History Boy

Untold Stories

by Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 658 pp., $32.50

This collection of autobiographical essays, family memoirs, diary extracts, and other occasional writings was published in England in October 2005 to warm and widespread applause in the press, and by the end of February 2006 had sold well over 300,000 copies in hardback. That remarkable figure was achieved partly with the help of some brutal discounting by bookstores, on-line booksellers, and supermarkets, of a kind that is threatening to destabilize the book business in the UK. It is reported, for instance, that many small bookshops have been buying their stock of Untold Stories from supermarkets because it is cheaper than ordering them from the publishers. However much one may deplore this phenomenon (and Alan Bennett has himself publicly urged readers to buy his book from independent bookstores), as an index of popularity it cannot be gainsaid. Supermarkets know a good loss leader when they see one. Alan Bennett is undoubtedly one of the most popular writers of recognized literary merit in England.

I say “England” rather than “Britain” because Bennett is a quintessentially English writer and I suspect that the majority of his fans in his native country would so identify themselves. He is as English as Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, and with all three writers it is doubtful whether the full flavor of their work “travels” (in the wine taster’s sense of the word) unimpaired into other cultures or languages, because so much of their appeal inheres in the pleasure of recognition—nuances of English manners, English speech, and English foibles, perfectly caught and rendered. It says much for Bennett’s droll wit, clever dramaturgy, and sense of pathos that his work has nevertheless carried successfully over the Atlantic, if not perhaps quite so easily across the English Channel.

He first came to fame as one of the brilliant quartet of young Oxbridge graduates (the others being Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller) who created and performed Beyond the Fringe in 1960 in London, and subsequently in New York, a hugely influential show which may be said to have in some sense inaugurated the Sixties as a decade of cultural revolution. (In his memoir, Father Joe (2005), Tony Hendra, founding and contributing editor of National Lampoon, describes seeing it when a young man as a life-changing experience which caused him to abandon his vocation to the Catholic priesthood and to become a satirist instead.) Bennett then began a highly successful career as a playwright and screenplay writer for film and television. Forty Years On, Habeas Corpus, Single Spies, The Lady in the Van, and The Madness of George III are among the most acclaimed works of postwar British theater, and the last of these was also a much-admired feature film, adapted by Bennett (but renamed The Madness of King George III, in case American audiences should think it was a sequel to movies called The Madness of George and The Madness of George II which they had somehow missed). Recently, at the age of seventy, by which time most playwrights have burned out long ago, Bennett had a huge hit at London’s National Theatre with a play called The History Boys,soon to open in New York.

Over the same period he has written a large number of outstanding television screenplays, including the boldly original Talking Heads for the BBC, a series of extended monologues, each delivered straight to camera by a single actor, some of which were later successfully performed on stage. He is, in short, a national treasure, and the popularity of his occasional prose writings, first harvested in the best-selling Writing Home (1994) and now for a second time in Untold Stories, is both a symptom and a confirmation of that status.

The books are enjoyed for two reasons in particular: because they make you laugh and because of what they reveal about the character of the author. These two things are connected: Bennett excels in telling jokes against himself. (A typical one concerns a paper he gave to an Oxford historical society on Richard II, the subject of his postgraduate research; at the end he invited questions and after a long silence someone at the back of the room raised a hand and asked, “Could you tell me where you bought your shoes?”) But he also deals, especially in this latest book, with serious, sad, painful experience of a kind which everybody faces sooner or later, like the decline and death of parents, and he does so with a very sure touch.

The first section of Untold Stories describes how his mother succumbed to severe depression shortly after she and his father retired to the country cottage they had always dreamed of. Bennett and his father took her to the mental hospital where she was admitted, and returned the same evening to visit her. A medical orderly escorted them to her ward:

He flung open the door on Bedlam, a scene of unimagined wretchedness. What hit you first was the noise. The hospitals I had been in previously were calm and unhurried; voices were hushed; sickness, during visiting hours at least, went hand in hand with decorum. Not here. Crammed with wild and distracted women, lying or lurching about in all the wanton disarray of a Hogarth print, it was a place of terrible tumult. Some of the grey-gowned wild-eyed creatures were weeping, others shouting, while one demented wretch shrieked at short and regular intervals like some tropical bird.

Bennett thinks they must be in the wrong ward, but his father

stopped at the bed of a sad, shrunken woman with wild hair, who cringed back against the pillows.

Here’s your Mam,” he said.

