20 December 2017. Nick Hytner rings saying he hopes to put on the hospital play at the Bridge next year and had I had any thoughts about the title? Off the cuff I suggest Past Caring, which I’m sure has been used, but will serve, if only for the announcement of the season in the New Year.
As an early Christmas present Bridget has given us a cow creamer she has made. Unglazed, it is chunky and solid and striped black and white like a bovine zebra. It’s a delightful object, a convict cow, and could she be bothered to make more and market them I’m sure they would sell for a substantial price. As it is, it stands on the kitchen table waiting to find its – or her – place. A lovely thing.
31 December. Because some 25 years ago The Madness of King George was nominated for an Oscar, around Christmas we generally get a clutch of DVDs soliciting votes for the next year’s awards. Today it’s Call Me by Your Name, which has been much lauded, so much so that when we come to watch it this rather gets in the way. And it’s somehow all too easy. Both the 17-year-old Elio and his older lover, Oliver, are flawless, but with no anguish to their affection. Nor is there any lack of understanding from the boy’s parents, his father particularly, with this being singled out as evidence of the film’s maturity. It’s quite chaste, very beautiful and it slips down so easily one is left blaming it for its charm.
6 January 2018. Make some progress on the second part of Past Caring (if that is what it is to be called), seeing how the build-up to the ending could involve a showing of clips from the documentary that is being shot in the hospital throughout the play. Feel that this must be a breakthrough as I straightaway become nervous that I shan’t have the energy to finish it. When I first started writing plays I used to worry as I got near the end that I might get run over or fall off my bike, and there’s a bit of that still. It’s a good sign. Names, though, are always a problem. I’ve changed the name of one of the nurses from Pinkerton to Pinkney for no other reason than that ‘Miss Pinkney’s’ was a posh (as I thought) dancing class in Armley when I was a boy. I never attended it, but were the house still there, I could limp to it still.
11 January. The partridges have landed. I once had to give a talk at Hawthornden, the writers’ colony near Edinburgh run by Drue Heinz. Thereafter, every Christmas Drue sends us a box of partridges or venison which, not being especially carnivorous, we find it hard to dispose of. This year, though, Inigo Thomas, having been brought up on such fare, has offered to take them off our hands (and later sends round a brace in a delicious casserole).
7 February. Nick H. rings this morning to say they’d been talking over the play at the theatre and the general feeling is that Allelujah! (my original title) makes more of an impact than Past Caring and will look better on the posters. I haven’t looked it up, but I imagine ‘Allelujah’ is a godly way of saying ‘Hooray!’
9 February, Yorkshire. By the front door two aconites, which I find the most attractive of flowers. Aconites, snug and tight-budded in their cosy green frills, always cheer me up, much more than the ragged and anaemic snowdrops, of which we have a profusion.
14 February, Yorkshire. When we had the central heating overhauled a slightly larger radiator was put in the downstairs loo. It’s a small room – the smallest room indeed – and now it’s become the cosiest room in the house. Used to the lav not being over-warm, I now find it luxurious. In Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love the Radlett children in their arctic house used to foregather in its warmest spot, the airing cupboard. With us it would have to be the loo.
16 February. To St Paul’s, Covent Garden and the memorial service for the actor Ben Whitrow. Mindful of similar services in the past when I haven’t heard a word, I sit halfway down the south aisle festooned in hearing aids in the lee of a plaque to Flora Robson. But someone must have taken the acoustics in hand because if anything it’s too noisy and I turn one of them off. It’s a good service, a model, with none of the speakers – his two sons, Richard Eyre and Robert Bathurst – outstaying their welcome and Ben vividly recalled.
Bathurst is particularly good, reading a Betjeman poem about golf, following it up with a very funny (and almost better) poem in parody by Ben himself. Since I know him chiefly from work, Ben’s outspoken and eccentric personality is news to me, with both his sons saying how lucky they felt to have such a characterful and memorable father. Not knowing he was ill I was shocked by his death, particularly because I’d imagined him playing Ambrose, the retired schoolmaster, in Allelujah!, which he would have done effortlessly. The vicar ends the service in a way I’ve not come across before, asking the congregation to get up and give Ben a standing ovation. Which we do and which becomes almost Stalinist as no one wants to be the first to stop clapping. Coming out I find myself behind Simon Williams, who has been mentioned by his son as one of Ben’s closest friends and am cheered by the possibility that if Ben could play Ambrose, so could Simon – which happily he does. But ‘lovely Ben’ the overwhelming feeling.
24 February. Watching Dad’s Army for the umpteenth time, though never without laughing, I realise that the words of Bud Flanagan’s title song (‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?’) are the Brexit anthem:
We are the boys who will stop your little game.
We are the boys who will make you think again.
Plucky little England versus the might of Germany is how Gove, Johnson and Fox still see it, and (as they never stop telling us) so supposedly do more than half the nation.
