier, but with her recordings being relatively few had to settle for her singing part of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody, regretting that she had never recorded Gerontius or Strauss’s Four Last Songs.

My parents had heard her sing one winter night in 1947 in a concert she gave in Brunswick Chapel in Leeds, but I thought I had never heard her. It was only when I was going through some old programmes that I came across the brochure for the 1950 Leeds Triennial Festival, tickets for which we had been given by a Mr Tansley who was the corporation’s entertainments manager and a customer at Dad’s shop. And good seats they were, row B in the balcony of the Victoria Hall and, as we discovered, directly behind the royal party, which consisted of the Princess Royal and the Harewoods, who were the festival’s patrons. Everyone around us was in long dresses or dinner jackets. I was 16 and in my school blazer, with Mam in her best frock. Dad knew better than to go and wouldn’t be persuaded, so to my acute embarrassment (of which at 16 I was already a connoisseur) I had to escort Mam. I was no stranger to the Victoria Hall, going there every Saturday to hear the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, but looking round at the cream of Leeds society I knew that they were seldom to be seen at a normal concert in the town hall unless as in this case it had the cachet of royalty.

It also had the cachet of Sir Thomas Beecham, who made one of his witty speeches before embarking on a performance of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, to my mind (though I’ve never heard it since) a pretty dreary piece. So it was only years later that looking through my programmes I realised I had heard Kathleen Ferrier. She had been one of the singers. I haven’t forgotten that concert, but it wasn’t her performance that I remembered, or even noticed.

31 October, New York. Here yesterday in the lap of luxury as our first class fare is paid partly by the New York Public Library, which is giving me an award, and the rest by Sony, which is producing The Lady in the Van. I wonder, though, looking at our fellow passengers, who is paying for them, so ordinary do they seem and even downright scruffy. Perhaps they’re all in the music business, in which case this not being a private jet is maybe a bit of a comedown. Most luxurious for me is that having sprained my ankle I get a wheelchair at both ends, which, particularly at JFK, is a great blessing as in immigration we skip the queue. There’s a nasty bit of turbulence in mid-Atlantic, though, which no amount of luxury can banish. It doesn’t bother R. who sleeps throughout but has me gibbering, however smooth it is, flying for me never other than an ordeal.

This morning we take a cab to the market in Union Square, a real pleasure. It’s partly that though crowded with stalls selling farm produce, cheese, fruit and whatever it’s resolutely ordinary, with no hint of middle-class worthiness about it. Then too the places all the produce has been driven in from in the back of beyond of New York State remind one how rural America is still, which one can detect in the faces of the people behind the stalls. Maybe I’m sentimental about this and maybe Borough Market (where I’ve never been) is much the same. But I find myself cheered by the diversity of New York as last time I was here. Then we happened to coincide with a march against the Iraq War, a march so big and close knit we joined it simply in order to work our way across the street.

2 November. Most of the day spent in a back room of the Four Seasons Hotel being interviewed with Nick Hytner and Alex Jennings by a succession of journalists. They question us about the making of the film and the story behind it but most of all about Maggie Smith, who because she does so little publicity remains a creature of mystery. Alex like me is anecdotal, telling stories about the filming and Miss Shepherd, whereas Nick, schooled by his time at the National, makes what would be called ‘bullet points’ about the film and how it came to be made and so is, I think, a more useful interviewee. On the other hand, if an interviewer bores him he finds it hard to hide so that Alex and I become absurdly over-animated just to compensate.

In the evening to the New York Public Library where I am to be made a Library Lion. When I said this to my friend David Vaisey, librarian emeritus of the Bodleian, he remarked: ‘Well, I just hope you’re not one of those aged lions that gets shot by a Midwestern dentist,’ a welcome joke as he’s just recovering from a stroke. It’s a black-tie affair, which I only found out the day before we left, so I stick to my Anderson and Sheppard suit (current record: four funerals and three memorial services). As I’m leaving my coat the attendant hands me what I take to be the coat check but in fact it’s the lion itself on a red ribbon which I wear all evening. Spotted (also wearing his lion) is Salman Rushdie. There are half a dozen of us being lionised and we are lined up and photographed and made much of before going upstairs to a magnificent supper, getting home thoroughly knackered around 11. How people lead a social life is beyond me.

13 November, Yorkshire. The film ‘opens well’ as they say and here in the village people have been going down to Skipton to see it. They show films occasionally in the village hall but whether The Lady in the Van will ever achieve such heights I doubt, as none of my other stuff has. Years ago when I was still writing TV plays which didn’t always go down well, one of the village ladies complained: ‘I can’t understand how he writes the plays that he does with two such lovely parents as he had.’

