When the teddy bear bites back
Memoir: Keeping On Keeping On, Alan Bennett, Profile/Faber, hdbk, 736 pages, €25.49
Playwright Alan Bennett's superb memoir is full of affection and wit. But there's anger, too, writes our reviewer.
Commuters never usually comment on my reading material, but while studying Alan Bennett's latest diaries on the train into work, I was accosted no fewer than five times over the period of a week. But the responses were not what I was expecting. Three people remarked on me finding time to read such a doorstop, one wanted to know whether it was longer than Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life (I had no idea), and the other - a well-dressed woman in her early 60s - floored me with her vehement disapproval of Bennett's work.
"Oh, I recently saw his play about the boy who blinds horses. It was really weird."
I couldn't help thinking that Bennett would approve of these encounters. He is Britain's most reluctant national treasure and an air of apology hangs over Keeping On Keeping On, his third volume of diaries (plus various previously published articles, eulogies and play texts), which covers the years 2005 to 2015. Bennett doesn't like fame, it's clear, and you can't blame him: it must be hard being recognised by 50pc of the population when your technique as a writer relies on your ability to people-watch unobserved.
But as these diaries show, Bennett can be a gracious celebrity - even when a stranger who recognises him on the street asks him to look after his dachshund for a moment while he dives into a delicatessen for some pasta.
There is a sense of Bennett slowing down in Keeping On Keeping On. A great deal of the entries deal with his and partner Rupert Thomas's jaunts to country houses and genteel towns, shopping for Parmesan and lovingly delineating sandwiches in various tea rooms (there's a typically Bennett-like irony in the fact that Thomas is on a gluten-free diet).
Of course, much of Bennett's success has been in his appreciation of the mundane, and fans will adore these pieces of parochial psycho-geography, but often his ordinary routine unlocks something far more profound and even moving. While varnishing his walls at home, there emerges a Proustian reverie about his father's nicotine-stained fingers. A Rodgers and Hammerstein Prom induces him to reflect on his repressed boyhood sexuality.
On other occasions, he looks at the English capital like a latter-day Pepys, for example when he crosses Waterloo Bridge and surveys the hysteria caused by a bottlenose whale that has become stranded in the Thames. Bennett is not a conscientious chronicler of our times, and his Zelig-like appearances at moments of newsworthy importance are both welcome and unexpected.
Bennett may wearily acknowledge that he is "the accepted measure of tweeness", but he can be waspish.
His distaste for Tony Blair's supplementary adverbs and disdain for the way in which the UK radio station Classic FM wraps its blandness in hysterical audience interaction - "Elgar's 'Nimrod' conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn't get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call" - reveal a playful agility that shows no sign of fading.
But Keeping On Keeping On is often inflected with outright anger. Bennett's passionate support of public libraries (highlighted in the essay 'Baffled at a Bookcase') hovers in and out of view, and he spares few words when it comes to Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, as he beadily eyes library after library as a "prime retail opportunity". The hottest ire is saved for former British Prime Minister Blair, who "understands entirely" - those supplementary adverbs again - the feelings of the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, gunned down by police in error at Stockwell Tube days after the 7/7 terror attacks in London. Blair would only understand entirely, Bennett reasons, were his son Euan to be dispatched by seven shots to the head on the steps of 11 Downing Street. This is not Bennett the cuddly teddy bear of the public imagination.
He is candid about the difficulties he experienced in writing his two most recent plays, The Habit of Art and People, neither of which reached the heights of The History Boys, his previous success. Sometimes, Keeping On Keeping On gives us a peek into his creative process.
While on holiday in Italy, Bennett is served by a waiter, no longer young, and wonders how he can turn the man's life into a monologue, performed by Michael Gambon.
It would be hard for any literary scholar to distil prevailing themes or meanings in Bennett's work. Indeed, he appears to be suspicious of those who proclaim his plays are metaphors for one thing or another (the views of one broadsheet critic are tartly dismissed), and you can't help feeling that he would rather the work spoke for itself.
In the media, Bennett is invariably described as Eeyore-ish, but much of this diary sees a zest for life that's a little closer to Tigger. Here is Bennett in love, a man who, in his dotage, has found someone to adore; not that he is ever soppy. While watching Wuthering Heights on television, Thomas compares the devilishly irresistible Heathcliff to his partner.
"Really?" asks a gratified Bennett. "Yeah," Thomas replies. "Difficult, Northern and a c***."
Like any diary, this is a hotchpotch of encounters, musings, critiques and memories, but few diarists could offer such a consistently funny and touching authorial voice as Bennett.
Long may he keep on keeping on.