6 January. The alterations we have been having done are now pretty much finished, thanks to Max, a young Latvian who’s unsmiling but an excellent carpenter and Eugene, much jollier and from New Zealand who has supervised it all. Walking round the job this evening R. is shocked to discover in the bathroom above the bath a crudely made wooden cross. He takes this to be the work of Max who, scarcely out of his teens, already has two children and is, I imagine, Catholic. R., whose feelings about religion are more uncompromising than mine, finds the cross disturbing and is determined to ask Eugene to tell Max to take it down. I’m less exercised by it, seeing it as some sort of dedication, the sort of thing (though more crude) that a medieval workman might have put up at the completion of a job. We are both of us wrong as when Eugene is approached he explains it is not a cross at all but a makeshift coathanger he has rigged up over the bath in order to dry his anorak.
Alan Bennett’s Diary for 2011, which appears in the issue dated 5 January 2012, is now online for subscribers. In this podcast he reads extracts.
14 January. George Fenton tells me of a memorial service he’s been to at St Marylebone Parish Church for Maurice Murphy, the principal trumpet of the LSO, who did the opening trumpet solo in the music for Star Wars. The service due to kick off at 11.30, George arrives with ten minutes to spare only to find the church already full, the congregation seated, silent and expectant. It begins promptly at 11.30 with everyone behaving impeccably and not a cough or a rustle throughout. And he realises it’s because they are all musicians and orchestral players for whom this is like any other concert and where the same rules apply.
21 January, Yorkshire. A creature of habit, en route home I generally stop and have some tea at Bettys in Ilkley where I also buy an organic white loaf. Today the assistant tells me that the café (and presumably the four or five other branches in the Bettys chain) no longer does organic produce as they’ve changed their flour miller. ‘However,’ she assures me, ‘the flour is locally produced.’ As are, presumably, its pesticide residues. When I ask why the flour could not be locally produced and nevertheless be organic she cannot explain. Money is, I imagine, the short answer with ‘locally produced’ a concession to the supposed cost (and carbon footprint) of transport. This is confirmed when I talk to the organic shop in our village who tell me that ‘locally produced’ is now the usual face-saver for firms wanting to economise on the provision of organic produce.
Years ago I might have been able to put my spoke in more effectively than I can today as at that time I was offered a non-executive directorship of Bettys. It was well remunerated and coming with as many buns as I could eat I came quite close to accepting. It was only when I found out that my duties would include sitting regularly in the café where I could be hobnobbed with by other patrons that I regretfully drew the line.
13 February. An oddity. Yesterday in the paddock at Newbury several horses are electrocuted, two fatally, with the accident put down to a forgotten cable under the grass which had been damaged when the turf was spiked. A week or so previously I’d watched on TV an episode of an American series, Diagnosis: Murder, starring Dick Van Dyke, with the plot concerning three athletes in Florida, two of whom were electrocuted on the playing field in exactly the same fashion as the horses. No one else has noted the coincidence, but then I don’t imagine there are many people so sad as to be watching the now rather aged Dick Van Dyke at half past one in the afternoon.
15 February. Not having a book on the go I take up again Larkin’s Letters to Monica which I’d tried to read when it first came out but given up. It’s more interesting than I’d thought then but not much more, with too many post-mortems on previous meetings, what he had said to her, what she had said to him and what they had both really meant. The letters date back to the late 1940s and early 1950s and bring back all the dreariness of digs and Oxford out of term, Sunday lunches in cafés up the Iffley Road and awkward evenings spent listening to records in the rooms of undergraduates one didn’t really know or even like but who just happened to be marooned in Oxford out of term.
One black mark against Larkin is that he no more cares for the work of Flannery O’Connor than Amis did: ‘The day didn’t get off to a very good start by my reading some stories by “Flannery O’Connor” in the bath … horribly depressing American South things.’ This is October 1967. I can’t see how Flannery O’Connor (which he perhaps thought was a pen name) could be so easily dismissed by someone supposedly appreciative of language. The colours were too bright perhaps.
7 March. Read and enjoy Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts about the lure of in-between places and the edges of cities and other communities. I feel I was on to this years ago in my play The Old Country, when Hilary, a spy in the Foreign Office, describes the venues where he met his Soviet contact; it’s also the same sort of no-man’s-land that figures in the film of A Question of Attribution. The authors of Edgelands are two Lancashire poets and there are frequent references to Lancaster and the estuary of the Lune including Salt Ayre, a huge landfill site to the west of the city now grassed over. The name takes me back to childhood when going by train from Leeds to Morecambe on holiday you knew you were nearly there when the porter came along the platform shouting the mysterious invocation ‘Lancaster Green Ayre’.
11 March. R.’s Aunty Stella rings from Edinburgh. She was 90 last week and apologises that she hasn’t learned a new Shakespeare sonnet to mark her birthday. However she recites off by heart, and with no mistakes, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ and promises to learn a new poem for when she sees him in the summer.
27 March. Fill in the census form to which I add this plaintive rider:
I have completed the census form while strongly objecting to the agency, Lockheed Martin, that is carrying it out. Information of this nature should only be divulged to a government agency under the direct control of parliament. Lockheed is basically an arms manufacturer and thus not the most scrupulous of organisations. This is an undertaking that should never have been outsourced.
That it was the last Labour government that outsourced it makes it even more depressing.
15 April. Seeing a banana skin on the pavement reminds me how when I first read the Dandy and the Beano the presence of a banana skin meant that inevitably it was going to be slipped on. No matter that at that time, in the early 1940s, few children had seen let alone eaten a banana, the skin was still shorthand for calamity. Other comic clichés were a fish, almost certain to be stolen by a cat and always represented as a perfect skeleton devoid of flesh but still with the head on; a string of sausages, destined to be grabbed by a dog, the sausages trailing from the dog’s mouth like a scarf in the wind; a bull (beware of) in a field, a billy goat similarly, with a ladder another portent of disaster. The bump on the head which might be the consequence of one of these mishaps was generally described as being ‘as big as a pigeon’s egg’, something else which like the banana I had never seen.
3 May. A distressing call today from Dr C., the oncologist who looked after my friend Anne during her last illness. He talks about hospital services being deliberately run down and the difficulties of ward care due to shortage of staff but it’s only gradually I realise that what he wants is for me to try and write a play about it. I explain what a slow worker I am and how long the trek from conception to execution but it still sounds like an excuse. He’s shy or I make him so and he plainly has difficulty in articulating his worries, but what comes over is his concern and indeed his despair. It’s alarming that doctors should be driven to such desperate measures and leaves me feeling both disturbed and inadequate and wishing I could just say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it,’ and forget everything else.
21 May. A plumpish young man gets off the train at Leeds just behind me.
‘Aren’t you famous?’
‘Well I can’t be, can I, if you don’t know my name.’
‘It’s Alan something.’
‘So which Alan are you?’
‘I’m another Alan.’
‘Are you just a lookalike?’
‘Well, you could say so.’
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.