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.
At first the palazzo seems closed and we have to circumambulate the whole building to find the entry door. This, though, is salutary, as it makes one realise what a vast place it is – virtually an entire city block and a small town in itself. The late Stuart Burge, the theatre director, was hidden here as an escaped POW in the war, which I took to mean he spent this perilous time in the bosom of the family. Stuart always played this down and now I can see why, as he may well have been lodged in some attic or vestibule of this vast complex, never setting eyes on the Doria-Pamphilj themselves. The museum itself is staggering, with rank on rank of paintings stretching from floor to ceiling so that when you look in a small side room and find the Velázquez Innocent X unheralded and on its own, it’s almost by accident. One blessing of the Palazzo is that though every one of the rooms on show is lined with posh 17th and 18th-century chairs, none of which is to be sat on, and the upholstery protected by nasty see-through plastic, there are always in addition three or four canvas and metal chairs, so one never goes far without somewhere one can sit down and take in the room, sightseeing thus becoming almost a pleasure.
Security at Fiumicino seems quite relaxed, to the extent that one of the men on duty, a nice fattish jolly fellow, makes jokes about it, saying (as he conducts the body search) ‘No bombs today then?’ and R. gets much the same treatment.
Things have changed, at least in Italy. A few years ago a friend of ours in Canada made a joke about bombs as he was going through security and was promptly hauled off to a cell where he was strip-searched and kept there for several hours and when he was eventually released had some incriminating entry made on his computer record. Even allowing for my nervousness about flying I think I still prefer the Italian approach.
23 May. A party for HMQ at the Royal Academy where around six we join a straggling queue of notables, the actors the most obvious, though Vivienne Westwood is her usual unobtrusive self. Talk to various people in the queue, one of whom seems to know my plays well but then congratulates me on my paintings of trees – she’s the first of three people who confuse me with Hockney and though he too is at the party I doubt if he is ever confused with me.
Inside the place is less crowded than one had expected and with the rooms so tall it’s almost airy. We’re directed into one of the emptier rooms where HMQ is due to pass through but are then pounced on by some young man who asks if he may introduce the (slightly bewildered) Duke of Kent. We have an awkward few minutes but the day is saved by Clive Swift, whose son Joe has just won a medal at Chelsea. HRH knows about Chelsea and so brightens considerably. Meanwhile lurking by the door HMQ is due to come through is Kate O’Mara and when I next look lining up to meet Her Majesty are Ms O’Mara along with Joan Collins and Shirley Bassey, the impression being that anyone can get to speak to the monarch provided you’re pushy enough. But it’s all very casual, so much so that R. doesn’t even see the queen, though she’s distinctive enough, dressed in white and glittering with jewels, determinedly animated and smiling, which, since she’s been at it for two hours already, is an achievement in itself. We go on through the rooms, talking to all sorts of people – Jim Naughtie, Nigel Slater and David Hare, who claims that the best conjunction he’s seen so far is George Steiner talking to Joan Collins.
Come away at eight o’clock with HMQ still at it, and the policemen in the forecourt very jolly and eating ice cream.
1 June. John Horder dies at 92, who, after a succession of bad doctors at university and in New York, was the physician who restored my faith in the medical profession. It was partly because he listened, as doctors have learned to do since, I hope, but which in the early 1960s they hardly did at all. Kind and in some respects saintly, his care for his patients brought on regular breakdowns and he was no stranger to depression. Famous as Sylvia Plath’s doctor, he always reproached himself that he did not see her suicide coming. What he thought of Ted H. is not recorded. Once examining (as he was often called on to do) my back passage he said: ‘No. I can’t find anything that concerns me here but’ – his finger all the while up my bum – ‘it’s always nice to see you.’
4 June. In Yorkshire it’s a lovely blustery blue day but in London the rain which soaked Sunday’s endless Jubilee regatta has had a more melancholy consequence, as when we get home we find by the back door two dead baby wrens, drowned presumably in the torrents that poured down on the queen. One thinks of all that work – the parents flying in and out every five minutes – all gone to waste. Now, without them, the garden seems empty.
19 June. Watch the last of Grayson Perry’s TV series In the Best Possible Taste, which have been good programmes, though requiring the subjects – tonight it’s the upper classes – to think about decoration and style, thus almost inevitably falsifying the answers, the unthinkingness of style of its essence. It put me in mind though of my second play, Getting On (1971), which I look up. It’s not a good play (and far too wordy) but where it scores – and is almost documentary – is about class and style, and particularly the style of the young marrieds who were my contemporaries in 1970, with George, the verbose Labour MP who’s its central figure, hankering after the style of the old middle classes, ‘the middle-class family … the most exclusive interior decorator in the world’. He also hankers after unselfconsciousness in style and taking things for granted which, forty years later, I’m still on about in People – not that anyone will notice.
