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Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett is lying on the sofa.

Diary: What I did in 2019

Alan Bennett, 22 December 2019

Whereas a play or whatever on TV would invariably prompt a tipsy telephone call from Peter Cook with congratulations that one had got away with it yet again, Jonathan and I were less indulgent, tending to ignore each other’s efforts. I never saw one of his operas and I’m not sure he ever saw one of my plays. He did try though, which is more than I did, and en route to the premiere of The History Boys a traffic jam enabled him to abandon the car (and the attempt) in the middle of Waterloo Bridge. Still, I wouldn’t even have tried.

Diary: Allelujah!

Alan Bennett, 3 January 2019

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.

Diary: Finding My Métier

Alan Bennett, 4 January 2018

10 July. It occurs to me, that tedious though Love Island is, it has immensely respectable origins, indeed the best. It is after all Bloomsbury (though whether in the person of G.E. Moore, E.M. Forster or the sainted Virginia herself I’m not sure), whose motto was ‘personal relations for ever and ever’, which, lolling about on the sun-baked lawns, these gorgeous creatures are indeed subscribing to (and possibly finding wanting). Walberswick was always thought to be Bloomsbury on Sea, but its ultimate location could now claim to be Love Island. (World’s smallest facility: the Love Island Library.)

Diary: What I did in 2016

Alan Bennett, 5 January 2017

24 June. The day after the referendum, I spend sitting at the kitchen table correcting the proofs of Keeping On Keeping On, finishing them before going to Yorkshire in despair. I imagine this must have been what Munich was like in 1938 – half the nation rejoicing at a supposed deliverance, the other stunned by the country’s self-serving cowardice. Well, we shall see.

Diary: What I Did in 2015

Alan Bennett, 7 January 2016

10 January. After supper at the National Portrait Gallery restaurant we go next door to the National Gallery, still after all these years a great luxury to be able to go in after hours. Walking through the galleries with the lights springing on as we pass through each door it’s always a temptation to turn aside and look at old favourites, but we press on to the basement of the Sainsbury Wing and the Late Rembrandt show. Oddly arranged in that there are half a dozen of the great self-portraits at the start which I somehow feel should be the climax of the show.

Diary: What I did in 2014

Alan Bennett, 8 January 2015

6 January 2014. Though I’ve learned never entirely to believe in a film until it actually happens, it does seem likely that this autumn we will be shooting The Lady in the Van. This is the story of Miss Mary Shepherd, the elderly eccentric who took up residence in my garden in 1974, living there in a van until her death 15 years later. Maggie Smith played Miss Shepherd on the stage in 1999 and all being well will star in the film with Nicholas Hytner directing. To date I’ve written two drafts of the script and am halfway through a third.

Fair Play: A Sermon

Alan Bennett, 18 June 2014

Preaching is a hazard when writing plays. One isn’t supposed to preach and gets told off if one does. Poets are allowed to, but not playwrights, who if they have naked opinions, do better to clothe them in the decent ambiguities of their characters or conceal them in the sometimes all too thin thicket of the plot. Just don’t speak to the audience. I have always found this prohibition difficult. John Gielgud, who was in my first play, thought talking to the audience was vulgar. Then he was prevailed upon to try it and thereafter would seldom talk to anybody else.

Diary: What I did in 2013

Alan Bennett, 9 January 2014

3 January, Yorkshire. The year kicks off with a small trespass when we drive over from Ramsgill via Ripon and Thirsk to Rievaulx. However the abbey is closed, seemingly until the middle of February, which infuriates us both, and though at 78 and with an artificial hip it’s not something I feel I should be doing, we scale the five-bar gate and break in. The place is of course empty and though it’s quite muddy underfoot, an illicit delight. It’s warm and windless, the stones of the abbey sodden and brown from the amount of moisture they’ve absorbed. Spectacular here are the toilet arrangements.

Diary: What I did in 2012

Alan Bennett, 3 January 2013

 

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?R: Which?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...

‘People’

Alan Bennett, 8 November 2012

I sometimes think that my plays are just an excuse for the introductions with which they are generally accompanied. These preambles, while often gossipy and with sidelights on the rehearsal process, also provide me with a soapbox from which I can address, sometimes more directly than I’ve managed in the play itself, some of the themes that crop up in the text. In The History Boys it was private education; in The Habit of Art biography; in People, though, I’m not sure. Some plays seem to start with an itch, an irritation, something one can’t solve or a feeling one can’t locate.

