A Shameful Year

Alan Bennett

1 January 2003. A Christmas card from Eric Korn:

This is the one about Jesus
And his father who constantly sees us
Like CCTV from above
But they call it heavenly love;
And the other a spook or a bird
Or possibly merely a Word.
Rejoice! We are ruled thru’ infinity
By this highly dysfunctional Trinity!

10 January. In George Lyttelton’s Commonplace Book it’s recorded that Yeats told Peter Warlock that after being invited to hear ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ (a solitary man’s expression of longing for still greater solitude) sung by a thousand Boy Scouts he set up a rigid censorship to prevent anything like that ever happening again. This is presumably the origin of Larkin’s remark that before he died he fully expected to hear ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’ recited by a thousand Girl Guides in the Royal Albert Hall.

12 January. Read Macbeth for maybe the second time in my life (and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it). Much of the language is as opaque as I generally find Shakespeare but I’m struck by how soon he gets down to business, so that within a scene the play is at full gallop. No messing about with Lady M. either. No sooner does she learn Duncan is going to visit than she decides on the murder. Oddities are Macduff’s abandonment of wife and family in order, seemingly, to save his own skin, though the scene in which his wife is discussing this with Ross is unbearably tense, the audience knowing she is about to be murdered. The ending is as abrupt as the beginning, with not much in the way of a dying fall from Malcolm, who’s straightaway off to Scone for his coronation. Most relevant bit:

Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself . . .
. . . where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy.

14 January. When I am occasionally stumped on a grammatical point, having no English grammar, I consult a copy of Kennedy’s Latin primer, filched more than thirty years ago from Giggleswick School. It’s only today that I notice that some schoolboy half a lifetime ago has painstakingly converted The Revised Latin Primer into ‘The Revised Man Eating Primer’. Perhaps it is the same boy who has inscribed across one of the pages: ‘G.H. Williams, Lancs and England’.

22 January. Watching Footballers’ Wives I see among the production credits the name Sue de Beauvoir.

I do so hope she’s a relation.

1 February, Yorkshire. Last time we visited Kirkby Stephen we were in Mrs H.’s shop when a clock chimed. I’ve never wanted a clock and this one was pretty dull, made in the 1950s probably and very plain. But the chime, a full Westminster chime, was so appealing that we talked about it on the way home and later asked Mrs H. to put it on one side. Today we collect it and it looks every bit as dull as we remember, but now on the table behind the living-room door it seems very much at home. And the chime is of such celestial sweetness that when it goes it’s hard not to smile.

9 February. To Widford in the Windrush valley near Burford for a second look at the church built on the site of a Roman villa, the mosaic floor (now covered over) once the floor of the chancel. There are box pews, aged down to a silvery grey, a three-decker pulpit, Jacobean altar rails and the remains of whitewash-blurred medieval wall-paintings. It’s an immensely appealing place, not unlike Lead in Yorkshire or Heath near Ludlow. Good graves on the north side, some for a family called Secker who seem to live in the manor house across the field, a romantic rambling house that looks unrestored and has oddly in its grounds an ornate seaside-looking Edwardian clock tower.

The Windrush tumbles through the weir on this mild winter morning, but the idyll is deceptive as once, at least, the river has seen slaughter. It was in 1388 that Richard II’s favourite, Robert Vere, led his army floundering along this flooded valley, desperate to escape his baronial pursuers, who eventually caught up and cut most of them down a little upstream at Radcot Bridge.

15 February. R. and I go down to Leicester Square at noon, the Tube as crowded as at rush hour, then walk up Charing Cross Road to where the march is streaming across Cambridge Circus. There seems no structure to it, ahead of us some SWP banners but marching, or rather strolling, beside them the Surrey Heath Liberal Democrats. Scattered among the more seasoned marchers are many unlikely figures, two women in front of us in fur hats and bootees looking as if they’re just off to the WI. I’m an unlikely figure, too, of course, as the last march I went on was in 1956 and that was by accident: I was standing in Broad Street in Oxford watching the Suez demonstration go by when a friend pulled me in.

