Alan Bennett’s 2000 Diary
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.
21 March. Read the hitherto unpublished extracts from Sylvia Plath’s diaries without much interest. I hadn’t known about Hughes’s homophobia – though I’m not sure that antipathy to Truman Capote can be so subsumed, Capote really deserving a phobia to himself. As usual I’m repelled by how ‘poetic’ it all is – their fierce quarrels and affections and all the fish, blood and bone of the verse. If there had been jokes, I suppose, the spell might have been broken.
2 April. Remember the device advertised in comics sixty years or so ago and called, I think, a Seebackroscope. It was a small funnel in black Bakelite containing a tilted mirror about the size of a sixpence; this device you were meant to hold to your eye or screw into your eye socket in order to check that you weren’t being followed. It was intended, presumably, as part of the equipment of the schoolboy sleuth (invisible ink similarly) and my brother even sent off for one. When it came we were swiftly disillusioned, the mirror never reflecting anything useful or even in focus. It was a definite stage in that process of discovering that things were never as good as advertisements cracked them up to be.
7 April. After filming An Englishman Abroad Coral Browne gave the extravagant fur coat she wore in the film to the National Theatre, partly for sentimental reasons but partly, too, because times were changing and it was getting almost unwearable. Hoping to be able to use it in their current production the West Yorkshire Playhouse wrote to the NT to see if they could borrow it, only to find it had been disposed of. This was not due to shortage of space (the NT has a large warehouse for costumes) but because it was natural fur and therefore disapproved of. I’d like to have heard Coral herself confronting whichever apparatchik it was that made this decision.
26 April, New York. A middle-aged woman on the bus; a man sitting behind her opens his paper rather noisily and the woman turns round.
Woman: I don’t like your paper in my hair.
Man: I don’t like your hair in my paper.
At this point the bus passes an anti-Castro demonstration on behalf of Elian Gonzalez and an argument breaks out in which the whole bus takes part, the (quite sensible) conclusion being that there wouldn’t have been any fuss at all if it had been his mother claiming the boy not his father.
7 May. I’m coming to the end of Ravelstein, Saul Bellow’s novel supposedly based on his friend and associate Allan Bloom. I’m never entirely comfortable with (and never unaware of) Bellow’s style, which puts an almost treacly patina on the prose – designer prose it is, good, tasteful and self-evidently rich. In this book he writes about the rich too, Ravelstein suddenly a multi-millionaire from the success of his book (Bloom’s original book called The Closing of the American Mind). I’m perhaps behind the times here but I would have thought it unlikely for such a book (even when widely translated) to make its author a multi-millionaire (and certainly not if he or she is with Faber and Faber). Bellow has a good time detailing the evidence for and display of this newly-gotten wealth – a suite at the Crillon in Paris, neck-ties from Hermès, shirts from Turnbull and Asser and a mink throw on the bed. Though Chick, the teller of the tale, is in a more modest way of things, I’m not sure these evidences are volunteered with an eye to their vulgarity, and there is an Ian Fleming-like knowingness about him – the best place to stay, the shop to buy shirts etc. Bellow’s presentation of vulgarity itself vulgar? But maybe I’m missing something here and it’s all part of Bellow’s take on Bloom.
In the past it’s Bellow’s women I’ve found trying, generally heavy-breasted, a touch exotic and very much in control. The woman most closely scrutinised in Ravelstein is rather different. This is Vela, Chick’s Serbian first wife – slim, fastidious and over-discriminating. To viewers of Cheers or Frasier she will not be unfamiliar, as she sounds very like Frasier’s ex-wife, Lilith, and Niles’s ex-wife, Maris.
14 May. A group of women, care-workers or probation officers, white and black, are coming out of the resettlement centre on the corner of Arlington Road. ‘Hello!’ says one to a new arrival whom she kisses. ‘Hello, you motherfucker.’ This is said in such lazy affectionate tones with ‘Hello, you old cunt’ I suppose once the equivalent but these days not permitted.
20 May. Nick Hytner is in the second week of rehearsals of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending at the Donmar. We chat in Maggie Smith’s dressing-room in the interval of The Lady in the Van, Maggie saying that Tennessee Williams had a distinctive laugh and when she was playing Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic she kept hearing him chuckling in the stalls at wholly inappropriate moments, Hedda’s predicament seeming to him a huge joke. Similarly footage of thousands made homeless by typhoons could reduce him to helpless laughter.