Diary: What I did in 2011

Alan Bennett, 5 January 2012

 

6 January. The alterations we have been having done are now pretty much finished, thanks to Max, a young Latvian who’s unsmiling but an excellent carpenter and Eugene, much jollier and from New Zealand who has supervised it all. Walking round the job this evening R. is shocked to discover in the bathroom above the bath a crudely made wooden cross. He takes this to be the work of...

My Libraries

Alan Bennett, 28 July 2011

I have always been happy in libraries, though without ever being entirely at ease there. A scene that seems to crop up regularly in plays that I have written has a character, often a young man, standing in front of a bookcase feeling baffled. He – and occasionally she – is overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that has been written and the ground to be covered. ‘All these books. I’ll never catch up,’ wails the young Joe Orton in the film script of Prick Up Your Ears, and in The Old Country another young man reacts more dramatically, by hurling half the books to the floor. In Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf someone else gives vent to their frustration with literature by drawing breasts on a photograph of Virginia Woolf and kitting out E.M. Forster with a big cigar. Orton himself notoriously defaced library books before starting to write books himself. This resentment, which was, I suppose, somewhere mine, had to do with feeling shut out.

Diary: What I did in 2010

Alan Bennett, 16 December 2010

31 December 2009, Yorkshire. Call Rupert to the back door to watch a full moon coming up behind the trees at the end of the garden. It’s apparently a ‘blue moon’, i.e. the second full moon this month, which happens every two or three years. The next blue moon on New Year’s Eve won’t be until 2028 so it’s the last one I shall ever see – and it’s...

Story: ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’

Alan Bennett, 9 September 2010

‘I gather you’re my wife,’ said the man in the waiting room. ‘I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. Might one know your name?’

Middle-aged and scrawny he was bare-legged and underneath his shortie dressing-gown Mrs Donaldson thought he might be bare altogether.

‘Donaldson.’

‘Right. Mine’s Terry. I’ve been away.’

He...

Diary: What I did in 2009

Alan Bennett, 7 January 2010

1 August. This is Yorkshire Day, so designated apparently since the 1970s, though the festival had hitherto passed me by. This year I am rung by several newspapers for my comments on this joyful day, with them hoping, I imagine, for some jolly ee-ba-gummery. I suggest Yorkshire might be celebrating its distinction as the only county to have elected a fascist MEP, but nowhere is this printed.

‘The Habit of Art’

Alan Bennett, 5 November 2009

By the time Auden came to live in the Brewhouse, a cottage in the grounds of Christ Church, in 1972 I had long since left Oxford and in any case would never have had the nerve to speak to him. I’d first heard his voice in Exeter College hall some time in 1955. The lower end of the scholars’ table where I was sitting was only a yard or two from high table where the dons dined and,...

Diary: Bennett’s Dissection

Alan Bennett, 1 January 2009

1 January, Yorkshire. A grey dark day and raining still, as it has been for the last week. Around four it eases off and we walk up by the lake. The waterfall at the top of the village is tumultuous, though the torrent has never been as powerful as it was in 1967 when (perhaps melodramatically) I envisaged the lake dam breaking and engulfing the whole village. The lake itself is always black...

Diary: What I Didn’t Do in 2007

Alan Bennett, 3 January 2008

2 January. Catching up on the literary round-ups at the year’s end I’m struck as so often by how cantankerous the world of literature is, and how smarmy, both backbiting and back-scratching much more so than the theatre or show business generally. I’m sure this is because actors don’t moonlight as critics in the way novelists or writers do. Few writers are reviewers

Story: ‘The Uncommon Reader’

Alan Bennett, 8 March 2007

At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.

‘Now that I have you to myself,’ said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, ‘I’ve been longing to...

Diary: My 2006

Alan Bennett, 4 January 2007

4 January, Yorkshire. A heron fishes by the bridge as I walk down to get the papers this morning, but when I draw nearer it takes off and flaps up the beck. Not a rare bird, the heron’s size is never less than spectacular, and grey and white though they are they still seem exotic.

Bitterly cold with snow forecast later so we get off early up the M6 to Penrith and Brampton, hoping to...

