Listen to this piece read by the author

5 January 2022. Sent a brochure for Venice, as we regularly are, in which the Orient Express figures prominently, emphasising the luxury side of the journey (and its huge cost). What it isn’t any more is an adventure. Venice by train used to feel like Life, crossing the Channel and boarding the Paris train at Boulogne, getting a seat in the dining car before going round Paris on the ceinture and finding one’s sleeping car. It was an international train, headed, I think, for Istanbul, but overnight transformed in certain sections into something much more domestic. I went First, thinking, rightly, that this meant luxury, but venturing further down the train one found humbler passengers spilling out into the corridor along with their belongings in bulging cardboard boxes, hens and on one occasion a goat. When one eventually arrived in Venice, where I’d never been, in the late afternoon it did seem like an achievement: one came out of the station to find the canals not sequestered away in some tourist area but there on the steps of the station itself, Venice the only place that lived up to its publicity. On the vaporetto one passed the fire station, the gleaming boats ready arrayed, and that seemed wondrous too, that here even the fire engines were in boat form.

I stayed two or three times at the Pensione Accademia which was still off-limits to package holidays and had something of an English vicarage about it. Most nights we ate at Locanda Montin, the sight of its red lantern an assurance that we had managed yet again to find the way. Always the same menu: melon, Parma ham, lamb’s liver with sage and to finish, a huge apple.

Venice is the only city I’ve been in, with the possible exception of Cambridge, where there was nothing to offend the eye, and going in winter as I did in those days one would find the Piazza San Marco empty. It was at the Accademia with its thin walls that I first overheard sexual intercourse, and the shout of a man coming, ‘Vengo! Vengo!’

28 January. Today was Dad’s birthday. He was very difficult to buy a present for, not liking his birthday being acknowledged, and remained so all his life. Mam was easy, a piece of Staffordshire would do it, cracked probably or chipped like all her antiques. Then when I was in Beyond the Fringe I reckoned I had enough money to get Dad something he really wanted, namely a decent violin. Leeds had a good violin shop, Balmforth’s, so I asked them to pick out three violins for him to try without telling him the price. The one he chose was an Italian fiddle, a Degani with a wonderful sweetness of tone, which he played in the last years of his life. It was then given to the Benslow Music Trust which provides violins for young players.

23 February. I love jokes and used to be fed them almost on a weekly basis by Barry Cryer, as one of his extensive and distinguished clientele that included Judi Dench and Andrew Marr. He would ring up and without bothering to say who it was would embark on the joke. When he’d finished he’d say, ‘Well, I’ll give you back your day’ and ring off. The last joke he told me, only a week or two before his death, concerned a couple walking down the street when they spot someone across the road. ‘Isn’t that the archbishop of Canterbury?’ says the wife. ‘Is it?’ says her husband. ‘Go and ask him,’ she says. So the man goes over, apologises for troubling him and asks: ‘Aren’t you the archbishop of Canterbury?’ ‘Bugger off.’ He returns to his wife. ‘What did he say?’ ‘He said: “Bugger off.”’ ‘What a shame,’ says the wife. ‘Now we shall never know.’ The regular scenario for many of Barry’s jokes concerned St Peter at the gates of Heaven, so that when he finally arrived there last month it can have been no surprise.

24 February. One doubtful blessing of my new and sophisticated hearing aids is that I can hear every rumble and gurgle of my stomach as well as the children next door.

18 March. Geoffrey Palmer’s memorial service from St Paul’s Covent Garden, one of a growing number, I imagine, of those held on Zoom. I am unexpectedly on the verge of tears for someone who always put a smile on my face in art and life. I once told him that I was hoping to write a play, the first line of which was a woman saying, ‘My third husband was most unsatisfactory. Sodomy was the bugbear. They seem to have settled at Lytham.’ He always inquired about the progress of the script, which needless to say never got written. Firbank rather than Wilde. Geoffrey played Warren, the king’s doctor, in the film The Madness of King George, with Cyril Shaps as Pepys, who set great store by the king’s motions. ‘Oh the stool, the stool,’ said Warren. ‘My dear Pepys. The persistent excellence of the stool has been one of this disease’s most tedious features. When will you get it into your head that one can produce a copious, regular and exquisitely turned evacuation every day of the week and still be a stranger to reason?’

One of the pleasures and indeed consolations of a memorial service is in looking round to see who’s there, not something that’s possible on Zoom. So, ideally it should be a roving Zoom. Not, I’m sure, that Geoffrey would have thought he was worth the trouble.