Today it’s bitterly cold, particularly since the march keeps stopping or is stopped by the police, who seem bored that they’ve got so little to do, the mood of the march overwhelmingly friendly and domestic and hardly political at all. I’d have quite liked something to march to, even (however inappropriately) ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, but the nearest we get is (to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’) ‘We all live in a terrorist regime,’ which isn’t a chant I feel entirely able to endorse. At Albemarle Street we split off and go and have lunch at Fenwick’s, having, I suppose, walked a third of the route.

On the TV news the police estimate the numbers at 750,000, the organisers at two million, the true figure presumably somewhere in between. Whether anyone has ever nailed the police on why they routinely overestimate the numbers for demonstrations they approve of (like the so-called Liberty and Livelihood March) while marking down more dissident movements I don’t know. They would presumably deny it as vigorously as their not infrequent throttling of black suspects.

26 February. For much of last year the post in Gloucester Crescent was delivered by a delightful French girl, Stephanie Tunc; blonde and pretty, she was chatty, funny and also very efficient. Unique among the French of my acquaintance she didn’t like France one bit and pulled a face if you told her you were going on holiday there. Before Christmas she and her sister took off for South America and this last week the market men in Inverness Street got a postcard from Stephanie in Peru, which they pinned up on one of the stalls.

Then yesterday the new postman told us that having run out of money in Peru she and her sister had come back from South America to Miami. Sunbathing on the beach they had been run over by a police car, which had then reversed over them. Stephanie was dead and her sister in a critical condition.

‘Add something,’ I note as I transcribe this entry. But there is nothing to add. A lovely, lively girl is senselessly dead. That’s all.

8 March. A phrase often in the mouth of Bush and Blair is ‘Our patience is exhausted.’ It’s a phrase that is seldom used by anyone who had much patience in the first place; Hitler was quite fond of it.

14 March. To Oxford to vote for the chancellor, though it doesn’t seem very long since I did the same for Roy Jenkins. At Bodley I’m overtaken by A.N. Wilson, who’s brought his gown in a Sainsbury’s bag, though it’s part of Roy Jenkins’s legacy that gowns are no longer required on such occasions. This doesn’t stop many of the voters swishing about in them for the benefit of their families, who are then left at the door of the Divinity Schools while the graduate goes in to participate in the mystery. Not much of a mystery now, though, as in another of Jenkins’s reforms there is no ceremony at all and certainly no vice-chancellor enthroned in Convocation waiting to take your voting paper and lift his hat as Patrick Neill tipped his twenty years ago. Now Neill is himself a candidate in what feels more like a local council election, with trestle tables, ushers and the proctors taking the votes. One of Tom Bingham’s proposers, I vote for him and no one else, the single transferable vote (another Jenkins inspiration) likely, it’s thought, to favour Bingham’s chief rival, Chris Patten. At the table I hand in my paper to one of the junior proctors, a weary-looking don who, in what is perhaps a ritual humiliation, demands some evidence of identification. I hand over my Camden bus pass which he scrutinises as grimly as an Albanian border guard, even checking the likeness. Andrew Wilson sails through unchallenged.

I walk back through the streets of Oxford and as always I have a sense of being shut out and that there is something going on here that I’m not a part of; not that I was a part of it even when I was a part of it.

16 March. One of the lowest moments this year was Tony Blair and Jack Straw misrepresenting the French and German position on Iraq in order to encourage xenophobia and get more support from the Murdoch papers.

17 March. A bin Laden associate reported as being ‘quizzed’ by American agents in Pakistan. Were suspects ‘quizzed’ by the Gestapo, I wonder. Other people torture; we quiz.

19 March. What is particularly bitter is to hear one’s own moderate, pragmatic and indeed patriotic sentiments in the mouth of the Foreign Minister of Germany, Joschka Fischer, while our own Prime Minister parrots the American line, a case, I suppose, of Speak for England, Joschka. Meanwhile the troops get ready to ‘rock and roll’, as they call it this time; last time it was ‘shooting fish in a barrel’.

21 March. The first soldiers killed. If our army had been made up of conscripts no one would have tolerated this war for a moment. However much these are ‘our boys’, the war can only be waged because the US and the UK have armies of mercenaries.

24 March. G. was on the bus en route for Camden when a woman opposite leaned across and said: ‘I suppose you think I’ve got this sore throat because I’ve had a cock in my mouth? Actually I’ve been in Germany, but I wasn’t going to let them rearrange my face.’

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