The late star of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Star Wars, David Lean’s Great Expectations, the BBC TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Kind Hearts and Coronets shares eighteen months of his life with readers.
Great things sometimes come in small packages, especially those with moving parts, like pages. Like books. This book—and it’s a little one, only 198 pages—goes back a ways, published in 1997, but upon reading it again, I’m reminded of its occasional insight, even wisdom, and, too, of its frequent quaintness, yet its always reliable and endearing charm. Although the daily observations of an elderly man may not suggest any expectant import, this is not just any old man.
The former editor, Charles Moore, of London’s Sunday Telegraph suggested that if a certain famous actor, then in assumed retirement, kept a diary throughout 1995 and ’96, Moore would publish it. The actor, the films of his fame long behind him, was Alec Guinness—and his little epistle? My Name Escapes Me, The Diary of a Retiring Actor, which covers January 1, 1995, through June 6, 1996. It’s intimate, honest and unpretentious.
“I have kept a diary for over thirty years,” Guinness wrote in his preface, “a small, strictly private, almost illegible series of daily jottings, and I have left instructions for them to be destroyed at my death. The only use I have ever found for them,” he adds as a somewhat unusual reason for keeping such an account, “has been to settle arguments when my wife and I have disagreed about where we were, when and with whom, in years long past.”
Guinness’ prose is relaxed, direct, often witty and more than serviceable, occasionally with a writer’s flair. He writes about going to concerts and to the National Gallery (the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X being “much lighter in texture and color than reproductions had led me to expect”), watching TV, mourning the continuing deaths of his contemporaries (attending the St. Paul funeral of David Lean, for one), buying and being given classical CDs, his wife’s ill health, the changing weather, the bird, squirrel and deer life outside his window, the condition of the world, even passing thoughts on religion.
The actor may be shocked by the violence of a world that, now, has only escalated since February of 1995 when he writes, “Vicious violence at Ireland v. England soccer match in Dublin. English fans clearly responsible. I almost feel the nation is trying to commit suicide.” But he continues, “And then I remember all the marvelous young people who give their services in desperate parts of the world and I take heart.”
Along similar lines, a year later he writes, “It seems impertinence, when pushing eighty-two, to deliberately associate with people a lot younger than oneself, feeling that possibly one might interest or entertain them. Of course it isn’t quite that: secretly one hopes and longs to draw on the vitality and brightness of the young, and above all to be able to join in their laughter.”
Eating seems to be a primary past time, whether dining in London—at the Garrick, L’Odéon in Regent Street, the Connaught (“good grouse for dinner”), Neal’s in Neal Street, L’Incontro (“good as ever”) or Cecconi’s, with such friends as Lauren Bacall, Tom Courtenay, Ed Herrmann and Alan Bennett—or enjoying his wife’s “light, creamy, mildly curried chicken,” a recipe she was given by Vincent Sardi of the famous restaurant.
While Guinness might secretly consider himself a gastronome, he is, perhaps, not all that adventuresome in trying new dishes, as he highlights in one dining incident: “Tonight we”—he and his wife, Merula—“are venturing out to dinner to a highly acclaimed little restaurant ten minutes away where they specialize in rabbit dishes. M and I don’t much like rabbit but presumably there will be alternative things to eat. . . . The roast rabbit was probably excellent but didn’t convert me to rabbit eating. The sauce was good but I don’t like all those little bones which might belong to a baby’s fingers.”
Here’s a sampling of Guinness’ thoughts and observations:
On birds in his garden: “A blackbird sang so vigorously in the morning mist, so close at hand, and so persistently, that I was astonished I couldn’t see him. He never changed his position; somewhere among the fallen, withered grapes, I think. The mist remained all day, sometimes making a fine drizzle; apart from the blackbird, the day was soundless. Not even the traffic on the A3 intruded. It was almost spooky.”
On music: “Last night we listened to three Haydn symphonies, something which always gives a sense of well-being and sanity. . . . Watched BBC2 Proms Concert. Mahler’s 8th Symphony. Thought the singing admirable but there were horrors of translation in the subtitling; I would have preferred to have been left in blissful ignorance. [Much as I feel about the need to understand the words in great vocal music, much to the chagrin of some friends.] . . . During dinner we played a CD of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32—for me the greatest piece of music I know. Life, death, all turmoils, sorrows and happinesses seem to be resolved whenever I hear it. Japheth [Guinness’ Labrador] sat himself quietly at my side on the banquette. Shortly before the end, he lowered his great white head gently on my shoulder.”