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1 January 2019, Yorkshire. The New Inn, the village pub, always lays on a quarter of an hour of fireworks at midnight, which we can see if not actually from our bed then certainly from the bedroom window. Brushing my teeth this morning, I catch a glimpse of my New Year self and am depressed to see how depleted I’m looking, though not quite as much as Raymond Briggs, who’s pretty much my age, and a good documentary on whom we watched earlier yesterday evening. He’s almost two-dimensional, thinned to a knife blade. Still, he drives, which after the latest bout of arthritis in my ankle, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do.

7 January, Yorkshire. On the war memorial at Malham is the inscription:

Live thou for England
We for England died

I don’t know if this is a quotation, or an injunction that was, as it were, custom-made, but I find it – if only slightly – misplaced, and I don’t wholly concur, as the sentiment reduces what was a sacrifice to more of a bargain: we did this for you, now see you do your bit in return by living in a way the dead might have approved (whatever that might be). It’s an admonition, which I don’t like, but war memorials often take this finger-wagging tone. ‘Do better.’

8 January. My six-monthly aorta scan at University College Hospital. Due at 12.30 I’m early, so that by 12.45 I’m back home. It’s a model service, today’s radiographer a bearded young man who asks about Allelujah!, and shows me the screen and how he measures the width of my (quite small) aneurysms. Good young medics always cheer me and offer hope, not for my future but for the world in general.

19 January. Wake this morning thinking of a line that I’ve always remembered Burt Lancaster delivering in a costume drama. Caught out after curfew, he says: ‘I am apothecary Manzoni on an errand of mercy for the Sisters.’ What the film was I’ve no idea. The Crimson Pirate? Doubtless some LRB-reading cinema buff even sillier than I am will be able to tell me.

26 January. We are comfortably ensconced in our Weekend First seats at King’s Cross when John Bercow comes along the platform. Not quite the elegant, slightly flamboyant figure one sees in the Commons, he’s in a scruffy suede jacket and, according to the trolley attendant, sitting in standard class, where he is happy to have a conversation about Brexit and related matters. I’m hoping he will come down the train at some point, when I’d shake his hand and say how much of the country is with him. However, when we get to Grantham, my eye is taken by an old man with an enchanting blond Labrador, and now Bercow comes along the platform and the dog makes a great fuss of him, the old man equally delighted.

9 February. This evening we watch the much vaunted The Favourite, which is good if a bit – and perhaps deliberately – casual about period details and language, ‘letters’ becoming ‘mail’ and (a battle I had in The Madness of King George) the occasional ‘OK’ and ‘fine’. The film owes something to ours, beginning slightly as I intended to begin, with the court seen from the cramped perspective of the royal servants. Not looking at the monarch is made something of a feature, though not as specifically as we tried to do, and our film was more physical than this is allowed to be. ‘Cunt’ occurs quite often, possibly less as a deliberate attempt to shock than to show how down to earth these courtiers were. Or it may just be laziness, there being some skill in inventing euphemisms or devising elaborations that get round obscenity. Still, an enjoyable film, if an anachronistic one, e.g. ‘the opposition’ not a feature of Parliament in the 18th century.

11 February. A piece in the TLS by Laura Freeman about how hunger was reflected in the novels of the postwar period. I suppose it’s because it’s to do with novels (and therefore middle class and upwards), but it hardly relates to my own childhood memories. I have no particular memories of wartime food, and even if I had, a working-class family in Leeds wouldn’t have been dining out on much except fish and chips in the cafés of department stores like Hitchens (fish and chips, tea and bread and butter 1/9), with Schofields slightly higher up the scale. There was Harry Ramsden’s at Guiseley, where we would often have just chips when we went hiking across the fields to Burley in Wharfedale. What I don’t recall is any longing for food (or for elaborate food) that coloured the everyday. On the contrary, what sticks in the mind is how tasty some very ordinary meals were: the first new potatoes, for instance, so delicious one would save them up till last when having one’s dinner (i.e. lunch). The first strawberries similarly, gooseberries, plums – all bought (and queued for) at the Co-op on Armley Ridge Road. Even the nowadays much reviled Spam and corned beef seemed quite tasty to me then, more so than the stewing steak we had regularly, as Dad was a butcher at Armley Lodge Road Co-op. He was either very scrupulous or quite timid, so we never had more than the ration, the meat always overcooked and never the grander cuts. The first proper steak I had was in the army in Cambridge when I was 18 and which shocked me as it was rare – blood never having figured on the Bennett dining table even in its relatively refined form of black pudding. Some food we did consider too lowly to eat, tripe for instance, which was a favourite of my grandma, and chitterlings from the same ‘uggery-buggery pie shop’ down Tong Road in Wortley.

