F RANCIS K ING
A LITERARY BANQUET
U NTOLD S TORIES
★By Alan Bennett (Faber & Faber 658pp £20)
I NHIS PREFACE , Alan Bennett asks us to view this bumper book as one of those once popular but now rare annuals that at the close of each year would lure readers through a gallimaufry of stories, reminiscences, pictures and puzzles. Some of the items in those annuals would already be familiar to their readers. So will items in this collection, particularly to those who have already encountered extensive extracts from Bennett’s diaries in the London Review of Books. Fortunately, even already familiar pieces can still delight; but one suffers an intermittent exasperation when something already served up in this new literary banquet then reappears, an unwelcome reflux, many pages later. So it is with Thurston Hall, a long forgotten movie actor, of whom we are three times provided with precisely the same observations. Similarly, in the case of Judy Holliday one finds oneself wishing that a more attentive editor had ensured that a star of whom one could in the old days never see enough had here been confined to a single appearance. The title piece comes first, as it deserves to do, since it is both the longest and the best. Here, brilliant in its succinctness and eloquence, we have a history of Bennett’s immediate family. Clinical depression, which also afflicted Mam, drove his maternal grandfather to a suicide that remained a secret from his grandson until he uncovered it late in his life. Mam’s two sisters did not marry for years; then, when they had at last secured husbands, their prettiness and perkiness began to fade and both died tragically. Eventually Mam, stricken with Alzheimer’s, had to be incarcerated in an institution, in which she remained for fifteen years. To it, with touching devotion, Dad would motor fifty miles each day, in order to hold a hand from which he rarely received a response. The whole landscape of this wintry journey through the past would be unbearably sad were it not for the glints of sunlight provided by the author’s wry, stoical wit and his unquestionable love for parents who nonetheless often filled him with pent-up rage and despair. When I used to visit my cousin, the publisher Colin Haycraft, and his wife, the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, in their house in Camden Town, I used to hear a lot about ‘that ghastly woman’ (Haycraft’s frequent phrase) living in a dilapidated and malodorous van on Bennett’s
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006 GENERAL
forecourt the other side of the fence. Vainly, I used to ask them, ‘Why on earth does he put up with her?’ They had no satisfactory answer. Bennett, they insisted, was a good egg; but how could even a good egg endure a juxtaposition, year in, year out, to such a (literally) stinking bad egg? Bennett’s play about this solipsistic monster eventually provided a gleam of enlightenment. This strengthened when in this book I learned more about Mam’s last, terrible years. Most people experience an often unacknowledged guilt for not having done enough for someone close to them during a long, fatal illness. In enduring so much bother and inconvenience from Miss Shepherd on his doorstep, Bennett, immersed in his metropolitan life, was clearly making unconscious reparation for, in part at least, neglecting his duty to Mam in a ‘home’ far away. Bennett writes brilliantly in a section called ‘Cheeky Chappies’ about such comedians of his childhood as the two Tommys, Handley and Trinder, Arthur Askey and Dickie Henderson. Fastidiously he recoils from their ‘Blitz-defeating cheerfulness: all that knees-up, thumbs in the lapels down at the old Bull and Bush Cockney sparrerdom’. Far more to his taste is the camp selfmockery of that great artist Frankie Howerd or the outrageous exploits of the burly, booted pantomime dames of his youth. Bennett is always excellent on performers, being, in his shy, gauche way, a marvellous performer himself. The accuracy, devoid of malevolence, with which he conveys that Alec Guinness was a far from likeable character is masterly. Masterly, too, is his portrait, full of admiration and affection, of the aged Thora Hird. He is also astute about his fellow writers and intellectuals. I particularly admired the manner in which, an usher both polite and firm, he moves Isaiah Berlin from his seat in the front stalls of fame to the upper circle. It was in 1987, at a charity concert, that the host of the occasion, Ian McKellen, publicly asked Bennett if he were homosexual. Bennett replied that to put that question to him was like asking someone who had just crawled across the Sahara desert whether they preferred Malvern or Perrier. The big laugh that followed saved further embarrassment. But Bennett was, in effect, acting like the patient who, told by his dentist ‘I think that this had better come out’, then timorously responds, ‘Oh, couldn’t we save it?’ Here the door of the closet at last swings wide open. There are even two photographs of Bennett’s partner. Some scrappy pieces near the end vary in quality and interest. The best of them is an account of Bennett’s colon cancer, which, despite gloomy prognostications, he has now mercifully survived for more than five years. In the otherwise entertaining diary entries there may, for some people, be far too much about the viewing of art and ancient buildings.
Bennett defines, with his habitual modesty, the kind of characters that he writes about as ‘denizens of retirement homes, ageing aunties, old people on their last legs’. But despite its narrow range, Untold Stories never for one moment makes one skip, groan or yawn. One hesitates to use the word ‘great’ of its author, since in him there is so little fever, fervour or determination to climb the highest mountain or grab the farthest star. But I myself put him up there beside such benevolent, wise, unfailingly entertaining writers as Max Beerbohm, Charles Lamb and Thomas Love Peacock. I suspect that, like them, he will survive after writers who now make far more clamorous and passionate demands on the attention of posterity have long been forgotten. To order this book at £16, see order form on page 78
STOP PRESSReaders of the Literary Reviewwill be delighted to learn of the publication of Illustrations to Unwritten Books, a collection of Chris Riddell’s witty cartoons, all of which appeared in the magazine. The retail price is £5.99 but the book can be ordered at a 20% discount via the Literary Review Bookshop. See the order form on page 78.
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006