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Vol. 38 No. 2 · 21 January 2016

I was pleased to learn that Alan Bennett was able to enjoy the National Gallery’s exhibition of Rembrandt’s later works in such a tranquil atmosphere (LRB, 7 January). For most of the general public, however, it was something of a scrum. When I turned up mid-afternoon, about three minutes in advance of the period for which I had booked, I found a queue outside the exhibition which seemed to snake back for about a hundred yards. Once I’d got in, about a quarter of an hour later, I discovered myself wedged into a densely packed crowd shuffling forward at a snail’s pace in mounting temperature. Now and then, I managed to glimpse a portion of a painting. I finally squeezed through the crowd and made my escape half an hour after entering, grateful to encounter fresh air again.

The then director of the National, Nicholas Penny, when reminded of how disgruntled many of the visitors to both this and the Leonardo exhibition had been, responded that lots of people ‘don’t mind queuing because it reassures them that they are in the right place’. He might have added that they could always eat cake while they were waiting.

Peter Rowland
London E11

Alan Bennett worries that ‘wardering’ at the National Gallery might be outsourced to Serco. I misread the word as ‘wandering’. But then, why not? Hired wanderers could perform the same function as Flann O’Brien’s pre-graffitied books, taking the burden off warders by answering such predictable questions as ‘Was Velásquez married?’ (the question most frequently asked by visitors to the Prado), or ‘Is there a postcard of this painting in the gift shop?’ – to which the correct answer is usually ‘no’. They would never wander too close to the paintings, take unauthorised photographs or dawdle at closing time. There would be no shortage of homeless people or students who would take the work in exchange for a cup of tea and a stale bun, just to keep warm.

Karl Sabbagh
Newbold on Stour, Warwickshire

Alan Bennett describes a hawk ‘spreading its wings over its prey and as it were cloaking it from view though never letting up from tearing strips off the now dead bird’. The behaviour, called ‘mantling’, is practised by many birds of prey. As Bennett saw, the main aim is to shield the prey from other predators; the tail, too, is often spread to provide counterbalance. The instinct runs strongly enough for it to be expressed by birds in captivity, which, despite feeding in solitary enclosures, will often mantle over their food. Horatio Clare, in Down to the Sea in Ships, used the term metaphorically: ‘The Captain looks like an outraged owl, mantling over a grievance he will never forget.’

Graeme Semple
London SE6

Alan Bennett asks whether, if Odysseus and Penelope had an old age, anyone has written about it. Tennyson in ‘Ulysses’ depicts a cantankerous old king who, disenchanted with domestic life and his ‘aged wife’, resolves to set sail for new adventures with his now geriatric crew (‘Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me’).

Page Nelson
Charlottesville, Virginia

Vol. 38 No. 3 · 4 February 2016

Alan Bennett notices the disappearance of warders’ chairs at the National Gallery (LRB, 7 January). I don’t believe I’ve ever seen warders at the Met in Manhattan sit down in collection rooms. Nor are they offered chairs, it seems. I’m happy to relay, though, that the guards have offered me lively opinions on the Met’s controversial Etruscan chariot; shown me Matisse-inspired, handcrafted stationery; pinpointed the location of a Messerschmidt bust at a great distance; and discussed festive conventions in Hals.

David Podgurski
Norwalk, Connecticut

Prompted by Alan Bennett’s remarks, Karl Sabbagh suggests that ‘homeless people or students’ could be engaged to wander around the National Gallery answering questions etc, ‘in exchange for a cup of tea and a stale bun, just to keep warm’ (Letters, 21 January). Actually, what he describes is what most people would call ‘a job’, deserving of what’s often termed ‘a wage’. But then, if firms can take on unpaid interns, perhaps char and a wad, and the chance of lingering by a radiator, now constitute an adequate remuneration package.

Gerald Haigh
Bedworth, Warwickshire

Alan Bennett identifies 4 April 2015 as Easter Saturday. The Saturday of the Easter weekend is Holy Saturday or Easter Eve. Easter Saturday is the Saturday following Easter.

Roy Williamson
Winchcombe, Gloucestershire

Vol. 38 No. 5 · 3 March 2016

Alan Bennett expresses surprise that the governor of the Bank of England chose Lincoln Cathedral as a suitable venue to give a speech announcing a likely rise in the interest rate (LRB, 7 January). Our generation isn’t the first to couple God and Mammon in this way. The collapse of sterling prompted the archbishops of Canterbury and York to decree a service of national prayer on Sunday, 3 January 1932, which in turn inspired the Oxford classicist H.W. Garrod to supply a ‘missing stanza’ to Coleridge and Southey’s ‘The Devil’s Walk’. The lines are printed in Garrod’s Epigrams:

He passed a church, and listened in,
And almost lost the sense of sin.
‘Why, this’ (the Devil said) ‘might cheer
The very devil’ – for his ear
Had caught the satisfying sound
Of two archbishops praying for the Pound.

Ian Jackson
Berkeley, California

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