1 January 2020, Yorkshire. A bright cold day and not one to be hanging about on our local station’s single platform, even with its vast view over the fells and the occasional heron. A phone call down the line reveals that the 10.15 to Leeds has been cancelled (‘operational difficulties’), so we go back home for a cup of tea and come down for the 11.20, with its cheerful conductor who phones Lost Property at Doncaster just to check that it is open even though it’s New Year’s Day. We’re quite cheerful too, having spent a glum couple of days grieving over Rupert’s bag with his computer, left on the London train last week and deemed irretrievably lost until he had a phone call from Newcastle telling him to go to Doncaster where he would find it. And so he does, computer, keys and cards all intact and handed over by a smiling porter called, appropriately, Christian. An empty train to Leeds and another to Settle and we are back home by five having buttered toast round the fire and unable to believe our luck. A good beginning to the year.
3 February. The front of the Spectator: ‘Done.’ Yes indeed.
24 February. Last week Rupert and his whole office were thrown into confusion when for no reason at all the management inquired how many of the team could work from home. This was taken to be the prelude to some sort of shedding of staff. Today it transpires it’s less inimical than this, but rather a precaution. The coronavirus in Italy has meant the Milan office has had to close down, the inquiry in case a similar situation should arise in London. This is thought to be unlikely.
1 March. Thanks to arthritis I’m now much less mobile than I was. Gone are the days when I could jump on my bike to pop down to the shops, so static semi-isolation is scarcely a hardship or even a disruption of my routine. Himself no slouch when it came to work, George Steiner once asked a Soviet dissident how he got through so much. ‘House arrest, Steiner. House arrest.’ Alas, so far as work is concerned, I haven’t yet noticed much difference.
The only medical scourge I’ve had any experience of is TB, or consumption as it was called then. The Sherwoods, a family that lived next door to us in Armley, Leeds in the 1940s lost their youngest son to TB, which then infected his father, who also died. Unsurprisingly, this left my mother perpetually anxious lest we catch it. Mrs Sherwood was a good cook and often invited my brother and me to sample her dishes, which we were strictly forbidden to do. On one occasion, though, I succumbed (Yorkshire pudding) and foolishly saying so at home it was as if I’d signed my own death warrant.
TB was to blame for other more bizarre prohibitions. We were never allowed to wear open-necked shirts, for instance, lest the cold ‘go to your chest’. Sharing a bottle of pop with other boys was another deathtrap, as was not wearing a vest or drinking unaired water.
TB was pretty well eradicated or controlled long before my mother’s death, but she never ceased to think of it as the killer it had been in her youth. Always one to diddle her hands under the tap, she would have found the precautions against the coronavirus only common sense.
18 March. The York Theatre Royal’s tour of The Habit of Art, the play about Auden and Britten which did well last year and was due to be revived for a festival in New York, has had to be cancelled. I write to the cast apologising and saying that one person who would not be washing his hands every five minutes is W.H. Auden.
20 March. With Rupert now working from home my life is much easier, as I get regular cups of tea and a lovely hot lunch.
24 March. Photo in the Guardian of a homemade sign at the entrance to Malham village telling or rather entreating the hordes of tourists to go home. In our village twenty miles or so away the car park is full and the place far busier than on a normal Sunday. So far from social distancing some of the visitors practically link arms. Still, it makes a change from brawling over toilet rolls.
26 March. Around six Nick Hytner rings, highly excited. Piers Wenger (controller of BBC drama) has just rung him saying that though current restrictions make mounting any TV programmes difficult, he thinks it may be possible to do a new version of the Talking Heads monologues from 1988. Nick is ringing me (needlessly) for my permission. He comes round later and we thrash out some of the details in a conversation with him standing on the other side of the street.
10 April, Good Friday. We have agreed that the cast and crew in the Talking Heads re-mount should do so for a token fee, with any profits to be given to the NHS. I’m somewhat staggered to find that this amounts to a million pounds, possibly more. It’s no skin off my nose, as I never expected the programmes to be repeated, but the financial sacrifice for some of the cast and crew will not just be notional. Astonishing though it is, it passes without notice.
Good Friday, when this year Pontius Pilate is not the only one washing his hands.
16 April. A card from Tom King with news of the tattoo of me that he had put on his arm (pictured in the Diary published in the LRB of 3 January 2019): ‘The tattoo remains popular, though bizarrely one person thought it was of Henry Kissinger. It also makes for an amusing conversation during intercourse.’ This suggests the intercourse might be less than fervent, my name in itself something of a detumescent.
