A real joy
By Ralph McAllister
Now that this ghastly year is almost over, time to look back at what stood out in what has been a less than distinguished literary year.
Two books you might enjoy as much as I have, one nonfiction and one fiction. (Ralph’s fiction choice will feature in a later article.)
Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On only just qualifies for 2016 choice, as I finished the 700 pages yesterday.
This, the third part of his memoirs, following on from Writing Home and Untold Stories, is an absolute joy, compiled from diary entries from 2005 to 2015,essays and eulogies, and early scripts of plays.
Humour, wit and wisdom
The whole is riddled with that whimsical and occasionally vitriolic humour of Bennett’s that is as recognisable these days as the Pinter pause.
Blair is treated with contempt as much for his supplementary adverbs as his policies in Iraq.
When asked to write about Best of British, Bennett has no hesitation in offering a list of what he considers British Best…….hypocrisy. The list includes ” London which we are happy to sell off to the highest bidder.”
And “We glory in Shakespeare yet we close our public libraries”
And “what we do best in England is lip service”
Wonderful quotes and excursions
Quoting his mother makes you understand where some of his consummate wit comes from.
She says to the young Alan “get the cattle prod and wake your father”
Or “I wouldn’t want to be as bald as that, you’d never know where to stop washing your face“.
The book is peppered with visits to old churches where he and partner Rupert eat their sandwiches and visit antique shops after their cups of tea.
Politics are never far from the surface as he makes less than flattering comments about Thatcherism and public schools.
Language, as he describes the countryside is often lyrical, and birds and other wildlife are treated always with love and respect.
Then he reminds us that “Nowadays the road to Damascus would be called ‘ a steep learning curve’ ”.
He never reveals what makes him read biographies backwards. Mmm …
A shy but very talented writer
Much of this exhilarating work details his relationship with National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner who worked with Bennett on many of his plays including The History Boys, Habit of Art and People.
His admiration for fellow actors and artists is constant.
He does resent comment about his tweeness and whimsy in his writing, but admits that his painful shyness as a young man has never really left him.
“I am in the pigeonhole marked ‘no threat’ and did I stab July Dench with a pitchfork I should still be called a teddy bear.”
Now at 82 he may be a little slower of limb as he bikes around Primrose Hill, but he continues to consider new projects so let us hope he keeps on keeping on.