Alan Bennett, probably England’s wittiest, most famous, living playwright, has delighted us, but never long enough, from the ‘60s to the present. He is 82. His latest published work, Keeping On Keeping On,* including 10 years of his diaries, and other pieces written over 20 years, was to have been my Christmas comfort reading, but it is an enormous volume of more than 700 pages: not comfortable at all.
It’s a coincidence that last month in this column I mentioned that books were getting bigger and that doorstoppers were no good for old people with rickety necks. Will he be reprimanded by his most famous “Uncommon Reader,” the 90-year-old Queen: HMQ, as he calls her? She looks sturdy enough, but just holding this book will stir any arthritis daring to lurk in the royal person.
I should have waited for the e-book version. It wasn’t available, and I could not curb my impatience for some of his dry humour and warmth about humanity. The History Boys is my favourite film. Even so, I doubt I would have pestered my good bookseller quite so much if I had known how big the bloody thing would be.
As for escaping Christmas with him, I feel he let me down there, too; but lightly. It was amusing to read that “at home in Yorkshire”… the fully dressed Christmas tree is brought in and put away unchanged every year down to its lights and the battered “celluloid fairy with the slit in her head for her glitterboard tiara, long since disappeared, and the bits of lampshade fringe Mam glued on as wings. She is my coeval, this fairy, bought I imagine when (his brother) was born in 1931, three years after Mam and Dad were married.
“Now I look it’s her skirt that is lampshade fringe, her wings are actually silver paper, probably predating foil, and made out of old sweet wrappings – these two weeks her brief sojourn in the light, the rest of the year spent in hibernation.”
Not exactly in the modern spirit of Christmas decorating, is it? Good for him.
The diaries go back as far as the conception of The Uncommon Reader (2006), a story in which late in life, HMQ becomes an avid reader and “how this affects things”, notably the Palace way of doing things. It happened in the car after he and his partner had been on one of their sandwiches-and-churches expeditions in the countryside. He is “not up to much” – a rare reference to one of his several serious health problems.
They take their sandwiches everywhere, which I find endearing. My best friend hardly stirs out the door and into the car without curried egg and lettuce sandwiches for herself and her husband. I can’t quite say why I find this comforting about her, and about Bennett, except that packed sandwiches are timeless and reassuring in a simple way that we, who are old like Bennett, cling to.
On this occasion a curry followed the sandwiches and somehow help inspire a charming, but sharply perceptive, little book. If this sounds too cosy, don’t be put off. He can be vicious despite a popular notion that he regrets, that he is “kindly, cosy and essentially harmless”. “I am in the pigeon-hole marked ‘no threat’ and did I stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork I should be a teddy bear.”
His politics and his hatreds are passionate: “one forgets what a vile paper The Telegraph is,” and keeps his harshest words for Murdoch and Tony Blair. He despises Jack Straw more than Blair, “thinking, perhaps wrongly, that he is capable of better.” Not a teddy bear. Anyway, teddy bears don’t come out of a harsh northern England environment that was his childhood and his inspiration. “There has been so little that has happened in England since the 1980s that I have been happy about… One has only had to stand still to become a radical.”
And with the following I closely identify: “I am happy never to have trod that dreary safari from left to right which generally comes with age, a trip writers in particular seem drawn to, Amis, Osborne, Larkin, Iris Murdoch all ending up at the spectrum’s crusty and clichéd end.”
There are lovely lyrical things in this vast tome as well, mostly about his garden and the countryside. “The buddleia covered in great snouts of blossom”, but I was drawn to grim observations such as closing libraries is “child abuse”. And I understand his misery at the thought he will likely spend the rest of his life under a Tory government. I am pleased to be “keeping on” in his company.
* * *
“Coming in from the light, I am all out at the eyes”, young Alizon says in the verse play, The Lady’s Not For Burning, the Christopher Fry play that brings back the cloisters of Sydney Uni and romance of my youth. After the rain and the cold, coming inside to write this column there is the blessed imprint of roses, yellow Peace and Pierre de Ronsard, and a little Iceberg, too, on my eyelids. When I said on Facebook that if my climbing yellow were any larger, it would be vulgar, a younger friend said she hadn’t heard the word vulgar used since her mother’s day. I am not sure what I should feel, but I feel something. Slight shame, I think, for using a word that is often used for class reasons. But at least I didn’t say “common.”
*Keeping On Keeping On, by Alan Bennett.
Faber/Profile Books, London.