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.

21 May. An absurd accident. I am cycling down Gloucester Avenue this morning when my raincoat catches between the brake block and the wheel and brings me to a halt. Normally when this happens a step or two back reverses the wheel and frees the coat but not this morning, and it’s jammed. As a preliminary to loosening it I try to take the coat off but can’t because I’m tethered to the bike, which now falls over, pulling me with it. I land painfully on my bum and lie there for a moment or two like Kafka’s beetle, waving my legs in the air. Another passing pensioner, seeing my plight, goes to a friend’s house for a pair of scissors in order to cut me free, except that the friend is out. So I limp home, lifting the back wheel and manhandling the bike, eventually managing to free the wheel without having to cut the coat. It’s now 10.30; my coat is filthy and so am I. I imagine that in the future there is going to be more of this.

23 May. Ros Chatto, my agent, calls to say I have been offered a role in the BBC Andrew Davies adaptation of Fanny Hill. She reads through this raunchy script finding no mention of the part for which I’m slated until she gets to the very final scene, where Fanny meets an old and respectable gentleman (me) whom she fucks to extinction, then inherits his fortune and lives happily ever after.

‘I don’t think so, do you darling?’ asks Mrs Chatto. ‘That’s not quite how we see ourselves at this stage in our career.’ The truth is I don’t have much of an urge to act and I’ve always thought myself a bit of a fraud as an actor. Age, though, does make actors less choosy. When Gielgud was in his eighties he acted almost continuously, taking parts virtually on the cab-rank principle. Olivier did some of that, too, though restricted more by ill-health. Alec Guinness definitely retired and took to writing, which was a pity as he would have excelled in small char-acter roles if he’d allowed himself to play them. And I think he still wanted to but was held back, as he’d been all his life, by too strong a sense of self-preservation.

29 May. A biker delivers some proofs from PFD, and as I’m signing for them, asks what’s my opinion of Cyril Connolly and why is it he’s less well thought of than, say, twenty years ago. Because he’s not long dead is the short answer and also, I suppose, because the literary scene has changed, with no one critic presiding in the way Connolly and (to a lesser extent) Raymond Mortimer did.

The only time I met Connolly was in 1968 – when my first play, Forty Years On, was in Brighton on its pre-West End tour. He was mentioned in the text, where it was implied he was quite short, as I’d thought he was – simply I suppose from his face, which is that of someone small and chubby. He came round to the stage door to show me that he was of average height. An almost legendary figure to me through my reading of The Unquiet Grave, he then sent a postcard asking me to lunch in Eastbourne but I pretended it hadn’t arrived as I was too shy to go. I was 34 at the time and ought to have grown out of such silliness, another notable casualty of which was Jackie Kennedy, with whom Adlai Stevenson asked the cast of Beyond the Fringe to supper in New York in 1963. They went and I didn’t. Never spelling it out to myself, I clung far too long to the notion that shyness was a virtue and not, as I came too late to see, a bore.

I don’t quite spill all this out to the waiting courier, who is a graduate of UCL and shouldn’t have to be biking round London delivering letters this cold wet May afternoon.

5 June. My lunch owes a good deal to the Prince of Wales, whose beetroot soup I have and then his raspberry jam in my Yeo Valley yogurt. Jam and soup are both delicious, and in the middle of the yogurt I remember for no obvious reason the film State Fair and in particular the scatty mother. Decide she was played by Spring Byington (or was it Fay Bainter?). One or other of them anyway made some chutney that got unwittingly topped up with brandy, thus intoxicating the judges and winning the prize.

12 June. The Royal Festival Hall reopens. About a month after its unveiling in 1951 a party from my school in Leeds went down by overnight bus to the Festival of Britain where in the morning we went to a brief concert at the Festival Hall, such events taking place regularly throughout the day as well as at night, in order to show off both the architecture and the acoustics. I thought then, aged 17, that it was the most exciting building I’d ever been in, playful, inventive, the only experience that compared with it in wonder when I went as a child of five round the grotto at Hitchen’s department store to see Santa Claus.