Diary: What I did in 2005

Alan Bennett, 5 January 2006

28 January 2005. Fly to Rome for a British Council reading. It occurs to me that a lot of the camp has gone out of British Airways and that as the stewards have got older and less outrageous so the service has declined. This morning there is scarcely a smile, not to mention a joke, the whole flight smooth, crowded and utterly anonymous.

The British Council reading is packed, with two hours of...

Diary: What I did in 2004

Alan Bennett, 6 January 2005

3 January. Alan Bates dies on 27 December and we break the journey from Yorkshire at Derby in order to go to his funeral. It’s at Bradbourne, a tiny village the taxi-driver has never heard of, and he and his Asian colleagues have a map session before we eventually head off into the Derbyshire hills. The cab is old and draughty, it’s beginning to snow and as we drive through this...

In Italy

Alan Bennett, 4 November 2004

‘Che cos’è la sua data di nascita?’ I turn my head sideways on the blood-soaked pillow. ‘9.5.34.’

Expressionless, the doctor in the Pronto Soccorso writes it down as a thought occurs to me, and I raise my head. ‘Domani il mio giorno natale.’

Hardly a joke, in the circumstances it merits a smile, but from this mirthless young man nothing is...

Exam-taking

Alan Bennett, 3 June 2004

I have generally done well in examinations and not been intimidated by them. Back in 1948 when I took my O Levels – or School Certificate as they were then called – I was made fun of by the other boys in my class because on the morning of the first paper I turned up in a suit. It was my only suit and already too small but to wear it didn’t seem silly to me then as I thought...

Diary: Postscript

Alan Bennett, 19 February 2004

2 February 2004. There is nothing that has not been said. Some notes, though. Revealing, since his vanity was the main issue, were the settings in which Alastair Campbell chose to present himself: two Palladian interiors that would not have shamed a head of state. His simple joy at the vindication of the truth about as convincing as Jonathan Aitken’s dedication to it.

Almost the only...

Diary: A Shameful Year

Alan Bennett, 8 January 2004

1 January 2003. A Christmas card from Eric Korn:

This is the one about Jesus And his father who constantly sees us Like CCTV from above But they call it heavenly love; And the other a spook or a bird Or possibly merely a Word. Rejoice! We are ruled thru’ infinity By this highly dysfunctional Trinity!

10 January. In George Lyttelton’s Commonplace Book it’s recorded that Yeats...

Story: ‘‘Two in Torquay’’

Alan Bennett, 10 July 2003

The lounge of a large seaside hotel. A middle-aged Miss Plunkett sits in an upright easy chair, the chair beside it is empty. A middle-aged Mr Mortimer approaches her.

MR MORTIMER: Is this anyone’s chair?

MISS PLUNKETT: Not this minute.

MR MORTIMER: And I’m not … trespassing on your preserves? ‘Invading your space’, as I believe they say nowadays?

MISS PLUNKETT:...

Why I turned down ‘Big Brother’

Alan Bennett, 2 January 2003

4 January. A Christmas letter from Cami Elbow, wife of Peter Elbow, an American college friend who teaches English at Amherst:

Life in Amherst is very placid. Even grammatically correct. In December the town decided to encourage shoppers to patronise the downtown stores with free parking. They ordered plastic bags to cover up the parking meters but the bags arrived with the message wrongly...

Film actors

Alan Bennett, 3 January 2002

In the 1940s within a mile or so of where we lived in Armley in Leeds there were at least half a dozen cinemas. Nearest was the Picturedrome on Wortley Road but others were just a walk or a tramride away – the Lyric down Tong Road, the Clifton at Bramley, the Palace off Stanningley Road and the Western a bit further on. And without ever being a dedicated filmgoer I could have graded...

Story: ‘The Laying on of Hands’

Alan Bennett, 7 June 2001

Seated obscurely towards the back of the church and on a side aisle, Treacher was conscious nevertheless of being much looked at. Tall, thin and with a disagreeable expression, were this a film written forty years ago he would have been played by the actor Raymond Huntley who, not unvinegary in life, in art made a speciality of ill-tempered businessmen and officious civil servants. Treacher...

