BOOK OF THE WEEK
by Alan Bennett (profile £6.99, 49pp)
For some types – sociopaths, lighthouse keepers, authors – the pandemic lockdown restrictions meant little. These people don’t go out much anyway. Alan Bennett’s routines, for example, have hardly changed.
He had always spent months ‘looking out the window’, and with Covid on the loose his preference to stay isolated and indoors suddenly had ‘government approval’.
Although he is now 87 and “gone are the days when I could hop on my bike and pop into the shops,” National Teddy Bear Bennett, in this little book, is at his best spirit and insight. , whether describing awkward elbowing protocol or remembering old-fashioned cafes “with a spinning drum of coffee beans in the window and an intoxicating aroma.”
Alan Bennett, 87 (pictured) wrote about his experiences during lockdown. UK-based author reflects on lockdown and the regrets that have built up
Bennett seems to have a bottomless pit of stories about growing up in Leeds. His mother, he tells us here, was phobic of germs. She thought open-necked shirts gave you tuberculosis, and sharing a bottle of soda meant instant death. Meanwhile, Bennett’s long-suffering father, a butcher who played the fiddle, briefly took up fishing as a hobby. He never caught anything. “Maybe Dad was fishing in the wrong place and was too shy to ask.”
On the way to the countryside, the luggage racks of the wagon were filled with tackle and boxes of bait – “maggots rained down” on the heads of the passengers. Another hobby was brewing non-alcoholic herbal beer, which regularly exploded and “ruined the scullery”.
I liked the sound of crazy Uncle Norris, who was convinced he had found a cure for arthritis by cutting the foot off the socks and creating an anklet. He had never had arthritis, so, he thought, “that must be a cure.” Norris received grateful letters from Churchill, Wilfred Pickles and Val Doonican – surely the only time in history that Winston Churchill and Val Doonican shared the same sentence.
Always presenting himself, in his diaries and autobiographical plays, as a mouse or a mole, Bennett admits that deep down he is a show-off – and one way of bragging, growing up, was taking lots of exams and to pose as a high-flying academic. “I could do it from primary school,” he admits. The trick, when faced with teachers or professors at Oxford, was to “suggest that I was smarter than I was”.
Modesty is wrong, of course – and on the principle that you have to know one, Bennett is caustic about Boris Johnson, a discredit for Balliol and “such a bad orator and orator in general, you almost feel sorry for him “. Bennett hates his oft-repeated, meaningless catchphrases, such as the phrase ‘our NHS’, remarking: ‘That’s no assurance he won’t sell it’.
Alan says he has two regrets. The first that Brexit happened and the second that in Oxford, 70 years ago, he regrets not having had the courage to have more sex
On a Thursday evening, Bennett was out for a walk when the weekly thumps and claps for the NHS begin. He worries that he appears “with me walking down the road, I recognize the applause and even generate it”. He finds himself “weakly smiling and shaking his head”, as if responding to a standing ovation at the National Theatre. “It is an absurd and inexplicable incident.”
As for her existence in show business, Bennett once turned down a role in a Victoria Wood comedy series. “I can’t deal with playing men with feather dusters anymore.”
Bennett met Victoria Wood once, at the solicitors counter in the Lancaster branch of Sainsbury’s. If Thora Hird had been present, they could have put on a play. In fact, during lockdown, the BBC remade Bennett’s talking heads, with a younger cast.
I don’t think it went well – who can replace Thora Hird? Or Patricia Routledge? Plus, Bennett’s references are antiquated and can’t stand being updated: high-fire jam, orange nylon curtains, the Ewbank (a primitive Hoover), and characters named Doris, Mabel, Gladys and Graham.
In 2006, aged 72, Bennett entered into a civil partnership with Rupert Thomas, editor of an architecture magazine. In old age he was able to be free and unburdened in ways inconceivable as he grew up and made a name for himself with Beyond The Fringe
Bennett’s world exists in a time warp. When he’s on the move, his favorite destinations are flea markets and second-hand bookstores, those haunts of the “loners and eccentrics”. In Age Concern, he finds an art book autographed by spy Anthony Blunt.
I could listen to Bennett go on forever – I hear his mournful, amused voice coming off the page. He watches the Queen on TV, mentions that her gloves now look like gauntlets, and is impressed as she steps back from the Cenotaph after laying down her crown. More impressed, in any case, than him by the sight of retirees in supermarkets “fighting for rolls of toilet paper”.
Two regrets remain. This Brexit happened, of course. Bennett is dejected by the news that “due to his support for Brexit” Ian Botham is elevated to the peerage. Those who voted Leave remind Bennett of the “fools” who believed the war in 1914 “was just what we needed, like a cleanser and a salutary shock.”
Second, he hints that in Oxford, 70 years ago, he regrets not having had the courage to have more sex. His emotions had to operate “at a distance”. There was a Roman historian he “imagined rotten” called Fergus Millar, later Sir Fergus Millar (1935 – 2019), whom Bennett saw Mary Beard mention in the press. He “looked a bit like Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd”.
HOME STOP by Alan Bennett (Profile £6.99, 49pp)
As fans of Bennett’s previous diaries know – Writing Home (1994), Untold Stories (2005), Keep On Keeping On (2016) – his one big theme is that he wished he had lived more, hadn’t been so inhibited, was more open sexually. In 2015, for example, he was delighted to receive a photo of a plumber ‘fully tooled and belted with a belt of accessories typical of a plumber so dense and varied that one does not immediately spot him hanging among the ratchets. , keys and keys. …his personal garden hose,” or what Bennett clarifies as “another plumber’s tool.”
In 2006, aged 72, Bennett entered into a civil partnership with Rupert Thomas, editor of an architecture magazine. In old age he was able to be free and unburdened in ways inconceivable as he grew up and made a name for himself with Beyond The Fringe. I love the story of Bennett and Rupert in the car and a cute girl crosses the road slowly and defiantly in front of them. “If I had been bold,” Bennett said, “I would have rolled down the window and said, ‘We’re Nancy!’ Big boobs mean nothing to us! ‘
It must be nice to be close to 90 and having silly, horny thoughts.
He is obviously in front. Although he rejected the knighthood, as offered by the government, OM is surely late – this gong is in the personal gift of the monarch. Buckingham Palace, please note.