Alan Bennett · Diary · LRB 4 January 2018
12 January. At seven to the National Gallery for Beyond Caravaggio, now in its last week. It’s a mixed bag, with far and away the best picture The Taking of Christ on loan from Dublin, a superb painting but hung on the same wall as the National Gallery’s Supper at Emmaus. This is nowhere near as good because the central figures don’t compare. In the Dublin picture Christ with his downcast eyes is ascetic and noble (with Judas yearning and troubled). In the NG’s picture Christ, suddenly recognised by the company at supper (and also with downcast eyes), looks plump-cheeked and almost debauched, a grown-up version of one of Caravaggio’s grape-eating boys. Not known to me is a painting of Christ by Galli, which shows him pulling open the wound in his side and looking out of the picture with a wonderfully quizzical expression, both sad at disbelief and troubled by it. So many of the paintings I don’t like at all: the Gentileschi Rest on the Flight into Egypt, for instance, and umpteen pictures of gambling and card games which, even by de la Tour, I find hard to take. Rupert as always looks more carefully than I do and gets more out of it. A terrific picture by Ribera of an old man with the withered and drooping flesh of his arm exactly done (via his brushwork apparently), though so lifelike it comes a little close to home, as indeed does one of the old man’s fingers which, as R. points out, is paralysed like mine.
A couple of warders apart we see no one. Home by 8.45 and a pizza (gluten-free) supper.
13 January. We abandon any plans of going to Yorkshire as snow is forecast, some of our indecision to be put down to the over-dramatisation of the weather by the forecasters who, one feels, long to be part of the news not just the background to it. On the News reports of Tony Snowdon’s death. I first met him in 1968 when Patrick Garland brought him backstage with Princess Margaret after Forty Years On. A friend of Patrick’s, he talked mostly to him, but Princess Margaret didn’t confine herself to John Gielgud and Paul Eddington but to her credit wanted to meet the boys in the play, which she did, though I suspect most of them had no idea who she was. In 1984 Snowdon took pictures of me for (I think) the Sunday Times after the shooting of A Private Function, the most memorable of which was outside the abattoir in Ilkley, with me sitting sternly on a battered chair holding a cleaver. The background of the shot consists of three or four huge sides of beef which Snowdon got the butchers to shift and hang without ever saying who he was or what the pictures were for, the whole exercise done entirely on charm. It’s a photograph I’ve always liked because it’s so unlike, uneasy, fierce and with me still at fifty looking quite young.
He could be quite difficult, though I never found him so, and I always remember that in 1987, on the day Russell Harty was pilloried by the Sun for his patronage of rent boys, Snowdon rang and asked him to supper, a circumstance with which, had they known, the tabloids would have had a field day. He also did the best photograph of Anthony Blunt, a real classic.
As always, listening to Der Rosenkavalier (from Covent Garden) this evening, I feel that, particularly at the end of Act III, it trembles almost on the edge of music.
22 January. Letters continue to flood in after the publication of Keeping On Keeping On, with occasional gems, including one from a woman in Darwen enclosing a copy of a photograph taken of her as a child at Scrimshaw’s, the up-market photographer in Leeds. By her feet is a toy, ‘not one of mine’, but indubitably one of the penguins my dad used to make on his fretwork set for sale in Bayldon’s toyshop down County Arcade. It was obviously bought by the photographer to keep his younger clients amused. I am absurdly pleased by this, as I’m sure Dad would (more quietly) have been.
He had himself been photographed as a child holding a cricket bat, another photographic prop. He thought he was being given the bat and was mortified when it was taken away. This perhaps explains his lifelong dislike of sport.
16 February. Trump as president’s equivalent here would be Jeremy Kyle as prime minister. T. continues to appal. He seems to have no moral compass, and if he has a compass at all it’s fixed permanently on self-seeking.
23 February. I go to the chemist in search of Collis Browne, which Boots choose no longer to sell, though why no one can explain. Depending on what one wants, the chemist has always been a theatre of embarrassment, though never so much as when our local pharmacy was on the corner of Sharpleshall Street (now the Italian delicatessen). Then, it was run by an old couple, Mr Alderson and his sister; Mr A. doing the prescriptions with Miss Alderson the front of house. As he was quite slow there were often half a dozen people waiting, as I was one afternoon when the (slightly deaf) Mr Alderson emerged with my prescription, inquiring in ringing tones, ‘Whose is the scrotal itch?’
