Alan Bennett Eats a Poached Egg
1 January, Yorkshire. Ill over Christmas I say to Ernest Coultherd, a farmer in the village, that my Christmas dinner consisted of a poached egg. ‘Oh. Credit crunch,
Two dead salmon in the beck just above Mafeking Bridge, both of them huge creatures, nearly two feet long, so big that one wonders how the beck at low water can accommodate them, though there are a few deepish pools. It’s thought at first that an otter is responsible, and as otters have been seen I suppose it’s cheering that there are both otters and such large fish for them to prey on. However I talk to Dr Farrer this morning and he thinks the fish probably died after spawning and wonders if they’re sea trout. Salmon have not been known to come up so far, as they can’t negotiate the waterfall and the weir before the lake.
21 January. Working in the BBC Studio at Maida Vale I don’t watch President Obama’s inauguration and am astonished when I see on the news in the evening the vast concourse of people gathered in Washington. I don’t read any official estimates of the numbers though it’s to be hoped they estimate more accurately in the US than they do here, where any demonstration of which the police disapprove – the Stop the War marches, for instance – is routinely marked down whereas demos on which the police look kindly, the Countryside Alliance, say, are correspondingly inflated. If there had been a police presence at the Feeding of the Five Thousand there would have been no miracle. ‘Listen, there were only a dozen or so people there. Five loaves and two fishes perfectly adequate.’
28 January. A photograph in the Independent of Picasso painting Guernica in 1937 in a collar and tie.
30 January. My friend Anne’s funeral and we are about to set off for the crematorium in the pouring rain when as we turn the car round a young pheasant skitters across the road. Nothing unusual in that except that this pheasant is pure white. I’m not given to a belief in signs or portents but it’s nevertheless quite cheering to feel that she’s still around.
The service in the village church in the afternoon is packed. I give an address but the whole occasion is wonderfully and unexpectedly rounded off by Ben, her middle son, who despite grief and nerves manages to say what his mother had meant to him and his two brothers. I couldn’t have spoken impromptu as he did and the congregation quite properly gave him (and Anne) a great round of applause. The boys then take the flowers that have been on the hearse and decorate the front of her café.
1 February. Entertaining Mr Sloane, Orton’s first play, is being given another outing, this time at the Trafalgar Studios. I saw the first production at Wyndham’s in 1964 with Madge Ryan, Peter Vaughan and Dudley Sutton. Good in the part Sutton was already too old, as have been most of the actors who’ve played in it since. It’s a play I would dearly like to have written, though these days for it to retain its shock value the young man should not be much more than a boy. As it is he’s always cast as someone already well corrupted and who knows exactly what he’s doing whereas from a boy of 15 the flirtatiousness would be much more shocking. All productions put him in black leather and a little cap such as Orton himself used to wear. Here too an outfit that is not so self-conscious would serve the play better. The more ordinary it is the more shocking it will seem.
3 February. One of the cards of condolence we get on Anne’s death is unintentionally comical. ‘Sorry to hear your bad news!’ The exclamation mark is hilariously inappropriate though it’s quite hard to pinpoint why.
20 February. It’s years since I was on Desert Island Discs but these days I’d find it much easier to choose the eight records I don’t want than those that I do. I don’t ever want to hear again:
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
Schubert Fifth Symphony
Beethoven Pastoral Symphony
Mozart 40th Symphony
And it isn’t that I’ve heard them too often. I just don’t care for any of them.