Diary: What I did in 2000

Alan Bennett, 25 January 2001

5 January. A lorry delivers some stone lintels at No. 61. The driver is a stocky, heavy-shouldered, neatly-coiffed woman of around sixty. While she doesn’t actually do the unloading she humps pallets up and down the lorry and does everything a male (and younger) lorry driver would do, with only a certain doggedness about her actions an indication of her gender. One or two passers-by...

A Cure for Arthritis and Other Tales

Alan Bennett, 2 November 2000

Insofar as my mother ever voices any ambitions for my brother and me, it is that we should become gentlemen farmers earning £10 a week. This would have been in the early 1940s when £500 a year is a not unrespectable income, though why she has settled on farming, gentlemanly or otherwise, for which neither of us has any inclination – is not plain. Getting away from Leeds has...

Memories of Lindsay Anderson

Alan Bennett, 20 July 2000

At the drabber moments of my life (swilling some excrement from the area steps, for instance, or rooting with a bent coat-hanger down a blocked sink) thoughts occur like ‘I bet Tom Stoppard doesn’t have to do this’ or ‘There is no doubt David Hare would have deputed this to an underling.’‘

Diary: What I did in 1999

Alan Bennett, 20 January 2000

12 January. A New York producer sends me Waiting in the Wings, Noël Coward’s play about a theatrical retirement home – Denville Hall, I suppose it is. He wants me to update it, though lest I should think this kind of thing beneath me what he says he wants is ‘a new perspective on the play’.’‘

On the many occasions Midgley had killed his father, death had always come easily. He died promptly, painlessly and without a struggle. Looking back, Midgley could see that even in these imagined deaths he had failed his father. It was not like him to die like that. Nor did he.

Untold Stories

Alan Bennett, 30 September 1999

There is a wood, the canal, the river and above the river the railway and the road. It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me. Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog. I suppose it’s a beauty spot now. It probably was then.

Diary: What I did in 1998

Alan Bennett, 21 January 1999

10 January. Listen to a tape Ariel Crittall has made about her life at the request of the Imperial War Museum. She remembers meeting Unity and Diana Mitford off the train in Munich on the morning of the Night of the Long Knives and Diana saying: ‘What bliss. The first time I’ve been on a train without a nanny or a husband!’‘

Nobody normally gets killed round here; they’re mostly detached houses and you never even hear shouting. So it took me a minute to tipple to what she was saying.

Studying the Form

Alan Bennett, 2 April 1998

When I was at school in the late Forties there were two sorts of painting on the walls. Most classrooms hosted a couple of pictures scarcely above the Highland-cattle level, and in terrible frames, that had been discarded by the City Art Gallery and palmed off on the Education Committee, which then sent them round to schools. These uninspired canvasses didn’t so much encourage an appreciation of art as a proficiency at darts. However, there was another category of picture occasionally to be seen: reproductions on board of work by modern British painters – Ravilious, Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Pasmore. These, I think, were put out by Shell and turn up occasionally nowadays at auction, though not quite at Sotheby’s. That I’ve always liked – and found no effort in liking – British paintings of the Forties and Fifties I partly put down to my early exposure to these well-chosen reproductions. So it was my own largely unwitting experience that made me welcome the Sainsbury scheme whereby every year four selected paintings are reproduced, framed and sent round with an information pack to schools local to Sainsbury’s stores.’

Diary: Notes on 1997

Alan Bennett, 1 January 1998

2 January. I’m sent a complimentary (sic) copy of Waterstone’s Literary Diary which records the birthdays of various contemporary literary figures. Here is Dennis Potter on 17 May, Michael Frayn on 8 September, Edna O’Brien on 15 December, and so naturally I turn to my own birthday. May 9 is blank except for the note: ‘The first British self-service launderette is opened on Queensway, London 1949.’

K.B. McFarlane was one of the most influential medieval historians of postwar Britain, but his name is unknown outside academic circles. This would have pleased him. He grew up in Dulwich, the son of a civil servant in the Admiralty. A day boy at Dulwich College, he won an open scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford and then a senior demyship at Magdalen where in 1928 he became a fellow and spent the rest of his life.

