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on 3 April 2006
I'm not going to presume to comment at length on Alan Bennett's writing. "Untold Stories" is by turns extremely funny, deeply moving, courageous, uplifting, brilliantly observed, and a treasure trove of expert knowledge lightly told. It covers an astonishingly wide range of subject matter from the seemingly "trivial" (although of course in the hands of a writer like Bennett, trivial details can reveal a whole world), to the "serious" business of politics, culture, society and history. I have rated it four stars because at nearly 700 pages it is extremely long, so there were a few passages here and there that I could have done without (e.g. gardening never being a particular interest of mine). But for every entry on gardening there are a dozen pieces on films, theatre, architecture, art and so on that enthralled me, so I have no real right to complain. This is an extraordinary book and one that repays the effort of reading it a hundred times over. Finally, I'd like to say that I am astonished by the reviewer below who accuses the author of being a snob: if nothing else, Bennett's kindness and humanity shines through every page of "Untold Stories" as plain as day.
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If you know Alan Bennett's work through his plays or have enjoyed the memorable collection Writing Home in the 1990's, you might wonder what this current anthology has in store. Well the short answer is that it is the same only different. The customary Bennett humanity, acute observation, keen intelligence and wry humour are much in evidence in the diaries from 1996-2004 included here, and in several of the shorter book reviews and essays. However, it has to be said that this volume like the second set of Talking Heads takes on a much darker hue focussing on issues that the writer has only alluded to before. The first long piece is a detailed account of the mental illness suffered by his mother and aunt and pulls no punches in its depictions of the institutions they attended or the impact this had on the wider family and how their conditions indirectly led to the discovery of a family secret. Similarly, recent years have seen A.B becoming more relaxed about his sexuality and this comes over in the article Written on the Body and contented accounts of domestic bliss with partner Rupert. Then there is an increasing anger in his comments on social and political matters especially his bitter denunciation of the Iraq war. Finally there is his perceptive account of facing a life threatening battle with cancer where the title is instructive of his attitude- An Average Rock Bun. Yet even as the content becomes more hard-edged, the quality of the prose remains as pleasing as ever: Bennett remains the master of the telling phrase, his deployment of vocabulary always apposite. Consequently, we are offered a rounded portrait of this famously secretive man far more illuminating than Alexander Game's empty biography of a few years ago. Above all you will be delighted to know, Bennett is as funny as ever whether he is talking to the local coal merchant: `you're not a patch on your dad' or commenting on the men who changed a tyre in ten minutes: `I feel I want to ask them home so they can take charge of my life'. The key to the genius of Bennett is that so often you smile in recognition at the truth of his observations having seen similar yourself, only he expresses them twice as fluently and with three times the humour.
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on 17 October 2005
From the very second I began reading this book I knew I was about to embark on an incredible journey through the life of one of our greatest story-tellers. Alan Bennett certainly did not disappoint me. This is a moving, heart warming and humorous selection of his life. The fact the he believed he would not live to see the book published gives it a sense of humanity and realism that is evident throughout. A book not to be missed.
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on 10 November 2005
'Untold Stories' is a sort of autobiography by reflection, through reflection. Bennett talks you through his experience of family life and social life, delivering short story anecdotes of his parents and relatives, painting elusive little portraits of the people in his life and his changing understanding of their roles and import.
Alan Bennett is a master both of language and of observation. He can make telling statements about individuals in a few words, can deliver incisive insights into the human condition with a twist of a phrase. He's a writer, but you are destined to hear him read his words to you - that unmistakable voice echoes from the pages, massaging your mind into receptivity. You can't read Bennett - or listen to an audiobook or watch his television productions - without sinking into actively relaxed mode. He transports you to another world and another time, utterly captivating you.
This is masterly writing, completely un-put-downable. It's a lesson in both writing and in understanding your own family. It leaves you wanting to talk to your relatives, to enquire into their experiences, learn their history … or it will leave you wishing you'd asked your mother more, or listened to your aunt, or shown your uncle greater respect. Fascinating, absorbing, energising!
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on 26 November 2005
Mr Bennett writes his life with the unwavering honesty of a dying man (he thought he was, but fortunately for all of us he's still around). All his characters are here as real people, and the line between the sad and the funny is, as ever, blurred. I had to stop reading it on the bus or in bed due to laughing so much (well, you can't, can you - folk would think you'd had it) and I'm sending it to all my favourite people this year. Thank you, Mr Bennett, for a cracking 2006 annual!
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on 16 November 2005
Speaking in defense of his first play, _Forty Years On_, Alan Bennett was prompted to comment '...a play is no less serious because it is funny.' Now, taking up the generally candid spirit of his latest literary offering, _Untold Stories_, I'd like to make something of a confession: I have never much cared for Alan Bennett, and would sometimes draw unfavourable comparisons between him and Peter Cook - the only two members of _Beyond the Fringe_ to have made a lasting impression on me. This lack of enthusiasm on my part was primarily because I perceived Bennett as just too serious. But upon reading _Untold Stories_ I made the most rapid turnaround imaginable, causing me to reflect (nearly forty years on from that first play) that a book need be no less funny because it is serious.
Whether making wry observations about Jesus as portrayed in art, or sharing idle observations from his diaries, Bennett is consistently funny, and effortlessly so. And the overall picture of Bennett himself that emerges through his depiction of his parents is all the more fascinating because of the sense of intimacy his writing creates between this shy and very private individual and the reader. Utterly brilliant!
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on 16 November 2005
As one discovers half way through, Bennett didn't think he had long to live when he was writing Untold Stories, which probably accounts for the especially intimate and personal reflection. There is comedy and sensitivity in some of the tragedy and the large diary section of the book is a terrific peek into AB's life. Peek being essential as it's a good place for dipping in and out from. It's a bit voyeuristic, but then Bennett is hinmself I think. It will grace your bookshelf and be read again and again.
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on 26 April 2014
I make no apology in describing Alan Bennett as one of the top ten writers working today. Maybe even the best under a system which gives marks for range, scope and simple entertainment. Going from Oscar nominated scripts to throw-away journalism which says something important about the times we live in.

