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.

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