The music we heard that morning was pretty undemanding, kicking off with the overture to Susanna’s Secret by Wolf-Ferrari followed by Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. Through the concerts I regularly went to in Leeds Town Hall I was a fairly sophisticated music-lover and when the master in charge, the aptly named Mr Boor, said that he didn’t go for all this highbrow stuff, it was a small lesson that older wasn’t necessarily going to mean wiser. The next time I was in the RFH was 18 months later when I was already in the army. Then it was Brahms’s First Symphony, and one came out afterwards not onto the enchanted esplanade and playful promenades of 1951 but to acres of mud and destruction: Churchill, in a for him rare instance of political spite, had had the whole site razed to the ground. Socialism must not be seen to be fun.

15 June. Apropos the conviction of the half a dozen would-be bombers this last week, no one that I have seen has commented on the fact that they all (I think) pleaded guilty. Why is this? Have they been told it will mitigate their sentence (it doesn’t)? Do they think that, as with the IRA, the future will see some turnaround and they will be granted an amnesty (unlikely)? Or is it simply an expression of their desire for martyrdom? In a high-profile criminal case a clutch of guilty pleas would arouse comment. Why not here? Is it just the laziness of journalists (to which there is no bounds) – why is nobody asking?

16 June. Meet R. off the Cardiff train at Didcot and we drive through Berkshire’s Edwardian countryside, red brick villas behind high beech hedges, looking for Hamstead Marshall. An ancient buttressed wall with a stone panel dated 1665 suggests we are not far off. And here is the church above the road, the tower with an 18th-century look to it and a medieval chapel behind. But it’s locked and no one about who could open it up. Fortunately, though, there is an opening in the wall and we look through to a huge field of barley. Marooned in it are six or eight sets of huge 17th-century gateposts in brick and stone, their summits crowned with urns, the posts themselves set with cartouches and carved ornaments, a wonderful sight and all that remains, according to a guide on the noticeboard in the church porch, of the 17th-century mansion of Lord Craven and his architect, Balthazar Gerbier. There is a footpath across the field and we stroll through the high barley on this hot afternoon with swallows skimming low over the tops and it feels like a scene from the 1940s. It could be a Michael Powell film or a page from the diaries of Denton Welch. This isn’t wholly imagination either, as it turns out that there was a camp here during the war for American airborne troops, which makes the survival of these wonderfully elaborate pillars, still here despite all that must have been literally thrown at them, even more of a miracle. The field would make a good Brideshead-like beginning for a film: as it is now and as it was then.

28 June, Yorkshire. Write to the Bradford Diocesan Registrar about a proposal to remove pews from St Andrew’s Kildwick. The church is largely 14th-century, but a group of parishioners now wish to ‘move forward’ and are proposing the installation of flexible seating, a meeting room, a crèche, a kitchen, toilets and disabled access, because their ‘style of worship’ is not suited to the constrictions of a 14th-century building. I’m sure they’re sincere, but the arguments being advanced are exactly the same as those of the equally sincere worshippers who wanted the stained-glass windows smashed in the 17th century or the rood loft removed in 1559. It didn’t suit their style of worship either.

4 July, Yorkshire. To Menwith Hill just outside Harrogate, where the veteran campaigner Lindis Percy has asked me to take part in an Independence from America demonstration on behalf of the Campaign for the Accountability of American Bases. Before I agreed (and in an effort to get out of going, I suspect) I consulted Norman Dombey who (as readers of the LRB know) is well versed in nuclear politics. Not that Menwith Hill – RAF Menwith Hill, as it is euphemistically called, though it’s almost wholly American – is (yet) a nuclear base, only a satellite warning and surveillance station staffed entirely by US personnel and outside British control. Norman tells me that the base is currently given over to surveillance but while it probably played no part in rendition it would be vital to the US in any conflict with Iran.

So I make the journey north to nowadays not so genteel Harrogate and out into Nidderdale. It’s wet and windy and the protesters, fifty or sixty in number (and also in age mostly) are corralled safely round the gate of the camp by approximately the same number of policemen, some of them grimly filming everyone in sight. The number of police shocks me, not merely because it’s an implied threat to freedom of speech but also because I’m a council tax payer in this area of North Yorkshire and a hefty slice of my annual payment goes on the police precept, currently being squandered by a young policeman with big ears conscientiously filming some sixty-year-old ladies peacefully eating their sandwiches, as a second unit policeman (with smaller ears) films them from the rear. Most of the protesters (more women than men) wouldn’t look out of place on a WI cake stall, though there are one or two eccentrics who may have called in en route home from Glastonbury, including an American dressed (or undressed) as a rather sturdier Gandhi; a young woman who claims to have walked all the way here from Australia; and someone else who periodically bangs a Tibetan drum. While none of this is quite up my street, I’m impressed by the general good sense and humour of the demonstration, which is not shared by the police who remain po-faced throughout. Even in the rain it’s an idyllic spot, though, and standing on an improvised platform I can look across Nidderdale towards Pateley Bridge (where I was unofficially evacuated in 1939), a vista which the cluster of huge golf balls that constitute the base doesn’t really spoil, they’re so monumental and extraordinary. The place is seemingly deserted, with none of the 1500 US personnel who work here showing their face.

