A Positively Final Appearance

A Positively Final Appearance

by Alec Guinness




A New York Times Notable Book from an Oscar award-winning icon.
These journal entries are comprised of Sir Alec Guinness’s observations on Britain during the tumultuous times of Princess Diana’s death and the election of Tony Blair, and comments on his quintessentially English country life with his wife. Written from the summer of 1996 through 1998, A Positively Final Appearance is a follow-up to the best-selling My Name Escapes Me. Guinness offers frank (and surprising) reflections on the effects of appearing in the Star Wars films, and both hilarious and poignant memories of such well-known performers as Humphrey Bogart and Noel Coward. This delightful, humorous journal is a wonderful legacy from a beloved actor.
“Sly, witty, elegant . . . buoyant, vivid, and brave.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Simply, deliciously funny.”—The Washington Post
“Reading Guinness is like finally sitting down and soaking in the wisdom of the grandparent you never seem to have time for. And we may never see the likes of him again.”—Chicago Sun-Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780140299649
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/01/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.66(d)

About the Author

Sir Alec Guinness was born in London in 1914 and began his professional acting career in 1933. His many films include Oliver Twist, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Bridge on the River Kwai (for which he won an Oscar), Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Star Wars. He was knighted in 1959 and made a Companion of Honour in 1994.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Men as Trees, Walking

The view from the small, spotless white room on the twelfth floor of the hospital was almost Wordsworthian: the Houses of Parliament glowing in summer afternoon sunlight, the mudcoloured Thames slowly eddying as the tide turned and a string of barges chugging towards Westminster Bridge. The river probably wasn't as brown as it looked; the outside of the hospital window was filthy. I wondered if it would all look clearer to me in two days' time or possibly dimmer; clever people were to operate on my left eye, which had been almost useless for ten years and virtually blind for the past twelve months.

    A voice behind me said, 'I'm your sister.' I turned round rather sharply to be confronted by a stalwart young man fluttering sheets of paper. 'Would you please fill in these forms?' he said. 'And accounts would like a cheque. Oh, and the TV isn't working.' He disappeared and I studied the small print.

    The forms, as far as I could make out, required my agreement to exonerate the hospital, staff, doctors and surgeons from all culpability should there be any mishap. In short, the operation was all my fault and no questions asked. Well, I had to sign; and then I wrote a surprisingly large cheque, unpacked my small suitcase and settled myself, as best I could, on a slippery chair by the window with the latest Patrick O'Brian novel unopened on my lap. The sister-chap reappeared to say they would like to do some tests on me on the ground floor and a thousand miles away.

    Having successfully bypassed astarch-faced nurse who was suspicious of me wandering around in her area, I eventually found the team who were to operate on me the next day. They were housed in a vast ill-lit cavern but exuded confidence and charm. One of them ran a sort of magic pencil over my eyelid while the others discussed with enthusiasm the swirling pictures they saw on their little TV screen. I had the impression they were keen to take out my eye and give it a good scrub.

    One of them said, 'We will now tell you what we intend doing.'

   'I would rather not know,' I said.

   'But you have to know,' he went on, 'it's the law.'

    More signing, I thought. 'You fire ahead,' I told him, 'and I'll stop my ears.' And I signed something which said I thoroughly understood what they were going to do. To this day I don't know what they got up to.

    A very attractive, sophisticated, Argentinian lady with dazzling fair hair and a shimmering smile introduced herself as the anaesthetist. She asked me in a whisper if all my teeth were my own. I assured her they were and she gave a nod of relief and approval. We encountered each other again the following morning when I was wheeled into the presence of the team, who were now all dressed as for a TV medical soap opera. 'Is the Princess of Wales here?' I asked facetiously. They smiled politely behind their gauze masks. The Argentinian lady took my hand. 'Just a little prick,' she said. 'And now another little prick. Now I think we are feeling sleepy, yes?'

    An hour and a half later I sort of woke up in the recovery room.

    'All is over, all has been well done,' said Argentina. I tried to say 'Good!' or 'Amen' but the words stuck in my throat, which was fiery and raw. Wherefore could I not say 'Amen'? 'You have small passage,' Argentina explained rather severely. It crossed my mind that she might have taken revenge for the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands war; but no, she was too good-natured for that. 'Soon you have some voice,' she reassured me. 'Tomorrow perhaps.' As they wheeled me back to my room, at a dizzying pace, I wondered if I could sue them all if my vocal chords had been destroyed. Then I remembered the small print. An emphatic No.

