For ever George

A Commonplace Book

Alec Guinness <em>Hamish Hamilton, 163pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 024114146X

"The point of a knighthood for British actors is to enable them to pay butlers," writes Sir Alec Guinness in this enchanting book. It is a good joke - and he's thinking of the way, nowadays, they'll honour anybody with an Equity card (Hopkins, McKellen, Holm, Gambon, Sher, Courtenay, Jacobi). Once upon a time, however, genuine giants roamed the land: Sir Larry the Lion-Hearted; Sir Ralph, who was a real-life Merlin; Sir Gielgud the Bent, with his brand of toffee- nosed camp ("He was his own most appreciative audience," observes Guinness); and Sir Michael Redgrave who, after the curtain came down, liked to be tied to a tree in St James's Park and thrashed by grenadier guardsmen.

Perhaps because he put more effort into acting on the screen than on the stage, Guinness was always my favourite member of Camelot (I could watch him at home). The multiple-role D'Ascoyne family (which so influenced Peter Sellers); the rebels and maniacs in the Sandy Mackendrick films; the enigmatic George Smiley of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; the mystical Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: here was a man who had special qualities of stillness and reserve, an inscrutable, self-effacing artist who was endlessly fascinating. He telephoned me once, and it was really like talking to a Jedi grandmaster - with a resonant voice, measured pauses, and platitudes coming across as deep wisdom. This volume - jottings and fragments and transcriptions of his favourite poems and prose scribbled in a pile of school exercise books that were found after his death - seems to have emanated from his gallery of characters.

The dry wit, for a start, the slow-burning irony and farce, is reminiscent of his Ealing pictures. A lady at a posh lunch shouts out "Crap!" - "but as she was looking at her plate at that moment the word may have been 'crab' ". When he goes to confession, the priest behind the grille is enthusiastically bashing the bishop (so to speak), "not stimulated by anything I had said, I'm sure". Life, as for Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit or Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob, is full of small, impenetrable mysteries. How come, when two nuns get on the cog-wheel railway to go up Mt Rigi, only one comes down? Why does lapsang souchong taste of kipper skins and creosote? What happened to all the little collapsible green chairs in Hyde Park?

Guinness is most amused by Wellington who, asked to recount the most inane remark he had ever heard, said that a Portuguese general, before a battle in the Peninsular war, addressed his troops by saying: "Remember, men, you are Portuguese." His own nomination is a newspaper headline: "Worthwhile Canadian initiative which is not only boring as a whole but boring word by word."

As he potters, George Smiley-like, around London and his Hampshire garden, Guinness has a wistful quality of observation. Spiders' webs look like "ghostly sails of yachts"; "Last night there was a warbler again on the cherry tree, but it didn't sing." He notices the effect of sunlight slanting through the leafless hedge. The popping-cracking noise of a cube of ice falling into tonic water gives him pleasure. The prints of birds' feet in the frost are "like constellations of black stars". Fabulously attentive to "the look of things", flowers and leaves, animals and the weather, he wonders if this "is a premonition of mortality".

While it is true that Guinness's taste for Donne's sermons, as well as Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Blake and Kipling, strikes an elegiac note, and that the wan comedy of his own words has a dying fall ("I'm going out. Just down to the post. I may be gone sometime," he tells his wife when he's off on an errand in the snow), his dreams, which he faithfully records, are vibrant - and always manage to involve Shakespeare. In his sleep, he plays King Lear as if in Tolstoy, the mad scenes set in a railway station, the storm the sound of great steam engines thundering through. He dreams a production of Twelfth Night where the doubles, Viola and Sebastian, interchange throughout the evening. He dreams bits of business for Hamlet.

Like an elderly wizened Jedi, Guinness was full of enterprise and energy right up to the end (in August last year at the age of 86). A Commonplace Book, a post-mortem cameo, like Obi-Wan Kenobi beamed into The Empire Strikes Back, with its cherry-red endpapers and Jonny Hannah's superb illustrations (based on old Ealing poster designs), is the positively final appearance of a Guinness who was pure genius.

Roger Lewis's biography of Charles Hawtrey is reviewed this week

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, What would you do?