Until I started to read the novels and diaries of the period, I naively assumed that the food the Bennetts had eaten at Halliday Place was much the same as the food everyone ate in the war, regardless of social status. So I was still capable of being shocked in my twenties when I read in Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love (a novel not I think mentioned by Laura Freeman) of the ration-dodging suppers available to the upper and middle classes, but also of delight when the Bolter’s lover turns out to be a Spanish chef capable and indeed only too pleased to produce delicious pre-Elizabeth David food for the ravenous Radletts.

13 February. ‘God’s honour’ we used to swear as boys. This remembered in the middle of an acute attack of arthritis pain this morning when I’m marooned on the sofa, cold, thirsty but unable to move. ‘I don’t know which way to turn’ meaning exactly that. The pills make my mind slide.

A letter from Oxford last week asking if I would like to give the Waynflete Lecture.

Rupert (who is only half-listening and knows nothing of academic distinction): Why? What do you know about ballet?

AB: Why should I know about ballet?

R: Well, that must be what they want you for.

AB: Why?

R: Because it’s the Wayne Sleep lecture.

An Inchbald morning: blue sky, bare trees, every detail plain.

4 March. I am rereading (or reading properly) James Stourton’s book on Kenneth Clark. I hadn’t realised how apposite for these days is Yeats’s quite hackneyed ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/ … The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.’

And, more immediately, Clark was

also shocked by the hostility of the townspeople of Petworth towards Petworth Park, and wrote to the minister of transport, John Peyton, ‘I can see what a problem this kind of “democratic” sentiment poses for the Department of the Environment. It is certainly an argument against government by referendum. I suppose on the same grounds one could argue in favour of selling the contents of the National Gallery and using the site for a gigantic funfair. In these cases the governments have to understand the word democracy in a philosophical sense rather than a quantitative sense.’

A bit subtle, though, for Nigel Farage.

13 March. Getting on my bike to go for the paper this morning I overbalance, possibly because of an outlying gust from Storm Gareth, and fall heavily in the road. I lie there for a minute or two, and it’s Adrian, one of the builders from next door, who picks me up. I haven’t broken anything, but it’s the third time I’ve come off in the last six months, and it leaves me shaken and bruised, and Rupert shaken too when he comes downstairs. Now I lie on the sofa with my right thigh (or whatever the outside of the thigh is called) sprained. Though pain in one’s upper leg is less disabling than pain in the foot or the ankle, which I regularly have. However, sedate though they are, I think my cycling days are numbered.

16 March. Into my head comes a line from a history textbook of more than sixty years ago. Luther, having affixed his protest to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenberg in 1517, made the sign of a ‘Landsknecht who had delivered a telling stroke’. It comes from a textbook, Europe in Renaissance and Reformation 1453-1660 by Mary Hollings, which we used in our history classes under H.H. Hill. I imagine most of us remembered this quote and trotted it out in School Certificate a year or so later, and my only thought now is how wearisome it must have been for the examiner reading it again and again. I suppose the Landsknecht’s equivalent gesture today would be ‘Yes!’ and a raised fist.

17 March. (More days on the sofa.) I watch Three Coins in the Fountain and remember an Italian actor who had a brief vogue in Hollywood in the 1950s, Rossano Brazzi – notable in our family because he was always mispronounced by Aunty Kathleen as Rossi Brazzano.

25 March. British Gas has seemingly relocated, as this morning I find myself sending my usual king’s ransom to Northampton and Blaise Pascal House.

30 March. The magazine Rupert edits, The World of Interiors, is consistently good, the houses interestingly chosen and from across the world, with every issue (some of them mammoth) a real treat. Occasionally, though, they do parody themselves, as today: ‘Tormented by the dearth of chic shower curtains Lisa Fine resolved to plug the gap.’

A big hole in this year’s diary when in April I was found to need an open heart operation: leaking aorta, aneurysm and blocked artery. With no symptoms to speak of, it came as a complete surprise and knocked me out for three months, with the diary unreadable (and illegible). Blame the anaesthetic.

4 July. A letter from the Philip Larkin Society, reminding me that I’m an honorary vice-president, which I was unaware of. I’ve never been an enthusiastic member, partly because Larkin wasn’t particularly keen on my stuff or keen on my being keen on his (which I am); Amis (K.) very much of the same mind. It wasn’t this, though, that put me off. What made me dubious about the society was the degree of enthusiasm felt by the members, with all the poetic locations pinpointed and Larkin clasped ever more tightly to the bosom of Hull (along with his sister and his cousins and his aunts). The risk is admittedly slight, but I am fearful of such detailed posthumous scrutiny. I don’t want to be Hullified, though I hope I wouldn’t do what Larkin did and have my diaries shredded when the breath has scarcely left my body.

