Diary

Alan Bennett

January 1989. The Government ‘profoundly rejects’ the report of the inquiry into the Thames TV programme Death on the Rock. ‘Firmly’ one could understand and ‘passionately’ even, but profoundly? Of course what they actually mean is ‘contemptuously’. Or, in Mrs Thatcher’s case, ‘furiously’.

A man rooting in the dustbin opposite stops suddenly and looks at his watch.

24 February. Single Spies has transferred from the National to the Queen’s and is now previewing, though not without incident. Stage hands in West End theatres are used to long runs and find it hard to turn productions round as deftly as they do in repertory. Tonight, as the lights go down at the end of the first scene of ‘A Question of Attribution’, I wait on the sliding truck for the projection screen to rise before the truck carries me upstage in the black-out. However, the screen does not rise and the truck moves inexorably upstage, which means that the screen demolishes everything in its path. I flatten myself on my desk and hear it swish over my head before catching me a heavy blow on the shoulder. Then, in a sequence reminiscent of A Night at the Opera, thirty or so slides flick rapidly through on the wildly swaying screen, a bookshelf collapses and the Buckingham Palace set descends amid the chaos. When eventually I manage to get off, expecting to find myself the hero of the hour for having sat there as the world collapsed about me, I find that nobody realises I’ve been hurt at all. Later I run into Judi Dench, who says that when she was in The Good Companions she caught her foot in the revolve. It was agonising but she carried on, with the result that nobody was much interested in her injury. Finally she took to limping in order to enlist some sympathy, but gave that up when the director, noticing it for the first time, thought it was part of a developing insight into her character and said: ‘Love the limp, darling.’

10 March. A fat woman stops me in Parkway and puts out her hand. ‘The council’s put me in a hotel, me and my three kids. They said they’d send me my books but they haven’t.’ I give her the coins in my pocket and come away thinking: ‘Well, at least she reads. I’d miss my books too, if I were stuck in some hotel.’ It takes me a time to realise that she is not talking about her treasured copies of Anthony Burgess but her social security books.

12 March. Names of the Albanian Football Team.

The Interpreter: Ilir Agolli.

The Manager: Shyqri Rrelli.

The Goalkeeper: Blendi Nallbani.

2 April. Hotel Terminus, Marcel Ophuls’s documentary on Klaus Barbie, includes an account of how Barbie was spirited away to South America, having been recruited by the FBI, and in their comfortable suburban homes various old FBI agents recount the arrangements they made for Barbie some forty years ago. Similar revelations here would be illegal under Douglas Hurd’s new Secrets Bill. But then, of course, we are a decent nation; we don’t do things like that.

16 April. The 98 Liverpool fans crushed to death at Sheffield bring back memories of a similar disaster at Bolton in 1946. We never took a Sunday paper at home but sometimes saw the News of the World when we went down to Grandma’s on a Sunday night, and I think I knew at 11 years old that there was something wrong about the gusto with which the tragic story was written up, and something prurient about the way I gobbled up every word. Today I read very little, and because of being at the theatre see nothing of the live coverage on television. But already the process begins whereby terrible events are broken down and made palatable. They are first covered in a kind of gum, the personal reactions of bystanders, eye-witnesses giving their inadequate testimonials: ‘It was terrible’; ‘I’ll never forget it’; ‘Tragic. Bloody tragic.’ And the wreaths inscribed ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ Then the event begins to be swallowed, broken up into digestible pieces, minced morsels: the reaction of the football authorities is gone into, then the comments of the Police, the verdict of the sports minister and so on, day after day, until by the end of the week it will begin to get boring and the snake will have swallowed the pig. Then there are all the customary components of the scene – the establishment of a memorial fund (always a dubious response) and the bedside visits by the Prime Minister. I find myself thinking, it would be Liverpool, that sentimental, self-dramatising place, and am brought up short by seeing footage of a child brought out dead, women waiting blank-faced at Lime Street, and a father meeting his two sons off the train, his relief turned to anger at the sight of their smiling faces, cuffing and hustling them away from the cameras.