21 May. Gielgud dies. Asked to appear on various programmes, including the Nine O’Clock News but say no. Reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, particularly when the bandwagon is a hearse. Some notes:
Despite the umpteen programmes of reminiscence Gielgud did both on radio and television there was always more and I never felt he had been sufficiently debriefed. Anyone of any distinction at all should, on reaching a certain age, be taken away for a weekend at the state’s expense, formally interviewed and stripped of all their recollections.
It was hard to tell if he liked someone, only that he didn’t dislike them. I think I came in the latter category. I went round to see him after Home and he said how much he liked David Storey. ‘He’s the ideal author … never says a word!’
In Chariots of Fire he shared a scene with Lindsay Anderson, both of them playing Cambridge dons. Lindsay was uncharacteristically nervous but having directed John G. in Home felt able to ask his help, saying that if he felt Lindsay was doing too much or had any other tips he was to tell him. Gielgud was appalled: ‘Oh no, no. I can’t do that. I shall be far too busy thinking about myself!’
The last time I saw him was when we were filming an episode of the TV adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time. We were supposedly talking to one another but the speeches were separately recorded and intercut. His speech was haltingly delivered (but then so had mine been) and we did several takes. At the end he was given a round of applause by cast and crew, which I felt had not much to do with the quality of the speech itself so much as his having stayed alive long enough to deliver it. I imagine this kind of thing happened on most of the jobs he did (and he did a good many) in his nineties, and it was probably one of the things he hated about being old as there was inevitably some condescension to the applause. But he would just smile, do his funny snuffle and say that people were awfully kind.
23 May. Watch the Omnibus tribute to John G. in which Oedipus and Forty Years On, which came after it, both go unmentioned, though much is made of Prospero’s Books largely because he took his clothes off in it (not, incidentally, for the first time, as he did so in Bob Guccione’s Caligula; this too goes unmentioned, though more out of kindness, I would have thought). To some extent the omissions simply reflect the material that is available – the programme is archive-led. The BBC did have film of Forty Years On but lost it or wiped it or certainly made no effort to preserve it, though I would have thought that even in 1968 it was plain that any film or tape of Gielgud needed to be set aside. Thirty years and more later, I doubt the situation has improved much and it remains a scandal that a public corporation should still have no foolproof archive system.
Letters from Gielgud were always unmistakable because of the one-in-five slope of his handwriting, the text sliding off the page. I always felt it was slightly unfriendly that I’d never been invited down to Buckinghamshire but then I reread a letter he wrote me after I’d reviewed one of his books and in it I find an open invitation to lunch any time, with telephone number, directions, and how to get from the station. So now, of course, I feel mortified.
31 May. Carnations are an unregarded flower nowadays, on sale at garages and supermarkets, packaged and mass-produced and utterly without scent. A young man, a boy still really, going into Cambridge on Saturday afternoons and fancying myself a bit of a dandy I used to buy a carnation for my buttonhole and it would scent the day – musty, rich and, as I thought, sophisticated. I buy them still in Yorkshire because the garden is over-supplied with lady’s mantle, alchemilla mollis, and in early summer particularly the red of carnations and the sharp fresh green of the alchemilla light up the room.
13 June. At supper Alec Guinness tells a curious story apropos of a BBC documentary on Anthony Eden last night. In prewar days Eden used to see a good deal of the theatre director Glen Byam Shaw and when he was contemplating resignation over Abyssinia in 1938 he sought Byam Shaw’s advice. Byam Shaw said that his advice wasn’t worth having as he knew nothing of politics, but Eden said that wasn’t what he wanted. He needed to know how ordinary people would react: who would know that? Whereupon Byam Shaw took him round to Lord North Street where the impresario Binkie Beaumont lived and they put the question to him. ‘Resign,’ said Binkie promptly. And so he did. Binkie Beaumont as voice of the people sounds odd and indeed alarming and A.G. isn’t always a reliable witness or when he’s been told a story will often get it wrong. But this one is so peculiar as to seem not unlikely.
Whenever I see anyone with a shaven head, a boy particularly, I still think of them as poor, as such boys generally were when I was young. I even thought it of Beckham yesterday, sullenly leaving the pitch in Eindhoven.