5 March. My parents seldom quarrelled and differed in very little. Still, if there was one complaint Mam regularly made about Dad (though never outside the family circle) it was that he ‘didn’t push himself forward’. Mild-mannered and retiring, he was certainly unassertive and if the complaint came up it was generally to do with his butcher’s shop. No businessman, he was occasionally cheated (‘diddled’, he would have said) by employees or done down by other butchers in Headingley. His ‘lads’ – i.e. delivery boys – were sometimes on the fiddle so that they would have to be sacked, leaving him ‘disheartened’ or ‘sickened’, though seldom with a more vindictive reaction; he would never have thought of going to the police, for instance. It was on occasions like this that his good nature came into question and Mam would say: ‘That’s the trouble with your dad, he won’t push himself forward.’ But then neither would she, both of them as bad (or as good) as each other in this respect. Because pushing himself forward would have meant pushing someone else back and that’s what neither of them was good at.
28 March. Another death, this time David Storey whom I liked and found sympathetic, though I might run into him only occasionally and most often in M&S. It was always cheering, even if these days he was often shuffling as much from the medicines he was taking as from old age. But he would call me ‘darling’, this ex-rugger player, and put his arm around me, unashamedly affectionate. Unashamed of his emotions altogether, as I sat next to him at the funeral of Alan Bates’s son Tristan when he wept throughout. I haven’t always felt so kindly, as when he wrote plays in the 1970s I was very jealous of him (as, I believe, was Pinter). He could run up a play in a week or two, generally when he wasn’t getting anywhere with a novel. And the plays were terrific, particularly The Contractor (which saw a huge marquee erected on the tiny stage of the Fortune Theatre), The Changing Room and Home; effortless they seemed to be, particularly under Lindsay Anderson’s direction. I met Gielgud when he was rehearsing Home, in which he starred with Ralph Richardson, and he sang David’s praises. ‘He’s the ideal playwright. Never says a word.’
5 May. Angels in America opens at the National. When I saw the original production at the Cottesloe in 1992 I found I was sitting behind Derek Jarman. I knew Derek slightly since he had been in the adaptation of Orton’s Prick Up Your Ears, and I knew, too, that he had been diagnosed with HIV. On my way to the theatre I had grazed my hand slightly as I came down the stairs from Waterloo Bridge, and I found myself desperate lest Jarman turn round and shake hands. So I shamefully kept mum until the interval, when I rushed upstairs to the NT office where I got some sticking plaster, then came back and made myself known, though whether he shook hands or not I can’t remember. I tell the story only as a reminder of the hysteria of that time, to which I was not immune. I have mixed feelings about Princess Diana, but when nowadays her concern for and embracing of Aids sufferers is disparaged as being of no particular consequence I very much disagree. It was a kind of courage of which I would have been incapable.
19 May. I’m reading The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage’s latest collection of poems. They always ring bells, though, like Larkin, he’ll often take off at the end of a poem when I don’t always follow. There’s a lovely funny poem in this collection, ‘Poundland’, which is enviably accomplished. Armitage is from Marsden near Huddersfield, and I take it if he goes to London he’ll catch the train at Wakefield, as there are occasional mentions of the prison in his poems. This resonates, as Wakefield has always seemed to me a particularly desolate institution, just at the back of the station, where the inmates, in a refinement of their punishment, must be able to hear the trains arriving and departing, as they presumably long to do. This has got into stuff of mine: ‘Playing Sandwiches’, a monologue about a child molester, has him hearing the planes beginning their descent to Leeds Bradford Airport and imagining the seat-belt sign going on, the monologue (memorably done by David Haig) ending in a terrible wordless scream.
21 May. Rupert, who is being taught sewing by his (professional) mother, makes me as an exercise a pillbox hat out of ticking. It’s slightly too large and so makes me look a bit tipsy, but it’s lovely, like the hat of a Venetian dignitary out of a Carpaccio.
25 May. Taking no interest in football I am nevertheless delighted when Arsenal defeat Chelsea in the Cup Final, Arsène Wenger the only football manager deserving of respect.
3 June. I’m putting out the various bins when a posh neighbour passes. ‘I see,’ he says, ‘that you’ve found your métier at last.’ Actually, putting the bins out these days requires a diploma in rubbish theory: what can and can’t be recycled, or what (in the bin collector’s view) shouldn’t be, what receptacle it should go in and what shade of bag. It’s a choosy job, collecting the rubbish, as evidenced by a small sheet of polystyrene hopefully put out by a neighbour for two successive weeks and twice rejected by Camden’s fastidious collector.