3 July. Feel I should register the continuing excellence of Radios 3 and 4 prompted by two and a half hours of reminiscences on Radio 3 by the ninety-year-old John Amis, which included him talking at length to Myra Hess (whose voice I’ve never heard before) and also to Walter Legge, both of whom were fascinating and with no indication in Amis’s voice that he himself is well past his sell-by date.
Consistently good, too, is Last Word, the obituary programme on Radio 4, and The Archive Hour, which on 7 July was about Harold Macmillan – the Night of the Long Knives. This was terrific stuff both in itself, Macmillan always a treat even when he’s being a showman, but also in pointing up the driving down of standards in politics that has occurred since. Taken together with Sue MacGregor’s The Reunion and Jim Naughtie’s New Elizabethans these half a dozen programmes are alone worth the licence fee.
27 July. A flying visit to Norfolk, where I am to read at the Holt Festival. Rather than hang about all morning R. sensibly gets us off to look at two churches at Warham, both medieval but with one done up in the 18th century. As we look round the first church (which has three fonts) there is some sort of exercise going on in the air, with planes filling both sky and church with thunderous noise. ‘The Olympics?’ R. suggests, that unlonged for day having at last arrived. Not particularly memorable, one church does have a noteworthy memorial:
Richard Henry Burden Cattell M.A.
Rector of the Warhams 1928-1947
Captain of the English Rugby Football team 1900
Chaplain to the Forces at Gallipoli 1915.
This tablet is placed here in remembrance by his seven daughters.
It’s a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett.
6 August. All the Olympic stuff, I suppose, makes me remember when I was a boy and the series in, I think, the Hotspur or the Wizard about Wilson. Wilson was a tall sinewy man of indeterminate age, modest, taciturn, mysterious, who in a typical episode would bring off some amazing feat of endurance – running a vast distance in a seemingly impossible time, scaling an unconquered peak – an achievement which he would shrug off with his customary modesty. Then someone would come across an old document or a barely legible memorial stone which, when deciphered, recorded a similar feat also by someone called Wilson … only two hundred years previously. So each story ended with a troubled intimation of Wilson’s immortality.
At one point in, I think, the 1980s Trevor Griffiths urged me to write a play about Wilson – or maybe said he was thinking of doing so himself. As it is the character of Wilson persists as an ideal of what an athlete ought to be. I can’t imagine Wilson snarling in victory as, say, John Terry does, still less punching the air. You wouldn’t have found Wilson brandishing his medals at the TV cameras in the way some of the athletes were doing on Saturday night.
8 August. The two boys who have won in the triathlon live in Bramhope, a village on the outskirts of Leeds which we often drive through. The only other notable resident of Bramhope is (or maybe was) Saddam Hussein’s cousin.
22 August. There are different ways of being English, one of which is not to want to be English at all. I doubt if anyone French is ever ashamed of being French – however deplorable the government might be. Disaffected though he or she may be, to be French is still the best thing in the world.
26 August. When I was religious as a boy I used to envy Catholics who only had to say the words of the Mass and not have to mean them in the way that Anglicans did.
21 September. To the City of Leeds School in Woodhouse, the head of which is Georgie Sale, a troubleshooting headmistress formerly at my own old school and who, though not a fan of Michael Gove, relishes schools like hers that have to be turned round. There are fifty or so nationalities here, including two boys who were child soldiers in Africa and are thought to have killed people, and two boys smuggled out of Afghanistan in a wooden box built above the axle of a jeep. They came to Leeds thinking they had relatives here but found they had moved on and so lived rough in Hyde Park, preying on students and stealing food until they were picked up by the police and brought to the school. None of these I see, but only a light airy secondary school, the children’s art on the walls and a display of masks and costumes they wore at the Bank Holiday carnival. I read to an audience of parents and friends, though fetched up hard against Life as I am here, my usual stuff seems trivial and frivolous, with the purpose of the evening to raise funds so that these extra-curricular events can be maintained. Were the school an academy funds would be provided, so I must be grateful to Mr Gove for bringing me out on this Friday night.
10 October. A. Titchmarsh rings to say they’ve booked for the play at the National which, since it’s not due to open for another three weeks or so, makes me slightly nervous. Seeing the posters up similarly. He says they’ve got to Grantham. I say I didn’t know they were planning to move. They weren’t. What he’d actually said was they’d got a grandson. Such mishearings are nowadays a regular occurrence.
