Listen to this piece read by the author

31 December 2020. My year ends when Rupert takes me up to a depot in Peckwater Street in Camden, which has been kitted out as a vaccination centre. Though neither of us knows quite where it is, we realise we must be getting close from the number of eighty-year-olds and carers making their way off the Kentish Town Road, all on the same errand. Rupert isn’t allowed in, and I go fairly briskly through a series of waiting rooms before reaching the vaccination room. It’s busy but quiet, and notable, considering the presence of so many aged patients, for the absence of chuntering. Everyone, not surprisingly, seems in good humour. My only complaint is that, since I’m isolating with my partner, it would seem sensible to vaccinate him too. But then not all the staff at the centre have been vaccinated either.

15 January 2021. Channel 8 (London Live) can be relied on for 1940s films, many of them rubbish. Today it’s The Chiltern Hundreds, which isn’t rubbish but a well-plotted light comedy written by William Douglas Home, with the legendary A.E. Matthews, Cecil Parker and David Tomlinson. I know the play well, or should, having been in it at school in the Tomlinson part. After a succession of female roles (including Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew), my voice had broken at long last and this was the first male role I was allowed to play. I say I know the play well, but in those days I just used to learn my own part (and that not very well), plus a rough acquaintance with my cues, and no sense at all of the plot or direction of the play. I don’t think I even understood what The Taming of the Shrew was about. My co-star in the Shakespeare and who played Beecham in The Chiltern Hundreds was John Scaife, a friend whom I lost sight of after university and only this last year discovered had become a distinguished molecular biologist at Edinburgh, but died young (in the 1990s) from Aids.

17 January. Rupert returns from a walk with Owen, his brother, and son Freddy (five), worried because he had been unable to resist giving Freddy a kiss. Freddy is still at infants’ school. Had Rupert been vaccinated when I was, we would not be concerned.

18 January. I have worn pretty much the same outfit since this business began, only varying it as the weather’s got colder to put on a thicker pullover. This has something to do with not yielding to circumstance, and reminds me of fellow conscripts on the Russian Course during my National Service in 1953. It was a very relaxed unit, and we did not have to wear uniform except on ceremonial occasions and were issued with official civilian clothes, though one could wear one’s own choice of outfit. One colleague refused this better option and insisted on wearing the army issue kit, reasoning that to wear one’s own clothes was to give the military something – the wear and tear on the clothes – to which it was not entitled. The army civvies were ill-fitting, itchy and unbecoming, and came from a depot at Woking – ‘A Woking suit, no smoking suit’ was one of the cabaret turns we did at the time.

26 January. Yorkshire is inescapable on TV at the moment, which doesn’t make it easier not being able to go there. Yorkshire Tea is currently to blame for an admittedly slightly ironic advert about the county’s supposed superiority, to which I’ve never particularly subscribed. I’m happy, even proud, to be a freeman of Leeds, especially since, unlike much of the rest of the county, it was not in favour of Brexit. I hope our favourite restaurant in Leeds, Sous le Nez, will survive lockdown, and we miss the occasional kedgeree at Betty’s in Ilkley. But there is no shortage of programmes about rural Yorkshire and I’ve lost count of the number of sheep having awkward births in frostbitten fields. Still, it hasn’t quite got to the state of Dorset after Hardy, when the county started playing itself as depicted in the novels.

4 February. Slightly wish I’d lightened my griping about arthritis with a reminiscence of my great-uncle Norris, included in an earlier memoir but no worse for that. Uncle Norris was, I think, Grandpa Peel’s brother and was a wine and spirits merchant by profession. He ended his days in Stafford House, an old people’s home in Halifax, but very cheerfully, as he was convinced (and never missed an opportunity of telling you) that he was about to become a millionaire. Why? Because he, Norris Peel, had discovered the cure for arthritis, and once this was made known, an arthritis foundation in America would make over to him their entire funding. The cure consisted in cutting off the feet of one’s socks and wearing them as anklets. This is what Uncle Norris had done and he had never had arthritis, so it must be a cure. He had written to many of the notables of the day to tell them the good news – a mixed bag: Winston Churchill, Semprini, Wilfred Pickles, Val Doonican – and he would show you a sheaf of their acknowledgments. ‘He’s batchy,’ Dad would say, meaning ‘he’s barmy,’ but it certainly kept him happy.

