A Positively Final Appearance

March 1999

This is my third 'not-quite-a-diary' in as many months. One I have read and re-read, but then it is my own, and proof-checking is a repetitive business. The second was the actor Jane Lapotaire's Out of Order. And now there is Alec Guinness' A Positively Final Appearance, his collected reflections on national events and private affairs between 1996 and 1998: Tony Blair's election victory, the death of Diana, the comet Hale-Bopp, and the 'sordid' affair of 'Clinton, Starr, and That Woman'. Guinness meanders between them in the manner of what he calls a 'sluggish river', none too impatient to reach its destination and perfectly content to tarry a while en route.

To judge by the number of examples, there is something about this format which non-professional writers find appealing. Not-quite journal, not-quite memoir, it gives the author licence to indulge in ramblings which need never reach a conclusion, nor even relate to their surroundings. Structure takes care of itself as the calendar pages are torn, storyline evolves without imaginative intervention, and characters exist, fully fleshed, needing nothing more than to be captured and penned down. It could be argued that it's a lazy way to write a book; cynics might even suggest that it's a neat and lucrative way to get famous names from stage and screen into print, without them necessarily having literary genius.

This may be true in some cases, but in the case of Alec Guinness, it would be grossly unfair. There is a place for good writing as well as great literature, and Guinness is without doubt a very good writer. Unfortunately, his Positively Final Appearance is probably not his best.

The book is not without its charm. The comfort of the opening lines - like biting into a toasted teacake - is an indication of what's to come; a taste of nostalgia and a flavour of England at its best. But as with teacakes, the raisins are set in a good deal of dough. Laser sharp observations - on the new government, or the chemical defence system of caterpillars - share the page with less riveting diversions which appear to be triggered by nothing more than word association. Rain stops play and promptly unleashes a torrent of tales theatrical connected with water and weather. A taverna in London's Beak Street sets in motion a tour of Greece which lands us right back in Soho, where we started.

Many of these detours are well worth the effort. There are times, though, when the writing appears to be treading water: I was put in mind of overheard conversations in stuffy tea rooms, as visiting parents and dorm-dwelling teenagers try, and fail, to fill the uncomfortable hour before they can each return to their own world. I'm not convinced every story earns its right to be there and, by his own admission, Guinness is 'too often scraping the bottom of the barrel of memory'. Even so, there is an understated elegance to his writing and an incisiveness to his observations which belies the fact that he was, for much of the period, suffering from blurred, cataractous vision.

But then incisive observations are not only a question of seeing. What the eyes see, the brain must distil and the imagination re-package, and it is here that Guinness has an advantage over many of us. With an enquiring mind accumulating information over eighty-five years, and a career which encompassed such diverse endeavours as Oliver Twist and Star Wars, the mental process through which his observations are filtered is polymathic. The melody may occasionally drag, but in his own words, it's a perfectly genuine swan song.