Friday 28 April 2017

Alan Bennett: 'I don't fret about posterity. But some things will last'

The celebrated writer talks to Robert McCrum about his work, his ongoing struggle not to be an old git and waging war on squirrels

A long way from Downton: Maggie Smith as ‘The Lady in the Van’
A long way from Downton: Maggie Smith as ‘The Lady in the Van’

I'm afraid I really haven't got much left to say," is Alan Bennett's opening gambit. "I have such a limited repertoire." This, from a writer who recently published a chunky new volume of prose, and is about to be the subject of a new documentary, is frankly a tease. He will shortly converse in something approximate to high spirits (a relative term in Bennett's universe) for about an hour and a half in the sombre elegance of his sitting room.

Outside his Victorian front door, a film crew is shooting Paddington 2 against the discreet pastels of his street in leafy Primrose Hill, North London, not far from Gloucester Crescent, where he lived for nearly 40 years, famously co-existing with Miss Shepherd, "the lady in the van".

This interview was done to tie in to a BBC Bennett double bill tonight (Christmas Eve): Adam Low's Alan Bennett's Diaries documentary - a portrait of the artist as "an old git" - followed by the TV premiere of The Lady in the Van, Nicholas Hytner's 2015 film, starring Maggie Smith, about the woman who became a bizarre and eccentric part of Bennett's life in his former home.

He and his partner, Rupert Thomas, moved to his current address in 2006. It was, says Bennett, a reluctant farewell to the "drunks, drug dealers, snogging by the wall, and the stop-and-search", of Camden Town. Here the biggest excitement is "the occasional squirrel", a species with which he is cordially at war. Otherwise, Bennett says that, having embraced the tranquillity of Primrose Hill, he has "just got on with it".

Bennett is now 82. In these past 10 years he has been "getting on", in all senses: films of The History Boys and The Lady in the Van; four more plays at the National Theatre, including The Habit of Art; and the treadmill of senescence punctuating the quotidian reality of what he calls "keeping on keeping on". That happens to be the title of his latest collection of diaries (2005-2015), following Writing Home (1994) and Untold Stories (2005). In Low's film he jokes that "banging on, banging on" might be a better title. As always, that's part of an ironical self-presentation by a man who admits: "I always wanted to perform, I knew I could do it."

In the 20-odd years since he first began sharing his progress with his readers, Bennett has become the zen master of the public/private literary career, fusing life and art in a nationally treasured presentation of himself that's both immensely popular and also, on closer examination, surprisingly complex. Bennett wrestles with what he's created. On the one hand, he rejects becoming "tweeness's accepted measure". On the other, he seems to recognise his fate, lamenting: "Did I stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork, I should still be a teddy bear."

Alan Bennett, ‘I’m a writer. I get embarrassed when they say playwright, novelist and actor — I’m not a novelist, and I’m not much of an actor’
Alan Bennett, ‘I’m a writer. I get embarrassed when they say playwright, novelist and actor — I’m not a novelist, and I’m not much of an actor’

You can almost hear the nation's grammarians yodelling with joy at that faultless archaism. But what would they make of the writer himself? That might depend on timing. In Hytner's film, Alex Jennings plays both the "teddy bear" Bennett - and a tougher alter ego. Indeed, in any encounter with the writer himself, there will always be at least two "Alans" present: the Somebody and the Nobody. Both are to be found seamlessly interacting in his diary, and both are on show in the BBC documentary which follows Bennett as he completes the editing of the latest diaries, and goes about his business as a nationally renowned talking head. We find the Somebody feted as a "literary lion" by the great and the good at the New York Public Library, and also appearing on Radio 3's Private Passions. Meanwhile, the Nobody gets comically misidentified by the gawping public ("which Alan are you?") or, in Bennett's memories of his Oxford graduate days, patronised on high table. Bennett the academic manque ("I was no great loss to history") is a component of this persona, a role he will slip into as happily as he inhabits the limelight. Bennett the Nobody can still be shy/self-effacing, telling funny stories to distract attention. Behind a beguiling mask of melancholy, he nurtures a fierce and well-camouflaged commitment to his art.

Today, Bennett's mood (and the mood of Keeping On Keeping On), projects contentment, valediction, and "banging on", an engaging sort of Why-oh-why. "I try not to sound like an old git," he says, laughing. Mixed in with the grumbling, and the obituaries, memorial services and funerals, there's the evident happiness he derives from his life with Rupert Thomas 30 years his junior, with whom he made a civil partnership in 2006.

In the book, and the film, Bennett narrates this milestone in his life with a minimum of self-scrutiny, while approving the absence of fuss.

Discussing the diaries' appeal, he remarks that readers like them because "they come in bite-sized chunks".

The pleasure of Bennett's journal comes from his chuntering elegy for a lost world, the land of his Leeds childhood, and the England of healthcare; Kathleen Ferrier; parish churches; his friendship with "Debo" Devonshire; Hymns Ancient and Modern (hymns make him cry); public libraries; and state education ("I owe everything to the State," he says). Who could not warm to someone who loathes Virgin Trains, Classic FM and Tony Blair? Or to a writer who has "real regrets" about never having kept a donkey? Simultaneously, he wants to entertain:

"Spent part of the afternoon in the gazebo with a water pistol," he writes on May 16, 2010, "hoping to surprise the squirrel rifling the bird feeder."