3 March. I get so much affection from people. With the snow still thick I force myself into wellington boots and venture forth, the first time for four days. Coming out of Shepherd’s, I am stopped by a black guy who says how much Talking Heads means to him and shakes my hand. Then, as I cross over, I’m hugged by someone else whom I don’t know. I pick my way carefully back, cheered up no end.
Later we watch God’s Own Country, about a young and unhappy shepherd in Yorkshire who takes on a Romanian immigrant and is emotionally educated by him, learning to care as much for his fellow man as he does for his sheep. It’s a bleak film, shot somewhere above Keighley I imagine, the farmhouse comfortless and the weather cold and grey throughout. It’s also quite graphic: a lad buggered (I think in Skipton cattle market) and pretty specifically too, hardly a romantic encounter. Even when the young farmer (scarcely named in the film) falls for the young Romanian their sex is almost a wrestling match, one encounter in the mud of the farmyard like Francis Bacon’s painting. The bodies, on the few occasions it’s warm enough for them to get their kit off, are not glamorised at all, with the English actor fearless in the degree of his self-exposure. God’s Own Country stays in the mind as Call Me by Your Name doesn’t, with the scenes where the Romanian takes off and abandons the farmer heartrending as the idyllic French film never is quite. In the days when I might have written a television film like this it would never have been put on and even today, epic of sheep-farming though it is, I don’t see it forming one of the Saturday night film shows they have in our village hall.
19 March, Yorkshire. A gorgeous morning, the snow all but gone and though it’s windy still almost warm. Between Rupert getting up and him fetching me a cup of tea I reread ‘Elizabeth at Rycote’, an essay in A.L. Rowse’s The English Spirit, published in 1944 and bought, I see from the flyleaf, when I was in Cork in 1963. Rowse figures in it, having walked out from Oxford to Rycote with Bruce McFarlane during the war. Rowse here doesn’t obtrude or lay down the law, as he does in so much of what he later wrote, but just gives an account of Elizabeth I’s visits to the house and of the Norreys family who lived there. I leave it open on a chair hoping that Rupert will read it, Rycote Church being one of his favourite places. Also open on another chair is Richard Hoggart’s Promises to Keep, in which among other things he mentions not feeling he belongs to ‘the English Literary Happy Family’, as I hope neither do I.
21 March. Reading a book about William Morris and Kelmscott, I come across a reminiscence by Philip Webb, who remarked to W.R. Lethaby: ‘The best of those times was that there was no covetousness; all went into the common stock … and then we were all such boys.’ This is how I remember my early days working for the BBC in the 1960s. John Fortune, John Bird, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall: we were all such boys too and it seemed such play. Less play was Beyond the Fringe, but that had its sillier side. Dudley Moore had an act – never, I think, done in public – about a patient in hospital calling the nurse for a bedpan. He had quite plump arms and a raspberry blown against his upper arm sounded particularly revolting. This was accompanied by increasingly desperate calls of ‘Nurse! Nurse!’ Then, when the nurse eventually appeared, he shook his head. ‘Too late.’
Another act which he would regularly perform in the wings of the Fortune Theatre to make us laugh when we were actually on stage was to pretend to take a pinch of something from every orifice of his body – snot from his nose, fluff from his navel, wax from his ears and shit from his arse – before spitting into the palm of his hand and rolling it all into a terrible pastille which he would then pop into his mouth with every appearance of relish. Maybe he did do that in public – the Derek and Clive dialogues with Peter Cook left very little to the imagination, so it’s not unlikely.
23 March. Barry Cryer brings a good deal of old-fashioned joy into my life, as I’m sure he does for many others. His phone calls always begin, ‘It’s your stalker,’ after which without introduction he tells his latest joke. This morning’s was told originally by Walter Matthau.
A newly married couple. The husband goes into the bathroom and there’s a dead horse in the bath.
‘Darling,’ he calls, ‘there’s a dead horse in the bath.’
‘So? I never said I was tidy.’
The calls always end as abruptly as they begin with Barry saying: ‘I’ll give you back your day.’
26 March. When I was a boy in Leeds, this Monday in Easter week was always noteworthy for a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Leeds Parish Church, which I dutifully attended as one of a party from my church youth club. It was dutiful because half the evening – and more than half – I used to find tedious to a degree, as I never appreciated the beauty or the appeal of the recitatives and particularly the narration by the Evangelist, a single unaccompanied voice never doing anything for me. The performance only came alive with the chorales, which in Leeds was when the congregation could sometimes join in. From year to year I would forget the opening chorale until the orchestra struck up the long introduction and then it would all come back and sweep me away. The performance was always conducted by the organist, Dr Melville Cook, in a fluent, almost boneless style with which I was familiar as it was also affected by Maurice Miles, the conductor of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. But the uncushioned pews were hard and the parish church, being Victorian, didn’t have much to catch the eye, so that by half-past nine I was aching for the finish, when we could get the tram home and have some fish and chips en route.