Mark Steel speaks first and despite the rain and the cold manages to get the audience laughing, though not the policemen, who in fairness are probably cold and wet and resent having to be here at all. When it’s my turn I say that I don’t in principle object to the surveillance station and realise it may be necessary. But it’s dirty work and if there is dirty work to be done we should do it ourselves. It’s called RAF Menwith Hill and that’s what it should be, under the control of the Ministry of Defence and thus (however notionally) of Parliament. As it is, though, this is sovereign America, a place in which Britain has abrogated all rights – a situation the US would never permit on its own territory. I finish by saying that after I’d agreed to speak I got another invitation for 4 July, to celebrate Independence Day at cocktails with the American ambassador. Regretfully declining the invitation, I felt that to tell him what I was planning to do instead might have seemed inappropriate.

On the train back I run into Jon Snow, who is returning from Bradford where he has been making a programme about the decline of the city. I note that at Kings Cross, unlike me, he goes home by Tube, whereas after the rigours of Nidderdale I feel I’m entitled to a cab. Still, as Anthony Powell used sometimes to note in his journal, ‘interesting day’.

7 July. The same week as I traipsed across North Yorkshire the Guardian has a piece by Terry Eagleton saying that of all the eminent writers and playwrights only Pinter continues radical and untainted by the Establishment. I’m not sure if this means that in Eagleton’s view I don’t qualify because of my absence of eminence or because such protests as I take part in are too sporadic and low-profile to be noticed. Either way if I had email I could send him or the Guardian a one-word message: ‘Ahem.’

19 July. That TV production staff should have taken a hand in helping along the various competitions, phone-ins and charity programmes is unsurprising. Back in the 1960s, when I had my first experience of TV studios, the audience went largely unmanaged. In comedy programmes there was a warm-up beforehand and a PA might cue the applause or start it, supposedly spontaneously, but the response was otherwise unmassaged. In the late 1960s this began to change, and overenthusiastic PAs took to shouting approval in the final round of applause that ended the show. Then the applause before the appearance of the star – particularly on chat shows – got wilder and longer so that one had the nauseating spectacle of David Frost, for instance, standing supposedly touched and surprised by the audience’s unexpected warmth, the shouts of the PAs now become whoops. This quickly became standard and a customary feature of live shows today, particularly Graham Norton’s, with the audience readily entering into the subterfuge, knowing that they are part of the event as they would be at a pop concert. It’s not a big step, therefore, from helping the show along in this way to manipulating competition results to suit the mood, and despite all the current breast-beating, not much more dishonest.

Even the sleight of hand over the royal documentary, with the queen sweeping in when she was supposedly sweeping out, won’t much shock the public. HMQ was plainly cross and whichever way she swept doesn’t alter that, even if it over-emphasises it. I am just happy to see the pretentious Ms Leibovitz properly discomfited, though I shouldn’t think she’ll remain so for long.

24 July, France. Walking through Lectoure with Lynn we go down a back street towards the car park. It’s hot and already the lunch break; the houses are shuttered and the street completely deserted. We are passing a house that is being renovated with Lynn slightly ahead of me when a shard of glass falls or is thrown from somewhere up in the building, just missing my head and falling between us. It’s half a window, jagged and sharp-edged, and had it hit either of us in the neck might well have been fatal. It takes a moment to realise what has happened, our first thought that it has been flung down by some heedless workman. We shout, but there is utter silence, whether because there is no one there or because the culprit has the sense to lie low. A woman comes out of a house, picking her way through the shattered glass, not looking at us and saying nothing. Absurdly, I kick the battered garage door but there is still this impenetrable and somehow malignant silence as we go on down the street, occasionally looking back to see if whoever was responsible is peering out.

