Tuesday, February 23, 2010


The two of Alan Bennett's recent monologues for the BBC findable on Youtube - the other is on 'Mixing' - constitute, for me, a kind of deflected autobiography. And, like autobiography itself, Bennett's work is, for me, something of a guilty pleasure; indeed, it's his work outside his plays - the monologues, autobiographical sketches, the diaries that appear, like a much-needed indigestion pill, in the LRB just after Christmas - that always pleases me the most, and that I'm most familiar with. One of the reasons I like Bennett (and, indeed, perhaps the reason there's so much affection for him in the literary establishment) is his refusal to become, in old age, a political stooge, his position of soft-voiced resistance and keeping-up of a quaint old-leftism, rooted in the working-class politics and culture of mid-century West Yorkshire, a world as comforting in the fact of its existence as that mellifluous voice - one of factories, metropolitan concert halls and strenuous self-education, suits and bicycles. When asked (or not asked) about politics, he repeats anecdotes, talks about his life, guides you slowly through the landscape and atmosphere of this other world that engrained in him its values. My own parents came from a not-dissimilar background: rural mid-working-class, born in two tiny villages in the New Forest, an area that, like the nearby Isle of Wight, never seems to have left Bennett's 1940s. They seem to have both ended up in the position of Bennett's parents - wanting and failing to be "a bit more like other folks", raising a son (though not a daughter) who turned out "a bit shy". ("They [were] able to blame their shyness... on 'not having been educated'. I've nothing to blame it on at all, except possibly them.") It occurs to me occasionally that their nostalgia, of the usual fairly conservative kind - my father, an aficionado of steam-engines and earthmovers, looks back unconsciously, in a confusion straight out of Raymond Williams, to the era of Fordist capitalism and 'the old way of life' in agriculture - is, if they could only see it, the same as that of Bennett, that they have the same things invested in the past - that they should be seeing, as Bennett sees in his quasi-Benjaminian tour of Leeds' County Arcade, a future worth preserving.


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