7 April. One drawback of my new hearing aid is that it enables me to catch how much I shuffle so that ‘Pick your feet up’ and ‘Don’t slur’ come back to me from childhood.
8 April. Drue Heinz, aged a (to me) astonishing 103, has died and tonight I listen to Radio 4’s Last Word and Grey Gowrie talking about her with fondness and perception. Gowrie was at the dinner for the Hawthornden prizegiving given by Drue at which various guests, most of them unknown to me, had, if there was a tick on their place cards, to stand up and say what my writing meant to them – a painfully embarrassing memory even today. This was Drue’s bullying. She would telephone out of the blue begging me to come to lunch, as often as not that very day (‘Just the two of us, I promise’), and I would go along to her mews house behind Charles Street to find the tête-à-tête had turned into a party for 16, with the guests the likes of the American ambassador, Roy Jenkins, Kofi Annan and such. She never seemed 103 or anything like it and got up for an occasion looked magnificent. She was a generous woman, publicly and privately, and Gowrie gives an affectionate account.
9 April. A dream in which a young man with ginger hair picks me up by the novel method of sticking a large stamp-collecting hinge on my back. Whether I end up in his collection I don’t recall.
17 April. ‘As a native son of the great county of Yorkshire you will be delighted to know that a pub in the Yorkshire town of Otley is to be renamed the Alan Bennett in your honour in order to celebrate Yorkshire Day.’ Fortunately this bizarre baptism is only for a month; were it longer I fear it would soon be reflected in the takings. The body responsible for this kindly gesture is the Otley Pub Club, which campaigns for real ale and against the closure of pubs generally, a cause I find sympathetic without being much of a pub-goer myself. They ask me for a photograph to display behind the bar, but the only one I have is the picture of the four of us on the sands at Filey in 1939, with Dad in his raincoat and bowler hat, Mam and my brother laughing, and me looking uneasy. For Mam and Dad to find themselves in a pub seems as unlikely as me turning up there (which they want me to do). Instead I send them a drawing of myself (‘Cheers!’). The temporarily denominated pub is called the Crossed Pipes.
4 May. A review by Elaine Showalter of a biography of the photographer Richard Avedon in which I am mentioned as one of his sitters. Sitting it was too, and in acute discomfort, as Avedon chose to pose me perched on the branch of a tree in Hyde Park, one leg on either side, and so not unreminiscent of the predicament Corporal Jones is always getting himself into in Dad’s Army. If the resulting photograph is rather strained it’s hardly surprising.
6 May. I am waiting downstairs while Rupert puts the finishing touches to himself before we go out. It’s an ancestral scene, as Dad was always ready to go out while Mam would still be diddling her hands under the tap upstairs. Idly I turn the TV on and it’s a rather dull Western with Randolph Scott, who is in the sheriff’s office talking to the crooked lawyer. Now Rupert comes down and watches for a minute or two, seemingly much more interested than I am. He comes closer and peers at the screen. ‘Isn’t that thing in the corner a rhubarb forcer?’
12 May. Finish reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. There’s nothing I can think of to compare it with except Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, both of them novels about bereavement, with Saunders’s book largely set in the period immediately following the death aged 11 of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie. While all the stuff about the child is beautifully done, the atmosphere and the ghostly personnel of the immediate afterlife (the Bardo) is both funny and absorbing, much of it written via a series of quotations, most of them (I take it) fictional. He’s not afraid of bathos and conjures up an enormous cast of (mostly dead) characters, some of them lewd and all of them (I think this is right) unwilling to face the fact that they are dead. I’d like to read a commentary on the book by someone who has read it more perceptively than I have and followed Saunders’s thought and imagination better than I can. It’s not my sort of book at all, but it leaves me wanting to read his other books. Zadie Smith thinks it a masterpiece and says so on the cover. Certainly it’s a new way of writing a novel.
25 May, Yorkshire. To Leeds this morning in an empty train with neither of us feeling very clever but revived by a lovely lunch at Sous le Nez in Leeds, mine beetroot ravioli, R.’s a mixture of salads. Home by four, with the garden looking profuse, hawthorns in particular, the blossom spectacular, real Combray stuff. Supper and a very funny episode of Friday Night Dinner. Much in the papers about Philip Roth, with the commentators feeling bold enough to say what they were nervous to say while he was alive. It’s like tying down Gulliver, which now that he’s dead it’s quite safe to do. At long last he can be pocketed.
27 May, Yorkshire. In an earthenware pot on the bedroom windowsill a little posse of home-grown lily of the valley. Through the open window beyond is a flawless blue sky with the sycamores over the wall still threshing in the wind and the house full of evening light.