Diary: What I did in 1996

Alan Bennett, 2 January 1997

3 January. To ‘Dynasties’, the exhibition of Tudor portraits at the Tate. There are some superb pictures but, with the sitters shortly to die or be executed, many of them seem ominous or doom-laden. New to me and to R. is Antonis Mor, whose portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham looks like an Edwardian tinted photograph, and with the sitter so eerily present not entirely pleasing. All art is tiring and these paintings in particular as they’re crowded with detail and every dress and doublet draws you in to trace the embroidery or work out the folds and flourishes. The poster for the exhibition is Holbein’s portrait of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VI; he’s not the weed that he’s normally pictured but a big solid bully of a baby, the image of his father. On the Underground R. says he’s never known a poster so persistently defaced, the child’s brutal look seeming to irritate people. One poster that he saw had UGLY written across the forehead and another SPAM.

Story: ‘The Clothes They Stood Up In’

Alan Bennett, 28 November 1996

The Ransomes had been burgled. ‘Robbed,’ Mrs Ransome said. ‘Burgled,’ Mr Ransome corrected. Premises were burgled; persons were robbed. Mr Ransome was a solicitor by profession and thought words mattered. Though ‘burgled’ was the wrong word too. Burglars select; they pick; they remove one item and ignore others. There is a limit to what burglars can take: they seldom take easy chairs, for example, and even more seldom settees. These burglars did. They took everything.

Diary: What I did in 1995

Alan Bennett, 4 January 1996

13 January. One of Peter Cook’s jokes, several times quoted in his obituaries, is of two men chatting. ‘I’m writing a novel,’ says one, whereupon the other says: ‘Yes, neither am I.’ And of course it’s funny and has a point, except that Peter, I suspect, felt that this disposed of the matter entirely. That people did write novels or poetry and were heartfelt about it didn’t make much difference; literature, music – it was just the stuff of cocktail party chatter; nobody really did it, still less genuinely enjoyed it when it was done. Forget plays, pictures, concerts: newspapers were the only reality – not that one could believe them either.’

Alan Bennett remembers Peter Cook

Alan Bennett, 25 May 1995

It is 35 years, almost to the day, that I first set eyes on Peter, at lunch in a restaurant, I think on Goodge Street, with Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, the meeting arranged by John Bassett, whose idea it was that we should all work together writing the review that turned into Beyond the Fringe.

Diary: Madness: The Movie

Alan Bennett, 9 February 1995

The first draft of The Madness of King George (then called The Madness of George III) was prefaced with this note:

Diary: Fresh Revelations

Alan Bennett, 20 October 1994

13 January. Having supper in the National Theatre restaurant are Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert. ‘I suppose you like this place,’ says Lindsay. I do, actually, as the food is now very good. I say so and Lindsay, who judges all restaurants by the standard of the Cosmo in Finchley Road, smiles wearily, pleased to be reassured about one’s moral decline.

‘The Stringalongs’

Alan Bennett, 24 February 1994

Had Mark Boxer not been the first to acknowledge it I’d hesitate to claim the Stringalongs (I never hyphenated it) as my children but they did have a previous existence before they were adopted by Marc.

Diary: Where I was in 1993

Alan Bennett, 16 December 1993

4 January. On BBC’s Catchword this afternoon, one of the questions apparently consists of anagrams of playwrights. Mine is Annabel Tent. Nobody guesses it.

Philip Larkin

Alan Bennett, 25 March 1993

‘My mother is such a bloody rambling fool.’ wrote Philip Larkin in 1965, ‘that half the time I doubt her sanity. Two things she said today, for instance, were that she had “thought of getting a job in Woolworth’s” and that she wanted to win the football pools so that she could “give cocktail parties”.’ Eva Larkin was 79 at the time so that...

The King and I

Alan Bennett, 30 January 1992

I’ve always had a soft spot for George III, starting all of forty years ago when I was in the sixth form at Leeds Modern School and reading for a scholarship to Cambridge. The smart book around that time was Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which took the 19th century to task for writing history with one eye on the future, and in particular for taking as the only path through the past the development of democratic institutions. On the Whig interpretation, historical characters got a tick if they were on the side of liberty (Cromwell, Chatham), a cross (Charles I, James II) if they held up the march of progress. Because he went in for active royalty and made some attempt to govern on his own account rather than leaving it to the Whig aristocracy, George III had been written up as a villain and a clumsy tyrant. This view Butterfield had helped to discredit, so a question on George III was thought likely to turn up in the Cambridge examination, which it duly did. Sitting in the freezing Senate House in December 1951, I trotted out my Butterfield and though I didn’t get a scholarship, counted myself lucky to be offered a place at Sydney Sussex, that Christmas when the college letter came the best Christmas of my life.’

