Letter from Doug

Letter from Doug

A Lockdown Message from ‘Alan Bennett’ 

Visiting the theatre is one of the things I miss most during the present situation. Because a theatre performance is a live experience, it creates unique moments that cannot be repeated. That magic moment when the curtain rises and you realize you are in the wrong seat; those anxious moments wondering whether you can hold out till the interval before going to the loo; and those endless moments when the audience knows the play is over, but the playwright evidently didn’t. Will we ever again experience the solipsistic chatter of the foyer, the endless queue for the bar, or the mellifluous snoring of the woman in the next seat?  

With theatres not able to operate at present, there is some consolation to be had from the knowledge that people are reading more. However, as much of this is now done via a laptop or even a phone, it is to be hoped that we don’t lose the sensual pleasures that books offer beyond the enjoyment of their contents. Which of us, for example, can resist the slightly disreputable odour of a cheap thriller? At Armley Public library, where I spent much of my childhood, the librarian could tell a book purely by its smell and the texture of the paper. “Ah yes”, she would exclaim, sniffing the pages and running them through her fingers, “that would be the Penguin edition of  ‘Murder at Styles’ by Agatha Christie.” This skill proved invaluable during the wartime blackout, when she was able to reshelve whole piles of books in complete darkness. I think it was this as much as anything that got me interested in books. With wartime rationing, the foods available were pretty bland, and the allure of a spicy paperback was difficult to resist. I made up for this lack of variety by digesting as wide a range of books as possible. Sometimes I would be intoxicated by the damp, pulpy bouquet of a Buchan or Sapper, at others I was beguiled by the more refined fragrance of a Jane Austen. This appalled my mother, who never read second hand books on the grounds that pages that had been handled by someone else were forever polluted. She once caught me reading a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which she snatched from my hands and promptly threw on the fire; not because she disapproved of its contents, of which she was mercifully unaware, but because I had bought it second hand in the market.  

Even today, if I catch a whiff of a pre-war penguin I am instantly transported back to those days in Armley working away in the library. As my mother always said, ‘that Marcel Proust and his blooming bun have a lot to answer for.’ My parents would have enjoyed the lockdown, and the fear of public embarrassment never far away, would have found the enforced isolation something of a relief. My father was a butcher, and temperamentally unsuited to the job; even so, he was butcher than me. My Auntie Betty, a more robust personality, used to taunt him about his shyness.  After many years of terrorizing the customers of the local gas board, she ran off with a window cleaner from Ossett. He’d only come round to buff up her fanlight, but she stole his heart when she looked into his eyes and gave his chamois a squeeze.  They ended their days in lives of quiet desperation among the fleshpots of Heckmondwike. 

The lockdown drones on, as indeed do I, and I can only offer as consolation the words of my old Grammar School motto, ‘ Nil Sodomis Carborundum’. Don’t let the buggers grind you down. 

Doug Harris

Tags: From Audience