Forgiving Alan Bennett

His entertaining diaries are almost spoiled by his tireless complaining
December 13, 2016
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 things—a loyal friend, a good liberal, a practised sceptic, the proud supporter of many a good brave cause, a brisk observer of the teeming world beyond the Primrose Hill window—but he is above all a complainer, an ingrate of such indefatigable persistence as to straightaway claim a place at a table otherwise reserved for such masters of the art as Larkin, Kingsley Amis and possibly James Lees-Milne.

No doubt about it, the life of a distinguished elderly playwright (Bennett is nearing 71 when these diaries begin, 81 at their close), doing the rounds of the rehearsal studios both here and abroad, inspecting country houses in the company of his long-term partner Rupert or simply pottering around the bourgeois end of Camden, is plainly the purest hell. There is the upcoming London Olympic Games (“…I have yet to speak to one person who is enthused about the Olympics. If the scenes of ritual rejoicing (‘Yes!’) were not enough to put one off there is the prospect of seven years of disruption, procrastination, excuses and inconvenience…”) There is the fan-mail (like “being pelted with small stones” apparently) and there is the smugness of the local middle-classes who go around “hugging themselves in self-congratulation at the perfection of their lives.”

Gradually, as year succeeds year, this net of objurgation extends to take in what celebrity can do for you and what it can’t, as well as the cake that can be had and eaten on the journey too (sometimes, as when people are being helpful at airports, literally on the journey). It hovers over slights—real or imagined—to one’s reputation (there is a rueful little entry from 2nd September 2006 when someone on Saturday Review charges the novelist Mark Haddon with an “Alan Bennett-ish tweeness” and another one on 7th July 2007 after Terry Eagleton writes a piece in the Guardian alleging that “of all the eminent writers and playwrights only Pinter continues radical and untainted by the Establishment”). It is regularly sent forth to pinion mistakes made by journalists over which member of the Cambridge Footlights said what to whom back in, as it may have been, 1959.

Best of all are one or two circular flights of truculence. Or perhaps that isn’t quite the right phrase for a process in which Bennett seems almost to be policing himself from one sentence to the next, reining in his outward satisfaction with a whinge and then glossing the whinge in a way that undermines the whole exercise. There is a wonderful, and wonderfully comic, moment in summer 2013 when Bennett commends the spectacle of streets cleared of traffic by Andy Murray’s appearance in the Wimbledon final. Not, he hastens to assure us, that he is a fan of Murray (“it’s depressing to find his grim grimacing determination has paid off, a triumph of grit over grace”). Then comes a lightning switch from particular to general (“not that anyone in tennis has much grace these days”) followed by a brisk cancelling out of the author’s qualifications for making his judgements in the first place “(as if I knew [or cared]).”

Check. Counter-check. Counter-counter-check. With Larkin, or Amis, or a good many other diarists and letter-writers who give ballast to a life by listing its irritations, this would be simple peevishness. Here the effect is heightened, or occasionally mitigated, by the reader’s suspicion that Bennett is rather too aware of the effect that today’s disquiet will be causing to tomorrow’s reader, and that rather more is going on here than initially meets the eye—another connection, perhaps, between Bennett the dramatist and Bennett the journal keeper and intermittent man-of-letters. This pattern, though, is comic. Much less larky in their collective impact are the howitzer volleys of J’accuses aimed at prime ministers, governments, bureaucrats, media tycoons, environmental despoilers and practically anyone opposed to “that blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism which does duty for my political views.”
"Bennett throws howitzers at anyone opposed to his blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism"
This may be a statement of ideological intent, but it also hints, however indirectly, at a kind of socio-cultural positioning. In strict category terms Bennett is what used to be known as a “herbivore,” a bright child of the 1930s sent out into the world in the early post-war era and, by extension, the beneficiary of such lasting social and intellectual influences as grammar schools, Oxbridge, National Service, the Third Programme and the Penguin Specials—in Bennett’s case given a decisive twist by his resolute northernness (if Thatcher was the grocer’s daughter from Grantham, then this is the butcher’s son from Leeds) and his homosexuality. The diary carries several references to Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, a classic herbivore text, of which Bennett (born in 1934) makes the astute point that for a book published in 1957 and purporting to reflect the realities of its day, it belongs more to the world of his parents than his own wartime upbringing in a slightly more upmarket suburb of the city of Hoggart’s birth.

