What I did in 1998

Alan Bennett

10 January. Listen to a tape Ariel Crittall has made about her life at the request of the Imperial War Museum. She remembers meeting Unity and Diana Mitford off the train in Munich on the morning of the Night of the Long Knives and Diana saying: ‘What bliss. The first time I’ve been on a train without a nanny or a husband!’

Ariel’s language is a joy. About meeting Hitler she remarks: I was pregnant at the time so I wasn’t feeling very … brisk. Hitler said, “I only have four words in a foreign language,” the four words being: “Vous êtes mon prisonnier.” ’

24 January. Note the hairstyle of two of the Catholic boys carrying the coffin of their father or their brother, murdered by the UVF in an effort to disrupt the talks. The hair is cut short at the front but selected locks are left a little longer to dangle over the forehead in an attenuated fringe. Somehow to see them both with these carefully considered haircuts makes the scene even more touching.

6 February. I am reading a history of the Yorkshire Dales by Robert White, one of a series, Landscape through Time, published by English Heritage. During the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the land enclosed was added to existing farms, but in 1809 John Hulton used the land allotted to him from the enclosure of Marske Moor in Swaledale to create a new farm, Cordilleras. The farm and most of the fields round about were named after places in South America, Valparaiso, Cotopaxi, Sierra Pedragosa and so on. Today the farm, with its echoes of the pampas, has been swallowed up by the Ministry of Defence’s Training Area and so is now the playground of those upright and blameless young men recently corrupted by the shameless women of Catterick.

15 February. The train from Leeds comes to a halt somewhere outside Wakefield, where it waits for ten minutes. Then, when we have got going again, there is a crash from the front of the train as if something colossal has fallen over. At Doncaster it is announced that the first delay was on account of a family sitting on the line trying to commit suicide, and then, in an unrelated incident, some youths had hurled a brick through one of the windows. The window is replaced and so is the driver, who is presumably shocked (or ‘in shock’ as we are supposed to say).

On the train is a judge whom I know slightly from fifty years ago when we both used to do our homework in the City Reference Library. When the announcement is made about the attempted family suicide and the hooliganism that follows I notice that he does not even raise his eyes from his papers, behaviour of this nature being presumably what his job has led him to expect.

Yorkshire, 15 March. Having seen there was a Bronze Age stone circle (more accurately the remains of a barrow) at Yockenthwaite I look at the map and see what I take to be a narrow and presumably little-used road over from Hawes. It’s a spectacular day with deep snowdrifts still on the tops where we stop to look at the Roman road snaking over Cam Fell and down to Bainbridge. Then through Oughtershaw and along Langstrothdale by what is called Oughtershaw Beck but is in fact the Wharfe, both the Wharfe and the Ribble rising in these hills, one flowing south, the other west. The stone circle is small and hard to find and the search is made harder because all down the beck cars are parked on the verge and the supposedly unfrequented road up the valley very busy. I had forgotten, but it’s always been like this in the Wharfe Valley from Otley and Ilkley northward, no stretch of it remote or unvisited – Bolton Abbey, Burnsall, Kettlewell, Buckden, nowhere now too desolate or far-flung. So we go on down to Hubberholme to look at the rood loft, one of only two remaining in Yorkshire (the other at Flamborough). And it is a loft proper, not just a screen with a top on it, three feet or so wide and with a slatted floor as if it might be a loft for hay, the screen and loft having been brought over the tops from Coverham Abbey after the Dissolution. As we’re looking round two women come in and what interests them isn’t the rood loft or the pews carved and dated 1641. They are on the trail of Thompson, the woodworker of Kilburn who always carved a mouse on his handiwork. Some of the pews are his, done in the Forties or Fifties, so somewhere here will be a mouse and they scuffle along the pews looking for it. Rather a silly quest, I think, condescendingly, though with as much point and pleasure in it as the two of us marvelling at the ancient loft or noting the memorial plaque to J.B. Priestley, whose ashes were scattered in the churchyard.

19 March. All day at Twickenham recording ‘Nights in the Gardens of Spain’ with Penelope Wilton, directed by Tristram Powell. She does it beautifully and Tristram keeps it simple and static, which is exactly right. [Predictably, when it comes to be transmitted it is this monologue, the simplest in form and entirely perfect in execution, which the sad creatures who preview TV programmes generally disparage.]