2 August. Chris Langham is found guilty of downloading child pornography and remanded for sentencing next month, having been told to expect jail. To imprison someone for looking at or making a copy of something makes me uneasy, even though, as in this case, the facts are not in dispute. And not merely with pornography. Last month some Muslim young men were imprisoned for, among other things, looking at or having in their possession a handbook with bomb-making instructions. That makes me uneasy too. Looking is not doing however much a police-led morality would like to equate the two, and would like the public to equate them also. Repellent though child pornography is, I don’t find Mr Langham’s conduct especially repugnant and am only grateful when I read about such cases that my own inclinations don’t take me down that route. I don’t know Chris Langham but I find the policy of targeting such high-profile figures deplorable, the relish with which they are pursued in the tabloid press chilling. I hope Mr Langham gets a short sentence and that he will not become the pariah the authorities would like, and that the BBC, not these days noted for its courage, will shortly re-employ him.

11 August. On Saturdays the Guardian is running a series on writers’ rooms. Why any writer allows him or herself to be prevailed on to take part I’m not sure. Flattered to be asked, perhaps, though what would deter me would be, if nothing else, superstition: to allow a newspaper to photograph my desk runs the risk of never being able to do any more work there. None that I remember have been inspiring or even particularly pleasing: Colm Tóibín’s today is all books, though said to look over rooftops, which could be nice; Margaret Drabble’s faced the street, but with curtains so long and John Lewis-like I’d be frightened they’d get into the prose; Edna O’Brien’s had some relics of Samuel Beckett, hardly likely to unchain the imagination or get the words flowing. All have had awful fireplaces. Can we see where you work? No fear.

11 September. To the British Museum for the opening of The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. There are speeches in the Great Court – Neil MacGregor as always the best, no one that I’ve ever heard ‘turning’ a speech as well as he does and giving it a flick at the finish. There’s also what is billed in the programme as a ‘Special Guest’. This turns out to be Gordon Brown, who makes a decent speech too and one which, as R. says, must be impromptu as he repeats himself. Flattered to be gathered up by Neil and taken in past the explanatory displays (‘You don’t want all this foreplay, do you?’) to the figures themselves. Though obviously the sheer size of the site must be staggering and can scarcely be imagined, what compensates here is being able to see the figures at such close quarters. The detail of them is extraordinary. No more so perhaps than in English alabaster tomb figures (1500 years later) but those were often standard archetypes whereas these are individuals and perhaps portraits. The stance of the figures is so natural – a young man slightly slumped, a headless wrestler and, as Neil points out, the generals always fatter than the soldiers. One damaged figure of an acrobat is like a Degas or a Marini and, maybe because it’s damaged, is the only figure that seems not entirely naturalistic. And it’s the humanity of the detail that is so touching. As we’re coming out we pass behind the kneeling figure of an archer, whose meticulously modelled hair catches R.’s eye and the weave of his stockinged foot mine. Seldom have I felt so immediately satisfied by an exhibition or so unmystified. The social circumstances of the times and the nature of the whole society, that is a mystery, but not the objects themselves. It’s Proust in plaster (except it’s terracotta).

15 September. Discover a good bookshop, Crockatt and Powell on Lower Marsh, a street opposite The Cut near the Old Vic, where I buy Henry James’s ‘The Lesson of the Master’. It’s a short story in which Henry St George, a famous novelist, supposedly Daudet but resembling James himself, gives the benefit of his experience to a young writer, Paul Overt. St George, we are given to understand, has ‘sold out’, and in order to make money and keep up his position has fallen away from the artistic perfection to which he once aspired (and occasionally achieved). He now produces if not potboilers, then certainly inferior stuff – a declension brought about by too many worldly encumbrances, particularly his ambitious wife. He rather portentously advises Overt against marriage, whereupon the young writer sacrifices his love for the vivacious Marian Fancourt, goes off to Switzerland and writes a masterpiece. There’s a twist in the tail (and in the tale) as St George ends up marrying Ms Fancourt himself, but the whole thing strikes me as a pretty formulaic exercise and not at all convincing, partly because it’s suffused with such an extravagant notion of Art. Art makes both novelists throb with love and thrill with excitement, while at the same time (and of necessity) leaving what it is in their respective works that they’re thrilling and throbbing about vague and unspecified. This is always the trouble with stories or plays about writers (or films about painters): the actual material that they produce can only be described; if it’s shown or set down plainly for the reader to judge it invariably turns out to be poor or pretentious stuff. And why not? If one could write a story about a masterpiece and include the masterpiece why bother to put it in a frame in the first place? What I particularly don’t buy is the notion of self-denial leading (in the story inevitably) to greatness.

