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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Keeping On Keeping On

Alan Bennett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Since diaries make up the bulk of this book a diary entry is an appropriate start:

10 December 2015. Trying to hit on a title for this collection I pick up Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings … a presentation copy inscribed to me by Larkin at the request of Judi Dench back in 1969 when she and I did An Evening With … for the BBC. Looking at Larkin is a mistake as I am straight away discouraged: his poems are full of such good and memorable stuff that to plunder them just for a title seems cheap. Though it’s easier for Larkin, I think, as at eighty-one I’m still trying to avoid the valedictory note which was a problem Larkin never had, the valedictory almost his exclusive territory. I find nothing suitable though The Long Slide is a possibility, which seems valedictory but isn’t … The Long Slide is to happiness not extinction. Would Pass It On do, Hector’s message at the end of The History Boys? But pass what on … I’d still find it hard to say.

Nothing else done today except a trip over to Profile Books to sign copies of The Lady in the Van. The driver who takes me there is a big nice-looking young man with close-cropped hair and curling eyelashes. He is also a noticeably courteous driver. When we get to Clerkenwell I compliment him on his courteous driving but not (the subtext) on his eyelashes though it’s something at eighty-one I’m probably allowed to do. No danger. Not that I ever have been.

In one particular respect the valedictory is not to be sidestepped, as it was in 2006 that Rupert Thomas and I said farewell to Gloucester Crescent, the street in Camden Town where I had lived for nearly forty years, moving (though only a mile away) to Primrose Hill. It’s said that newcomers to London often settle near the point of arrival and this was certainly true of me, who could be taken to have arrived from Leeds at King’s Cross and been a denizen of North London ever since.

I started off my life in London in 1964 when I had a top-floor flat for £10 a week in Chalcot Square not far from where we have moved to. I was nervous about the move. In Gloucester Crescent I’d worked in a bay window looking onto the street where there was always enough going on to divert me in the gaps of my less than continuous flow of composition. In Primrose Hill I was to look out over a tiny back garden where the only excitement would be the occasional squirrel and I was nervous lest the spell of the Crescent such as it was, would be broken. Could I actually work there? This was such a real concern that for a month or two I kept office hours, cycling back to the old house and the table in the window that I was used to. But this soon palled so saying a reluctant farewell to the vibrant street life of Gloucester Crescent (drunks, drug dealing, snogging by the wall and the occasional stop and search) I embraced the tranquillity of the back garden in Primrose Hill and just got on with it.

In another respect, too I was hoping it would be a new beginning. Having failed in our old house to turn back the rising tide of paper I looked forward to a new start. I wasn’t yet ready for a computer but I resolved to make fewer notes, not write so many drafts and generally keep paperwork to a minimum. This has not happened and having fled one nest I now have made another. I am not proud of being computer-illiterate and this too I hoped to alter so we did get a computer. However its sojourn was brief as it was the single item stolen in a break-in one afternoon and in this respect Primrose Hill proved hardly more law-abiding than Camden Town: my bike, chained to the railings outside was soon stolen, a would-be burglar tried to con his way into the house and a neighbour was badly mugged on our actual doorstep. Still it’s a friendly neighbourhood and a socially mixed one and even if I can’t quite cosify it as ‘the village’ as some do, most people speak or pass the time of day though whether it will survive when HS2 senselessly rips the guts out of it remains to be seen.

Shortly after we moved house in 2006 we entered into a civil partnership. Rupert and I had first got together in 1992 though we didn’t live in the same house until 1997 after I was operated on for bowel cancer as is related in Untold Stories. We had now been together for fourteen years, our partnership domestic long before it was civil, so the ceremony was hardly a landmark. And even less so, thanks to me.

It was a rainy morning in Camden Registry Office, with the registrar performing the rites in the presence of Rupert’s parents, his brother and a few friends and with scant ceremony, so scant in fact that even the registrar felt it a bit of a let-down, with the happy couple and everyone else doing nothing more celebratory afterwards than adjourning for some coffee on Great Portland Street. This was entirely my fault as, never keen on parties, had a more festive occasion been envisaged I might have jumped ship. It was only later that I realised how closely our ceremony mirrored the early morning marriage of my parents which is also described in Untold Stories. They, too, had had only a few relatives present with my father immediately afterwards dashing off to work where he was a butcher at the Co-op. Their only concession to the occasion was a visit that evening to the Theatre Royal and The Desert Song. We didn’t even do that (or its equivalent). It’s something (if only occasionally) that I am never allowed to forget.

In the ten years covered by this book politics has impinged more than I care for and like the woman in the fish shop the day after the 2015 election I fear that there will be a Tory government for the remainder of my life. 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. And why should it stop? If there is money to be made out of the probation service why not still exhibit the insane? How long before even the monarchy is sponsored and government itself put out to tender? Is there any large corporation nowadays which one wholly trusts and which doesn’t confuse honesty with public relations?

Some of these sentiments I more moderately voiced in King’s College Chapel in 2014 in the sermon printed here. I could have suggested then that taking a leaf out of the government’s book the Church of England too should be run solely for profit, parsons given targets and made to turn up at Epiphany with statistics of souls saved. Except that the trouble with such jokes is that they are a joke no longer and in this senseless world in which even the bees find government arrayed against them, moderation is hard to hold onto.

Eschew the valedictory though one tries to do, anything one writes at this age is bound to be to a degree testamentary, with the writer wondering what of anything he or she has written will survive and for how long. I can’t say I much care since I shan’t be around to see it though I hope that any posthumous assessment will at least be comprehensive, taking in not just what I’ve written but what I’ve said about it myself, and this collection includes the preface and programme notes for four plays – The Habit of Art (2009), Hymn, Cocktail Sticks and People (all 2012). The introductions to my plays often say as much as the plays themselves, including as they often do cherished passages cut from the playing text, generally on grounds of length. But I have always written too much and one of the reasons why my collaboration with Nicholas Hytner has been so long and fruitful is that he is among other things a ruthless surgeon with no hesitation about wielding the scissors or pressing whatever key it is on the computer.

I have also been fortunate in my writing life that the London Review of Books has been prepared to print what prose I have written and the National Theatre produce my plays. I have been edited by both but rejected by neither and seldom put under pressure. Of course I might have written more had I been less complacent about finding a market for my work but I wouldn’t have had such a good time.

One of the diary entries for October 2015 is about doing Private Passions, Michael Berkeley’s always excellent programme for BBC Radio 3. It was nicely edited so that after my final choice, ‘Softly and gently’, the final passage from Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, I was allowed a little coda. As a boy at concerts in Leeds Town Hall I used to sit behind the orchestra. The music I heard seemed to hold out a vision of love returned, of transcendence and even triumph. But that was just the music and life wasn’t like that. What was to become of me? Could I slip into the seat behind I would put a hand on my young shoulder and say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’

And it has been all right. I have been very lucky.

Alan Bennett

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