At lunchtime I walk by the river opposite Eel Pie Island, then sit for a while in the gardens of Orleans House, the octagon by James Gibbs c.1720, and all that remains of the house lived and entertained in by Caroline of Ansbach. The garden has some tall trees, the upper branches of which are alive with bright green and yellow birds which twitter like hawks. I look them up when I come back and decide, rather doubtfully, that they must have been golden orioles. However Kate M. tells me that they were probably parakeets, which are spreading rapidly in London (a large colony at Sunbury apparently) and may one day oust the pigeons.

Yorkshire, 29 March. The conductor on the GNER train to Leeds is now styled Customer Operations Leader and announces himself as such, though (and it’s to his credit) he stumbles several times when he has to broadcast this absurdity.

4 April. Asked to read The Good Companions for a possible production I find I can only get as far as the end of Act I. It’s interesting, though, in that it’s Priestley on one of his favourite themes, that of escape and escape from the North particularly.

Act I, Scene I ends like this:

Leonard: Where yer going?

Oakroyd (at door): Down south.

Exit to triumphant music from the gramophone.

And earlier:

Oakroyd: I’d like to go down south again. I’d like to have a look at … oh well … Bristol. I’d like to see … yer know … some of them places … Bedfordshire.

Oglethorpe: I nivver heard tell much o’that place; is there owt special i’ Bedfordshire?

Oakroyd: I don’t know but it’s summat to see.

Which was my attitude exactly when I was 16. And my father’s in 1944 when the family upped sticks and migrated disastrously from Leeds to Guildford for a year. In the end Oakroyd goes off to Canada, between Bedfordshire and Canada there not being much to choose.

Easter Monday. Watch two programmes on Noël Coward, wishing now I’d agreed to be interviewed for them. I’d said no on the grounds that my acquaintance with him was too slight, but Wesker appears whose connection was even slighter. I saw Coward first in New York in 1962 at one of the regular parties given by Arnold Weissberger, a showbusiness accountant. The party was, as ever, stiff with celebrities, the most glamorous to me being the now slightly faded film stars I had queued as a boy to see at the Picturedrome on Wortley Road. Here were Alexis Smith, Eve Arnold, Charles Boyer, and Tarzan’s Jane (and Mia Farrow’s mother) Maureen O’Sullivan. The four of us from Beyond the Fringe had been invited as a unit and Dudley Moore had been prevailed on (may even have volunteered) to play the piano. With Coward in the room this was perhaps foolhardy and having watched him for a while Coward turned away, saying: ‘What a clever young man. He can play on the black notes as well as the white.’

The second time I saw him must have been a few years later at the Mermaid Theatre at a performance of Peter Luke’s play Hadrian VII with Alec McCowen. Then it was his characteristic walk that I noticed: he tripped down the aisle after the designer, Gladys Calthrop, his hands, fingers pressed together, half slipped into his trouser pockets – ‘shucked’ would I think be the word – and gave the impression of someone who moved as neatly and with as much forethought and consideration as he talked.

I actually met Coward for the first time when he came to the penultimate preview of Forty Years On, where he bolstered the confidence of the still uncertain John Gielgud. Later in the run he took me out to supper with Cole Lesley and Graham Payn to the Savoy, where we had sausages and mash. Alas, I have no memories of his conversation on either occasion, remembering only how he put me at my ease and seemed much kinder and nicer than I’d been led to expect.

14 April. Watch Grammar School Days (BBC2), a documentary about the eleven-plus and after, with reminiscences by various advertisements for the system, including Kenneth Clarke, David Puttnam and Barry Hines. Listening to their recollections of taking and passing the eleven-plus makes me wonder whether I ever took it at all. I had jumped one or two classes at my primary school so by July 1944 when I left to go to secondary school, I was only ten, my most vivid memory of that time not any examination but that my friend Albert Benson, who was regularly top of the class, wasn’t going on to the high school because he would have to go out to work at the earliest opportunity.

Ironically, of those taking part the one whose experience is closest to mine is Kenneth Clarke. Like me he took exams in his stride and just assumed, as I did, that he would go on to grammar school as a matter of course. The most interesting of the participants is Harry Ognall, now a judge, who is pictured going through the old buildings of the empty (because translated to the outskirts) Leeds Grammar School and remarking that he thinks there is less class distinction at the school than there was in his day. My brief visit to LGS in the Eighties to open their theatre suggested the opposite, with lots of silly public-school flummery (braided gowns, tassels on caps), public school as filtered through the pages of Hotspur and Wizard, the only encouraging feature the number of clever Asian boys, who obviously now rival the Jewish boys as the intellectual élite.

