on 25 January 2006
Alan Bennett is a man of great humanity, who writes openly about closed lives in a way that feels very special. My gran used to shop at Bennett's father's shop, and I live across the river from Armley, where he grew up, so this episodic personal history has extra layers to it.
Yet there are plenty of layers for even the most casual reader - this could easily be what I would call 'a bog book', although some parts would require quite severe constipation for successful completion in one go. There are snippets, remembrances, essays, criticism... This is basically a collection of all the best bits of Bennett's non-fiction writing.
There is barely a hair's breadth between much of this writing and that of something like 'Talking Heads', which carries the same level of affectionate honesty. Bennett seems to be such a dispassionate person, as if observing the world through glass, yet when one chooses to see the world from his happy-sad perspective, one is often moved to tears. I'm not sure I can explain it: sometimes it's like Mr Spock from Star Trek, mystified at humans in general, and human emotion in particular.
Bennett is not a religious man (although he had a religious upbringing), yet this book instills in me a sense of wonder at the ordinary things in life, and a hope that I, too, might see below the surface, even as I am staring at it, seeing nothing else.
on 14 January 2007
Fairly new to Alan Bennett, this book has given me the most enormous pleasure. It can be dipped into, or read in big doses with equal pleasure. He is able to show the reader the results of a fascinating life amongst the great and good, and also the very lowly. Very witty, but also thought-provoking.
on 2 June 2013
Not your usual diaries. 1st March 1994 is a stand-out. Simon Callow puts it nicely. In a review of the follow-up volume he says that AB 'has joined the ranks of the non-joiners'. Can we hope to hear these words repeated at his funeral? (Not imminent, I trust.) Bennett's own words at Peter Cook's funeral, reprinted here, tread the tightrope with extraordinary aplomb
Who knew Bennett would be the stayer among that fab four of review (variety's more refined cousin), those harbingers of the Sixties, the Beyond the Fringe quartet? This late developer and unwitting dissident was the awkwardest of the awkward squad. (And the toughest. Being a working class Yorkshire queer, he had to be.) Cook and Moore I can feel only contempt for now, given their promise and privilege. (Peter Sellers at least earned his notoriety.) Miller, Dr 'Renaissance Man' of yore, has spoken of his own regrets - though his choices were harder
And Bennett? Curously, while it's the playwright who both validates and bankrolls the man (besides giving him something to do with his day) yet, it's the MAN we're interested in: HE likes this joke; HE retails this goss; HE thinks this incident worth recording or is offended by that. Example from Gielgud: dining at the Dorchester during the war (the blitz, actually), on learning there was no butter his hostess expostulated "No butter? But what is the Merchant Navy doing?" And as epigrammatist, sly yet humane ('the limit of an actor's ability is.. a fairly comfortable place to be'; Gielgud 'has broken his staff but has kept his magic') he is, I think, without peer in our times. The previously unpublished Cold Sweat finds Bennett in his habitual discomfort zone but rather out on a limb, but he's both delicious and sympathetic on Chester Kallman, the Brooklyn dentist's son who was the shadowy love of Auden's life*, and at the end of his long and sorrowful summation (hard going at times) of Larkin the Man, one wants to stand and applaud. The last two pieces are feeble and should have been excluded, and the previous bit of undergraduate silliness too while we're about it: if only AB had been prevailed upon to end at page 593, on that characteristic note of uncertainty
Now to AB the dramatist. I was embarrassed for Gielgud in Forty Years On (rejected by Tynan for the National) which I thought cheap and ill-conceived, though AB is fascinating, and highly illuminating, on both it and Gielgud ('the iron streak of tinsel that runs through [his] character') on pages 469-72, and since then I confess I've only seen snatches of Madness and about half Function (kind of a mal-Function?) which I adored. It's the Yorkshire and the class-anger that put the grit into what might otherwise have been a singularly limp individualist. The contrast with someone like Richard Hoggart is instructive: both are curmudgeonly, but only one is dessicated. Their anger turns different wheels. Hoggart was a proto-'aspirational' (Blairite Tory-in-waiting) who craved the status he railed against and despised the contented poor who did not seek to improve their lot. These days, and admittedly it's a different world, Bennett feels for them; the acres of cramped, characterless social housing that many of them inhabit he characterises as 'f*ck-hatches'.
To be fair (dull though it is) Hoggart's path was harder - he needed to access 'privilege' (he was eased into his grammar school place by a quiet word) to become privileged: Bennett, a mere 16 years younger, had the welfare state child's sense of entitlement; they stopped handing out those particular goody bags a while back. Bennett, besides being cleverer, is the truer socialist; aspiring to nothing but the freedom to remain true to his principles and passions. Despite being in the Corbyn camp I probably think class a good thing - class, not inherited rank (it's grossly inequitable *material* differentials that are immoral) - but let that pass. Like Pepys's or Boswell's, Bennett's voice will endure, surely, as long as the English language is cherished. Which won't be all that long. Probs
Getting the MO (p505) is a puzzle - if it means military order, shouldn't it be AN MO? Anyway, the significance escapes one who missed national service by a whisker. Faber editors please note, though Bennett's grasp of Hungarian is impressive, the terminably obscure actor Cuddles Sakall on page 508 (he peaked in 1949) did NOT style himself Szakall. Phil Silvers on the same page is soon going to need a footnote himself. Another Brooklyner (like Chester, NOT Cuddles!), his siblings, Wikipedia informs us, were Lillian, Harry, Jack, Saul, Pearl, Michael, and Reuben. Different days..
* Fortunately jealousy didn't get Auden before the booze did: or maybe the booze helped? 'Unhappy but not unhappy about it' is how Bennett puts it
on 9 February 2010
Much as 'Untold Stories' which is the second volume, read arse about face by myself, mixes diary and prose, so too does this volume. Again it is for my taste a bit unweildy and gives the impression of having been padded out to justify it's publishing. Having said this Faber and Faber (the publisher) come in for some stick from Mr Bennett, so this observation could be wholly accurate. That said in any format Mr Bennett's works are a joy to read; personally I would have edited the non sequential diaries of 'Writing Home' and 'Untold Stories' into one volume, but of course, these books are not warts and all exposes, and Alan Bennett only treats us to the sanitised diary entries which he feels comfortable to share.
If you are a fan of Alan Bennett's wry observations and enjoy reading works which make you repeatedly smile, and in my case agree with, then this book is for you.
on 30 March 2016
An absolutely wonderful book. Touching, amusing, here is Alan Bennett at his very best, tenderly telling tales of his family and his upbringing in the West Riding of Yorkshire. I have the tapes which I play in the car and laugh from the start of the journey to the end. He is a great storyteller, but no matter how shocking the tale, it is told with great empathy and love for his family and his early life.