What I Didn’t Do in 2007

Alan Bennett

2 January. Catching up on the literary round-ups at the year’s end I’m struck as so often by how cantankerous the world of literature is, and how smarmy, both backbiting and back-scratching much more so than the theatre or show business generally. I’m sure this is because actors don’t moonlight as critics in the way novelists or writers do. Few writers are reviewers tout court, most having other jobs as novelists, historians, biographers or whatever, and writing reviews simply because they need or want the money. It’s harmless enough but it makes literature a nastier world.

8 January. Reading Zachary Leader’s biography of Kingsley Amis, though not with much relish. She was ‘a good drinker’, Leader says of the Swansea original of Mrs Gruffydd-Williams, and while one feels this is very much an Amis-type judgment, it’s not one Leader dissents from – or dissents from sufficiently, drink and good fellowship equated throughout. Never having been able to drink much, partly through not having been brought up to it but also having had a duodenal ulcer as a young man, I suppose I feel disqualified, or somehow got at, as I did when I had to do a poetry reading for Amis in 1976, though then it was his self-consciously chappish manner I found hardest to cope with, never knowing if it was piss-taking quite.

It’s stated in the book that Denis Brogan, fellow of Peterhouse, broadcaster and expert on the USA, used to boast that he had fucked in 46 of the 50 states. I wish I’d known this in 1952, when in my first weeks of National Service Basic Training I was in the next bed to a boy called Huggins, a steelworker from Sheffield whose frequent boast was that he had ‘had his hole’ in six or seven towns and cities, which he would then list. At the time I was less than impressed and probably rather prissy about this conflation of lust and topography – had I known about Brogan (a regular with Alistair Cooke on Transatlantic Quiz), I might have treated Huggins with more respect.

11 January. Picture in the Guardian of an American soldier manning a gun in Baghdad, stencilled on the front of the gun a death’s head. That’s why the war is lost.

25 January. I’ve taken to eating the occasional date, though it’s not a fruit I wholly like. Mam used to eat them when we were little, bought in small compressed bricks, one of their attractions being that they were not on the ration or even on points. It’s the texture I’ve never altogether cared for, too mushy and spreadable. Also the sheen on some of them. Very good for one, of course, which is why I eat them now, and it reminds me how ahead of her time my mother was in the food she ate herself and tried to pass off on us – the Allinson wholemeal bread she got from a confectioner’s on Armley Moor, the prunes that were often in soak on the draining board, fads as I thought even as a boy of ten, picked up from Miss Thompson, a herbalistic lady living in the Hallidays who used to give Dad burdock and suchlike ‘for his blood’.

21 February. On the 100th anniversary of his birth a lot of tosh being talked about Auden as poet of Cumbria. Auden couldn’t have inhabited his ideal landscape, however nurturing he found the idea of it. Everything about him was urban. He wanted opera, libraries, restaurants, rent boys – all the appurtenances of civilisation. You don’t find them in Penrith.

16 March, Yorkshire. As age weakens the bladder I find myself having to pee more often, which, when I’m out in the country in a car, is no problem, though like a dog or a creature marking its territory, I do find myself often choosing the same spot. One regular place of worship is a lane on the outskirts of Leeds between Arthington and Harewood. It’s a nice location and of some historic interest, as in the 16th century the land belonged to an ex-Cluniac monastery that was among the properties (they included Kirkstall Abbey) granted to Thomas Cranmer on the death of Henry VIII. It wasn’t actually included in the royal will but was part of the general share-out that occurred then to fulfil the wishes supposedly expressed by Henry VIII on his deathbed. Not far away is Harewood House (where I do not pee). It’s the home of the Lascelles family, an ancestor of which, John Lascelles, blew the gaffe on Catherine Howard, the king’s fifth wife, but was later culled himself in the purge of evangelicals during that dreadful monarch’s last years. I watch two of the now well-established red kites tumbling about the sky above the Harewood estate, home these days to Emmerdale, that hotbed of the lust, murder and arson so typical of rural North Yorkshire.

29 March. One unforeseen blessing of the war in Iraq is the settlement in Northern Ireland. Blair can hardly claim the credit, as it was only when the focus moved to the Middle East that there was real progress towards agreement in Northern Ireland. The spotlight tempts politicians to perform; shift it and they can just get on with the job.

