Diary

Alan Bennett

2 January 1990. I seem to be the only Western playwright not personally acquainted with the new President of Czechoslovakia. I envy him, though. What a relief to find oneself Head of State and not to have to write plays – just make history. And no Czechoslovak equivalent of Charles Osborne snapping at your ankles complaining that the history you’re making falls between every possible stool, or some Prague Steven Berkoff snarling that it’s not the kind of history that’s worth making anyway. I wonder whether Havel has lots of uncompleted dissident plays. To put them on now would he somehow inappropriate. Still, he could write a play about it.

Though I like the sound of Havel, I’m put off by the chic of the kind of people who are now flocking to Prague. I suppose revolutions always attract the wrong people. When I was at Oxford in 1956 some smart Balliol undergraduates felt that the Hungarian Uprising would benefit from their presence. They sent round an appeal for funds, pointing out that a contingent was going from Cambridge, so it was important that Oxford should not be unrepresented, history for them simply the Boat Race carried on by other means.

28 February. At the National Theatre to discuss a possible adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, I run into Tony Harrison the poet. He talks about Trackers, the play he has written and is directing about two papyrologists who piece together the fragments of a satyr play and then take on the central roles, cocks and all. It is to open first in a warehouse at Saltaire, near Bradford, and Tony had to meet the local press to tell them something about the play, the issues it discusses and how it relates to subsequent cultural history. The papers came out the next day all more or less saying the same thing: ‘Mucky Play for Bradford’.

17 May. Sitting outside a café in Regent’s Park Road, A. and I see a transvestite striding up the street with a mane of henna’d hair, short skirt and long skinny legs. It’s the legs that give him/her away, scrawny, unfleshed and too nobbly for a girl’s. He/she has also attracted the attention of someone in the snooker hall above the pub and there’s a lot of shouting. Later, as we are getting into the car, Gary, a young man crippled with arthritis, calls out to A. from the snooker hall. She knows him and asks if it was him that was doing the shouting. ‘Yes,’ he says proudly. ‘You shouldn’t.’ ‘Why?’ he asks. ‘Because,’ I put in weakly, ‘it’s a free country.’ ‘No, it isn’t.’ ‘Well you shouldn’t,’ A. says again: ‘I should think about it’ – meaning, I suppose, that if it’s all right to shout at transvestites, next on the list will be cripples with arthritis. This is lost on Gary, who starts to shout at us too. It’s a comic encounter and the liberal dilemma it poses impenetrable. We mustn’t abuse sexual deviants, but must we also be tolerant of the handicapped who do?

28 May. As I am coming out of the house around six o’clock a young man runs past, half-naked and brandishing a hammer. He is in leather trousers and boots and his head is shaved except for a little tuft at the back. He pauses outside No 20, at which point, the man in full view, a police car roars up the street. ‘Oh, so it’s not him they’re looking for’ is my reaction, confirmed when a second car hurtles round the corner, past the man and up the street. The young man has run across the road and hidden in the garden of No 73 as a third police car speeds past. An old man who has been observing the proceedings points a shaking hand at the garden where the young man is hiding, but the police car takes no notice of him either. More police cars arrive until there are seven in all, backed up the street, all full of policemen, not one of whom has yet got out of the car. There is now a lot of high-speed manoeuvring, flashy reversing, zooming and stopping as the rear cars begin to turn round. In the course of this James R. goes over to one of the cars and asks them if they are looking for the man with a hammer, whereupon a policeman leaps from the car, and ignoring the open gate, vaults theatrically over the garden wall, shouting, ‘Here, we want you!’ and the young man is taken away without a struggle.

The presence of seven cars, and at least twenty policemen not one of them with the sense just to walk up the street, makes me feel the young man deserved to get away with it. And hammer or no hammer, I think he wasn’t really a skinhead. Then I realise, absurdly, that what made me think of him as somehow more sensitive, a creature of conviction even, was that little knot of hair at the back.

5 June. R. has won his first ever prize at school. It is for the boy who kept his head in the hole longest while the others threw wet sponges at him.

