28 January 2005. Fly to Rome for a British Council reading. It occurs to me that a lot of the camp has gone out of British Airways and that as the stewards have got older and less outrageous so the service has declined. This morning there is scarcely a smile, not to mention a joke, the whole flight smooth, crowded and utterly anonymous.
The British Council reading is packed, with two hours of radio and TV interviews beforehand. All the interviewers are well-informed, with sitting in on the proceedings a simultaneous translator, Olga Fernando. She’s astonishingly clever, translating aloud while at the same time taking down a shorthand transcript of what is being said, a skill she normally employs in much more exalted circumstances; next week for instance she is accompanying the Italian president to London to meet Jack Straw and she also translated for Bush on his visit to Italy last year.
The library at the British Council is busy and full of students who only leave when it closes at 8 p.m., and seeing these young Italians reading English books and magazines, watching videos and generally finding this a worthwhile place to be is immensely heartening. The British Council can still be thought a bit of a joke but like the World Service it’s a more useful investment of public money than any number of state visits, or, in Blair’s case, holidays with Berlusconi (who, incidentally, I never hear mentioned throughout).
29 January, Rome. Seduced by its name, first thing this morning we go to look at Nero’s Golden House, or such parts of it as have been excavated. It’s a mistake. Walking through these tall narrow chambers, none with natural light and few with more than the faintest fresco, I feel it’s no more inspiring than a tour round a 19th-century municipal gasworks, which it undoubtedly resembles. Most of the party wear headphones and follow the cassette guide and so become dull and bovine in their movements with sudden irrational darts and turns dictated by the commentary. Deprived of one faculty they become less adept with the others, and when they talk do so in loud unregulated voices. Wayward and dilatory in their movements they are seemingly without purpose, though of course they are the purposeful ones. What to us are featureless alcoves of scrofulous masonry (and with no evidence of gold) presumably echoed to the orgies and barbarities which are even now being detailed on the cassettes to which everyone else is listening intently.
4 February. Condoleezza Rice announces that the US has no plans to attack Iran at the present moment, the implication being that we should be grateful for such forbearance.
9 February. I use proof sheets as scrap paper and today it’s one from Afternoon Off (1978), a TV play we shot at Whitby with a scene in a café and a long speech by Anna Massey. Stephanie Cole plays the other part, but it’s hardly a conversation as she only has one line with Anna doing all the talking. And I realise, as I haven’t until now, that I was writing monologues long before I specifically tried to, only in the earlier plays they were just long (long) speeches. Afternoon Off has several, because the leading figure is a Chinese waiter with very little English so everybody talks at him.
13 February. As with Havel once, I seem to be the only playwright not personally acquainted with the deceased Arthur Miller and with some line on his life and work. Many of his plays I still haven’t seen, though years ago when I was reading everything I could get hold of on America and McCarthyism I came across Miller’s novel Focus, in which a character begins to look Jewish when he takes to wearing glasses. It’s a powerful piece and in retrospect rather Roth-like. No one quite says how much of his street cred came from his marriage to Monroe, though paradoxically more with the intellectuals than with Hollywood.
21 February. Snow arrives on cue around four but alas doesn’t lay; ‘It’s laying!’ one of the joyous cries of childhood.
22 February. To the private view of the Caravaggio at the National Gallery. Crowded, but because only the paintings are lit and not the rooms the crowds melt into the gloom, or form a frieze of silhouettes against the pictures. Only 16 paintings on show and whereas in some of the earlier paintings that we saw in Rome one was struck by how clamorous they were – boys howling, heads screaming – here the pictures are much calmer and it is character that prevails. Some of the expressions are so subtle as to be beyond interpretation: in the Supper at Emmaus (1606) from Milan, a more tranquil picture than the same subject in the NG, the figure to the left of Jesus has a look both of interest and concern far more intriguing than the mere wonder and astonishment evident in the NG’s 1601 version. And right at the end of the exhibition (and Caravaggio’s life) there is Goliath’s head, which is supposedly Caravaggio’s own, and whether it’s that but the look on the young David’s face is so troubled and so overwhelmed he seems only to regret what he has accomplished.