7 March, Yorkshire. To Oxenholme, half an hour from home and on the edge of the Lake District, where we catch a Virgin train to Glasgow. It’s a brisk ride, only two hours and seems less than that because the scenery is so uninterruptedly rural and sometimes spectacular. Virgin trains, though, are designed on the American model with dark interiors and small windows and are nowhere near as comfortable as GNER. I’ve never had much time for the spurious populism of Richard Branson: his jolly japes and toothy demeanour can’t disguise the fact that he is a hard-faced entrepreneur. These thoughts recur when we come back from Glasgow the next day and have to travel by bus two-thirds of the way (‘track repairs’) and with a driver who has the radio on throughout. It rains, too, but the journey is redeemed when back at Oxenholme we drop down into Kendal and the Abbot Hall gallery, where there is a touring exhibition of Robert Bevan pictures. The shows at Abbot Hall are just the right size, and never more than three or four rooms. The Bevans are shown alongside other Camden Town paintings, the best of which is a lovely, glowing, slightly abstract picture by Spencer Gore, The Beanfield, Letchworth, which is from the Tate. There’s a Gilman Mrs Mounter, some Nevinsons and lots of Bevans of horses and their hangers on – horse copers, idlers and jockeys in civvies and large caps.
‘I like Bevan,’ says R. ‘He wasn’t afraid of mauve.’
What’s interesting about the exhibition also is the various views it has of Cumberland Market, the great horse-market north of Euston Road where the 1950s Regent’s Park estate now stands. It was bombed during the war, or so it’s always said, though it was probably recoverable and from the various drawings on show in the exhibition one can see how these days it might have been a lovely place to live, a vast square surrounded by early 19th-century houses, a space comparable to the Marais if not quite so distinguished.
13 March. Red Riding is much talked of and applauded, and it is powerful and sometimes hard to watch. Whether it’s feasible or the assumptions about the police entirely plausible I’m inclined to doubt. ‘The Leeds police kick mainly in the teeth’ is the gist of it, plus an assumption that the force in the 1970s was thoroughly corrupt.
Though the circumstances were hardly as lurid, this was very much the assumption when I was a boy. Rationing offered increased opportunities for peculation and my father, a butcher, who was both Conservative and conservative, nevertheless always assumed that most policemen were ‘on the take’ and the magistrates, too. Still, though the police get away with extreme violence and even murder, I find it hard to credit (if I understand the plot) that masked bobbies could shoot up a club or beat up and rape a reporter on the Yorkshire Post without there being some sort of repercussions. Comically, since in my memory the Yorkshire Post was always rather a genteel newspaper, I’d find it easier to believe if the reporter had been from the Yorkshire Evening Post – the newspaper Keith Waterhouse first worked on as a reporter.
So while Red Riding seems like gritty realism it is in this respect quite romantic, as romantic and fanciful as the stories told at the other end of the social and geographical scale in Midsomer Murders. In Midsomer the murders average three or four per episode but never seem to incur any comment in the press or ruffle the calm surface of the community. It takes more than the discovery of a mere body to stop the garden fête. Midsomer and Red Riding are not very different in this and alike, too, in that they’re both, Midsomer particularly, a boon to actors.
23 March. A concert hall in Prague in 1942. A performance of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto. The hall full, a group of German officers and their wives prominently placed, one of them a general. In the middle of the concerto the great door of the concert hall opens a little and three leather-overcoated Gestapo slip into the hall. There are three aisles and an officer walks slowly down each one scanning the audience. One stops at the end of a row, another at the far end, and we see a young man in the middle of the row. There is some sort of disturbance, a shout during a quiet passage of the music maybe, so that the general turns round. He sees the Gestapo and waves them away and reluctantly they move to the back of the hall where they wait by the door. The concerto continues.
We are now at the third movement and during it a small paper bag is passed surreptitiously along the row where the young man is sitting. When the parcel reaches the young man he puts his coat over it.
The concerto ends, the applause is tumultuous, the Gestapo run down the aisle, though impeded by people leaving. They reach the young man’s row and wait. At which point he takes a gun out of the bag and shoots himself. The general and his party leave.
28 March. I go up the street to Sesame, the organic shop, slipping on a green corduroy jacket. I’m also wearing an old pair of green corduroy trousers so it looks like a suit. It makes me remember how Gielgud used to be excited – or pretended to be – by corduroy. ‘Corduroy! My dear!’ And his eyebrows would go up as if it were some kind of statement. Which it may well once have been, but was hardly the case in 1968.