20 September. I’m reading Robert Craft’s memoirs, which are sometimes almost comically bad and just a joined up engagement book. At other times, though, he writes vividly and well. The book includes an account of the first night of Beyond the Fringe in New York in October 1962. Arnold Weissberger, the showbiz accountant, had procured seats for Craft and for the Stravinskys, though with Craft not at his usual post by their side but sitting some distance away with Rita Hayworth (who was moderately pissed). There was much laughter, Craft reports, but with Hayworth laughing louder and longer than anyone else, much to Craft’s embarrassment. Seeing that people in the audience were looking at them, Craft contrived to leave with Ms Hayworth at the interval. I never even knew Rita Hayworth was in the audience not to mention Stravinsky. Though Craft may not be the most reliable witness, as he also notes the presence of Charles Addams ‘and his wife, Deborah Kerr’.

24 September. Marcel Marceau dies. Much hated by Peter Cook (‘Marcel Arsehole’), who couldn’t stand the reverence with which mime was treated. Still it gave him a good joke: ‘I was there,’ he used to say, ‘the night Marcel Marceau dried.’

2 October. Ned Sherrin dies who very much figured in the second period of my life after Beyond the Fringe, when he worked on the late-night shows Not So Much a Programme and The Late Show. He was an ideal producer in that no production problem or censorship difficulties were ever allowed to reach the performers – in this respect (and only in this) resembling another producer of mine, Innes Lloyd. Both of them protected the writers and actors from the BBC hierarchy. John Bird used to do a very good Harold Wilson and after one show Ned was summoned by Hugh Carleton-Greene, the director-general, and told that the prime minister was threatening legal action. ‘Tell him to go ahead,’ said Ned. ‘Say that just because he’s prime minister he shouldn’t feel he ought not to sue.’ No more was heard of the matter. Ned was a gent, too, always sending you a note if you’d been on one of his programmes or he’d seen something you’d done. He made no secret of being gay or of the fact that he availed himself of the services of escort agencies and rent boys, about which he would teasingly drop hints in one of the several columns he wrote and at a time when the tabloids were going to town over similar celebrity shock horrors. ‘Airily’ is the adverb one associates with Ned and a refusal ever to be disconcerted, looking, with the top-heavy figure of his latter years, like a genial Lady Bracknell.

15 October. Talk to Peter Gill, who is bringing out a book on acting, Actors Speaking. He thinks that what has always been the shortcoming of American actors, namely, that while superb at naturalism they find artificiality difficult, is now the case here: and that paradoxically actors from lower down the social scale find it hard to imitate toffs (and so to play Wilde or mannered comedy) whereas Etonians, say, have no problem being ordinary or working class. It’s partly that today’s generation of actors are better at imitation (and so can do dialect) but what they lack is fantasy, with few of them able to indulge in what he calls ‘the erotics of speaking’. He instances Edith Evans, an odd-looking girl and a shop assistant, who had a notion of herself as a beautiful and talented woman and who made her audience share that vision. And she was not alone: Peggy Ashcroft came from Croydon, Noël Coward from the suburbs and Alec Guinness was the son of a barmaid. But all of them had some sense of their proper position in life, a fantasy of what they wanted to be which these days would probably be disapproved of or discouraged, fantasy frowned on as some sort of escape.

21 October. One piece of slightly cheering news is the departure of the terrible Kaczynski twins in Poland. They had been child actors, a profession ideally suited to tyrants in the making, and the one photograph I’ve seen of them in character makes them look fittingly like cousins to the Children of the Damned. Years ago there used to be a set of twins in Spotlight called Imp and Mischief Champneys. They remained a fixture of that volume for years, it seemed, eternally young and in unfailing spirits, though I never saw a production in which they actually appeared. Thinking about it, David Cameron could have been a child actor. And Blair, who always had a ‘Who’s for tennis?’ air about him.

