Monday, February 05, 2007

Alan Bennett: Untold Stories

Alan Bennett is very well known in the UK, and far from unknown in the US. Yet he is not a celebrity: I once saw him on a crowded train, and no one else seemed to recognise him.

This is curious, but not, I suspect, unwelcome to him. He seems a quiet and somewhat retiring person.

Born in 1934, Bennett is known (Wikipedia says) for his work, his boyish appearance, and his sonorous Yorkshire accent. He first came to public attention in the 1960s, when he appeared with Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke, and Jonathan Miller in the satirical stage revue Beyond the Fringe. This was a substantial success both in the West End and on Broadway, where it seems to have run for a couple of years.

Few performers, however, have ever looked and behaved less like a Broadway star than Alan Bennett; and gradually he gave up acting in favour of writing. He is best known as a playwright, his latest success being The History Boys, which is still, I believe, running in both London and New York.

From time to time, Bennett publishes collections of prose, and the latest is Untold Stories. This is, frankly a bit of a hodge-podge, including, it seems, everything he has written since the last such collection (Writing Home, 1994).

Newspaper reviewers of Untold Stories have greeted it with great enthusiasm. Nigel Slater, in the Observer, described it as 'Not only my book of the year, it is my book of the decade.' Well, yes, it's good; but it's not that good.

Untold Stories is long and thick: 630 pages. And, at least in the paperback format, the print is small: 8 point if it's lucky.

As with much of Bennett's work, both in book form and for the stage, his Yorkshire family provide some of the material. Indeed his mother is quoted at one point as saying, 'You've had some script out of me.'

The first 125 pages or so is pure autobiography, and carries the same title as the book: and the untold stories are various secrets, mainly relating to the suicide of Bennett's maternal grandfather. This was never spoken of in the family; in fact it was lied about, and Bennett himself only became aware of it when his mother suffered from depression and enquiries were made about the previous history of such illness in the family.

I found this first section of the book thoroughly enthralling, for it turns out that Mr Bennett and I have much in common. He is five years or so older than I am, but we both had Yorkshire parents. His remained for ever in Leeds (apart from a brief, and failed, attempt to move south), whereas mine moved south before I was born, and stayed there. But, like Bennett, I had whole regiments of aunties and uncles in Yorkshire, and visited them during almost every school holiday for years and years.

Thus for me there are many familiar faces here. And there are many touching stories of a kind that I too heard as a boy.

Bennett's father was a butcher, and remained one all his life. But he was an excellent musician, and in other circumstances might have made a living with his violin. Bennett's mother, known as Mam, was troubled by periodic bouts of mental illness, and the accounts of her treatment in various psychiatric hospitals make one grateful for having had little to do with them.

And then, of course, there are the aunties. In Yorkshire there are always aunties -- never aunts. Aunts are formidable creatures, as in Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha; but aunties are kinder souls, inclined to spoil their nephews.

From time to time in this book, there are descriptions of scenes and places which are familiar to me. Descriptions of small, back-to-back houses, in northern industrial cities, black with soot from the mill chimneys. Evenings spent providing your own entertainment round the piano. I even know the stretch of canal where Bennett's grandfather drowned himself; an uncle took me fishing there. Mr Bennett and I have both been there and done that, but how interesting these descriptions will be to others it is hard to say.

And then there is the account of how he studied for, and won, a scholarship to Oxford -- an experience which he used as the basis for The History Boys. Well, I've done that too, except that I went to Cambridge; and I too regret that such scholarships are no longer won in quite the same way, if at all.

During the course of this book we learn that Bennett was successfully treated for bowel cancer in 1995, and perhaps the dice with death has removed any last trace of inhibition: for we learn much more about him, and his family, in this book than we have done before. We also learn that, after a very slow start to his sexual life, he has finally found a partner by the name of Rupert.

All in all then, the autobiographical sections of this book were rewarding for me, but I wonder how they would read in Montana or Melbourne. Perhaps these things are universal.

The rest of the book was, to my mind, less interesting. There are extracts from his diaries, which show that he could be a good blogger; essays about his various plays; short memoirs of actors and directors, such as Thora Hird (excellent) and Lindsay Anderson; plus thoughts on the English honours system. Painless, for the most part, but not outstanding.

Mr Bennett is by no means a complete master of prose. His punctuation is eccentric, and in order to follow the text easily one needs to be able to hear his voice. The sentences are cumbersome at times. But perhaps it is all excused by the dry, self-effacing humour, which makes up for a great deal.


Anonymous said...

I have never understood this regret at the passing of the Oxbridge scholarships. These days 'bright' students from modest and/or non-academic backgrounds have several ways of getting to an Oxbridge college, and it seems reasonable to assume that anyone who might have been awarded a scholarship in the past can easily get in through UCCAS or the modern entrance exams. What's the downside?

Paul Pennyfeather said...

I've always enjoyed Alan Bennett. His collection WRITING HOME was wonderful, even for this life-long Texan. I was a bit disapointed that he seemed to jump on the Philip-Larkin-should-be-dug-up-and-flogged bandwagon after Andrew Motion's biography put the poet in an unflattering light. But at least Bennett didn't disgrace himself by "reassessing" Larkin's poetry in light of his personal life, a truly hideous and Stalinist notion.

I look forward to reading Bennett's new collection.

Wonderful blog, by the way.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about Melbourne, but it reads well in Adelaide. Not that I could find a copy for a while - the publishers in Australia sold out very fast, and took ages to get more stock in, so I suspect I'm not alone.

Anonymous said...

Melbourne Australia has at least one keen Bennett fan - myself. Melbourne Florida may be different - I see the book is already remaindered in the USA.

Reading the UK and Australian obituaries, one sees a whole generation of working class Alpha Pluses from Bennetts generation who won scholarships to university and then ran the country.
I fear for our current Bennetts in this day of "user pays" education, and the ideology of "equality" that discourages the separation & mentoring of the talented schoolchild.
As the universities become the playground of the idle middle classes, we lose many of the best.

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