The Occasional Date

Why you should read the 700-page collected diaries of British playwright Alan Bennett.

Alan Bennett.

Hugo Glendinning

“I seem to have banged on this year rather more than usual,” observes Alan Bennett in his latest collection of diaries, Keeping On Keeping On. Bennett’s been banging on in his published journals since the 1980s and makes no apology for this volubility, reflecting that no matter what he writes, he will still be regarded by the British public as a figure of cozy and harmless familiarity. “I am in the pigeon-hole marked ‘no threat’ and did I stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork I should still be a teddy bear.” He delivers this assessment of his own image with a note of resignation, being well-aware of what he is to the British public, and being more or less fine with it.

Far from being perceived as a threat, he’s a textbook national treasure. Now 83, Bennett’s been a public figure in one way or another since his early 20s when he starred in Beyond the Fringe, a seminal comic revue he founded at Oxford with his friends Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Jonathan Miller. In the decades that followed, Bennett developed into a multipurpose personage of letters. He’s best known for his wildly popular plays (including The Madness of George III, The History Boys, and The Lady in the Van—all three of which became prestigiously middlebrow films), but is also a familiar presence as an actor and television presenter, as well as a novelist, short story writer, memoirist, and essayist. He’s the kind of one-man cultural Swiss army knife, in other words, that the culture tends not to produce anymore. And in keeping with this somewhat antediluvian identity, he has also distinguished himself as that most old-timey of literary curiosities: a diarist.

The whimsical, slightly shambling persona at the center of these diaries, which have been appearing regularly in the London Review of Books for more than three decades, is probably the version of Bennett that looms largest these days in most readers’ minds, at least in the U.K. He writes wittily about the intricate mundanities of his days in a way that feels casually intimate, and yet he reveals very little of his inner life: The diaries are, for the most part, an exhaustive catalogue of external bits and pieces. (“I stopped keeping the ‘inner life’ type of diaries a long time ago,” he said back in the ’90s, “because when you read them back they’re either embarrassing or boring.”)

There’s little that’s too mundane for Bennett to record, and few mundanities he can’t make somehow entertaining. “I’ve taken to eating the occasional date,” begins one fairly typical entry, “though it’s not a fruit I wholly like.” (“Pulse noticeably quickening here,” I wrote in the margin of my review copy.) That bombshell opener gives way to a brief reflection about his mother and how ahead of her time she was in pressing healthy foods on her family. It’s a technique—or perhaps more accurately a tic—Bennett employs throughout the diaries, allowing a mundane detail to open out onto some meandering avenue toward his past. It’s not quite Proust, granted, but it mostly works. And beyond this, such accumulation of trivial detail is oddly satisfying in its own right: Aside from providing a sense of the texture of the everyday, there’s a subtle comedy to the solemn manner in which Bennett announces, say, this late-life turn toward the consumption of dates.

As a diarist, Bennett is mostly concerned with recording the amusing and (arguably) notable things that happen to him, or in his immediate vicinity. His partner Rupert Thomas, the magazine editor with whom he’s lived in the northwest London borough of Camden since the late 1990s, is glimpsed frequently but only glancingly in the entries, never intimately portrayed. Their life together reads like an entirely pleasant one—jetting off to New York for a Broadway production of one of Bennett’s plays, tooling up and down the motorway to Bennett’s native Yorkshire for long weekends, all punctuated by an utterly relentless schedule of visits to rural churches and country houses in service of a mutual interest in architecture—but he reveals little of the history or dynamics of their relationship. Bennett’s affection for his younger partner emerges clearly enough, though, if often at a wicked slant. He records Rupert turning toward him one evening as the credits roll on a television adaptation of Wuthering Heights:

R: You’re rather like Heathcliff.’
Me (gratified): ‘Really?’
R: ‘Yeah. Difficult, Northern and a cunt.’

The most straightforwardly entertaining entries are those where Bennett shares his observations of scenes and passing vignettes—stuff he just happens to notice or overhear when he’s out and about, or staring out his window. The entire entry for April 19, 2007, for instance, consists of a description of a young construction worker Bennett happens to observe in the street outside his window:

A handsome builder’s boy waiting with a van just over the wall whiles away the time by practising some complicated dance step. It seems to involve a lot of little jumps, and in the beat before he does the jumps he snatches a look up and down the street to make sure nobody catches him at it. As he gets more confident, though, the steps get wilder and he dances to his reflection in the side of the van this bright warm morning. Now the rest of the crew turn up and he performs his routine for them, which they watch with indulgent smiles.

The physician and public intellectual Jonathan Miller, the only other surviving Beyond the Fringe member, happens to be a neighbor of Bennett’s; he shows up only rarely in the diaries, but is exceptionally good value for money when he does. Fellow national treasure though he is, Miller appears here exclusively in his comic capacity as the curmudgeonly old bastard who lives down the street. At one point, Miller accosts an elderly homeless man from a nearby hostel, having a sly piss up against a car. Miller asks him, somewhat redundantly, what he thinks he’s doing, to which the old man replies, “It’s all right, I’m Irish.” At this point, there appears on the scene yet another distinguished literary resident of the street, the “always straight-faced” Irish writer Julia O’Faolain:

With more courage than it took to accost the Irishman, J. accosted her.

