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Untold Stories, by Alan Bennett
Beyond the whinge
Friday 07 October 2005
Compiled in the aftermath of an operation for bowel cancer, Untold Stories is, in effect, a giant autobiography, taking us from his childhood in Leeds to his present eminence by means of essays, dairy entries and family memoirs: the result is endearing, entertaining and pleasingly provocative. It's also extremely funny: he taught medieval history at Oxford and when, at the end of his first lecture, he asked for questions, a long silence fell, broken only when an undergraduate piped up with "Can you tell me where you bought your shoes?"
Bennett combines comicality with sadness, righteous indignation about the state of the world - Iraq, Tony Blair, the destruction of Victorian Leeds - with an observant delight in its minutiae. He recalls how the teacher who took him in the 1940s to the Leeds City Art Gallery had "the kind of old lady's legs that seem to have gone out now, which begin at the corners of the skirt and converge on the ankles".
Although his father was a butcher, albeit one who played the violin, gentility loomed large in the Bennett household, and a dread of being thought "common" - the outward manifestations of which included red paint, yellow gloves, two-tone cardigans and cocktail cabinets. Alcoholic drinks were shunned, so much that Mr Bennett was forbidden to drive to church on Sunday lest he be overcome by a sip of communion wine. But when, after his retirement, they moved into the country, the shy and reclusive Mrs Bennett, suddenly avid for sophistication, bought an unopened bottle of sherry and a tube of cocktail sticks.
Nor was this the only sign of unwonted behaviour: she began to worry that the lavatory was being monitored, took to hiding her handbag under the bed and, in due course, was taken away to a home in Lancaster. Thereafter her devoted husband drove 50 miles every day to visit her, and himself to an early grave. They were an undemonstrative family, and when Alan Bennett bent down to kiss his dying father, the old man's eyes flared in alarm. It's a sad story, made sadder still when Bennett learned that his maternal grandfather had committed suicide, while Aunt Kathleen died after escaping from another mental home.
Like many bright children, Bennett always felt himself to be a loner and a non-joiner: a late developer with both sex and shaving, he realised that he was one of those who would never learn to "dive, throw a cricket ball, piss in public, catch the barman's eye". His mother might diagnose his shyness as "the mark of a natural aristocracy", but he worried that he might end up as a "denizen of tea shops and haunter of libraries". "You're not one of them, are you?" his father asked when, in the late Fifties, he longed to buy a pair of the tubular trousers.
Although he told his father not to be "daft", he knew himself then to be homosexual, however diffident and late-developing. It was only after his operation for cancer that he shared a house with another man; in the meantime, "the satisfactions of sex, however sparse, are more worthwhile than the dubious rewards of rising above it".
One of the advantages of writing plays, Bennett tells us, is that you can put unpopular views into the mouths of your characters - but this doesn't prevent him from airing unorthodox views in print. It's a relief to come across a literary man who admits to finding much of Shakespeare "opaque", is frankly bored by WG Sebald and confesses, apropos PG Wodehouse, tto finding his novels' "relentless flippancy... wearing and tedious". A perceptive art lover, he finds himself incapable of Berensonian raptures when confronted by an Old Master, not least because his legs give out. He finds Michelangelo's women too "husky" to be borne: "I don't think any of them would be allowed in the 100-metre dash without giving at least one urine sample".
Bennett seems benign, but every now and then lets his irritation show. He is maddened by the way Jack Straw nods approval in the Commons, "like a dog in the back window of a Fiesta"; and is angered most by the betrayal of all that the postwar Labour government stood for; but he is, after all, a very old-fashioned figure, and all the better for it.
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