    There was neither pain nor even discomfort under my plastic eyeshield, just the slightest irritation. With my good eye I looked towards Big Ben, which was striking ten o'clock. A sunny morning. I fell asleep.

    Later in the day I croaked at a nurse that I would love some ice-cream. That proved a great comfort. The brilliant surgeon and Argentina looked in to see how I was and they were followed by a couple of jolly Scottish technicians who turned out to be Star Wars enthusiasts. They wanted me to write 'May the Force be with you' on scraps of paper.

    No one mended the TV. I didn't see Sister again.

    That was 14 August 1996.

    The following morning I was told I could go home. As I didn't fancy the fifty-odd-mile car journey down to Petersfield after a general anaesthetic I booked myself a room at the Connaught. I got there at noon. It was another lovely day. As soon as I was by myself I took off the eyeshield. I was so astonished I burst into happy tears. The eye that had been operated on could see quite sharply and in full colour. The bedroom furniture was clearly defined, the bed-cover — which had a delicate, complicated pattern — looked brightly new and, at the window, I could see to the far side of Carlos Place. The only oddity was the bedroom door, which appeared decidedly crooked.

    A week after the operation a slight deterioration set in. 'Just a little detritus,' the surgeon said. 'Give it a month or two. It'll get better and better.' I live in hope, of a sort. Hope has never been a virtue of mine. Gratitude I believe I do express, or certainly mean to. The operation has been more successful than expected. A useless eye can now see 'Men as trees, walking'; 'After that he put his hands again upon his eyes and made him look up; and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.' At least, when I look out of the back door with my good eye closed, I can tell whether it is my wife or the milkman.

    This is not going to be the end of the eye saga. Cataracts are forming rapidly on both eyes. I was wondering if the national press had started to use grey printers' ink. Forty years ago I started complaining about the fuzzy printing of the London telephone directory (now nauseatingly called The Phone Book) but a pair of glasses rectified that. A few years ago I became exasperated by what I took to be the sloppy diction of a new generation of actors; a little machine in the ear assured me that their speech was fine, except for the slipshod accents they choose to use.

    The humiliations of age are not always easy to accept.

Chapter Two

A Dry Month

During the early part of March I spent a lot of time on medical jaunts, crossing, recrossing and criss-crossing the area bounded by Wimpole, Wigmore and Harley Streets. London provides intense specialist areas, whether in diamonds, bookshops, silver, painting, antiques or disease. It was the route of possible disease which I was following. It is not the consultations which are depressing but the awareness, as you trudge the empty pavements, that behind almost every facade are gloomy, high-ceilinged waiting-rooms with worn brocaded armchairs and polished tables covered with dog-eared, out-of-date copies of Vogue, Country Life and The National Geographic. In the corner of each room there is likely to be sitting, patiently resigned and sadly far from his palace or tent, a sheikh or eastern princeling; Vanity Fair will be of no interest to him and, probably, not even Hello!.

    A trip to my doctor in Sloane Square — is valetudinarianism setting in? — led to the suggestion that there might just be a suspicion of cancer of the prostate; so off to Harley Street again.

    A charming, very tall Australian chappie with a warm Sydney accent showed me into a small room which contained a high bed of sorts and a rather sinister little TV set. The TV was showing a static black and white image of what looked like a bunch of a few late chrysanthemums. The young man took my jacket and told me to lie on the bed. 'Doctor'll be here in a minute,' he said. 'Just undo the top of your pants. Doctor'll do the rest.' Catching my look of mild apprehension he sought to comfort me. 'They tell me you used to be quite somebody in the art world,' he said, with amazing admiration. I clicked a little snort of denial. 'No, truly,' he said. 'That's what the receptionist thinks.' He had a devastating smile, which could wipe away the slightest umbrage. I recalled the old, aristocratic actor Ernest Thesiger being stopped in Piccadilly by a woman who said, 'Didn't you used to be Ernest Thesiger?' 'Still am!' he hissed, and passed on. The Aussie dropped his smile and announced, 'Here comes Doctor. Ease your pants down a little, lie on your side and raise your knees. Comfy?'

