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Backing Into the Spotlight

Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett performing in Beyond the Fringe, 1964

Last summer, I saw a fine production of Alan Bennett’s best-known play, The Madness of George III, at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. I had read the play before but knew it mostly from Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 film version in which, as Hytner puts it in his engaging and illuminating theatrical memoir Balancing Acts, Nigel Hawthorne’s imperious monarch movingly “descends into babbling incontinence.” But I always had a problem with the play. It openly invokes King Lear, but compared to that terrifying journey into the dark heart of a deranged state, it seemed too soft. Bennett’s drama, though full of tender compassion and rueful melancholy, appeared in the end to treat the king’s madness as a colorful historical episode, not as a metaphor for unhinged authority.

Yet watching it a year after Britain voted to leave the European Union and a month after Theresa May lost her authority in a disastrous general election, The Madness of George III seemed precisely that: a perfect theatrical metaphor for a national nervous breakdown that does not rise to the heights of tragedy but rather, in its babbling incontinence, teeters closer to both farcical absurdity and quiet despair. Suddenly, Alan Bennett does not seem so soft after all. In his new collection of diaries and autobiographical essays, it becomes ever clearer that he has long been onto something that eluded other, apparently more politically acute, English writers.

In July 2007, The Guardian published an opinion piece by the distinguished Marxist critic Terry Eagleton in which he lamented the loss of the great tradition of English radical literature and the absence of contemporary heirs to Percy Shelley and William Blake: “For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life.”* He made “an honourable exception” of Harold Pinter on the grounds that “being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all,” but made no mention of Bennett.

Bennett records in the diary that forms half of Keeping On Keeping On that if he used e-mail (which as a confirmed Luddite he does not) he would send Eagleton or The Guardian a one-word message: “Ahem.” He has recently returned from a cold, wet, and sparsely attended protest against the US military presence at a Royal Air Force base outside Harrogate: “I’m not sure if this means that in Eagleton’s view I don’t qualify because of my absence of eminence or because such protests as I take part in are too sporadic and low-profile to be noticed.”

It may, at first glance, seem odd that Bennett thinks of himself as a writer in the radical English tradition, even though, while Eagleton scorned David Hare and Salman Rushdie for accepting knighthoods, Bennett had declined the honor when it was offered to him in 1996. (He also refused an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Oxford University, because it had established a Rupert Murdoch Chair of Language and Communication.) The plays for which he is best known—The Madness of George III, The History Boys, The Lady in the Van—seem rather more inclined to celebrate an English tolerance for individual oddity than to rage against the established order of things. The mental disturbance of King George or of Miss Shepherd, the lady who lived in a dilapidated old van she parked in front of Bennett’s house in London, draws out his lovable qualities of kindness and forbearance. It is not threatening. In his previous volume of diaries and memoirs, Untold Stories, Bennett wrote beautifully of his mother’s struggles with mental illness. Even in a psychotic state, she practiced a restrained kind of madness:

Certainly in all her excursions into unreality Mam remained the shy, unassuming woman she had always been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest. She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.

Something of the same modesty clings to Bennett’s public persona and in part explains his great popularity in England. Nicholas Hytner describes Bennett the playwright as “a stylist as demanding as Oscar Wilde.” He does indeed have an aphoristic wit, but dazzling Wildean display is not his manner. The polite, understated “Ahem” that he did not utter in protest at Eagleton’s implicit dismissal of his claims to being a writer of political consequence chimes well with the English suspicion of volubility. Bennett’s Englishness is marked by verbal, emotional, and imaginative restraint. “It is not good to talk,” he notes in his diary in October 2006. “Most of the time it’s better to keep quiet.” Hytner, who also directed the original stage production of The Madness of George III at the National Theatre in London in 1991, experienced this aversion to effusion:

“What do you think it’s about, Alan?”

“It’s about the madness of George III.”

When a pretty girl, apparently rather too wrapped up in her own beauty, crosses the road irritatingly slowly in front of Bennett and his partner, Rupert Thomas, the long-serving editor of The World of Interiors, a Condé Nast design magazine based in London, he is tempted to roll down the car window and shout at her, “Listen. We’re nancies. Big tits mean nothing to us.” But of course he doesn’t. His blurting is all interior: part of the pleasure of his diaries is the sense that he tells them things he would never say out loud.

