Diary

Alan Bennett

London. The revival of Forty Years On closes after a five-month run. Houses are good and it has made a decent profit but it now makes way for Charlton Heston in The Caine Mutiny. The classified ad reads: ‘ “The Queen’s Theatre will not have seen the last of this play for many a long day.” Final Week.’

London. The chaplain of Chelmsford Prison has recently died of AIDS, since when maiden ladies of irreproachable morals have been inquiring of their doctors whether they stand to have caught the virus from the communion chalice. I remember having the same problem when I was 17 and a fervent Anglican, though then my fear was only of catching dear old VD. The regular Sunday Eucharist was no great worry as those with whom one shared the cup were of blameless life. The problem arose at the great festivals of Christmas and Easter when the church was thronged with the promiscuous multitude. All too easy to catch something you couldn’t get rid of from such once-or-twice-a-year Christians, particularly at the watchnight service when many of them were half-drunk. I was contemptuous of these opportunistic worshippers who didn’t know the service backwards like I did, never knew when to stand and when to kneel, and when they did kneel, didn’t kneel on their knees but just leaned forward with their head in their hands as if they were on the lav. I didn’t feel the clergy despised them, though, knowing without ever acknowledging it to myself that, like doctors with hypochondriacs, their faint contempt was reserved for regular attenders like me. Mindful of the parable of the lost sheep, they were happy to see the church crowded out and pious aficionados like myself swamped.

London. I am buying daffodils in a shop in Camden High Street. An oldish woman asks for some violets, but they aren’t quite fresh. ‘Never mind,’ she explains, ‘I only want them to throw down a grave.’

Los Angeles. The Pig Film is due to open British Film Week at the LA Film Festival. A limousine which will fetch the director Malcolm Mowbray and myself to the cinema doesn’t arrive. Eventually we are rushed down Hollywood Boulevard in the hotel van, which smells strongly of fish. The opening is at Graumann’s Chinese Theatre. There are search-lights and what appear to be a troop of Horse Guards on duty. Closer inspection reveals that none of the troopers is under sixty. A few passers-by watch the arrival of the celebrities, of which there seem to be only two, Michael Yorke and Michael Caine (who later slags off the film). The audience is not star-studded either and heavily sprinkled with those freaks, autograph-hunters and emotional cripples who haunt the stage-doors of American theatres. A troop of ‘highlanders’ file onto the stage but with trumpets, not bagpipes. They stand about awkwardly for a few minutes, blow a discordant fanfare, then another endless pause before they shuffle off again. The British Ambassador now stands up to introduce the evening, but his microphone doesn’t work, and the audience start barracking. The producer Mark Shivas, Malcolm Mowbray and myself are sitting in different parts of the cinema, and we are to be introduced to the audience. Mark is introduced first, the spotlight locates him and there is scattered applause, then Malcolm similarly. When my turn comes I stand up, but since I am sitting further back than the others the spotlight doesn’t locate me. ‘What’s this guy playing at?’ says someone behind. ‘Sit down, you jerk.’ So I do. The film begins.

New York. K. wants to make a seafood salad, so we go into a fishmonger’s on Bleeker. A young, fat guy sits by the door, an old grey one at the back and, doing all the work, a Puerto Rican.

K.: I want a dozen mussels.

Fat Guy: We don’t sell them by the dozen.

K.: How do you sell them?

Fat Guy: Sell them by the pound.

K.: OK. A pound. (Pause.) How many are there in a pound?

Fat Guy (triumphantly): ’Bout a dozen.

London. Opposite the Libyan Embassy in St James’s Square a woman is photographing the newly-unveiled memorial to WPC Fletcher. Will she show it as one of the slides of her London visit, one wonders. The Beefeaters, the Horse Guards – ‘oh and here’s the memorial to that policewoman who was shot.’

During the miners’ strike we heard nothing of the Lebanon. Now the strike is over the first item on the news is once again the Middle East. Did the Shiite Muslims liaise with Mr Scargill? Was the Christian militia apprised of the efforts of Mr Michael Eaton in that suit with the persistent check? Do murders cease in Beirut because the pickets are out in Bolsover? I suppose to The World at One and the rest of the hyena crew of newsmen this is what’s called ‘a sense of priority’.

London. Money begins to pour in for the victims of the Bradford fire. Cash the poultice: not for the injuries of the victims or the feelings of the bereaved but for the memory of the public. Give now in order to forget. Though there is no denying it helps. The squabbles about the amount of money to be distributed are already beginning: once greed has been reawakened we know that all is well.

A propos the safety measures now required of soccer clubs it is pointed out to Mrs Thatcher that many of them are too poor to afford such outlays. She then expresses surprise that clubs of this kind have survived at all. The same argument could of course be applied to churches. It’s a good job Mrs T isn’t Archbishop of Canterbury, or we would just be left with the cathedrals and a few other ‘viable places of worship’.

London. Writing a review of Auden in Love, I come across Stephen Spender’s story of how Auden made Spender pay for the cigarettes he had bummed off him on Ischia. Spender points out that at other times Auden could be conspicuously generous, on one occasion giving Spender £50 towards a pony for his daughter. This isn’t uncommon. Michael Codron will spend vast sums on entertaining the cast, but resents replacing an actress’s cardigan. If someone stays overnight I count the cost of laundering the sheets but never think about the price of dinner. This kind of inconsistency is enshrined in the language. It’s a mean streak.

