Not long ago I was given as a present the huge compendium of diary entries called “The Assassin’s Cloak”, which contains daily scribblings from all over the place, all over the centuries and all over the world. Diary entries by obscure people, famous people, men, women, people who knew famous people, people who knew nobody. It is a great book for dipping into, and I dipped into it whenever I got a chance. Then I was confined to bed for a day or two and I took the opportunity of reading straight through it, which was a great mistake. The book was designed for dipping, not for concentration.
I started, for instance, getting resistant to certain kinds of diary entry. Anything written by “Chips” Channon, for a start, who seemed to have known everyone and been unenlightening about all of them. Most wartime diary entries, which always went on and on about shortages, and lack of progress in the war, and bravery at home and abroad. Chronicles of exploration, which tended to merge into each other after a while....
But the opposite happened as well. I started enjoying certain writers, and looking forward to their next reappearance. The hero of this process was Noel Coward, who always seemed to be more crisp and sensible, observant and self-aware than almost all the other diarists. He loved his friends, but was not afraid to criticise them, and he had a wonderful knack of description and atmosphere. Then one day I found myself referring to the index to see where all the other Noel Coward entries were, so that I could skip the dreary stuff and go straight to Noel’s stuff, at which point I decided that the only thing to do was to go out and get a copy of Noel Coward’s Diaries, so that I could enjoy the unalloyed flavour, rather as in the old days we discovered we could buy whole tubes of Rowntree’s Blackcurrant Pastilles rather than find the occasional delicious black one among the boring red and yellow ones in a mixed package.
I am very glad I did. Ambling my way through Coward’s private thoughts – though you know they were written for others to read – I realise I have stumbled across one of the perfect bedtime reading books. I have still got some way to go, but already I am not looking forward to the moment when I reach the end and have to say goodbye. From a distance we get an impression of Coward as being supremely self-confident, always in control, and he certainly liked to tear a strip off people when he felt he was utterly in the right, but he also went through long periods of doubt and diffidence, which make him much more likeable. Like us, he had money troubles, and wasn’t sure how to combat them. Like us, he had friends who became drearier over the years and whose arrival in his house in Jamaica would make his heart sink and test his loyalty to the utmost. He had moments of piercing honesty and sometimes would realise that something he had lavished months on writing really wasn’t very good. He hated and loved England just as we all do.
And what he has to say about the theatre is much more interesting than what a mere actor would say in a diary. I remember from Kenneth Williams’s diaries that whatever West End play he was in, Kenneth would sooner or later become convinced that the director was an idiot and that he, Kenneth Williams, would have made a much MUCH better job of it. But that was usually all he had to say. Coward is much more interesting; very often, he being writer and star and part producer, you see a new project from many different angles, mostly quite shrewdly. One of his plays in the late 1950s starred both Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in its first run, and you can see how his recognition of their box office value does not cloud his annoyance with them as performers. (Coward is also much more interesting about his own illnesses than Kenneth Williams is, droning on and on about those wretched piles...)
He makes me laugh, too. (There is a wonderful description of a disastrous theatre evening mounted by Princess Margaret and her upper class hangers-on which even now, fifty years later, makes you purple with embarrassment and hoot with laughter.) Sometimes you don’t see a joke coming, as in 1961 when he has been talking about the hurricane season. “Shortly after this a vast and violent fire broke out in Beverley Hills and frizzled up a great many houses both gracious and ungracious, including those of poor Zsa Zsa Gabor, Burt Lancaster, etc... all of which goes to prove that God’s in his heaven and not just sitting there either. He’s doing something.”
Although full of scorn for organised religion and for those who believe in an after-life, he is not waspish and smarty-pants nearly as often as you would expect from his reputation. I think he had quite a big heart and a lot of patience for people who often didn’t deserve it. And even though he knows that his main gift is for comedy, he is happy to be perfectly serious, as in this extract from Oct 16th, 1966:-
“I have just read the Harold Nicholson diaries. So beautifully written, witty and wise; his son Nigel has edited them brilliantly. Charming as they are, however, a certain intrinsic softness of character emerges. He was given to making wrong decisions, impelled by a sort of basic silliness and sentimentality. I know it’s a dreadful thing to say, but there was a Beverley Nichols streak in him, the difference being, of course, that Nicholson had a first-rate mind. But a certain similarity is there. They were both pink and summer puddingish and liable to be swayed by sawney sentimental values; kind, gentle, witty and when driven into a corner, inclined to be bitchy. Vita emerges as much the stronger character. I wish I had known her better.”
Good stuff, I think; well-written and shrewd. Incidentally, the word “sawney”, which I have never met before, turns out to be an old-fashioned slang word for “Scottish”, being the way that the Scots prounce “Sandy”, and I am puzzled by his use of the word in that context. I have no idea what he thought of the Scots, but he regularly despaired of the English, who he could see going down a miserable post-imperial path to obscurity. He loved the old country, and loathed it when our press had a go at him. He felt he was a national treasure, and the fact that he was more often a national treasure of America than here made him grit his teeth.
I never expected to end up in my old age having a soft spot for Noel Coward. I almost wish I had met him. Which I guess is exactly what I have done through his diaries.THE OLDIE