Yet this understatement is still a statement, a mode of privacy transmuted into a very recognizable public persona. The diaries, after all, are published annually in the London Review of Books and collected in hefty volumes. We must remember that Bennett first came to notice in 1960 as a performer in the famous satiric review Beyond the Fringe, albeit as the deadpan foil to the flamboyant Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller. His dryly laconic Yorkshire tones and bespectacled ordinariness have become paradoxically iconic. As Hytner writes, “Most actors can do Alan…not just his voice and mannerisms, but his wry melancholy and boundless empathy.” His very lack of glamour is itself the obverse side of fame, a way of backing into the spotlight.

But being understated also means that, as a political figure, Bennett is greatly undervalued. He can seem almost like a creature from The Wind in the Willows, which, at Hytner’s suggestion, he successfully adapted for the stage—a cute denizen of an imaginary and long-vanished English landscape. In an entry from his diary for September 2006, he records the experience of making supper while idly listening to an arts review program on BBC radio. Out of nowhere,

some Scottish woman in the course of telling off the novelist Mark Haddon accuses him of “Alan Bennettish tweeness.” It’s not a serious injury to my self-esteem but rather as if someone passing me in the street has just turned back to give me a flying kick up the bum and then gone on their way. I hope for some mild objection from one of the other participants but none is forthcoming so perhaps I’m now tweeness’s accepted measure.

If not tweeness, then whimsicality. In March 2013, Bennett is in the post office in the picturesque Suffolk village of Yoxford. There “an ancient customer recognises me and shakes me so firmly by the hand it’s like being caught in a mangle. ‘Say something whimsical’, he commands.” Bennett in his eighties has become a very English kind of national treasure, which is to say a nicely unobtrusive piece of old jewelry that can be taken out of the drawer when the nation wants to be reminded of its more solid, unpretentious self. He possesses a peculiarly unimposing eminence. (“Well,” a woman tells him as she lets him through the barriers at an event, “you’re a celebrity yourself…or on the celebrity side anyway.”) No matter how much he protests or rages, he is all too aware that his compatriots are determined to see him as droll, lovable, and above all unthreatening:

I shall still be thought to be kindly, cosy and essentially harmless. I am in the pigeon-hole marked “no threat” and did I stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a teddy bear.

To an extent, Bennett does enjoy playing up the persona of the superannuated remnant of a bygone country, peering myopically and uncomprehendingly at the contemporary world. In June 2005, he sees a woman walking along the street with a handkerchief pressed to her mouth and surmises that she must be on her way home from a painful visit to the dentist. Then he realizes that it’s not a handkerchief that’s pressed to her mouth—it’s her mobile phone. He buys a bottle of organic wine and is pleased by the label’s claim that it is “Suitable for Vegetarians and Vagrants,” glad to see the needs of derelict winos so openly acknowledged. But of course when he looks again, the label says “Vegans,” not “Vagrants.” In 2010, on a visit to Finchale Priory in rustic Durham, he admires the old lichens growing on the path leading to the south door, only to realize that they are, in fact, bits of spat-out chewing gum.

Yet though this self-deprecating humor feeds the cuddly and reassuring image, Bennett is in fact much happier when Rupert tells him, as they watch a movie of Wuthering Heights, “You’re rather like Heathcliff.” “Really?” “Yeah. Difficult, Northern and a cunt.” But he is deemed, and perhaps doomed, to be more teddy bear than Northern cunt, to be liked and even loved but not to be taken quite seriously as a political or public figure.

Unless, that is, Brexit alerts us to the remarkable truth that Bennett’s funny, laconic, apparently quirky, and (yes) whimsical memoirs and diaries have an epic, tragic, and deeply political theme: the unavailing search for an idea of England. Keeping On Keeping On is the third volume of these writings, after Writing Home and Untold Stories. The diary part of it ends with a postscript for June 23, 2016, the day of the Brexit referendum, before the momentous result is known. It says little: “Well, we shall see.” But it acts as a powerful recoil, for it is now difficult not to see, in the crisis of Englishness that Bennett has been recording for thirty years, a personal and intimate charting of the underground fault lines that would eventually create that great earthquake.

In April 2008, when Bennett has just given his notebooks and manuscripts to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, he is delighted by a phone call from the keeper of special collections: “I thought you would like to know that this evening your MSS are reposing in Bodley’s strongroom on the next shelf to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” Later, at a public reception in Oxford to mark the gift, Bennett tells this story and adds a dryly comic twist: “The only other time in my life when I’d been in such proximity to ancient memories was one evening in New York when I’d found myself sitting next to Bette Davis.”