7 February. Ploughing on with the Francis Bacon biography, a depressing book with the regular critiques of Bacon’s work, particularly by David Sylvester, often hard to understand. So much drink in the book that I wonder, had I liked drink more, would it have altered my life and made it more eventful. Not only do I hardly drink and Rupert neither, but I don’t know anyone who does, Peter Cook about the only drunk I’ve ever known. In New York in the 1980s I used to like a screwdriver. Two was my limit, with three making me tipsy, which I found delightful. Had I been able to remain in that intermediate state I suppose I could have been a drunk.

One used to see Bacon quite often, as he was a regular guest at George Melly’s across the road. The last time was in Paris when we were having supper at Brasserie Bofinger. Bacon and his party rose to leave, whereupon all the waiters gathered in the window to watch the great man depart – something I could never imagine happening in London.

14 February. Watch the beginning of A Matter of Life and Death on BBC2, where David Niven, having survived his plane crash, comes round on the Norfolk sands. He encounters a naked boy, a goatherd supposedly, a fanciful notion even in the 1940s. I must have seen the film, famed as the first Royal Command Performance, when I was eleven or so, when I found the goatherd very sexy – my brother apart, the first naked boy I had ever seen – and wondered that neither he nor Niven seemed as perturbed as I was at his nakedness.

26 February. Reading about Eric Ravilious as I have to talk in a film being made by Margy Kinmonth, I find a good quote on the Second World War: ‘I regretted that we were being called upon to fight against something regarded as wrong without at the same time having the conviction that we were defending a way of life that was right’ (H.B. Mallalieu in The England of Eric Ravilious by Freda Constable). My only contribution is that even today Ravilious is still somehow a shared secret.

27 February. The hair is getting to be a problem. As children, my brother and I had our hair cut at Mr Shaw’s, the barber on Armley Moor Top in Leeds. It was a wearisome business, after school when the shop was always full. Mr Shaw, who was bald, never condescended to talk to us children, who in any case were rapt in Everybody’s and Picture Post and even the occasional Lilliput. When we lived in Headingley it was Mr Oddy on Shire Oak Street, another bald and taciturn fellow but with classier magazines, in particular Britannia and Eve, notable for illustrations of bare-breasted ladies driving chariots, in the genteel porn that was the speciality of Fortunino Matania. My dad had his hair cut on the same parade as his butcher’s shop in Meanwood, though never to the satisfaction of my mother, who claimed he came home ‘looking like a scraped cock’. She meant a plucked fowl, but had no thought of being misunderstood.

Today’s barber is my partner, Rupert Thomas, who, while professing to admire my abundant locks, manages to make me look like a blond Hitler. He was also wondering if he could save the offcuts in case they might find a market on eBay.

2 March. I’ve written somewhere of one of Dad’s words, splother. Today remember another, jollop, any sort of liquid mess, like blancmange, say. I’m never sure these words are not Dad but dialect. Another was tittle me, meaning ‘I don’t care either way.’ Other nonsense words came out of his talking to the cat.

4 March. ‘I’m too young for this,’ a boy on TV on his bereavement. The vicar in attendance has a cross tattooed on the back of his hand (noted without reproof).

11 March. It should not be forgotten that, with his customary foresight and good judgment, one of the first acts of the current prime minister was to hasten to the side of President Trump. The now much abused Speaker, John Bercow, ruled out any thought of Trump addressing a joint session of Parliament during his visit in 2017. His reward was to be refused the customary peerage on retirement by the prime minister, who happily doled out peerages to umpteen millionaires, all of them donors to the Tory Party. And so we go on.

18 March. Second Covid jab this morning, done as was the first at Peckwater Street in Kentish Town, with everyone so helpful and considerate. At every turn someone smiling, loving almost.

23 March. Asked by the Guardian if I would like to interview Andrew McMillan, the poet. Though I’m an admirer I say no, only because if I did it would be as much about myself as about McMillan and how his life has been very different from mine.

24 March. Rupert asks me about Worship Street, where I lodged in the early days of Beyond the Fringe in 1961. It was a Philip Webb building (date: 1862) with a workshop on the ground floor and accommodation above, with the lease belonging to Henrietta Roberts (later Dombey), the daughter of Michael Roberts and Janet Adam Smith. What occasioned Rupert’s interest was his having been to look at a very grand house for his magazine (World of Interiors), the expensive decoration of which included several Ben Nicholsons. This reminded me that over the fireplace in the very rundown sitting room at Worship Street was an early Ben Nicholson of cottages in the Lake District, a lovely picture and a gift from the artist, the Roberts family having been evacuated to Penrith on the outbreak of war and friendly with the Nicholsons.