24 February. To a Faber meeting for their sales reps at the Butchers’ Hall, which is just by the back door of Barts, bombed presumably and rebuilt in undistinguished neo-Georgian some time in the 1960s. Doorman sullen and no advertisement for the supposed cheerfulness of the butchering profession. Early so have a chance to look at the occasional paintings, including a couple of nice early 19th-century old masters (of the Butchers’ Company, that is), besides various ceremonial cleavers including the one used to cut up the first New Zealand lamb brought to England and served to Queen Victoria in 1880. Nicest though are two Victorian or Edwardian toy butchers’ shops. They’re bigger and grander than the one Dad made for Gordon and me c.1940 but whereas these joints are nailed into place, Dad’s were all made to unhook so we could serve them to our imaginary customers at the counter.
25 February. A propos civil liberties the government spokesperson most often put up, particularly on television, is the junior minister at the Home Office, Hazel Blears. With a name that combines both blur and smear and which would have delighted Dickens the lady in question has always shown herself to be an unwavering supporter of Mr Blair, though lacking those gestures in the direction of humanity with which her master generally lards his utterances.
12 March. A cold bright day in Yorkshire and I sit briefly at the end of the garden, watching a plane cross a vast sea of blue sky, leaving a single unfurled trail behind it. A plane such as this moving across virgin space must be more of a treat for the spectator than the pilot; it puts me in mind of myself as a child longing to be the first to jump (never dive) into the still swimming-bath at Armley. The pleasure there was in disrupting the calm but also in being able to see through the undisturbed water to the murky end of the bath.
15 March. To Rousham in the morning to look at the gardens then to Daylesford Organic Farm Shop for lunch. The colour scheme is that greyish green one was first conscious of 40 years ago when Canonbury and Islington took it up and then the National Trust: ‘tasteful green’ it might be called (it’s the colour of the coalhouse door in Yorkshire). It’s a definite spread – shop, restaurant, a cloister cum herb garden, together with barns, farm buildings and, one presumes, living quarters for the many employees. It’s cheering to think that, if Nigel Slater is to be believed re residential catering establishments, the young people who largely staff the place will be screwing each other rotten. Not that there’s a hint of that front of house, which is chaste, cheerful, middle-aged, middle-class and above all well-off, the car park full of four-wheel drives, Pioneers, Explorers, Conquerors, Marauders, all of which have blazed a fearless trail across rural Oxfordshire to this well-heeled location a mile or two from Chipping Norton where the best is on offer in the way of lifestyle choices: delicious, wholesome food, multifarious cheeses, 15 different types of loaf. ‘Look, darling. Look what they’ve got,’ calls one loving middle-aged wife to her browsing husband and then to the assistant: ‘He’s a real cheese man.’
Odd how I could take such a place without question did I come across it in New York, say, or California. But here it’s so bound up with class and money and all one’s complicated feelings about England I hold back. Like Saga, another rich and popular establishment catering to an obvious demand, it’s so successful it becomes slightly sinister – the Daylesford Experience like the Saga one a perfect front for subversion of some kind, with the Daylesford philosophy that sort of bland and smiling philanthropy which in thrillers always masks elaborate villainy.
16 March. To St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place for the funeral of Anna Haycraft (aka Alice Thomas Ellis) who died a week or so ago in Wales and whose body had therefore to be brought down for the funeral and then presumably taken back to Wales to be buried beside Colin, her late husband, at their Welsh farmhouse. This, I gather, is pretty remote and the track to it hardly hearse-friendly so the grave when she eventually achieves it likely to be something of a relief.
The church is interesting, though only the shell is the 13th-century original, with the blind arcading and crocketed pinnacles particularly pleasing. Nor is there a lot of garish statuary, the images of English Catholic saints standing on medieval corbels round the walls are soberly painted and quite secular. Note how these occasions flush out the devout, the fluent genuflection before entering the pew the first indicator. Charles Moore sinks to his knees straightaway and prays for a considerable period of time, and Piers Paul Read similarly. Some admiration for this, men who pray in public not uncourageous, though more often met with at Catholic rather than Anglican services.