4 April. News that this year’s Royal Show will be the last ought not to impinge, and that it does is because back in 1947 the first Royal Show since the war took place at York and a coachload of us were taken over from school. Why I can’t think as we were hardly sons of the soil and Leeds had no farming pretensions, few places less so, but I suppose events of any sort were thin on the postwar ground and this was thought to be one. I’ve no recollection of there being anything to do with farming, no prize bulls or sheepdog demonstrations, and what stands out in my mind was that there was a good deal of free literature on offer. None of us schoolboys had ever come across this before and we dashed round the various pavilions stocking up on brochures about milking machines and silage pits, poultry catalogues and pamphlets about scrapie plus the latest in tractors and combine harvesters. Clearing out a cupboard a year or two ago I came across some of this material, now, I suppose, an archive though it was displaced a few years later by slightly more worthwhile giveaways from the Festival of Britain.
8 April. Fairly obvious that the newspaper seller who died in the G20 demonstrations was pushed over by a policeman. Equally obvious that even if the calls for a public inquiry are conceded no policeman will be charged or even suspended. According to the Economist, in the last ten years there have been more than 400 deaths in custody, with no convictions for murder or manslaughter, the police always vindicated. This isn’t simply against the laws of England; it’s against a more fundamental law – the law of averages.
16 April, Yorkshire. En route home and with half an hour to spare we stop briefly at Kirkstall Abbey, which R. has never seen. After Fountains, Byland and Rievaulx, Kirkstall is a bit of a disappointment, though to me it was always a familiar relic, soot black with its niches and side chapels piled with meaningless masonry and stinking of urine.
Now it’s all tidied up, the ancient Ministry of Works lead labels replaced by over-informative notices, illustrated with slightly jokey pictures of the jolly monks going about their monastic business. Still, I’m glad we’ve been as it confirms something I’d thought was a legend, namely that until the 19th century the main road (now the A65) ran down the nave of the abbey, which to an unsuspecting traveller in the dusk must have seemed extraordinary, like a journey out of a dream.
25 April. Listen to the (always interesting) Archive on 4. Tonight it’s memories of Mrs Thatcher and a real feast of humbug with Lords Butler, Tebbit and Bell joining in a chorus of self-serving reminiscence of their old mistress with the equally fawning commentary supplied by Matthew Parris. Thatcher’s was a court and her courtiers just as cowardly as the courtiers of Henry VIII, and one can imagine some 16th-century Lord Butler justifying his master much as Tebbit and Bell are doing this evening. ‘It was unfortunate, of course, but the second wife had to go. She was impossible and yet, you see, His Majesty was genuinely fond of her, so much so that on the day she was … disposed of … he couldn’t be anywhere in the vicinity and took himself off hunting. His Majesty was in many ways a very sensitive man.’
8 May. A lot of fuss about the Prince of Wales, with a group of architects writing to the Guardian claiming HRH’s objection to the Chelsea Barracks design is an interference ‘in the democratic process’.
This is hypocritical rubbish. Architects have always had scant regard for democracy and as often as not have the planners in their pocket; anyone who stands up to them gets my vote, including the Prince of Wales.
9 June. Reading Enlightening, the latest volume of Isaiah Berlin’s letters, which has been rather grudgingly reviewed. One redeeming thing about Berlin – if he needs redeeming – is that he likes women. He likes talking to them, he likes writing to them, gossiping with them and, I suppose, though a late starter he likes sleeping with them. This is unusual. Most men and fewer dons don’t like women. They may like screwing them, but liking the women themselves, that’s rare.
In the book there’s an account of how Berlin lunched with the queen and other eminent guests on 11 June 1957. At the lunch, Berlin tells us, he pressed the merits of Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County, Nabokov’s Lolita and the works of Genet, whereupon the titles were dutifully written down for Her Majesty by a courtier. So when in The Uncommon Reader the queen questions the French president about Genet it has some (though 50-year-old) foundation in fact. And it’s sheer coincidence. In 2007 when I wrote the story I had no knowledge of Berlin’s correspondence, the relevant volume of which was only published this year. I chose Genet simply as an author whom the queen would be most unlikely ever to have come across. And to mention him to her even in 2007 might be thought bold, but much more so 50 years earlier when the home secretary, R.A. Butler, was rather cross with Berlin, implying his temerity might have interfered with his knighthood.
