BOOK REVIEW / Oh marvellous, marvellous: 'Writing Home' - Alan Bennett: Faber, 17.50

Mark Lawson
Friday 07 October 1994 23:02

ALAN BENNETT still habitually strikes the pose of being - to borrow a phrase from another Yorkshire writer, David Nobbs - second from last in the sack race. One entry from his journals - selections from which are the centrepiece of Writing Home, his first long book of prose - gloomily approves of the title used by another lugubrious playwright, Peter Nichols, for his memoirs: Feeling You're Behind. Bennett confides that he, too, feels lapped by flashier talents. Another entry records his position as 'the only western playwright not intimately acquainted' with President Havel of Czechoslovakia.

In fact, if Bennett has a career problem at all, it is that this left- out tone - his non-grata persona - is becoming increasingly absurd. The modesty may not be false, but it is illogical. He was, in terms of critical recognition, a late beginner. The one people tended to forget from Beyond The Fringe, he turned to writing stage and television plays but was footnoted or totally overlooked in the main academic surveys of both theatre and TV writing in the Seventies. Since 1980, though, he has had more plays staged at the Royal National Theatre than Tom Stoppard, and won at least as many awards for his TV work as Alan Bleasdale.

And, now, take Writing Home. Viewed brutally, the book is a collection of reprinted bits: funeral addresses, transcripts of TV documentaries, book reviews, prefaces to his published play texts. Even large parts of the diaries - the book's highlight, recently serialised in a Sunday newspaper - have previously appeared in the London Review Of Books. The standard critical response to such a volume is to accuse the writer of stowing away his toenail-clippings in an envelope. Yet Bennett's collection has already been widely acclaimed as one of the best books of the year. It is becoming increasingly clear that being the forgotten man of English letters is part of an act for which he will be long remembered. For Bennett it is perhaps be a case of 'feeling you're behind', but critics, these days, are much more likely to be kissing it.

The book makes a strong case for this position. 'The Lady In The Van' - an account of an ornately spoken Roman Catholic bag lady, Mrs Shepherd, who spent 20 years in residence outside the playwright's house and then in his garden - is an extraordinary piece of comic reporting, combining autobiography, biography and anthropology. Partly, this is a case of writer's luck: a great subject literally turned up on the author's doorstep.

Yet, as he mentions in passing elsewhere in the book, Bennett's street in NW1 happens to writhe with writers, including Jonathan Miller, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and Alice Thomas Ellis. Unless there are street rules - giving a writer first claim to inspiration occurring within a certain footage of their front door - it is revealing that it should only have been Bennett who turned Miss Shepherd into prose. Given his combination of social (guilty) conscience, self-deprecation and ear for the found poetry of daily conversation, Bennett and the lady in the van were probably made for each other. He achieves a tone which is - to borrow a coinage of Dr David Owen, whose SDP the playwright joined - tough but tender.

The diaries - covering 1980-90 and 102 pages of Writing Home - are, as might be expected, funny and a comfortable repository for shrugged-off aphorisms, but they are also - to a reading public raised on the work of the Rt Hon Alan Clark - almost comically non-confessional. Relationships with women and perhaps also with men are glimpsed in deep shadow at the back of some paragraphs, as are a stomach operation, writer's block, and periods of serious depression.

But the reader cannot be entirely certain afterwards that any of these things happened. The main autobiographical revelation is that Bennett has spent a considerable part of his life - months every year, it seems - in New York, and sounds at ease there, although you had tended to associate him with a Larkinesque alarm about abroad.

However, Writing Home turns out to contain a going-home present for the nosey reader. Although the diaries themselves identify a close female friend merely as A, and a male friend as K, the index fattens out the initials as Anne Davies and Keith McNally, although providing no further help in who these people are. Even a woman with unusually shaped nipples (Bennett spots them when she sunbathes on holiday), who is protected in the diary text as Charlotte H, is fully exposed in the index as Charlotte Hindle.

But perhaps these games with initials are a homage to Kafka, about whom Bennett has written plays for stage and television, and also a knockabout but learned lecture, 'Kafka At Las Vegas', which is featured in this collection. Bennett claims Kafka as a very English writer: in his self-deprecation and embarrassment. Perhaps Vaclev Havel will one day write a lecture claiming Bennett as a very Czech writer, but I think we can safely file him as specially English, like Philip Larkin, of whom two lengthy appreciations are included in Writing Home. The fear of shame and failure - of being 'found out', particularly on class grounds - are at the heart of Bennett's writing.

There has been a sense in the interviews he has given to promote this book that Bennett fears election as the literary sweetie of the English middle classes in succession to John Betjeman. There is a clear risk of this: he is probably now the quintessential Radio 4 reading voice, of his own work and others'. But Writing Home, and particularly the diary extracts, hint at a harsher and more complex personality: sometimes grumpy or vulgar, combining dislike of war and Mrs Thatcher with reverence for the Book of Common Prayer and manners.

Bennett's contradictions, though, are typically, and best, expressed as comedy. The book ends with perhaps the funniest piece ever written about theatre: 'Going Round', an account of the problems of knowing what to say when visiting an actor friend in their dressing room after seeing a performance. Bennett concludes that the only safe criticism is 'marvellous, marvellous, marvellous'.

Given that the mournful Northern double negative is one of the features that Bennett has contributed to English writing, Writing Home should perhaps be described as a not unpleasant book. But I fear that - assuming a fuller and franker volume of the diaries was not, and is not, an option - the only three words for it really are: marvellous, marvellous, marvellous.

(Photograph omitted)

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