Alan Bennett’s 2000 Diary

Alan Bennett

5 January. A lorry delivers some stone lintels at No. 61. The driver is a stocky, heavy-shouldered, neatly-coiffed woman of around sixty. While she doesn’t actually do the unloading she humps pallets up and down the lorry and does everything a male (and younger) lorry driver would do, with only a certain doggedness about her actions an indication of her gender. One or two passers-by look twice and a neighbour posting a letter stops to talk – and what enables him to break the ice is that she is a woman doing a man’s job.

8 January. By train to Cambridge on a day of blinding sunshine and bitter cold. We eat our sandwiches on the train, a busy, bucketing electric job that scampers through Shepreth and Foxton and very different from the plodding little steam train I used to take into Cambridge when I was doing National Service. These days, the populousness of the place apart, the big difference is not being able to wander at will, ‘The college is closed to visitors’ always on the gate. By luck we manage to get into Trinity and Trinity Great Court, which R. has never seen and which still seems to me one of the sights of Europe. The chapel is notable chiefly for Roubiliac’s statue of Newton ‘voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone’; Newton a young man and unwigged so that his head seems quite small and (appropriately) apple-like. We buy a luminous blue and white Victorian tile at Gabor Cossa which one of the partners thinks is William de Morgan but isn’t and then cross the road to the Fitzwilliam. I take in a chance selection of pictures, dictated by which happen to be in range of available banquettes, and in particular the Van Dyck portrait of Archbishop Laud. It’s hung beside one of his voluptuous court ladies, compared to which it’s almost a sketch with Laud looking tetchy and impatient, as if resentful of having to spend time on such fripperies. He looks entirely humourless and more administrator than cleric with no hint of the beauty of holiness. But scrappy and almost unfinished it’s a superb character study; why it wasn’t in the recent RA exhibition is hard to understand.

17 January. The Prince of Wales and Mrs Parker-Bowles come to The Lady in the Van. Normally royalty is guaranteed to put a frost on an audience but their presence peps things up and it’s a very good house. This is because, unlike most royal persons, the Prince of Wales actually laughs and loudly too and so gets the audience going. Their arrival at the theatre comes shortly after that of Barry Manilow, who is puzzled to find press and paparazzi abruptly deserting him as they go in pursuit of grander quarry. The Prince is very enthusiastic about the play when he goes round afterwards, though I’d have thought the chances of him persuading his mamma to come are pretty slim. John Gielgud was once telling me about Mrs Simpson and how smart she was. ‘Mind you,’ he said, ‘she’d have made a disastrous queen. Didn’t go to the theatre at all.’

19 January. Alan Bates opens tonight at the Barbican in the RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra. The version put on at Stratford opened with Antony making love to Cleopatra, his head up her skirts. Cunnilingus served cold, as it were, was quite hard for a Stratford audience to take and in the Barbican version has been replaced by what Alan describes as ‘a walk-down in kingly garb’. While this might seem a radical change it is, I suppose, only the difference between coming down and going down, though there’s no doubt which one the audience prefers.

22 January. Take Richard Buckle’s autobiography, The Most Upsetting Woman, out of the London Library in order to refresh my memory of the Diaghilev exhibition in 1954. Buckle had organised it and put it on first at the Edinburgh Festival (a much smarter venue then than it is now) from which it later transferred to London. I must have seen it in my first vacation from Oxford in January 1955 and in memory had put it somewhere north of Oxford Street, Portman Square possibly. In fact it was in Forbes House in Belgrave Square: not knowing London I took Knightsbridge to be Oxford Street. Of the exhibition I recall only the two huge blackamoors at the foot of the staircase in the entrance and the music that was playing throughout (the notion of music in an exhibition then thought quite daring), though I remember, too, coveting some of the portraits and drawings of the Diaghilev troupe and finding the wild colour exciting. The exhibition had been sponsored by the Observer, at that time peopled with fabled beings like Kenneth Tynan, Edward Crankshaw and C.A. Lejeune, a socially and intellectually glamorous world, particularly to Michael Frayn, one of a group of us who went to the exhibition. But, of course, London itself was beginning to seem glamorous then – the Coffee House in Northumberland Avenue, the Soup Kitchen in Chandos Place, films at the Academy on Oxford Street and suppers at Schmidts in Charlotte Street or Romano Santi’s in Soho. No glamour today, I think as I stand at the lights at Wardour Street waiting to cycle up past the Queen’s, though maybe some young man down from Oxford for the weekend finds it as exciting now as I did then, but probably not. Too much going on in the world for that.

31 January. Further to Richard Buckle (family from Warcop in Westmorland). He served in the war in the Scots Guards, a brave if bumbling officer who took part in the gruelling campaign that preceded the capture of Monte Cassino. The rigours of the fighting were mitigated by a ready supply of willing Italian boys and on one occasion Buckle bounced into the mess announcing: ‘I’ve just slept with a cardinal’s nephew!’ Nor was he alone, a brother officer referring to his Military Cross as ‘my new brooch’.

