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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 cafĂŠ 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.

  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.

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