28 March, Palm Sunday. Remember this a propos a joke of Jonathan Miller’s, who, seeing a woman coming back from church holding a cross made of reeds said that it was literally the last straw.

1 April. There is currently a row going on about late night raves on Primrose Hill where, lacking toilet facilities on the hill, revellers overflow (literally) into the surrounding streets, much to the disgust of the residents. A hooded boy venturing to take a leak at the bottom of Rothwell Street finds himself shouted at by Lisa next door and also remonstrated with by Rupert as we are passing. In the middle of pissing, he can’t stop and is apologetic, zipping up as quickly as he can and hurrying off wailing that there aren’t any facilities on Primrose Hill, and so almost a sympathetic figure.

15 April. Thinking to have something to read in Yorkshire I send out for the new Philip Roth biography, but it’s so heavy I decide it will be too much to carry. It ought to come with wheels and a lectern. Having it on one’s lap is numbing, ironically in view of its subject. The blurb describes the book as breathtaking. Backbreaking would also be true. I am unexpectedly mentioned as being at the Millers when Roth and Mudge his girlfriend came to supper sometime in the 1960s. I’d forgotten that Roth was ill and on Rachel’s advice taken to hospital. My recollections of the evening are more embarrassing. Talking to Jonathan beforehand, I had made a poor joke about Portnoy’s Complaint being The Gripes of Roth. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to pick up on this, but it was new to Jonathan, so when Roth arrived he insisted on telling it to its subject. Maybe he even insisted on me repeating it myself. I’ve no memory of Roth’s response – unamused, I would have thought – but remember my own embarrassment, as fresh now with Roth dead as it was fifty years ago.

29 April. On our evening perambulation round the block we have just ventured back into the crescent when Rupert spots in a pile of abandoned stuff outside one of the houses, a rise and fall French light fitting, white pottery shade, a little battered, but with the counterweight intact. It’s a nice find, though, like its ex-owners, we don’t need the fitting, but if we did … It’s cheering for R., who’s in turmoil over developments at the magazine and has pretty much decided to resign.

10 May, Yorkshire. From being an unqualified admirer of Philip Roth, which I still pretty much am, I feel (as I did about Francis Bacon) that I’ve been told too much. On the plus side he’s very generous, helping friends down on their luck, dispensing large sums without fuss or self-congratulation. He’s always funny, and the book hasn’t diminished my admiration for his style or his industry, though it’s hard to envy him his back pain, his sometimes disastrous women and his two marriages. I like the sound of his brother, Sandy, his mother and many of his boyhood friends, on whom he doesn’t turn his back. But it’s a fucking big book, which I actually fell over yesterday on my birthday.

24 May. It occurs to me that the whole course of English history would have been changed had there been in the bedroom on the wedding night of Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur the equivalent of a raddler, the dauber who paints the ram so that it leaves a mark when it has served the sheep. Raddle Prince Arthur and it would have settled whether the prince had successfully slept with Catherine, there would have been no marriage for Henry VIII, thus no divorce and no Reformation.

29 May, Yorkshire. I’ve lost count of the number of times on TV I’ve seen the sequence whereby a dead lamb is skinned and the skin fitted onto an orphaned lamb which is then foisted on a bereaved sheep which is deceived into adopting it as its own. Surely, I think (in a Mendelian misapprehension), sheep will have cottoned on to this subterfuge by now.

30 May. A poem for Boris. ‘A Dead Statesman’, Rudyard Kipling (from ‘Epitaphs of the War 1914-18’):

I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

3 June, Yorkshire. A lovely dinner last night: poached sole, dauphinoise potatoes, fresh broad beans and some samphire. R. was disappointed the spuds weren’t creamier, though this was because he was stingy with the cream. It suited me though and I cleaned my plate, as he almost invariably does his.