28 April. The most one can hope from a reader is that he or she should think: ‘Here is somebody who knows what it is like to be me.’ It’s not what E.M. Forster meant by ‘only connect,’ but it’s what I mean.
These days ‘only connect’ means bumping elbows.
7 May. Some time in the afternoon Alex Jennings and Lesley Moors call by and we have a socially distanced chat on the doorstep, me sitting on a stool, Rupert standing behind me. They bring me a birthday present (as yet unopened), having just taken something similar to Nick Hytner, whose birthday is today. Mine is on Saturday and Alex’s the day after, which is perhaps why we all get on so well (all Taureans, some would say). Nick rings later with a progress report on T.H. He is full of praise for the helpfulness of the EastEnders technicians, on the set of which at Elstree the monologues are being filmed.
15 May. I’ve never been that fond of my hands. Now, much washed as we are told, they scarcely bear looking at: shiny, veinous and as transparent as an anatomical illustration. Far from the matt, solid, sensible instruments one has always hankered after. More ‘artistic’, I suppose. An old lady’s hands, lying idle in a lap somewhere.
1 June. Coming to the end of English Pastoral, James Rebanks’s second volume. It’s harder to read than A Shepherd’s Life, with the central section about the onset of factory farming not easy to take. Thankfully, though, in his own life at any rate the tide turns and Rebanks regains his grip on traditional farming and with it offers some hope, without it being ‘fine writing’ as so much pastoral writing is. What it is, though it’s self-serving to say so, is a commentary on the last speech from Forty Years On: ‘Were we closer to the ground as children or is the grass emptier now?’
20 June. When from 1944-45 we lived in Guildford, we often ate (had to eat, the truth of it) in the British Restaurant there. This was a government canteen with pretty basic self-service school dinner type food. As a child, I found eating in public a delicate area, and I was always embarrassed when my parents patronised the place, though it was presumably all they could afford. It didn’t take much to embarrass me, but I was still at primary school, whereas my brother was at Guildford Grammar School, then as now quite a posh school, so with more reason to be self-conscious than me. Guildford was not short on cafés, the nicest (and in no way embarrassing) the Corona down the High Street, with a revolving drum of coffee beans in the window and an intoxicating aroma. Another was the Good Oven, where the scones were a particular favourite. In Leeds there would always have been the dietary supplement of fish and chips, and even in Guildford there were fish and chip shops. But they used oil, not the beef dripping on which we’d been brought up, and to us oil smelled disgusting and was yet another score on which ‘down South’ proved a disappointment.
10 July. Isolation, such as it is, is beginning to rob me of speech. I had to call the optician today to explain how I’d broken the strut of my glasses, and I found myself so much at a loss Rupert had to take over. He didn’t find this at all strange. I do.
17 July. I have watched the recordings of the Talking Heads monologues, but because of social distancing I’ve not been able to attend rehearsals or meet the performers or the directors. I send them thank you notes and good wishes, and today comes a lovely card from Martin Freeman, whom I don’t know, but who is so good about the monologue he did (A Chip in the Sugar) that I want to write back and thank him, thus making it like an extract from A Lady of Letters, a thank you letter for a thank you letter. I’m so pleased with it, I carry Martin’s card about with me in my pocket like a hand warmer.
24 July. A piece in the TLS in which Mary Beard rereads and reassesses Fergus Millar’s The Emperor in the Roman World (1977). A stocky heavy-headed young man, I used to see him at Oxford seemingly always on his way back from squash. I knew at the time he was formidably clever and from a distance (with me it was always from a distance) fancied him rotten. On reflection, it was partly his name I found so glamorous, but at this age and with him dead I think I’m allowed to say that, though I must have been envious because half a lifetime later I note that when Mary Beard offers some criticism of his hit volume I am not entirely displeased. He looked not unlike the Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd.
3 August. I never thought I’d say it, but I wish we had a stair lift (as famously advertised by Thora Hird). I come downstairs in the morning and don’t go back until I go up for my bath before supper. All this has happened since I had to give up using my bike. Stairs are painful and slow, my bones audibly grinding, with my right leg and ankle worse than my left. I’m not sure if exercise makes it better or worse, though I can only just make it round the block every evening. We won’t ever get a stair lift for aesthetic reasons, but how long I will be able to continue walking is an open question and a pressing one.
4 August. Rupert goes upstairs to do his Pilates on Zoom. His teacher is round the corner, but she is currently with her husband in Canada. Still, up he goes in his T-shirt and shorts as it’s quite strenuous, and it makes no difference that she’s on the other side of the world.