And of course it was only that, by one of the casual cruelties that routine inflicts, she had on admission been bathed, her hair washed and left uncombed and uncurled, so that it now stood out round her head in a mad halo, this straightaway drafting her into the ranks of the demented. Yet the change was so dramatic, the obliteration of her usual self so utter and complete, that to restore her even to an appearance of normality now seemed beyond hope. She was mad because she looked mad.

Dad sat down by the bed and took her hand.

What have you done to me, Walt?” she said.

Nay, Lil,” he said and kissed her hand. “Nay, love.”

And in the kissing and the naming my parents were revealed stripped of all defence. Because they seldom kissed, and though they were the tenderest and most self-sufficient couple, I had never seen my father do anything so intimate as to kiss my mother’s hand and seldom since childhood heard them call each other by name. “Mam” and “Dad” was what my brother and I called them and what they called each other, their names kept for best. Or worst.

It is hard to imagine that such an experience could be described more movingly and convincingly. The narrator’s language is eloquent without being obtrusively literary, vividly evoking the nightmarish scene and its impact on a sensitive unaccustomed observer, but also acting as a foil for the heartbreaking simplicity of the parents’ direct speech. There is particular poignancy in Dad’s use of the Yorkshire dialect word “nay,” now archaic in standard English. Semantically equivalent to “no,” it in fact has a quite different force here, freighted with inarticulate apology, deprecation, and dismay.

Although Bennett’s mother was soon moved to a more suitable hospital, and in due course recovered from her depression, she succumbed again on several occasions, requiring what her husband described as more “hospital do’s” (ECT and drug treatment), and eventually lapsed into tranquil or tranquilized senility, dying at the age of ninety-one. The hand-kissing motif recurs in Bennett’s sardonically self-accusing account of dutiful but unrewarding visits to her nursing home, full of old women waiting to die. He mimics his father’s tender gesture, but effectively his mother is already

dead, or forgotten anyway, living only in the memory of this morose middle-aged man who turns up every fortnight, if she’s lucky, and sits there expecting his affection to be deduced from the way he occasionally takes her hand, stroking the almost transparent skin before putting it sensitively to his lips.

The significance a kiss can acquire in a family not normally given to such physical intimacy also appears in an even darker passage about his father’s heart attack, some twenty years earlier:

So I sat for a while at his bedside and then stood up to say goodbye. And uniquely in my adulthood, kissed him on the cheek. Seeing the kiss coming he shifted slightly, and I saw a look of distant alarm in his eyes, on account not just of the kiss but of what it portended. I was kissing him, he clearly thought, because I did not expect to see him again. He knew it for what it was, and so did I…. It was the kiss of death.

Of Bennett’s two prose collections, Writing Home is probably the funnier, but Untold Stories is more revealing. As he tells us in the introduction to the latter, he did not intend to publish several of the pieces it contains when he wrote them, but two events caused him to change his mind. One was being diagnosed with cancer of the bowel in 1997, and given only a 50 percent chance of surviving for more than a year or two, which made any need to protect his privacy and dignity seem superfluous, and also generated a fresh stream of introspective writing. Then, when happily he was cured of the cancer, the appearance of an unauthorized biography “made me press on with my own autobiographical efforts and start thinking of them as pre-posthumous.”1

Anyone who has achieved Alan Bennett’s level of success in the territory where literature meets show business is axiomatically defined in our culture as a “celebrity” and must deal with the intrusive interest of the media in his private life which that status brings with it. For most of his professional career Bennett defended his privacy with considerable determination and cunning, deflecting speculation about his sexual orientation by assuming the persona of a celibate bachelor and screening his relationships from public view. When, in 1980, he began to publish extracts from his diary annually in the London Review of Books, a feature which soon became an eagerly awaited New Year’s institution, his friends and companions were usually concealed behind cryptic initials; and when the actor Ian McKellan challenged him, at a 1989 charity concert supporting protest against the notorious “Section 28,” to declare whether he was homosexual, Bennett wittily evaded the question by saying it was like asking someone who had just crawled across the Sahara desert whether they preferred Malvern or Perrier.2

The diary sequence 1980–1990, reprinted from the London Review of Books, in Writing Home, contained several references to doing things in the company of “A.” but not until near the end was this person identified as female, and that was all the information vouchsafed about her. When Bennett revealed in an interview with Stephen Schiff of The New Yorker, published in September 1994, that he had been in a sexual relationship with a woman called Anne Davies for more than a decade, he provoked a feeding frenzy in the British press. She was revealed as the daughter of Hungarian refugees, some ten years younger than Bennett, divorced with three children, whom he had first met when he employed her to clean his London house, and later set up in business running a café next to his country cottage in the village of Clapham, in the Yorkshire Dales, which he had inherited from his parents. According to his biographer, Alexander Games, Bennett went to ground after the interview appeared, leaving the somewhat puzzled and troubled Anne to field the journalists’ questions. Untold Stories does not explain why he chose to make their relationship public at this point; indeed it contains no direct reference to Anne at all. It does however describe other phases of his sexual life with more openness than ever before, and with characteristically droll, self-deprecating humor.