The service is conducted by Father Kit Cunningham who talks about Anna, saying how she had summoned him to the bedside of her husband, Colin, and that just as he was coming into the room Colin died. He thereupon anointed Colin with Anna’s blessing, though Colin was not a believer, Anna saying ‘with the shadow of a wink’: ‘Now he will know who was right.’ That this should be treated so lightly is mildly shocking – or would be if I had more conviction in the matter. The crucial scene in Brideshead turns on just such a situation, with the readiness of Catholics to reel you in at the last moment an issue with Charles Ryder. And Fr Cunningham seems every bit as kindly and understanding as the family priest of the Marchmains. R. is not at the service but points out how shocked one would be by the reverse – a passionate atheist denying a dying or dead Catholic the consolations of religion.
Coming away I see Richard Ingrams, swathed in a black anorak, trudging along the pavement. He has a brief word with Fr Cunningham, much as, one feels, Oxford dons used to have with the train driver at Paddington when he’d brought the Cathedrals Express in on time.
15 April. In his review of Truman Capote’s letters in the LRB Colm Tóibín lists Capote’s many dislikes, including Beyond the Fringe, which he thought ‘rather dreary’. I never could think of much to say to Kenneth Tynan or he to me but whenever we met in the early 1960s he’d make a point of telling me that of all the stuff in BTF what ‘Truman’ had most liked was the sermon, I think because it reminded him of the sermons of his boyhood. Whether Tynan was just being polite to me or Truman to Tynan there’s no means of knowing but in any case at that time I had no idea who Truman Capote was, the similarity of his name to Capone making me think he was some sort of literary racketeer, which wasn’t far wrong.
25 April. Keep being rung by journalists asking how I intend to vote, information which I don’t divulge not because I’ve got any principled notions to do with the secret ballot but because I like disappointing newspapers. If I were a voter in the Blackburn constituency my vote would go to Craig Murray, the ex-ambassador to Uzbekistan, who resigned from the diplomatic service over the foreign secretary’s refusal to discount information obtained by torture in the prisons of Uzbekistan, a decision that means torture is likely to continue. If there is a market for the information why should it stop? Mr Straw claims to have lost sleep over his decision. Some of the tortured will have lost sleep, too, but that’s because they will have lost fingernails first. I suppose I despise Straw more than Blair, thinking, perhaps wrongly, that he is capable of better.
29 April, Yorkshire. Settle is still a pleasant place to shop and though there are one or two empty premises it hasn’t yet been given over to charity shops, which is the first symptom of a town dying. The spirit of the small shop still persists in Booth’s, the local supermarket. At the cheese counter I ask for some Parmesan, which might be thought a relative newcomer to this out of the way Craven town. But the assistant proudly reels off the names of the several Parmesans that they stock, ending up with a flourish: ‘Or you may like to try the Reggiano, the Rolls Royce of Parmesans.’
8 May. Much in the papers about VE Day, today the 60th anniversary. Several people who were in the crowd outside Buckingham Palace remember how they chanted: ‘We want George,’ ‘We want Liz.’ I don’t believe this. It’s what they would chant now so they think it was what they did then. The king was never ‘George’ still less the queen ‘Liz’. That was in the future (though not for him). What I remember of that night and of subsequent public celebrations up to and including the Festival of Britain was the impact of floodlighting and the sense of prodigality it had, the sheer joyful waste of light streaming off into the darkness, light as a commodity squandered as I had never known it before.
22 May. Reading Frank Kermode’s review of John Haffenden’s life of Empson makes me regret a little that Empson was cut out of The History Boys. In the first version of the play Hector sings the praises of Sheffield where he had been taught by Empson, then recounts to the boys wanting to go to Cambridge the circumstances of Empson’s downfall at Magdalene. ‘So when you say Cambridge University to me, boys, I say to you “A prophylactic in the wardrobe”’ – this last delivered like a war-cry. Empson was not the only casualty in the play. Simone Weil got the boot, as did Nina Simone and Simone Signoret, Jowett (of Balliol fame), James Agate, Jane Austen, Molly Bloom, Hegel and Henry James, all of them biting the distinguished dust.