8 June. With the social services increasingly outsourced and farmed out to private interests it will, I suppose, be a comfort that in our last moments we will not be alone and that our hand will be held by someone from the highest bidder.
9 June. Watch Mrs May’s appearance in Downing St without a pang of sympathy, whereas even for Cameron one felt a bit sorry. Notable that she keeps referring to ‘our country’ whereas an ordinary person as distinct from a politician would say ‘this country’ – ‘our’ paradoxically not an inclusive term.
21 June. I sit in the kitchen all this hot afternoon, idly watching a 1940s film about Caribbean pirates with Tyrone Power. As a boy I adored Tyrone Power and thought him the handsomest man I’d ever seen, and when in later life I worked with Coral Browne and found out (it wasn’t something she boasted about) that she and Tyrone Power had had an affair it hugely augmented her glamour. That he was also gay came out around the same time, Coral often taking on such ambiguous figures, with Cecil Beaton another example. When I said to Coral that I’d thought Beaton was gay she remarked, ‘Not when he was with me, darling. Like a rat up a drainpipe.’ I saw Tyrone Power sometime in the 1950s walking along St Giles in Oxford, I think he was appearing in Man and Superman at the Playhouse. He was wearing the kind of heavy-shouldered camel hair coat actors went in for and it was this that made me know I was not mistaken. Though that was the thing about Oxford then, one was always seeing someone famous in the street or on the train. And the glamour persists. Watching the film (with the sound down) I still, aged 83, find Tyrone P. a dish.
Also watched as I drowse: HMQ opening Parliament, where I marvel most at how fluently she turns the (vellum) pages of her text, the next page always fingered and ready for turning when she comes to the end of the one she’s reading. I couldn’t do it.
28 June. Someone writes to me reporting a signpost on the canal at Skipton which apparently reads ‘To Leed’s’.
I suppose Hawe’s could follow suit and indeed Cleethorpe’s.
30 June, Yorkshire. All this weekend we have kept seeing a pair of grey wagtails, grey-headed with bright yellow breasts, which seem to be nesting in the creeper rather than by the beck, which is what the bird book says they should be doing. Chrissie opposite says she has a couple of yellow wagtails in her garden, but she is much nearer the water. Not sure how common grey wagtails are, I knock on Timmy Hutchinson (Timmy the Twitcher)’s door to tell him so that he can put them in his bird column in the village bulletin.
10 July. A programme currently said to be unexpectedly popular is Love Island, which is similar in format to Big Brother in that a dozen or so good-looking young people are isolated in a luxurious villa on (I think) Mallorca, though one never quite knows where they are as they don’t go out much. The premise of the programme is that the participants will – and indeed must – pair off, failure to do so meaning that the unlucky ones have to pack their bags. Lounging by the swimming pool(s) no one wears much, with some of them far better-looking than others, though the men are all too often marred and sometimes almost obliterated by tattoos. With reading presumably proscribed, their days are spent often with the partner of choice comparing notes and discussing – I don’t think it’s quite analysing – their relationships. There is, of course, always the slightly illusory prospect of sex, though unless I’m missing something, they seem to sleep in what is virtually a corridor cum barrack-room, with no privacy at all.
It occurs to me, that tedious though the programme is, it has immensely respectable origins, indeed the best. It is after all Bloomsbury (though whether in the person of G.E. Moore, E.M. Forster or the sainted Virginia herself I’m not sure), whose motto was ‘personal relations for ever and ever’, which, lolling about on the sun-baked lawns, these gorgeous creatures are indeed subscribing to (and possibly finding wanting). Walberswick was always thought to be Bloomsbury on Sea, but its ultimate location could now claim to be Love Island. (World’s smallest facility: the Love Island Library.)
11 July. Good obituary in this morning’s Guardian of Sam Beazley, dec. aged 101. He had been an actor, which I didn’t know and don’t remember him mentioning when I first came across him in the late 1960s as the proprietor of the Portmeirion shop, an antique business opposite Pont Street on the road leading to Belgrave Square. The shop’s taste, which was I suppose his, coincided with mine, so there were always covetable items. Our bed comes from there, one or two embroidery pictures and lots of stuff that went unrecorded. He was a genial and courteous man with a mellifluous voice, but the first inkling I had that he’d been an actor was when Alec Guinness had him down to Steep Marsh for a weekend. I’d no notion that, as recounted in the obituary, Sam had had a late flowering and that in his nineties he had figured in one of the Harry Potter films. The obituary written by Nicholas de Jongh.