These days, when in the circumstances I am not getting much done, well-wishers think to comfort one by instancing what one has done already. This is no reassurance. One’s back catalogue is more of a tribunal. One is arraigned before it and the current work (or lack of it) judged.

7 July: Sam Barnett has been on the Pride march. ‘Four and a half hours! I wouldn’t have agreed to be homosexual if I’d known it was going to take that long.’

30 July, Yorkshire. Thunder, which is somehow old-fashioned.

‘I will not suppose any premature decay of the mind or body; but I must reluctantly observe that two causes, the abbreviation of time, and the failure of hope, will always tinge with a browner shade the evening of life.’ Edward Gibbon.

1 August, Yorkshire. A couple of years ago we planted some lychnis coronaria by the back gate, and in our prolonged absence this summer it has seeded itself in the stone trough by the back door, with a lone outpost in a crack between the paving stones. I love its piercing pink, first seen, a whole bed of it, round a tree in the garden of Great Chalfield Manor, a National Trust house in Wiltshire. When I inquired for it at a garden centre it was dismissed as a weed.

Never tire of Dad’s Army, which I must have seen a hundred times, and in particular the vicar and the verger. The petulant His Reverence and the toadying Mr Yeatman are an inspired pairing.

3 August, Yorkshire. We put flowers from the garden on Dad’s grave, on the day he died 45 years ago, and I have a vision of the pair of them, Dad in his shirtsleeves and waistcoat, Mam in her shiny straw hat, both of them never able to keep their faces straight when being photographed. In the back garden butterflies cluster on the buddleia, mostly red admirals which look black from behind, with the cabbage whites preferring the catmint.

Good remark by Francis Bacon: ‘No point in being both old and shy.’

7 August. Lying on the sofa with my aching ankle, I remember that the first time I came across arthritis was in the film East of Eden, seen at the Odeon, Oxford in 1955. Jo van Fleet played James Dean’s mother with what I suppose were arthritic hands, which she kept touching. I’m not sure I knew what was wrong. She was a brothel-keeper, but I wasn’t sure about that either.

20 August. Me: I’ve not been well. I’ve had a heart bypass.

Them: Well, you’re a writer, that’s just what you need.

1 September, Yorkshire. Driving the back way home from Settle, we run into the Lawkland cows, around forty of them, swaying along the lane en route to being milked. They are undeterred by the car, sidling past on both sides, though with the windows open they display varying degrees of interest, some shoving their heads in and sniffing round, though without finding much to detain them. None moos, the overall impression being that their lives are more absorbing than ours. Cows and I go back a long way, our earliest association when I was six years old at the farm near Pateley Bridge where we were unofficially evacuated, I used to help feed the calves. I had a bucket of slops which the calf would lick to bits, but I wasn’t strong enough to get its head out of my bucket and had to summon the help of Mrs Weatherhead, who put up with no nonsense. Milking, though, I never managed.

21 September. Read the second volume of memoirs by the Wigtown bookseller Shaun Bythell, which is as absorbing as the first, though it’s harder to be as patient as Bythell is with some of his hangers-on (Eliot a real pain). One entry particularly interests me:

Once when I was clearing books from a house near Kirkcudbright … I spotted a set of very small spiral library steps. I asked the woman whose books I was buying if it was for children … to which she replied that it had been custom-made for Jimmy Clitheroe, the diminutive star of radio and television during the 1960s. She and her husband had helped clear the contents of his mother’s house after they had both died. (He had lived with her and had died from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills on the day of her funeral.) I bought Jimmy Clitheroe’s library steps from her for £20.

Years ago, when I still lived in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, the bell rang one afternoon and on the doorstep was Morrissey, who was briefly living round the corner. We hadn’t met, but his opening question was as abrupt as it was unexpected: ‘Did you know Jimmy Clitheroe?’

I hadn’t, and only occasionally heard him on what was then the wireless on a Saturday dinner-time. Morrissey, though, seemed to regard the pair of us as contemporaries. It turned out that the diminutive comedian was only one of the stars that interested the singer, the more tangential the better. On another occasion, also on the doorstep, his opening question was: ‘Does the name Avis Bunnage mean anything to you?’ So, reading Shaun Bythell and ever helpful, it occurs to me that, though the singer’s preoccupations may have moved on in the intervening years, a possible home for Clitheroe’s bijou library steps might be with ‘the Pope of Mope’.

11 October. Sam F. rings to say that Michael Neve has died, and I sit in the front room and think about him. He was a great chronicler, a remembrancer, recording stuff one had said and funny remarks, so that one felt a bigger personality or a more three-dimensional one. He was unpredictable, dangerous and liable to let cats out of bags. But a great enthusiast and an appreciater. He had gusto, an almost Elizabethan zest and enthusiasm. Generous-spirited and magnanimous, he made his friends into legends.

