East Is Danger
Alan Bennett: the son of a butcher who rose from a modest background to become one of the most celebrated British playwrights of the century. The diaries Bennett kept, especially during his visits to America, eclipse those of de Tocqueville and Dickens, amounting to a catalogue of perspectives from humblest to bourgeois. These writings show off a lot more than Bennett displayed in plays like The History Boys or Kafka’s Dick, describing a man who almost unknowingly belonged to a different time than the one he was in.
Why American is a foreign language: we like in a cafe near Gramercy Park, sitting out on a heavy, overcast day. I order a screwdriver and drink it quickly and ask for another.
“I guess it’s kind of hot,” the waiter says.
“Yes,” says Lynn, “and the glasses are kind of small.”
“Yes,” says the waiter. “That’s true also.”
No Englishman would say, ‘That’s true also’ (although it’s a perfectly grammatical sentence), because it’s written not spoken English. Only Ivy Compton-Burnett would write it as dialogue.
Mary-Kay rings from Geneva to tell the children their grandfather has died. Sam answers the phone, is told the news, and then immediately announces to the room in his gruff eight year old voice, “He’s dead.”
William (six) now comes to the phone. “Can I pretend that I don’t know and you tell me all over again?”
Ten years ago it was thought (or I thought it) quite daring for a girl to loosen her bikini top to brown her whole back. Nowadays girls bare their breasts and bake them openly just as a matter of course. Or girls with nice breasts do. Charlotte H., for instance, who sits across the swimming-pool from me now, has huge unexpected breasts with large, snub nipples; they look like the noses of koala bears.
I wear a pair of flip-flop sandals, the sort of with a sole and one strap across – the biblical type, I suppose. When I was a boy and read of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, I thought of their feet as like my own in 1943, sweating in grey Utility socks and encased in heavy black shoes with stuck-on rubber soles. Consequently I regarded Jesus’s gesture as far more self-sacrificing, even heroic, than it actually was. After twelve pairs of such feet, I thought, the Crucifixion would have been a pushover.
An article on playwrights in the Daily Mail, listed according to Hard Left, Soft Left, Hard Right, Soft Right and Centre. I am not listed. I should probably come under Soft Centre.
I am walking in the Lower East Side in New York, strolling east through the village. I am surprised by how much of it has been smartened up. Then I come out into an intersection between warehouses and railway buildings, where, across a large central triangle, I see a herd of mackintoshed derelicts, who are also convicts, each with a white oblong on his boots carrying his prison number. I turn and run, much as one might run to get out of the way of a herd of cows, for I know they are not individually dangerous.
Now I am walking back towards safety – east is danger, I know, and west is home – back along a narrow track beside fields of standing corn. A colourful character waves me on, and then I am confronted by a young man in a smart cavalry-twill coat, the coat slightly too big for him; he has a small head, with gummy, edgy hair. He wants money, and I reach into my right-hand back pocket, where I have several bills, and, taking them out, pull out one for ten dollars. I notice that all the colour has drained from the note. Knowing that I have only taken out one bill among many, he suddenly has a knife in his hand which he is holding before his face, a small knife, the blade of which I can hardly see.
I know as we confront each other in the standing corn that this young man of twenty-six or so is going to kill me and that I had been misled by the cavalry-twill coat into thinking him a better class of person. Suddenly I see why the coat is too big – because that too is stolen. I look into the face of this cold-eyed runt and see as I wake and die that I will perish because I have been a snob.
When, like today, I feel I have got a little way with a plot and knock off for the day, it is like a climber going up a sheer face who pitches camp on a narrow ledge. Tomorrow he may get no further; he may even roll off during the night.
Telephoned by the Evening News to see if I have any comment to offer on the occasion of Harold Pinter’s fiftieth birthday I don’t; it’s only later I realize I could have suggested two minutes’ silence.
Struck by the completeness of New York, much of it still as it was in 1930. Today is Thanksgiving Day and the streets are emptied of humanity, Prince Street swept clean of people, every detail of the fretted fronts of warehouses clear and sharp, buildings cut up like cheese, segmented against the sky. It was like this the Thanksgiving Day after JFK’s assassination, when I walked down a totally empty Seventh Avenue with not a soul to be seen.
In the new form of service God is throughout referred to as You; only one Thou left in the world, and the fools have abolished it. Of course they can’t do away with the vocative, which is every bit as archaic, so we still say ‘O God.’ It’s a good job God doesn’t have a name, or we’d probably be calling him Dave.
