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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Alan Bennett’s pandemic diaries: ‘Good Friday, and this year Pontius Pilate is not the only one washing his hands’ | Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett is best known for his work for stage and screen, from Talking Heads and The Lady in the Van to The History Boys and Allelujah!. His annual diary has appeared in the London Review of Books since 1983. In this extract from his new book, House Arrest, he reflects on Covid and confinement at home with his partner, Rupert Thomas, in London or in Yorkshire, during a year in and out of lockdown from February 2020 to March 2021.

24 February 2020
Last week, Rupert [then editor in chief of the World of Interiors] and his whole magazine were thrown into confusion when for no apparent reason the management inquired how many of the team could work from home. This was taken to be the prelude to some sort of shedding of staff. Today, it transpires it’s less inimical than this, but rather a precaution. The coronavirus in Italy has meant the Milan office has had to close, the inquiry in case a similar situation should arise in London. This is thought to be unlikely.

1 March
Thanks to arthritis I’m now much less mobile than I was. Gone are the days when I could jump on my bike to pop down to the shops, so static semi-isolation is scarcely a hardship or even a disruption of my routine. Himself no slouch when it came to work, George Steiner once asked a Soviet dissident how he got through so much. “House arrest, Steiner. House arrest.” Alas, so far as work is concerned, I haven’t yet noticed much difference.

14 March
As an over-70, I am officially exhorted to remain isolated and indoors which is to say that my usual going on now has governmental endorsement.

18 March
The York Theatre Royal’s tour of The Habit of Art, the play about Auden and Britten that did well last year and was due to be revived for a festival in New York, has had to be cancelled. I write to the cast apologising and saying that one person who would not be washing his hands every five minutes is WH Auden.

20 March
With Rupert now working from home my life is much easier, as I get regular cups of tea and a lovely hot lunch.

24 March
A rare plane passes.

Photo in the Guardian of a homemade sign at the entrance to Malham village telling or rather entreating the hordes of tourists to go home. In our Yorkshire village 20 miles or so away the car park is full and the place far busier than on a normal Sunday. So far from social distancing some of the visitors practically link arms. Still, it makes a change from brawling over toilet rolls.

26 March
Around six [director] Nick Hytner rings, highly excited. Piers Wenger [BBC’s director of drama] has just rung him saying that though current restrictions make mounting any TV programmes difficult, he thinks it may be possible to do a new version of the Talking Heads monologues from 1988. Nick is ringing me (needlessly) for my permission. He comes round later and we thrash out some of the details in a conversation with him standing on the other side of the street. (“Was this how King Lear started, do you think?”)

10 April, Good Friday
We have agreed that the cast and crew in the Talking Heads remount should do so for a token fee, with any profits to be given to the NHS. I’m somewhat staggered to find that this amounts to a million pounds, possibly more. It’s no skin off my nose, as I never expected the programmes to be repeated, but the financial sacrifice for some of the cast and crew will not just be notional. Astonishing though it is, this gesture passes without notice.

Good Friday, when this year Pontius Pilate is not the only one washing his hands.

16 April
A card from Tom King [a friend of Bennett’s publisher’s son] with news of the tattoo of me that he had put on his arm (pictured in the Diary published in the London Review of Books of 3 January 2019): “The tattoo remains popular, though bizarrely one person thought it was of Henry Kissinger. It also makes for an amusing conversation during intercourse.” This suggests the intercourse might be less than fervent, my name in itself something of a detumescent.

Illustration by Barry Falls of Tom King’s Alan Bennett tattoo
Tom King’s Alan Bennett tattoo, illustrated by Barry Falls.

18 April
Nick H rings having had the first reading of the monologues he is producing, including a new one, The Shrine, about a woman whose husband is killed in a motorbike accident. At one point she talks about the sandwiches she used to make for him, “wenged in a hedge somewhere”. Neither Monica Dolan nor Nick, who is directing it, have come across “wenged”, and I think it may be one of my dad’s invented words. It meant – at least for him – to chuck. When my parents moved to the village, they were puzzled that they kept finding turds on the lawn. Then one day Dad was in the garden and a turd came flying through the air from next door, where the old lady had a dog. With uncharacteristic boldness Dad wenged it back (and it never happened again), but wenged remained in the family vocabulary.