Another light on the kind of post-war animal that Bennett imagined himself to be can be found in the tribute (again, first published in the LRB) to his old Oxford tutor, the medievalist KB McFarlane. If Bennett, who spent several years researching and lecturing at Oxford before the satire boom of the early 1960s offered a more enticing upward path, clearly found McFarlane hard going at times, then there is a pointed comparison with the other Magdalen history dons, AJP Taylor and Harry Wheldon. Both of these gentlemen, Bennett recalled by way of unflattering comparison, envisaged history as “a skating rink on which they could show off their techniques, turn their paradoxes…” The note recurs when he sits down to reflect on the television version of Wolf Hall. “Hilary Mantel, Niall Ferguson, Alan Taylor: History is a playground. The facts are Lego. Make of them what you will.”

Naturally, Bennett is fond of tumbling the Lego around himself: what dramatist isn’t? Meanwhile the backward-looking radicalism strays into several areas which other backward-looking radicals might want to contest. It is perfectly possible, for example, to assume—as Bennett frequently does—that the rot set into British public life around about 1980, without also assuming—as Bennett occasionally seems to imply—that everyone who voted for Thatcher was simply greedy or opportunistic. And then there is the case of the actor Chris Langham, imprisoned for downloading child pornography on to his computer, of whom Bennett notes that it worries him when people are prosecuted merely for looking at things—an exemplary liberal sentiment, which ignores the fact that a great many children end up being abused because online voyeurs are prepared to pay money to see it done.

One notes this inconsistency not only for the wider moral point, but for the narrower reason that Bennett himself is generally such a well-informed tour guide to the state of childhood. The young man who appears in the introduction to Cocktail Sticks, which again looks back to 1940s-era Armley, is in his way another version of a “type” that exists at the heart of The Uses of Literacy—the humbly-born scholarship boy who inhabits a kind of pontoon bridge between the world that forged him and the sleeker landscapes beyond and ends up giving offence to both. Re-reading his letters home from Oxford, and later New York, written in a “self-consciously homely tone which revived the extremes of dialect and ‘Leeds talk’ long after my parents had begun to discard them themselves,” Bennett admits to being “ashamed” of his condescension.

And so, like a long, panoramic film, this update on life Du côté de chez Bennett winds on, through enough book-signings and jolly suppers with “Debo D” (the Duchess of Devonshire) to convict our man of a very faint interest in the beau monde, through neighbourly chats with Jonathan Miller, chance encounters with everyone from Morrissey to Denis Healey and the visits of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, at whose arrival beyond the unopened door, Bennett simply lies flat on the carpet until they move on. It is an axiom that the older writers become the more they write like themselves, but Keeping On Keeping On is so full of sentences that only Bennett could have written that after a bit I started writing them down:

I never thought buying a tarpaulin, which I did today, could be such a pleasure.

Roy Keane has the face of a mercenary. Meet him before the walls of 15th-century Florence and one’s heart would sink.

“It’s good to talk” is the most specious and misleading injunction since “All you need is love.”

Absolute highlight here, though, is a passage from the diaries dated 25th January 2007, which begins “I’ve taken to eating the occasional date, though it’s not a fruit I wholly like.” There follows a reminiscence of “Mam” buying them when the diarist was young, “in small compressed bricks.” Now, who does this sound like? Curiously enough, it sounds remarkably like the aged WE Gladstone who, when once offered a bowl of nuts for dessert, observed in an ecstasy of self-absorption that “It is many years since I ate a Brazil Nut, or indeed any kind of nut.” I’m not sure that Bennett realises quite how funny this is, in the way he seems to appreciate that his niggling over Andy Murray might be.

Elsewhere he accuses himself of “banging on” rather a lot during the year lately concluded, but then this, necessarily, is what diarists do; and one might as well tax Anthony Powell (another of Bennett’s heroes) with too great an interest in the Old Etonian register. On the other hand, every so often there comes a paragraph about Richard Hoggart or the McFarlane memorial and you forgive him everything. Or nearly everything.