In 1950, when he was sixteen, he came to the conclusion that, “all things considered,” he was homosexual, but his desires then and for some time afterward were essentially emotional rather than physical and steeped in romantic despair. He was invariably attracted to “straight” young men who could never reciprocate his feelings, and this seemed to him his inevitable doom. He was unwilling to admit his orientation, least of all to his parents, though they seem to have harbored suspicions. When, as an undergraduate, he tapered his trousers to a fashionably tight narrow fit:

You can’t go out like that,” Mam said. “People will think you’re one of them.”

Whereupon Dad, who was even more shocked than she was, said (and the question must have had a long gestation), “You’re not one of them, are you?”

Oh Dad,” I think I replied, as if the question was absurd. “Don’t be daft.”

But I never wore the trousers.

It was an exchange that like many others later found its way, slightly changed, into a script, the TV play Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

At the time of Beyond the Fringe, he had “occasional flings, all of them straight, two of them with the same slightly depressing outcomes; shortly after going to bed with me, my partners announce their engagement (to someone else) and are briskly married.” In the next decade he becomes more relaxed about looking for sexual pleasure with men. The ones he falls for are still straight, but

sex in the seventies is not so particular about gender and boundaries and so I find myself less often rebuffed and even having quite a nice time…. I also find myself being led back from the paths of deviancy to what becomes, in the eighties anyway, a pretty conventional life.

This is the only, very oblique, allusion to his relationship with Anne Davies in the book.

In other places Untold Stories describes a happy relationship in recent years with a new partner, Rupert Thomas, the young editor of a design magazine, first mentioned in the diaries as “R.” in January 1996. So perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, the New Yorker interview was a way of bringing the relationship with Anne Davies to an end, even though he paid warm tribute to her there (and according to Games they “remained extremely close”). Bennett has never been a gay writer in the usual sense of the term, and admits that “homosexuality is a differentness I’ve never been prepared wholly to accept in myself.” That may have complicated his life, but it has probably broadened the appeal of his work.

Bennett writes very honestly about himself, or he creates the effect of doing so. He is never vain or pretentious, always wryly observant of the weaknesses and contradictions of his own character, ready to confess to ignoble or selfish feelings with a candor that sometimes makes the reader wince. But it is inevitably a selective self-portrait, a rhetorical construction, that emerges from these anecdotes, memories, and journal entries. He presents himself as a shy loner in high school, crippled with self-consciousness about his unusually late puberty (his voice did not break until well after the age of sixteen, and the other physical manifestations were equally late in arriving), and there is no reason to doubt the agonies of embarrassment and anxiety this caused him. But he omits to mention that (according to his unofficial biographer) he was much in demand as an actor in school plays, and particularly praised for his performance as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, where his unbroken voice and smooth cheeks would have been an asset. Learning this resolved a paradox which had long puzzled me: How was it that someone who presents himself so convincingly as shy, repressed, and awkward could be such a successful actor (without the benefit of professional training) not only in satirical revues, but later in West End productions of his own plays and in television drama and feature films by other hands? Obviously he used acting, in which a licensed fictional frame is put around behavior, as a way of overcoming and turning to good account what he perceived as crippling abnormalities and inhibitions in adolescence.

Later it was his success as writer and performer in student revues during his postgraduate years at Oxford that catapulted him out of an unpromising start as a medieval historian and into the fame of Beyond the Fringe, but he has said very little about that phase of his life—or indeed about the moments of triumph and euphoria that must have been quite frequent in the course of his distinguished professional career. He presents himself for the most part as diffident and depressive, someone who has never entirely freed himself from the psychological shackles of a dim, provincial, lower-middle-class upbringing, and never therefore quite believed in his own success. Hence his delight in relating stories which confirm this pessimistic self-assessment, like the receipt of a complimentary copy of Waterstone’s Literary Diary for 1997, in which the birthdays of various contemporary writers are recorded, but the date of his own, May 9, is blank except for the note, “The first British self-service launderette is opened on Queensway, London 1949.” Bathos is Bennett’s favorite trope.

