Alan Bennett leaves contemporary British authors on the shelf

Author says he prefers American writers and also expresses his sympathy for Cambridge spies

Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith? They aren’t worth a place on Alan Bennett’s bookshelves.

The distinguished playwright has revealed that he favours American authors over their contemporary British counterparts – because he believes his campatriots have little to say.

“I’m very ill-read. I know that sounds overmodest but it’s quite true,” Bennett tells Sir Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre director, in a BBC4 interview marking the writer’s 80th birthday.

“I like American literature more than I do contemporary English literature. I like Philip Roth, for instance. I don’t feel any of the people writing in England can tell me very much. That may be unfair.”

Roth, 81, the author of The Human Stain and Portnoy’s Complaint, was last year named America’s greatest living novelist. In 2011, he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction on the world stage.

Bennett makes the admission in a revealing, career-spanning interview, previewed in the Radio Times, in which he discusses his sexuality and recovery from a cancer diagnosis.

The writer, whose 1998 play A Question Of Attribution dramatised the Cambridge spy Anthony Blunt in his role as the Queen’s Surveyor of Pictures, said he sympathised with those secret Communists who betrayed their country.

“I liked the notion of the Cambridge spies betraying their class; I liked them two-timing it. It’s something I can’t resolve in my mind; I resolve it by writing about it. It’s an ambiguity about England, too: about being, in many ways, very conservative with a small “c” about England, yet knowing there’s so much wrong with it.”

Bennett added: “Spying is excusable because they thought that they were doing something to improve things, that they were morally on the right side. None of the spies spied for money. They all did it out of conviction – it was not to do with material gain.  The treason they’re supposed to have committed doesn’t nowadays seem to me to be a particularly important crime. The Edward Snowden stuff – I’m wholly on his side.”

The author of The History Boys also discussed his past reluctance to declare his sexuality. “I don’t care what people think about me. My objection to people knowing more about one’s private life was that I didn’t want to be put in a pigeonhole. I didn’t want to be labelled as gay and that was it. I wanted to be my own man.”

He says his one regret at 80 is that he did not have enough sex. “It’s in my nature to feel somehow that one has missed out. It’s my view of my own life except that I’ve been very, very lucky. I met my partner (Bennett is in a civil partnership with journalist Rupert Thomas) quite late in life and so the last part of my life is much happier than the first part.”

Bennett was able to continue to work throughout a cancer diagnosis, which he did not disclose for many years. “When I was diagnosed in 1997 (with cancer of the colon), they said I had a 50:50 chance of surviving. The truth was I actually had a one in five chance. So I was very, very lucky and the doctors who treated me were very, very good. By the time we got to The History Boys in 2004 the shadow was receding. I think some of that renewed life and vigour – not a word I normally associate with myself! – fed into The History Boys.”

In the interview Bennett repeats his call for private education to be abolished. “I believe very strongly – one of the few things I am passionate about – that private education is wrong. We’ll only get somewhere in England, we’ll only pull together, when private education is abolished and we’re all educated under the same system.”

‘Alan Bennett at 80: Bennett meets Hytner’ – BBC4, 9pm, Saturday night, followed by a selection of Bennett’s classic BBC dramas.

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