28 March, Yorkshire. We vary our evening stroll, which in my case is more of a trudge, by going up the village to the church to sit in the churchyard. The birds are noisy, rooks and crows mostly, though unlike London no seagulls. And here come the bellringers for their Monday night practice, and quite frail they look too. The key is lost, so the ringers are very happy to chat and gossip while it’s located. Someone with Ukrainian relatives is taking in a family and there has been a dance and coffee morning in aid. Now the church is found to be open so no key is required, the ringers go up the tower as we walk home, and as we are putting the key in our own door the bells start.

When we first came to the village in 1966 one used to be woken in the night by curlews calling. This doesn’t happen now, though at Bleak Bank Farm they mark where the nests are so the eggs don’t get crushed. That wouldn’t have happened in 1966. They are spectacular birds and today we see a pair of them on top of a wall near Lawkland. They apparently come back each year to nest in the same field.

16 April, Yorkshire. I used to love anemones. They were colourful, architectural (with ruffs) and always able to arrange themselves in a jar. They were also cheap and now a part of the past. Once to be had in Leeds Market for 50p, today, though much leggier than they were and possibly French, they are nearer £10.

13 May. On our evening walk we are coming slowly along past the bookshop, me with my stick, when a skateboarder detaches himself from a group of lads and comes for us at high speed. We don’t flinch, though he comes perilously close and fast. R. says, quite mildly, ‘That’s a dangerous thing to do,’ whereupon the boy apologises. However, another of the group then steps forward and says, ‘Are you father and son?’ While it’s not a question that requires an answer, it’s not friendly either. I say, ‘Come away,’ and we walk on.

29 May. Remember as a child at Halliday Place in Armley when Dad was rubbing his face with a (sometimes) ill-smelling towel his face used to squeak.

22 June. When in 2019 I had a flutter with my heart and a momentary loss of speech, it must have been around the time of the stand-off between Boris Johnson and the Supreme Court because the young doctor in A&E at UCH testing my mental capacity asked me what the word was for closing down Parliament, i.e. proroguing, which I got in one.

7 July. I am a messy eater, messy altogether Rupert would say, and getting more so by the day. I’m what my mother used to call ‘a mullocks’ and once did a recital in the Double Cube room at Wilton in a velvet suit with my flies open. These days I prepare, or am prepared, for meals in an all-encompassing tea towel as if I’m going to the barbers, and before going out am given a once-over that would not disgrace an RSM. ‘You look well,’ people say. And so I should.

14 July. Rupert gets some testing kits from the pharmacy and I go through the procedure of a cotton wool stick up one nostril and the same up the other and then a quarter of an hour or so while we wait for the result. Had Sickert been still painting this is the kind of scene he would have recorded, a seemingly aimless couple waiting for the result. It’s negative, which, since we are both feeling rotten, is a slight disappointment.

So hot that even the gulls have fallen silent. At 92A (Dad’s butcher’s shop in Otley Road in Headingley) he had an antiquated fridge which ran on a fan belt. In hot weather the belt overheated, just at the time when, should the fridge break down, bankruptcy threatened. With the fridge full of turkeys, Christmas was another perilous period.

22 August, Yorkshire. Write it and it happens. In the monologue The Shrine I wrote for production during Covid, a biker travelling down the A65 dies in a crash and I imagined incurious sheep gathering to look at the scene of the accident.

We are en route down the A65 for the funeral of a close friend, Michael Hindle, my solicitor. Almost at Skipton we are in a traffic jam. There has been a fatal accident, with an ambulance already here, a police car and what looks like a body bag. We wait, and as we wait a herd of cows in a field overlooking the road slowly lines up and observes the scene.

10 September. I must be one of the very few of the late queen’s subjects to have said – or almost said – the word ‘erection’ in her presence. It was in 1961 in London’s Fortune Theatre where I was appearing with my colleagues and co-writers Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore in Beyond the Fringe.

It was a smash hit, with every night the audience studded with celebrities, and accordingly at one performance there was the queen. My particular tour de force in the second half was an Anglican sermon, which always went well. Less successful, earlier in the show, was a monologue – stand-up it would be called today – on the subject of corporal and capital punishment, both in those days still going strong. Young enough then to believe that theatre and indeed satire could do some good, I was proud of this piece, though it garnered few laughs and was referred to by the rest of the cast as ‘the boring old man sketch’. The character I played was vehement in his defence of corporal and capital punishment while strongly rebutting any suggestion that the thought of either gave him pleasure. ‘On the contrary,’ I intoned. ‘They produce no erec … no REACTION at all.’ They didn’t produce much of a reaction from the audience either, and on the night the queen was present none at all. To be fair, the management had urged me to tone down the offending sketch, particularly the erection/reaction gag but (rather self-righteously) I refused. There wasn’t much laughter that night in the rest of the show, which normally went by in gales of hilarity, but with the audience only concerned with what the Royal Party was thinking, much of it passed in awkward silence.

