Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The curator at Windsor i: all in a day's elation

In the mornings I was lecturing on Borromini at the [Courtauld] Institute - what a sense of urgency and profound pathos was lent to these occasions by the sound of bombs falling on the city - and in the afternoons I was at my desk in the Department [MI5]. The cryptanalysts at Bletch-ley Park had broken the Luftwaffe signal codes and I was able to pass a great deal of valuable information to Oleg .. 

I was, I realised, happy. Amidst the schoolroom smells of the Department - pencil shavings, cheap paper, the mouth-drying reek of ink - or pacing under the great windows of the Institute's third floor lecture room, looking down on one of Vanbrugh's finest courtyards and paying out to an attentive handful of students the measured ribbon of my thoughts on the great themes of seventeenth-century art, I was, yes, happy. As I have already remarked, I did not fear the bombing; I confess I even exulted a little, in secret, at the spectacle of such enormous, ungovernable destruction. 

Are you shocked? My dear, you cannot imagine the strangeness of those times. No one now speaks about the sense of vast comedy that the Blitz engendered. I don't mean the flying chamber pots or the severed legs thrown up on to the rooftops, all that mere grotesquerie. 

But sometimes in the running rumble of a stick of bombs detonating along a nearby avenue one seemed to hear a kind of - what shall I call it? - a kind of celestial laughter, as of a delighted child-god looking down on the glory of these things that he had wrought. 

Oh, sometimes, Miss Vandeleur - Serena - sometimes I think I am no more than a cut-price Caligula, wishing the world had a single throat, so that I might throttle it at one go.

The recreation of lives is treacherous, but treachery inspires that risk. Literature caught up with Anthony Blunt in the soul of John Banville. Others have tried - Alan Bennett for the stage, Miranda Carter in biography. Finally, everything clicks, as Brick used the term to Big Daddy, in Banville's burning fiction. 

John Banville
The Untouchable
  Uncorrected Proof before publication
  Gift of Tillman Place Bookshop
  San Francisco
Knopf, 1997©

Alan Bennett
A Question of Attribution
Alan Bennett, 1988©

Miranda Carter
Anthony Blunt: His Lives
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001©


  1. The BBC made a rather good film of "A Question of Attribution" with James Fox as Anthony Blount and Prunella Scales as Queen Elizabeth. The most to-be-relished moment: Strolling through the art and artifacts in a hall at the Palace, H.M. says to Blount's wide-eyed stare at a bizarrely mounted ostrich egg, "A gift from the people of New Guinea. It hasn't quite found its place."

  2. Oh, I concur in your good opinion of this production, and may I commend to you the screenplay with Ian Richardson, and Hopkins as Burgess? Bennett's had Corgies, however (in that very scene), an unfair advantage right away.

  3. I saw the play "A Question of Attribution" on the London stage - at least I have a memory of it from twenty years ago - and I think it was Prunella Scales who played the queen in that. Excellent stuff!

  4. BL, an enviable recollection. I do remember that when the screen version was introduced in the United States via PBS, Alastair Cooke spoke very bitterly about how Bennett had humanised the subject. Feelings seldom broke through his demeanor, it must have been an electrifying night on the stage?

  5. It certainly was! There is a companion play I've also seen but whether on TV or on the stage I no longer remember. I think Alan Bennett is one of the greats. We saw the History Boys on Broadway.

  6. Oh, swoon!

    Have you shared any of these theatrical experiences at BRH, or is there an entire other scroll to let us dream? Now, you are going to tell us you've seen "Red," the play that inspired this blog, which we haven't even addressed yet (you can tell, I trust, the warm-up phase is extended). By companion play, do you mean the BBC's production, "Blunt, The Fourth Man," with Ian Richardson - or a sibling play by Bennett, one might not know? A guy could blog all day on Ian Richardson, don't you think? If you haven't heard his reading of "A Tale of Two Cities" (Penguin audio) I beg you to do so.