Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Alan Bennett - 'Writing Home'

Why read Writing Home? It is intended, I suppose, for people who already know Alan Bennett through his plays and TV scripts, through the various formats of his 'The Lady in the Van' story. I almost feel I know the latter, though I've never read it before. Bennett defines a classic book as something one feels one has read, and for anyone who listens to Radio 4 for even the odd half hour, it is hard not to absorb the story of Miss Shepherd, the woman who lived in a van in his garden for almost the whole of the seventies and eighties. Or maybe you're a fan of Beyond the Fringe, the names Bennett and Miller all tied in with the iconic Cook and Moore. Perhaps you just like national institutions. But why is Bennett so loved? What has he done, exactly? It's a question you wouldn't ask of a novelist (look, there it is, X's achievement: half a shelf, and a near-posthumous KBE), but plays evaporate after they close, early BBC footage is notoriously slippery, and what we have here, in Writing Home, is the stuff that's left over, the husk. The kernel, what Bennett thinks of as his proper writing, is all elsewhere.

Except that he doesn't seem to think of himself as 'proper' at all. On the first page of the introduction he claims that book reviewing isn't really his thing, demanding 'a breadth of reading and reference that I generally do not have and which writing plays seldom requires' (p. ix) - i.e. perhaps his playwriting's a bit slipshod too. On location with the crew making his TV plays, he comments that the shoot itself gets him out into the places he has been writing about, and he finds out how little he knew of his subject. Self deprecation is almost as common here as the deprecation of others. This in its turn is not particularly mean, or at least there's no sense that Bennett wishes things were other than they are. To Miss Shepherd he's never unreservedly kind (nor unreservedly nasty), he just accepts her continued presence as something that has happened, and with which he has to get along. By the end of the 'Diaries' section I was sure no word summed up Bennett better than 'curmudgeon'. Happy being disgruntled, adopting the morals and aesthetics of a generation earlier than his own in order to have a position to take up against the present. But surely such a man wouldn't choose to live in Camden? Nor take frequent trips to New York.

By and by it occurs to the reader that something worthwhile has been accumulating. Bennett's very amateurishness, of course, is essential to his art: what could be worse than a writer (especially a playwrite) who knew in advance what he was going to write? What would be the point, then, in writing it? You might as well be a politician. But when the opposite is true, when everything you see comes as a slightly absurd surprise, and every written expression of it takes you in unexpected directions, then you are getting somewhere. Where this 'somewhere' might be came across most strongly in the 'Books and Writers' section (despite the earlier protest at not being much of a book reviewer). The long review of Andrew Motion's Larkin biography gets lost in its subject in a way that few other pieces here do, and it is apparent that in contrast to the ambivalence its author shows for decisiveness in real life, here are the rock solid values upon which he rests. The names which people this and other sections - Auden, Proust, Kafka, Larkin himself - are what Alan Bennett stands for. His defence of the Book of Common Prayer is based upon the importance of good writing, and of a shared frame of reference. In other words, it is not good enough for quality to remain the preserve of the elite, and Christianity, whatever its flaws, at least provided powerful words to the masses. This is the kind of argument which can get circular very quickly (i.e. do the public get Big Brother because it's what they want, or do they want it because they can't avoid it?), but as long as it hasn't been lost, there is room for a popular voice like Bennett's, sticking up for seriousness.

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