BOOK REVIEW / Betes noires in steaming herds: 'Damn you, England: Collected Prose' - John Osborne: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
LET'S ACCOMPANY John Osborne through the mother of all nightmares. As this dream sequence opens, the celebrated playwright can be seen fleeing from the Garrick Club, his progress impeded by a throng of freshly elected female members arriving for the official launch of the Bobbitt Room. Unable to secure a cab, he plunges down Shaftesbury Avenue on foot and nearly has a coronary outside the Queen's Theatre, where By George] - a new Lloyd Webber musical which sends the English Stage Company's beloved founder, George Devine, dancing out of the closet - is playing to packed houses in an award-winning production by Sir Peter 'Fu Manchu' Hall.

Groping for the mercifully unrevised Prayer Book in the pocket of his mac, Osborne then rushes to seek refuge in St Martin-in-the-Fields, only to discover that he's arrived just in time to deliver the eulogy at a memorial service for Jill Bennett.

The 'ghosted' address, which has been brought carefully into line with EU regulations concerning mourning procedure for ex-husbands, is rudely thrust into the dramatist's sweating hands. The honeyed words stick in his throat, though, so it's lucky the Daughters of Eve, the score-settling sorority from UCLA who in 1992 hexed him with the Zuni Curse, have been flown in on a special Arts Council bursary to help him find his voice. It issues eventually in a blood-freezing scream . . .

Readers of Damn You, England, John Osborne's bracing and frequently hilarious volume of collected prose, could devise many alternative versions of that nightmare scenario, for, by the time you've finished the book, you feel formidably well briefed on the steaming herds of Osborne's betes noires.

The contents range from acute, often highly autobiographical review pieces on theatrical luminaries (Coward, Tynan, Hall, etc) to the transcript of the conversation at the 1967 inaugural dinner of the British Playwrights' Mafia (President, Osborne, J; ideal objective: get the critics). Spanning his writing career, the collection includes both an impressively unimpressed eye- witness job on Moscow, penned in 1957, and a 1991 letter to the Times fulminating at the way a Brussels diktat has deprived him of the freedom to buy untipped Turkish cigarettes.

Taken as a whole, the book reinforces my conviction that if Osborne resembles any other modern author, it is the Austrian dramatist and prose- writer Thomas Bernard. There's the same voluble contempt for most contemporary manifestations of his country's national character, a loathing which in Osborne is the corollary of a fierce but weird Platonic patriotism. There's the same self-scourging edge to the scorn, and the cascades of vituperation are sustained with the same awesome indefatigability.

Both writers are the scarred products of difficult mothers, and in the work of both there is the same tendency for the authorial voice to drown out all opposition, so that the plays are sometimes as much like monologues as the prose writings are.

Osborne, naturally enough, refuses to accept this last point. In an introduction to Look Back in Anger, reprinted here, he is at pains to quash 'the perception that (Jimmy Porter) is a one- man band'. But the females in the 1992 sequel, Deja vu, could scarcely be said to have hogged the conversation, while there were times when J P himself was permitted to do an uncanny impersonation of J O, the splenetic journalist.

Indeed, reading this volume you begin to wonder whether the modern print media, ever ready to seduce the Osbornes of this world into moonlighting for them, do dramatists such as him any real favours. How much of his chameleon power and Negative Capability would Shakespeare have retained if he'd had the Spectator diary to sound off in?

Offered the chance of reincarnation, it is likely, to judge from the number of occasions it crops up in his work, that Osborne would choose to come back as a bird from the Book of Tobit who drops its mess into the eyes of the unsuspecting dead. The creature evidently inspires a certain emulous awe in him, as do the early experiences of Ingmar Bergman (reviewed here) which, for Strindbergian family fun (the young Bergmans had the privilege of specifying how many strokes of the birch they felt they deserved), makes life with Nellie Beatrice (Osborne's mother) sound like an idyll devised by Penelope Leach.

The often-invoked touchstones for his responses to people are, on the side of the angels, his mentor, George Devine (Royal Court run as a family; things kept on a human scale; imaginative use of the 'right to fail' principle) and, on the side of the devils, Peter Hall (Committee Man incarnate; National Theatre a vast, soulless factory; once pulled a play of Osborne's from the repertoire because it was playing to only 90 per cent capacity).

What I ended up both admiring and feeling uneasy about in these writings is the way they seem to imply that W B Yeats got it all wrong, and that in fact it is the best, not the worst, who are full of passionate intensity. I found that I harboured fewer mixed emotions, though, about the book's entertainment value; it often has you laughing aloud despite yourself. Who but John Osborne would have hit upon the inspired effrontery of describing Binkie Beaumont as 'the Scargill of the iron-lilac Stage Establishment'?