Several of those taking part say, as I would have done, how desperate the lesser grammar schools were to hike themselves up the social scale and be considered public schools. To this end the headmaster of my own school, Leeds Modern, changed the school over from soccer to rugger, pushed more and more boys towards Oxford and Cambridge and even briefly got himself invited to the Headmasters’ Conference. It was all to no purpose as in a few years the school went comprehensive, lost its identity and was merged with the girls’ school next door.

Hard to fit myself into any of the categories represented except (again like Kenneth Clarke) I feel I had a great deal of luck, not least when I was aged eight and went in for the entrance examination to Leeds Grammar School and happily failed. One of the questions was ‘Who was Job?’ This mystified me.

‘Who was Job?’ I came home and asked, not even knowing it was a name and pronouncing it the same as in a job of work. ‘I’ve never heard of Job.’ And a good job I hadn’t.

25 April. Graffiti in the lift at the Middlesex Hospital: Love. Sex. Salt. An Arab, presumably, pining for the desert.

20 May. Listen to a CD of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. It’s a piece I know well, first heard, like most of what I thought of then as ‘good music’, at one of the concerts in Leeds Town Hall 1950-52. By mistake I put on the second disc first, and so hear not the slow introduction but a section of the recitative by the soul of Gerontius on seeing the angel at the start of Part 2.

It is a member of that family of wondrous beings who, ere the world was made, millions of years back, have stood around the Throne of God. I will address him. Mighty one, my Lord, my Guardian Spirit, all hail.

Hearing it unexpectedly I can’t think what it is this reminds me of until Gerontius gets to ‘I will address him,’ and I realise it’s Gilbert and Sullivan, or Gilbert at any rate, the period of Newman’s poem roughly contemporary and the diction every bit as unintentionally arch as Gilbert’s is deliberately. It’s conducted by Barbirolli, the thought of him affecting still: that frail physique, the greasy tail-coat and the style, histrionic but not self-choreographed; and, the concert over, going home in his old raincoat through the fogs of Fifties Manchester.

4 June. In one of the new monologues, Playing Sandwiches, I give the five or six-year-old Samantha studs in her ears, while at the same time thinking that this is a little excessive, because it weights the scales against her mother. This morning in M & S I see a child with ear-rings who cannot be more than two.

20 June. Watch some of Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief on TV, more for Jessie Royce Landis’s performance as Grace Kelly’s mother than for either Grace Kelly or Cary Grant. One scene is now unintentionally funny: Cary Grant, as the reformed cat burglar, invites the Lloyd’s insurance agent (John Williams) to have lunch at his villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Grant’s housekeeper serves a delicious meal, the first course of which is a tart with ham, herbs and eggs. ‘It’s a local speciality,’ says Grant, looking immensely sophisticated. ‘They call it quiche lorraine.’

29 June. A letter from my Italian translator telling me of a wonderful afternoon in Milan ‘spent talking about your work and listening to some of your minologue plays’.

12 July. On this Sunday morning when the fate of Northern Ireland hangs in the balance at Drumcree the Observer gives it one small paragraph on the front page, the rest all to do with the lobbying scandal the Observer is so proud of having unearthed. It’s only after nine whole pages to do with the paper’s ‘exclusive’ that it manages to get its head out of its own arse to start talking about Northern Ireland.

19 July. Watch two good programmes about Henry Moore, one of whose works, a Reclining Figure bought for the city, could still raise a storm of protest in Leeds as late as 1951. Now of course the city is home to the Henry Moore Institute. Moore has no trace, even early on, of what must have been quite a thick Yorkshire accent; he was the son of a Castleford coal-miner after all. The accent could have gone through rubbing shoulders as a young man with the more well-spoken Ben Nicholson, say, or Kenneth Clark. But I would have thought that in the Thirties he needed to get rid of it (or at least knock the edges off it) in order to be taken seriously, whereas thirty years later, in Hockney’s day, a sculptor from a similar background would have been well-advised to keep it. The contrast is most noticeable when one of his early girlfriends is interviewed: she’s a delightful woman, now eighty-odd, called Edna ‘Gin’ Coxon who is still quite definitely Yorkshire and sounds it. She says Moore wanted to go to bed with her but she wouldn’t because she had a boyfriend already and to do it with Moore would have been unfaithful. ‘You shouldn’t do it with two. You can do it with ten but not with two.’