15 October. I thought I would list the various names people have for me. In the local post office where I go every morning for the papers I am ‘Mr Alan’, though Zaiman with his filmstar looks just calls me ‘Alan’ (and occasionally pats my arm). The English lady (from Kent) in Shepherd Foods who wears a burka calls me ‘Mr Bennett’ and because it’s the way she’s been brought up (and I’m older than she is) won’t say ‘Alan’ (‘My mother would give me a clip’).
In the coffee shop across the road where I get my daily decaf latte it’s ‘Sir’, though one of the (several) discussion groups outside refers to me as ‘that man’, as in ‘Hello, that man,’ which has an undertone of the parade ground to it. In the greengrocer’s I am ‘Mr B.’ and to the elegant old lady who used to own it and who has lived round here longer than I have I am ‘My dear’.
To Sam Frears lower down the road I am just ‘Bennett’ and when I occasionally see another neighbour, Dom Cooper, I am called out to as ‘A.B.’, which is what he and the other History Boys called me. At the stage door of the National I am ‘young man’, which reminds me that the doorman of Durrants Hotel once called Alec Guinness ‘young man’ thereby forfeiting his tip – though he might have expected to have it doubled. Our fair-haired bin man always bellows ‘ALAN’ above the noise of the rotor. ‘Still on your bike?’ I am grateful to be so generally greeted and put it down to having that kind of face, as my dad was the same. Still I doubt anyone ever said to him, ‘Hello you old cunt,’ as is occasionally said to me.
16 October. The fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis which, at the time, I never expected to live to see. We were in America with Beyond the Fringe, the first hint of trouble coming when the show was playing Washington. Some of the younger members of the Kennedy administration took us along to the press conference at the White House when the existence of the launch sites was first revealed. I remember nothing of that, struck only by how glamorous Kennedy was, how swiftly he came to the podium and how he flirted with the women journalists. I had never seen such charm. By the time we got to New York with the show the crisis had hotted up, with all four of us just wishing we were back at home – not that that would have done us any good. We also stayed together most of the day, with Peter Cook, always avid for news, following each new development and often on the phone to London. On the crucial night, as it was thought, I stayed with Dudley Moore in his Midtown apartment. This he later embellished for chat-show consumption as my having hidden under his bed which, since it was seldom unoccupied and often the scene of tumultuous activity, would hardly have been a sensible precaution. By the opening night it was thought the crisis had passed, whereas in fact it was just coming to a head. A siren went off in the middle of the show and dead silence ensued, but it was only a fire engine and the relief meant the audience laughed even more. None of this, though, was as memorable as after the assassination the following year when on Thanksgiving I remember walking through a Manhattan that was empty and wholly silent.
20 October. Another speaking engagement, this time at Settle College which is just down the road, to raise funds for their newly opened library. As usual I follow my reading with a Q&A, the first question being, ‘Mr Bennett. In the light of the Jimmy Savile revelations will you be changing the plot of The History Boys?’ No, of course not, is the answer, though the supposed parallels had not occurred to me. I point out that Hector’s fumblings with his pupils are inept, to say the least, and that the boys are all 17 or 18 and far more sexually sophisticated than Hector, who is in many ways an innocent. The notion that the plot of a play should be modified in the light of subsequent events is also an odd one.
25 October. Joe Melia, who has died, was an intellectual actor. Clown though he also was he bubbled over with ideas. Regardless of the circumstances in which one met him – (in my case) generally walking on Primrose Hill – he always had a book on the go and was the only person I know who could read as he walked, though Pepys used to do it, reading all the way from his office to Greenwich. And maybe today it’s less unusual in that people can walk nowadays while glued to their iPads much as Pepys (and Joe Melia) did glued to their books.
28 October. My first play, Forty Years On, was set in a school, Albion House, which was also a country house on the South Downs and a (fairly obvious) metaphor for England. My latest play, People, is set in a rundown country house in South Yorkshire whose owner expressly disavows its metaphorical status. It is not England. I don’t imagine, though, this will stop both critics and audiences from making the connection. Taken together the two plays are a kind of parenthesis: Forty Years On (1968) open brackets; People (2012) close brackets.