17 June, Yorkshire. In the morning I find a bee trapped under a cloth in the house and revive it by giving it a blob of honey into which it sticks its tongue or nozzle or whatever, greedily sucking it up so that it soon gets back its buzz and flies away. Contrast this with the evening when I go out with my salt pot and ruthlessly track down slugs and snails, the awful cocktail of salt and slime now waiting by the garden window to be emptied.
18 June. Halted at Doncaster this evening by an electrical fault we are eventually turned out onto the platform to wait for the next train. It’s a blessing, though, as it’s around seven o’clock and the platform bathed in sunshine still. Fifty years later, and still a sucker for summer evenings, I remember the hours spent waiting on country platforms in 1948 or 1949 when I had a Runabout ticket and went all over the North and East Ridings. The mood persists when we get back on the train so that the landscape seems taken back in time: the fields as plush and waist-deep in corn as they ever were, embankments thick with blossom-laden elders and in the hedgerows even, it seems, elms still – all suspended in the amber evening light.
All this is much better put in John Cheever’s The Wapshot Scandal:
She went to the window to see the twilight, wondering why the last light of day demanded from her similes and resolutions. Why, all the days of her life, had she compared its colours to apples, to the pages of old books, to lighted tents, to sapphires and sere ashes? Why had she always stood up to the evening light as if it could instruct her in decency and courage?
12 July. I don’t hear many sermons nowadays but they don’t seem to have changed much – viz. the Archbishop of Canterbury at yesterday’s service for the Queen Mother: ‘She is someone who can help us to travel that country we call life.’
24 July. The News of the World publishes photographs of dozens of paedophiles whom it labels beasts and wants ‘nailing’. I wonder if in the seminar room of Oxford’s Rupert Murdoch Professor of Communications such tactics are the subject of academic discussion: ‘Naming and Shaming: Rebekah Wade on Circulation Boosting, Its Postures and Proprieties’.
5 August. I saw Alec Guinness two days before he died. Though the papers say he had been ill for some time he had not been seriously incommoded until the last few weeks and had no notion that he was dying. Almost the last thing he said to me as I was going was to ask where I was getting the train.
‘Liss is better. It takes ten minutes off the journey.’
This bending you to his will, gently though he did it, was entirely characteristic and the way he had always been, particularly on the hundreds of occasions he took me out to supper.
‘What are you having?’ he would ask.
‘I thought I’d try the bream.’
‘Oh, the bream? Are you sure?’
‘Yes. I rather fancied some fish.’
‘Sure you don’t want the lamb? It’s very good here.’
‘No, I think I’d prefer the bream.’
‘Would you? Oh.’
He seemed disappointed so I would relent.
‘Oh all right. I’ll have the lamb.’
‘You don’t have to. Have the bream by all means.’
And so we would go on in a ritual with which all his dining companions were familiar: part of a procedure designed to make sure you weren’t just choosing something because it was cheap (this, except at the Connaught, seldom entering my head) or to please him, though pleasing him and endorsing his choice was often the quickest way of terminating the discussion. So on this last occasion I should have said I’d go via Liss but don’t, and this time he is too weak to argue.
His bed has been brought down to the corner of the living-room so that when he lies down, a handkerchief over his head against the sun, he is effectively turning his face to the wall. Still I come away with no notion that this is the last time I shall see him. People keep ringing up to console me. It’s like being consoled for the destruction of a view or the disappearance of a part of the landscape.
8 August. To the Cottesloe in the evening to talk to Humphrey Carpenter about his book That Was Satire That Was and answer questions from the audience. It goes well enough though I feel only slightly less inarticulate than I was in the period we are discussing. At one point Humphrey asks me about the end of satire and what I feel about it now. It’s another question I don’t satisfactorily answer and wake in the night wishing I’d thought to recall my last satirical fling, sometime in the early 1980s at Drury Lane in an Amnesty concert, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, and a sketch I did with John Fortune. Two upper-class figures are comparing notes about sex, one of them picking up lorry drivers (or what he fondly imagines to be lorry drivers) in the lavatories of Notting Hill, the other claiming to have exuberant sex with his wife. The best line comes when the gay one asks, re some straight sexual marathon:
‘How long did it go on?’
‘Well if you include the foreplay and the wind-down afterwards I don’t suppose we had much change from three hours.’
‘Three hours? Good God! You could be in Leeds in that time!’