There's also the potent magic of his crystal prose. This comes in two kinds of observation: a) brilliantly allusive grace notes, for instance, footballer Frank Lampard's open mouth like "the howl on the face of the damned man in Michelangelo's The Last Judgment", and b) ironic self-effacement. "I am in the pigeon hole marked 'no threat'," he writes. Whatever he might do to Judi Dench, he would still be that teddy bear.

A teddy bear with sharp teeth. Bennett is plainly devoted to his partner, but on August 31, 2009 demonstrates his writer's splinter of ice firmly intact, reporting that, after watching Wuthering Heights: "Rupert turns to me and says: 'You're rather like Heathcliff'.

Me: (gratified) 'Really?'

R: 'Yeah. Difficult, northern and a c***'."

As we talk about the chance of his diary giving offence - a suggestion he rebuts - Bennett suddenly seems "unabashed", happy to be funny, honest - and casually devastating. Perhaps, like many older people, he no longer cares.

Ageing is definitely on his mind. Does he think about dying? "Yes," he says, with a short laugh. "All the time. And the fact that there's 30 years between me and Rupert means it's not something I can talk about because it's not fair on him." A beat. "But it's always there, yes."

Nearly 20 years ago, Bennett had an operation for colon cancer during which his surgeon removed a "rock bun-sized" tumour. "I was very, very lucky," he says "I never had any pain, but it was touch and go, though they didn't tell me that 'til after."

It's a shock to remember, talking to him now, just how long Bennett has been a "much-loved" part of English cultural life. He was born in 1934, which makes him a contemporary of his friend Michael Frayn, and the late Joe Orton and Simon Gray.

Does he fret about posterity and his posthumous reputation? "Not really. I don't think I'm that kind of writer, and anyway I won't be around, will I?" He pauses to reflect on the question. "I think some things will last. The story about the queen [A novella, The Uncommon Reader, 2007], for instance. That might last, I suppose, but that's really to do with the queen."

I wonder if the queen has ever expressed any opinion about her role in his work, for example A Question of Attribution, his play about Anthony Blunt's chance encounter with the queen in the picture gallery of Buckingham Palace. Bennett finds this idea laughable. "Oh no, no - she's got better things to do." He goes on: "The nice thing is that The History Boys is taught at A-level, so it does have an afterlife. Sometimes when people come up to me, some kids are quite surprised that I'm still alive."

Bennett's own theatrical debut in Beyond the Fringe occurred in 1960, when Harold Macmillan was British prime minister, and he occupies an odd position in theatre. After Beyond the Fringe, it was some years before he returned with Forty Years On, and then more than two decades (and a few flops) before he struck gold with The Madness of George III. Some critics locate his masterpiece in his TV writing, notably Talking Heads.

Is he a diarist or a playwright? "I'm a writer," he replies, admitting that he has always seen himself as a performer, preferring the company of actors to writers. As a writer-performer, he prefers monologues, and began his stage career with a famous comic sermon. For years after Beyond the Fringe, he thought he would be a teacher or a clergyman, or possibly a librarian. He always knew he wanted to perform, but is less certain about writing. Ask him to define himself as a "playwright" and he will demur. "I'm a writer," he replies. "I get embarrassed when they say 'playwright, novelist and actor'. I'm not a novelist, and I'm not much of an actor." Ask him about work in progress and he'll tell you that his plays usually gestate in a four-year cycle. At the moment, he says: "I've started one, but haven't got any further."

In this vein, Bennett could win a Nobel prize for self-deprecation. Still both shy and an outsider, he's a man with a terror of parties, who says he can easily feel his 16-year-old self returning. Even at 82, he doesn't feel "any different".

Bennett's reticence, an indispensable part of being Somebody/Nobody, holds the key to his appeal. He is a very special kind of English writer who is beloved of a people who love literature, and its entertainments, but don't want it thrust down their throats. They want honesty, but not the show-off, flashy kind that feels like self-promotion. His readers want to explore for themselves the life of an Englishman who could be a neighbour, savouring its austere satisfactions in private. Bennett will never break this unspoken contract, even though he will test it a bit, when he can. He is, after all, an English libertarian as well as a writer.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the dominant tone of Bennett's recent work is valedictory. He has always harked back to an England where questions about class and sex were unspoken. At the same time, he identifies strongly with the common man, who is as good as anyone else. He believes in tolerance, fairness and fair play, while hating snobbery, pretension and privilege. He knows that preaching won't get him anywhere, so he has perfected the art of being funny and affectionate about English life through which he has morphed into being a national somebody, a role he acknowledges, while sending it up.

As the nation watches Bennett on TV, how will he and his partner celebrate Christmas? "We'll stay in London, and go to Rupert's parents on Christmas Day. That will be the nearest thing to a family lunch."

He sounds quite happy to play the spouse, but the prospect of the meal seems faintly alarming. "I don't much like turkey," he admits, then brightens. "But I do like Christmas pudding, and we'll go to Yorkshire after." In a connection he cherishes, Bennett keeps his parents' old home, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. With Rupert, he visits regularly on the train. "I'm the only non-resident in the village, but I've been going there for 50 years."

How, then, did Yorkshire respond to his civil partnership? "The village…?" Bennett laughs. "Well, there are far more interesting things going on there than that…" He does not finish the sentence. "Rupert is more at home there now than I am really."

Alan Bennett's Diaries is on BBC2 tonight (Christmas Eve) 8pm, followed by The Lady in the Van.

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