BOOK REVIEW / Crying all the way to the Barclays: 'The Kenneth Williams Diaries' - ed Russell Davies: HarperCollins, 20 pounds
Sunday 20 June 1993
He started keeping a diary in 1942 when he was 15, abandoned it for a few years, and then kept it continuously from 1947 to his death in 1988. Its purpose, he said, was as a record of events and as a confessional, and 'It has certainly eased my loneliness.' Towards the end of his life, he often mentioned his diaries, and was photographed with them for his autobiography, but it seems clear that they were not written with publication in mind. He had a sort of code for his sexual activities but it is easily cracked, and anyway his sexual activities were meagre - he relied on 'the Barclays' (rhyming slang) for gratification. I would love to know whether his mother read his diaries. They lived in adjoining flats for the last 16 years of his life, and they seem to have had no secrets from each other. He was a good son to her, perhaps too good. She was the only person he ever loved.
But Williams's is a life of such poignant loneliness and unhappiness that it makes depressing reading: at 800 pages, this volume is far too long. Moreover, his life was curiously repetitive. After training as a mapmaker and doing his National Service in South-East Asia, he quickly established himself as an actor, first in rep and then in radio and Carry On films. Thereafter every year followed much the same pattern - a Carry On, a holiday in Tangier with gay friends, a winter holiday or cruise with his mother, successive radio series (Round the Horne, Beyond our Ken, Just a Minute), occasional theatre runs (usually starting in high spirits and quickly degenerating into loathing), and a few lunches and dinners with old friends.
He was not sociable. He read a lot of poetry, watched television with his mother, enjoyed walking the streets of London, finished every day with a Barclays, said his prayers, and worried about his looks and health. His religious faith taught him that his own sexual instincts were sinful and so, although he would sometimes go to gay clubs and behave outrageously when drunk, he never had full intercourse with anyone. He recorded in 1964: 'I'm in an appalling dilemma all my life. I 'feel' a sexual nature which I am thoroughly ashamed and disgusted by, and it colours all my life.'
He found not just sex, but intimacy, repugnant. He wrote in 1964: 'Is my inability to love based on fear of vulnerability & lack of spiritual generosity; or is it the profound belief in the utter hopelessness of human love?' His problem seems to have been an intense irritability and fastidiousness that boiled up into ungovernable rage so that he could never stand anyone (except his mother) for long. Every liking switched to loathing; anyone who extended the hand of friendship would quickly find it bitten. There are very few people in these diaries of whom he hasn't a bad word to say - and it is an enormous tribute to his good friends, Stanley Baxter, Gordon Jackson, Maggie Smith, Barbara Windsor, that they stuck with him despite his tantrums.
He was obsessed almost to madness by background noise. 'Bird song,' he wrote, 'is there to irritate one.' Having been driven from one flat by the sound of a fan, he moved to another, only to discover that his fridge, which had been silent before, now started to hum. Fame meant he was recognised wherever he went, but he wasn't rich enough to buy the privacy he craved. He liked walking in streets and parks, but would be sent scuttling back to his flat by people accosting him or even shouting rude remarks or homophobic insults.
There are a few laughs in the book. For instance, Mme Charles de Gaulle being asked by Lady Dorothy Macmillan what she wanted for the future, and her replying 'A penis'. This caused general consternation until de Gaulle leaned over and explained: 'In English, it is pronounced happiness.' But such anecdotes are few, and the closing years of the diary are unrelieved gloom. Williams is not a diarist in the Orton or Woolf class (he found Pepys 'inordinately dull') and his much-vaunted erudition does not amount to much beyond a love of poetry. His judgement of other people is superficial and so coloured by his own fluctuating moods as to be almost meaningless. Basically, he was too self-obsessed to be a good observer.
He suffered wild mood swings all his life, but as the years go by the downs become longer and the highs shorter. Thoughts of suicide recur almost every year, even from his twenties, and, although the inquest recorded an open verdict, there seems no question that his death was intentional. The only thing that kept him going in the last years was concern for his mother. It is a mark of how far he sank towards the end that even she began to attract his venom. (He has little to say about his father who died of a mysterious bleach-drinking 'accident' in 1962.)
Would therapy have helped? I don't think so. He considered it morally dubious and was actually quite capable of understanding his situation without outside help. He wrote in 1963: 'How to ever explain? How to say that I never found Love - how to say that it was all my own fault - that when presented with it, I was afraid & so I spurned it, or laughed at it, or was cruel and killed it: and knew that in the process I was killing myself.'
Oh, if you are ever tempted by celibacy, just read this diary - it will send you screaming into the arms of any human being you can find.
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