19 October. A day when, had either of us been well enough, we would have gone on the march which, thanks to Oliver Letwin’s amendment, turned out marginally more hopeful than I was expecting. Looking for a book to read in bed, I take down as I think Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme. It seems less chatty than I remember and it’s only when I come to the end of the first chapter on the Thiepval arch that I realise it’s not by Geoff Dyer but (though equally good) The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by the late Gavin Stamp. Today, with Brexit once more in the balance, the end of the first chapter seems apposite: ‘How curious, but how significant, that one of the finest works of British architecture of the 20th century should stand not in Britain itself but on the opposite side of the English Channel.’ And up comes another appropriate quotation, though from someone unlikely to be a Remainer, Philip Larkin:

And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Put them together and it’s another reason we should not leave. We belong with our dead.

16 November. As I grow older, I see less and less reason for varying my wardrobe. It’s true that without being particularly clothes-conscious I’ve by now accumulated enough clobber to last me the rest of my days. I’m occasionally short of a shirt, but a tie never. Even so, I’m slow to ring the changes and find myself wearing the same tie for weeks at a time. I must have twenty or thirty ties, most of them from the charity shops haunted by R, where one can still find the plain-coloured narrow ties I’ve always gone in for. The one I find myself most often wearing looks like and maybe is an old school tie, silk seeming (but actually terylene) in navy blue with a yellow stripe. It still carries its ancient Cash’s name tape identifying the original owner as one Justice; maybe it was his house tie or his colours, either way not a badge of identity to which I’m entitled. I once worked with the actor Barry Justice, but I’ve no reason to think my tie was his. Still, it bestows on me a not unpleasing air of false pretences, though its main message these days must be that here is someone old-fashioned. In the two plays I’ve set in schools, Forty Years On (1968) and The History Boys (2004), the boys all wore school ties which very few of them knew how to knot, the few who did coming up with a Windsor knot. At my own far from aspirational grammar school this style was frowned on and may even have been forbidden. Significantly, it’s a fashion I associate still with footballers in mufti.

Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller at breakfast

Photograph: Tom Miller

27 November. Jonathan Miller, who died this morning, would have been the first to joke (and grumble) about sharing the ultimate limelight with a TV chef and an Australian poet and critic who was almost as articulate as he was. But there would be no jokes about the chief rabbi who could imply that his flock might be daft enough to consult their consciences before not voting Labour (they were). The practitioners of organised religion were always high on his list of undesirables with whom he was ever ready to engage in argument, but he liked Anglican hymns as long as he was far enough away not to take in the words, so it’s not unfitting that his funeral should be in an outpost of the Church of England.

Ours was a not unrivalrous relationship, with neither particularly generous about the other’s work. Whereas a play or whatever on TV would invariably prompt a tipsy telephone call from Peter Cook with congratulations that one had got away with it yet again, Jonathan and I were less indulgent, tending to ignore each other’s efforts. I never saw one of his operas and I’m not sure he ever saw one of my plays. He did try though, which is more than I did, and en route to the premiere of The History Boys a traffic jam enabled him to abandon the car (and the attempt) in the middle of Waterloo Bridge. Still, I wouldn’t even have tried.

I learned quite early on in our friendship not to discuss what I was working on lest it turn out he knew more about the subject than I did – or seemed to. It was always difficult to tell Jonathan anything, only to remind him of it.

Talking to Jonathan found its way into my work. Mr and Mrs T.S. Eliot saw Beyond the Fringe and said that Jonathan reminded them of Auden, and as such he crops up in the preface to my play The Habit of Art: ‘Wystan was the first person to go to Iceland, did you know that? And Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. Wystan did.’ That was Jonathan. Now that he’s gone I feel remorse as well as sorrow. But, jokes apart, it was a question of survival. I needed to write. Jonathan needed one to listen.

13 December. It’s a gang, not a government. Sure, he smells – but you can get used to anything.

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Letters

Vol. 42 No. 2 · 23 January 2020

As a cinema buff who is considerably sillier than Alan Bennett, I am able to inform him that the Burt Lancaster film he often thinks about isn’t The Crimson Pirate but the similarly swashbuckling The Flame and the Arrow (LRB, 2 January). The apothecary character is named Mazzoni, not Manzoni, and the movie is notable because Warner Brothers offered $1 million to anyone who could prove in court that Lancaster did not do all his own stunts. One man claimed he could, but his case was thrown out by the judge.

Scott Jordan Harris
Rugby, Warwickshire

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