He was born and brought up in Leeds, a large, unlovely industrial city in Yorkshire, but deduces from his date of birth that he was conceived during an August holiday in some cheerless seaside boarding house, imagining his parents’ lovemaking constrained by their consciousness of the thin bedroom walls and the adjacence of other guests, “so much of my timorous and undashing life prefigured in that original circumspect conjunction.” His mother was painfully shy—so much so that she couldn’t face her own wedding, and was married privately by a kindly and cooperative clergyman, early enough in the morning for the groom to go punctually to work immediately afterward. Mr. Bennett Sr. was a butcher by trade, and eventually had his own shop, but never much enjoyed the occupation. From time to time he entertained various schemes for making money by more enjoyable means, like brewing herbal beer, or becoming a double bass player in a dance band (he was musical, and played the violin), but they never came to anything.

In Alan’s memory the little family was resigned to its dullness and marginality when he was growing up, a feeling that “other people made more of their lives than we did.” Even the war brought no drama into their existence. Mr. Bennett was in a reserved occupation and therefore not conscripted; he served as an air-raid warden, but among British industrial cities Leeds suffered relatively little bombing and his duties were light. “War, peace, it makes no difference, our family never quite joining in, let alone joining up, and the camaraderie passes us by as camaraderie generally did.” Entertainment consisted of listening to the radio and a twice-weekly visit to the local cinema, whatever was showing; on other evenings his parents retired at nine o’clock to bed, where the schoolboy Alan brought them a cup of tea on returning from his customary solitary walk to the public library.

Mrs. Bennett had two sisters, Kathleen and Myra, who were more extroverted, and brought some noise and excitement into the muted Bennett household, though generally to the parents’ displeasure and disapproval. Myra used the war to escape the drab confines of Leeds, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and married an RAF serviceman in India. When her husband died, Alan witnessed her ill-fated attempt to scatter his ashes on Ilkley Moor on a windy day, remarking “He didn’t want to leave me,” as she dusted herself down afterward. The older sister Kathleen, the dominating and loquacious manageress of a shoe shop, surprised everybody by marrying late in life. But she too was widowed, and succumbed to dementia, which “unleashes torrents of speech, monologues of continuous anecdote and dizzying complexity, one train of thought switching to another without signal or pause, rattling across points and through junctions at a rate no listener can follow.” Kathleen ends her days in the same mental hospital to which her sister was originally admitted, goes missing, and is found in wasteland nearby—dramatically by Alan Bennett himself—dead from exposure.

A dark thread runs through the family history on Bennett’s mother’s side. After she was admitted to the mental hospital for the first time, his father revealed that her father, Alan’s grandfather, committed suicide by drowning. Bennett admits that he was rather excited by this revelation: “It made my family more interesting…. I had just begun to write but had already given up on my own background because the material seemed so thin.” In fact much of his best work was to be distilled from the memory of what seemed at the time dull ordinary experience, and like most writers he suffers occasional qualms of conscience about exploiting his nearest and dearest in this way. Bennett’s uneasiness about his last encounter with his father (described above) was compounded by the circumstance that he had just written a television play, then in pre-production, about a man who has a heart attack on the beach at Morecombe, the same beach where Bennett’s own parents took their last walk together, making him feel that in some uncanny way he had caused his father’s death. Six years later he returned to the same emotional nexus, another TV play about a man who visits his father in intensive care to be with him when he dies, but is in bed with a nurse at the crucial moment.

Bennett has based several of his female characters on his mother and recalls a remark of hers, “By, you’ve had some script out of me!” which obviously struck home. But typically he still thought of “using” it in a different context—the play he wrote about Miss Shepherd, The Lady in the Van. This was one of the more extraordinary and eccentric episodes in Alan Bennett’s life, when he allowed a crazed, filthy, smelly, aggressive, bigoted vagrant of genteel origins to live in an unsanitary camper parked in the front garden of his London house for no less than fifteen years. Why did he put up with her, and for so long? Altruistic compassion alone cannot explain it. Perhaps, as the play itself suggests, he was compensating for guilt at neglecting his mother in illness and old age (for though he visited her regularly, it was often with impatience and ill grace) by being kind to Miss Shepherd, who, though ungrateful, did not take him away from his metropolitan life.

