His entertaining diaries are almost spoiled by his tireless complainingby DJ Taylor / December 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
Keeping On Keeping On, by Alan Bennett (Faber/Profile, £25)
It’s a mark of Alan Bennett’s centrality to the literary scene that he manages to turn up in the consciousness of the averagely bookish person at the rate of two or three times a week. And so, in the five days it took me to read this lavish miscellany I found myself inundated, surrounded and in the end positively menaced by references to him in other books and art-forms. There he was in a battered anthology from the early days of the London Review of Books appraising a volume of reminiscences by his old hero (and star of his first big dramatic hit Forty Years On) John Gielgud. There he was again in the paperback of the second tranche of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, swelling the throng of her substantial band of book-world detractors. And there he was for a third time in the DVD of Channel 4’s late-1990s attempt at the novelist Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, playing the part of Sillery, the conniving Oxford don.
Each of these fleeting appearances turned out to be characteristic of a personality that Keeping On Keeping On sets in sometimes uncomfortably sharp relief. The Gielgud review finds him appreciative, nostalgic and also hugely funny (of the censoriousness of the bygone Brighton theatre goers, he notes that, “The sleek Sussex matrons sit poised in the stalls like greyhounds in the slips. The first ‘fuck’ and they’re a mile down the sea front, streaking for Hove”). Moore’s biography, on the other hand, showcases a seriously affronted Bennett, loudly disparaging Thatcher’s reading of a Philip Larkin poem and, as Moore discreetly observes, filing his own misinterpretation of the poem’s import. The Sillery portrait is the most beguiling: fussy, mild-mannered, but altogether failing to disguise deep reservoirs of Powellian tenacity and will-power—qualities that might easily be attributed to Bennett himself.
The least that can be said of Keeping On Keeping On is that it is an extraordinarily long book: over 700 pages of play scripts (Denmark Hill, The Hand of God), introductions to those works, elegies delivered at funerals and most substantially a decade’s worth of diaries from 2005 to 2015. The Bennett who emerges from these prodigal jottings, annually extracted by the LRB, is a number of…