The audience, which had come expecting to chant the Python parrot sketch, didn’t like all this talk of sex one bit (didn’t like anything, I suspect, that they hadn’t heard 14 times before) and we came off to virtual silence, the other performers, as is usual on such occasions, gathered in the wings to watch, now drawing back from us in a very New York fashion lest our lack of success be somehow infectious. That was the end of satire for me and also, I’m happy to say, the end of appearing in those mammoth charity shows which always turn out over-long, slyly competitive and never the least bit heart-warming.
10 August. Appalling scenes on the Portsmouth housing estate which is conducting a witch hunt against suspected paedophiles and the nation is treated to the spectacle of a tattooed mother with a fag dangling from her lips and a baby in her arms proclaiming how concerned she is for her kiddies.
The joy of being a mob, particularly these days, is that it’s probably the first time the people on this estate have found common cause on anything; it’s ‘the community’ they’ve been told so much about and for the first time in their lives each day seems purposeful and exciting.
11 August. En route for Petersfield and A.G.’s funeral I turn off the A3 to look at Ockham church and eat my sandwich lunch in the churchyard. It’s locked but a rather grand woman who’s working in the churchyard opens it up. It’s the church of William of Ockham and Ockham’s razor (in Latin) is inscribed on mugs for sale at the bookstall. Coming out, I thank the woman and she says I’m lucky because she wouldn’t normally be around but they’ve been having trouble with the myrrh. The church hadn’t seemed to be particularly ritualistic so this puzzles me.
‘The myrrh?’ I say.
‘You mean the incense?’
‘No, no. The myrrh. For the grass. It’s broken down.’
At Petersfield we go down to the church in a people-carrier. It belongs to Sally, Alec’s granddaughter, and probably wouldn’t have suited him at all but it seats everybody nicely, and as it doesn’t look at all funereal none of the waiting photographers takes a second look. The note of ‘Alec wouldn’t like this’ keeps recurring and is perhaps the most vivid way in which he is recalled.
The coffin is borne in and on it a cushion with his decorations. When he was given the CH he thought it unlikely that he’d ever get to wear it, having no tails now that would fit him, and that the only time it might be seen would be on his coffin. This is remembered in the nick of time and it’s disinterred from the bottom of the wardrobe or wherever and pinned to a cushion which Merula, his widow, had embroidered years ago with a flowing tapestry of Walter, A.G.’s favourite dog. Once when A.G. was appearing in the West End Walter was run over by a milk-float and slightly injured. The dog was so loved that this news had to be kept from Alec lest he be unable to take the stage.
The service is simple and being Catholic to me is utterly mysterious, as I never understand how they get the mass over with quite so quickly, Holy Communion in the Anglican service more of a journey. Nowadays there’s the handshake in common which, even though today I know everybody, I still don’t find easy and it’s quite hard to see how someone as fastidious as A.G. managed it all these years; Merula would have been one of his neighbours so perhaps he always sat on the aisle.
At the cemetery I talk to Michael and Henrietta Gough.
Michael: Who’s that woman over there who looks like Eileen Atkins?
Me: Eileen Atkins.
Michael: That would account for it.
The undertaker retrieves Walter’s cushion and the CH from the grave and we go back to the house, which, when it was built c.1950, was in the depths of the country. Now it is within 200 yards of the M3, the roar of which was never absent in this last decade of their lives.
14 August. Listen to the last programme in Charles Wheeler’s Radio 4 series on National Service, a discussion with, among others, Neal Ascherson, Michael Mates and Arnold Wesker. Though my own experiences (basic training in the Infantry, then the Joint Services Russian Course) were hardly typical, I find myself more in agreement with Wesker and indeed Michael Mates than I do with Ascherson. Wesker admits that for all its miseries and boredom he enjoyed himself, as I did, and not merely when I was learning Russian. I enjoyed drill once I’d got used to it, the sense of being part of a group wheeling and counter-wheeling on the square not much different, I imagine, from the joys of the chorus line. Ascherson and also Paul Foot seemed to consider the two years as time wasted but I suspect that part of their impatience can be put down to their having been at public school, Ascherson at Eton, Foot at Shrewsbury. Part of the pleasure I had in National Service was that it represented delayed schooling, and that for the first time in my life I was away from home. No politician would dare suggest it but six months or a year of national service nowadays, provided the time was well-used, would seem to me to do little harm and have many advantages.