Almost certainly he felt from an early stage that she would make interesting copy. He made several attempts to write about their relationship, but significantly it was only when he split his own character into two dramatis personae, Bennett the decent private individual, exasperated by the demands of his ungrateful tenant but unable to extricate himself from her toils, and Bennett the anarchic, ego-driven writer fascinated by her extraordinary character and outrageously transgressive behavior, that the play took off, and became a kind of parable of the way writers turn life into art.

Bennett is gratefully aware that “for a writer, nothing is ever quite as bad as it is for other people because, however dreadful, it may be of use.” This is well illustrated by the account of his treatment for cancer, “An Average Rock Bun” (the title refers to the size of his tumor), and an alarming story of being the victim of an unprovoked homophobic attack in a small Italian town. In both pieces he manages to find humor in even the grimmest circumstances, and avoids any hint of self-pity or self-dramatization.

The same scrupulous honesty characterizes his treatment of more trivial plights and dilemmas. He declines an honorary degree at Oxford in protest against the university’s recent acceptance of an endowment from Rupert Murdoch, but then wonders if he hasn’t “slightly made a fool of myself,” thus denying himself any satisfaction from the gesture. He analyzes in exquisite and amusing detail the reasons why he declined a knighthood, but adds “lest it be thought that this refusal has much to do with modesty, when the list of those who had turned down honours was leaked in the newspapers I cared enough to note (I hope wryly) how obscurely placed I was on the list and that sometimes I wasn’t even mentioned at all.” But even Bennett’s honesty has its limits. “I hope wryly”—if he doesn’t know, who does?

When Bennett left school he was a practicing Anglican, nurturing vague ideas of becoming a minister, and politically conservative. Now he seems to have no religious belief, and supports the left on most political issues, but he enjoys visiting old churches, cathedrals, and ruined abbeys, about which he is knowledgeable, and admits that the destruction of stained glass and statuary by the sixteenth-century reformers still moves him to more indignation than atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone.

His socialism too is personal and nostalgic rather than ideological. The only time he voted Conservative was when a Labour government threatened to extend the motorway network—a bad move, since the Tories have been much more enthusiastic supporters of motorized transport, at the expense of railways and the English countryside. Because he benefited from free university education himself Bennett opposes the introduction of tuition fees, refusing to take into account that quite different socioeconomic conditions now obtain (in his day—and my own—British universities admitted only 5 percent of the age group, so the state could afford to educate those lucky few for free, whether they needed the subsidy or not; now it’s about 40 percent). His opposition to the war in Iraq is unqualified, and strongly felt, but not really argued. When the news of Saddam Hussein’s arrest breaks, he notes in his diary, December 15, 2003: “Whatever is said it does not affect the issue. We should not have gone to war. It has been a shameful year.”

Some readers, especially American ones, may find the diary entry for September 11, 2001, somewhat perfunctory. It reads in its entirety:

Working rather disconsolately when Tom M. rings to tell me to switch on the television as the Twin Towers have been attacked. Not long after I switch on one of the towers collapses, an unbearable sight, like a huge plumed beast plunging earthwards. I go to put the kettle on and in that moment the other tower collapses.

It seems surprising that there is no reflection here, or in the days that follow, on the significance of the event, no speculation about what fanatical conviction and chilling indifference to death drove the perpetrators of this unimaginable deed, no sense that possibly the human world had changed forever in consequence. It is of course possible that Bennett wrote about all these things but decided his thoughts would seem redundant when reproduced much later. That is the danger of publishing a diary: leave it unedited and you risk being boring; edit it and you may leave a misleading impression. The characteristic bathos of missing the collapse of the second tower while going to make a cup of tea seems out of place here, and the “plumed beast” simile neglects the human suffering involved. But it’s a rare and uncharacteristic lapse of judgment. The fact is that Alan Bennett is more at ease with the homely, the private, even the trivial than he is with big historical ideas and epic events. Again and again in this book he demonstrates that almost anything that happens to a person can be interesting, moving, and entertaining if you write about it well enough.

  1. 1

    Alexander Games, Backing into the Limelight: The Biography of Alan Bennett (London: Headline, 2001).

  2. 2

    Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 prohibited local authorities from promoting homosexuality by publishing material, or by promoting the teaching in state schools of the acceptability of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship.” It provoked widespread opposition, not only from the gay community. No prosecution has ever been brought under this legislation.