Bad John

Alan Bennett

  • A Better Class of Person by John Osborne
    Faber, 285 pp, £7.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 571 11785 6

One of John Osborne’s Thoughts for 1954: ‘The urge to please above all. I don’t have it and can’t achieve it. A small thing but more or less mine own.’ This book does please and has pleased. It is immensely enjoyable, is written with great gusto and Osborne has had better notices for it than for any of his plays since Inadmissible Evidence.

Books are safer than plays, of course, because (unless one is a monk at lunch) reading is a solitary activity. A play is a public event where, all too often these days, for the middle-class playgoer, embarrassment rules, oh dear. Especially where Osborne is concerned. Nor does reading his book carry with it the occupational hazards of seeing his plays, such as finding the redoubtable Lady Redgrave looming over one ready to box one’s ears, as she did to a vociferous member of the audience of A Sense of Detachment. The book as a form is safe, even cosy, and I suspect that critics, who have given Osborne such a consistently hard time for so long, heaved a sigh of relief at this autobiography, since it was something, to quote another John’s spoof of Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘to be read behind closed doors’. Though without necessarily taking Orton’s other piece of advice – namely, to ‘have a good shit while reading it’.

Osborne, like Orton, had a bleak childhood (or would like us to think so). Both had weak chests and both spent a brief period learning shorthand at Clark’s Colleges. There the resemblance ends. At the outset of his career Orton changed his name from John to Joe, lest the public confuse him with Osborne – and tar him with the same brush. For Joe, unlike John, did very much want to please. But do playgoers mind very much if they’re pleased? I never do. Boredom is my Great Terror. ‘All I hope is that the dog hasn’t been sick in the car’ is the epitaph on too many a wearisome evening in the theatre. I have never been bored by Osborne – well, by Bill Maitland a little, but that was meant. I often disagree with his plays but invariably find his tone of voice, however hectoring, much more sympathetic than the rage or the patronising ‘Oh dear, he’s at it again’ he still manages to provoke in an audience. (At Brighton, the stage carpenter used to greet him in mock-despair: ‘Oh blimey, it’s not you again!’) I actually enjoyed the frozen embarrassment of the glittering house that packed the Lyttelton when his Watch it come down opened the National Theatre, and at A Sense of Detachment was told off for laughing too much (or laughing at all) at the catalogue of pornographic films, recited in nun-like tones by the said Lady Redgrave, her title an important ingredient of the audience’s resentment, their fury fuelled by a touch of class.

Osborne thinks those days are past: ‘Most of my work in the theatre has, at some time, lurched head on into the milling tattoo of clanging seats and often quite beefy booing. The sound of baying from dinner-jacketed patrons in the stalls used to be especially sweet. Nowadays one is merely attacked by a storm cloud of pot and BO.’ Another way of saying that the audience is (Gr-rr-r) young.

It’s hard to see who made Osborne a writer. In working-class childhoods the Curtis Brown role generally falls to the mother, but not apparently in this case. A colleague of his mother’s, Cheffie, cast him as a future ‘thousand a year man’. This was in Surrey in the Forties. In much the same class and period in the North aspirations were approximately half this. My mother thought £10 a week the salary of a successful man in the profession she had picked out for me, the unlikely one of ‘gentleman farmer’. Osborne’s mother had no aspirations for him at all: ‘My mother always made it clear to me that my place in the world was unlikely ever to differ from her own.’ Nellie Beatrice was a barmaid, almost an itinerant one she changed her job (and their accommodation) so often – thirty or forty times during the first 17 years of the boy’s life. Flitting flats, changing schools: Osborne’s life was like rep long before he became an actor. The name Nellie Beatrice seems odd. It took me some time to get used to the fact that this was his mother, not his aunt. It is an aunt’s name, and according to him, an aunt was pretty much what she was, unsmiling, given to sulks and Black Looks, not at all the jovial lady smiling, if Osborne is to be believed, an almost unique smile to face page 144. Other people’s mothers are always easier to swallow than one’s own and Nellie Beatrice is funnier than her son will allow. He conned her into going to see him in Hamlet: ‘I’ve seen it before,’ she remarked to her companion. ‘He dies in the end.’ Osborne lovingly records her make-up:

Her lips were a scarlet black sliver, covered in some sticky slime named Tahiti or Tattoo ... She had a cream base called Crème Simone, always covered up with a face powder called Tokalon ... topped off by a kind of knickerbocker glory of rouge, which ... looked like a mixture of blackcurrant juice and brick dust. The final coup was an overgenerous dab of Californian Poppy, known to schoolboys as ‘fleur des dustbins’.