    The doctor, after asking a few questions, turned to his assistant and, without a trace of drama, said, 'Make me up a balloon.' A balloon? What the hell could they be thinking of? Bravely I determined to neither wince nor cry out. He probed me with some sonic device and I hardly felt a thing. His eye was kept on the TV and occasionally he gave a little grunt of satisfaction but whether that boded ill or well I couldn't decide. After ten minutes or so the doctor had finished and assured me that there wasn't any sign of cancer. Smiles all round. I asked him to repeat that; which he did with emphasis. As I left the room I threw a glance at the TV. The old clump of chrysanthemums was back on screen, bleakly indifferent. I was tempted to ask them, 'How was it for you?' but contented myself with a subdued but joyful wave of the hand.

    Naturally I telephoned Merula, as soon as possible. When I had left for London in the morning she had suffered a sudden bout of inner-ear trouble which threw her off balance and caused nausea. As soon as she heard I was cancer-free her giddiness disappeared. Well, I suppose that has explicable reasons but I feel it is not far removed from the telepathic communications we sometimes experience, though these are usually about the most trivial everyday things.

    Here we are in the midst of an ugly election campaign — but that is what they have always been — in spite of avowals from all parties that it will be a clean fight. The Lib Dems are the only people who, so far, have kept their heads; but then they haven't a hope of winning, so their warnings that they would put up income tax will not be put to the test. I don't know who our local candidates are. The only appeal for our votes has come from the Referendum Party, which pushed a video cassette through the letter-box. An extravagant gesture. We don't have a video so it was flipped into the waste-paper basket with a lot of German and American Star Wars fan mail. Like unsolicited, unwanted, trashy mail it can take its chance in some remote and receding galaxy.

    The awe-inspiring events of the month have been the arrival of the comet Hale-Bopp and the descent from a clear sky of Mr President Bush. He was attached to what looked like a rainbow lilo. A perfect landing was greeted rapturously by Mrs Bush. For seventy-two he looked trim and trustworthy. Perhaps our politicians could be persuaded to follow suit by jumping all together from a plane. A free fall for all. It would certainly attract the media. The gleeful speculation and excitement for us at the grass roots would surpass the Grand National.

    Hale-Bopp (I like the classy Home Counties hyphen) is an awesome sight, particularly when seen through binoculars, and makes all our current political activity no more than a tiny puff of dust. We are told it is made of ice and frozen gas and is the size of London, travelling at 100,000 m.p.h. From here in Petersfield, when the night skies are clear, we see it to the NW at about 30° over The Hangers. At first I thought its tail was shuddering with speed but it was the trembling of my hand holding the glasses, so impressed was I to be looking at something not seen even by Socrates, Christ or Shakespeare. The astronomers tell us that it hasn't been glimpsed by the human eye for around four thousand years and it will be another four thousand before it drops in again. We shall not be at home; none of us. Tony Blair, John Major, David Mellor, Princess Margaret, the latest hair-designer, all the pop groups, the City magnates, brave yachtsmen and mountaineers will have lain long and quiet in Melstock churchyard, together with Uncle Tom Cobley, Edith Sitwell and us of lower degree when Hale-Bopp next passes by. By the year 6000 even our approaching second millennium will be seen to have been small beer.

    March has slipped by with but a few lion-like winds and barely a drop of rain. Apparently it is the driest spring month for two hundred years so drought is predicted for the summer and already there are warnings about the use of garden hoses. Reservoirs are alarmingly low and rivers skimpy; we are told of millions of gallons of water just seeping away through water companies' broken pipes. In spite of dry ground this has been easily the best year for daffodils in our neck of the woods; but they haven't lasted as long as usual. The big plane tree which stands fifty yards from my study window and which was pollarded two years ago looks derelict — not the smallest green flick of a budding leaf. Last year it was vigorous; now it looks like a tree shelled in the 1914-18 war.

    We have seen nothing in the theatre but took ourselves to three films — Shine, Ridicule and The English Patient. Ridicule was gripping, witty and beautifully acted. Shine involved us emotionally; not only is it marvellously done but among all the superb acting there is a truly great performance by Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays the father. Marta Kaczmarek was particularly fine as the mother.