2 June. A situation on the margins of social interaction develops opposite. Working outside No. 60 is a handsome, though rather explosive-looking young workman who is emptying sand onto the pavement preparatory to mixing some cement, the bucket of water standing there in readiness. An eccentric older man, not quite a tramp but with too much luggage slung around his bike (a large umbrella, various carrier bags) to be an ordinary cyclist, stops by the cement-making young man, parks his bike and without, as far as I can see, asking permission proceeds to wash his hands in the waiting bucket. He washes them a little too thoroughly, while talking to the unresponsive young man who, if he is concerned about the usurpation of his bucket, doesn’t show it – or indeed anything much, as he scarcely speaks. Hands done the cyclist goes back to his laden bike and wheels it away while the young man empties some of the (now slightly polluted) water onto his sand and cement, the only sense that a liberty might have been taken or a boundary crossed being that he is now more pensive and as he mixes keeps gazing in the direction the tramp has gone.
27 June. Willie Donaldson dies. Best known, I suppose, for the Henry Root letters, back in 1961 Willie, in partnership with Donald Albery, put on Beyond the Fringe. A deceptively gentle and kindly figure Willie was never condescending as Albery invariably was and seemed as much at sea in the world of show business as we were. By the time he came into our lives and though he was not much older than us he had already lost one fortune, I think to do with shipping, and if he made another out of BTF he soon lost that, too, Albery, I’m sure, driving a hard bargain and creaming off most of the profits.
On the eve of the show opening in the West End Willie took the four of us and John Bassett to a discreet brothel in Bond Street (the building now supplanted by Burberry) not for any hands-on sexual experience but to watch some blue films. The madame was French (or reckoned to be so), tut-tutting that I seemed so young (though I was actually the oldest of the four), and we perched rather uncomfortably on the edge of the bed while a whirring cinematograph ran off some ancient French films. They were silent, jerky and with nothing subtle about them at all, the participants anything but glamorous, one of the men resembling a comic villain in a Chaplin film. Still, we managed to find the films exciting. It was certainly the first proper sex on the screen I had ever seen and although at the start there were a lot of nervous jokes (‘My least favourite shot’ of some vaginal close-up) as time went on the atmosphere became almost strained, though with Willie his usual smiling vague self. At the finish the madame was insistent that we should not all leave together so we separately filtered out into an empty Bond Street with me wondering if this at last was ‘living’.
7 July. It’s perhaps the quality of my acquaintance but I have yet to speak to one person who is enthused about the Olympics. If the scenes of ritual rejoicing (‘Yes!’) were not enough to put one off there is the prospect of seven years of disruption, procrastination, excuses and inconvenience and all the usual drawbacks of having the builders in. It’s supposed to ‘revitalise’ the East End: i.e. it’s a heaven-sent opportunity to knock down what remains of it, much as Prescott is trying to do elsewhere, and either build over open spaces like Hackney Marshes or tart them up with tasteful garden furniture. A general fucking up, in fact, and for this we must rejoice. All one can hope is that there’s a stadium somewhere on the Northern Line.
8 July. Shocked that after the initial horror my first reaction to the bombs should be ‘How convenient’ and at how little of what we are told I now believe. As Blair lines up in front of his sombre colleagues at Gleneagles it’s hard not to think how useful this outrage is and how effectively it silences the critics. And as Bush and Blair trot out their vapid platitudes about ‘the War on Terror’, give or take a few score of dead it’s hard not to think things are well under control. No one as yet suggests or speculates that this new front in ‘the War on Terror’ might have been avoided had the country not gone to war in the first place. Only yesterday the Guardian reprinted an LRB piece revealing how Iraq had been fleeced of billions of dollars via Paul Bremer’s so-called aid programme – the figures those of US auditors whose reports have passed without notice. Except that they’re maybe even now being read by some burning-eyed youth planning more and worse.
10 July. To Leeds in fiercely hot weather to film part of the South Bank Show at Methley, south of Leeds, the drive the same as those sad Sunday evening bus-rides that took me back to the York and Lancaster barracks at Pontefract after a 48-hour leave in 1952. There’s still some stately countryside in South Yorks, the road lined with graceful trees, but Methley, which I remember as a pleasing 18th-century place, has spoiled itself since: the early red brick 19th-century house by the churchyard now kitted out with lattice windows and the 17th-century hall pulled down in 1963.
