The Blue Touch Paper
by David Hare, Faber and Faber, £20
It’s good to check in sometimes on the secular mindset of the London literati. David Hare has been a well-known name in British theatre for the past 40-odd years, reflecting aspects of contemporary culture, if from a rather lofty perspective. In this memoir he provides a glimpse of the personalities and issues that have dominated his theatrical life, as well as describing, somewhat defensively, his own journey to success.
I suspect Hare would like to say he had an unhappy childhood, because it is hard to be a writer and admit otherwise. Yet reading the first part of his book, concerning his childhood, youth and education until he leaves Cambridge (he won a scholarship to read English at Jesus College in 1965), I have the impression that he found his “lower middle class” life in Bexhill, Sussex, rather dull, stable and safe. His father, a ship’s purser, was absent at sea for most of the year. Hare laments his absence from time to time, but I do not sense here the intense grief of experiencing an absentee parent that informs, for instance, the memoirs of Rupert Christiansen or Germaine Greer.
The English class system was still entrenched in the 1960s, with all the fraught positions one might occupy on the ladder of social betterment, but Hare does not seem to have suffered among the lower middle classes. After all, his parents sent him to a prep school, from where he was encouraged to try for a scholarship to a public school, in this case Lancing College.
Although he reminisces that “Many of the teachers at my school … wanted to pass the whole day in the company of young boys”, he was not abused in any way. Lancing might have been “dirty and cold” in the early 1960s, but Hare also benefited from some excellent teaching. Indeed, he suggests the English teaching at Cambridge was much inferior.
Hare comes across throughout as a decent man, anxious to do the honourable thing, ashamed of the way he cheated on his first wife and loyal to his friends in the febrile atmosphere of the theatrical world. But he is also too hard on himself for the wrong reasons: was it really “loathsome behaviour” to tell a friend at prep school that the friend’s parents couldn’t afford a car? Catholics would call this “over-scrupulosity”. I could confess to worse sins as a child than mere social snobbery.
Hare is clearly not entirely comfortable in his own skin. Just as his parents, by his account, lurked anxiously within the class system as it played itself out in the suburban streets of Bexhill, he hovers anxiously over his dramatic legacy. He confesses to being “dissatisfied with myself”. Probably this flows from his political plays dealing with hot-button issues of the day, in which he has been embroiled throughout his adult life, as a writer and as a man.
What emerges is not a life reflected upon, though Hare takes pains to examine it. This is because of the positions he espouses throughout the book as a left-wing, atheist intellectual. After a youthful Evangelical phase, religious belief is dismissed as a “stupid ideology”; “the bomb and overpopulation … are existential threats”; capitalism is automatically bad and socialism is always good, as is feminism. There are many jibes at Margaret Thatcher, against whom Hare seems to have the conventional Labour animus (“Our most self-regarding prime minister,” he asserts). Her electoral victory in 1979 means that “a group of jackass intellectuals would seize Downing Street, push their wild ideas and damn the consequences”.
Hare’s book ends with his heartfelt tribute to his mother at her funeral: “In modesty she found grace.” Perhaps he should have made it the starting point.