24 July. It’s announced this morning that the three hundred or so soldiers shot for cowardice during the First World War are not to be pardoned, though in a speech later described as ‘deeply felt’ the Armed Forces Minister, Dr Reid, says that their names can now be inscribed on war memorials and that they will be pardoned in our hearts etc. The official reason they cannot be pardoned is that there is now (as there no doubt was then) little evidence as to who were genuinely cowards, poor wretches, and who were innocent and that it would never do to pardon the guilty with the innocent. Why not? If among the three hundred there was one man who was innocent (and there were many more) then his innocence should procure the pardon of them all. Or so Simone Weil would have said. But Simone Weil doesn’t have much clout in the Ministry of Defence, this decision bearing all the marks of over-cautious civil servants whom the Minister has it in his power to disregard. I write to Frank Dobson, my MP, saying, intemperately, that the Minister is more of a coward than many of the men who were executed. [I have not had a reply.]

Yorkshire, 15 August. To Pateley Bridge on a lovely afternoon of flashing sunshine and rushing clouds, the drive over from Settle to Hetton going past the house of Cromwell’s general, Lambert, who ought to have been buried at Malham but as a regicide died in captivity and is buried at Plymouth. Tea in Pateley, then up the hill above the high street to look at Pateley old church, roofless now but restored by English Heritage. It’s a bare interior with a primitive Gothic east window, a tower and plenty of odd doors and openings, which is somehow Scottish and feels like a set for Hamlet.

Then back via Burnsall to look at the Saxon hog-back tombstones in the churchyard. These are a bit of a disappointment, just huge hunks of stone which could be gateposts from the end of any dry-stone wall, and I imagine that is where other similar tombstones have ended up. Much more interesting is the lychgate (restored c.1989): a single broad gate, attached by a bar and chain to an ancient pulley in the thickness of the wall. If you push against the right-hand side of the gate it opens inwards with the left-hand side opening outwards, the pulley then closing the gate. It’s the kind of thing Lutyens would have delighted in and incorporated into one of his country houses.

17 August. Some time this last week a bearded man in a frock strolled through the National Gallery, observed by the warders, though not accosted by them until he reached the room with the Rembrandts. In front of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 he suddenly whips off the frock (the marvels of Velcro) to reveal that he is stark naked with, strapped to his leg, a tube of yellow acrylic. He daubs the beginning of a £ sign on the portrait before he is wrestled to the ground by a warder and a helpful member of the public and bundled away. The police are called, but before they can forbid anything to be touched the conservation department are on the scene, remove the painting and wash off the acrylic while it is still wet: had it dried the process would have been much more complicated. The upshot is that the painting is back on view the next day, Rembrandt doubtless looking even more pissed off than he normally looks in that particular self-portrait.

What interests me about the incident is what happened after the young man had been overpowered – a case of conflicting pruderies as the warders would not want to escort a naked man through the Gallery but at the same time might be reluctant to re-dress a naked (and bearded) man in a frock.

[When the case comes up in the magistrates’ court and the young man is in the dock, he manages, despite being flanked by two policemen, to get naked again and to streak across Parliament Square, generally displaying such a facility in stripping off that it’s hard not to feel that’s where his future lies. He turns out to be from Coventry, which is, of course, a place with some tradition of public nudity.]

Toulouse, 20 August. A new twist in hotel pornography is that the dirty channels are largely, but not completely blocked out by a card announcing that they can be viewed only if paid for by pressing such and such a number, the card allowing an intriguing glimpse of what is going on to be shown round its edges: a man’s leg in this instance, his thrown-up arm, and what might be an armpit or, there again, not. I can imagine a taste so refined that it would find such marginal glimpses more exciting than the whole scene.

Espiessac, 21 August. At ten o’clock this morning we are still trying to get out of Toulouse, driving round and round the new suburbs of Blagnac (one of the streets the avenue Albert Camus: ‘voie sans issue’). Eventually we cut across on virtually empty D roads, stopping for coffee at Beaumont-de-Lomagne, an ordinary enough little town, the size of Otley, say, and with no pretensions at all, though seemingly from a street name the birthplace of Fermat of Theorem fame.

The square is taken up almost entirely by a huge open-timbered market hall which is, I suppose, 17th or 18th century, a vast edifice with a roof like a cathedral. We sit outside the local pool-hall café and watch the comings and goings. Were such a building in Otley and not the Garonne it would be high on the English tourist trail; here, thank goodness, no one bothers. And of course this is Europe and more stained by history than England ever is. These beams will have seen ropes flung over them for hurried hangings in the Terror and the White Terror that followed, and the Occupation and the retribution that followed that, dark shapes swinging among the beams. So it is not like Otley which just nurtured Thomas Chippendale who made chairs. No, we are not a serious people, as how should we be?