It’s always been assumed that the late queen didn’t much like the theatre, which can’t be said of her successor, who’s often to be found at plays, and if it’s a comedy, far from dampening down an audience, Charles’s presence and his loud laughter help to get them going.

I don’t think Her Majesty ever came to any other of my plays, though not, I’m sure, due to my youthful bêtise. Still, when I next wrote about the queen it might also have caused offence. This was A Question of Attribution, put on at the National Theatre in 1988 and the first time the queen had been represented on the stage. This needs to be said. Prunella Scales’s seamless portrayal of Her Majesty not only preceded, it also surpassed any that came after. Physically much the same as HMQ, Pru had no claim or aspirations to glamour, she even had a touch of the suburban. The sad thing is that only the National Theatre audiences saw and were stunned by this performance. Though John Schlesinger later filmed the play (where HMQ was supported by her corgis) the magic didn’t quite transfer. But Pru was the first and the best. In the central scene of the play the queen has a long conversation with the keeper of the royal pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt. He is a longtime Soviet agent and one of the questions implicit in the scene is whether the queen knows this.

A few years later I met Lord Charteris, who was the queen’s secretary at the time. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘I never saw the play but I gather the issue was whether the queen knew and whether Blunt knew that the queen knew. The truth is they both knew. But that, of course, has not to be said.’

The scene in question was a pleasure to write. It brought home to me that HMQ (as she was billed in the programme) was a person like no other, a woman who has been everywhere, met everyone and to whom nothing comes as a surprise. At one point Blunt mentions Venice:

‘Venice, ah yes,’ the queen remarks. ‘We were in Venice last year. Unusual place.’

Though she never saw the play, Her Majesty may have seen the film, supposedly remarking: ‘Oh no. She’s not like me at all. She makes wisecracks. I never do that.’ But she did, and indeed about the play. When Prunella Scales was being given the CBE and was kneeling before Her Majesty for the ribbon to be put round her neck, the queen whispered, ‘I suppose you think you ought to be doing this,’ a laugh out loud wisecrack in anybody’s book.

In 2006 I had the notion of what upset it would cause should the queen ever become an avid reader. A long short story, ‘The Uncommon Reader’ too was a pleasure to write.* The queen, dry, quizzical and absolved from any desire to be liked, is a gift to an author and the reader throughout is on her side. Had it been Elizabeth I it might have been a celebratory masque, as Her Majesty comes well out of every encounter, besting her ministers, her courtiers and even her devoted subjects.

I never met the queen except once as part of an assembly line and I’m glad as I would have been cripplingly shy. For me she was a creature of myth and I was happy for her to remain so, my notion of her set out in a speech made by the queen herself in ‘The Uncommon Reader’:

One has met and indeed entertained many visiting heads of state, some of them unspeakable crooks and their wives not much better … One has given one’s white-gloved hand to hands that were steeped in blood and conversed politely with men who have personally slaughtered children. One has waded through excrement and gore; to be queen, I have often thought, the one essential item of equipment a pair of thigh-length boots. One is often said to have a fund of common sense but that is another way of saying that one doesn’t have much else, and accordingly perhaps I have at the instance of my various governments been forced to participate if only passively in decisions I consider ill-advised and often shameful. Sometimes one has felt like a scented candle, sent in to perfume or aerate a policy, monarchy these days just a government-issue deodorant.

I had first seen the queen as a boy of fourteen when as Princess Elizabeth she and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Leeds not long after their marriage. They were staying at Harewood House, which was where the nobs always stayed before driving through Alwoodley into Leeds. I went over to Alwoodley from Headingley on my bike and joined the crowds waiting by the ring road. Two things struck me: the stately pace of the motorcade, speed or lack of it almost the prerogative of royalty, and (a total surprise) Princess Elizabeth’s complexion, lit up, luminous and almost unearthly. Unimpressed, ‘It’ll be cosmetics,’ said my dad, and maybe it was but it was pretty startling.

Dad was there on the other occasion I saw her in 1966, also in Leeds but this time not far from our own back door (and Mr Oddy the barber’s), driving still at the same stately pace through Headingley and past the end of Shire Oak Street. Mam was ill and couldn’t come out and wait, but with Dad in his eternal trilby and raincoat we stood among a fairly sparse crowd. We didn’t wave still less cheer, but what happened was so unlike my father it nearly fetched a tear to my eye. A second before the royal car came past Dad took off his hat. Where this gesture came from I can’t think. Royalty like most public ceremonial he was wont to dismiss as ‘splother’, but somewhere, almost a surprise to himself, he was a loyal subject. And the same, I suppose, goes for me too.

