Friday, May 9, 2014

A place for asides

Happy 80th birthday Alan Bennett. One of Britain’s best loved writers, Bennett is particularly well known for his plays, and for his voice, with its Northern twang, narrating many a radio programme and audio release, often for children. His very popular autobiographical books, including his diaries, are full of comical anecdotes, winsome memories of childhood, and sometimes biting comment on modern life and public figures. Bennett himself has described his diary as a place for asides, but, also in interviews has said he uses his diaries as ‘joke books’.

Alan Bennet was born in Leeds on 9 May 1934, the son of a butcher. He studied at Exeter College, Oxford, where he became involved with comedy in the Oxford Revue, and from where he graduated with a first in history. He served with the Joint Services School for Linguists at Cambridge and Bodmin, and then, in the early 1960s, returned to Oxford University to teach.

As early as 1960, Bennett had starred in and co-authored the satirical review Beyond the Fringe with Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan Miller at the Edinburgh Festival. Subsequently, he began to contribute to BBC comedies and then to write plays. It was not until the late 1970s though, with his series of six plays for London Weekend Television, that he became a British television ‘name’. Many plays for television and the stage followed, before, in 1988, he achieved widespread popularity with the TV drama Talking Heads, and, in 1991, great critical acclaim for the stage play The Madness of George III. This latter was adapted into a successful film, as was another of Bennett’s plays - The History Boys.

Alongside his writing for the stage and television, Bennett has also become a much-loved Northern ‘voice’, through his narration - for BBC radio and audio books - of his own works and of classics, especially children’s novels, such as Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan. He has won many awards, and is considered by some to be one of Britain’s best living writers. He has never married but is in a civil partnership with Rupert Thomas. 
More information about Bennett’s life and works can be found at Wikipedia, the British Council, the British Film Institute, The Guardian, and The Telegraph (‘I use [my diaries] as joke books’). For a more critical appraisal of the man, see The Daily Mail (‘a sneering, subversive attitude in much of his work’) or The Independent (‘That nice Alan Bennett takes the gloves off for Tory politicians’).

Bennett’s autobiographical writing has also reached a wide audience. He first began publishing an annual selection of extracts from his diary in the London Review of Books - and continues to do so to the present day, see 1996, 2013, 2014 for example. In 1994, Faber and Faber, published Bennett’s Writing Home, which it says, ‘brings together his diaries for 1980-1995, with reminiscences and reviews, the diary he kept during the production of his very first play, Forty Years On, which starred John Gielgud’. Part of this book can be freely read online at Googlebooks. A decade later, in 2005, Faber brought out a second volume of autobiographical writing, Untold Stories, this time including Bennett’s diaries from 1996-2004 - also available to preview at Googlebooks.

Here is Bennet’s brief introduction to the diary section in Untold Stories: ‘Every Christmas or New Year I publish extracts from my diary of the preceding year in the London Review of Books. On a personal level these published diaries are pretty uninformative, not to say cagey, but they do give some indication of what work I was doing and where it took me, though more often than not nowadays this is no further than from the armchair to the desk.

Diaries lengthen the days. To read back over a year when nothing much seems to have happened is often to be nicely surprised, though I note how in earlier diaries much more of what I wrote down had to do with what I did whereas lately the entries are more often occasioned by what I’ve read or seen on television. I should get out more if only for the diary’s sake.

A diary is undoubtedly a comfort. I feel better for having written it down, however hard the experience. I never enjoy, though, having to record set pieces and prefer to pick at incidents rather than try for a comprehensive account. As I’ve noted before, my diary is often best when written in the intervals of other writing; it’s a turning away, a place for asides. What I do always dislike is not having written anything for a while and then finding I have to catch up.’

And here are a few extracts.

9 May 1996
‘Vanity: my sixty-second birthday. Someone behind me in M&S says: ‘Are you all right, young man? I look round.’

27 June 1996
‘Chichester. Talking to Maggie Smith about the number of grey heads in the audience for Talking Heads, I compare them with a field of dandelion clocks. She says that she’s read or been told that the Warwickshire folk name for these was ‘chimney-sweeps’ so that Shakespeare’s “Golden lads and girls must,/ As chimney-sweepers, come to dust” is thus explained. I had always taken chimney-sweepers to be a straightforward antithesis, poor and dirty boys and girls the opposite of clean and bronzed ones. This, of course, doesn’t bear close examination, though what probably planted it in my mind was a nightmare I used regularly to have as a child in which a chimney-sweep or coalman rampaged through our spotless house. I look up chimney-sweeps in Geoffrey Grigson’s The Englishman’s Flora (shamefully out of print) and find that, the flowers being black and dusty, chimney-sweep and chimney-sweeper are Warwickshire slang for the plantain, particularly the ribwort, and that these were used to bind up sheaves of hay; children, whether golden or otherwise, used to play a game not unlike conkers with the flowers on their long stems, in the course of which, presumably, the flowers disintegrated, or came to dust.’

15 January 1997
‘Trying to put my forty-year old letters in order, I come across a diary for 1956-9. It’s depressing to read as very little of of it is factual and most of it to do with my slightly sickening obsession with, coupled with a lack of insight into, my own character. It’s full of embarrassing resolutions about future conduct and exhortations to myself to do better. Love is treated very obliquely, passing fancies thought of as echoes of some Grand Passion.

My first inclination is to put it in the bin, though I probably won’t. I can see why writers do, though, fearful that these commonplace beginnings might infect what comes after with their banality. In this sense Orton (and to some extent Larkin) are exceptional, Orton’s early diaries written with the same peculiar slant on the world as his mature writing.

1957 was the year I should have come down from Oxford but didn’t and one thing I think reading this tosh is that if I hadn’t got a First (the circumstances undescribed in the diary) I would never have picked myself up to do much except possibly teach badly. It was the fairly spurious self-confidence I got from this fluke result, plus the breathing space it gave, that enabled me to go on doing silly turns, being funny and thus eventually to write.’

The Diary Junction

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