29 October. Write it and it happens. People is set in a mansion situated on the edge of what was a coalfield and is now a business park. Today the play is in technical rehearsal, when the author is the last person anyone wants to see, so I have come with R. and Christopher Simon Sykes to Garsington on the outskirts of Oxford where they are photographing the 17th-century country house, once lived in by Ottoline Morrell. The house will be known to many people for its opera festival run by the late Leonard Ingrams, but I first read about it when I was 17 in Stephen Spender’s (then quite daring) autobiography World within World. Garsington is everything an English country house is supposed to be, the panelled rooms hung with pictures and fabrics and overflowing with books, which spill out onto the landings and bedrooms in a warm and comfortable disarray that no interior decorator could ever achieve. Ilex trees frame the view from the front over the valley towards Wittenham Clumps, the house itself just one of a complex of buildings – barns, a dovecote, a farm – that have grown up over the years. In People Dorothy, the lady of the manor, expressly disclaims any pretensions to metaphor her house might have. ‘England with all its faults. A country house with all its shortcomings – the one is not the other.’ In this perfect house such a disclaimer would be much harder to make. A metaphor for an ex-England maybe. As it is I drive back to London not with second thoughts but chastened certainly.
11 November. T.S. Eliot I only saw once, sometime in 1964. It was on the old Central Station in Leeds, long since demolished, which was the terminus for the London trains. I was with Timothy Binyon, with whom I had been at college and who in 1964 was a lecturer in Russian at Leeds University and was also teaching me to drive. In the early 1960s there had been a long overdue attempt to reactivate the slot machines which all through the war years and after had stood empty and disconsolate on railway platforms, a sad reminder of what life had been like before the war. Now briefly there was chocolate in the machines again and cigarettes too; it had taken twenty years but austerity was now seemingly at an end. One beneficiary of this development was a rudimentary printing machine to be found on most mainline stations. Painted pillarbox red it was a square console on legs with a dial on the top and a pointer. Using this pointer, for sixpence or a shilling one could spell out one’s name and address which would then be printed onto a strip of aluminium foil which could be attached to one’s suitcase, kitbag or whatever. Astonished to find such a machine actually working after decades of disuse, Binyon and I were printing out our names watched by a friendly middle-aged woman who was equally fascinated.
It was at this point the train came in and after most of the passengers had cleared there came a small procession headed by the friendly lady, whom I now recognised as Mrs Fletcher, a customer at my father’s butcher’s shop, followed by her daughter Valerie pushing a wheelchair with, under a pile of rugs, her husband T.S. Eliot; all accompanied by a flotilla of porters. It was only when this cavalcade had passed that the person we were waiting for made her appearance – namely the current editor of the London Review of Books, who at that time worked for Faber & Faber and whose titular boss T.S. Eliot had been.
T.S. Eliot died early the following year. Timothy Binyon, having produced a definitive biography of Pushkin, died in 2004 and now Valerie Eliot has died. I only met her a couple of times, though was persuaded to attend her funeral if only because, through her family coming to our shop, I had known her longest – if in some respects least.
She used to claim that she remembered me as a boy doing my homework in a corner of the shop – an unlikely recollection, and a slightly distasteful one, reminiscent of Millais’s (fairly odious) picture of Christ in the carpenter’s shop. Had I ever chosen to do my homework in the shop it would have got short shrift from my father who would have seen it as ‘showing off’.
What Valerie Eliot did do, though, was to send me the notes her husband had made on the inside of his programme after their visit to Beyond the Fringe:
An amazingly vigorous quartet of young men: their show well produced and fast moving, a mixture of brilliance, juvenility and bad taste. Brilliance illustrated by a speech by Macmillan (Cook), a sermon (Bennett) and an interview with an African politician (Miller, who otherwise reminded us of Auden). Juvenility by anti-nuclear-bomb scene, anti-capital-punishment scene and the absence of any satire at the expense of the Labour Party. Bad taste by armpits and Lady Astor speech (?). Still, it is pleasant to see this type of entertainment so successful.
15 November, Paris. Write it and it happens. People begins with two old people sitting in a grand though dilapidated room when a young man comes in (he is virtually naked, but that is incidental). He puts his finger to his lips, indicating that filming is going on. Dorothy, the younger of the two women, says ‘Are we dangerous?’, meaning will they be in shot, and the young man shushes her again.
This afternoon I’m packed, ready for Eurostar and waiting in one of the hotel drawing-rooms while R. does some last-minute shopping. A porter comes in and puts a log on the fire, at which point a young woman looks in, puts her finger to her lips, motioning him to forget the fire as they are filming in the next room.
I cannot see what it is they are filming, but it is a lavish crew of some twenty or so with half a dozen other technicians hanging about outside. Someone is being interviewed, I can tell that, which in England would warrant a crew of three or four at the most. Whoever it is has a low purling voice which, increasingly deaf as I am, I can’t quite hear. This goes on for an hour or so at which point R. returns and with him our taxi. Standing up to go I have my first view of who is being interviewed. It is Salman Rushdie.
3 December. The basic London Library fee is now £445.00. My borrowings are so few this works out at £20 per book – and this is an underestimate. I suppose I have to think of it as a contribution to charity.