Espiessac, 26 August. After years of sniggering English tourists having themselves photographed next to the town sign, the burghers of Condom have at last woken up to the fact that they are sitting on a goldmine. So now, though there is some doubt whether the town has any connection with prophylaxis at all, a Musée des Préservatifs has opened and the decent old-fashioned sepia postcards of this fairly ordinary provincial town have been banished in favour of highly-coloured jokey views: a landscape in which the poplars are green condoms, the clouds white ones; monks have condoms as cowls and even the chaste tower of the 12th-century cathedral has been sheathed in a condom.

None of which would matter much had not some enterprising mayor decided that the town could do other things besides exploiting its eponymous connection, so the decent little square in front of the cathedral now boasts half a dozen gleaming steel flagpoles, with the flags, I suppose, of all condom-using nations. Still, one must be grateful they are flags and not themselves condoms. Worse, there is a ‘water feature’, a pool from which water overflows down a ramp of artificial stone crossed by a shallow steel bridge which tourists are encouraged to think of as an ideal photo opportunity. In due course someone will throw a coin in the pool and all that will start. It’s almost English in its vulgarity.

A propos the cathedral (and French churches in general): I never understand why they are so dull. There are generally no monuments, no ancient clutter, just sickly 19th-century statuary, virulent stained glass and bits of modish ecumenicalism. Why there is no evidence of society in the shape of tombstones, plaques or inscriptions no one seems satisfactorily to explain. I suppose it’s the Revolution but how was it so comprehensive as to leave not even a paving-stone to bear witness to the society it displaced?

31 August. Drive by back roads to Leeds, avoiding the Bank Holiday traffic and stopping en route to look at a church at Broughton near Skipton. The vicar comes over to open the door, a bit dishevelled as he’s just back from a car-boot sale to raise funds to restore the bells so that they can ring in the millennium. At first sight it’s quite a plain church, though with some good 14th and 15th-century woodwork round the family pew of the Tempests, the local gentry who were (and are) Catholic. This helps to explain a tomb cover propped against the wall which is a communal gravestone for those who died in the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Northern rebellion against the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. Mutilated around the same time are two effigies of the Virgin and Child, the head of the Virgin knocked off one, the head of the Child knocked off the other and both found buried outside the north wall sometime in the 19th century. The guidebook implies that burying the statues was a further stage in the iconoclasm which knocked the heads off, but it might equally well have been done out of reverence and to preserve what was left; this neatly exemplifying one of the current controversies in 16th-century historiography: the degree of persistence of Catholic belief after the break with Rome. A leaflet explains how the red sandstone from the tower came from the foundations of the Roman fort in nearby Elslack, some of the stones still blackened from when the Scots attacked the church after Bannockburn in 1314. Near the gate of the churchyard is the tomb of Enoch Hall, who was one of the escort accompanying Napoleon to St Helena and who stayed there ten years before coming home to Broughton to be thirty years the local schoolmaster.

We sit outside listening to the wind streaming through a huge copper beech and talk about this ordinary enough church which has been bound up with great events in the nation’s history: a conventional thought, though one which would have excited me when I was 15 and first took to visiting churches and which excites me still, fifty years later, when I’ve taken to visiting them again.

Then over the deserted moors and down into Keighley, an empty Leeds and the train to King’s Cross.

10 September. Watch some of a programme about Dennis Potter, but the assumptions it makes about the relationship between art and life are so naive and wide-eyed and scarcely above the tabloid level that I don’t persist. It takes Potter at his own self-valuation (always high) when there was a good deal of indifferent stuff which was skated over. One of his best plays, Where Adam Stood, an adaptation of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, is not mentioned, as it seldom is. The programme also interviews some of Potter’s heroines, and once the actors start talking about what they see as the significance of the words they’re required to speak there’s no telling what nonsense comes out, some of it very solemn.

13 September. Wake early on Sunday morning and short of something to read find a copy of the Torrington Diaries: Tours through England 1781-94 of Hon. John Byng, and this passage:

Oh that a critical tourist had minutely described, before the Civil War, the state of the castles, and of the religious remains and of the mode of living of the nobility and gentry, e’er the former were dismantled, the monuments of religion demolish’d; and that the entrance of folly, by high roads, and a general society, had introduced one universal set of manners, of luxury and expence.

There are echoes of Aubrey here but also, in the comments on roads and ‘a general society’, of almost anybody writing about the state of England any time in the last forty years; one just needs to substitute ‘TV’ for ‘a general society’ and it’s a contemporary cliché.