9 May. Miss Shepherd’s funeral is at Our Lady of Hal, the Catholic church round the corner. The service has been slotted into the ten o’clock Mass so that, in addition to a contingent of neighbours, the congregation includes what I take to be regulars: the fat little man in thick glasses and trainers who hobbles along to the church every day from Arlington House; several nuns, among them the 99-year-old sister who was in charge when Miss S. was briefly a novice; a woman in a green straw hat like an upturned plant pot who eats toffees throughout; and another lady who plays the harmonium in tan slacks and a tea-cosy wig. The server, a middle-aged man with white hair, doesn’t wear a surplice, just ordinary clothes with an open-necked shirt, and but for knowing all the sacred drill, might have been roped in from the group on the corner outside The Good Mixer. The priest is a young Irish boy with a big red peasant face and sandy hair and he, too, stripped of his cream-coloured cassock, could be wielding a pneumatic drill in the roadworks outside. I keep thinking about these characters during the terrible service and it reinforces what I have always known: that I could never be a Catholic because I’m such a snob and that the biggest sacrifice Newman made when he turned his back on the C of E was the social one.

Yet kindness abounds. In front of us is a thin old man who knows the service backwards, and seeing we have no prayer-books, he lays down his own on top of his copy of the Sun, goes back up the aisle to fetch us some and hands them round, all the time saying the responses without faltering. The first hymn is Newman’s ‘Lead Kindly Light’, which I try and sing, while making no attempt at the second hymn, which is ‘Kum Ba Ya’. The priest turns out to have a good strong voice, though its tone is more suited to ‘Kum Ba Ya’ than Newman and J.B.Dykes. The service itself is wet and wandering, even more so than the current Anglican equivalent, though occasionally one catches in the watered-down language a distant echo of 1661. Now, though, arrives the bit I dread, the celebration of fellowship, which always reminded me of the warm-up Ned Sherrin insisted on inflicting on the studio audience before Not so much a programme, when everyone had to shake hands with each other. But again the nice man who fetched us the prayer-books shames me when he turns round without any fuss or embarassment and smilingly shakes our hands. Then it is the Mass proper, the priest distributing the wafers to the 99-year-old nun and the lady with the plantpot on her head, as Miss S. lies in her coffin at his elbow. Finally there is another hymn, this one by the (to me) unknown hymnodist Kevin Norton, who’s obviously reworked it from his unsuccessful entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, and with the young priest acting as lead singer and the congregation a rather subdued backing group, Miss Shepherd is carried out.

The neighbours, who are not quite mourners, wait on the pavement outside as the coffin is hoisted onto the hearse.‘A cut above her previous vehicle,’ remarks Colin H.; and comedy persists when the car accompanying the hearse to the cemetery refuses to start. It’s a familiar scene and one which I’ve played many times, with Miss S waiting inside her vehicle as well-wishers lift the bonnet, fetch leads and give it a jump start. Except this time she’s dead.

Only A. and I and Clare, the ex-nurse who lately befriended Miss S., accompany the body, swept over Hampstead Heath at a less than funereal pace, down Bishop’s Avenue and up to the St Pancras Cemetery, green and lush this warm sunny day. We drive beyond the scattered woods to the furthest edge where stand long lines of new gravestones, mostly in black polished granite. Appropriately, in view of her lifelong love of the car, Miss S. is being buried within sight and sound of the North Circular Road, one carriageway the other side of the hedge with juggernauts drowning the words of the priest as he commits the body to the earth. He gives us each a go with his little plastic bottle of holy water, we throw some soil into the grave, and then everybody leaves me to whatever solitary thoughts I might have, which are not many, before we are driven back to Camden Town, life reasserted when the undertaker drops us handily outside Sainsbury’s.

1 June. From time to time middle-aged couples walk past the house arm-in-arm and looking around them with more than ordinary interest, as if this were a foreign town and they were visiting it. There is a house for sale up the street, and having looked round it, they are walking down the street and trying to imagine living here. Today, though, there is a girl weeping by my wall and trying to get into a car. Now her boyfriend comes up, a tall young man in shorts with a muscular face. They get in the car and he puts his arm round her, but she starts to argue, banging her hand on her knee and gesturing with the fingers of the hand open in a way that looks Italian. All he offers her in the way of consolation is his bag of peanuts, which in terms of consolation is peanuts. Still, she takes them, so that’s a good sign. All it needs to end the quarrel is for her to put her hand on his knee, which she does just as my telephone rings. It is K. in New York and I describe the scene to him, how they are now getting out of the car, the quarrel ended and the boy with something of an erection, which he adjusts in his shorts before putting his arm round his girlfriend and walking her back to Camden Lock.

