Keeping On Keeping On - Alan Bennett

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Keeping On Keeping On - Alan Bennett


Thu, 03/11/2016 - 11:48


Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett
03 November, 2016

IN the introduction to a book he wrote on famous poets, Alan Bennett insisted that the current taste for biography about literary figures is a peculiarity of the English-speaking world.

“Everybody has something to hide, even if it’s only that they have nothing to hide,” he pointed out. “But writers in particular feel that, since they have erected a monument in the shape of their work, a second or third or a fourth tombstone is neither necessary nor desirable.”

And perhaps to ensure that, Bennett, now 82, has maintained a diary, the latest of which – covering the decade up to 2015 – has now been published in a monster, 721-page volume.

The consummate storyteller, there’s little doubt he enjoyed doing it too, especially writing about his life for 40 years in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, the scene of his delightful book and film, Lady in the Van.

The lad from Leeds, son of a Co-op butcher and his wife, made his name alongside Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook in Beyond The Fringe and has since earned international recognition – one critic believes he should have been given the Nobel Prize awarded to Bob Dylan – as the author of The Madness of George III and The History Boys plus much else since he has an eye and an ear for everything.

The cover picture of him on this appropriately titled latest tome, Keeping On Keeping On, shows him looking dour and sad-eyed yet quizzical of life and certainly unabashed at putting the boot into politicians.

Margaret Thatcher he describes as “a mirthless bully” who should have been buried “in the dead of night”, as some past monarchs were, while many politicians, Tony Blair and Jeremy Hunt included together with Rupert Murdoch, are labelled as members of the league of “self-seeking liars”, though Bennett says he would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn to lead Labour if he had been a party member.

The focus for him, as he says in his introduction, is that he started life in London in 1964 “when I had a top-floor flat for £10 a week in Chalcot Square” before moving to Gloucester Crescent, where he worked in the bay window overlooking the street “to divert me in the gaps of my less continuous flow of composition”.

But he finally paid a reluctant farewell to the “drunks, drug dealing, snogging by the wall and the occasional stop and search” and “embraced the tranquillity of a back garden in Primrose Hill and just got on with it”.

His most significant personal decision came in 2006 when he formed a civil partnership with Rupert Thomas, the editor of World of Interiors, after being together since 1997. 

“It was a rainy morning in Camden Register Office, with the registrar performing the rites in the presence of Rupert’s parents, his brother and a few friends and with scant ceremony, so scant in fact that even the registrar felt it a bit of a let-down,” he recalls, the “happy couple” celebrating with a cup of coffee in Great Portland Street.

Camden, however, is given a full blast in Bennett’s own iconoclastic and droll fashion when he seeks to change his parking permit in 2006 and the difficulties that unfold.

“I wish it were the Freedom of Camden I’d been offered rather than the Freedom of Leeds,” Bennett declares. “Then I could write back saying, No thank you. All I want is to change my parking permit – a procedure that in Camden is virtually impossible to accomplish within a single working day.”

Worse was to come in 2010 when, having taking £1,500 cash from Lloyds Bank in Camden Town he was en route to M&S when he became the victim of a scam. Two women and a man told him somebody has spilled ice cream down the back of his raincoat and persuaded him to take it off – along with his jacket – so they can clean it off with tissues.

“I go back to the car, thinking how good it is there are still people who, though total strangers, can be so selflessly helpful, and it’s only when I get back in the car that I remember the money and look in my inside pocket to find, of course, that the envelope has gone,” he confesses.

Sadly he learns that the con is similar to one pulled in Spain known as the Mustard Squirter and he had become the victim of a creamier version.

At least with Alan Bennett you have the chance to laugh off misfortune. He rejects the Yorkshire motto to “Ear all, see all, say nowt”, but in his case, thankfully, he uses Yorkshire grit to polish the prose and humour that pour of him like a fountain of life itself.

• Keeping On Keeping On. By Alan Bennett, Profile, £25

• The book is BBC Radio 4’s current Book of the Week, available on BBC iPlayer

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