13 August. Big rows over A levels. I’m not sure if I would have benefited if my exam results had been based on coursework. I was a good examinee, but not much of a stayer in class. I needed an occasion before I could perform and even put on my suit for A levels (or the Higher School Certificate as it was then). It was the same at university, and I was shown my college’s assessment of me a few years ago (the records are kept in the Bodleian) and pretty ordinary it was. When it came to the test in Final Schools, I managed to suggest I was cleverer than I was and had these untapped resources which only lack of time prevented me from displaying. It was all part of showing off, which I could do right from elementary school.
16 August. Every evening around eight we walk round the block – literally a three-minute walk. What in normal circumstances is one of Rupert’s good habits is to pick up any stray scraps of paper to put them in the bin, and this evening on the corner of Regent’s Park Road he retrieves a bit of paper which turns out to be a (previously used) tissue. He is appalled and we hasten home so that he can bin it and wash his hands. What we have not realised is that it’s Thursday and our progress is hindered by a fusillade of clapping and pan-banging from the neighbours out on their balconies in celebration of the NHS. Rupert can clap (even with the noxious tissue), but I can’t as I need to hold onto my walking stick. It also appears that, with me walking in the road, I appear to be acknowledging the applause and even generating it. I try to disavow this by feebly smiling and shaking my head, but this just looks like modesty. It’s an absurd and inexplicable incident.
8 September. One phone call today, a woman inquiring if I’ve made arrangements for my funeral yet. At least it isn’t a recorded voice.
14 September, Yorkshire. The big sadness today is finding that Jane’s second-hand bookshop just off Settle Market Place has closed, and not for the duration of Covid but for good. It was a lovely shop full of unexpected treasures and absurdly cheap. Jane M., whose shop it was, was a friend to the lonely and the eccentric, being herself very devout, though the main influence this had on her stock was the size of the theology section. Some books she wouldn’t stock. I once asked her to look out for me any copy of Moby-Dick, only to find it was on her blacklist due to its subject. There were exotic finds: a privately printed edition of The Unquiet Grave, for instance, though nothing quite so unexpected as a presentation copy of some art book signed by Anthony Blunt that turned up round the corner in Age Concern.
15 September. Much missed these shameful days is Tom Bingham, the ex-lord chief justice and legal philosopher, who would have had Johnson scuttling for cover. Both from Balliol, one a credit to the college, the other not. I don’t relish the dilemma of the fellows of Balliol when they are called on to dole out the prime minister’s honorary fellowship. At least when it comes to his honorary degree from the university there is a precedent for a refusal, as that was one of the few slights which pierced Mrs Thatcher’s hide.
20 September. Sent by her biographer, Jasper Rees: a letter I wrote to Victoria Wood turning down a part in her comedy series. ‘I can’t face playing any more men with dusters. I don’t mean I want to play Burt Reynolds parts, only somewhere between him and Richard Wattis, say – those are the parameters.’
She was a great woman, her performance of ‘Let’s Do It’ at the Albert Hall the stuff of legend. I just hope Noël Coward was still around to see it. I first met her, almost epically, in Sainsbury’s in Lancaster at the avocado counter. Her Dinnerladies was often sentimental, but she caught in the part of the handyman, played by Duncan Preston, the idiom of an old-fashioned working-class man, elaborate, literate and language-loving, which is, or was, more typical of the North than the more clichéd dialect-rich versions.
25 September. ‘I am not going to affect the livery of the time’s prudery’ (R.S. Thomas).
3 October. Reading a piece on universities in the TLS brings back Richard Pares, whose last course of lectures I went to at Oxford in 1957. He was plainly dying, lecturing from a wheelchair and barely audible, with another don turning over the pages of his text. The subject would have been topical today, the influence of the sugar interest on English politics, not recounted then as it would be now in a humanitarian anti-slavery tone, but purely factually and without reproof. I did not know this at the time, but Pares had had something of a Damascene conversion, having been as an undergraduate one of the circle around Evelyn Waugh, before turning his back on frivolity for academic life. But the spectacle – and it was a spectacle – of someone giving his last breath to the study of history taught me more than any of the tutorials and lectures that I had had at Oxford, and which in the last term before Schools were about to come to an end.