In contrast the Chelsea Flower Show looks to me like hell on earth, with the main concourse as thronged as Oxford Street. The winning gardens seldom appeal, with the ubiquity of concrete always a problem (though not for the judges). As usual the proceedings are peppered with personalities; it’s really just an awards ceremony with floral tributes thrown in.
28 May, Yorkshire. Baking hot for the Austwick Street Fair, which can normally be relied on for cold wind, rain and even snow. Everyone speaks; I can’t think of a more good-humoured occasion, more so even than our own street market at the end of July. Rupert buys a bunch of rough-cut pea sticks and a foxglove plant. I get a slice of Victoria sponge and we have a cup of tea in the parish room, with the door open onto a field of sheep and in the distance the hill behind Feizor.
I collect the paper from the village shop where, seeing a headline about yesterday’s lightning strikes in London, a woman says: ‘I love it when they have it nasty down south.’
This is the real North-South divide, which HS2 will do nothing to alter, or anything else much.
29 May. Over the holiday there has been a good deal of rain and this morning when I set off for the Bridge and the first read-through of Allelujah! there is another torrent. It continues apocalyptic all through the meet and greet in the Bridge’s spacious foyer, the tourist boats drifting sadly past, with the tops of Tower Bridge lost in the mist. The reading goes well, some laughs I’m sure because it’s set in the North and is therefore funny, the biggest on a remark I heard in a Pontefract barrack room when I was 18 and in my first week of National Service. I hang around afterwards in an effort to humanise myself and not be just thought of as The Words, while Nick’s closing speech enthuses even me. ‘We may not get it right but we will get it real.’ Back home in another tropical storm.
31 May. Note that I have a persistent and I fear sentimental notion of women’s prisons as places of refuge. Open prisons I suppose I mean, which keep cropping up in my plays as havens of peace, kitted out with gardens, vegetable plots, craft centres and all unsullied by men. ‘A Lady of Letters’ ends in a women’s prison, with Miss Ruddock saying: ‘I’m so … happy.’ In ‘Nights in the Gardens of Spain’ two characters find love in a prison garden. Now at the end of Allelujah! (and slightly to my surprise) there comes another prison garden. It would be nice to think that this vision is somewhere near the truth, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
4 June. We rehearse in King’s Bench Street in Blackfriars and today the actors sit in a circle and one by one tell the life stories of their characters insofar as they can be deduced from the script. Nobody seems nervous doing this, though I’d find it an ordeal, and even today I wonder if I am going to be called on to give a fictitious account of myself. As it is, the stories they tell are funny and also useful, with Jeff Rawle, as a retired and redundant miner, providing lots of documentary background to do with Wakefield and the closing of the pits. Simon Williams fills out his role in a way I had never imagined. An old schoolmaster perpetually expecting the arrival of an ex-pupil, whose identity I had left vague, Simon makes the pupil an Ethiopian boy to whom he has rashly entrusted his life savings to help the boy establish himself in Addis Ababa, obviously never to return. Another character, Salter the hospital chairman, played by Peter Forbes, is given a name, Mervyn, which is exactly right but would never have occurred to me. So a good practical exercise.
Still, I’m not really part of it, treated with too much respect because I’m the author and also, I’m sure, because I’m old. I was old in 2004 rehearsing The History Boys and I never felt it quite so keenly as I do now – but then it’s 14 years later.
12 June. As a child I once sat through a sermon which I thought was about the mission field. It was not an area of Christian endeavour that much concerned me so I only half listened, probably browsing the prayer book instead, though half heard the sermon didn’t seem to make much sense. It was only when we were on our way home that I was told that Mr Henderson (later archdeacon of Halifax) had not been preaching about Youth and Asia but euthanasia, a word I had never come across.
19 June, Norfolk. To Wenhaston (in Suffolk) to visit the nursery, only to find much of its trade is now online so that it’s lost its old-fashioned charm. We go on to Walpole to look at what seems like an unassuming yeoman’s cottage by the roadside but which turns out to be a Congregational place of worship founded in 1676 and with the whole of the interior rigged out as a chapel. It’s delightful, box pews arranged almost haphazardly round the pulpit, the wood pale and worn. Every detail is perfect – the candleholders, the pulley that lowers the wrought-iron chandelier – with the central pillar of the chapel a ship’s mast. It’s an enchanting place, which we’re shown round by a neighbour who is one of the congregation. Afterwards we sit on a bench in the graveyard and wonder that England can still furnish such remote and undiscovered places. But maybe not so undiscovered, as Rupert later comes across a feature on the chapel from his magazine, the World of Interiors, written all of twenty years ago.
Lunch is egg and cress sandwiches in a nearby café. In the days when we used to make our own sandwiches, I always cut the bread very thin and with plenty of butter. Café owners, perhaps for reasons of economy, generally cut the bread very thick, doorstops almost, whereas the essential ingredient in a sandwich is not the bread, and the less of it the better.