    They say the book of The English Patient is very good but I'm afraid the film left us totally indifferent. I had the impression that the other customers, all four of them, in a six-hundred-seater cinema at an early evening performance, felt as blankly as we did. They groped their way out with unenthusiastic faces, muttering in monosyllables. Emerging into Shaftesbury Avenue, with its half a dozen glittering theatres, was like re-encountering a real world. We had been deceived by the hype and the razzmatazz of the Oscars. It was good to look at but too often suggested bits and pieces of David Lean classics. At least we were spared the Lard theme from Dr Zhivago. The next time I see the admirable Mr Ralph Fiennes I hope he will have sloughed off his latex face. It is always a mistake to let the make-up department have a field day. God knows I have submitted a few times to artistic endeavour but eventually I learned to do about three films without any make-up at all. Nowadays, of course, most actors look real and it is the newscasters and politicians who are painted an inch thick with artificial suntan, giving the impression that they have left their skis, momentarily, outside the studio.

    A refurbished Star Wars is on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny first dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me proudly that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy's eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

    'I would love you to do something for me,' I said.

    'Anything! Anything!' the boy said rapturously.

    'You won't like what I'm going to ask you to do,' I said.

    'Anything, sir, anything!'

    'Well,' I said, 'do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?'

    He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. 'What a dreadful thing to say to a child!' she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.

    A couple of weeks ago, in a Chinese restaurant, the dapper little Chinese maître D bowed low as I left and, full of Chinese smiles, said, 'Sir Guin, now that Star Wars is being shown again you will be famous once more.' Oh, to be Ernest Thesiger.

    The mornings, during the past few weeks, have started quite sharply and yet gently blurred in hazy sunshine. There is a very rounded cherry tree in the middle of the paddock, now in flower, but the haze softly obliterates the trunk of the tree, leaving the blossom looking as if it might be a small pinkish-white cloud that has settled with us. It spreads a feeling of calm like a blessing. I stand out of doors in my dressing-gown, gazing at it with gratitude, but know that all too soon there will be a thud of letters falling through the letter-box, including glossy photographs which no ordinary pen can sign. As often as not they have already been signed in a sprawling gilded signature by 'Darth Vader' from Star Wars — 'so-and-so IS Darth Vader'. Maybe — but it wasn't so-and-so's voice or face (when it was finally revealed) to the best of my remembrance. The 'IS', I suppose, is for reassurance, like clutching at something when waking from a bad dream.

    Last Sunday, as Mass was finishing, a young man leaned over my shoulder and said, 'My pop is a great fan of Star Wars. Will you say hello to him as you leave the church?'

    I asked where his father was.

    'At the back in a wheelchair,' he said.

    The priest gave his blessing and the ritual words, 'The Mass is over, go in peace.'

    'Thanks be to God,' we chorused back, the young man adding, 'And can I have your autograph?'

    'Not here,' I replied rather crossly.

    At the back of the church, sitting in a wheelchair, was a large, middle-aged, genial-looking man. I went up to him all smiles, like a baby-kissing politician, and exuding the sweet benevolence of a hospital-visiting princess. I took him warmly by the hand and made one or two fatuous inquiries. He suddenly said the dreaded words — 'Star Wars!'

    'Ugh — hugh -uh -ha -hm,' I said, but I kept up my smile.

    'Obi-Wan Kenobi,' he nodded at me and, for good measure, 'May the Force be with you.'

    'And also with you,' I replied, to ecclesiastical merriment.

    'The Man in the White Suit; that was you, wasn't it?'

    'Yes, about forty-five years ago,' I replied, with a sense of relief that we might have reached saner ground; anyway terra firma. Then his face became grave and he said, 'Darth Vader.'

    I backed away as quickly as possible, sketched him a valedictory wave of the hand and stumbled down the church steps into fresh air and morning sunlight. The young man pursued me. 'The autograph,' he said, quite politely. But that was suddenly too much for me. 'Not in front of the parishioners,' I said. Then I disappeared.

    A second later I was deeply ashamed but the damage had been done. No excuse. Just sudden bloody-mindedness and panic. It's no good saying to myself, 'Watch out in these declining years, things could turn nasty.' Donkey's years ago I remember seeing an elderly man in Harrods screaming and screaming at a shop assistant because she was buffing her nails. I felt sad contempt for him and it never occurred to me to mutter, 'There, but for the Grace of God, go I some day in the future.'

    The evening news announced that dust bowls have formed on the dry farmlands of Cornwall. Cornwall, of all places, where there used to be so many hedges.

    We all need hedges, I thought. They don't have to be prickly though, like mine.

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