She lives on, Mrs Osborne, ‘hell bent’ on reaching her century.

Osborne’s father, Godfrey, was the more sensitive of the two, living apart from his mother, though why Osborne does not remember (‘I have a vague remembrance of them hitting each other’). A copywriter in an advertising agency, he died of consumption when John was about twelve. I say ‘about’ because dates are quite hard to come by in this book: nowhere, for instance, is Osborne’s date of birth plainly stated. His father came home to die at Christmas 1939:

I was sitting in the kitchen reading ... when I heard my mother scream from the foot of the uncarpeted staircase. I ran to see what was happening and stared up at the landing where my father was standing. He was completely naked with his silver hair and grey, black and red beard. He looked like a naked Christ. ‘Look at him,’ she screamed. ‘Oh, my God, he’s gone blind.’ He stood quite still for a moment and then fell headlong down the stairs on top of us. Between us we carried him upstairs. She was right. He had gone blind.

This gentle wraith had had some literary ambitions, writing short stories, two of which his son submitted as his own work when taking a correspondence course at the British Institute of Fiction Writing Science. The stories were extravagantly praised, but when Osborne started sending in his own work the reaction quickly became ‘reproachful, impatient and eventually ill-used and sorrowful’. It’s a progression he must have got used to since. But if one were to ask (as presumably his multitudinous relatives did and do ask). ‘Who is it Osborne “takes after” ’ or ‘Where does he get his brains from?’ then I imagine it is his father who would take the credit. His father was born on 8 May 1900. And it was on 8 May 1956 that Look back in anger opened at the Royal Court. Osborne notes that it is the one unforgettable feast in his calendar.

I generally assume that childhoods more or less ended with the First World War, halcyon childhoods certainly, and that most of them since have been the ‘forgotten boredom’ of Larkin’s ‘I remember, I remember’. Anyone born after 1930 got the Utility version, childhood according to the Authorised Economy Standard. But Osborne (unexpectedly) seems to have had a childhood of Dickensian richness and oddity, divided between his mother’s relations, ‘the Grove Family Repertory’ based in Fulham, and his father’s, who made up ‘the Tottenham Crowd’. There are relatives and relatives of relatives and Osborne remembers them all, together with their small claims to fame: his grandfather’s Uncle Arthur, ‘said to be a director of Abdulla’ (of ‘cigarettes by’), his grandmother’s sister, ‘Auntie Min’, whose life revolved round milk bottles, her husband, Uncle Harry, with his ferocious cockatoo. His great-great-grandmother, Grandma Ell, was laid out in the front parlour. The undertaker, who doubled as her son, Osborne’s great-uncle Lod (the names!), lifted up the baby John to see his aged forebear lying in her coffin ‘in what seemed unthinkable luxury’. Another uncle threw himself under a tube train en route for the cobblers and a Grandma chucked Marie Lloyd out of the pub she ran, the Duncannon off St Martin’s Lane, with the first lady of the Music Hall screaming: ‘Don’t you fucking well talk to me, dear. I’ve just left your old man after a weekend in Brighton.’ All these, not to mention a strong supporting cast that features a proper quota of nancies and at least one of what in our family used to be referred to as ‘them man-women’. ‘Oh,’ one is tempted to exclaim with the Radlett children, ‘the bliss of being you!’ Or at any rate the bliss of being him now, remembering (and being able to remember) it all. Of course, it wasn’t much fun at the time.

There was no cachet in youth at that time. One was merely a failed adult. I sought the company of people like my grandparents and great aunts and uncles: they were infinitely more interesting. And I was an eager and attentive listener.

I said his childhood was ‘unexpectedly’ rich because to date there’s not much hint of it in his work. He quotes examples from The Entertainer and Hotel in Amsterdam that draw directly on members of his family, but not much of the personnel or atmosphere of his childhood has hitherto found its way into his plays, even on television. Speaking as one who has recycled his only two serviceable aunts so often in dramatic form they’ve long since lost all feature or flavour, I’m sure his restraint is to be commended.

When he does start drawing on his later experience for the plays, it’s nice to find that the relation between Art and Life doesn’t unduly exercise him. In this narrative the real become the fictional almost in mid-sentence. Characters are dragged struggling out of Life, allowed a quick visit to Wardrobe before being shoved breathless onto the stage. And no Brideshead rubbish about ‘I am not I; thou art not he or she; they are not they.’ His first wife, Pamela Lane, becomes Alison at her ironing-board and her hapless parents leap onto the stage with her. She is she. They are they. And he himself makes no bones about coming on as Jimmy Porter, in 1956 anyway. Newspapers won’t believe he’s come on as anything else since.

