The Bennett of Bennetts
You might as well know. I don’t usually spill these things, I don’t just blurt them out, I keep myself to myself. I don’t make everyone a present of my secrets. I don’t bore you with my passions and adorations. I don’t feel it necessary to go public with everything. I don’t ‘share’ my every emotion. But you might as well know – there are few people I like as much as I like Alan Bennett. Not that I know him or anything – but everything I’ve read and seen by him, everything I know about him, everything I’ve heard him say; his voice, his plays, his journals, his readings, his performances – well, I just like them intensely, that’s all. And this review of his new book in the Times simply refreshes or reinforces that liking, and also creates new branches of it.
Bennett does not tell it as a success story, and doubts, in glummer moments, if it is one; “Living is something I’ve managed largely to avoid.” Rather, he inspects his past to discover how he came to be himself — fastidious, buttoned-up, an inveterate outsider…Being categorised at all is what he resists. He laments his constant sense of being shut out, but when he looks at those he might be shut in with, being shut out is clearly his preference. “I have never found it easy to belong. So much repels.”
Oh, dear – come over here and sit by me, as Dorothy Parker said. Those three little words – dalling, they are so very me. So much repels. Yes.
Like most lower-middle-class couples at the time, they believed in keeping themselves to themselves and avoiding anything “common”, articles of faith their son has inherited. It would do, he suggests, as a definition of what has gone wrong with England in the past 20 years, to say that it has got common. Unfashionably ready to call vulgarity and stupidity vulgarity and stupidity, he picks out, in an anti-paedophile mob on a Portsmouth housing estate, a tattooed mother with a fag dangling from her lips and a baby in her arms, proclaiming how concerned she is for her kiddies.
So much repels.
His father taught him to distrust affectation (“splother”, he called it), and Bennett proved all too apt a pupil…He has an unerring ear for verbal falsity — the archbishop of Canterbury at the Queen Mother’s memorial service referring to her as “someone who can help us to travel that country we call life”…The modern jargons we invent to keep reality at bay arouse his scorn. You sense the struggle when he refers to Rupert Thomas, who now lives with him, as “my partner, as the phrase is”. He has trained himself, or maybe it was just a gift, to hear and see what is actually there, not what convention dictates…
Well that’s why, then – he has an unerring ear for verbal falsity. I do value that quality – so naturally he’s a hero.
Elsewhere his incisiveness is less alarming, and often pleasingly sceptical. Puncturing reputations is a speciality. He comments wryly on the “canonisation” of Iris Murdoch, whose famed unworldliness somehow did not prevent her accepting umpteen honorary degrees and a damehood from Mrs Thatcher. Sir Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova are also put through the mill — the one not much good at thinking, the other not much good at poetry, and both too pleased with themselves.
Yeah, yeah, yeah – more, more.
I have never read a book of this length where I have turned the last page with such regret. It is intelligent, educated, engaging, humane, self-aware, cantankerous and irresistibly funny. You want it to go on for ever.
So much repels; what a good thing there is Alan Bennett, who doesn’t.