Diary

Alan Bennett

London, 30 January. A meeting at the Royal Court re Kafka’s Dick, now put off until September. Their next play is an adaptation by Howard Barker of Women beware women, and the production after that The Normal Heart, an American play about Aids. This is referred to at the theatre as ‘Men beware men’.

New York, 14 February. Lunch with S. at the Harvard Club. Grander (or certainly loftier) than any London club at lunchtime, it is as busy as a railroad station. Afterwards we sit in the library. Smack opposite the vast window of this superb room, in which sleep several distinguished Senators, is a cheap clothing store and a neon sign winking ‘Crazy Eddy’s’.

London, 4 March. Read Winnie the Pooh to an audience of children at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn. Many have never been in a theatre before. I battle against the crying of babies and the shouts of toddlers and end up screaming and shouting myself. It is Winnie the Pooh as read by Dr Goebbels.

Yorkshire, 29 March. It is Bank Holiday and the Cave Rescue gets called out to find some students who have gone pot-holing and not come up. A young caver from our village, David Anderson, is one of the rescue team. The water is rising and as he is going down he slips into a narrow gulley. Though he is roped up, the force of the torrent is too much for his companions: as they struggle to pull him out, his light still shining through the water, he drowns. The students are later found unharmed. What the feelings of the rescuers must be when, having lost one of their colleagues, they come upon the students is hard to imagine. Some harsh words spoken, or no words spoken at all more likely, pot-holers being a pretty laconic breed. The boy himself was very shy, blushing if his leg was pulled and cautious to a fault. Putting a TV aerial up on Graham Mort’s cottage roof, he got into a complete safety harness. He is the first cave rescuer ever to have died. Four hundred cavers turn up for his funeral and follow the coffin down the village to the graveyard. It is like a scene from Northern Ireland. The students who were rescued have gone down again today.

London, 8 April. A helicopter crashes near Banbury. The pilot, four children and a woman are killed. An eager reporter on P.M. interviews an eye-witness who describes what happened. ‘But what did it look like?’ persists the reporter. What he means is ‘What did it look like seeing six people burn to death?’

Bruges, 19 April. Drenching rain. Sea Scouts are putting up two wooden stakes near the Fish Market as once upon a time, in this city of cruelties, other more sinister stakes were often erected. Later we pass by; it is still raining and two figures in oilskins have been lashed to the stakes and a Sea Scout waits with a bucket of sponges for anyone wanting to pay for a shot.

The Groeninge is a good small museum with the rooms set on a circular plan so that the final room is next door to the first. They cover the whole span of Flemish painting. In the first room hang the van Eycks and van der Weydens. In the last room the chief exhibit is a large canvas which has been partially cut away to incorporate a bird-cage. The bird-cage contains a live bird and the whole is reflected in a mirror opposite.

London, 1 May. When Denholm Elliott is sent a script he opens it in the middle and reads a few pages. If he likes it, finds the characters interesting, he goes back to the beginning and reads it through. ‘You soon enough decide whether these are the kind of people you want to spend any time with. Reading a play, going into a pub – same thing, old boy.’

Gloucestershire, 25 May. Walking in the bleak, deodorised fields round Blockley, we pass a large modern barn. Barns used commonly to be compared with cathedrals, and this, too, is not unlike a cathedral – but one of the terrible present-day ones at Bristol or Liverpool. The metaphor has kept pace. Of course, to say a barn is like a cathedral is different from saying a cathedral is like a barn.

London, 3 June. The harrying of the hippies continues. Turfed off a farm, they now camp on a disused airfield belonging to the Forestry Commission. The FC protest, saying the convoy will be injurious to wild life, as if – with all those millions of acres of factory firs they’ve planted – they have ever given a toss about wild life. The Chief Constable of Hampshire issues a statement: ‘If only they would return to a conventional way of living there would be no problem.’ It is the cry of the Police the world over. I’m surprised there’s no such thing as an international police conference (perhaps there is). I can see the Hampshire Police and the KGB getting on like a house on fire. Later, on The World at One, the same Chief Constable, a drab accountant-like figure, describes the hippies as ‘rebels’. Nobody queries his use of the word. Meanwhile Mrs T. sets up a special committee of the Cabinet to deal with the problem and the threat to property. No Cabinet Committee to deal with the problem on the other flank, the daily attacks on Asians and the threat to property there. No monitoring of that by the Police.

When Larkin says his childhood was a forgotten boredom, what he means is that he has nothing to write home about.

London, 14 July. First day of shooting a film based on the life of Joe Orton. We begin with the childhood scenes, Thornton Heath standing in for Leicester. The film is announced in Variety. The title Prick up your ears presents a problem as Variety’s cryptic style demands the film be known as Prick. But no. The headline reads: ‘Ears lenses Monday.’

Those best at saying what they mean aren’t always best at meaning what they say.