28 April
The most one can hope from a reader is that he or she should think: “Here is somebody who knows what it is like to be me.” It’s not what EM Forster meant by “only connect”, but it’s what I mean.

These days “only connect” means bumping elbows.

7 May
Some time in the afternoon [the actor] Alex Jennings and [his wife] Lesley Moors call by and we have a socially distanced chat on the doorstep, me sitting on a stool, Rupert standing behind me. They bring me a birthday present (as yet unopened), having just taken something similar to Nick Hytner, whose birthday is today. Mine is on Saturday and Alex’s the day after, which is perhaps why we all get on so well (all Taureans, some would say). Nick rings later with a progress report on TH. He is full of praise for the helpfulness of the EastEnders technicians, on the set of which at Elstree the monologues are being filmed.

Harriet Walter is doing Soldiering On and asked Nick H how it was I “did posh so well”. Short of a ready explanation he said (somewhat desperately) he thought it was because I had been a friend of Debo D [the late Duchess of Devonshire]. There is some truth in this in the sense that my awareness of upper-class tropes comes not from Debo but her sister Nancy, whose The Pursuit of Love I have known ever since I first discovered it in Majority 1931–1952 – the omnibus edition of Hamish Hamilton publications, read when I was at Oxford. “Too many memoirs” would be another explanation (and “some Evelyn Waugh”).

9 May
Faultless weather yesterday and today reveals (with crowds on Primrose Hill) how the lockdown is coming apart.

11 May
Boris Johnson’s address to the nation in the evening pretty pointless. “Stay alert” meaning nothing. He’s such a poor orator and speaker generally, one almost feels sorry for him, with the plainness of Keir Starmer a relief.

15 May
I’ve never been that fond of my hands. Now, much washed as we are told, they scarcely bear looking at: shiny, veinous and as transparent as an anatomical illustration. Far from the matt, solid, sensible instruments one has always hankered after. More “artistic”, I suppose. An old lady’s hands, lying idle in a lap somewhere.

10 July
Isolation, such as it is, is beginning to rob me of speech. I had to call the optician today to explain how I’d broken the strut of my glasses, and I found myself so much at a loss Rupert had to take over. He didn’t find this at all strange. I do.

17 July
I have watched the recordings of the Talking Heads monologues, but because of social distancing I’ve not been able to attend rehearsals or meet the performers or the directors. I send them thank you notes and good wishes, and today comes a lovely card from Martin Freeman, whom I don’t know, but who is so good about the monologue he did (A Chip in the Sugar) that I want to write back and thank him, thus making it like an extract from A Lady of Letters, a thank you letter for a thank you letter. I’m so pleased with it, I carry Martin’s card about with me in my pocket like a hand warmer.

19 July
There are many depressing items of news in today’s Observer but the most lowering is that, on account of his support for Brexit, Ian Botham is thought likely to be raised to the peerage.

4 August
Rupert goes upstairs to do his Pilates on Zoom. His teacher lives round the corner, but she is currently with her husband in Canada. Still, up he goes in his T-shirt and shorts as it’s quite strenuous, and it makes no difference that she’s on the other side of the world.

13 August
Big rows over A-levels. I’m not sure if I would have benefited if my exam results had been based on coursework. I was a good examinee, but not much of a stayer in class. I needed an occasion before I could perform and even put on my suit for A-levels (or the Higher School Certificate as it was then). It was the same at university, and I was shown my college’s assessment of me a few years ago (the records are kept in the Bodleian) and pretty ordinary it was. When it came to the test in Final Schools, I managed to suggest I was cleverer than I was and had these untapped resources, which only lack of time prevented me from displaying. It was all part of showing off, which I could do right from elementary school.