There were many bad moments during my two-year conscription, the worst entirely of my own making. En route for breakfast about a week after I began basic training I went for a pee and in the process dropped my knife, fork and spoon in the communal trough. I then had to retrieve them, rinse them off and go in and use them for breakfast. Still, since some of my fellows went on to be killed in Korea this hardly counts as an ordeal. Best were moments of intense lyrical delight I’ve seldom experienced since. South Yorkshire is hardly an area of outstanding natural beauty but having finished reassembling my bren and ordered to take five, a soldier lying in the long grass I would be enraptured.
A biker delivers a letter from the BBC: ‘Alan Bennett? Can I shake your hand? The trouble is I sold all your plays for a gram of speed about five years ago.’
23 August, Espiessac. Sitting in the shade of the cherry tree outside the pigeonnier in a rough, warm wind that snatches at the paper as I write. Over the door is the date 22 mai 1816, a year after Waterloo and the departure of Napoleon, when the farmhouse was supposedly a nunnery.
Packed and waiting for the cab yesterday I catch a Radio 3 repeat of a 1949 broadcast from the Edinburgh Festival of Kathleen Ferrier singing some Brahms songs. It’s preceded by five minutes of her talking about her career, working with Bruno Walter and plans for the future she wasn’t going to have. I’ve never heard her speak before and it’s a voice as careful and considered and indeed tragic as many of the lieder that she sings. Though there’s no trace of the Blackburn telephonist she had been only a few years before, the accent isn’t in any way ‘put on’ – low, sad and yet full of hope, as if the words themselves were lyrics and deserving of the same care in phrasing and pronunciation. When she sings the voice is at the same time austere and yet rich and with none of that unctuousness that some contraltos have. It’s her voice in The Song of the Earth and the Strauss Four Last Songs and Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody that I hear still as their proper tone, with no one else to touch her.
Before she was really famous – it must have been c.1947 – she came to Leeds to sing at Brunswick Chapel. Uncle George made Mam and Dad go with him to hear her, and though they weren’t big ones for singing, they came back full of this young woman they had heard who turned out to be Kathleen Ferrier. What makes music inviolable still for me, and preserves it from the poisonous flippancies of Classic FM, are scenes like that, a Methodist chapel in the slums of Leeds lit up and packed with people on a winter night in 1947 and the voice of Kathleen Ferrier drifting out over the grimy snow.
27 August, Espiessac. Remember as I labour up and down the pool in the late afternoon the old lady in Gstaad who had always wanted a swimming-pool of her own but her husband wouldn’t have it. He then died and having dug one hole for him she dug a much bigger hole for herself and when we called one morning in 1971 she was chugging up and down the pool like a little water beetle, never happier in her life.
28 August, Espiessac. Pick out from this holiday bookcase As They Were, a book of travel pieces by M.F.K. Fisher and read ‘About Looking Alone at a Place’, an account of a winter visit to Arles in 1971. I am shamed by its exactitude of expression and, though the language is simple, her ability to hit on a phrase. She’s like Richard Cobb in finding out the ordinary rhythms of a place, its habits and the flavour of the small lives lived there – waiters (and the shoes of the waiters), hotel receptionists, attendants in museums. Born 1908 and now presumably dead. I have never heard of her.
2 September. In a piece in the LRB on Buñuel Michael Wood mentions among ‘a number of startling and now famous images’ in Viridiana ‘a small crucifix’ that ‘flicks open to become a menacing knife’.
The film came out in 1961 but I didn’t see it until some time in the 1970s after Buñuel’s much more popular films like Belle de jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. However on the BBC’s Not So Much a Programme in 1965, I played a pipe-smoking vicar with on his desk a crucifix that doubled as pipe rack – a small blasphemy that provoked a question in Parliament.
The difference between the images is revealing: Buñuel’s resonant and bold, Catholic and dangerous; mine Anglican, cosy and not threatening at all. Lindsay Anderson was a great admirer of (and borrower from) Buñuel and in the comparison of the two images he would have found all that was wrong with England.
2 October. Finish Peter Nichols’s Diaries, a good read and hard to put down. He’s blessed, as Osborne was, with droves of relatives to whom he seems far more attentive and considerate than ever I managed to be to my few. Still they repay the attention and are a good source of material. I may not be the one to talk but with Nichols the vestibule between Life and Art is quite short and nobody lingers in it long.