Do various pieces in the church, much of it from autocue and, despite some misgivings, tell the story of how Henry Moore used to come to this church when a little boy and that seeing some of the grotesque sculptures on the corbels turned his thoughts to art. This may well be the story Moore told himself but it’s so like the tales so often told of artists and their beginnings that I have reservations (no need to have worried: it was cut). The tombs, though, are a delight and I stand addressing the camera while caressing the 15th-century Sir Robert Waterton and his wife, Cecily. At my back is Lionel, Lord Welles with his bruiser’s face, pudding-basin haircut and elaborate armour, which did not save him from being cut down at Towton on Palm Sunday 1461. Unnoticed on previous visits is a sad little stand in the south-west corner, a sample of the tools and equipment of the last working mine in Methley, laid up here twenty years ago. The first mines in the parish were recorded in 1340 and the names of the mines since are listed: Parlour Pit, Mulberry, Garden and, the last to close, Savile Colliery. Here are a dusty pair of miner’s boots, a shovel, a pick, a miner’s lantern and two great cobs of coal: ‘These tools and equipment hung to rest here at Harvest Festival 1985.’
Then to film in Leeds itself, at Allerton High School where, en route, we pass a tableau that I have never actually witnessed but which is nevertheless familiar: in the back garden of a council house a small pavilion has been set up and two figures in the white suits of forensic experts are lumbering in and out of the house. It’s a crime scene, though Jamie, the cheeky grips, suggests it could be quite a small wedding. When we reach the school they tell us it’s a 30-year-old man, an old boy of the school, who has been charged with murdering his father.
There is much family history round the walls of the old-fashioned classroom, with photographs of relatives brought in by the class, and mounted on card with an account of the person pictured. Quite a few are of personnel from the Second War whom I take to be the children’s grandparents, though as often as not they’re their great-grandparents. This is a Jewish area so there are photographs from the ghettoes of Poland and tsarist Russia and stern patriarchs from India and Pakistan. One child ends an account of her grandparents: ‘They have been married for 48 years and still get on like a roof on fire.’
13 July. What captures the imagination about the four bombers is that when they split up at King’s Cross only minutes before they knew they would be dead they were, according to the tapes, chatting and joking as if off on holiday. It’s this gaiety and unconcern which makes all the talk of a War on Terror and the nation’s resilience seem beside the point. It’s Thomas More joking on the scaffold, except that More wasn’t taking anyone else with him. But how can mere self-preservation prevail against such unconcern? This debonair going to their (and our) deaths beyond understanding and made so, too, because it would, in any other circumstances, be admirable.
Blair addresses the House of Commons where there is not a dissentient voice and thus it is inevitably described as the Commons at its best. It’s actually at its most solemn and cowardly with no one daring to step out of line or suggest that without our subservience to Bush we would not be in this mess. George Galloway, for whom I otherwise don’t have much time, tries to say this on Newsnight but is shouted down by an almost frenzied Gavin Esler, though the point Galloway is making – that while nothing can be done about the perpetrators themselves, the circumstances that have fed their fanaticism have to be addressed – is a perfectly sensible one and ought to have been raised in the House of Commons. Instead MPs are far too busy rising to the occasion, which for Blair is: ‘Let’s pretend it’s the Blitz and bags me be Churchill.’
Meanwhile contrast our leaders cowering behind the barriers at Gleneagles with HMQ who, two days after the bombings, drives down the Mall in an open car.
28 July. It’s now reported that the dead Brazilian boy was not wearing a bulky jacket, did not jump over the barrier, but went through on his travelcard. Who made these excuses – which is what they were – at the time of his shooting? Was it the police? And if so will the inquiry reveal it (it has, after all, three months to do its work when it could surely have reported earlier). But some of the papers, which print these corrections pretty obscurely, feature on the front page photographs of nail bombs supposedly found in the bombers’ car. So what one finds oneself thinking is that if the death on Stockwell Station can be deliberately misrepresented why should not also the existence of the nail bombs? It’s the Blair lies factor again.
4 August. One has grown accustomed to – inured to would I suppose be nearer the truth – T. Blair’s use of supplementary adverbs, ‘I honestly believe’, ‘I really think’, which diminish rather than augment his credibility. It’s always sloppy but sometimes offensive. A propos the shooting of Mr de Menezes the prime minister says: ‘I understand entirely the feelings of the young man’s family.’ No ordinary person would put it like this. The only way Mr Blair could ‘understand entirely’ the feelings of the young man’s family would be if Euan Blair had been hunted down Whitehall, stumbled on the steps of Downing Street and he, too, had been despatched with seven shots to his head. Then Mr Blair would have had that entire understanding to which he so glibly lays claim, the claiming, one feels, part of his now developing role as Father of the People.
