For the last thirty years, the London Review of Books has published an annual diary by the English writer and dramatist Alan Bennett. It has become, to Bennett’s likely dismay, a comforting tradition. With seasonal regularity, readers can turn from political, literary, or historical matters to the quotidian reflections of a modest, humorous observer who notices everything, from the robin nesting in his London garden to Tony Blair’s shopworn sincerity. Not that it was ever Bennett’s intention — as a writer at least — to be so fondly regarded. A butcher’s son from grimy Leeds who has long cast a cold eye on England and the English, he did not set out to become a national treasure. Yet he is mistaken for one, and for common property, all the time. In a Suffolk post office, for example, he reports ” . . . an ancient customer recognizes me and shakes me so firmly by the hand it’s like being caught in a mangle. ‘Say something whimsical,’ he commands.”
Bennett’s readers, understandably, have similar expectations. Fondly recalling The Uncommon Reader, his 2007 novella in which Queen Elizabeth ditches duty for books, The Lady in the Van, or the comic masterpieces in Bennett’s 2002 volume The Laying On of Hands, you turn with a smile to Keeping On Keeping On, a collection of diaries and essays from 2010 to 2015. Never mind Bennett’s disclaimer: “Diaries involve waste with much of what one records perhaps of posthumous interest but tedious to read and often bad-tempered.” Still, he concedes, “Nothing is ever quite so bad that one can’t write it down.” And while the dozen or so essays here are illuminating — ranging from a eulogy for movie director John Schlesinger to introductions to various Bennett plays — it is Bennett’s daily preoccupations that hold us. The death of friends, the depredations of old age, the class system, pseudo-patriotism, doublespeak: all are illuminated in entries that carry Bennett’s voice — dry, measured, confiding — as he meanders from sandwich making to literary reflections and from present to past. His impeccable craft, as ever, is disguised as casualness. On March 24, 2011, for example, when Elizabeth Taylor dies he recalls that ” . . . at the Savoy c. 1971 she perched briefly on my knee, though why I can’t now remember. A solid woman she was wearing The Diamond and was (not in consequence) quite a hefty burden so I was relieved when she stood up.” The scene is flanked by musings on Philip Larkin and Flannery O’Connor and by Bennett’s objection to Lockheed Martin, “basically an arms manufacturer,” carrying out the British census. A few weeks later, contemplating Margaret Thatcher’s burial (“The Funeral”), he observes that she was “a mirthless bully and should have been buried, as once upon time monarchs used to be, in the depths of the night.” In a typical year, he notes on March 31st, “Jehovah’s Witnesses blitz the street and when they ring I lie on the floor until the coast is clear;” on April 21st, “I go out with my pail of salt and water looking for slugs;” and on May 3rd, contemplating the Mail on Sunday’s outing of a sexual philanderer, confesses that “if the Mail chose to target Heinrich Himmler I would tend to be on his side.”
Whatever the mood or subject, the precision and restraint of Bennett’s language, its mildness, creates a sense of polite intimacy. We accompany him and his life’s companion, Rupert Thomas, to their civil partnership ceremony; to the funerals of friends; on visits to Europe and the U.S.; into museums and country churches. And into the medical netherworld. Most memorably, as he faces surgery on April 22, 2008, Bennett and his fellow patients “are told to take a pillow with us so, clad in our hospital gowns and each clutching our pillow, we walk in single file behind the nurse across the bridge above the atrium that leads to the surgical wing. We look like medieval penitents on our way to public humiliation.” He cannot believe that he is seventy-three, that he is eighty, that he is going deaf. (“Landscapes” not “Ramsgate”) and imagines, after a fall, “that in the future there is going to be more of this.”
Bennett is rarely somber; his wit is too keen. But the tone here is more subdued than in his previous prose collections Untold Stories and Writing Home. The past seems closer and the present shakier. “It’s getting near the day of Dad’s death,” he writes on a July day in Yorkshire, ” . . . we pick some flowers from the garden and put them on the grave . . . Think of Mam and Dad standing there smiling and think also of Anne next door whose chest is bad and has to go for an X-ray on Monday.” Through it all there is reading, writing, overseeing a production of The Habit of Art, his play about W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, and observing the filming of The Lady in the Van with Maggie Smith. And there is England: dear, degraded, and as sharply revealed as ever. “My first play (when I was aged thirty-four) was a lament for an England that has gone,” Bennett concedes, adding that “my last play (aged seventy-nine) was still waving the same handkerchief.” And the eye of this comic master remains as accurately trained on himself. On October 18, 2005, for example, he notices that “Robert Hanks, the radio critic of the Independent, remarks that personally he can have too much of Alan Bennett. I wonder how he thinks I feel.”
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