And so we wander on. ‘Nobody else would consider this a holiday,’ says R., but though we do the same things and often visit the same places we always have a good time, particularly in Norfolk.
30 June. On holiday I read and am wholly absorbed by Antony Beevor’s Arnhem. Though I am defeated by much of the military detail, the human side of the action – the troops in the gliders, their fears and all too often their fates – is beautifully told, with some of the bloodshed and killing unbearable. The villains are less the Germans than our own ‘Boy’ Browning and Montgomery, both of whom come across as vain, self-absorbed and careless, with Montgomery’s tactics to do with his personal rivalries, leaving Antwerp uncaptured, for instance, because it didn’t fit in with his wanting to outshine his American counterparts. I still find this shocking, having grown up with Montgomery held up as what these days would be called a role model. True, he soon became a figure of fun, easily imitated and with his public school ethic ripe for parody. But to find that after Alamein he was living on his reputation, and bent on enhancing it, is still disturbing and takes him beyond satire. Eisenhower by comparison seems almost statesmanlike.
2 July. Cuts in my plays seldom bother me and I am not the sort of author who defends every comma. However I do stand guard over my aitches, feeling that dropping aitches is too easy a shortcut to the demotic. So today at rehearsal I give a note. Though most of the patients in the geriatric ward are Northern in their tone and language, Ambrose, the retired schoolmaster (a part I could once have played), is determinedly abstruse, just as Valentine, the Asian doctor, can be quite technical in his language. Two of Valentine’s speeches come out of personal experience: his discussion of peristalsis, which I heard a doctor explain to a student over my naked belly in the old Middlesex Hospital in 1998, and his last speech to Nurse Gilchrist about the apparently perpetual youth of the bowel, which stems from a casual remark made by a gastroenterologist as he gave a running commentary on one of my several colonoscopies. These medical excursions may seem slightly at odds with their more vernacular surroundings but fit in with what we are told of Valentine’s over-serious character: he is interested in his job and because he is not English doesn’t mind saying so.
8 July. The weather continues tropical, today with some clouds, but of the cheerful, fleecy fast-moving variety, silly light-minded clouds, not the sullen heavy stuff that might mean business. No relief either from football fever (‘Dig Deep’, ‘Dare to Dream’, ‘Football is coming home’). Dad, from whom I (like my brother) derive my lack of interest in football (‘stinking sport’), always had to feign some enthusiasm behind his butcher’s counter, though in genteel Far Headingley the customers were seldom soccer-mad. By the time of the 1966 World Cup he had retired, though he saw the extra time in the final, but only because he was waiting for the wrestling (which didn’t count as sport).
11 July. Odd coincidence today. I am doing the Guardian quick crossword while watching Parliament on TV. I am nearly finished, with one clue left that I can’t do: ‘15 Down: “Two-wheeled transport – was in low spirits”.’ At which point some MP asks the minister (Lidington) about street crime, particularly criminals on mopeds. Which is, of course, the answer.
The first preview of Allelujah! and also England’s semi-final with Croatia, the TV on in the foyer by the stage door. The early goal happens before the performance begins and this eases the tension, as it’s assumed England has the upper hand. Whether this affects the mood of the audience I’m not sure. It can happen. The news of Munich came in the interval of the first night of Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus, turning what had seemed a flop in the first act into a triumph in the second. No such dramatic turnarounds tonight, when the audience are friendly and favourable from the start, laughing a bit too much and wanting it to be a comedy, but settling down to the play when it becomes plain that it’s tougher than that. I sit with George Fenton, who’s a calming presence, disclaiming any credit for the music which carries the play along. Driven back, I find the streets empty, what potential revellers there were having taken their sorrows home.
27 July. Julian Smith, the chief whip, is MP for our constituency in Yorkshire. I don’t have a vote there, so it’s no business of mine that his latest foray in subverting pairing arrangements on one of the Brexit votes has passed unnoticed in the local paper, the Craven Herald. It purports to be independent conservative with a small c but often with a capital C too, and even when it sits on the fence it’s seldom on my side of it. Normally Mr Smith’s activities in the constituency are extensively reported, often with flattering photographs. Not, however, on this occasion.
28 July. In the evening we watch Stewart Lee doing his stand-up in Southend. He makes stand-up almost a moral pursuit, predicting an audience’s reaction (or lack of reaction) to his material in a way that makes the usual (and more popular) stand-ups seem crude and obvious. He’s fearless, undeterred by an audience’s failure to respond, even welcoming it so that he can analyse it, tracking down the missing laugh until the audience laughs at itself. Erving Goffman would have liked Stewart Lee, though the more accessible material put out by other (and more vapid) stand-ups derives in part from Goffman’s observation of small behaviour. It’s austere stuff, Stewart Lee. He’s the J.L. Austin of what is now rather a sloppy profession.