30 August. I sit here in the shade on a boiling afternoon waiting for the bike to come from Faber with the first copy of Untold Stories. Dinah W. at Faber says it’s as big as the Bible, which dismays (and which I wouldn’t have thought would help sales). Still, it’s only £20 (Writing Home ten years ago £17.50), which seems reasonable. The doorbell goes and when I open the door I find on the doorstep not a cycle courier but an angel out of Botticelli’s Primavera, white-robed, garlanded and with ropes of flowers in her hair. It is Tracey Ullmann, who is making a film down Inverness Street (‘The way one does’), and who is just calling to show off her costume, the function of which in the film is never satisfactorily explained. I offer to escort her back, as even today such a figure walking through Camden Town might cause comment. But she has come the two hundred yards or so by car, the studio chauffeur waiting with the Daimler to ferry her back. Tracey gone I resume my wait and the book arrives about four.
10 September, Yorkshire. We blackberry along Wandales Lane, the (possibly pre-) Roman track below the fells on the eastern side of Lunesdale. The blackberries on the sun-facing side are now so ripe they are quite hard to pick, but the bushes on the other side are laden with heavy, moist but not overripe fruit, so we soon gather enough for three or four jars of thick juice – ‘coulis’ posh restaurants would call it. We end up, though, with our hands stained red with juice, which brings back a film of the 1940s which terrified me as a child. Jennifer Jones has been involved, perhaps unwillingly, in a murder, a situation anyway in which her hands are covered with blood. This sends her off the rails (‘traumatises’ her as would be said nowadays) and the memory is buried. She then comes into the care of, and possibly marries, Joseph Cotten and seems fully recovered and leading an ideal life in the country. Then – fatal move – one day she goes blackberrying and the predictable happens: Joseph Cotten finds her screaming and hysterical with her hands covered in blackberry juice. What happens in the end I can’t remember, maybe the incident is ‘therapeutic’, though it wasn’t for me as I was terrified (though not as much as I was by Jane Eyre).
22 September. Nice elderly cashier at the check-out in M&S. ‘I did agree with what you said in the paper about the shops closing in Parkway and it being all estate agents.’
I thank her and say how much I miss the Regent Bookshop, there being nothing at all now to enliven the upper reaches of Parkway or tempt one to go that way home.
‘Oh, I agree. And I always had a soft spot for that bookshop. It was there my little granddaughter had her ears pierced.’ And it’s true they did used to do ear-piercing, though quite why I’m not sure.
24 September. Good à propos Kate Moss to be reminded of the cowardice of commerce. The Swedish firm H&M, one of several fearless enterprises that have distanced themselves from Ms Moss, declares itself proud to be in the forefront of corporate morality. That most of its clothes are said to be made dirt cheap in China is beside the point.
Actually I wouldn’t know Kate Moss if I fell over her.
29 September. Among several things that the ejection and charging of Mr Wolfgang from the Labour Party Conference demonstrates is the danger of endowing the police with any more powers than they have already. For shouting out ‘Liar’ he is charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The silencing of hecklers was hardly the act’s original purpose but it is just the handiest blunt instrument available. This should be remembered in the next session of Parliament when the police are asking for yet more powers – three months’ detention for instance – while at the same time solemnly assuring the public that they will only use such powers when the occasion demands it. This is a promise soon forgotten. If they have the powers they will use them – young Muslim or Jewish old-age pensioner it makes no difference. ‘You’re nicked.’
30 September. K. tells me of a TV script that is currently doing the rounds in New York in which four Muslim bombers are holed up together and keep receiving orders from their al-Qaida superiors to carry out suicide missions. They are terrified of their bosses but are all cowards and most anxious to avoid committing suicide. It’s apparently very funny but no TV company has dared to buy it and they are currently trying to set it up in England. I wish I’d thought of it and if it’s done properly it’s likely to do far more for Muslim understanding than any number of well-meaning homilies from the Home Office.