16 August
Every evening around eight we walk round the block – literally a three-minute walk. What in normal circumstances is one of Rupert’s good habits is to pick up any stray scraps of paper to put them in the bin, and this evening on the corner of Regent’s Park Road he retrieves a bit of paper which turns out to be a (previously used) tissue. He is appalled and we hasten home so that he can bin it and wash his hands. What we have not realised is that it’s Thursday and our progress is hindered by a fusillade of clapping and pan banging from the neighbours out on their balconies in celebration of the NHS. Rupert can clap (even with the noxious tissue), but I can’t as I need to hold on to my walking stick. It also appears that, with me walking in the road, I am acknowledging the applause and even generating it. I try to disavow this by feebly smiling and shaking my head, but this just looks like modesty. It’s an absurd and inexplicable incident.

20 August
“Robust”, a favoured word of the right. It also means “callous”.

4 September
What your work does is “tell people you’ve been alive”. Lucian Freud.

8 September
One phone call today, a woman inquiring if I’ve made arrangements for my funeral yet. At least it isn’t a recorded voice.

14 September
Yorkshire. The big sadness today is finding that Jane Mansergh’s secondhand bookshop just off Settle Market Place has closed, and not for the duration of Covid but for good. It was a lovely shop full of unexpected treasures and absurdly cheap. Jane was a friend to the lonely and the eccentric, being herself very devout, though the main influence this had on her stock was the size of the theology section. Some books she wouldn’t sell. I once asked her to look out for me any copy of Moby-Dick, only to find it was on her blacklist due to its subject. There were exotic finds: a privately printed edition of The Unquiet Grave, for instance, though nothing quite so unexpected as a presentation copy of some art book signed by Anthony Blunt that turned up round the corner in Age Concern.

20 September
Sent by her biographer, Jasper Rees, a letter I wrote to Victoria Wood turning down a part in her comedy series: “I can’t face playing any more men with dusters. I don’t mean I want to play Burt Reynolds parts, only somewhere between him and Richard Wattis, say – those are the parameters.”

Illustration by Barry Falls of Alan Bennett’s broken glasses.
Illustration by Barry Falls.

She was a great woman, her performance of Let’s Do It at the Albert Hall the stuff of legend. I just hope Noël Coward was still around to see it. I first met her, almost epically, in Sainsbury’s in Lancaster at the avocado counter. Her Dinnerladies was often sentimental, but she caught in the part of the handyman, played by Duncan Preston, the idiom of an old-fashioned working-class man, elaborate, literate and language-loving, which is, or was, more typical of the north than the more cliched dialect-rich versions.

9 October
Around 10 this morning the door bell goes just when I’m in the passage – often these days I don’t get there in time. It’s an out of work boy, not with the characteristic bag, but just himself. He keeps well back, as I do, but immediately embarks on his spiel, that he’s from Middlesbrough and on an employment scheme and do I want anything in the way of dusters or dishcloths. Such callers are familiar, or were until lockdown, and we’ve long been oversupplied. I generally get away with contributing a pound or two, though this is not easy as it provokes another spiel about him not wanting charity and that he is actually selling something – goods need to change hands. But, finding someone on my doorstep who is sharing my airspace, and with coins themselves agents of infection, I don’t even attempt to buy him off and hear myself saying (absurdly): “I’m sorry but we have the virus”, a lie which the boy meekly accepts, turning away before I even get the door closed. It’s his abject acceptance that stays with me, this not the first rejection he will have had this morning, though maybe none so specific.

7 November
Some time in the afternoon Rupert shouts down that Joe Biden has passed the line and been declared the winner in the presidential election and that the scourge of Trump has been lifted. Though Trump does not agree. Lynn Wagenknecht [owner of the Odeon restaurant in New York] texts from New York saying there is dancing in the street and holds up the phone to let us hear the rejoicing. It should put a smile on people’s faces here but there are few people about. Such relief.