27 June. To a recording session at the BBC to lay down music tracks for a short film I have written about Proust, 102 Boulevard Haussmann. The Delmé Quartet play extracts from the César Franck String Quartet and the Fauré Piano Quartet, both possible models for the Vinteuil sonata that recurs in A la Recherche. Striking about the musicians is their total absence of self-importance. They play a passage, listen to it back, then give each other notes, and run over sections again. George Fenton, who is co-ordinating the music, also chips in, but he’s a musician. David Hunter, the director, chips in too, but he isn’t a musician, just knows what atmosphere he wants at various points in the film. In the finish, even I chip in just because I know what I like. And the musicians just nod and listen, try out a few bars here and there, then settle down and have another go. Now one could never do this with actors. No actor would tolerate a fellow-performer who ventured to comment on what he or she was doing – comment of that sort coming solely from the director and even then it has to be carefully packaged and seasoned with plenty of love and appreciation. Whereas these players, all of them first-class, seem happy to listen to the views of anyone if it results in them doing a better job.

We are videoing the performance for the benefit of the actors who will play the string quartet in the film, and it transpires that the Quartet have been video’d once before, by the BMA. The readiness of players in a string quartet to absorb criticism from their colleagues has been noted by doctors, and the BMA video was made to be shown to businessmen as a model for them to emulate. Perhaps it should be shown to Mrs Thatcher.

17 July. Supper with Don S. and his wife, Barbara, and with David and Maureen V. They have all recently visited Poland, where they were taken to see the church of the murdered priest Father Popieluszko, which is in the process of being turned into a shrine. Here in the church is the car in which the young priest was driven to his death; here are the clothes he was wearing when he was murdered: and around the walls, as it were the stations of his particular cross, are scenes leading up to the murder. At Christmas the crib is placed in the hoot of the car, the Christ Child curled up in the same position as Fr Popieluszko curled up as he was driven to the reservoir where he was murdered. Day by day, the devout bring in further relics. David V., who began life as a Medieval historian, is excited by all this, as it shows exactly how Medieval cults must have started: the accumulation of relics, the elevation of the martyr’s life to the status of myth, until finally comes the sanctification, as in due course it will come for Father Popieluszko.

Don, who is the son of second-generation Polish immigrants, takes a less detached view, believing that it’s still in the interest of the Church in Poland to foster ignorance and idolatry, and that bigotry will now flourish.

10 August. An invitation from the Vice-Chancellor at Oxford to a fund-raising dinner at Merton. ‘It will he an opportunity,’ he writes, ‘to tell you something about the University’s current achievements.’ Since one of the University’s current achievements is the establishment of the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Communications, I feel disinclined to attend, and write back that if the University thinks it’s appropriate to take Rupert Murdoch’s money perhaps they ought to approach Saddam Hussein to found a chair in Peace Studies.

15 August. To Weston-super-Mare. A young couple get on at Reading, returning from a holiday (and possibly their honeymoon) on the Isle of Wight.

She: We been on a bus, a boat and two trains. The only form of transport we not been on today is a plane.

He: Yeah.

She: Did I tell you that when I went to the toilet this morning there was a pigeon on the windowsill and it was still there when I came out?

Pause.

He: No. You didn’t tell me that.

23 August. Saddam Hussein poses with the children of the hostages on TV, thereby producing outrage in the Foreign Office and Downing Street. ‘Nauseating,’ says Douglas Hurd, and Mrs Thatcher is said to have thrown up her hands in horror. There’s some hypocrisy here. The programme was foolish, the propaganda crude, and Saddam H. an obvious villain, but politicians have always made a beeline for babies. This ‘nauseating obscene exhibition’ (Gerald Kaufman) is only an extension of the ‘caring’ image they all like to project and with about as much truth in it.

5 October. An article in the Independent entitled ‘The Gatecrasher’s Guide to Berlin’: ‘Now is the time to visit Berlin while the shock of the Wall is still evident, consumerism’ – of which the Independent is wholly innocent – ‘has yet to take over and freedom means more than a new microwave oven. Berlin in 1990 is extraordinary; go there before it becomes plain ordinary’ – i.e. before the readers of the Mail gel round to it.