4 October, L’Espiessac. Staying at the house for a couple of days is Scott Harrison, a young man who once worked as a barman for Lynn W. but is now a photographer, working on a hospital ship which plies up and down the coast of West Africa where it berths at various ports and treats the local population, particularly those suffering from non-malignant tumours. The ship’s movements are known and thousands travel to meet it and to be seen and with luck operated on by the ship’s team of surgeons. Many are hideously deformed and outcasts from their tribe or local community on that account. Though the tumours are not in themselves life-threatening their sheer bulk will sometimes throttle or overcome their hosts. The operations, however, are often relatively straightforward, huge protuberances cut away which instantly restore a hideously distorted face to relative normality, with those operated on requiring only minimal after-care. To the sufferers (and to those who have cast them out) the transformation seems miraculous and thousands of the afflicted await the ship’s coming in the hope of treatment.
Scott has taken pictures of all this, some of which he has recently shown in New York and which tonight we (slightly reluctantly it has to be said) sit on the sofa in this French farmhouse and look at. They are, of course, heartrending, particularly painful the stricken, shamefaced aspect of the afflicted, who think themselves cursed: else why is one eye stuck out on a balloon of flesh twelve inches from its fellow; what is this huge creature growing out of the side of their neck; why can they no longer speak? The delight when they are relieved of these monstrous burdens is wonderful to see, particularly when they go home to show themselves to their families. All this Scott has photographed and plainly thinks of nothing else: he is entirely single-minded, obsessive even, nothing else interests him or engages him and though he’s handsome enough he seems almost monkishly set apart. Maybe, too, he now wants to be a doctor. Several times when commenting on his photographs he says of some dreadful-seeming tumour that it was easily cured. ‘It’s a simple operation. I could do it.’
On another level entirely these photographs are interesting as many of the facial disfigurements recall the paintings of Francis Bacon, who is said to have been fascinated by medical textbooks and the pictures of such tumours that he found in his father’s library when a child. This has never seemed to me to detract from his art: it explains some of it at best but doesn’t, as it were, explain it away. Some of the photographs of these African patients, though, are so strangely reminiscent of Bacon’s paintings that his pictures seem almost a documentary record of what can happen to the human face and this does seem if not to diminish his paintings, at least to demystify them and make them more comprehensible. So that one almost thinks like Scott, though of the painting: ‘It’s a simple operation. I could do it.’
Though the quality of the artwork is different these thoughts about Bacon apply also to Jack Vettriano, the Scottish painter (what once would have been called a commercial artist) who this week has been shown to have composed his paintings from figures taken directly from a manual of figure painting. This is no different from what Bacon did, though his paintings are shot through with disgust and despair as Vettriano’s are with cheap romance.
17 October. No newspaper that I’ve seen discusses the police in institutional terms or sees them as subject to the same compulsions as govern other large corporate organisations. The need to grow, for instance, and accumulate new powers and spheres of influence comes as much from within the organisation as from any demands that are being made on it. Ninety days’ detention suits the police not so much because thereby more evidence is forthcoming and with it an increased likelihood of convictions but because it will result in them having more power: more staff, more premises, more funds. This has nothing to do with justice, civil liberty or the preservation of order and the prevention of terrorism. It is the law of institutions. Like Tesco the police must grow.
22 October. Mention in a piece by Caryl Phillips in today’s Guardian of a school in Leeds against which his school used to play football. ‘When I was a boy, we used to play football against a secondary school with the somewhat hopeful name of Leeds Modern. The joke, of course, was there was precious little that was modern about Leeds, including that school. This is palpably not the case now.’ That was my school, the old boys of which were called Old Modernians, and I’ve always thought that this was a pretty fair description of that blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism which does duty for my political views. I am an old modernian.
26 October. An interesting letter this morning from Claire Tomalin about the Drummer Hodge scene in The History Boys, saying that, contrary to what Hector specifically asserts in the scene, Hodge was not in the ordinary sense a name but like, as it were, Joe Bloggs, a generic name for a common and unthinking agricultural labourer. Hardy had protested against such stereotyping in an earlier essay, ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’ (1883), so his use of the name Hodge in the poem was an ironic reference to those assumptions about such labourers he had earlier criticised. This in its turn explains why Tom Paulin – never one to leave a brick unthrown – said I had got the poem ‘wrong’, which at the time I took to be perverse but now see the point of. Since only a few Hardy scholars would be aware of this reading of the poem I’m happy I didn’t know it myself lest it had stopped me writing the scene, or writing it in this particular way. As it is, and in the continuing life of the characters, I think of Posner going up to Cambridge and in his interview bringing out Hector’s take on the poem only to be pulled up short by a don who puts forward the Tomalin interpretation. So when Posner goes back home with his scholarship he puts Hector right on Hardy.
