Magazine article The Spectator

Honest John

Magazine article The Spectator

Honest John

Article excerpt

Although writing a biography of John Osborne can't be the most difficult task as Osborne left voluminous and laceratingly honest diaries, as well as the two volumes of autobiography, I thought John Heilpern's new book about him, A Patriot for Us, the Book of the Week on Radio Four last week, was quite compelling.

Abridged by Robert Evans and read by Gareth Thomas, the book made it clear that Osborne was incapable of self-censorship and that, as Heilpern put it, his life was governed by 'self-disgust and unconquerable clenched fear'. As the playwright wrote, 'It is fear. I cannot rid myself of it, it numbs me. It sterilises me. . .' It's also become more apparent over the years that his plays are more autobiographical than at first thought. Jimmy Porter's marriage to Alison reflected his own first marriage to Pamela Lane so that when the curtain first went up she inwardly groaned at the sight of the ironing board on stage.

A later play -- I think it was The Hotel in Amsterdam -- has Paul Scofield satirising the poverty of language to be found in the letters of the not-very-well educated, something Osborne would have been familiar with from his own family experiences. Osborne was a man of extremes and contradictions. Born in Fulham, his childhood more or less shaped him. He blamed his mother, the indomitable Nellie Beatrice, a barmaid, for his father's departure and later death from tuberculosis, and vilified her in print for the rest of his life.

And yet he supported her financially, escorted her to the first nights of his plays and took her on family holidays. Heilpern writes that he turned her into a 'cockney grotesque from Dickens'. He was ashamed of her and one can see why. On meeting Paul Robeson, she declared, 'Oh, Mr Robinson, it was such an honour to meet you. My son has always been very sorry for you darkies.' At the Oliviers' house-warming party in Brighton, she tried to dispose of her portion of expensive caviar by grinding it into the carpet with her shoe. As Osborne later wrote, 'Watching this, the Oliviers froze in wounded disbelief.' He described her thus:

Her face was a flowery dark mask, her eyes were an irritable brown. Her remaining front teeth were large, yellow and strong. Her lips were a scarlet black sliver covered in slime named Tahiti or tattoo which she bought with all her other make-up from Woolworth's.

When she died in 1993 he wrote an article for the Sunday Times with the infamous first line, 'A year in which my mother died can't be all bad. …

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