Few writers can or would want to be accused of niceness. Nice means inoffensive; nice means unprovoking, and in particular unprovoking of thought; nice means Betjeman, whose poetry laureateship may have passed to Ted Hughes but whose public mantle - jokes, nostalgia, bicycles, a love of poetry and a profound affection for dear old England - many would like to see worn by Alan Bennett. Except the cloak doesn't fit, Bennett reminds us: he is not as nice as people think.
Nice men are likely to be awkward and self-deprecating, and Bennett certainly looks (or plays) the part, making a success of failure. Dining at Magdalen College, Oxford as the 'most junior of junior lecturers', he catches the sleeves of his gown under the chair leg and is too shy to free them (the food hovers 'tantalisingly out of reach of my pinioned arms'). He goes to Claridge's to meet John Huston and is shown the tradesman's entrance. He pays the pounds 3 weekend supplement to travel First Class on British Rail and is told by the ticket collector: 'You don't belong in here. These are proper First Class people.' He portrays himself as a man of few books and little literary appreciation, and 'the only Western playwright not personally acquainted with the new President of Czechoslovakia'. Later, though, he owns up to having read more books than he likes to let on. And we remember that lecturers in history at Oxford, however junior, aren't, or aren't usually, daft.
Despite or because of his hapless, bicycle-clipped, rather swotty demeanour, he is imagined to be the kind of writer that mothers like - meaning a certain kind of mother (houseproud, northern, born before 1920), who is fond enough of books but not those written by the writers admired by Bennett (Larkin, Kafka). Bennett's own mother was like this, and if mothers are fond of him perhaps that's because they sense he's fond of them, or at least of her, whose principal reaction when they visited the Bronte parsonage together was horror at the mucky fireplace and curtains ('Too busy writing their books to keep the place up to scratch'). Bennett shares some of his mother's distrust of books, having learnt, during his Thirties childhood in Leeds, that they can be treacherous: 'There were owls in hollow trees, so the nature books said, but I saw no owls - and hollow trees were in pretty short supply too.' But books meant education, which Bennett's parents hadn't had and which they wanted him to have, mistakenly thinking it would make him socially confident as well.
Writers who move to London and use their provincial relatives as subject matter are liable to be accused of condescension. They may also be suspected of pandering to an English obsession with class. Alan Bennett is thought to be this kind of writer, but he's not. He describes his background as 'dull', and satirises those northern writers who overplay the colourful deprivation of their upbringing. When he dramatises his Mam (and Dad, aunts, uncles, and so on) he is too much the heir of their social unease to offer it up for easy laughs. Caught between 'being himself' and acquiring 'the necessary accomplishment of saying things one doesn't mean', he can't be sure where his loyalties lie. There is nothing cosy, or merely poignant, in his visits to his mother at a home for the elderly in Weston-super-Mare, one of which culminates in her thanking him for all he's done for her: ' . . . it isn't a remark intended to induce guilt. But in a film the next shot would be me looking down at the shaft of a spear protruding from my belly with the head stuck out a foot behind me.'
Guilt - or social obligation - also underlies his protectiveness towards Miss Shepherd, the elderly eccentric who used to park her battered van in his London street, until he allowed her to park it in his garden, hard up against his front step, where it remained for 15 years, until she died. What's affecting about Bennett's account of Miss Shepherd, The Lady in the Van, is that it isn't sentimental; what's winning about it is that it doesn't compete for brownie-points. The chief feelings Bennett owns up to are irritation, exasperation and queasiness at the filth accumulating in Miss Shepherd's van - uncharitable feelings, but ones he can afford given his charitableness, which most readers will admit, not even very guiltily, they wouldn't have shown Miss Shepherd themselves.
Miss Shepherd makes Bennett feel a bit of a soft touch. He finds it hard not to be soft, even in his politics, which he describes as 'Soft Centre', and for a time in the 1980s, as his diary records, he sweetly put up posters for the local Alliance candidate (though Miss Shepherd countered these with her Conservative one). But he is not one to fudge, and around the time of the Falklands war there is the taste of something hard and bitter in his diaries, as Mrs Thatcher, the 'hyena crew of newsmen' and the jingoistic humbug leave him doubtful of the virtues of patriotism: 'Not English I feel now,' he writes in June 1982. 'This is just where I happen to have been put down. No country. No party. No Church. No voice.' Later, he expresses it differently, or has Guy Burgess express it differently in An Englishman Abroad: 'I can say I love London. I can say I love England. I can't say I love my country, because I don't know what that means.' It sounds a bit like E M Forster's famous remark on patriotism and betrayal, which is appropriate. A sceptical Forsterian liberalism is Bennett's true note, with jokes to boot.