8 November
Watch the slimmed down service from the Cenotaph, with HMQ keeping a beady eye on the revamped choreography. I am distracted, though, just as the ceremony is starting, when Rupert sees a fox in the garden. It’s a tiny garden and has walls (without that making it a walled garden), but with no obvious means of access for foxes. Fast asleep, the only sign of life the occasional twitching of an ear. Maybe it’s the distant gun salute that wakes her (I think it’s a vixen), but she reveals herself as plump and well fed, possibly pregnant. She hangs around for a bit, shoving her white nose through the trellis on top of the wall before disappearing next door. Meanwhile the wreath laying has started, which I’m always impressed by. In the unlikely event of my being asked to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph I’d have to decline, if only because I couldn’t walk the few steps backwards it requires. Not the least of the Queen’s achievements is that she can still do this in her 90s.

9 December
I’m sorry that this year’s diary dwells so much on my physical incapacity. Farewell to the bike has to some extent meant farewell to the health that went with it, and my life is increasingly medicated. I am blessed in my passage through the therapeutic jungle by Louise, who’s an ideal pharmacist, cheerful, funny and unbegrudging. It’s a busy pharmacy in Camden Town, with its quota of recovering addicts and ancients like myself, to whom Louise dispenses not merely medicaments but much needed good cheer. I’m happy to acknowledge the part she plays in my wellbeing. I must cost the NHS a fortune, and I’m glad that through Talking Heads we were able to repay some of that, if only a little. Johnson never fails to call it “our NHS”, though this offers no assurance that he won’t sell it off, but one hopes that now he’s lost his chum across the water there may be less of that.

15 December
There were those in 1914 who believed that war was just what was needed – as a cleanser and a salutary shock. England would be the better for it. As we wait for the result of the final Brexit talks, the heirs of these fools are still with us.

31 December
My year ends when Rupert takes me up to one of the health centres 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 80-year-olds and carers making their way off the Kentish Town Road, all on the same errand. Unfortunate that both the disease and the remedy begin with a v. At 86 (I excuse myself), I get them mixed up so at the head of the queue for the vaccine I say it’s for the virus, both of them v words. 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.

Illustration by Barry Falls of Alan Bennett’s thank-you card from Martin Freeman.
Illustration by Barry Falls.

27 February 2021
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 [the illustrator] F 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, and had no thought of being misunderstood.

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

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, whom he then shipped across the Atlantic to meet HM the Queen. And that it was the now much abused Speaker, John Bercow, who ruled out any thought of Trump addressing a joint session of parliament. His reward was to be refused the customary peerage on retirement by this prime minister, who happily doled out peerages to umpteen millionaires, all of them donors to the Tory party. And so we go on.

Autumn 2021
We have resumed our pre-lockdown routine, going home by train from King’s Cross to Leeds with a wheelchair at both ends. It’s an exemplary service, friendly, cheerful and sometimes hair-raising, they push you at such a rate. Lunch follows just outside the station at Sous Le Nez, a cosy brasserie on Quebec Street where we have been coming now for 10 years, and which happily has survived its enforced closure. Table 25. Fish and chips invariably. In and out in 45 minutes, after which we drive north and home. It’s always said of Leeds that it’s easy to get out of, not much of a compliment though it’s true, and I’ve been doing it half my life.

In season the A65 is a busy road, some of the traffic headed to Burnsall and Upper Wharfedale, the rest of it en route for the Lake District. Out of season or in the evening we sometimes turn off to Bolton Abbey. One of the locations for A Private Function. Then on to Draughton where much more recently there would be a vase of flowers always fresh, marking the place of an accident and which Mike Harding made into a poem and was my inspiration for the monologue The Shrine in last year’s Talking Heads.

If it’s dark and with no street lights, the first thing one notices getting home are the stars and how high the beck. My parents first came here from Leeds in 1966 and were very happy and are still remembered. “I don’t care how celebrated you are,” the coalman said. “You’ll never be a patch on your dad.”

This is an edited extract from House Arrest: Pandemic Diaries by Alan Bennett, published by Profile Faber on 5 May (£6.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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