But he is enough of an Anglo-Saxon to compare the destruction of the industrial heartlands of his beloved North of England by Margaret Thatcher’s monetarist revolution to the harrying of the North by the invading Normans in the eleventh century. Recalling a trip from Hull to Liverpool around 1990, he evokes “a trail of devastation, decay and manufacturing slump that stretched from coast to coast” and adds: “It struck me then that no one had done such systematic damage to the North since William the Conquerer.”

Antony Crolla
Alan Bennett, London

Keeping On Keeping On and its earlier companion volumes do indeed constitute a kind of Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Bennett is English, not British. Scotland is another country: “In Glasgow nobody’s heard of me anyway.” “‘Brits,’” he notes disdainfully in 2010, “—so much of what is hateful about the world since Mrs Thatcher in that gritty hard little word.” But his England is not so much a place, more an obscure object of desire. In Untold Stories, Bennett wrote about his Aunty Myra, who “determined that if her present did not amount to much…then the past could be called in to compensate.”

Bennett would love to be able to make the same determination. When he visits a church in Walpole St Peter, “nothing seems to have been lost, nothing spoilt.” As a medieval historian by training and a traditionalist by instinct, he would be happy to be able to say the same for England as a whole. Bennett describes his politics as a “blend of backward-looking radicalism and conservative socialism.” In another writer, each of these terms might seem an oxymoron, but for him they are accurate evocations of a kind of desolation. For, much as he might wish otherwise, something has been lost, something spoilt, and that something is not just an old man’s youth. It is England itself.

Nations, of course, are never anything but lost. And Bennett’s sense of loss is not recent. His first play, Forty Years On, written when he was thirty-four, was set in an old mansion called Albion House—the state-of-England metaphor being perhaps all too obvious. It is already valedictory: “a lament for an England that has gone.” Bennett’s Englishness, moreover, is best expressed in his rendering of monarchs (George III or the present Queen Elizabeth, who is portrayed in the novella The Uncommon Reader with a perfect mix of lèse-majesté and affection) or traitors (in The Old Country and An Englishman Abroad)—or ideally by both together, as in A Question of Attribution, which brings the queen together with her perfidious keeper of paintings, Anthony Blunt. It is as if the country can best be seen either from above or from the great beyond of treason, never quite in its day-to-day self.

In his Yorkshire boyhood, as again in middle and old age, Bennett haunted medieval churches, drawn to their odd remnants of a vanished Catholic world, to “the dregs of history,” the accidental survivals of the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries. This attraction to poignant survivals is part of what makes so touching what could otherwise be unbearably dull and precious—the many diary entries in which Bennett and Rupert drive to some rustic old church, admire the medieval rood lofts, spy out some obscure tracery, or complain about some botched restoration job, then eat their homemade sandwiches. Bennett is not really an antiquarian. He is well aware that these churches are not some kind of hidden essence of the real England. They are merely, as he suggests at one point, “a metaphor for an ex-England maybe.” Ex-England is Bennett’s country. Or as he fears, “England dismantled.”

Even as he consumes English heritage, Bennett is acutely conscious of, and very funny about, the way this heritage has been repackaged for consumption. The countryside he loves is “now renovated and bijou-d.” For all the accusations of “Alan Bennettish tweeness,” he is in truth hilariously alert to the self-consciously quaint. “The village shop” in Lacock, Wiltshire is, he notes deadpan, “handily named The Village Shop.” He sees in the urban customers drawn to the farmers’ markets and trendy cheese shops that have occupied those villages “the middle class…hugging themselves in self-congratulation at the perfection of their lives.” At one point, while painting a wall in his house, he thinks of images he’s seen on television of IRA men held at the notorious Maze Prison in Northern Ireland during their “dirty protest” in the 1970s and 1980s, smearing excrement on the walls of their cells: “I was invariably struck by what a nice warm and varied shade the protester had achieved. ‘Maze brown’ I suppose Farrow & Ball would tastefully have called it”—Farrow and Ball paints being the wonderfully expensive expressions of an imagined English tradition of exquisitely understated elegance.

On the surface, Bennett’s sense of dislocation is merely aesthetic. He sometimes sounds like Prince Charles in his grumbling about modern architects and “the dismal record of mediocre architecture which has ruined so many English towns.” He bemoans “the nastification of England” as a matter of “bad windows, crude pointing, poor stonework.” But it is really the political architecture that he has fallen out of love with. His lament for England is not a mere tragedy of manners. It is a mourning for “a society systematically broken by Mrs Thatcher” and not adequately rebuilt by Tony Blair’s New Labour project. When Blair, on his retirement as prime minister in May 2007, claims that he leaves behind “a country…at home in its own skin,” Bennett is enraged: “This is virtually the opposite of what the last five years in particular have made me feel.” Bennett is supposed to embody a cozy kind of Englishness, but in fact he comes to represent a country that is not at all at home in its own skin, a nation retreating before the onslaught of a rapacious capitalism: “Less and less are we a nation and more and more just a captive market to be exploited.”