30 September. Finish reading The Guest from the Future by György Dalos, an account of Isaiah Berlin’s visit to Anna Akhmatova in Moscow in November 1945 and its disastrous repercussions on Akhmatova’s career, or, at any rate, on her relations with the authorities. Neither the poet nor the philosopher comes out of it particularly well, though right at the start I have a problem with Akhmatova, who is universally acknowledged as a great poet but whose poetry, of which snatches are printed here, seems in translation commonplace and banal. This is thanks, no doubt, to the shortcomings of the translation, as I remember feeling much the same about Pushkin when I was in the Army on the Russian Course, my rudimentary Russian never sufficient for me to appreciate him in the original. So one has to take the greatness of the poetry on trust, which is what Akhmatova does herself, her conviction of her own greatness another stumbling block. Indeed both she and Berlin take for granted their role at the centre of history, which again is unappealing. What they both lack, Akhmatova in particular, a touch of Kafka.

Had I known about this meeting twenty years ago I might have thought of making it a companion piece (or a pendant, as they say in art history) for An Englishman Abroad, an account of another Moscow visit, though the Berlin-Akhmatova encounter furnishes fewer jokes other than the comic (but portentous) appearance in the courtyard of Akhmatova’s apartment house of the drunken Randolph Churchill.

Run into David Storey in M & S. Never in high spirits, he always cheers me up. Today he is trailing round the store a couple whom he has spotted shoplifting. He often does this apparently, I suppose because he is a novelist, and says the shoplifters’ technique is always the same. Those intending to pinch go into the store, find the security guard and ask the whereabouts of, say, soup or sandwiches. The guard shows them and then, since they have established themselves as bona fide customers, takes no further notice of them. David S. says he has never reported anyone, though, like me, he’s tempted to do so when they shoplift so blatantly as to insult the intelligence of anybody who might be watching.

6 October. I have been reading, courtesy of Keith Thomas, Bare Ruined Choirs, Dom David Knowles’s account of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Four hundred and fifty years after the event I find myself actively depressed by the destruction and vandalism it involved, so when R says to me this morning, ‘You seem a bit low,’ it’s not because my mind has been on Kosovo but on how the King’s Commissioners even grubbed up the floor tiles at Fountains in 1538 in order to sell them off in the chapterhouse as architectural salvage. And like Randolph Churchill reading the Bible and saying, ‘God, isn’t God a shit!’ so have I never quite taken in the full horror of Henry VIII (whom, typically, the English just think of as a joke).

Knowles, of course, is a Catholic historian but he’s hardly propagandist, not bringing out some ironies I would have found hard to resist. Latimer, for instance, one of the Oxford martyrs burned by Mary, was himself present and preached at the much more savage burning of a friar, John Forest, in 1538. I had always thought both Ridley and Latimer saintly figures but Latimer seems to have been pretty coarse-grained and a clown and was lucky to have friends who made sure he had a quicker end than he gave Friar Forest. Conversely there is Thomas More, venerated as a saint but himself a burner and harrier of heretics, though that is not dwelled on by Knowles or, more lately, by P. Ackroyd. So it’s not inappropriate this morning that I sign an appeal by the National Secular Society on behalf of Peter Tatchell, charged under some ecclesiastical nonsense Act of 1860 with indecent behaviour (i.e. demonstrating) in Canterbury Cathedral.

It occurs to me that there is something rollicking about many Protestant divines in the 16th century and which comes from indulging in constant controversy. It’s the same coarsening detectable nowadays when bishops are too much on television.

19 October. Alan Clark and Kenneth Clarke resurrected this lunchtime to comment on the arrest of Pinochet. Both routinely acknowledge Pinochet’s crimes, although Clark A. is careful to refer to them as ‘alleged’, probably because he didn’t actually hear the screams of the tortured himself. Both have that built-in shrug characteristic of Eighties Conservatism, electrodes on the testicles a small price to pay when economic recovery’s at stake. They both talk contemptuously of gesture politics as if Lady Thatcher having tea with the General isn’t gesture politics too, the gesture in question being two fingers to humanity.

1 November. Lord Tebbit writes to the Times saying that homosexuals should be banned from sensitive cabinet posts lest they be in a position to do each other favours. This is taken to be just an eccentricity on the part of the noble lord, though exactly the same argument used to be advanced, and with about as much substance, against Jews. Tebbit, of course, has always gone out of his way to be unsympathetic, the single moment he achieved pathos when he was being dug out of the wreckage of the bombed Brighton hotel in his pyjamas and was weakly trying to shield his balls from the waiting cameras.