Much of his childhood was spent in the more rundown bits of suburban Surrey with spells at umpteen schools, where he grew to expect to get beaten up as a matter of course on the first day. He was sent away to school at various times because of his health, the bills being paid by the Benevolent Society that had looked after his father. The account of the cold convalescent home in Dorset where he was sent at the end of 1942 makes grim reading, but for all that he doesn’t come over as ever having been desperately unhappy in the way sensitive boys sent away to school are supposed to be (if they have an eye on art, that is). One has no sense of him looking for affection, though there is a beautiful account of his friendship with a self-assured and decidedly eccentric boy, Mickey Wall.

When he introduced me to his sister, Edna, a nice but slightly irritable 19-year-old, she was bending over the fire grate. ‘This is my sister, Edna,’ he said ... I was prepared to be impressed by her seniority and attractive appearance but not for his comment. ‘Hasn’t she got a big arse,’ he said thoughtfully.

There is something of Richmal Crompton’s William (and his more than slightly irritable sister Ethel) about Mickey Wall, and also of Saki’s Bassington – a boy too self-assured and finished ever to turn into an adult. I’ve no doubt there will be some research student, maybe one of those paid-up, card-carrying members of the London Library that figure on Osborne’s hit list, who will one day sift the plays for evidences of Wall. But on to sex.

Convalescing in Cornwall after an operation for appendicitis, he finds himself alone on a beach. ‘I took off my bathing suit and began to cauterise my appendicitis wound with a stick, rather like a crayon, which I had been given for this purpose. It was six months since my operation but the scar refused to heal and was still partially open with patches of wormy flesh protruding from it.’ The naked Osborne, poking away at his stomach, is espied by a handsome middle-aged man sunbathing in the next cove. He turns out to be a writer and asks him back to his cottage. They drink china tea out of nice cups, listen to a record of Arthur Bliss’s Miracle in the Gorbals and the author, J. Wood Palmer (that initial says it all), suggests Osborne stay the night. At the same time, he cheerfully warns our hero that a bit of the other is quite likely to be on the cards. Exit the author of A Patriot for Me, hot and confused. But the scar, the writer, the nice cups make it all straight out of the last writer one would ever associate with Osborne, Denton Welch.

Mind you, this sort of thing is always happening to him. He’s able to drop his guard temporarily during a brief (and glorious) stint as a reporter on Gas World, not, one imagines, the most epicene of periodicals, but no sooner does he give up journalism than the word goes round and the forces of pederasty are on the qui vive. No rep does he join but at the first read-through the resident Mr Roving Hands is giving him the glad eye. One is even observed fumbling him under a cafe table by a private detective specially hired (in Mine-head!) by his fiancée’s parents. Nothing ever comes of these approaches, despite the assertions of colleagues like Gerald at llfracombe that ‘I didn’t know what I wanted.’ Osborne knew what he wanted all right and he’d been wanting it for years.

‘Sex was the most unobtainable luxury in the winter of our post-war austerity.’ What passed for sex in 1947 was ‘a few snatched pelvic felicities during the quickstep, what I came later to know as a Dry Fuck on the Floor’. For the boy who, at school, did not know what a twat was, opportunity finally knocked in Llandudno, on tour with an actress called Stella. Knocked and knocked and knocked. He was 19, and to read back from Art to Life (A Sense of Detachment again), he ‘could do it nine times in the morning’. And, what is nice, five wives later he still thinks it a very worthwhile activity. ‘If I were to choose a way to die it would be after a drunken fish-eating day, ending up at the end of the Palace Pier ... To shudder one’s last, thrusting, replete gasp between the sheets at four and six o’clock in Brighton would be the most perfect last earthly delight.’ Even this last, putative fuck is due for a matinée performance.

Little mothered but much married, Osborne has a complicated relationship to the opposite sex, pointed up by a happy printer’s error. For his first performance with Stella he had invested in a pair of yellow poplin pyjamas from Simpson’s. Stella, however, jumped the gun ‘and began making love to me with alarming speed but I was still sober and self-conscious enough to insist on going to my own room to get my pymamas.’ Once in his ‘pymamas’, he came back to bed and Stella, and burst into tears. It was some considerable time before he ceased crying, took off the pymamas and got down to the serious business of sexual intercourse.

This is a lovely book. It has jokes (‘Handing over the Hoover to my mother was like distributing highly sophisticated nuclear weapons to an underdeveloped African nation’). It is not mellow. And it constantly brings alive that remotest of periods, the recent past.