14 July. I am reading as a bedside book The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell. Simply an account of the customers and the (sometimes meagre) takings of a bookshop in Wigtown in Scotland, it’s gentle (‘purling’ would describe it), occasionally funny and immensely soothing. It’s perhaps why I go to sleep with a very uncomfortable bunch of keys in my pyjama pocket.
17 July. I’m perhaps getting jaded, but listening to the Proms I found the two Elgar symphonies, No. 1 on Friday, No. 2 yesterday, both strident and unmoving as done by Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle. Then I remember that the last Elgar I heard from Berlin, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil. doing Gerontius, was equally unsatisfactory and in the same way. There was all the bombast of Elgar but none of the lyricism or the melancholy. Both were rapturously received (as again in this morning’s Guardian), with Barenboim giving as an encore Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, of which we’d already had too much in his version of the Second Symphony. Nobody ever better at Elgar than the Hallé and Barbirolli.
A gruelling weekend in which we’ve continued clearing out the books in Gloucester Crescent, sorting them into books to be sold, books to be saved and special books. There will then be a later sorting out of the saved books into the ones to be kept in London with the rest going to Yorkshire. It’s a wearisome business, physically (though I don’t do any lifting of the heavy cardboard boxes), but also temperamentally, as one keeps being brought up against one’s failures – failure to read the books for a start, but also failure to turn them to any other advantage. There are loads of books about Housman, for instance, on which I once thought to base a play, and all the books on Kafka which, though I did write two plays about him, still seem a reproach. Once upon a time I would have saved books because I planned to read them in the future or use them in something I might write, but now one can’t avoid the realisation that there is no time: no time to read them, no time to write about or around them. We end Sunday afternoon exhausted, not feeling we’ve had a weekend at all. How we would have managed without Fliff C. and Albie her assistant I can’t imagine.
26 July. In the window of the Primrose Hill Community Library on Sharpleshall Street is a list of recently dead authors. Tim Heald, Jenny Diski, A.A. Gill. Periodically a newly dead name is added until a fresh list is posted. It’s hard not to see oneself there, with one day someone else passing and glancing at it as heedlessly as I do. I’m also in another window as ‘local author’, but that won’t save me.
Currently engaged, with Fliff’s help, in sorting through the letters in Gloucester Crescent. This is harder than going through the books as, unlike them, letters have to be looked at if not read before being assigned to the bin or the Bodleian Library. Some, though, are easy enough: letters from my parents, for instance, in my father’s angular script, or my mother’s more flowing hand. These I dutifully put by, knowing they will be overwhelmingly domestic: trips to Ilkley or to Schofield’s in Leeds, news of my brother and his family and injunctions about ‘not overdoing it’. Out of piety (and superstition) I can’t bin them, but can see no point in conserving them either, ‘Your dad and me are nicely’ always the underlying theme.
Then there are letters from readers, viewers or (a lesser number) theatre-goers. Individually they aren’t particularly informative, though I do seem to prompt letters of reminiscence, my own life as refracted through plays and autobiography touching off corresponding reflections from readers and viewers. But should I save them all as posthumous witness to the appreciation of the public? There’s no straight answer to this, so some I save and some I bin.
Finally there is a much smaller category of letters from the famous – umpteen postcards from Alec Guinness, seldom saying much and generally making a date for supper, but demanding to be kept on his account rather than mine. Occasional letters from Gielgud and other theatricals, but with the funniest from various young men, all of them straight, with whom I carried on unrequited flirtations.
Revisiting the past like this ought to be revivifying but I don’t find it so – it’s simply exhausting – and I come back home after a morning’s work and doze in the chair for an hour, recovering.
8 August. The day I was conscripted 65 years ago, posted first to Pontefract Barracks and the York and Lancaster Regiment. The international situation in 1952 was not that dissimilar to today. North Korea had invaded South Korea (or so the US claimed) and most of my platoon were later transferred to the Prince of Wales’s Regiment and went out to Korea the following year. The campaign was being run by General MacArthur, with North Korea backed by the Chinese. MacArthur was keen to expand the war and take on China directly and in that sense a Trump counterpart. President Truman sensibly recalled the recalcitrant general and (open) war in due course came to an end. Trump no Truman.