Also reading Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, which is hard going but full of interesting stuff about the ceremonial life of the late medieval church and its systematic dismantling under Edward VI and Elizabeth. I hadn’t realised that the Elizabethan Settlement also meant the end of the mystery plays, which were pretty well forgotten by 1580. It shames me that I am more outraged by these events of nearly five hundred years ago (particularly by the iconoclasm) than I am by anything that’s currently happening (and to flesh and blood) in Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone.
25 October. In the obituaries that I saw of Alec Guinness not much mention was made of his wife of sixty years, Merula Salaman, who was treated as if she was just an appendage to him. Now, when she too has died, would have been the time to make amends but death hasn’t brought her out of his shadow, with no one giving a proper account of Merula herself as distinct from Lady Guinness. That wasn’t a role she particularly wanted to play, especially in the late 1940s when Alec became a film star and felt he had to lead a film star’s life. Even when she was dying she talked with horror of those days, of the number of frocks she was required to have, the amount of changing that went on and the difficulties of dining in gloves. Brought up as a wild country child in a large eccentric family (which deserves its own chronicler), she was happy as soon as the opportunity occurred to leave the high life to Alec and spend most of her time in the house that her architect brother had designed in Hampshire. Here she was surrounded by dogs, kept goats, had a donkey in the field and painted in a style that was vaguely Russian but which only came into its own when she took up needlework. Her needlework pictures are glowing with colour and intricate in texture, medieval in their richness. It was only in the last ten years or so that she had the confidence to exhibit them, Alec always nervous she would show him up or show herself up. They sold immediately and I bought several only to have Alec thank me as if I were doing it as a favour to him. This was nothing new. Mer-ula was, for instance, a superb cook and when I first stayed at Kettlebrook would produce delicious meals which Alec would then apologise for – behaviour which she took in her stride, knowing it would pass. And when I’d been there two or three times (and always had second and even third helpings) he stopped apologising. The truth was that she made him a nicer, less awkward, more accessible person but even after sixty years of marriage she still found it odd that they got on and that she could cope with his fussing and over-propriety. But her affection for him didn’t waver and only a few days before she died, when she scarcely had the strength to hold a pen, she wrote a poem praying that they would soon be reunited and this was read at her funeral.
She had faced death with her usual lack of fuss, writing to me in August: ‘I have taken to my bed hence perculiar [sic] writing. I wish Alec were here to read that bit’ – her spelling always caused him pain – ‘I think I shall stay in my bed now for the duration. It saves a lot of trouble.’
She made it, as she had wanted, to her 86th birthday. It was two days before she died and with the dogs strewn across her bed she raised a glass of champagne saying: ‘Chin, chin.’
28 October. Cutting across from the M40 to Chipping Norton we find ourselves passing the road to Rousham. Surprisingly this wet Saturday the gardens are open though apart from a young Japanese couple, who look to be honeymooners, we are the only visitors. We find a summerhouse by the bowling green where we eat our sandwiches then wander round the kitchen garden. The house itself is quite bleak and the garden front, grey and sash-windowed, and altered in the 19th century, almost institutional. The gardens are by William Kent but what delights is less the design than the beautifully cambered yew hedges (and hedges inside hedges and doors in walls that open onto hedges). In another kitchen garden is a pigeon house dated 1683, with an espaliered pear growing round it and doves and pigeons still in residence.
14 November. Alan Tyson has died. Of his work in psychoanalysis and musicology I know nothing and even his jokes and his silliness only by report. But he was good value and known to be. Once in the 1980s he rang the LRB and passing on the call someone said: ‘How long before he makes his first pun?’ It was in the first sentence. ‘Hello! And what is it this morning, belles lettres or Belgrano?’
18 November. Various letters about Telling Tales, some of them chiding me for putting Francis L. Sullivan alongside Leslie Howard in Escape to Happiness when it should have been in Pimpernel Smith. It might as well have been 49th Parallel so far as my memory is concerned as all the escape films of the early 1940s have run together in my mind. I had mentioned that I once saw Sullivan walking down Thornton’s Arcade in Leeds some time during the war, a progress that was of necessity stately on account of his bulk and made more impressive by a camel-hair overcoat slung over his shoulders. The coat as cloak (and particularly a camel-hair coat) was standard dress, at any rate in the provinces, for anyone who wished to come on as ‘artistic’. I seem to remember Anton Walbrook similarly garbed as the impresario in The Red Shoes, though I’ll probably be deluged with letters telling me it was in Dangerous Moonlight.