10 June. Books read:

Revelations, the biography of Francis Bacon, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
A Curious Boy, Richard Fortey
Turning the Boat for Home, Richard Mabey
The Stonemason, Andrew Ziminski
Kiss Myself Goodbye, Ferdinand Mount
What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, Mark Doty
Pastoral, James Rebanks
Philip Roth, Blake Bailey
William Golding, John Carey

17 June. Rupert’s birthday. Rupert goes into the office for a meeting with the management of Condé Nast and, after 21 years as editor of World of Interiors, gives in his resignation. Then by the 15.33 train to Leeds. As we are drawing into Wakefield I say how much once upon a time we would have been looking forward to supper at Sous le Nez. It has always been closed since lockdown, but on the off-chance Rupert rings and it’s open. The food is no different (delicious fish and chips) and as quick. The waiters come and shake hands. A real birthday present.

29 June. Write it and it happens. Or not. As I am hauling myself up the stairs for my bath, I remember being wheeled across the stage of the Apollo Theatre in my first play, Forty Years On. It was a parody of Oscar Wilde. I was in drag as a putative Lady Bracknell and wheeled by John Gielgud. ‘I can walk,’ I said, ‘only I’m so rich I don’t need to.’

20 July. Another hot day, too hot to be out of doors, until lying on the sofa trying to work in the late afternoon, I hear the rustle of rain. In one of the student flats opposite a young man has just come out to sit on the balcony. The rain, which is not heavy, does not shift him. He looks up at it, but since he’s only in T-shirt and shorts he probably thinks it doesn’t matter, and it’s certainly a change. After a while his toddler daughter comes through the curtains and sits by him, still in the rain. His equanimity is a pleasure to see and it transfers to the child as they both sit there unflinching, quite happy in the rain. Maybe he is teaching her not to be afraid of it, though now there is distant thunder and it’s probably this that gets him to his feet. He takes the little girl’s hand and they go through the curtains into the dry.

When we go out for our evening walk round the block all trace of rain is gone; the pavements are dry and the sky covered in light clouds. It is one of Larkin’s rain-ceased evenings.

22 July. Reading in the LRB about Emily Dickinson, whom I’d always thought of as a shy little mouse. Shy she may have been but no mouse, and one who got her own way, in this lining up with Kafka and Simone Weil, all three of whom mobilised assistance by seeming helpless.

30 July, Yorkshire. Good exchange with Will Dawson, the young farmer who on Saturdays helps in the village shop. Rupert buys a box of matches. Will: ‘No history of arson, I suppose? We have to ask.’ The only person as quick (and as daft) is Sam Barnett, but he’d be no good with sheep.

7 September. We have watched the previous series of David Olusoga’s A House through Time from Bristol and Newcastle. Tonight it’s the turn of Leeds. They’re excellent programmes, both his commentary and the research, which is sometimes astonishing. Said to be Headingley, I’d have thought this evening’s house was more Hyde Park, not far from Cumberland Road, where as a boy I used to go disastrously to Crusader Bible classes.

12 September. The last few weeks I’ve been reading Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards, an account of his time serving in the coalition administration of Iraq. He is a courageous man, though it ought to be a depressing book, as for all Stewart’s tireless efforts, returning to Iraq a few years later he finds little of his labours has survived. Still, for all its wearisome futility and the dizzying personnel of tribal politics, his account is inspiring. The work is dangerous, bewildering and hard to tell friend from foe, where he is often deceived. There are dead along the way and terribly wounded, the deaths and dangers set down laconically by Stewart, though he is as brave and considerate as the best of the military. It is hard to imagine this man, however briefly, as MP for Penrith and a contender with Boris Johnson, but on this evidence alone he would have been a sounder dealer with our intractabilities, and a more honest one.

26 September. The doorbell goes around six. I’m dozing but get there just in time and it’s two lads, nationality uncertain but not English. They are already in conversation with Rupert, who’s talking to them from his office window two floors up. They have come ‘about the room’, with on their phone various other substantiating documents. They have been told there is a room available here by a woman who is charging them a fee of £600 for the information. Fortunately, they have not yet paid this, as it’s obvious even to them that it’s a scam. I suppose there are circumstances in which, had they paid the fee, they could have been difficult, even aggressive. These two are just apologetic and go away rather sadly, one of them saying, ‘It’s such a nice street. I liked it.’ It’s a disturbing episode, particularly so as the woman has provided a gas bill for authentication. Our gas bill (doctored). Why us, we keep thinking?

