Keeping On Keeping On.
Faber and Faber.
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“If I was to stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork, I should still be regarded as a cuddly teddy bear”, says Alan Bennett of his ‘national treasure’ status. As everyone who has followed and devoured his writings, plays and diaries over his career, there is a sharper edge to Bennett than his harmless, cuddly image. This is the third volume of his diaries, covering the years 2005-15, and his acid like observations provide an effective snapshot of Britain under Blair, Brown and then the Tories, local issues and, of course, his work as a playwright. Included in this edition are the diaries of the filming of The History Boys and The Lady in the Van, and the development of his plays at the National, The Habit of Art, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks and People.
It feels as if the entries are chosen almost at random, his acerbic wit targeted at a vast range of subjects, and he pre-empts the reader in his Introduction by admitting that there are probably far too many visits to churches. There are, but the delight, (and sometimes despair), at the architecture viewed with his husband Rupert, is enjoyable and informed. And you are aware that visits like this, and to National Trust properties, led to the creation of People. It’s shocking how many news events I had forgotten that happened in this period, such is the bombardment of news we now receive daily. His defence of libraries, his anger at the selling off of State properties and values, (he describes Jeremy Hunt as looking like an estate agent showing buyers around a property), his loathing of Thatcher and Blair all offer insights into our changing society. Yes, he will now be attacked for being a Leftie, but to a Leftie like me he speaks a lot of sense.
If there is a fault to the diaries, it’s that the entries lack a strong thread. If you’re looking for a book that explains the playwright’s progress, then this isn’t the one for you. He casually mentions a play he is working on, or an event in a rehearsal room, but he never dwells on the process, the next entry will be about another subject matter, and then the play has opened and we never get an insight. But the book oozes with show business anecdotes, going back to the Beyond the Fringe years, and still uncovers beautiful comments and memories about his family. It’s often the shortest and pithiest entries that are the best, “26th May. Nowadays the road to Damascus would be called a steep learning curve.” “1st May. Unspoken dialogue: We are in the car when a pretty girl crosses too slowly. If I’d been bold, (or insane); I’d have wound the window down and said, “Listen we’re nancies. Big tits mean nothing too us.”
With the addition of the introductions to the plays, which you may have if you bought the texts, it’s good to have so much of his writing in one place. There are also two previously unpublished scripts, Denmark Hill and the original inspiration for the Talking Heads Hand of God, and this is a good value edition. There is a post script written on the day of the EU referendum result, and I really hope I get to read the fourth volume of his diaries covering his responses to Brexit and Trump, and whatever work he further delights us with.