23 September. I knew Hilary Mantel was a good writer long before she fell for Thomas Cromwell (and it was a kind of love affair). I read her earlier novel Every Day Is Mother’s Day about a Northern social worker and found its dialogue funny and enviable. Her much lauded characterisation of Cromwell was harder to take, my feeling being that she hankered after him being Montaigne. For novels about the same period I prefer C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake stories, though finding the 16th century too grim for me, with the block always round the corner. Mind you, I don’t like tension. I must be the only one of his readers who found Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman too much to take.

9 October. Susan and David Neave are the authors of East Yorkshire and York: A Heritage Shell Guide, which they sent me this morning. On the lines of the previous volume for the West Riding, edited by William Glossop, it’s splendidly illustrated while like the original Shell guides being chatty and occasionally eccentric. Glossop revealed that Ivor Novello wrote Perchance to Dream in Howroyd Hall near Barkisland in Halifax and that the original stage set was a copy of the sitting room in this many gabled, big chimneyed house. Not a titbit you’ll find in Pevsner, one drawback of which is that he will occasionally snub the enthusiast who’s not looking for the expert opinion, hence Betjeman’s dislike. No such likelihood in the Neaves’ book, which makes one want to clear off to Bridlington this very morning. At home in Yorkshire we are host to some newts, so I am happy to find a medieval newt carved on the wall of Aughton Church. This is thought to be a not so enigmatic reference to Robert Aske, leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, martyred by Henry VIII, aske being a folk name for ‘newt’. Less memorably, the Neaves refer to a railway carriage perched parlously on the cliff edge at Skipsea. Unless there is another railway carriage at Skipsea, it was the one where my brother, my aunty Myra and I spent a grisly rain-soaked holiday in 1948. You won’t find that in Pevsner either.

22 October. One casualty of Covid (and I don’t think it’s age) has been chronology. These days I’m often confused by what day it is, not to mention the date. Keeping the diary has been a different sort of casualty as politics became difficult to ignore and Boris Johnson tedious to chronicle. By the time I’d got round to Liz Truss she’d gone. Though this annual bulletin has never tried to be other than serendipitous, this year’s instalment seems particularly patchy while being a fair representation of my routine. The largest segment is occasioned by the death of HM the Queen. Some years ago I was one of several writers asked by Radio 4 to record their thoughts on Her Majesty’s eventual death. When earlier this year the broadcast became relevant I didn’t hear it, leading me to think it might not have been considered appropriate. Happily, I was wrong and the talk did go out but I thought it was worth repeating here.

6 November. BBC4 broadcasts a repeat of Jackanory from, I think, 2001, with me reading some of Alice through the Looking Glass. I have no memory of this particular programme and though I did Jackanory several times, unlike most of the contributors I didn’t always welcome the assignment. The trouble was that, Jackanory being technically straightforward, it was thought of as a useful exercise for trainee directors. Read from autocue, the script required no special skill, but one found oneself rehearsing it three or four times over, to the extent that when one got to the transmission I actually nodded off. A case of: ‘Going again. Actor asleep.’ 

Send Letters To:

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

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 45 No. 3 · 2 February 2023

‘Venice is the only city I’ve been in, with the possible exception of Cambridge, where there was nothing to offend the eye,’ Alan Bennett writes – ‘possible’ presumably prompted by thoughts of the Lion Yard shopping centre (LRB, 5 January).


Lion Yard, Cambridge

Charles Turner
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire

Vol. 45 No. 4 · 16 February 2023

Alan Bennett mentions the film he adapted from his own play The Madness of George III (LRB, 5 January). I wonder if it isn’t time to acknowledge that the diagnostic theory that was so popular when Bennett wrote the play in the early 1990s – that the king’s madness was caused by porphyria – has been exploded? When I began my psychiatric training in the mid-1960s, the paper by Richard Hunter and Ida Macalpine that launched the theory was widely discussed, but even then most of my teachers were unimpressed. In 2010, Timothy Peters, one of Britain’s few experts on porphyria, and D. Wilkinson, a historian, re-examined the evidence. They showed that the ‘blue urine’ story is unsupported even by the documents cited by Hunter and Macalpine. The king’s daily medical notes never unequivocally mention blue urine, and in any case, the urine in porphyria is reddish-brown, not blue, and the colour is typically visible throughout the episodes of illness. Hunter and Macalpine had so many psychiatrists worried about missing a porphyria diagnosis that ‘some 15,000 patients in South-West London were screened for porphyria without a single case being identified.’ Peters and Wilkinson thought recurrent manic episodes in a bipolar patient the most likely diagnosis, but later found good evidence that George III had developed Alzheimer’s.

Colin Brewer
London SE1

send letters to

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

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