I am reading Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor, the story of the last days of Haile Selassie. The accounts by the lowliest of the palace officials are the most interesting. Something of Oliver Sacks in the other ‘verbatim’ accounts. It’s not always easy to believe these articulate and over-literary witnesses or to trust that words are not being put into their mouths. The most curious feature of the account are the names: Tenene Work, Asfa Wossen, Teferra Gebrewold. Are they Germanic or Scandinavian? Makonen, Zera Yakob: who would guess these were Africans?

A boy and a girl in Marks and Spencer’s, she punk, he gay. They take the lid off a prawn cocktail, shove their noses in it, sniff, then put it back on the shelf. Marks and Spencer’s now sell freshly-squeezed ruby orange juice. Delicious, it is of course blood orange juice, only the word ‘blood’ is thought to be unmarketable. It will doubtless not be long before the Church of England takes note of this and amends the already much-amended Communion Service, so that the priest, proffering the chalice, will say, not, ‘This is my blood which is shed for thee,’ but, more palatably: ‘This is my ruby liquid.’ And while we’re at it, why not ‘This is the fibre-enriched bread of the New Testament’?

London, 5 August. Neville Smith plays the police inspector in the Orton film. He was an undergraduate at Hull and is unimpressed by the current canonisation of Larkin. He came across him twice. Once, waiting at a bus-stop in torrential rain, Neville edged closer and closer to Larkin, who had an umbrella. Finally the poet spoke: ‘Don’t think you’re going to share my umbrella because you’re not.’ Another time Larkin in his role as librarian collared Neville as he was slipping in with an overdue book: ‘Don’t you know there’s a queue for this book?’ Neville swears the last time it had been taken out was in 1951.

London, 1 September. Krishnamurti has died, I note. I have no idea who Krishnamurti is. In my mind, he’s in the same cupboard as Rabindranath Tagore, Kalil Gibran, the Rig Veda and the turbanned commissionaire of the old Veeraswamy’s Restaurant in Swallow Street. It’s one of those cupboards I keep meaning to clear out but never do. Hearing Krishnamurti has died, I open it a fraction, find it crammed with Tagore and co, shove in Krishnamurti and shut it hurriedly again.

Yorkshire, 24 September. Kafka’s Dick opens at the Royal Court and Richard Eyre rings at noon with the gist of the notices. They are mixed, with only the Standard and the Financial Times wholehearted in its favour. Wardle in the Times strikes his usual ‘Bennett has bitten off more than he can chew’ note, just as he did years ago with Forty Years On. What he means is that I have bitten off more than he can chew. Billington trots out his school essay on Kafka and few of them bother to say that it is a funny evening. I walk in the fields above Austwick looking for mushrooms. Find none. Well, one must take it like a man. Which means that one must take it like a woman – i.e. without complaint.

Ljubljana, 26 September. Here playing a small part in a BBC drama series, an adaptation of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, Yugoslavia standing in for Rumania, Ljubljana for Belgrade. The people here are Slovenians, tall, fine-looking and Roman in their grace and self-assurance. A few (Croats?) are small and fierce and heavily-moustached, and look as if they are taking a day off from herding the goats. ‘Ah, partisans!’ I find myself thinking. There is a good deal of smoking and they kiss as if it had just come off the ration. At the next table in our restaurant tonight, two couples in their late twenties. One couple cock their cigarettes, go into a clinch and kiss long and lingeringly. The meal is on the table, but the other couple wait, watching without impatience or embarrassment as the kiss goes on, the cigarettes burn down and the food gets cold. Through a gateway I see student actors in a garden rehearsing a play. I can’t hear the dialogue and would be no wiser if I could, but it only takes a minute to see that it is Hamlet. A tall young man stands centre-stage watched by an older couple. Two actors come on, have a word with the older couple, then saunter innocently over to the lone figure and chat before scurrying back to report. Hamlet is in jeans and bomber jacket. He looks tiresome, but I can’t tell whether this is because he is a tiresome actor, or because he is playing Hamlet tiresome, or whether, divested of the poetry, tiresome is what Hamlet is.

Grado, 1 October. Two days off from filming and I drive into Italy. Still depressed about Kafka’s Dick, I come by chance on the village of Aquileia. Knowing nothing about the place, I go into the church (a cathedral, as it turns out) and find a huge mosaic floor laid down in the fourth century. To read Kafka is to become aware of coincidence. This is to put it at its mildest. His work prefigures the future, often in ways that are both specific and dreadful. Sometimes, though, these premonitions are less haunted. In my play Kafka is metamorphosed from a tortoise and is also sensitive about the size of his cock. So to find here, by the west door, a mosaic of a cock fighting a tortoise feels not quite an accident. In Aquileia, the guidebook says, they represent a battle between the forces of light and darkness. I buy a postcard of the mosaic and the postcard-seller tells me there is a better example in the crypt. This takes some finding. The tortoise isn’t in the crypt so much as in a crypt beyond the crypt, and even there hidden behind the furthest pillar, just where Kafka would have chosen to be. It seems if not quite a nod then at least a wink, and I drive on in better spirits.