24 October. To Bath where before going down to the Forum for a reading I sign stock at Robert Topping’s new bookshop on The Paragon. Like his other shop at Ely, it’s astonishingly well supplied and scholarly as well as popular, a series of enticing rooms – and plenty of chairs. The reading had originally been intended for the Abbey, but though I’d done more or less the same performance in Ely Cathedral, it was thought to be too secular for Bath. The Forum is huge and the sound system dodgy, so I end up relaying my thoughts about the queen and her reading into a hand mike, which since I’m reading from the text is a bit of a juggle whenever I turn the page. Afterwards there’s a signing, which ends just in time to catch the London train.

The station is only a few hundred yards away but on the other side of a vast building site, another of Bath’s ill-starred town planning ventures in the making, this time a vast shopping mall. Bath has been under siege all my life. When I first came here in the 1960s they had just set about demolishing streets and streets of early 19th-century housing, the service quarters for the grander buildings in the town. They were said to be of no architectural interest or significance, with no notion that they were part of an architectural whole. This, I think, was under the aegis of Hugh Casson, the deceptively mild-mannered and bien-pensant architect who in his time presided over many a planning disaster.

And so it has gone on since, with acres of indifferent modern buildings all carefully constructed in Bath stone as if that was all that was necessary to bind the city together. I’d hold a show trial in Bath, a Nuremberg for all the perpetrators of its architectural atrocities, the money-grubbing councillors who sanctioned it, the mediocre architects who did their bidding, winkled out from their wisteria-covered vicarages for proper retribution. Many of them are of course dead but like Cromwell they could be disinterred and their remains stowed under some sort of monument in the centre of this coming mall, a reminder of the crime they have committed. Apart from the demolished buildings themselves, the other casualty is of course decent architecture with otherwise pleasing designs: the extension to the Holburne Museum, for instance, now badly compromised because even fans of decent modern architecture are nervous of championing it in Bath where fingers have been burned so often. ‘No more’ is the understandable reaction. But it’s too late. Under the arc-lights the bulldozers grub away and the pile-drivers sink their shafts. On the flood plain one hopes.

As the train pulls out I think this is not a city I want to visit again. Before they are artists, before they are craftsmen, be they genius or mediocrity, architects are butchers.

29 October, New York. I almost bump into an aged New York lady as I come into the grocery store and she comes out. ‘Oh sorry,’ she says. ‘I zigged when I should have zagged.’

1 November, New York. I have been reading Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, which I’ve enjoyed (insofar as I can enjoy a novel about an incontinent, impotent, irascible old writer who is two years younger than I am). One of the ghosts who is making his exit is, as I understand it, Nathan Zuckerman himself, Roth’s eidolon or alter ego whose parallel life he has traced in half a dozen books. Another ghost laid to rest is that of Amy Bellette, who in The Ghost Writer was the much younger lover of the virtually forgotten writer E.I. Lonoff. In that book Zuckerman comes to identify Amy, mistakenly, as Anne Frank, who has survived the camp and lives on unrecognised. In Exit Ghost she turns up again and is now revealed not as Anne Frank but as a survivor nevertheless, only from Norway not Holland.

I had been reading this when we go into EAT on Madison and 81st for a cup of tea and a piece of (very unsatisfactory) coconut cake. An oldish woman in a red coat and beret (and looking not unlike how Enid Starkie used to look) beckons me over, having read and enjoyed some of my stuff. She particularly liked A Question of Attribution, the play that dealt with the Queen and Anthony Blunt. She has an accent which I don’t identify, but she says she spent her childhood in Occupied Europe and what she liked about the play was all the lies that were being told, ‘Both of them lying. Him lying, her pretending. That was my childhood,’ she says. She doesn’t say whether she’s Jewish or whether the lies were vital and necessary to survival, and in my typical unwriterly fashion I fail to ask, perhaps because it’s so like a scene from Roth’s novel. As we go she calls out: ‘Stay alive!’

The whole episode is a reminder of what an archaeological site the Upper East Side is, with skeletal old ladies pushed (by their black minders) in wheelchairs up Madison Avenue, all with their stories to tell. It’s like a long lost city in some Middle Eastern wilderness where shards of history are lying about waiting to be picked up – or, in this case, talked to. But not by me, who is at a loss for words.