By chance I am reading French and Germans, Germans and French, Richard Cobb’s book on France under occupation in the First and Second World Wars and, on the same day as Tebbit’s letter, come across this: ‘Perhaps homosexuals will always welcome some dramatic turn in national fortunes or misfortunes as an opportunity to move in and secure the best jobs.’ Cobb doesn’t offer much evidence for this unexpected statement other than the fondness of the French Right for youth organisations with bare knees. Generally a superb historian (and very readable) Cobb is sometimes a little too pleased with himself for not making moral judgments – torturing for the Milice, for instance, and selling nylons on the black market just different points on the same scale. It’s this reluctance to condemn which makes his assertion of gay opportunism seem so startling. It’s not a subject on which there can be a sensible or a productive argument, but it would be just as true to say that in a crisis homosexuals would welcome some dramatic turn in national fortunes in order to put themselves in positions of great personal danger, and that the late Bunny Rogers, who used the opportunity of a fierce German bombardment to touch up his eye-liner, is just as typical as any knee-fancying collaborator.

6 November. Some Essex police officers convicted of ill-treating (and in one case killing) police dogs. They are said to be likely to lose their jobs, which makes a nice change. Had it been blacks they had been ill-treating (or indeed killing) they would be returned to duty as a matter of course.

17 November. I’m looking forward to a quiet morning’s work when out of the blue [sic] a letter comes from Oxford offering an honorary degree. This distinction is what Larkin called ‘the big one’ and when he got his letter he uncharacteristically bounded up the stairs to tell Monica Jones the good news. I sit looking at mine and wondering about it for most of the morning, wishing I could just say ‘Delighted’ and have done with it. But ever since the establishment of the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Language and Communication I’ve felt disaffected with the University. I’m aware of the arguments about bad money being put to good uses but I still think that Murdoch’s is not a name with which Oxford should have associated itself. So, eventually, I write back saying no and explaining why.

Of course I am aware that writing (and publishing) this may be sneered at as showing off, and that if one does turn something down it’s proper to keep quiet about it. But this refusal isn’t for my own private moral satisfaction: Murdoch is a bully and should be stood up to publicly and so, however puny the gesture, it needs to be in the open.

One disappointment about the proposal is that it comes on ordinary paper. My first contact with Oxford took place nearly fifty years ago when, as a schoolboy, I sent off for the prospectuses of the scholarships and exhibitions given by the various groups of colleges. These were printed on quarto sheets of thick rough-edged paper, rag paper perhaps it was, the texture so fleecy and absorbent it was practically blotting-paper. Peppered with phrases I had never come across like ‘Viva voce’, ‘Pro hac vice’ and ‘Founder’s Kin’, these sheets I took as evidence of the grandeur and antiquity of the institution I was hoping to enter; one could imagine them peeled off the stone and hung up to dry. I wonder this morning when such prospectuses fell into disuse and the University’s correspondence ceased to be conducted in such an antique mode. Certainly today’s letter, apart from its contents, is just like any other.

I wish I could say that this refusal leaves me with a warm feeling of having done the right thing, but not a bit of it. I end up, as so often when I have tried to get it right, feeling I’ve slightly made a fool of myself, so that I wonder whether after more momentous refusals martyrs ever went to their deaths not in the strong confidence of virtue but just feeling that they had somehow muffed it.

Venice, 7 December. The size of the place apart, there’s not much difference between landing at Venice and at JFK. There’s the same grey lagoon with industry on the horizon, the same sparsely inhabited islands of cold brown grass with channels in between and, once you’re out, the same thrill to be had in both places from the first glimpse of the towers of the city.

It’s always said that one should arrive in Venice by boat which, if you come by air, you generally do. But I think rail is best. The first time I came was by train and at night and, not knowing what to expect, was amazed to find that the canals weren’t sequestered in a quarter of their own but were part of the city itself and that, with the water lapping the steps, Venice began right outside the station. And that still astonishes.

Venice, 8 December. I used to feel badly that I didn’t care for the inside of St Mark’s (tatty, no vistas and too much gold) but once written off or regarded as a collection of superior bric-à-brac it’s full of separate pleasures, particularly the floor, though what takes my eye this morning is an intricate little stretch of Gothic arcading in brown and white marble on the right of the steps behind the lectern. I would like to parcel it up and take it home, just as, like so much else in the church, it was presumably parcelled up and brought home here by the Venetians, who plundered it in the first place.