29 September. In the evening we watch the last of David Olusoga’s programmes about the house in Headingley [sic], which have been consistently good and in the information they have turned up a triumph of research. Tonight’s episode covers my lifetime: the war in Leeds, which it rather uncharacteristically over-dramatises, even calling it the Blitz, which, so far as Leeds was concerned, it never was. I know this if only because as a child – five at the outbreak of war – I longed for some action and, literally, fallout in the shape of shrapnel. We had one piece, the size and contours of which I can see even now, about five inches long on one side and with rifling on the other. Had my brother and I salvaged it ourselves it would have been more exciting, but I fear it was a swap, with comics the likely currency. There were air raids on Leeds certainly, and an air raid shelter outside our suburban front door. But compared with the bombing of Sheffield, say, or Hull, Leeds got off lightly. ‘The city specialised in the manufacture of ready-made suits and the cultivation of rhubarb, and though the war aims of the German High Command were notoriously quixotic I imagine a line had to be drawn somewhere’ (Writing Home). In the programme there is one very brief shot of a tram going past Dad’s shop at 92A Otley Rd and another of Olusoga working in the reference library which was so much a part of my life in my teens. But they were terrific programmes, the best kind of social history.

15 October. Controversy about the government insisting that doctors must see patients face to face, though without giving them the resources to do so. When I was young, before the NHS started, whether a doctor was thought to be good depended on if he was known to ‘come out’ i.e. do home visits. In the mean streets around my Grandma’s, off Tong Road in Leeds, did one see a car it was likely to be a Humber outside a house where the doctor was visiting. In Wortley the good doctors were Dr Slaney and Dr Moneys. In Armley it was Dr Gordon and Dr Dalrymple, who lanced a boil on Dad’s neck before resuming his Sunday dinner. 2/6.

12 November, Yorkshire. There is one staircase in the cottage, and at the top of it the landing and a resident spider. On duty hearing one coming up the stairs, it darts off under the bedroom floor. How long it has lived here it’s hard to say, certainly for years, though whether it is always the same spider I’ve no idea. How long do spiders live? Doubtless someone will tell me. It is quite large, unthreatening, a familiar rather than a friend with a shared tenancy of the house. We have an occasional mouse, but not resident at the one location. It makes no web that we can see. It has no name. It is just there. Country life.

14 November. Some time before lockdown, and with no thought of swearing off fossil fuels, I ordered some coal from Mr Redhead, our coal merchant in Ingleton. The coal shed halfway down the garden must once have been the earth closet, a change of use I rather regret, as when we were evacuated to Byril Farm in Nidderdale on the outbreak of war, they were still using an earth closet. It was idyllically situated in the orchard and though as a five-year-old I fear I thought it disgusting, in retrospect sojourns here with the door open and Tommy the horse grazing in the orchard seem idyllic. Our ex-earth closet now the coal shed must once again be facing a change of use, though still full of the unused coal from before lockdown. ‘This is coal,’ I imagine my descendants being told. ‘It used to be fuel.’ Now it’s – what? A relic? One can only hope so.

16 November. Deafness can make the world more intriguing. Today Rupert goes on the Tube for the first time since lockdown. I ask how it was. R.: ‘Busy. Lots of headmasters.’ What he actually said was: ‘Busy. Lots had masks on.’

10 December. Informed by the editors that this is the 1001st edition of the LRB, I am asked for my thoughts, though I’m not sure I have many. On the rare occasions I’ve come down to the LRB office in Little Russell Street I’ve found it quite daunting, the staff remarkably young, undergraduate almost, and very bright. They obviously intimidated Mary-Kay when she was editor, as seated round three sides of a square, the slightest (and silliest) remark could be overheard, so that Mary-Kay, never a stentorian voice, for privacy used practically to mime.

In the early days I would get cross because Karl Miller tried to take out my jokes, often through not understanding them. He seldom gave a verdict on the piece, so you were never sure you’d come up to scratch. This withholding of praise persisted after his departure and became something of a house style. Miss Shepherd never said thank you, and nor did the LRB, though it smelled better. One of the most distinguished contributors was Ian Hamilton. Writing about literary marriages, he says somewhere that their frequent break-up can be put down to the wives being ‘insufficiently worshipful’. I felt that about the LRB. Hamilton himself was quite stern and sparing in his compliments. So I’m proud that one of my pieces for the paper occasioned a letter of appreciation in his tiny script. It was as if the writing were like mustard and cress, just beginning to sprout.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences