The Year's Midnight
I mention him in a previous essay, and up he pops, on radio last night, having written half an autobiography. David Hare. There is the usual stuff about Bexhill on Sea, ‘the thinnest soil in England,’ and his father being absent at sea. The suggestion is of deprivation with no mention of the decent public school he was sent to – and I wonder, meanly, where this socialist’s own children went to school. The local comp? I don’t know. I admire many of David’s plays, his work rate, his supreme intelligence and fluency, but when he described, last night, his very fine play ‘Plenty’ – with no embarrassment – as ‘a masterpiece’ I choked into my chorizo salad. Would Sam Beckett similarly describe his “Waiting for Godot”’ a masterpiece? Or Osborne “Look Back in Anger”? Apparently ‘Plenty’ revealed itself as such between the London production and the New York opening, four years later, a time David suggests was of ‘wounds to the heart’ at its lack of recognition etc. I think of my closest male relatives and would suggest he tries four years down the pit. David can’t get through an interview without self-boosting. In a Mark Lawson interview, Mark gently suggesting he hadn’t written a better play than ‘Plenty;’ David has a new – breathtaking - line. ‘No, but has anyone else?’ This unnecessary glorification (‘The great “I am”’, as my mother used to say) is a weakness easily remedied. Caryl Churchill, his superb contemporary, spurns interviews. I remember David’s powerful speech from the 70s, when I was getting going, on how Agit Prop writers mistake what a play is (in the air between the author and the audience). David wants to control our responses to his plays as surely as those authors and collectives he despises. He also has an interesting new line (he gives as many interviews as he writes plays) on why his first marriage failed – something to do with the pressures of playwriting. Well, it beats ‘I fancied Kate Nelligan’ or ‘a roving eye.’ And I’m reminded of his ludicrous claim that he accepted a knighthood because it represented a kind of government apology for ‘their’ not appreciating, at the time, his impressively topical ‘Absence of War’. But you can forgive a playwright a lot who ends his best known play with the line: ‘There will be days and days and days like this.’ And even better, from the lush television film, ‘Dreams Of Leaving’: ‘Our lives betray us. We know no comfort. We have dreams of leaving. Everyone I know.’ Cue music. I think – have just realised - there are a pair of iambic pentameters in there.
I should add that I came across David – who, it should be clear now is both inspiration and annoyance - at University (and have not met him since) where we acted in ‘Spring Awakening’ together. Germaine Greer was also in the production and it would be interesting to go back to 1966 and the Arts Theatre to look at it. I suspect we were rather good. I may be the only man to kiss David on the lips (on stage) – we had the romantic, schoolboy, penultimate scene. But despite this pleasure, I was much too insecure then to go on tour with the company – the production went on to York - and am sorry for my caution. I went to a summer job at the Co-op instead. My mother was a widow. We didn’t have much money (cue music). Which is why, as well as a large squashy element of sour grapes, I feel the need to puncture the myth of the martyrdom of David Hare. Let the plays do the speaking, David. Oh, I also admire ‘Skylight’ and three quarters of ‘The Secret Rapture’ (till someone starts brandishing a gun). But it’s his sheer output and energy that’s impressive. I just wish he didn’t need to sell himself so hard – he’s streets ahead of most of us, so his moans about his lot just get up people’s noses – not least the younger writers I’ve been involved with to a man and woman. My friend Simon Hoggart used to chortle at the key line from David’s film of ‘Wetherby’, which we once went to see in Washington, ‘a central disfiguring blankness.’ ‘I don’t know what it means,’ Simon used to say, ‘Do you?’, and - knowing the answer - ‘Do policemen say things like that in Wetherby?’
To my mind the best of Hare’s catalogue is ‘Racing Demon’ – a near masterpiece, I’d say. I met Richard Eyre, its director, at a wedding, and I enthused over it to him – at length - though was later told that Richard had fallen out with David, or vice versa. David had interviewed my priest friend Eric James for the play, which is about the Church of England, and Eric later asked me to a lecture he had asked David to deliver, at Westminster Abbey. The playwright/polemicist spoke brilliantly, laying into ‘God.’ I’ve done a great deal of theological reading – the bookshelves in my bedroom are all theology (and titles like ’James the Brother of Jesus’, ‘Bonhoeffer in England’ etc) but I have nothing like David’s (elegant, witty) certainty. In fact, I don’t know what I believe at all or if ‘belief’ matters. When I was a Parish Church choirboy, receiving five shillings pocket money, I used to give 4/6 to the church collection. When my parents learnt about this they gently persuaded me to save more of it for myself and I said - new to these doctrines - ‘But we’re supposed to give all we have to the poor.’ I am moved by this. I may never have been so decent again. I also said that I wanted to be a monk. I was 13. I think, as it turned out, sex probably got in the way of that but I remain more interested in the cloister than most. I was in France some years ago, and went, one winter’s afternoon, to see the film about Cistercian monks ‘The Great Silence’ at the nearest - Gaillac - cinema (I was pretty sure dialogue wouldn’t feature much). Some very well behaved French youngsters sat next to me, but even they could help corpsing as the camera showed (yet again and mirroring the repetitiousness of monastic life) a decrepit old guy getting to his knees in prayer. I drove home through the darkened causses and made myself a Nigel Slater supper in the elegant kitchen of the house where I was staying, and thought how much I loved this (outside) world. But each year, generally in winter, I visit the monastery at Mirfield for about a week. Mirfield is famous for Trevor Huddleston and his work in South Africa. Eric introduced me to him once when he was trying (and failing) to write the great man’s biography. And it was Eric who sent me up to Mirfield over 15 years ago: ‘You’ll get on well with them there.’ I do. When I was at Leeds University, doing a couple of days, and living in Derbyshire, I had a night with them – Thursday – each week, rather than the long commute home. Like a bed and breakfast, really. I was often the only layman there. I love the rituals of the place, and observe them – the five services beginning at 6.45, not yet light. When I close my eyes ‘in prayer’ I think of friends who are not so well or unhappy. And the dead. There is a stunning cemetery at Mirfield, full of triangular crosses, the deceased in rows like soldiers. About ten of them under the soil I once knew or met (‘Alas poor Yorick..’). Among them is Raymond Raynes – before my time - once Superior of the place and Huddleston’s mentor. Nicholas Mosley - the author of ‘Accident’ – and mentioned elsewhere in these notes, writes very powerfully of this great man and his sense of presence. I have met someone, who was almost certainly a saint, in Mirfield – Timothy, who stood up to the South African police and was imprisoned for a time. Timothy is one of the very recently dead. Also dead is his friend Dominic – who was also in South Africa and was not a saint. In his nineties, Dominic used to have me in his room before lunch for a sherry (or two). Inevitably, after these snifters, I would find myself seated at the meal next to the Superior (Abbot) breathing Sandemans. The monastery prayed for me on a daily basis when I was ill – and that moves me, too.
I have written about a religious, in the play ‘Answered Prayers’ at the back of this website. It’s probably the best thing (at 45 minutes) I have written, but I don’t think I would call it a masterpiece, David. Which reminds me, John Osborne spent a few days at Mirfield researching ‘Luther’. He tended to go to the pub nearby rather than services, but was impressed by the shuffling (sandalled) feet and sounds of silence. I like to visit the darkest week of the year, where at ten to four on the 21st of December I go down to the cemetery to watch the light fade, (‘tis the years’ midnight’) before returning to the dining room and a cheerful cup of tea and natter with whoever’s around. There’s cake, if you’re lucky.
I think Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ a masterpiece, by the way.