1 December, New York. We go up to the Dakota to look at Sydney W.’s apartment. A group of middle-aged tourists on the other side of the street are being talked through the Dakota’s history.
‘Too old for John Lennon,’ I think, whose anniversary is coming up, but of course these dumpy middle-aged women in their plastic rainhoods and their pork-pie hatted husbands are his contemporaries. Not a speck of dust on the immaculate driveway of this building that I last went into nearly forty years ago for a party given for Judy Garland. She obligingly performed to be followed, after she had left, by a drunken Shelley Winters who lurched to her feet saying, ‘I’m now going to sing ya all the songs Judy never sang,’ and launched into some striptease numbers. The saddest person there was Judy Holliday whom I tried to talk to but could think of nothing else to say other than how much I’d loved her in Born Yesterday, which was one of the reasons, presumably, why she was sad in the first place.
3 December, New York. I had forgotten how bleak American theatres are, the auditoriums seldom carpeted or even warm, the lobbies grey and functional and with none of that gilded Edwardian extravagance that frames the theatrical experience in England. One reason Americans go on about English theatre is just that it’s comfier. It’s a ballet we’re seeing and to piped music, the dancers doing a good deal of running about as much to keep warm as anything else as I can’t see a lot of artistry to it and with not even a smile. At the first interval we escape and join the crowds strolling down Fifth Avenue looking at the lights this Saturday night. The open-air skating rink is crowded. Most of the skaters are proficient except for one young businessman, who looks as if he’s come straight from the office (carrying his briefcase); he knows how to skate but not how to stop so just has to sail straight for the barrier, thereby causing havoc. It’s bitterly cold but the atmosphere is friendly and festive as it wouldn’t be, I’m sure, on Oxford Street; people’s faces are lit up and excited with no evidence of the famous surliness of New Yorkers, only pleasure and, I suppose, pride. Besides which nobody is drunk or even drinking.
I notice this again on Sunday when we cut through the main hall of Grand Central en route for Brooks Bros. The coved ceiling has been rigged for a Christmas laser show and travellers are standing about the vast hall gazing up at the lights flickering and dancing across the roof. And again there is that sense of fun and occasion so seldom generated in London except when licensed by the passage of royalty.
10 December. Watch the last of Richard Eyre’s Changing Stages which readily concedes that the stage for most people nowadays is big musicals and that whatever the magic of theatre might be for Peter Brook, say, to the average theatregoer it’s Cats or Phantom of the Opera.
I don’t have many theories about what theatre is or what a play should be, never having got much beyond the notion of a play as a journey, even if it’s only from A to B. And it would be comforting to be able to grade plays in terms of the distance travelled, particularly if at the lower end of the scale were the plays and musicals on in the West End and at the top end productions at the subsidised theatre and on the fringe.
But this is far from being the case and an audience at Edward Bond can sometimes travel no further in its head than the audience at Cats. Last year I went to a matinee of Théâtre de Complicité’s Street of Crocodiles where the audience were all fans and a journey that should have taken place in the theatre that afternoon had happened long before.
In part this comes about because the role of the audience has altered in the last twenty years and been infected by the pop concert. There the fans make themselves part of the event, helping to create the experience they have come to see. And so it is more and more with the theatre. Which is fine if you’re in that particular club but if you’re not (as I wasn’t at The Street of Crocodiles) and have just come to see the play it can be pretty depressing.
Peter Brook thinks, I imagine, that he is immune from such tendencies, and that his audience is a blank canvas; that he purveys a purer theatre. I doubt this or that his audience comes with fewer preconceptions than go to other productions. Give him an audience that thinks it’s going to see Ray Cooney and he would be put to the test. As it is, an audience goes to Brook expecting magic and gets it – just as a different audience does from Andrew Lloyd-Webber. I’d just like to see those audiences switched round; that would be real theatre.
23 December. A good documentary on Channel 4 about Humphrey Jennings in which one of the conclusions is that Jennings’s work deserves consideration because at a time when we are uncertain of our identity it helps to tell us who we are (or were).
Over the credits the next programme is announced, self-examination as it has since become: yet another round-up of the Big Brother series. No irony, I imagine, is intended.