31 March. Jehovah’s Witnesses blitz the street and when they ring the bell I lie low until the coast is clear. I imagine they’re used to this sort of response and even when someone is unwary enough to open them the door the exchange is generally pretty curt. In one house in the street, though, they are assured of a warmer welcome, as Jonathan M. is never wont to turn down the chance of a debate and likes nothing better than a brisk canter through the arguments against the existence of God and the literal truth of the Bible. Two hapless evangelists had just had half an hour of this and were staggering down the steps licking their wounds when they spotted, parked in the street, a Ferrari. In some relief they were admiring this superb machine, not realising the scourge of God still had his eye upon them. ‘And you shouldn’t be looking at that,’ J. calls from the porch. ‘That’s Things of This World. You should be above all that!’

19 April. A handsome builder’s boy waiting with a van just over the wall whiles away the time by practising some complicated dance step. It seems to involve a lot of little jumps, and in the beat before he does the jumps he snatches a look up and down the street to make sure nobody catches him at it. As he gets more confident, though, the steps get wilder and he dances to his reflection in the side of the van this bright warm morning. Now the rest of the crew turn up and he performs his routine for them, which they watch with indulgent smiles.

21 April, Yorkshire. I go out with my pail of salt and water looking for slugs. They don’t require much hunting as there are dozens, huge creatures the size of turds, which, luxuriating in my absence, loll on the plants, sprawled on top of the poppies for instance while the rest wire into the alliums, so many of them that the poor plants are bowed under their weight.

30 April-1 May. To Essential Music in Great Chapel Street to record The Uncommon Reader, which Gordon House, former head of drama at BBC Radio, has adapted and is producing. What other readers are like I’ve no idea, but I always feel I am a sound editor’s nightmare, breaking off in the middle of a sentence to start again, redoing paragraphs when there’s technically no need and almost out of superstition, my technique (or want of it) so scrappy I must make work.

None of this will show, I always tell myself, and it doesn’t but no thanks to me, and I’m sure if I weren’t lazy and rehearsed the script properly by reading it aloud it would be both quicker to do and the result smoother and more satisfying. But I sight-read it as often as not which, since it’s generally something I’ve written, doesn’t much matter and I generally get away with it. Still, I always think my style, such as it is, is a compound of all my deficiencies, but maybe that’s what style is anyway.

Gielgud didn’t record like this, for all his skill, accenting and phrasing even the most trivial script in order to get the rhythm right. And Alec Guinness would work on a text for weeks, walking round the garden listening to the tape and saying the words out loud.

3 May. Lord Browne disgraced largely thanks to the Mail on Sunday and the bribery of a Canadian youth. The newspapers painstakingly explain why we should feel no sympathy for him, but if the Mail chose to target Heinrich Himmler I would tend to be on his side.

The young man’s name is Chevalier, which was the name of the man friendship with whom helped to ruin Robert Oppenheimer’s career. Chevalier was not gay but equally reprehensibly a Communist.

11 May, Long Crichel. Yesterday as I was driving down to Dorset (with no radio) the prime minister had gone up to Trimdon and his constituency of Sedgefield in order to bring his term of office to a close, ‘resign’ altogether too un-positive a word. The newspapers have been quite kind, but his speech, while ostensibly looking at the state of England, is so self-centred it confirms what one has thought before, that to Blair the real importance of his premiership is as a stage in his spiritual journey. He tells the nation, assures it rather, that we are ‘a country … at home in its own skin’, that ‘this country is a blessed nation,’ even that ‘this is the greatest nation on earth.’

This is virtually the opposite of what the last five years in particular have made me feel. It’s only a few months since I was writing in my diary that sometimes being English it felt as if one smelled. To Tony Blair, though, it is of roses.

Note how in the south-west even the humblest hamlet nowadays seems to boast a business park.

12 May, Long Crichel. Driving through rain-soaked Dorset we stop at Puddletown and the church there which is full of fixtures and character: a chantry chapel with alabaster tombs and the remains of what looks like its own reredos; there are good pews and lovely Laudian altar rails. But the most evocative of the fittings are high up on the west face of the chancel arch where hang two rusty bits of chain. On these chains, prior to the Reformation, was hung the Lenten Veil which was used to hide the sanctuary in the week before Easter. They’re scarcely visible and of no picturesque appeal at all, but that these fastenings should have survived since at least the 15th century, a relic still of a ceremony that went out under Edward VI, is as vivid and evocative as any screen or wall-painting (though there are those too).

Of course Puddletown figures in Hardy’s history and there are names on the war memorial – Sparks, for instance – of his cousins and relatives, the church figuring among his inspirations much as Methley did for Henry Moore.

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