Norman: She’s not a beggar.
Sarah: Maybe not. But it would be stupid to make out she had a very wide choice as regards a possible husband. She’s not—well …
Norman: She’s beautiful.
Sarah: I’m not going to argue. Certainly no-one could describe her as beautiful. I’ll admit she has a great deal of—
Norman: Anybody I love is automatically beautiful.
Sarah: Oh, Norman, don’t be ridiculous.
Norman: Have you never felt that way? Perhaps you’ve never been in love.
That comes from the first scene of Alan Ayckbourn’s Living Together, part of his trilogy The Norman Conquests. Watching the 1977 Thames Television version with someone once, on reaching the line ‘Anybody I love is automatically beautiful’ we both emitted an inarticulate sound that seemed to suggest a strong identification with the sentiment. I hadn’t heard it expressed by anyone else before, but I had certainly thought it myself.
Perhaps you have too. You’re so caught up in the love you feel for someone and the beauty you see in them that you ask yourself, do I love this person because they’re beautiful, or do I find them beautiful because I love them? The two may be so inextricable as to make the question unanswerable.
One of the reasons I like Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests so much is that the hero (or anti-hero) is an assistant librarian, if not a very professional one.
Ruth: I’m amazed they keep you on.
Norman: I’m a very good librarian, that’s why. I know where the dirty bits are in all the books.
There’s something pathetic about assistant librarians. I don’t know what it is that makes an assistant librarian infinitely more ludicrous than a librarian, but it is the case. If you haven’t been one yourself, you may not have realised it. There aren’t many of us in literature. The only other one I can recall is the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s world-weary That Uncertain Feeling. So it’s nice to meet an assistant librarian who’s a gigolo, albeit, by his own admission, one trapped in a haystack.
The subject of Norman and Sarah’s conversation at the top of this post, the woman Sarah believes no one could consider beautiful, is Annie. In the TV version, Annie is played by Penelope Wilton. You have to suspend your aesthetic faculties. I mean, any list of the most beautiful people in the world that didn’t include Penelope Wilton in 1977 is one I would refuse to countenance. When I saw it at the Old Vic a few years ago, Annie was played by Jessica Hynes — also beautiful. The role was created on stage by Felicity Kendal. I mean, what?!
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I was in love with 1970s-era Felicity Kendal when I was ten years old, but it’s statistically possible that she leaves some people unmoved. I’ve been thinking about beauty a lot recently, even more than usual, and partly because of things I’ve read. A recurring motif in John Irving’s novel In One Person is the idea of the democracy of the emotions, having crushes on the wrong people, our inability to choose the people we fall in love with or find beautiful. (Incidentally, if you want a book with a sexy librarian in it, look no further.)
My own conceptions of beauty tend to the unorthodox. Living in Cambridge, you’d expect me to be devoted to King’s College Chapel, wouldn’t you, and it is very nice, yes; but no more beautiful to me than the brutalist architecture of Churchill, where I was a student. A tower block can be as moving as a place of worship.
I’m hardly alone in being turned off by images of homogeneously ‘beautiful’ bodies propagated throughout the media, here anorexic, here pneumatic, but I find even the faces of supposedly beautiful people homogeneous. Amy Adams, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. I couldn’t pick them out of an identity parade. Even Natalie Portman I struggle with. Carey Mulligan I know, Michelle Williams I’ve just about got the hang of. Prosopagnosia, it’s called. Face blindness. I have the same problem with male actors. I’ve seen Michael Fassbender in Hunger, Inglourious Basterds, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, and still I have no idea what the man looks like.
Perhaps the root of my love for British character actors is their sheer identifiability, then, but I think it’s more than that. It’s not just because I can recognise Roger Livesey or Anton Walbrook that I have to have a sit down whenever I see them. (Generally I’m sitting down already, in fact.) It’s how utterly interesting they look. Is there a more beautiful man in film history than Walter Fitzgerald, I wonder. In every frame of every film he’s in you see honour and decency in his eyes. I’m not sure I’d want to go to bed with him, but he’d probably say the same of me and you can’t have everything.