1 August. Asked to a Yorkshire tea on Yorkshire Day (today) at Bishopthorpe Palace near York, the purpose of which, presumably blessed by the archbishop, is to bring about ‘One Yorkshire’ devolution with an elected mayor. This is, apparently, now the settled will of the people of Yorkshire. Since the settled will of the people of Yorkshire (Leeds happily excepted) was for Brexit I don’t have much time for it or for institutionalising the famed Yorkshire good sense. I suspect, too, it’s more to do with business opportunity than the supposed soul of the county. So no tea and scones for me.
7 August. It’s partly the stringencies of staging and the need to keep the stage peopled that have caused a tendency I notice in my later plays not to let them end without bringing characters back from the dead. It happens first in The Madness of George III when the king sits down at the finish of the play and talks to the audience about the perils of celebrity. Nigel Hawthorne didn’t care for the scene so it was amicably cut, but the impulse remained, as it happens again in The History Boys when Hector resurrects himself to make it plain what and why he taught as he did. In Cocktail Sticks my father is dead but still hangs about, and in the play (and later the film) of The Lady in the Van Miss Shepherd clambers out of the grave to give instructions for her funeral and her beatification, possibly. Now in Allelujah! death does not prevent Jeff Rawle as the old miner from coming back to abundant life in order to join in the final singsong. Dead or alive, I’m sure the audience don’t care. It’s only a play.
Nick Starr, the business manager of the Bridge, tells me that the play is 80 per cent sold out. This is almost entirely through word of mouth as there has been very little advertising and scarcely any publicity. When The History Boys was on at the National the papers were always featuring stories and gossip about the boys and the play. With this play there has been virtually none. But then these are old people and old people are of no interest. That is what the play is about.
11 August. With Rupert away I take possession of the kitchen table to start putting my tax material in order for my accountant. This is always a wearisome business and more like work than work, but I go at it all day with the only worthwhile thing I do releasing a tortoiseshell butterfly that is banging against the windowpane. I let it out, but the weather is suddenly cold so even with this I wonder if I’ve done the right thing.
24 August. In A Spy Named Orphan Roland Philipps’s description of Donald Maclean’s psychological make-up chimes with what I have always felt about the Cambridge spies (Philby excepted) – namely, that their romance with the Soviet Union partook of patriotism as much as it did of espionage. Maclean seemed to want to hold Britain and the USSR in balance, making a conscious effort to serve both, particularly when in the 1930s the moral interests of the UK were being so ill-served by the government of Baldwin and Chamberlain. I’ve never been much interested in Maclean, finding him as Burgess did something of a bore, but Philipps makes the story and the slow uncovering of his treachery a gripping narrative and an overwhelmingly sad one.
2 September, France. Here for a week in a spacious hilltop house about an hour north of Toulouse. So hot and the house so comfortable we do very little, venturing out only to drive along the valley to Lauzerte and the Intermarché. It’s not, I would have thought, a particularly sophisticated emporium, but it’s streets ahead of a similar establishment in an equivalent out of the way location in England. And though there are a few English tourists here, it seems to be just the local store. My first reaction is: why can’t we have such shops in England? The second: Brexit, if it happens, will make that possibility even less likely.
4 September, France. Rupert has been so badly bitten by mosquitoes (reputedly very bad this year) that it necessitates a visit to the local pharmacy. In France this is always a pleasure, where provincial pharmacies are cool temples to tranquillity, gravity and good sense. All the staff look as if they have diplomas if not degrees and the pharmacist himself a professorship at the Sorbonne. Rupert is given reassurance and some ointment but as yet it has had no effect.
6 September, France. To Moissac, first visited en route to L’Espiessac some twenty years ago. Then it was a dusty provincial town, sliced through by a railway line in a deep cutting which, when it was built in the 19th century, demolished part of the abbey. Today, though, we hardly notice the railway until in the early afternoon we are in the cloisters and a train sounds its horn, which, echoing round the Gothic arches, sounds like the last trump. Though the abbey now has the obligatory visitors’ centre, the town itself hasn’t changed much. There are more restaurants, it’s true, catering to the many hikers aka pilgrims on the way to Compostela, who look exactly like the eager middle-aged walkers we see at home in the village, where their pilgrimage is to the top of Ingleborough. Still, like most centres of antiquity the town is not immune to an infection of bad contemporary art, in this case robotic figures in polished steel scattered through the streets. Lunch, salade de chèvre chaud, at the café by the abbey is the same as we had when we were here twenty years ago, though with a difference. Then it came as a horizontal dish on a platter. Today the ingredients are the same but in a deep bowl. Then one could browse; today one has to delve and it’s not nearly as nice. However, the meal is enlivened by a heavy downpour which gradually drives the outdoor diners inside, with those under dripping awnings sticking it out longest. Not luckily us, who are smugly on the verandah.