Diary: What I did in 1990

Alan Bennett, 24 January 1991

2 January 1990. I seem to be the only Western playwright not personally acquainted with the new President of Czechoslovakia. I envy him, though. What a relief to find oneself Head of State and not to have to write plays – just make history. And no Czechoslovak equivalent of Charles Osborne snapping at your ankles complaining that the history you’re making falls between every possible stool, or some Prague Steven Berkoff snarling that it’s not the kind of history that’s worth making anyway. I wonder whether Havel has lots of uncompleted dissident plays. To put them on now would he somehow inappropriate. Still, he could write a play about it.

Diary: What I did in 1989

Alan Bennett, 11 January 1990

January 1989. The Government ‘profoundly rejects’ the report of the inquiry into the Thames TV programme Death on the Rock. ‘Firmly’ one could understand and ‘passionately’ even, but profoundly? Of course what they actually mean is ‘contemptuously’. Or, in Mrs Thatcher’s case, ‘furiously’.

The Lady in the Van

Alan Bennett, 26 October 1989

‘I ran into a snake this afternoon,’ Miss Shepherd said. ‘It was coming up Parkway. It was a long, grey snake, a boa constrictor possibly, it looked poisonous. It was keeping close to the wall and seemed to know its way. I’ve a feeling it may have been heading for the van.’ I was relieved that on this occasion she didn’t demand that I ring the police, as she regularly did if anything out of the ordinary occurred. Perhaps this was too out of the ordinary (though it turned out the pet shop in Parkway had been broken into the previous night, so she may have seen a snake). She brought her mug over and I made her a drink which she took back to the van. ‘I thought I’d better tell you,’ she said, ‘just to be on the safe side. I’ve had some close shaves with snakes.’

Ten Days that Shook Me

Alan Bennett, 15 September 1988

I spent ten days in May in Russia on a visit arranged by the Great Britain-USSR Society. My colleagues were the novelists Paul Bailey, Christopher Hope and Timothy Mo (who also writes for Boxing News), the poet Craig Raine (who doesn’t) and the playwright Sue Townsend of Adrian Mole fame. I had many misgivings about the trip, particularly in regard to creature comforts. I wondered, for instance, if the Russians had got round to mineral water. John Sturrock reassured me. ‘Haven’t you heard of Perrierstroika?’

Diary: Where was I in 1987?

Alan Bennett, 10 December 1987

London, 2 January 1987. Reg, who kept the junk stall in the market, has died and today is his funeral. Where his stall stood outside The Good Mixer there is a trestle-table covered with a blue sheet, and a notice on a wreath of chrysanthemums announces that Reg Stone passed peacefully away on Boxing Day and that his cortège will be passing through the market at three o’clock. Until I read the card I’d never known his last name.

Kafka at Las Vegas

Alan Bennett, 23 July 1987

There are many perils in writing about Kafka. His work has been garrisoned by armies of critics with some fifteen thousand books about him at the last count. As there is a Fortress Freud so is there a Fortress Kafka, Kafka his own castle. For admission a certain high seriousness must be deemed essential and I am not sure I have it. One is nervous about presuming even to write his name, wanting to beg pardon for doing so, if only because Kafka was so reluctant to write his name himself. Like the Hebrew name of God, it is a name that should not be spoken, particularly by an Englishman. In his dreams Kafka once met an Englishman. He was in a good grey flannel suit, the flannel also covering his face. Short of indicating a prudent change of tailor, the incident (if dreams have incidents) serves to point up the temptation to English Kafka and joke him down to size. The Channel is a slipper bath of irony through which we pass these serious Continentals in order not to be infected by their gloom. This propensity I am sure I have not escaped or tried to: but then there is something that is English about Kafka, and it is not only his self-deprecation. A vegetarian and fond of the sun, he seems a familiar crank; if he’d been living in England at the turn of the century, and not in Prague, one can imagine him going out hiking and spending evenings with like-minded friends in Letchworth. He is the young man in a Shaw play who strolls past the garden fence in too large shorts to be accosted by some brisk Shavian young woman who, perceiving his charm, takes him in hand, puts paid to his morbid thoughts and makes him pull his socks up.