We climb the steps to the outside loggia, empty this cold bright morning. The horses overlooking the Piazza are now replicas, the Greek or Roman originals these days stabled in a room behind. Here they can be seen face on and in close-up as they can seldom have been seen before in their long history. It is as if they are in conversation with each other and, at first glance, it seems from their expressions that two are clearly female, two male. But move round them and the genders shift, so that each animal can be seen to partake of both. The patina is a sumptuous blend of green and gold, the remnants of the harness still hiding the joints in the casting. But they are not much visited now, or not on this particular morning anyway, though they must be the most extraordinary and certainly the most appealing sculptures in Venice.

Venice, 9 December. The Scuola San Giorgio behind the Riva degli Schiavoni is never easy to locate so when we’ve managed to track it down it’s a keener disappointment to find it (and its collection of Carpaccios) closed. A handwritten note on the door promises that it will be open on Wednesday at ten, but today is Wednesday and it’s after 11 and there’s no sign of life, just a handful of disconsolate Carpaccio-lovers hanging about on the Calle Furlani.

I first came across these Carpaccios by accident late one Saturday afternoon in 1970, a couple of hours before my train left. The caretaker was about to lock up and he waited while I put in my 200 lire coin to turn on the light in what seemed on that hurried visit like a dark parish room which just happened to have these extraordinary pictures.

Being a particularly human painter with quite a limited output Carpaccio is an artist, unlike Titian, say, or Veronese, who has fans. His grave, long-nosed elegantly turned-out young persons people a Venice that is still walkable-through today, though the picture here I would most have liked to see again isn’t of Venice at all but of the monks thrown into a panic by the arrival of St Jerome’s lion.

Venice, 10 December. Walking back to the Accademia from the Rialto we come through the Campo Santa Margherita, a long, irregularly shaped space surrounded mostly by two-storey houses. J.G. Links’s Venice for Pleasure directs us to what is reputedly the oldest house in Venice which, except for a marble well-head built into a garden wall, isn’t very interesting. But coming out again into the Campo I realise that this was where we lodged when I first came to Venice in the summer of 1957. I was with Russell Harty and two other undergraduates from my college and we had digs in one of these little low houses. In those days I only needed to shave once or twice a week, the process always painful and never achieved without a cut or two. Shaving one morning I had an accident and was mystified as to what to do. None of us spoke Italian but Russell, always the man of the world, went out into the Campo and bought a large bunch of flowers which he presented to the beaming but baffled landlady while I tried to explain (the phrase not occurring in any of the phrase-books) that I had dropped my styptic pencil down the plughole.

Yorkshire, 27 December. A wet dark day as it has been all through Christmas. Train late into Leeds where we pick up a car and drive out through Garforth and Castleford to Methley. The church (noted from Pevsner) is locked and when we go to the vicarage for the key the woman who answers the door asks me for some identification. When I show her my railcard she glances at it briefly and says, ‘Yes, I thought it was you’ (which isn’t quite what identification means).

The church is well worth the detour, though, crammed with monuments, many of them in the Waterton chantry which has a painted, coffered ceiling and two superb 15th-century alabaster tombs with that of Lord Welles (killed at Towton in 1461) particularly fine – the features (broken nose, big chin, pudding-basin haircut) make it seem a definite portrait, though the church leaflet says not. Waterton’s own tomb is even bolder and more individual but the most striking monument is to a 17th-century Savile and his son and daughter-in-law, done by Maximilian Colt who sculpted Elizabeth I’s monument in Westminster Abbey.

Elsewhere in the church are two faceless reclining figures and, acting as corbels, some huge grotesque stone heads. I don’t take much notice of these but it turns out that these carvings are why the church is famous as they are among the earliest subjects of Henry Moore who, visiting his aunt in Methley as a boy of nine, used to come to the church and draw. Which is a link with Blake whose first experience as an artist was also drawing tombs, in his case in Westminster Abbey when he was apprenticed to a monumental mason.

The church as a whole is fascinating (though rather snubbingly dismissed in Pevsner as ‘over-restored’) and full of curiosities with oddest of all in the vestry a rather watery crucifixion done by Robert Medley, the schoolboy friend of Auden, who first turned him to poetry. I mean to ask the vicar how it got here but when we return the key she is so keen to tell us how, à propos Henry Moore, the church has its own web site that I forget.

It’s dark when we get to the village, where the beck is high, the moon almost full and snow on the tops. We fetch in some logs, light the fire and have cheese on toast.