9 October. Around ten this morning the doorbell goes just when I’m in the passage – often these days I don’t get there in time. It’s an out of work boy, not with the characteristic bag, but just himself. He keeps well back, as I do, but immediately embarks on his spiel, that he’s from Middlesbrough and on an employment scheme and do I want anything in the way of dusters or dishcloths. Such callers are familiar, or were until lockdown, and we’ve long been over-supplied. I generally get away with contributing a pound or two, though this is not easy as it provokes another spiel about him not wanting charity and that he is actually selling something – goods need to change hands. But, finding someone on my doorstep who is sharing my airspace, and with coins themselves agents of infection, I don’t even attempt to buy him off and hear myself saying (absurdly), ‘I’m sorry but we have the virus,’ a lie which the boy meekly accepts, turning away before I even get the door closed. It’s his abject acceptance that stays with me, this not the first rejection he will have had this morning, though maybe none so specific.
22 October. I don’t always understand the poems in the LRB, or new poems generally, and what catches my eye in the poem ‘John’s and Sam’s’ by Steve Ely is not the poem itself but its footnote, explaining that John and Samuel Smith’s breweries are located on the River Wharfe near Tadcaster, upstream from the former eel fishery of Ulleskelf. It’s Ulleskelf I recognise. I know Ulleskelf or did. I have been fishing there. It was a long time ago, nearly eighty years in fact, but the boredom of the experience is fresh as ever.
My father took no interest in sport. Living at one point a stone’s throw from Headingley cricket ground Dad never encouraged my brother or me to go to a match and never ventured there himself. Sport apart, though, Dad was subject to crazes. A butcher for the Co-op, with Sunday his only day off, he would indulge in various pastimes. There was fretwork, when he perched by the fire at his little Hobbies fretwork machine, turning out toys which he sold for a few much needed pounds down County Arcade in Leeds. There was homemade herb beer, non-alcoholic but highly explosive, which regularly demolished the scullery. Above all, there was the violin, which it’s unfair to call a craze, as he was self-taught and played well all his life. And then, hopelessly, there was Bullets, a literary competition in the weekly John Bull, at which he never won a penny. And briefly there was fishing.
Fishing is generally thought of as a solitary pursuit. It is one of its attractions. But not in the Bennett family. If Dad was going fishing we all had to go, my brother and me and (in a brief interruption to her own craze of lampshade-making) my mother. On Sundays we often went hiking, though we never called it that, and it was far from plain from the way we were dressed: my brother and me in our school caps, Mam in her swagger coat and Dad in his ‘other suit’ – i.e. not the one with his greasy shop trousers. We never joined in, got the gear, looked the part, and so it was with fishing.
Even so, we had no choice but to join with what nowadays would be called ‘the fishing community’ and catch the fishing train from Leeds City Station first thing on Sunday morning. Like all trains during the war – this was 1941 – it was packed, my brother remembering him and me being pulled aboard while the train was still sliding into the platform. Among the seasoned (and seasonably clad) fishermen the Bennett family must have stood out, Mam especially, as there were very few female fishers. She was particularly unhappy, my brother remembers, because with the luggage racks crammed with fishing tackle, maggots drizzled down on the anglers’ indifferent heads.
Our Sunday outings weren’t purely scenic. In summer we picked bilberries on Ilkley Moor, in the autumn blackberries at East Keswick, and very occasionally (and more gingerly) mushrooms. In theory, fishing could have been added to this productive list, but not the way Dad did it and certainly not at his chosen location at Ulleskelf.
The Wharfe is a pretty river and in its upper reaches – at Burnsall, say, or Bolton Abbey – spectacularly so. Lower down, though, south of Harewood in the flat lands of East Yorkshire, it drifts between muddy banks and rhubarb fields and is a pretty dismal waterway. But then so is Leeds’s local river, the Aire. No fish there either, but at least there was Kirkstall Abbey. At Ulleskelf there was nothing, and on the rare occasions when Dad managed to cast his line as far as the middle of the river his bait was spurned by the few fish which infested its murky depths. On the three or four trips we made there was never a solitary bite. Meanwhile, Mam sat glumly by with her Woman’s Own while my brother and I read our comics, the float never twitching. Steve Ely’s poem, or its footnote, talks of an eel fishery at Ulleskelf, but we knew nothing of this, and had Mam known that we were likely to run into one of these mysterious and dirty creatures that would have put paid to fishing straight off.
Though the train was always packed, I don’t remember seeing any other fishermen by the river. Perhaps Dad was fishing in the wrong place and was too shy to ask. But these few visits were enough to stamp this patch of South Yorkshire as almost uniquely dismal. It has its historical connections. Towton, the decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses, is not far away and a few years later at school I would learn that Cawood Castle (now owned by the Landmark Trust) was where Cardinal Wolsey was staying before he was taken back to London, disgrace and death.
8 November. Watch the slimmed down service from the Cenotaph, with HMQ keeping a beady eye on the revamped choreography. I am distracted, though, just as the ceremony is starting, when Rupert sees a fox in the garden. It’s a tiny garden, and has walls without that making it a walled garden, but with no obvious means of access for foxes. Fast asleep, the only sign of life the occasional twitching of an ear. Maybe it’s the distant gun salute that wakes her (I think it’s a vixen), but she reveals herself as plump and well-fed, possibly pregnant. She hangs around for a bit, shoving her white nose through the trellis on top of the wall before disappearing next door. Meanwhile the wreath-laying has started, which I’m always impressed by. In the unlikely event of my being asked to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph I’d have to decline, if only because I couldn’t walk the few steps backwards it requires. Not the least of the queen’s achievements is that she can still do this in her nineties.
26 November. A new biography of Graham Greene: not read, like, I have to confess, most of his work. I’ve been put off by the Catholicism showing through and his frequent ‘rare’ interviews. A darling of the Sunday papers in the 1960s, he was always said to be retiring while in fact being avid for publicity. Any misgivings I had were confirmed the only time I met him, in 1977. I had a play running in the West End, The Old Country, with Alec Guinness. Wordy I think it now and thin on plot, it was an account of a Foreign Office defector, now living in Soviet Russia, who is being tempted home, possibly to face the music. It had good reviews, though journalists, and even some critics, persisted in taking Hilary, the spy, to represent or be based on Kim Philby. This had never been my intention, with Auden more the model and exile the subject, though the misconception doubtless did the box office no harm.
In the course of the run, various luminaries came round after the show to see A.G., with him telling me to come myself one night as Graham Greene would be in the audience. I duly turned up, but remember little of the conversation (there wasn’t much conversation to remember), my abiding memory only that Greene’s was the limpest hand I’d ever shaken. Nor did he say a word about the play, for or against. It may be that as a friend and persistent advocate of Philby’s, he had like some of the newspapers misidentified Alec as Philby. Whatever it was, I thought it a graceless performance. However, a few nights later, another visitor wiped away the memory. This was Coral Browne, funny, gossipy, and who had even liked the play, relating it to her own experiences in Moscow, where she had met Guy Burgess, and giving me, ready plotted, another play in An Englishman Abroad.
1 December. A card from a friend, Paul Fincham, drawing my attention to a passage in Kilvert’s Diary (which I thought I’d read).
New Year’s Day 1882. I went to London by the midday mail. Reached 23 Gloucester Crescent at 3 o’clock. Katie ran down to open the door – prettier than ever. The Monk was gracious and he came forward with a smile and an embrace. The baby Mary is charming – blue eyes and fat rosy cheeks, quite a Wyndowe. She will be very pretty.
With its innocent delight in little girls – these were Kilvert’s nieces – it’s a characteristic passage from the young Victorian clergyman’s diaries. But unless the street numbers have changed, 23 Gloucester Crescent is my sometime house, and the home too of the Lady in the Van, who wouldn’t have liked the children at all.
Mark Bostridge tells me that Kilvert must have been visiting his younger sister Emily (Wyndowe) and her family. It’s nice to think that Kilvert once called at the house. He joins a list of visitors that includes
To which can now be added the name of the Reverend Francis Kilvert.
9 December. I’m sorry that this year’s diary dwells so much on my physical incapacity. Farewell to the bike has to some extent meant farewell to the health that went with it, and my life is increasingly medicated. I am blessed in my passage through the therapeutic jungle by Louise, who’s an ideal pharmacist, cheerful, funny and unbegrudging. It’s a busy pharmacy in Camden Town, with its quota of recovering addicts and ancients like myself, to whom Louise dispenses not merely medicaments but much needed good cheer. I’m happy to acknowledge the part she plays in my wellbeing. I must cost the NHS a fortune, and I’m glad that through Talking Heads we were able to repay some of that, if only a little. Johnson never fails to call it ‘our NHS’, though this offers no assurance that he won’t sell it out, but one hopes that now he’s lost his chum across the water there may be less of that.
15 December. There were those in 1914 who believed that war was just what was needed – as a cleanser and a salutary shock. England would be the better for it. As we wait for the result of the final Brexit talks, the heirs of these fools are still with us.
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