Diary: What I did in 1986

Alan Bennett, 18 December 1986

London, 30 January. A meeting at the Royal Court re Kafka’s Dick, now put off until September. Their next play is an adaptation by Howard Barker of Women beware women, and the production after that The Normal Heart, an American play about Aids. This is referred to at the theatre as ‘Men beware men’.

Uncle Clarence

Alan Bennett, 5 June 1986

Once we have located the cemetery the grave itself is not hard to find, one of a row of headstones just inside the gate and backing onto a railway. Flanders in April and it is, not inappropriately, raining, clogging our shoes the famous mud. The stone gives the date of his death, 21 October 1917, but not his age. He was 20.

Diary: What I did in 1985

Alan Bennett, 5 December 1985

London. The revival of Forty Years On closes after a five-month run. Houses are good and it has made a decent profit but it now makes way for Charlton Heston in The Caine Mutiny. The classified ad reads: ‘ “The Queen’s Theatre will not have seen the last of this play for many a long day.” Final Week.’

The Wrong Blond

Alan Bennett, 23 May 1985

On a bitter cold morning in January 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed into New York harbour on board the SS Champlain. After coming through a blizzard off New-foundland the ship looked like a wedding cake and the mood of our two heroes was correspondingly festive and expectant. On their first visit to New York the previous year Auden had sometimes been in tears, telling Isherwood no one would ever love him and that he would never have any sexual success. True to form on this second visit it was Isherwood who already had a date lined up: Vernon, ‘a beautiful blond boy, about eighteen, intelligent with very sexy legs’. From that out-of-the-body vantage-point he shares with God and Norman Mailer, Isherwood looks down on himself and his friend:

Diary: What I did in 1984

Alan Bennett, 20 December 1984

These are some extracts from a diary I kept in 1978 while rehearsing and filming a series of six plays for London Weekend Television. Some of the plays were shot on film, some in the studio. If I prefer working on film to working in the studio it is for reasons which are largely frivolous. Being on location with a unit, like being on tour with a play, concentrates the experience; one is beleaguered, often enjoyably so, and for a short while the film becomes the framework of one’s life. I am more gregarious than I like to think and to be working on a film in congenial company and in an unfamiliar place seems to me the best sort of holiday. In the studio this camaraderie and shared concern is more circumscribed. There are homes to go to, lives to be lived and the recording process is altogether more routine. For the studio staff it may be a play for today, but tomorrow it’s The South Bank Show and the day after Game for a Laugh. It’s work in a way that filming on location, however arduous, never quite is.

Lost Jokes

Alan Bennett, 2 August 1984

In 1969 I had a letter from a producer in BBC Radio saying he’d fished out an old script of mine from the pool and thought it might have possibilities for a radio play. I liked the idea of a producer at Portland Place dredging up drama from a pool of old paperwork but he was six months too late, and I smugly wrote back, pointing out that the play in question, Forty Years On, was already running in the West End.

Diary: What I did in 1983

Alan Bennett, 16 February 1984

I’ve kept a sporadic diary for about ten years. Besides the occasional incident that seems worth recording, I put down gossip and notes on work and reading. These are some extracts from last year. London is Camden Town and Yorkshire a small village in Craven to which my parents retired, and where I still have a house.

Instead of a Present

Alan Bennett, 15 April 1982

My first thought was that this whole enterprise is definitely incongruous. A birthday party for Philip Larkin is like treating Simone Weil to a candlelit dinner for two at a restaurant of her choice. Or sending Proust flowers. No. A volume of this sort is simply a sharp nudge in the direction of the grave; and that is a road, God knows, along which he needs no nudging.

John Osborne

Alan Bennett, 3 December 1981

One of John Osborne’s Thoughts for 1954: ‘The urge to please above all. I don’t have it and can’t achieve it. A small thing but more or less mine own.’ This book does please and has pleased. It is immensely enjoyable, is written with great gusto and Osborne has had better notices for it than for any of his plays since Inadmissible Evidence.

Books are safer than...

Story: ‘Men’s Talk’

Alan Bennett, 3 December 1981

Two middle-class men talking. Call them Charles and Henry.

CHARLES: And did you have to go through that tedious charade, sexual intercourse?

HENRY: (enthusiastically) Oh yes. From A to Z.

CHARLES: Z? B is the furthest I’ve ever felt it necessary to go.