27 August, Yorkshire. Sit now in the garden in the rocking chair watching the blue tits queuing up to take their turn on the coconut that R. always hangs from the lilac tree. As birds go they’re relatively polite unlike, say, the occasional bullying blackbird or (a regular visitor) the woodpecker.
29 August, Paris. A nice experience this afternoon when with Lynn we go into a creperie opposite the St Germain covered market hoping for some tea, in the window a solitary piece of cake. The young woman in charge smilingly refuses to serve it to us as it is part of an experiment that hasn’t worked. We say it looks perfectly edible to us, but she says it’s destined for recycling. Serving the tea though she relents and gives us without obligation two plates of cakes, presumably part of the same failed experiment. I try some, a piece of plain madeira and a pear cake. Both are delicious. But she won’t charge us, except for tea, and without asking wraps up the rest of the cake and makes us a present of it. I wish this was an augury for (or rather against) Brexit. All of us are Remainers which, in the light of her generosity, we feel later that we ought to have said.
30 August, Paris. Today a contrary experience. With Rupert at the flea market I walk down the rue de Rennes for my lunch at Deux Magots. Nobody sitting inside, the terrace crowded out. I have a croque monsieur, paying with a 50 euro note. The waiter, middle-aged, unsmiling, puts down the change on the table, coins and two notes. I take the notes and there is a fractional pause before I gather up the coins, a pause which the waiter, still unsmiling, chooses to interpret as a licence to take the money as a (very generous) tip. I’d have felt better about myself if I’d protested. As it is I come out feeling both cheated and a coward.
12 September. Labouring along Gloucester Avenue on my bike I see run across the road and just miss a car, a moorhen. It’s a fair hop from the canal where I imagine it’s come from, and had I not been on the bike I’d have stopped to see where it was heading. Such city glimpses of the natural world always uplifting.
14 September. An inquiry from Morrissey’s agent wondering if I would like to take part in the video for his new album. ‘The basic premise of the video is that M. is stricken ill in bed and receives a handful of visitors who seek to administer in some way. Mr Bennett would be among these visitors.’ No fee is mentioned, but a part of me would like to do it even if it risks my making a fool of myself. Though videos being what they are I imagine it would be an almost subliminal appearance. I would also like to know who the other visitors are. I suspect this is one of those occasion when acceptance or refusal would be equally mistaken. I ask for more details, mindful at moments like this of how careful Alec Guinness was to stage-manage his life in later years, thus, I’m sure, turning down all sorts of offers – readings, voiceovers, guest appearances – whereas Gielgud took work almost on the cab rank principle, doing whatever came along. It’s true he did a lot of rubbish in consequence but some good things, too – and above all kept busy.
22 September. My right ankle suddenly gives way, as has happened before, though after no more exertion than sitting in the armchair reading the paper. I anoint it with Ibuleve, swallow some paracodeine and take a cab down to King’s Cross. On the Leeds train the mild and soft-spoken conductor uses the tannoy as a flirtation aid, on the last lap thanking the crew by name ‘and not forgetting the lovely Charlotte’. He also loves not only Charlotte but the microphone, which he is reluctant to relinquish and, as we round the long bend into Leeds, thanks not merely his colleagues but also ‘you the customers without whom we would be unable to afford our mortgages and our cars and, well, everything really.’
At home Rupert is delighted going into the garden this evening to find a large yellow frog which regards him gravely but does not move. Nor, alas, does it move on the huge slugs that currently infest the place and devour in particular the dahlias.
30 September. Adam Low’s BBC2 programme on Auden is good, though no thanks to me. He has me reading some of the poems, which I don’t do particularly well. James Fenton, who is also reading, does much better because flatter. There are some clips of Auden I haven’t seen, possibly from German TV, and it’s interesting to see that his face doesn’t begin properly to crumple until the mid-1960s. Also note how spry he is in his fifties, the more aware of this, I suppose, because of my current un-spry situation. Auden’s ears, I notice, have that transverse line across the lobe which, while it does not predestine a person to a heart attack, is often (and quite mysteriously) found among those stricken. I have it, as did my Dad, who indeed died from a heart attack in 1974. There is a name for this feature but I have forgotten it. Anyway, it seems fanciful but isn’t.