‘What do you think of this? This gentleman is urinating in the street and his excuse is that he’s Irish.’

With no alteration in her usual demeanour Ms O’Faolain took out her purse, selected a small coin and gave it to the urinater saying, ‘Do not dishonour the green flag.’ ‘God bless you,’ said the man and shook hands with Jonathan with the same hand in which he had just been holding his dick.

One of the collection’s more consistent pleasures, in fact, is seeing the eminences in Bennett’s social circle encountering the mundanities and absurdities of everyday contemporary life. Maybe my favorite moment in the whole thing is Bennett’s transcription of a message he sends on Christmas Eve 2011 to his 91-year-old friend Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. (He calls her “Ms Debo”; she calls him “Nibs.”) He starts off talking about a package of selected meats he and Rupert have received as a Christmas gift from their friend S, noting that it is “the most carnal parcel I’ve ever had, containing venison, pheasants, partridges, rabbits and many smaller and lesser known mammals.” Under the influence of these miscellaneous victuals, his thinking takes a hard left, and he winds up leading the dowager duchess down the following unexpected cultural byway:

I don’t suppose you keep up with the pop scene but one current leading songster is Lady Gaga and one of her outfits consists entirely of meat (true) and not just beef skirt but a sirloin stole, mutton chop sleeves, the lot, so that she could easily run up a dress or two from S’s parcel alone. It’s not a dress in which you would want to walk the dog.

Bennett is not, any more than Miller, above the métier of the cantankerous old git. Keeping On Keeping On features a rant about the decline of the Speaking Clock service, in particular the fact that the clock now speaks with, of all things, an American accent. “God rot the fools,” he writes, “who thought it was a good idea.” (Younger readers might be intrigued to learn, by the way, that this Speaking Clock was a phone line people used to literally call, whereby a recorded voice would literally tell them the time.) And there is quite a bit of grousing about the classical music radio station Classic FM, whose slide into outright degeneracy seems if possible more shockingly debased than that of the Speaking Clock. The entry for Sept. 19, 2008, consists in its entirety of a comically contemptuous quote from one of the station’s DJs: “Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.”

The crassness and commercialism of Classic FM comes to stand as a symbol for “the Torification of life.” For all that he is basically comfortable with his status as an establishment figure—and even an outright Monarchist (he’s unashamedly fond of the queen, herself a fleeting, silently nodding presence in these pages)—Bennett, the son of a Leeds butcher, remains essentially a steadfast lefty. As the diaries progress, his anger with Tony Blair’s Labour Party and its warmongering in Iraq gives way to a weary disgust with the relentless barbarism of the austerity policies of the subsequent Conservative government—the dismantling of the National Health Service and the closure of public libraries being particular targets for his anger.

“I fear that there will be a Tory government for the remainder of my life,” he writes in the collection’s introduction. “And with it England dismantled. As the government continues to pick the state clean one marvels at its ingenuity in finding institutions still left unsold.” One of the interesting things about the diary as a written form is the way in which it comfortably accommodates, say, a polemic on the privatizing of Britain’s probation service immediately succeeding an entry on rehearsing at the Olivier with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon. There’s nothing odd or disjointed about this proximity—or rather its oddness and disjointedness is that of life itself. One day you’re hanging out with Judi Dench (whom you could get away with pitchforking, but crucially do not), the next day you’re walking around London thinking about how messed up neoliberalism is. Days are like that—and so, therefore, is the diary.

Keeping On Keeping On is a very long book; I would have been quite happy to lose a solid 50 percent of the detailed descriptions of churches and quite a few picnics in scenic locations along with them. And yet the diary form, the brevity of each individual entry—coupled with my ongoing trust that I was never more than a page or so from some amusing insight or witticism—kept me ploughing through the pages, night after night, keeping on keeping on. I read it over the course of about six weeks, during which time I also listened to a lot of audio recordings of Bennett speaking and reading in his nasally plaintive (and yet somehow entirely delightful) voice, and I found that I was imagining that voice in my head whenever I read any kind of text at all. I had somehow internalized Alan Bennett. Everything from YouTube comments to the aphorisms of E.M. Cioran were put through the Bennetizer in my mind and were much the better for it.

Another way of putting this would be to say that I was going mildly mad from extended exposure, but in a way that felt not unpleasant—and which lent a patina of Bennettian amusement to the everydayness of my own world. And that is, in a way, the great trick of his diaries—creating that sense of quotidian intimacy and familiarity while revealing very little of his inner life. Though you never quite get inside Bennett’s head, he has a way of getting inside yours.

Keeping On Keeping On by Alan Bennett. Farrar, Straus.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.