Those who have read and loved Writing Home (I book I rate as one of the best ever written) will have no difficulty picking this one. Indeed it is really more-of-the-same. More out-of-the-closet than this previous edition, but really nothing more than continuation and, at times, a revision.

The book starts with a rather depressing passage concerning his parents and relatives sad end. Although well written and moving, starting a book off on such a downer seems a risk. Despite his Winnie The Pooh front Bennett is a bit of a cold fish who can report on personal tragedy with a total detachment few can achieve.

(You ask questions to the page though. If he really did love his mother why did he park her so far from his home in her final nursing home days?)

Certainly he seems unconcerned with the reputations of others. Bald people seem to annoy him (he sports a full head of hair to this day) and results in several snide remarks. The problem with baldness (unless it is the subject itself) is that is rarely paired with anything good. Here he is snide about Alec Guinness's hairless head in a way which smacks of being personal.

The one thing which irritates (and sometimes cuts against his image) is his insistence on his own early intelligence. This is backed up by achievement (he went on to both Oxford and Cambridge!) but I prefer praise to be mouthed by others. A physically immature man/youth he could have (as an actor) played school yard parts until he was 20. The enclosed photographs show that he sprouted quite well and even became somewhat handsome in his shaggy kipper-tie prime.

What does the author do in his spare time? Visit churches and monuments it seems. Writes well about them, even though this isn't an interest of mine. His views on painting and art rarely go beyond like/dislike and given that he seems to have no specialist knowledge on the subject (and claims non) can't be critiqued. Unlike one-time partner Dudley Moore he doesn't have other strings to his bow.

(His views of his specialist subject - medieval history - are strangely muted. As if it was something of a random subject rather than any burning passion.)

The thing which is false is the sense that his diaries are really that: Diares. They are not. You don't write recollections of famous people in it. You write about what has happened. Certainly his wanderings (often unexplained in the "how come" sense) take in schools and even high security prisons. Places where they check someone isn't coming out pretending to be Alan Bennett!

In his opening pages AB writes that his family could never "quite be like other people" indeed he continues the condition. Still working and still being of interest long past retirement he remains a one-off and certainly not like everybody else.
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on 12 June 2016
Bennett eschews commonplace telling. Not for him is the chronologically conventional ‘cradle to contemporary’ autobiography. Recalling the Christmas annuals of his boyhood, Bennett prefers the term ‘compendium’. To use Bennett’s own phraseology in his Introduction, ’Untold Stories’ is a ‘box of delights and a ‘jumble’. I’m reminded of the bumper variety chocolate boxes of my own Christmases. Most were eaten by Boxing Day but the chewy chocolate-covered toffees lasted well into the New Year.

Dipping into ‘Untold Stories’, odds on the reader will soon come up with something on Bennett’s parents, attesting to their importance in his life and giving his compendium a modicum of coherence. ’Untold Stories’ is at its delightful best when Bennet recalls his father and mother. Bennett captures his parents’ social milieu, historical time and characters in a conversational prose heightened with memorable imagery. The weakest contributions are where Bennett writes about being Bennett, notably in the extracts reproduced from his diaries. These are contrived in content and mannered in expression. Like my Christmas chocolate-covered toffees, they are sickly sweet, somewhat chewy and best left.

Stewart Robertson
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on 5 January 2015
The most beautiful, honest writing about Alan Bennett's childhood and young age. He is one of the best contemporary writers, with outstanding wording and clarity, as well as sincerity.

He wrote the book when he was convinced it would become posthumous by the time it was published, after his cancer was diagnosed. Thankfully, he was treated successfully, and he is still with us, but this shy person achieved a level of candour a modest person, as he is can only attain, if they think, they would never have to face inquisitive questioning. His subtle sense of humour shines through, while you feel moved and fully engaged with every page.

LOVED it and bought it for every member of my family for xmas.
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