10 January 2008: The Spectator


Years ago my divorce liberated me from many things, not least of which was a wife’s burden of organising the traditional family Christmas. Inevitably, come Boxing Day, I was whey-faced with fatigue and singularly lacking in ‘ho-ho-ho’. Subsequent Christmases have been spent in far-flung places and this year I have just returned from visiting Tamil Nadu and its myriad temples. Getting to grips with Indian gods is not easy. There are over 3,000 of them. But on this visit I came across a particularly fascinating one — Ardhanareshwara. It seems the god Siva in one of his earliest incarnations declared man and woman were equal, so Ardhanareshwara was given the human form of half man, half woman. Grotesque as it may sound, the figure is really very beautiful. Siva the perfect male form on the left, Parvati his wife, gloriously sensual on the right. This tentative attempt at equality was, however, swept aside by the Mughals when they invaded India and their legacy is all too sadly evident in the plight of women working in the villages, fields and roadsides today. I brought a small bronze of Ardhanareshwara home with me, not because I’m much of a feminist but simply because it represents the perfect union.

Most people will agree that travelling nowadays is a nightmare, compounded by regulations that have become increasingly illogical. Why, for instance, going through airport security, was my mascara stick spotted as a potential God-knows-what, and taken from my make-up bag, put into a dinky little plastic one and then handed back to me? And why, on reaching one’s destination, is it well nigh impossible to get fresh air in a hotel bedroom? All the windows are sealed. If hotels are anything like airlines, the first and easiest corners to cut are the unseen ones. Change the filters infrequently and what we are forced to breathe through the hateful humming grill might well not be as squeaky clean as we would like to think. In Bombay I paid an obliging man working on my floor mucho rupees to chip off the paint round my windows and I was able to drift off to sleep listening to Bombay’s characteristic sounds carried on wafts of warm air.

Returning to London, the contrast between a traffic jam here and in India is extreme. In India utter chaos prevails, the spectrum of vehicles involved mind-boggling: cars, vans, over-loaded lorries, tuk-tuks, bicycles, scoot-ers, motorcycles, bullock and camel carts and occasionally the odd cow, meandering across to add to the mêlée. Yet nobody seems to get angry. They wait, chat among themselves and slowly, patiently, the mess gets sorted. Here, however, it is a completely different picture of manifest aggression personified by the testosterone-fuelled man behind a wheel who behaves as if the road is his by right. Stand your ground and you get mouthed obscenities and the middle digit. I have the perfect response — ladies take note — waggle your little finger at him and assume a tragic expression, thereby communicating not only your belief that he has the smallest dick known to man but also your deepest sympathy, then glide on by.

For a time, when my parents were abroad, my brother and I spent our holidays with Granny. She had bright blue eyes, curly white hair and a rounded, cuddly figure, all of which belied her nature which was crabbit in the extreme. Every evening I was bidden to walk round the block with her, arm in arm, and whenever we passed a house where the curtains weren’t drawn I was forced to linger, in an agony of embarrassment, until Granny had gazed her fill. I hated her behaviour and ever since have had a horror of that kind of curiosity. On being informed that there are 1,150,000 websites on the internet which contain my name, to which (apart from quotes) I have not contributed a word, Granny and the horror were resurrected. I find it inexplicable that anyone would actually want to post details of their lives and career online at all. Presumably it’s to encourage fans and feed their curiosity. How Granny would have loved the internet.

One of the joys of being out of work — and cross my heart I really do enjoy it — is the freedom in the evenings to go to the theatre and watch my fellow thesps strut their stuff. Programmes nowadays are much more interesting than they used to be — and so they should be at the price charged! But I am always amazed by how much detail some actors stuff into their biographies. Parts in obscure or long-forgotten plays are listed and appearances at long-dead repertory theatres. Some years ago when I appeared at the National with Dennis Quilley I got bored with having to press rewind and simply contributed: ‘Diana has been around for a long time and married to Dennis Quilley seven times.’ I am now toying with a better idea: the insider story. For example: ‘The last production Diana appeared in was with X (and what a pompous ass he turned out to be), directed by X (well, he might call it direction but the actors tell a different story), designed by X (I will never forgive her for that monstrous dress she put me into), lighting by X (otherwise known to the cast as The Prince of Darkness)’, etc. Think what fun reading a programme would be.

Thank goodness it is winter and I am spared the sight of huge women waddling the streets of London in leggings or hipsters with rolls of fat escaping from over-stretched clothing. Last summer, on Ken High Street, I got an eyeful of crack for Chrissake. We all have our weaknesses, I smoke and am not proud of it, but Fat Pride has a lot to answer for on the question of aesthetics. Hands up, I am fattist.

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