London. A bizarre accident in Camden Town. Shooting the lights at the foot of Chalk Farm Road, a fire-engine swerves to avoid a car and plunges straight through the front of a shop. It happens first thing in the morning and no one is hurt – the call turned out to be a hoax. All day the fire-engine has been stuck inside the shop, and so neatly, long ladder and all, with only the rear wheels visible, it’s as if it has been deliberately garaged. Scaffolders toil till dark to shore up the building lest, when the engine is withdrawn, it will fetch the house down with it. Were the shop a newsagent’s or a greengrocer’s it would be bad enough, but the premises in question are those of an extremely select antique shop, which fastidiously confines itself to Art Deco. There are mirrors tinted a faint pink, lamps in frail fluted glass, and ladies holding wide their porcelain skirts. Suddenly in the pearly light of dawn in bursts this red, bullying monster.

I read biographies backwards, beginning with the death. If that takes my fancy I go through the rest. Childhood seldom interests me at all.

Craven. Driving to Giggleswick on the back road, I see a barn owl. It is perched, eponymously, on a barn and at the very tip of the gable, so that at first I take it, stone-coloured and still, to be a finial. I stop the car and gaze up at it, whereupon it doesn’t take flight but edges delicately back out of view. I stop again at the top of High Rigg, the sun low behind Morecambe and the sky full of flying clouds. It’s nine o’clock but they are still haymaking above Eldroth, the newly-mown fields fresh and green. Then down into Giggleswick to a silly supper and a game of Trivial Pursuit. To play Trivial Pursuit with a life like mine could be said to be a form of homeopathy.

London. To supper at the Camden Brasserie. It’s a hot night and the shutters have been folded back so that the room opens directly onto Camden High Street. In France or New York this would excite no comment. In London, or in Camden Town at any rate, it draws the jeers of every passing drunk. Kids on their way to the Emerald Ballroom stop and stare. Jovial blacks. To dine like this in England is somehow to advertise one’s status. Though the restaurant is neither expensive nor exclusive, fold back the shutters and suddenly we are in a ‘let them eat cake’ situation.

Bradford. Filming The Insurance Man. For a few months of his life Kafka managed an asbestos factory. In the script I have written Kafka helps an out-of-work young man to get a job in his factory and so unwittingly seals his death warrant thirty years later. The factory we are using, Holcraft Castings and Forgings Ltd, closed down six months ago. The machinery is intact, the office has been left tidy, the records and files still on the shelves. In the metal locker is a cardigan and three polystyrene takeaway plates. Pasted on the door of the office is a yellowing cyclostyled letter sent round by a Mr Goff, who was awarded the OBE in the 1977 Jubilee Honours: ‘the People who are the Main Prop in any endeavour, many with great skill and ability, can take justifiable Pride and will, I earnestly hope, feel that they will be sharing in the Honour conferred on me.’

Bradford. We film a medical room in a dye-works in Prague in 1910 set up in the empty stockroom of Downs, Coulter and Co, a textile merchants that closed down in 1974. On the wall is an advertising calendar, ‘Textile Town Holidays 1974’, from Charles Walker and Sons, Beta Works, Leeds. Listed are all the vacation variations of Yorkshire and Lancashire, from the largest cities down to the smallest towns, Clayton le Moors, Littleborough, Tottingham, Todmorden, most of the works long gone, one long holiday now. Across the empty carpark is Bradford Cathedral, sandblasted clean in the way city centres are now. Once the city has been murdered what’s left of the body is washed in expiation.

Southport. A sign on the road to this still rather genteel seaside resort reads: ‘You are now entering Southport.’ Someone has added: ‘Eat shit.’ I’ve come here because I am weary of Liverpool. Every Liverpudlian seems a comedian, fitted out with smart answers, ready with the chat and anxious to do his little verbal dance. They are more like Cockneys than Lancashire people, and it gets me down. Six thefts from the unit in the time we are here. Peter the caterer parks his van every night on St George’s Plateau, a well-lit spacious place in the centre of the city. Every night someone tries to break in. At breakfast in the hotel I ask for some brown toast. The waiter, a boy of 16 and as thin as a Cruikshank cartoon, hesitates, then sifts through the basket on the bar and comes back with two pieces of overdone white toast. ‘Are these brown enough?’

Craven. T.R. (‘Tosco’) Fyvel, friend of Orwell, has died. The Telegraph obituary is headed ‘T.R. (Tesco) Fyvel’.

Supper at Warwick and Susan’s. We have fish and chips which W. and I fetch from the shop in Settle market-place. Some local boys come in and there is a bit of chat between them and the fish fryer about whether the kestrel under the counter is for sale. W. takes no notice of this, to me, slightly surprising conversation, and when the youths have gone I edge round to see if I can get a glimpse of this bird, wondering what a cage is doing under the counter and if such conditions amount to cruelty. I see nothing and only when I mention it to W. does he explain Kestrel is now a lager. I imagine the future is going to contain an increasing number of incidents like this, culminating with a man in a white coat saying to one kindly: ‘And now can you tell me the name of the Prime Minister?’

London. My dustbin has been on its last legs for some time and after the binmen have called this morning I find no trace of it. Never having heard of tautology, the binmen have put the dustbin in the dustbin.