5 July. A middle-aged couple walking along the cliffs in Wales are ‘brutally murdered’. The dead man’s brother, unable to believe it could have happened to them, says: ‘They were perfect parents, church-goers, non-smokers.’

23 July.‘On comedy Ken Dodd has read Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Kant, Malcolm Muggeridge, Stephen Leacock and Freud, though he is always careful not to appear a Clever Clogs’ (the Observer.) Taking a leaf out of Isaiah Berlin’s book, I suppose.

20 August. Stephen Berkoff, who is currently everywhere, is quoted as saying that critics are like worn-out old tarts. If only they were, criticism would be in a better state. In fact, they’re much more like dizzy girls out for the evening, just longing to be fucked and happy to be taken in by any plausible rogue who’ll flatter their silly heads while knowing roughly the whereabouts of their private parts. A cheap thrill is all they want. Worn-out old tarts have at least got past that stage.

22 August. Many drowned in the Thames when, in the early hours of Sunday morning, a dredger runs down a pleasure boat. The circumstances are bad enough – the party in full swing, the huge black dredger tipping the boat on its side before running it down, but this doesn’t stop the reportage from making it worse. ‘Revellers,’ says ITN, ‘were tipped into the freezing waters.’ ‘Left struggling in the icy waters of the Thames’ is another report. It was actually one of the hottest nights of the year and one of the rescued says that the water was warm, only very dirty. One sane girl, whose Italian boyfriend is missing, refuses to give her name to reporters because ‘she doesn’t want to become a news item.’ Undeterred by becoming a news item, Mrs Thatcher, in her capacity as Mother of Her People, circles the spot in a police launch and is filmed bending caringly over a computer screen in the incident-room.

28 September. Watch a TV programme in which it is said that ambulance drivers undergo a high degree of stress and that en route to a call their pulse habitually rises from a normal 60 to 90. Not en route to a call but slumped in my chair, I check my own pulse. It is 82. Note that after a successful round even show jumpers now punch the air. Croquet next.

16 October. Trying to write with a bit more precision this morning and come up with the right word, I remember a machine that used to be in every seaside amusement arcade. A big mirrored drum in a glass case slowly revolved and on it some (not very) desirable objects – cigarettes, lipstick, tins of talcum powder. One slid in a penny that activated a grab which one had to manoeuvre over one’s chosen prize before at the critical moment releasing the grab to grip the object. Except that it never did. Either the grab moved or failed to grip or the drum revolved what one wanted out of reach. That was what happened this morning. The talcum powder, the cigarettes and the lipstick and the world and everything that is the case went on turning, the grab came up with nothing and I wasted my penny.

4 November. More humbug from Lord Hail-sham (à propos the Guildford Four): ‘I cannot see how you can blame the piano if someone strikes the wrong note.’ Then that complacent chuckle. If by piano he means the system of justice, then the metaphor is inaccurate. The ‘wrong note’ (all 15 years of it) was struck by the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service – i.e. part of the workings of the piano. The thing that’s wrong with the judicial system is that at the moment it isn’t a piano. It’s a pianola.

13 December. An article in yesterday’s Independent says that, fanciful though it may seem, it is now pretty well accepted that a deep crease in the ear-lobe indicates a propensity to heart disease. I forget about the article until I am brushing my teeth, then glance out of idle curiosity at my ear lobes, wondering how they could be creased anyway. But mine are, with a definite crease in one and the beginnings of a crease in the other. Of course, as the article says, such creases are quite common and often mean nothing at all, but I go gingerly to bed and today find myself looking at the world in an entirely different light, all the time waiting for the thunderbolt. It could be a punishment for having written a book about Kafka. His ear-lobes were one of the few parts of his body that Kafka was happy with; and indeed I have never had any quibbles about mine – or much interest in them. But now all that has changed. I look at ear-lobes on the Tube; I look at ear-lobes on TV. The Archbishop of Canterbury was on tonight and all I was interested in was his ear-lobes.Which I could see. Now I can’t wait for Mrs Thatcher.

Modern Life. I ring A. and Ben answers. I ask A. why he is not at school. ‘Ben. Why are you not at school?’ ‘Asbestos in the art room.’