The closer Keeping On Keeping On comes to the present time from its beginnings in 2005, the more evident this becomes. Near the start, in a diary entry of March 2005, Bennett refers to “all one’s complicated feelings about England I hold back,” but that inclination to hold back quickly loses its grip. Four months later he is already broaching the possibility that he might be “ashamed to be English.” This is almost as shocking as if it were uttered in her Christmas message by the queen herself. One cannot but feel a pang of pity for a country whose love for this national treasure is becoming more and more bluntly unrequited.

The drama of Keeping On Keeping On is that the reader begins to realize that the past Bennett is so touchingly and so hopelessly searching for is not actually all that long gone. It is not quaint villages and medieval stained glass. It is social democracy. It is England not as a mystical nation but as a functioning and nurturing state. The fragments to which he is really drawn are the poignant survivors, not of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries and the destruction of the old religion’s physical imagery, but of the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. In a sermon he delivered in Cambridge in 2014, the text of which is published in the book, he comes to the realization that his haunting of old churches is really a personal political metaphor:

In my bleaker moments these shards of history seem to me emblematic obviously of what has happened to England in the past but also a reminder and a warning of what in other respects is continuing to happen in the present, with the fabric of the state and the welfare state in particular stealthily dismantled as once the fabric of churches more rudely was, sold off, farmed out; another Dissolution.

This would be an odd, one might even say a whimsical, conjunction, were it not also a moving and meaningful one. When Bennett is looking at fifteenth-century bench ends or alabaster tomb chests or the fragments of stained glass that were sufficiently inaccessible to escape the Puritan iconoclast’s hammer, he is actually seeing the fragments of social democracy: public libraries, free universities, the national health service. Since his country is the welfare state, it is not surprising that his England is becoming an ex-England, defined by a phony notion of heritage in which, as he puts it, “We glory in Shakespeare yet we close our public libraries.”

Bennett was himself a perfect beneficiary of postwar social democracy, privileged enough to be able to take full advantage of all its opportunities for self-advancement, underprivileged enough to need them. He grew up in a “comparatively genteel” suburb of Leeds. His father’s butcher shop was Bennett’s High Class Meat Purveyors of Otley Road. “We no more made the lower grade than we did a higher one.” But he had free, high-quality secondary education, free or cheap concert halls, libraries, and galleries, the BBC, free university education at Oxford, a theatrical career that took off in an England where to be working- or middle-class and from the previously shunned North was suddenly fashionable. And he does not want to forget any of this.

While Mrs. Thatcher was superbly dismissive of “the Nanny State,” Bennett knows that “I was lucky in my time and I’m grateful to have been nannied.” His old man’s memories are not harmless nostalgia. They are the most subversive of recollections, the recalling of a past in which the state created possibilities for its citizens: “Whereas nowadays the state is a dirty word, for my generation the state was a saviour, delivering us out of poverty and want (and provincial boredom) and putting us on the road to a better life; the state saved my father’s life, my mother’s sanity and my own life too.”

This state was a tangible, practical, collective identity, an England that transcended imperial nostalgia, class prejudice, and the pieties of tradition. Its slow receding has left an empty space to be filled by the confused and incoherent English nationalism whose rise was scarcely noticed until it announced itself so explosively in the Brexit vote. Bennett’s beloved Yorkshire voted heavily to leave. The shock would have been considerably lessened had more attention been paid to his increasingly insistent reflections in his published diaries on an England that was emphatically not at home with itself.

Like the death of the canary in the mineshaft, Bennett’s heartsick inability to maintain his love for his country should have been a warning that something toxic was gathering in the air. Yet Bennett also provides a kind of hope. Being ashamed to be English is, as he is well aware, a way of retaining intense feelings for the country: “There are different ways of being English,” he reflects in 2012, “one of which is not to want to be English at all.”

And Bennett, when we strip away the wrongly imputed coziness, still speaks for other ways of being English: tolerant, kind to strangers, modest, decent, funny, suspicious of all grandiosities, and quietly egalitarian. Even as his book serves as a highly personal chronicle of one kind of national decline, it may also serve, when the country, like King George at the end of the play, is recovering from its great mental breakdown, as a reminder of those admirable possibilities.

  1. *

    “Only Pinter Remains,” The Guardian, July 6, 2007.