Man of importance

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by Alan Bennett
Faber and Faber and Profile Books £20, 640 pages

More than 20 years ago one could already identify an Alan Bennett type, thanks to the unforgettable Woman of No Importance. The 1982 television monologue showed the writer and the actress Patricia Routledge at the top of their form and paved the way for the genre of “talking heads” that Bennett would perfect. One floundered for an adjective: Bennettesque, Bennetian, Bennetic?

This absence of a label that immediately describes his appeal is perhaps explained by Bennett’s elusiveness. Untold Stories is a misleading title, an anthology of Bennettiana (there I go again) published or performed since the early 1990s. The title piece, about his Leeds childhood, has appeared in part in magazine form, but this, his first major collection since the best-selling Writing Home (1994), is wider in scope. Besides the memories of his proud, shy, sometimes bewildered parents, his mother’s dementia, his rather rollicking aunts and their late discoveries of sex and gentility, there are long excerpts from his diaries for 1996-2004, prefaces from published works, newspaper articles and even BBC scripts. Nothing, alas, from the 1966 comic sketch TV series On the Margin, in which Bennett’s creations included a camp antique dealer (”Excuse my hands - I’ve been stripping a tallboy”) or the mini-series Life and Times in NW1, in which trendy bohemians would agonise over such choices as attending their baby’s birth or watching the new Ken Russell on the box.

The arts and society were already targets for Bennett’s sharp eye and cool judgment, to which a warm heart was added for the glorious mixture of sketch, parody, allegory and elegy that was Forty Years On.

Yet despite his unchanging image - bespectacled, befringed, owlish - Bennett is a chameleon; a recorder of the small surrealities of everyday speech; a nostalgic son fondly recounting his parents’ idiosyncracies; a waspish commentator on declining values. By no means the cosy northern comic or reactionary lamenting past times, he has his pet hates. These include police brutality - of some Essex officers likely to lose their job for ill-treating their dogs, he observes “had it been blacks... they would be returned to duty”. And of an inquiry finding a police killing lawful, he says wearily, “what police killing isn’t?” going on to note the mysterious disappearance of army rifles used on Bloody Sunday. He wonders if David Blunkett, as Home Secretary, “would be a more liberal man if he were not blind”, and is revolted by Blunkett’s remark that he felt like having a celebratory drink on hearing of Harold Shipman’s suicide.

Above all, Bennett regrets the passing of the automatic assumption that education should be free or at least as affordable as possible. Himself the beneficiary of a more generous political philosophy, Bennett is the best advertisement for grants and subsidies, whether for education, public libraries, art galleries, classical music or the other interests he acquired at no cost. The list is alarming in that it includes so many institutions no longer taken for granted now that Labour is “stamping on the grave of what it was once thought to stand for”. Of the correlation between appreciation of something and the price you pay, he flatly states “Nothing is further from the truth.” Wilde’s famous definition of the cynic, concerning value and price, comes to mind.

Ironically, Bennett’s life now echoes his early satire of north London, but nobody would begrudge the locale that made possible The Lady in the Van - a true story about an elderly woman who lived in a van in his garden for many years.

His celebrity status, however much he broods over it, has sparked such opportunities as spurning an honorary degree from Oxford in retaliation for its “demeaning” establishment of the Rupert Murdoch Chair of Language and Communication, a title almost as self-parodying as something by Bennett himself. He was invited to appear on Through the Keyhole, taking his place in a pantheon that includes Eartha Kitt and Gloria Gaynor, but declined on the grounds of a clashing offer to temp as a tripe dresser in Hull. In short, he has his celebrity in check. You believe Bennett when he says he’s a non-joiner, and you believe his reasons for rejecting honours - offered by Thatcher’s government, though one suspects advances from later administrations would receive just as short shrift.

He continues to throw up surprises: he’s for leaving the monarchy alone, and his jokes concerning the queen are marked by amused liking rather than mockery. But this is a Bennett characteristic, never forgetting the human beneath the institution. Sometimes the person is found wanting too, but Bennett never makes a knee-jerk reaction or glib, blanket judgments. An ex-don’s textual analysis backs up his verdicts: Tony Blair’s use of “I honestly believe” and “to be honest” makes one wonder about the statements not so prefaced, he argues.

On the personal side, Bennett is a generous friend and fan of colleagues such as Thora Hird, and he’s funny and touching in a perceptive memoir of the director Lindsay Anderson. Bennett notes rather primly that a “good production” can result “when people start to fall for one another, director included, but Lindsay tended to fall in love first then do the film or play afterwards, which is rather different”. And, still on a personal level, Bennett introduces a partner at long last, after years of teasing the media on the subject.

His later diaries exude a feeling of bienseance: weekends in Yorkshire, sandwiches in the countryside, visits to churches and monastic ruins, antiques, the feeling of a historical context for normal life. Could he be growing into a lovable old grouch, raging about Classic FM (”Who would have thought that one day one would groan at the name of Albinoni?”) or being misreported, or tartly noting that John Bayley’s “efforts on behalf of his late wife [Iris Murdoch]... make Max Clifford seem retiring”?

No. For the book ends with a jolting account of Bennett’s bowel cancer, which killed his father. Never has the balm of humour been better illustrated. Bennett still detects the quirky in his situation. The rival assertions of conventional chemotherapy and alternative medicine are, he remarks, “like the claims of two brands of soap powder, only you’re the fucking shirt”. He has survived a life-threatening attack and we can breathe a sigh of relief. I suspect that he will remain fruitful, ripening and maturing till his eighties - at least. He may be the great non-joiner but, in the spirit of Mohammed and the mountain, we have joined him.

This book is absorbing on many levels and makes one want to meet the author. The prickly reticence and gentle put-down one would doubtless receive would still be worth dining out on.

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