One of the only nice things about having a birthday that more or less coincides with Christmas is that I usually end up with a stack of books I've received as presents with which to while away the January holidays. Last year was no different, and the first book I directed my attentions to was Alan Bennett's 'Untold Stories'.
This is a sort of sequel to 'Writing Home' which I read probably about ten years ago and which shot immediately to my mental list of favourites. I was watching his 'Talking Heads' monologues at the time, and began to collect every Bennett play I could find.
I'd previously been a passionate fan of that generation of British comedians who arose out of the 'satire boom' round about 1960. I'm talking about Peter Cook, Bennett, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, Monty Python, Eleanor Bron, John Bird, John Fortune and all the many others. So I had a context for Bennett's humour, but this was the first time I'd really encountered his quizzical, melancholic, humane and occasionally biting way of putting the world.
This book, like 'Writing Home', is a collection non-fiction, autobiography and diary entries, that taken together, convincingly conjur up a whole world. Or rather several, since Bennett is the gay son of a Yorkshire butcher who went to Oxford, hung out with glamorous people, was funny in public, and became a deceptively substantial playwright and almost despite himself, a public figure. His observations are canny, finely observed and never lacking in compassion. Though there is in this book a tendency to go on a bit, almost certainly a result of the circumstances under which a good deal of it was written, namely a diagnosis of cancer with an uncertain future. I forgive him for it.
But within the pages of these two books is an outlook and an effortless literary style which probably stamps a life lived from the 1930s into the 21st Century just as definitively as Samuel Pepys did the late 17th Century. There are examples of utterly characteristic, well-crafted, funny observations on every page.
Like this one, in the piece called 'Going to the Pictures', written after he was made a Trustee of the National Gallery. He's talking about his first introductory tour of the gallery.
Mine was at nine in the morning, when I find it hard to look the milkman in the eye let alone a Titian.
Or this, spoken at the funeral of the fearlessly homosexual Russell Harty:
Cheek, though not quite a virtue, belongs in the other ranks of courage.
Does anyone else in the English language sound like this?