HENRY: A. B. C. D. The whole alphabet of love.

CHARLES: What form did it take?

HENRY: A myriad forms.

CHARLES: Put it in and jiggle it...

Cold Sweat

Alan Bennett, 15 October 1981

I am meeting my father at the station. I stand at the barrier as the train draws in and see him get off. As he walks along the platform he catches sight of me and waves. I wave back and we both smile. However, he still has some considerable distance to cover before reaching the barrier. Do I keep a continuous smile on my face during that period, do I flash him an occasional smile or do I look away?

Gielgud’s Achievements

Alan Bennett, 20 December 1979

Sir John Gielgud is 75. To hear him talk or watch him on the stage he seems much younger, whereas his recollections of the lions of the Edwardian theatre ought to put him well past his century. It’s an elastic life because baby Gielgud was so quick off the mark, the famous nose soon round the edge of the pram observing the odd behaviour of his Terry uncles and aunts. He had instantaneous success as a young actor and put his popularity with audiences to good effect, bringing Shakespeare and Chekhov to the West End. As an actor manager between the wars he ran what was virtually a national theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. In the Fifties new directions in the theatre led him to flounder for a while, but in the last ten years he has found his place again. Adjectives like ‘spry’ and ‘vigorous’, indicating the subject is past it, are here inappropriate. His powers show no sign of diminishing, nor his enterprise. He has come a long way. As a juvenile his ‘ambition was to be frightfully smart and West End, wear beautifully-cut suits lounging on sofas in French-window comedies’. Fifty years later ‘I was asked to put suppositories up my bottom under the bedclothes and play a scene in the lavatory which I confess I found somewhat intimate.’ Knighthoods nothing: actors should be decorated for gallantry.

Letter

On My Bike

9 January 2014

In the editing of my 2013 Diary, one entry was lost (LRB, 9 January). Because it is of interest and some personal concern I reinstate it here:6 April. Were there a suitable forum I would put in my own word for Dennis Stevenson, currently being pilloried with his colleagues for the collapse of HBOS. In the early 1990s when I was a trustee of the National Gallery Stevenson was a trustee of the Tate and...
Letter
Maurice Marks (Letters, 16 November) remembers someone in the Sheffield Education Department taking the trouble to see that he got to grammar school and in his autobiography, A Local Habitation, Richard Hoggart tells a similar story about an official in Leeds, who went out of his way to make sure the young Hoggart got in at Cockburn High School. That official may well have been George Guest, or someone...
Letter

Bennett-Biz

21 January 1999

Stuart Hood (Letters, 4 February) misunderstands me in thinking that when I wrote that what Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin lacked was a touch of Kafka I meant that Akhmatova’s experience of life was insufficiently Kafkaesque. I would not say that, nor presume to say it, and ‘Kafkaesque’ is not a word I particularly like, as nowadays it is often just a synonym for the modish ‘weird’...
Letter

Hello!

4 June 1998

I was pleased to see that in the latest issue of the LRB (LRB, 4 June) the Diary section was indeed a diary (and a fascinating one at that); all too often the space is used to smuggle in yet another book review. Over several years I’ve urged the editor to devote the space to a proper diary, so I hope she may now have conceded the point. I’m slightly nettled, though, that she should defer...
Letter

Victorian Values

17 March 1988

SIR: ‘But above all,’ asks Mr Hurd in his Tamworth piece (LRB, 17 March), ‘where were the parents of these [rioting] youths and what influence have they had on the way their children conduct themselves?’ I am not what the Sunday papers would call ‘an experienced Cabinet children watcher’, but my impression is that when it comes to ‘influencing the way their...
Letter

Old Scholar

5 February 1987

SIR: Hugh Lloyd-Jones suggests that Oxford has succeeded better than Cambridge in combining critical scholarship with literary interpretation (LRB, 5 February). I was at Oxford in the Fifties and the Rector of my college, Exeter, was E.A. Barber, who brought out an edition of Propertius. When asked what he thought of Propertius as literature, Barber replied: ‘I have no idea. I didn’t bother...
Letter

Uncle Clarence

5 June 1986

Alan Bennett writes: Beg pardon. I had thought there were faults on both sides. When the next lot comes I hope Messrs Latimer and Wright will be around to tell us why we did the proper thing there too. Bags not be in the same cave.

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