Commentators on Kafka tend to enlist him. Heller enlists him, holds him up to the rest of the literature class as a good example. How he would have squirmed! Cannetti does the same, annexes Kafka for his own stringency.
Kafka could never have written as he did had he lived in a house. His writing is that of someone whose life was spent in apartments, with lifts, stairwells, muffled voices behind closed doors, and sounds through walls. Put him in a nice detached villa and he’d never have written a word.
Someone writes asking advice about where to send a TV script. “We sent it to Kenneth Williams and he was extremely enthusiastic about our script but he committed suicide soon after.”
Continuing appreciations of Olivier, all of them avoiding the unspoken English question: “But was he nice?”
Steven Berkoff, who is currently everywhere, is quoted as saying that critics are like worn-out old tarts. If only they were, the theatre would be in a better state. In fact, critics are much more like dizzy girls out for the evening, just hoping to be fucked and happy to be taken in by a plausible rogue who’ll flatter their silly heads while knowing roughly the whereabouts of their private part. A cheap thrill is all they want.
“What is it?” said Ariel C. today, “that I’ve no need to do now that I’m an old lady? Oh, I remember: tell the truth.”
I am having supper at The Odeon when word goes round the tables that John Lennon has been shot. “This country of ours,” sighs my waiter. “May I tell you the specials for this evening?”
A grand seaside hotel in the twenties.
A young woman in black sits in the window, in sharp contrast to other guests in blazers and shorts on their way to the beach.
The hotel manager comes in and tells the woman that unless her bill is paid that day she must leave the hotel. There is an argument.
Meanwhile waiters come in with very expensive luggage, belonging to a millionaire whose yacht has just anchored in the harbour. The millionaire comes in and takes a seat while his room is got ready.
The young woman summons a waiter and tells him to move her seat further away from the millionaire. The millionaire is intrigued. He summons the same waiter, who is noticeably more polite to him than to the woman, and tells him to move his seat closer to her. The process is repeated. The increasingly disgruntled waiter has to move the chairs again.
The millionaire asks why she is moving. She says it is because she can smell money. She is allergic to the sight and smell of money.
The millionaire cannot smell money. She is allergic to the sight and smell of money.
The millionaire cannot smell money. He smells his hand but cannot detect it. He offers the young woman his hand to smell, and she very gingerly does so, and promptly collapses. The millionaire summons the waiter for some champagne. A glass revives her, but the sight of the millionaire tipping the waiter promptly makes her swoon again.
The millionaire asks her how she came to be like this. She says that she married a poor man, and they were very happy, but he worked very hard and gradually became rich. Making money took over his life. He used to come home smelling of money. They lived in a house that smelled of money. He dressed her in clothes, gave her jewels – all smelling of money. She began to suffer from asthma, rashes, fainting fits – all brought on by the sight and smell of money. Even signing a cheque fetched her out in spots.
Eventually her husband died, leaving her very rich. But, valuing her health, she could not touch the money, and besides it nauseated her.
The millionaire is overjoyed. He has spent all his life looking for someone who would love him for himself, regardless of his fortune. He approaches her, but she begins to feel faint.
Suddenly the manager appears with her bill. The millionaire orders the manager to strip, so he can put on his clothes. The manager, obsequious to a fault, does so and the millionaire, now dressed in the manager’s clothes, which do not smell of money, is at last able to kiss the young woman’s hand.
She says she cannot stand the hotel, and wants to leave. Despite being in his underpants, the manager still insists that her bill be paid, but at the very mention of it, the young woman collapses again.
The millionaire is furious with the manager, saying that he will settle her bill. She begins to revive, and as she does so the millionaire begs her to come away with him on his yacht.
“Will it,” she asks fearful, “will it smell of money?”
“No,” says the millionaire. “It is a very petite yacht, and all it will smell of is the sea and freedom.”
The couple leave hand in hand, and as the yacht sails out of the bay, the waiter clears away the champagne, complaining that neither of them has left him a tip.
I leave the Odeon around eleven, the place already a frenzy of streamers and horn-blowing. Back at the apartment all is quiet, but as firecrackers go off in the street and the noises in her head are blotted out by the whistles and bangs, Rose sings in the new year with a love song.
I love you
and I find it to be true
And the whole world smiles at you.
Except that five minutes into 1985 the fireworks stop, the noises come back, and once more she thinks there is a boy bouncing his ball on her ceiling. No matter that she has thought this for twenty-five years and if there were a boy he would now be a middle-aged man, for Rose he is still bouncing his ball.
“Stop it. Stop it,” she shouts. “I can’t have this. Stop it, you goddamn filthy bum.”