For all that, morale seems to have been impeccable so that I wonder what the senior army officer who has recently resigned because of the tolerance now legally extended to gays in the Armed Forces would make of this passage (referring to Buckle’s scavenging activities on behalf of the mess) taken from the official Scots Guards regimental history: ‘Eggs were not the sole commodity Lieutenant Buckle collected; a brother officer alleged that he “walked over to the German lines in daylight, rummaged at will, and usually returned with old curious books, abstruse and pornographic. One day he came back with a bridal dress which he wore for dinner in the evening.”’

10 February. In one of the many pieces on Austria’s Mr Haider it’s said that he’s ‘wickedly funny’. As wickedly funny, presumably, as the SS guards whose honour and camaraderie he so much admires and who, when a prisoner escaped from a concentration camp and was recaptured, paraded him round the camp with a placard saying: ‘Hurrah! I’m back.’

12 February, Yorkshire. It’s a sad fact but it has to be acknowledged that whatever the sublimity and splendour of our great abbeys (we are visiting Rievaulx), to the droves of often apathetic visitors the monastic life only comes alive when contemplating its toilet arrangements. Not monks stumbling down the night stairs at three in the morning to sing the first office of the day; not the round of prayer and praise unceasing sent heavenwards from altar and cell: what fires the popular imagination is stuff from the reredorter plopping twenty feet into the drains. The soaring buttresses of the Chapel of the Nine Altars at Fountains count for nothing beside what remains of a 15-stall latrine.

The past is also a place of punishment and were there relics of that here they would also entertain, but disappointingly these are cells of the wrong sort. I once heard a child at Chatsworth ask where the torture chambers were.

Another thought occurs apropos the monastic life: what is it about music that encourages the non-performance of its duties? Musicians are notoriously unreliable and think nothing of sending someone else along to take their place. And so it has always been, apparently. Quite early in their history the monks wearied of getting up in the middle of the night and were putting in deputies to sing them the offices.

13 February. The few archaeologists I have come across in life were shy, retiring and mildly eccentric. The archaeologists on television are loud, unprepossessing and extrovert – their loudness and over-enthusiasm to be accounted for, I suppose, by the need to inject some immediacy into a process which, if properly undertaken, is slow, painstaking and, more often than not, dull. Sir Mortimer Wheeler probably started the rot and then there was Glyn Daniel and his bow ties and today it’s Tony Robinson capering about professing huge excitement because of the uncovering of the (entirely predictable) foundations of a Benedictine priory at Coventry. His enthusiasm is anything but infectious and almost reconciles one to the bulldozer. And there’s always a spurious time-limit, thus making it another version of Ground Force, where a transformation has to be wrought in the space of three days. The timetable of the Resurrection would just have suited the programme-makers; the angel appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden was probably Alan Titchmarsh.

17 February. Though she complains about having to put on so much make-up and even more about the bore of taking it all off, Maggie Smith seems to enjoy transforming herself into Miss Shepherd, today showing me her grey mottled legs as if they are a newly completed landscape. She’s particularly pleased with the ulcers she has incorporated into the decorative scheme, displaying them with the relish of a beggar on the streets of Calcutta. In her body-stocking and headband she looks like a downtrodden Beatrice Lillie.

19 February. ‘Police killing was lawful,’ says inquest. What police killing isn’t? I can’t recall any that has been censured and none certainly without the policeman concerned being hurriedly retired on medical grounds. There’s an instance of that in the paper this morning, one of the officers criticised in the Lawrence inquiry off to pastures new with his pension and his hurt feelings. It’s also reported this morning that two of the presumably incriminating rifles used in the Bloody Sunday shootings and supposedly in the safe keeping of the Ministry of Defence have been ‘destroyed’. The mystery on mornings like this is how one can still persist in thinking that this is a decent society whichever government we live under.

20 February, Yorkshire. Via Mallerstang to Kirkby Stephen and Barnard Castle, the tops still veined with snow and in the late afternoon bathed in a rich tawny light, the valleys in shadow with the hills still catching the sun. We have tea at Muker, where we look in the church which is dull and scraped, how dull one can see from an old photograph of the way it was before it was done up in the 19th century – galleried with a three-decker pulpit and looking (as Whitby still does) like some dreamlike marine interior, crooked, barge-boarded, a church out of Alice or Kafka. Now it is subdued to a rigid ecclesiastical geometry – even the 16th-century font recarved and thus deprived of its original design.

22 February. Noel Annan dies and gets good notices. He was one of the models for Duff, the best or certainly the most enjoyable character in The Old Country (1977). I always felt kindly towards him after learning that he would not stay in the same room as Paul Johnson.

15 March. There is generally a beggar sitting outside the back door of M&S (and likely to be one at the front as well). I will sometimes give them my change as I’m coming out, though I’m irritated at being asked for money as I’m padlocking my bike before going in. Today I see the young man who’s begging furtively reading a newspaper and I find myself not giving him anything for that reason. It’s as if, having grudgingly accepted that begging is an occupation, I expect it to be carried out with a proper degree of diligence, and if someone is going to beg half-heartedly I am not willing to contribute. I wish I were one of those people who say, ‘I never give to beggars,’ as it must make life so much simpler. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. When I do it’ll often be out of superstition or wanting a bit of luck; when I don’t it’s because the beggar has a mean face, looks a crook or, as today, because he’s not doing a good job.

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