3 January, Yorkshire. En route to Leeds we have lunch at Betty’s in Ilkley, packed with people stir-crazy after the holiday. We are sitting facing the car park and the row of shops beyond.
Me: What is that shop called?
Me: It looks to me like ‘Hot Faeces’.
R: It’s ‘Fat Face’.
Between a shop calling itself Fat Face and one called Hot Faeces seems a difference of degree only, with both equally mysterious. Is it a shop where one gets a fat face (hence sweets and confectionery)? Or an outsize shop? Neither apparently, just a well-known fashion outlet. Still, the name seems quite odd to me, if not nearly as unlikely as what I thought it was. ‘Keep up’ I suppose the message.
12/13 January. Watch the second of two programmes on grammar schools on BBC4. I was asked to take part but didn’t, feeling my experience wasn’t typical. I never thought of Leeds Modern, the school I went to from 1946 until 1952, as a grammar school though I suppose it was. It wasn’t so self-conscious and pleased with itself as most of the schools that feature and the range of ability for which it catered seems in retrospect so wide it might well have been a comprehensive school before its time. Nor was it in the least bit snobbish as so many of the schools that figure in the programme seem to have been, though none as snobbish as the grammar schools that, on the introduction of comprehensives, turned themselves into direct grant schools as, for instance, Leeds Grammar School did. Another absentee from the programme is Tony Harrison, an old boy of Leeds Grammar School, the snobbery of which is pilloried in some of his poems. By rights all such schools should be free schools, as indeed in the light of their origins, should many public schools. The nearest public school to us in Yorkshire is Giggleswick which started off as the local grammar school. It’s certainly not free today, though like many public schools its exclusiveness shelters behind what is thought of as a generous allocation of scholarships and bursaries. These points are just about made in the programme, but what is more noticeable is how ex-grammar school boys like Roy Strong are sentimental over their teachers, which ought to be sympathetic did not the camera go in vampire-like to catch the tears.
Maybe my parents were just undemonstrative as I remember nothing comparable to the pride of the parents of Neil Kinnock, for instance, when he passed the 11+ (and so wouldn’t have to go down the mine). I can’t even remember taking the exam except that my friend (and alphabetical neighbour on the school register) Albert Benson passed it with me but was too poor to go on to what we then called secondary school.
As it was put together, the programme tended to confirm Anthony Powell’s thesis that documentaries aren’t based on the evidence but are simply scenarios dreamed up by the director with the facts arranged accordingly.
I’ve never been particularly concerned about the end of the grammar schools, seeing it as nothing compared with the continuing offence of the public school. On this I’m as big a bore as (rather less worthily) Hockney is on smoking. The only person in the programme waving that flag – rather uncharacteristically – is Edwina Currie, who is, as she puts it, a Scouse Tory who acknowledges the continuing unfairness of public school education while knowing her party will do nothing to alleviate it.
24 January. ‘Well, love, the call’s going on’ is what my mother used to say in the early 1960s when I phoned from London, meaning that telephoning to them was still a luxury. On the rare occasions when I was at home and wanted to make a private call it had to be on the shop phone, which was mounted on the wall with a separate mouth and earpiece. So some of one’s intimate moments were played out amid sawdust and blood.
2 February. An environmentally sensitive bus named after me in Leeds. I just wish it could have been a tram.
9 March. I am reading Colm Tóibín’s New Ways to Kill Your Mother. Of Hart Crane’s suicide he writes: ‘He walked on deck … took off his coat, folded it neatly over the railing (not dropping it on deck) … then suddenly he vaulted over the railing and jumped into the sea.’ This was in 1932. At Calverley on the outskirts of Leeds seven years previously my grandfather folded his jacket neatly too before stepping into the canal.
18 March. R. to Cardiff to see his grandmother on a potentially difficult day as it’s also the day of the Grand Slam rugger match between Wales and France. The train is very crowded and he sits in Weekend First next to a middle-aged French couple who he assumes to be fans, but with nothing in their behaviour that gives any clue. However, just before the train arrives at Cardiff the very proper bourgeois lady takes out her compact and with her lipstick carefully draws the French flag on each cheek and on her forehead and colours them in. This is done so unselfconsciously and without a smile R. feels that for this alone they deserve to win.
25 April. At five a car comes to take me down to Silk studios on Berwick Street to record a voiceover (of my own voice) for an episode of Family Guy, the story being that Brian, the dog, has written a play, premiering at Quahog, which ‘all the playwrights’ (i.e. Yasmina Reza, David Mamet and me) duly go and see – and rubbish. They had first of all asked if they could use me as a cartoon character to which I graciously agreed (not saying that I felt it was the highlight of my career). It was then they asked if I would voice myself. Yasmina and David had apparently not been tempted but I went for this too and it was only as I was signing the clearance afterwards that I realised Family Guy is a Fox (i.e. a Murdoch) programme and so not something I would normally do. Today was the day Murdoch Sr was on the stand at the Leveson Inquiry and en route to the studio I ask the driver who has been his most famous passenger. Without hesitation he says Muhammad Ali but then reels off a list of other celebrities he has driven, including the Murdochs. I take this just to be the driver keeping in the swim but a few minutes later the car phone rings with the message, ‘Car for Mr Murdoch at 8.30’. Which Murdoch it is I don’t ask, though feel myself faintly brushed by the wings of history. The driver, incidentally, is the first person I’ve spoken to who is actually looking forward to the Olympics.
2 May. Jeremy Hunt has the look of an estate agent waiting to show someone a property.
10 May, Rome. I sit in Rome airport while R. stands by the baggage carousel. We’re only here for four days, and did either of us have bags on wheels we would not have to wait as most passengers these days seem to lug them on board. As he waits a flight arrives from Peking and behind him a middle-aged Chinese woman leans forward and (with her fingers) blows her nose copiously onto the floor.
13 May, Rome. We pack our bags ready for this afternoon’s plane then stroll along the street to the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, passing on the way a covey of priests and earnest young laity en route for a pro-life demonstration. I feel sorry for these devout and less than butch youths (me, once), knowing the priests look down on them, while longing for sterner converts.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.