Alan Bennett’s father was a Leeds butcher who read, and played the double bass, but who denounced the slightest intellectual pretension as “putting it on.” His mother’s fantasy for her son was that he might become a “gentleman farmer.” They were nonetheless gentle spirits--so we gather from Bennett’s sketches--and they were not really against his donning wings; it is just that they tended to count feathers rather than flights.
Bennett, a melancholy wit, did fly. He was the solemnly mad one (the double bass) in the satiric “Beyond the Fringe” quartet, along with the shrilly or caustically mad Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. He is the author of such mordantly comic plays as “Habeas Corpus” and “The Madness of George III.” But he is his parents’ son. He has always counted feathers and distrusted the artistic and aesthetic aerialism--or Arielism--of a Laurence Olivier, a Peter Brook, a Kenneth Tynan.
As a boy he made deliveries to his father’s customers, among them a Mrs. Fletcher. Her daughter Valerie had taken a job in a London publishing house, risen to be assistant to one of the directors and married him. “I had,” Bennett writes in the preface to “Writing Home,” “delivered meat to the mother-in-law of T.S. Eliot.” Later his mother mentioned seeing Mrs. Fletcher in the company of a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman. Bennett explained that he was a literary titan and winner of the Nobel Prize. “Well, I’m not surprised,” his mother replied. “It was a beautiful overcoat.”
It is an example of Bennett’s mother-wit, as well as his mother’s wit. It is disassociation, a seeming non sequitur that in fact follows most logically; only underground. Even when it touches on the edge of madness it makes disconcerting sense, like that of King George in Bennett’s play and movie.
In the diaries that make up one part of this collection, the middle-aged Bennett visits his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in a nursing home and reports her odd remarks.
In “The Lady in the Van” he tells of Miss Shepherd, an imperiously regal figure in exile from her sanity. She lives in an ancient van in front of Bennett’s house. When she wants to move it--the engine doesn’t work--she summons passersby to push, sometimes for blocks. Her wheelchair has a sign on the back: “Please help push me. Sometimes.” When someone does, she drags one foot to make it harder.
Commanding and annoying are the only levers that the cloudy old woman can find for the world. The “sometimes” is a ghost of politeness from the past. A former student of the great pianist Alfred Cortot, she gave up music to become a nun; and left the convent because she was too quarrelsome to stay.
Parked for years in Bennett’s garden--vandals were threatening the van and he took her in--she is a stream of demands and vague projects. From inside the van she orders his evening visitors to be quiet so that she can sleep. She throws out garbage bags filled with her soiled diapers. When Bennett has a load of manure delivered she asks him to put up a sign explaining that the smell is not hers. Eventually she dies.
Comic, heart-breaking and delicate as the portrait is, it could be on the edge of bad taste, and over it, except that madness is more than Bennett’s method. It is his bottle of salvation in a world that he finds depressive and heartless. The liberties he uses with it are disconcerting, but they are neither fatuous nor patronizing. Bennett takes madness seriously enough to find the agonizingly unsheathed soul inside it. His King George is his mother and Miss Shepherd and his own alter ego.
“Writing Home” is a miscellany and there is far too much of it. Whole sections are reprints that do not survive the time and place of writing. Bennett’s portraits of a flamboyant British television personality, Russell Harty, and of Innes Lloyd, a film and television producer, are bar conversations about someone you don’t know. The chatty newspaper whimsies entitled “Stocking-stuffers” are the very faint ghosts of Christmases past. His preface all but acknowledges as much.
“Writing Home” calls for prospecting, not straight reading; a vein of iron and more dazzling stuff are to be found under the topsoil. He makes some darkly gleaming remarks about the theater. A playwright’s complaints about critics will always be self-serving but Bennett’s are witty, as well. After one play is panned, he writes:
“The only person feeling more sorry for themselves than I am this Sunday morning must be Lady Barnett. She was convicted of shoplifting last Wednesday and I was convicted the same day, though of what?” And of James Fenton, a former Sunday Times critic: “Mr. Fenton’s subsequent abandonment of dramatic criticism to become the Independent’s correspondent in the Philippines was one of the more cheering developments in the theater in the ‘80s, though when President Marcos claimed to be a much-misunderstood man I knew how he felt.”
Reviewing a memoir of Sir John Gielgud, Bennett, who worked with him, produces a deft and touching portrait of an old-school actor trying to cope with contemporary directorial theater. He quotes Peter Brook’s dismissal of Gielgud’s great modulating voice as “awfully false and theatrical.” He describes Gielgud’s game attempt to perform pre-rehearsal exercises with the company instead of working on his beloved crossword puzzle.
Brook’s art--he is one of the great directors of our time--makes Bennett squirm: the Leeds boy’s distrust of “putting it on.” It’s wrongheaded, but what a splendid phrase he uses for Sir John’s craftsman mix of ham and grit. Brook, he writes, “could not eradicate the iron streak of tinsel that runs through Gielgud’s character.”
Sometimes Bennett’s Leedsian distrust of the trendy in politics, art and the press is simply a reflexive semi-prole grumble. Other times it is close to sublime. At the time of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, a group of Oxford students collected money so they could go to Budapest. A Cambridge group was going, they pointed out, and it was important that Oxford be represented. “History for them was simply the [Oxford-Cambridge] Boat Race carried on by other means,” he writes.
And after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and the election of Vaclav Havel as president, Bennett remarks in a twist on the fashionable intellectual view: “I seem to be the only Western playwright not personally acquainted with the new President of Czechoslovakia. I envy him though. What a relief to find oneself head of state and not have to write plays, but just make history.”