The jokes, delivered in a deadpan Yorkshire accent, are what audiences hear. He could be called an anecdotalist, since he tells good stories; he could be called a master of situation comedy, since he is comic about the situations people find themselves in - including the situation he found himself in when someone wrote for advice about a TV script: 'We sent it to Kenneth Williams and he was extremely enthusiastic about our script but he committed suicide soon after.' There is also, however, a strenuous, though never strained, intellectual wit; a love of double (at the very least) entendre; and a vein of fantasy - as when he imagines Kafka contemplating the contemporary world. Above all there is his ear (Bennett's Lug, it might be called, to go with Flaubert's Parrot, Foucault's Pendulum and his own Kafka's Dick), in the vicinity of which people hold remarkable conversations. At the home where his mother lives, for example, he hears one lady shout to another, over the noise of the hairdrier: 'I didn't want to be a Trappist nun. My father had Friar's Balsam in the medicine chest but that's as far as it went.'
How compatible making jokes is with being taken seriously is a problem that interests and perhaps vexes Bennett. It comes up with Kafka, a writer with a reputation for high seriousness, about whom he writes brilliantly and who he finds to be funnier and more English than people think - blackly comic enough to have said on his death-bed: 'I think I deserve the Nobel prize for sputum.' Bennett's is an opposite problem. In this book there are some grandly ringing observations on the human condition: try 'Every family has a secret, and the secret is that it's not like other families'. But it is the jokes people remember.
He wouldn't want the jokes to be forgotten, but he sometimes feels like an imposter. When his play Getting On, which he hadn't intended to be funny, or only funny, won an Evening Standard award for the best comedy of 1971, he said at the ceremony that it was 'like entering a marrow for the show and being given the cucumber prize'. That was carrying it off gracefully. Elsewhere, the problems which directors, actors and critics have in knowing 'how to take' him give rise to tetchiness, though inevitably it breaks out as humour:
Enjoy now in its second week at Richmond. See it tonight, after four days' absence, and find it has turned into A Girl in My Soup, with the actors hopping from laugh to laugh with no thought for what's in between. Several people, including Tom Sutcliffe in the Guardian, describe the play as 'Courageous'. Since the central character is in drag throughout, this presupposes that I spend my evenings idly running my fingers along a rack of strapless evening-gowns and adjusting my slingbacks. Now it can be told.
It isn't told, because that would be telling. Readers for whom the word 'diaries' is now synonymous with sexual revelations will be disappointed by these, which come from someone who 'can scarcely remove his tie without first having a police cordon thrown round the building'. Though Bennett is not averse to discussing others' sexuality (Larkin's, Auden's), and though he is not wholly guarded about his own (he was tempted to go to Oxford after National Service, he says, because of a crush on one of his fellow officer cadets), he evidently feels that this business is no one else's business - perhaps not even the business of Alan Bennett the writer, who has other things to think about.
He must have been strengthened in this conviction by the press's treatment of Russell Harty, a friend who taught him 'that to be silly is not to be foolish' and who is not forgotten here. Harty wasn't forgotten by the tabloids, either, which sent out teams to investigate his life and, as he lay on his death-bed with hepatitis, installed a cameraman in a flat opposite his ward in the hope that he might be dying from a different disease. Bennett feels a fiery indignation against such intrusion, and his diaries offer a salutary alternative. They may have begun in private, and they certainly explore parts of his life that aren't reached by the plays or television, and yet they aren't confessional or even especially gossipy. Mainly, they notice things. It's what he catches, not what he lets slip, that makes his diaries work.
At the end of Writing Home, Alan Bennett describes the embarrassing tradition of 'going round' after a play to the dressing room of actor friends to tell them how marvellous they were. Suffering as he does from a tendency to 'discount the praise and remember only the slights', Alan Bennett may be suspicious of the friends who tell him how marvellous his new book is - of the reviewers, too, who will prefer words such as 'irreverent' and 'satirical'. Never mind. All readers need to know is that there won't be a better book this autumn.
'Writing Home' is published by Faber at pounds 17.50
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