8 October. Rehearsals for The Wind in the Willows begin this week and the cast are having movement classes to teach them how to move like the animals they are representing – rabbits, weasels and so on; and as a first step have been watching videos and nature films. Michael Bryant, who plays Badger, is sceptical about this, as older actors tend to be. However, Jane Gibson, who is teaching them movement, thinks she has made a breakthrough when Michael asks if he can take away the videos and study them at home. He comes back next day and takes her on one side. ‘I’ve been watching these films of badgers and the way they move ... and the thing is they all move exactly like Michael Bryant.’

7 November. I film at a TV studio in Harlesden where Gary Lineker had been filming the previous day. The girls in the crew have still not recovered from the beauty of his thighs. ‘They were so big. And so smooth. You could land a helicopter on them.’

11 November. A young man sets himself on fire during the Two-Minute Silence, and as he lies on the ground burning, shouts: ‘Think about the people today.’ Closer in feeling and in genuine agony to what is being commemorated than anyone else on the parade, he is bundled away to be treated for 60 per cent burns at Roehampton, and nothing more will be heard of him. If Jan Palach had put a match to himself in Whitehall and nut Wenceslas Square, the same would have happened. It’s not called ‘martyrdom’ in England, just ‘going too far’. Still, ‘it is thought that the Royal Party were unaware of the incident,’ and that’s the important thing.

22 November. Phoned by the Guardian in a round-up of what people think of the departure of Mrs T. I say that I’m hopeless at this kind of thing and am simply relieved I shan’t have to think about politics quite so much. They print this fairly uninspired comment but preface it with ‘’oo ’eck’ and systematically drop all my aitches. I suppose I should he grateful they didn’t report me as saying: ‘’Ee ba gum I’m reet glad t’Prime Minister’s tekken her ‘ook.’ Actually now that she’s gone what it does feel like is the week after Christmas.

24 November. In all the welter of comment on the Tory leadership crisis no one seems to have noted how 18th-century it all is. Namier would have found Michael Heseltine a familiar figure: the leader of a group of ‘outs’ numerous enough to have to be taken into the government but who cannot be taken in without the administration being reconstructed. Hence the departure of Mrs T. Of course the difference between politics then and politics now is that in the 18th century there were few issues that really divided the House, leaving members time and energy to squabble over patronage and place. Not yet quite the same, but ‘the structure of politics in the age of Charles III’ may be getting on that way.

28 November. Two young men come down the Bristol train, unshaven and in track suits. Looking up from my book, I wonder vaguely if they’re football hooligans. They knock on the conductor’s door and have a word with him, and when they go back up the train I notice one of them is carrying a policeman’s helmet. All is explained when the conductor announces over the tannoy that there are two policemen on the train, doing a 24-hour rail marathon in aid of the Bristol Children’s Hospital, and would we all give generously. There is a general reaching into pockets, but as the carriage awaits their return certain questions occur. What if the collectors had not been policemen but students collecting for Amnesty, say, or Action Aid or the Terrence Higgins Trust? Would the conductor have acquiesced so readily in a collection for them? Besides which there’s the other nagging thought that hospitals ought not to have to depend on charity and that by forking out for a hospital fund one is just playing the Government’s game and getting it out of the hole it has dug for itself. But now the policemen have returned and the helmet is under my nose. A pound seems the average gift so I put one in meekly and say nothing.

8 December. Richard Briers tells me how he was going up the steps from the National onto Waterloo Bridge when he was accosted, as one invariably is, by someone sitting on the landing, begging. ‘No, I thought,’ said Richard, ‘not again,’ and walked on. Only then I heard this lugubrious voice say: “Oh. My favourite actor.” So I turned hack and gave him a pound.

That particular pitch is known to be very profitable, partly because of actors and playgoers being more soft-hearted than the general run. The beggars have got themselves so well-organised as to ration the pitch to half an hour apiece on pain of being beaten up. I find it easiest to think of Waterloo Bridge as a toll bridge, and resign myself to paying at least 50p to get across, thus sidestepping any tiresome questions about need or being taken advantage of.

11 December. I am taking A.’s three children to The Wind in the Willows.

Trevor: How long does it go on?

Me: It finishes at ten.

Robin: >Are there any of those things when they let you out for a bit?

Ben: >He means intervals.

Me: Just one.

Robin: Oh. Those are the bits I like best.