1 October. Saddened by the death of the actor Ben Whitrow. A bookman, favourite and correspondent of Patrick Garland, he collected the books and articles of Denton Welch besides being a subtle and elegant actor who, as Olivier said, had never given a bad performance. He had written to me recently, delicately as ever, to point out a misprint in something I’d written and when I thanked him wrote back, though he must already have been ill and his handwriting faltering: ‘You said when I last saw you that we should imagine we are immortal. Good advice, I think, and health and happiness in old age is helped if you have a loving companion alongside as you do.’ And as he did.
6 October. With the help of Fliff and her team we come to the end of clearing out the contents of our old house in Gloucester Crescent. Today we go through the contents of the kitchen cupboards on what is, I suppose, the last lap. David Birkett the estate agent turns up to take photographs, and he and Kate M. keep asking me if this is a melancholy moment for me, my final farewell to a house where I lived for nearly fifty years. Not a bit of it is the truth, with the filming of The Lady in the Van two years ago more the real conclusion. Now the house looks much as it did when I first saw it in 1968, though then there were perches for parrots in the garden and one in the bay window, with upstairs gas meters in every room as during the war it had been a lodging house. The date of the house, 1840, the day and the month and the year, presumably the day it was finished, is scratched on the side of one of the marble fireplaces, found when I was stripping off its old paint nearly half a century ago.
23 October. Some protests about the graphic violence and torture in the BBC’s Gunpowder. What is shown is apparently not unlike the normal fare of Game of Thrones which, not having Sky, we have never seen, but if a naked woman being pressed to death and a priest disembowelled is not unusual, it seems to me to put a modern audience on the same footing as a 17th-century crowd watching the executions. As a child I might have found it arousing, but these days I don’t want such images in my head, as once there they are hard to forget. And I don’t think much of the argument about historical accuracy and the need to face up to the realities of life in what I used to think of as ‘the olden days’.
29 October. A perfect day today, sunny, cold, with the sky at sunset a Proustian pink and blue – Proustian not because such sunsets occur in the novel but because they remind me of the covers of the edition of A la recherche published by Chatto and Windus.
31 October, Yorkshire. I’m sitting in the armchair by the fire this evening trying to work when there’s a knocking at the door. Before I can lever myself up, whoever it is knocks again, and indeed again before I get to the door. Grumbling, I remember it’s Halloween, a celebration that has always passed me by, as in Leeds in the 1940s there was Mischief Night and Bonfire Night but not much else, Halloween, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and indeed Valentine’s Day, never heard of let alone observed. Tonight it’s a small boy, fair-haired and wearing make-up, but not looking particularly ghoulish. Scarcely have I got the door open before he embarks on his spiel, which is so quick and so aggressive I can’t make it out, except it ends with this scowling angelic child saying: ‘Give me some money now.’ ‘Well,’ I say, reaching into my pocket, ‘that’s at least direct.’ Then out of the darkness behind him comes the voice of the accompanying adult: ‘He’s Donald Trump.’ His role explained (and the make-up) all bluster has gone and the supposed Trump lookalike is wreathed in smiles. He thanks me profusely for my 50p and the whole gang (all Trumps) go off giggling into the night.
‘Holding his (or her) feet to the fire’ is an image which is somehow these days thought to be acceptable. The reality isn’t, nor the metaphor.
5 November, Yorkshire. Coming up here a week ago this Saturday the trains (Virgin) were disrupted on account of repairs, the two-hour or so journey taking four. Going back today from Leeds it is the same and we have to settle for a train that takes us as far as Newark, with a promised bus service to Peterborough, another four-hour journey. Except that, arrived at Newark, we find there are no buses and that the platform is crowded waiting for the next train from Leeds. It’s impossibly full with no seats at all and people standing all the way down the aisles. Hobbling on a stick I may arouse some sympathy, because a young man straightaway offers me his seat, which I’m reluctant to take because also standing is a woman with a three-month-old baby. However she claims she doesn’t want to sit down and indeed remains standing for most of the four hours the journey eventually takes, as does the young man who sacrificed his seat to let me sit down.
