Subtitled “The diary of a retiring actor” this book takes us from the 1st January 1995 to the 6th June 1996. 1995 is treated rather episodically with large gaps in the diary but there are much more frequent entries for 1996 at least as far as that year goes. The book is quite a gentle read, ideal for a quiet afternoon where you just want something to entertain rather than educate. Guinness is in his eighties by the time he wrote this and effectively has retired although he does do a couple of very small parts for films and a short voice-over during the 18 months of the diary.
There are the expected reminiscences scattered through, not just of stage and screen but also of his conversion to Roman Catholicism forty years earlier. Through most of the book his wife Merula is having problems getting about leading to hip surgery and a long slow recovery and he clearly dotes on her, with various changes of plan wrapped around her current health. He is an inveterate name dropper and chides himself several times in the diary for long convoluted stories he tells at dinner parties probably boring everyone else in the process, a habit Merula sometimes curtails by commenting, with the punchline that he is slowly working up to, during the story. People expect actors, especially ones of his seniority, to be able to talk in public but Guinness is quite clear several times that having him give a speech is doomed to failure from the start, it always has been and age has not improved his ability.
One running commentary relates to the Star Wars films and the fan mail, usually with photographs they want signing that he gets all the time. As in this entry from 16th December 1995 which gives a good flavour of the style of the book.
Today I have felt querulous. Behaviour has been spiky; largely due, I think, to our affable postman dutiful pushing piles of junk mail through the letterbox daily. It gets worse near Christmas. The rubbish, the charity appeals (often in duplicate) and worst of all, the photographs from Star Wars demanding autographs. They mostly come from America and as often as not enclose a stamped addressed envelope – the stamps being US stamps are useless her. The English usually make their demand without photograph, envelope, stamp or money. The nation has got acclimatized to asking something for nothing. Bills in the post are welcome in comparison. It’s mean and hard of me but from 1 January 1996 I am resolved to throw it all in the waste bin unopened (bills excepted, of course); I no longer have the energy to assist teenagers in their idiotic, albeit lucrative, hobby.
He makes a good point here, that a lot of the signed pictures are probably destined for Ebay or some such autograph trading site, where they would make a significant profit for the person who sent them and that is the reason for the contact in the first place. This is something that Sir Terry Pratchett was also somewhat wary of, threatening to sign any book where no dedication was requested “To Ebay purchaser”. Terry does actually make a slight appearance in the book in the 13th June 1995 entry where Guinness praises the Jungle Quest episode from the previous night which featured Terry and his PA Rob in Borneo with Orang Utans.
The diary ends on the 56th birthday of their son Matthew (also an actor) soon after a much needed holiday at Lake Como, not just to mark his birthday but also the anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1945. Guinness was in the opposite side of Europe, in Italy, at the time having taken part in the attacks on Sicily and Italy several days before, designed not only to take that area but also to divert German military forces away from Dunkirk.
It’s a good read, if a little light, and has an excellent index which reveals that Alan Bennett is mentioned twelve times, The National Theatre four times whilst the National Lottery gets five. Shakespeare or his plays are name checked forty five times whilst the second highest is his wife Merula at twenty nine (although much longer entries) and third comes dogs at twenty one times. I think this says a lot for his priorities. Sir Alec Guinness died in August 2000 and Merula only lived another couple of months afterwards.