The two glories of the abbey are its doorway and the cloisters, with the church itself bleak and nondescript as so many French churches are. There are the usual sickly votive statues and virulent 19th-century glass, but not much else to interest or delight. I’m sure I’ve said it in this diary before, but it always puzzles me why this should be so. Does it point to the radical and routine stripping out of the Revolution? But if so what of the secular monuments there once must have been: the tombstones of local worthies, the flagstones, the memorial tablets? And why are there no great town churches? But I’m a bad tourist, so maybe there are and I’ve just never sought them out.
8 September. Early at Toulouse (Blagnac) we find the BA desk not yet open. A queue has formed at the baggage check-in and a shabby old man wanders along it carrying his luggage in two carrier bags. The queue consists of family parties and friends returning from their holidays, with the atmosphere quite lively. The old man stops on the edge of one of these convivial groups towards the head of the queue and gradually inserts himself into it, meanwhile nodding and smiling as if he’s one of the party – a tactic presumably designed to ward off any protests from further back in the queue that he’s pushing in, which of course he is. He conscientiously maintains his pretence until the check-in opens, but the queue then splits up among the various desks and I lose sight of him. Nor is he in evidence when we go through the gate and indeed seems not to be on the plane. But perhaps that was not part of the performance, his masquerade in the queue intended to persuade himself as much as any onlookers that he too was part of a happy family returning after a nice holiday.
15 September. Early in tonight’s performance of Allelujah! Sam Barnett makes his entrance on his bike and promptly falls off. ‘Fuck,’ he says, loudly enough to be heard by the audience and certainly by the geriatrics who are now shuffling onto the stage. The audience laughs, assuming this is part of the play, which now proceeds, though not without further mishap. Manish Gandhi, who plays one of the doctors, is meant to hurtle across the stage pushing a patient in a wheelchair. Tonight he is so precipitate that he collides with the scenery and catapults the old lady out of the chair. This, too, is taken by the audience as part of the action, prompting another laugh. There is very little one can’t get away with on the stage, and even if the audience does spot that there’s a problem this is after all what they have come to the theatre for. On film and TV any anomalies are eliminated in the editing. But on the stage mishaps are what an audience wants. Whether it’s the silliest of comedies or Pinter at his bleakest, all theatre is theatre of blood.
Other untoward incidents in plays that I remember:
Someone died in Beyond the Fringe, I hope laughing.
A fight broke out in the audience at a performance of Forty Years On between the actor David Buck, who liked the play, and a member of the audience who presumably didn’t.
In a performance of A Question of Attribution at the National I was nearly decapitated by a piece of rogue scenery.
The History Boys also at the National was interrupted by a young man who got up on the stage, sat down beside Jamie Parker, who was playing the piano, and started playing along with him. Jamie, more sophisticated than I would have been, recognised this as an instance of Asperger’s and gently ushered the young man off the stage.
This is not to mention the several occasions when Richard Griffiths berated members of the audience for using their mobile phones and sometimes for sheer inattention. While most of the audience knew that such divergences weren’t part of the play they probably enjoyed them even more.
17 September. It’s London Fashion Week and R. has to turn up at various functions. He goes off to work this morning saying, I think: ‘I may be late home. I’ve got to get to Paris.’
What he actually says is: ‘I may be late home. I’ll get the carrots.’
29 September. The last night of Allelujah! at the Bridge. Theatre packed, with the performance a bit overdone simply because the cast know that this will be the last time they do it. This doesn’t show in the dancing, with Jeff Rawle particularly good, delicate in his dances with Deborah Findlay, frenetic in the opening number of Act 2. I asked Nick H. if he’s planning to say a few words at the curtain but he isn’t keen, and I don’t press it, though I would have been happy to join him, as after 28 years this must surely be the last play we do together. I go round afterwards to find the cast drinking champagne and the stage door awash in Quality Street, loads of which has been sent by Nestlé because they’re mentioned in the script, though only as part of the contents of a deceased patient’s locker. Next time I must try and think of something more exotic. Tonight, though, ‘next time’ seems a little remote.
2 October. I suppose Allelujah!, while not unambiguous, is the closest I’ve ever got to a political play. Some of this is fortuitous. I have always thought that there is an element of prophecy in plays: write it and it happens. With this play it’s been almost embarrassing. Lest I be thought to be trailing behind the facts I should say that Valentine’s trouble over his visa was written months before the Windrush business and indeed the various scandals in NHS hospitals. I had originally intended Valentine to be an older doctor, brought out of retirement by the hospital because of a shortage of staff. In which case to refuse him a visa would have seemed even more shocking, though no more so than the treatment meted out to the long-established immigrants who were so callously singled out.
If not quite a platform, a play is certainly a plinth, a small eminence from which to address the world, hold forth about one’s concerns or the concerns of one’s characters. But not to preach. Writing a play I have never tried to hide the sound of my own voice. It hasn’t always been where an audience or a critic has thought to find it, and certainly not always in the mouth of the leading character. It’s often a divided voice or a dissenting one; two things (at least) are being said and I am not always sure which one I agree with. But that is one reason I write plays: one can speak with a divided voice.
