Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Reading Alan Bennett

I’m just reading Alan Bennett’s account of his relationship with his parents, ‘A Life Like Other People’s’, published in 2009. His style is unique; Radio 4, perfectly pitched, and the very essence of ‘northernness’ is in the vocabulary, the flattened vowels in the rhythm of the prose. His voice establishes an affectionate intimacy with the reader. For a homesick northerner it’s as if you’re listening to a favourite uncle, reading you a bedtime story.
I can hear the echo of my grandparents’ voices, Harry and Lizzie, born in the Irish ghettos of Carlisle and brought up with the language of their adopted country. I can still hear my grandfather say to his wife, (who is once again ‘in a bit of a state’), ‘Now then, mother....’, his tone one you would adopt for an over-excited dog, his impatience and exasperation cloaked in resignation. My grandmother wears, like Alan Bennett’s mother, a duster coat, or perhaps a little two piece from C & A. She aspired to Binns, but could rarely afford the prices. She wore glasses with a little diamante exclamation mark at the corners, and always put on a hat even if she was going across the street for a loaf of bread.
Reading Alan Bennett, I’m pitched back into my grandparents' council house on a newly built estate, a sneering teenager poking ridicule at the crocheted crinoline dolls that covered the toilet rolls. On the sideboard were strange crocheted fruit bowls which you had to soak in sugar water and then dry over a basket until they were stiff. She crocheted hats too - which were then stretched over a specially bought ‘shape’, which I think she had ‘sent off for’ as a special offer from Woman and Home magazine. She was obsessively houseproud. Mrs Bennett’s litany of buckets and cloths and mops - each with a separate purpose - was repeated in my grandmother’s house. When she bought a new sofa the plastic cover was only taken off for family ‘dos’ or when the vicar came to call. Her particular enemy was the damp - you could die, she told me, from a chill caught in an unaired bed. She once burnt my grandfather’s Sunday jacket while airing it in front of the gas fire before he put it on.
But unlike Alan Bennett’s home, theirs was a cold, loveless house. If my grandfather ever ventured to show her affection she would shrink away and say ‘Don’t be silly, Harry!’ She told my mother once, while I played on the floor, wide-eyed and all ears, that she ‘couldn’t be doing with It. I put a stop to it after our May was born.’ Sad.

Sad too, Alan Bennett’s tale of repression in post-war Leeds; family secrets that concerned - not aberrant sexuality - but mental illness and its consequences. His account of his mother’s slow slide into depression and then dementia is gentle and humorous as well as tragic.
You can get tired of his style - though this book is too short to cloy. It’s a beautifully told memoir that also gives a frank account of the autobiographical sources for his many plays, sketches and books. Like ‘Talking Heads’ it’s a monologue that reveals as much about the narrator as it does about the subject of the story.


  1. I always feel rather bad for Alan Bennett despite him being such a wonderful writer. This sounds good for a nostalgia trip(ah the days of C&A) and it's nice that your reading reminded you of so many personal times. Sad about your grandparents.

  2. Thanks Jodie. Alan Bennett is a wonderful writer, but I think has settled into a groove recently and some of the amazing innovative stuff that came earlier is much better.

  3. I have just finished "Untold Stories" and am grieving the loss. Alan Bennett is a rare breed indeed, he may be a good fix for Northern nostalgia junkies, but that is not what makes him a great writer of prose.