Age and intelligence

No wonder they were scared of Sir Robin Day
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The Independent Online

Their respective ages explain it partly - Alec Guinness in his middle eighties, Robin Day a decade younger - but it is still strange how Alec Guinness seems to have vanished like a wraith into the mist, while Robin Day's going is unimaginable, as though our minds cannot conceive of such obstinate bulk ever yielding an inch to wasted death.

Their respective ages explain it partly - Alec Guinness in his middle eighties, Robin Day a decade younger - but it is still strange how Alec Guinness seems to have vanished like a wraith into the mist, while Robin Day's going is unimaginable, as though our minds cannot conceive of such obstinate bulk ever yielding an inch to wasted death.

It's true we never felt we knew the actor as we knew the interviewer: one was everybody and nobody; the other was irreducibly himself. And television is a great familiariser. See someone you've just watched on television coming towards you and you've blown wet kisses before you realise you've never met. I'm only guessing, but I'd be surprised if Alec Guinness was as frequently mistaken by passers-by for their Latin masters or their great-uncles as Robin Day was. Not, one suspects, that he'd have worried his head over that.

There's also a sense in which we mourned Alec Guinness's going a long time ago. Not for us to ask what makes a man do what he does for money - we should always be charitable and assume indigence or philanthropy - but seeing Guinness talking piffle in Star Wars was a dismal experience. Myself, I think seeing any substantially gifted person grinding himself into thin gruel to suit American taste is desolating, but Obi-Wan Kenobi, after the eight D'Ascoynes of Kind Hearts and Coronets, to say nothing of the British officer bestriding the Kwai, was a heartbreaker. The phrase commonly employed to cover such late acts of creative felo de se is "making oneself known to another generation of cinemagoers", which is more heartbreaking still. Stuff another generation of cinemagoers!

Did Robin Day think that? Stuff the whooping, logo-crazed infants for whom television programmes are now made? Unlikely. He carved his own niche. But someone somewhere decided that his hour was up. Nothing frightens television more than age. Unless it's élitism, which is the current cant word for intelligence. As for aged and intelligent...! I don't pretend to know the details. Maybe he resigned from the BBC. Maybe he was always threatening to resign from the BBC and was taken at his word. Maybe illness forced him to take stock. Whatever the reasons, one minute we were watching him; the next minute we were not. But let no one tell you he wasn't impatient to return, his gifts undiminished, as bullish as ever, a great prince languishing in exile.

He confided as much to me on the one occasion I met him. Some middle-of-the-night book show he was doing, for cable, no budget, no audience, probably no cameras, and no opportunity to do what he did best, which was not politely listening to writers being picky about their work. I felt acutely apologetic, for mine is a little old lady's profession, churchy and parochial, its members naturally retiring and easily wounded, and it was sad to see someone built for wounding, as Robin Day was, pulling in his horns and ensuring that we all felt safe.

Make no mistake, he did it well. He twinkled, asked searching (though not frightening) questions and brought out the best in us. It's even possible he'd read our books, which is more than you usually find. But it was like watching a caged tiger in a zoo. You wanted to ring up the RSPCA.

After the recording, we walked a long blank corridor to the green room. Drinks. It was on this walk that he took my arm, not for its support, but as an act of passing camaraderie, and told me that he wished he were back where he belonged, with viewers, having a say in the world's affairs. I felt his frustration in his grip.

Now I have always thought that being linked by a man, especially by a distinguished older man, is one of the refined pleasures of life. I had hoped, when I left school, that Cambridge was going to be like that - CS Lewis on one arm, FR Leavis on the other. It never happened. My own fault. Too gauche. Thereafter, once I'd learnt how to look relaxed even when I wasn't, I did find the odd literary sophisticate to link me. A renowned travel writer once walked me around Lake Como by my elbow. A gay poet with beautiful bruised eyes once led me across Christchurch Meadow, quoting Catullus. But no one ever linked me as Robin Day did. Will you believe me when I say it was one of the great sensual experiences of my life? I'll change that to the imperative - believe me when I tell you that being taken by the arm by Robin Day, in his seventies, but still debonairly waistcoated and bow-tied - dashing, not dapper; a rhino of a man, not a peacock - was as hot an intimacy as I have ever known.

He was, of course, as any adult woman will confirm, an immensely attractive man. The fact that he didn't do conventional attractiveness being part of the attraction. Ditto that he wasn't chicken-boned like the television people who lacked the courage to employ him until he dropped. He showed you his appetites. And he wasn't newborn, wasn't frightened of having the look of an old Tory while in actuality being a questioner of everything. A man should show the past no less than the future in his face. A man should be an argument. But everyone is running scared. The only look of now is now. So that's the end of being linked.

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