In Allelujah!, though, the last speech is given to Dr Valentine, an Asian doctor who came here as a young man to study medicine but who outstayed his visa. So, though he is now a good and qualified doctor and is English in all but name, he is an illegal. In the course of the play his deception is discovered and he is deported. In this final speech he addresses the audience directly and if my unmediated voice is in the play, this is it:
Me, I have no place.
‘Come unto these yellow sands and there take hands.’ Only not my hand, and so, unwelcome on these grudging shores, I must leave the burden of being English to others and become what I have always felt, a displaced person.
Why, I ask myself, should I still want to join?
What is there for me here, where education is a privilege and nationality a boast? Starving the poor and neglecting the old, what makes you so special still? There is nobody to touch you, but who wants to any more? Open your arms, England before it’s too late.
5 October. Up early to catch a train to Leeds and a car to Ilkley, where I read at the Literary Festival. Not having written much since, I do much the same performance as I did last year though I put my cards on the table about Brexit. (Ilkley, the audience call out, voted Remain.) This is generally approved of and I finish by reading Dr Valentine’s last speech from Allelujah!
Afterwards I meet a delegation from the Leeds ‘Friends of Dorothy’, a society for senior gays of which I became patron after last year’s festival. They’re half a dozen elderly gentlemen, talkative, cheerful and indistinguishable from their heterosexual coevals, except they’re probably funnier.
7 October, Yorkshire. En route for the cemetery we pass Coultherd’s fields, where there are two herons, not statuesque as herons generally are, particularly in the beck, but dotting about in the grass like outsize curlews. Caravanners sometimes camp in the field over the weekend so maybe there are titbits to be had there apart from worms. But, grave though they are, herons are always cheering.
9 October, Yorkshire. On departure day for London we seldom have an outing besides, but this morning we go up to Thornton to see antique dealers Miles and Rebecca G. They are slowly restoring their ancient house, every week revealing hidden doors and stopped up windows, with the latest discovery a well. Miles is as curious about his stock as a dealer as he is about the house and today he shows us a two-plank bed from the old prison on the Isle of Man. Low and only slightly raised off the ground, the bed has another plank for the pillow and is covered in graffiti. During the First World War the Isle of Man was where conscientious objectors were imprisoned, so the bed has umpteen calendars with the days ticked off and on the underside, almost hidden, ‘Fuck the King’. As an item the bed has the simplicity and dignity of Shaker furniture but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an object more soaked in wretchedness and despair.
20 October. A letter from my publisher at Profile, Andrew Franklin. His son lives in Greenwich Village and has a friend (of a friend) who has my face tattooed on his arm, of which Andrew sends me a picture. I’m inordinately pleased by this and as he strolls down Bleecker Street I’m more than happy to be on this young man’s arm. (Later it transpires that the friend actually lives in Dartmouth Park Hill so he’s more likely to be strolling down Kentish Town Road. Still, you can’t have everything.)
27 October. Discover two mushrooms growing in a pot of alchemilla outside the front door. They are startlingly white and remind me how I used to scour the fields around the village years ago, where mushrooms stood out from the grass from yards away. The joy was in finding and picking them, as even fried with bacon they didn’t have much taste. I often used to give away basketfuls to friends, just as Rupert does with our rhubarb, the point of gardening as much social as horticultural.
5 November. Buy and read at a sitting Andrew McMillan’s playtime, with the poems always vivid, accessible and honest, sometimes uncomfortably so. Some are close enough to my own youth seventy years ago, when such confessions were not permissible and seldom articulated. Some I wish I had written or had the courage to write, particularly the failed encounters – with a man sheltering from the rain in a telephone box or a youth on the train dozing in the seat opposite. Were this Alexandria not Barnsley they might be by Cavafy. As it is I am already in McMillan’s debt, as the scene in the second part of Allelujah! between the ex-miner and the work experience boy owes a good deal to his first book of poems, physical. I was sorry to see that playtime didn’t figure in any of the Books of the Year round-ups that I’ve seen. I often find that, though: it’s part of not playing Happy Families.
30 November. Now that Brexit is upon us I don’t find my views have changed at all since the referendum or been modified by anything that has happened or been said since. It’s nothing to do with the economic consequences of the pull-out, which are debatable to say the least. But all across Europe the forces of the far right are gathering strength. This is so in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Germany and France and even in what one had always thought of as the sensible countries of Europe, Holland and Denmark. They are bringing with them intolerance, xenophobia and antisemitism, as often as not disguised as common sense.
With all our shortcomings we are still a liberal society and if there is to be a struggle with the far right our place is alongside the liberal and social democratic parties in Europe. The flight into Brexit is still being presented as courageous. It isn’t. It’s cowardice.