I bought Alan Bennett's books on tape for my mother. She used to listen to them in bed at night, lying in the dark as Bennett's gentle, querulous voice described the minutiae of his family life in all its banal detail, illuminated by his wonderful observation and humour. Any one of his sentences will raise a smile. A whole book's-worth leaves you glowing with a feeling that all of our lives are equally full of this richness. How could they not be, when Bennett has found so much in what appears to be such a constrained and circumscribed world? He is indeed a national institution and we are fortunate that his voice on tape is perfectly equal to the poignancy and intimacy of his writing.
The mixture as before, warmth, charm, humour and a wonderful eye (and ear) for detail. Most people of the World War II generation will have similar memories, and for the younger listener these short tales bring to life, as does little else, what life was like more than half a century ago. The subject matter may be 'ordinary', but there is nothing ordinary in the way Bennett recounts it. He is one of the great joys of English literature and his inimical reading of his own texts is a source of constant delight.
Yorkshire people live their lives in ever-decreasing circles, according to a recent report in the Yorkshire Evening Post. A majority of them, we are told, live within 12 miles of their mothers. For a Yorkshireman about to leave this womb-like comfort zone and move to the dreaming spires of Oxford, it seemed a good idea to feed my nostalgia in advance by reading Bennett's Tales. Bennett, the "lad from Armley", has been the archetypal professional Yorkshireman on TV, radio and in print for many years now, but this latest collection is a supreme distillation of his memories of a particular time and place. My own memories are about ten years behind Bennett's, but he has the gift of making that world so real, so vivid - even in its very ordinariness and, often, its drabness. His eye for whimsical detail is second to none. Of the many of his idle ramblings which stick in the mind, my favourite is his musing on the typical first names of nursing home residents. Currently, the trend is for Harolds, Walters, and Dorises - to be replaced over the coming decades by Waynes, Darrens and Kevins. ("You're our first Kevin", he reports one matron excitedly telling a new inmate). My only reservation is that the fare is spread a little thinly - only 95 pages...which raises a very serious issue for Yorkshiremen about whether we are getting value for money. This is why I have withheld the final star from an otherwise impeccable book.
In this most superbly written autobiography, Alan Bennett turns his well observed prose onto his own past and vividly recreates and relives his childhood and youth for us over 10 seperate chapters. These 10 chapters are like snapshots - all are immensely readable and are full of Bennett's wry observations of working class life, the pecularities and foibles of his own family and his ever present awareness of the effect change has on a family holding itself together day-by-day with the spectre of World War II ever present in the book. Bennett succeeds in bringing his wartime world to life as we enter a world of family picnics out on the moors and singing on a Sunday around the piano (with his enduring Aunt Eveline) Food - and in particular 'fancy' food gets the Bennett treatment, as his mother, Lilian, remarks on the growing popularity of new ingredients in salad "all the boundaries are coming down". A must for all Bennett fans and a good entry point for those who are new to his writing also.
You can hear Bennett's voice as you read these 'talks' (now there's an old-fashioned word) for television/radio. A slim volume; I read it an evening, so Yorkshire men might be inclined to quibble about its 'value' compared with other heftier volumes of Bennett's autobiography. He wouldn't hold it against you, as his opening remark is that he dislikes squandering his anecdotes on the cheap on chat shows. 'To be brought up in Leeds in the forties was to learn early on the quite useful lesson that life is generally something that happens elsewhere... Even the war turns out to be quite dull.' This is a loving memoir to Bennett's Mam and Dad. (Where are they now, these solid, decent English people, with their gentle sense of fun and shameful anxieties? Have they been Ikea-d into neutral? ) They embarrassed Alan. If he embarrassed them, they were too kind to show it: 'What a strange creature they have nurtured ... still at fourteen looking like a boy of ten, never away from church or the library, and given to furtively scrubbing their false teeth? ... The best plan is to say nothing and hope it will pass.' It's a Bennettish compliment - but this would be a perfect gift for someone in hospital, light to hold and short chapters. I wish I'd happened upon it time to read it with my mother.
I have played this CD in my car many times over and each time it gives me great pleasure. To listen to this Yorkshireman's voice describing the events in his life (I'm from East Anglia) is pure joy and although I'm slightly younger I can appreciate his war-time memories. The intimate but kindly details of Alan's mother and father and their life together bring smiles and tears in equal measure. I cringed at the false teeth episode but it was all the more worthwhile for its raw account. And his description of himself as a young church-goer is worth the price of the CD alone. Wonderful, charming, honest and a pure delight. Buy it.