7 November. A young father and his son in the organic shop in Camden Town. ‘This is a boy,’ he announces at the check-out, ‘who prefers coriander to chocolate. Isn’t that so?’ And the boy – seven or eight, I suppose – confirms this unlikely preference, though more one suspects out of consideration for his father’s feelings than any distaste for Kit Kats – or, as it would be in this context, Green and Black.

15 November. Abu Hamza, the radical cleric, loses his appeal, the only obstacle between him and extradition to the United States the decision of the home secretary. The judge in the case, Judge Workman, admits that the conditions under which Hamza is likely to be held in the United States are offensive to his ‘sense of propriety’, thus briefly raising the hope that his judgment is going to be less workmanlike than it turns out to be.

Hamza is not an attractive figure and his case is difficult to defend, but it should be defended and extradition rejected on Karl Popper’s principle that arguments should be rebutted at their strongest point. Nobody likes Hamza: his opinions are reprehensible and there is no question that he broadcasts them. But he is a British citizen and he should not be extradited to the United States under a non-reciprocal treaty which allows that country to extradite British subjects without due process. Let him be tried here and if found guilty imprisoned here, not in some supermax institution (offensive even to Judge Workman) where he will disappear without trace. Because next time the person the United States decides on may not have one eye and hooks for hands, disabilities which make him such a joke to the tabloid press. Next time the person chosen might be thought to be innocent and undeserving of such ridicule, and extradition might even be thought to be unfair. But it won’t matter. The precedent has been set and gets stronger with every person so supinely yielded up to American so-called justice. Jacqui Smith, the vibrant successor to such champions of liberty as Jack Straw, David Blunkett and John Reid, is potentially a bigger threat to our freedoms than Abu Hamza has ever been. ITV News reports all this as ‘Britain has won the right to extradite Abu Hamza.’ Translated this means Britain has lost the right not to extradite anyone whom the United States chooses.

26 November. An obituary in the Guardian of Reg Park, the body-builder and sometime film star who (and this is news to me) was the mentor (if that is the word) of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reg Park was at my school, though gone by the time I got there. However, at one point on my journey through the school I sat at Reg Park’s old desk, his name carved on the lid. He’d been one of those boys who could do backflips and somersaults over the horse and was already famous, certainly in Leeds, as a body beautiful. Outside the pages of Health and Efficiency there wasn’t much of a future for men in this, posing as an art still confined to the motionless statuesque nudes (‘We never Clothed’) who regularly adorned the stage of the City Varieties. Leeds’s loss, though, was Italy’s (and eventually Hollywood’s) gain, where Park became a star of classical epics. And, oddly, he was not the only one, as twenty years later another old boy of my school, Martin Potter, played the lead in Fellini’s Satyricon.

1 December, Versailles. Having been informed by the hotel that we would be able to hire bikes to go round the grounds of the palace we find that this facility ceased on the last day of November. This turns out a blessing as we then decide to hire a sort of golf cart, an electrically powered trolley for four on which we trundle up the pleached alleys and ceremonial avenues of these vast grounds, a pleasure that recalls the first thrill of being able to drive. It’s the ideal mode of transport and not merely it seems to me for the domain of Louis XIV. I would be happy to go at this speed (and in similar silence) about the streets of London. Indeed it surprises me that no city has been enterprising enough to declare itself a trolley cart zone.

6 December. During the war my father eked out his Co-op butcher’s income by making fretwork toys which he sold to a smart toyshop down County Arcade in Leeds. His speciality was penguins mounted on little four-wheeled carts, of which during the war years he must have made many hundreds. Since then I’ve only come across two, one in the window of a junk shop in Harehills that was closed and when I went back it had gone; the other the property of someone who came to a reading I did in Muswell Hill but who, under the foolish impression that the toy was of immense value, refused to part with it.

Toy penguin

Last week comes a letter from a woman in Mitcham to say that her husband, who has recently died, collected penguins and enclosing a photograph of one he’d found in an antique shop in Tickhill near Doncaster. Was this one of my father’s efforts? She wasn’t offering it for sale, just letting me know out of interest, but I write back confirming the attribution. Today cocooned in bubble wrap the penguin arrives, livelier in design than I’d remembered, but almost certainly from the Bennett atelier. It actually belongs to her son, Tom, who has waived all rights in it with a generosity that overwhelms me and out of all proportion to this simple little toy which now stands cheerfully on the mantelpiece, one of the few relics I have of my father.