Already dark, there’s no indication which way the train is going until out of the gloom there’s an almost celestial vision of the floodlit towers of Lincoln Cathedral which we slowly pass before drifting across country. At some point a rock is hurled at the train, hitting it just by my window, seemingly doing no damage but apparently holing another window further down. Or is this another rock? Nobody tells us, and over the tannoy the incident is never referred to, which is in some sense a relief as an investigation would have meant an even lengthier delay. Hitherto barricaded behind their laptops or scrolling down their iPhones nobody has been talking much, so if the rock doesn’t break the train it at least breaks the ice and the passengers begin to talk. The baby, which has been asleep, now wakes up and becomes the centre of attention, laughing and gurgling and charming everybody, even when he vomits over a girl who has asked to hold him (this to great laughter).
It’s a disparate group, the helpful young man, who it turns out knows the woman from Cumbria who knitted the scarf I am wearing, a couple of jolly women sitting on the floor, one of whom is carrying a (never explained) chandelier, and a man sitting in utter silence who is later recognised as a Tory MP. And outside, of course, it’s Bonfire Night so there are periodic fireworks. It’s like one of those 1940s films (Thunder Rock?) in which a carefully assorted group are marooned in a storm and gradually reveal themselves to one another. Rupert also enjoys himself as, having mentioned he has brought a salad for his supper, he is temporarily given a seat so that he can settle down and eat it in comfort. But what’s most welcome is that there’s no spirit of the Blitz about all this and not much moaning either. Had Richard Branson dared to show his face on his own train he wouldn’t have had much of a welcome, but then a burly and bullying man who squeezes his way down the aisle saying, ‘We must all write to the Daily Mail’ doesn’t get much sympathy either. Notably untouched by and uninterested in anything that goes on are two unsmiling teenagers who scarcely raise their eyes from their screens throughout. As it is we roll into King’s Cross at twenty past ten, five and a half hours after leaving Leeds, but still feeling it’s a deliverance that we are not stuck outside Spalding. I shake hands with my particular deliverer and hobble after Rupert to find a cab after what all too often is just a normal weekend on the railways.
12 November. Among the books we cleared out of Gloucester Crescent is a Borges anthology bought in 1963. Leafing through it I find a quotation I have often cited as it rang bells with me (and, indeed, Tom Stoppard). As I had remembered, it went: ‘All the books he had ever written filled him only with a complex feeling of repentance.’ Looking at the salvaged book today I find it reads: ‘All the books he had published merely moved him to a complex repentance’ (‘The Secret Miracle’). I don’t feel that my misremembrance is better, but I’m certainly more comfortable with it.
20 November. My bad ankle means that, going to Yorkshire, I have to have a wheelchair at King’s Cross and Leeds, ordering it the day before, and though there’s a bit of palaver over the phone, all of it is cheerful and done with the minimum of fuss. The wheelchair handlers are chatty and joking and one is whisked through the barriers and across the crowded forecourt at (quite exhilarating) speed. This is a Virgin service, Virgin a company for which I generally begrudge praise. But the service is first rate and wholly uncondescending. Whirled along, I am reminded of a line in the Oscar Wilde parody I put in Forty Years On, when the bathchair-bound Lady Dundown remarks: ‘I can walk. It’s just that I’m so rich I don’t need to.’
24 November. With every day bringing news of fresh improprieties, a part of me regrets a line I cut from the original script of The History Boys. Dakin, the handsome sixth-form seducer, is setting up a tryst with the (rather nervous) supply teacher Irwin, who is not reassured when Dakin promises that ‘some inappropriate behaviour might then be appropriate.’
9 December. Suddenly cold and I take to my overcoat. Black and heavy it’s a distinguished garment and must be over a century old. A present from my friend the composer George Fenton, he bought it me from John Pearse, the posh tailor in Meard Street, where he was told it had been made by Proust’s tailor in Paris. It still has some of its original frogging and a sartorial historian (or archaeologist) could detect where there must once have been an astrakhan collar. In view of its age and its literary connection it has to be regularly serviced, replacing a button a work of conservation. I was once doing a book signing with the (much missed) Debo, Duchess of Devonshire and, showing off, said my coat had been made by Proust’s tailor.
‘Oh, Mr Alan,’ she said, stroking the sleeve, ‘Prue Taylor! I love her work.’
11 December. Roger Lewis in the Oldie calls me ‘trademark lugubrious’. I rather like trademark lugubrious. It makes me sound like the latter-day equivalent of the 17th-century Praise-God Barebones. Trademark Lugubrious could be a character out of Ben Jonson.