1 November. Our Algerian roadsweeper, oddly named Antonio, comes inside the gate, takes off his shoes and kneels down to pray. This is observed by Nora, who is downstairs ironing and who, more up in religious affairs than I am, announces that it marks the end of Ramadan.
5 November, Yorkshire. We have mice, the result of R. leaving a bag of grass seed in the cupboard under the stairs and tempting in some migrants from next door. Occasionally in winter we’ve had fieldmice and even on one occasion dormice, but have taken care to restore them to their natural habitat. But these are dark small house mice and so fast moving they’re hard to see – there’s movement, but what of?
So mice goes down on the Settle shopping list where there are two hardware shops. Practically Anything in the marketplace is just that, an Aladdin’s cave of household goods, pots, pans, buckets and brushes and gadgets of every description, all very low-priced. But no poison. Tom, who keeps the shop, doesn’t approve, but doesn’t have any humane traps in stock either so that sends us to Ashfield, the more ordered and professional hardware store on the car park. While this is the shop for the dedicated carpenter or DIY enthusiast and is also a farm shop, happily absent is that blank-faced flat-voiced male expertise such shops often purvey, particularly in London. Indeed when I ask for a mouse-trap, the oldest assistant, now in his eighties, says, ‘Follow me to the mouse department,’ and we are taken to three shelves stacked with every type of rodent eliminator. We get a humane trap and some poison on the principle that if the mouse doesn’t take the sensible option and allow itself to be caught and transported, it deserves all it gets.
‘Does this put them to sleep?’ I ask.
The assistant pats my hand. ‘We like to think so.’
And of course what it is, with no overtones whatsoever, is sheer camp. That’s what makes it a nice shop to go into and which oils the commercial wheels. Camp.
18 November. I’m reading Nature Cure by Richard Mabey, an account of a bout of depression and leaving the Chilterns where he had always lived for Norfolk. It’s astonishing the range of knowledge he has at his disposal and humbling, too, though I find myself more interested in his life in nature around his home than when he takes off in the second part of the book for the wildernesses of America.
John Clare figures a good deal and Mabey quotes Clare’s Enclosure elegy ‘Remembrances’ and these lines on a gamekeeper’s gibbet:
O I never call to mind
These pleasant names of places but I leave a sigh behind
While I see the little mouldywarps hang sweeing to the wind
On the only aged willow that in all the field remains
And nature hides her face while they’re sweeing in their chains
And in a silent murmuring complains
Here was common for their hills where they seek for freedom still
Though every common’s gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners.
I tip this into the notes copy of my first television film, A Day Out (1972), in which there is a similar scene when some cyclists on an outing in 1911 come upon a farm gate festooned with dead moles and rooks:
I suppose the Clare passage would be referenced cf. (i.e. compare), these notes copies often fat with stuff I’ve subsequently read but didn’t know at the time of writing. They are not a patch though on Tony Harrison’s handbooks to his plays, which are almost works of art in themselves, with notes on the text and drawings of the set and its associations, lovely objects altogether. Mine are more reassurances to myself that, as in this case, at least I’ve got something right.
28 November. It wasn’t until Dudley M. got into Beyond the Fringe that he realised you were supposed to have an inner life and when he finished in BTF and started in Not Only But Also he set about acquiring one, thus considerably irritating Peter Cook who preferred him as he was. Peter’s drunkenness had a lot to do with them eventually breaking up but it was also that Dudley’s not entirely mistaken notion of self-fulfilment made further co-operation impossible.
8 December. I buy a bottle of organic wine at Fresh and Wild and looking at the label see that it says ‘Suitable for Vegetarians and Vagrants’. Momentarily I think, ‘Well, that’s thoughtful, someone admitting that winos deserve consideration like everyone else,’ before realising, of course, that it says not ‘vagrants’ but ‘vegans’.