Like Auden Berlin seems to have had no visual sense at all and to have been uneasy in the countryside.
28 June. When we were staying at Kington in May we called at Presteigne, where the junk shop is a favourite of R’s. In the window was a devotional jug with on it a picture of a hen and this verse:
The Saviour of Mankind adopts
The figure of the Hen
To show the strength of his regard
For the lost sons of men.
2 July. I am reading (or trying to read) Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A House and Its Head, the result of dipping again into Hilary Spurling’s superb biography. I encounter all the usual obstacles: the characters not distinguished from each other by their manner of speaking, forgetting which character is which with Compton-Burnett’s description of what they look like not helping. And some of it (this is seldom said) is downright bad. Still, there’s more happening than one at first realises. In the first couple of chapters of A House and Its Head the eponymous Duncan Edgeworth burns a copy of a book, not named but what one imagines to be Darwin’s Origin of Species, which has been given to his nephew for Christmas. Later that same Christmas Day the said nephew and his cousin re-enact an Anglican service, sermon included. Whether I shall manage to finish the book I doubt as I’ve never yet managed to read one of her novels right through.
6 July. But thinking I won’t finish the book means that I can and do and find the novel ends with a flurry of marriages and (if I understand it correctly) the murder of a child being brushed under the carpet, money making all things right. I will try another one – Manservant and Maidservant is said to be good – but goodness, Dame Ivy is hard work.
29 July. A piece in the Independent by Charlotte Philby, Kim Philby’s granddaughter, prompted by the publication of Anthony Blunt’s apologia released by the British Library. Not surprisingly she draws an unfavourable comparison between Blunt and Philby, bolstered by happy family pictures of her grandfather in Moscow. There’s not much point, it seems to me, in apportioning guilt between them and anyway the treason side of it has never counted for much with me, though Philby does seem to have been responsible for the betrayal and presumed torture and death of a network of agents in a way that’s never been proved of Blunt. What counted though, against Blunt, and Burgess too, was that they weren’t journo-friendly. Journalists look after their own and Philby masqueraded as a devil-may-care drunken newspaperman and so was treated more indulgently by those in his profession. Blunt, who was an austere homosexual, a Marxist and a toff, got no such consideration. Though his character is still hard to fathom I’ve never had any difficulty believing Blunt and to a certain extent Burgess spent their lives paying for the mistakes of their Cambridge youth. Charlotte Philby thinks her grandfather was more honest, but it’s a saloon bar honesty. Philby was a chap. ‘Let’s have another drink on it, old man.’ Good old Kim.
1 August. This is Yorkshire Day, so designated apparently since the 1970s, though the festival had hitherto passed me by. This year I am rung by several newspapers for my comments on this joyful day, with them hoping, I imagine, for some jolly ee-ba-gummery. I suggest Yorkshire might be celebrating its distinction as the only county to have elected a fascist MEP, but nowhere is this printed.
20 August. It’s one of my life’s regrets that I have never kept a donkey.
31 August. R. having spent most of the evening (and yesterday’s) watching Wuthering Heights turns to me at the finish and says: ‘You’re rather like Heathcliff.’
Me (gratified): ‘Really?’
R.: ‘Yeah. Difficult, northern and a cunt.’
2 September. I am reading the second volume of Michael Palin’s diaries, which regularly feature the film producer Denis O’Brien. He produced A Private Function, which was made on a shoestring, the funds promised for the film regularly siphoned off for a more favoured O’Brien production, Water, which was set in the Caribbean and starred Michael Caine. O’Brien’s partner was George Harrison, who didn’t like the pig film either, and it’s evidence of Michael Palin’s generosity that he remained on good terms with the pair of them. At one point in the book my spirits rise when I read: ‘Denis is in a very bad way.’ Alas it turns out to be Denis the cat.
14 September. John Bird calls to ask where I found the phrase ‘the habit of art’. I came across it in Mystery and Manners, a book of the incidental writings of Flannery O’Connor: ‘The scientist has the habit of science, the artist the habit of art.’ John, who is more widely (and rigorously) read than I am, had come across the phrase in the correspondence between Stravinsky and Jacques Maritain in the 1920s, making him think it came from St Thomas Aquinas. Since Flannery O’Connor was nothing if not Catholic that might be the link. I tell John Bird the story of Dudley Moore and me seeing Stravinsky and his wife Vera in the Hotel Pierre in New York in 1963, saying how the name Vera has always seemed to me to humanise Stravinsky. ‘Not so much as Stockhausen,’ says John. ‘His wife’s name was Doris.’
15 October. Across the river to rehearsal, the crucial scene between Auden and Britten. In the afternoon Michael Gambon calls by, still full of regrets and apologies that he wasn’t able to do the play. We all have a cup of tea and there’s a lot of laughing, particularly as the actors from David Hare’s The Power of Yes begin to drift out after their matinée. One of them is Simon Williams, a tall distinguished figure, handsome throughout his life just as was his father, whom I remember from a film I saw as a child, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing.
Simon is an Etonian and says languidly: ‘Yes. Character acting for me is playing an Old Harrovian.’
All my life chemists’ shops have had a chair. These days I sit on it.
4 November. At one point in the tech Nick Hytner asks how many of the score or so people in the auditorium have seen the play before. Only one person raises a hand. ‘Good,’ and he addresses the rest. ‘How many of you realised that that was the words of Auden talking to the music of Britten?’ All the hands go up and Nick is much relieved. This is one of his (endearing) habits: direction by plebiscite.
7 November. It’s at this point, a couple of days into previews, that the author begins to take his or her leave of the play. It’s nothing to do with a sense of work completed, which I seldom have anyway, or now the play is up and running a desire to get on with something else. Fat chance. No. While it’s psychologically healthy (no sense in hanging around after all), it’s because at this point the cast have been allotted their dressing-rooms. Previously the rehearsal room has been the meeting place where besides work you gossip and have coffee and, if you’re like me and are used to working on your own, have a nice, gregarious time. Now everyone except the playwright has a room to go to and a couch to lie on, the real meeting place henceforth the stage on which every night the actors rendezvous to do the play. For the author it’s over.
11 November. I seldom notice the two minutes’ silence as I’m generally at home working, as I was today. On Sunday when there was the Cenotaph service and the two minutes’ silence there, R. was at an antiques fair in the Agricultural Hall in Victoria. As 11 struck there was an announcement and a hush fell, but one or two people seemed to think the silence meant ‘Freeze!’ and so they were not only silent but remained fixed in whatever attitude (handing over money, examining a vase) the silence caught them. Some of these positions were quite awkward, with the ending of the silence coming as a relief.
17 November. A bit of noise outside last night and R. peered through the window and could see nothing, though hearing somebody laughing. This morning my bike is gone, the crime-proof lock still attached to the railings. This is only the second time I’ve had a bike stolen and so I suppose I ought to think myself lucky. The play opens tonight but it’s the bike I’m thinking about and I keep going to the window to look at the place where it was.
7 December. Write something and it happens. This weekend there has been a slightly relentless re-showing of some of my old plays and films on BBC2 and BBC4, with Archie Powell’s documentary on BBC2 and a long interview with Mark Lawson on BBC4. Watching them both I note that, though I’m on different channels, I tell the same stories, make the same jokes and, while it’s never quite a routine, I find myself falling into the same tedious repetition that I’ve written Auden going through in the play.
15 December. My best Christmas cards are always from Victor Lewis-Smith, who lives in the Lake District, not far from Sellafield: ‘I persist in telling visitors on the fell that the building they can see in the distance is in fact the Kendal mint cake factory, whose chimneys are emitting exotic mint vapour. It’s for the best, it really is.’