Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 14 Oct 2017

Keeping On Keeping On: Alan Bennett Diaries 2005-15

There will surely come a time when it won’t be possible to say anything about Alan Bennett – whether for good or ill – that he hasn’t already said of himself in his thirty-years’ worth of diaries, the third volume of which, Keeping On Keeping On, has just been published in paperback.

Because I don’t go to the theatre and rarely if ever read plays, it seems contrary to say but beyond a handful of the more obvious contenders I have never really kept up with the thing for which Bennett is after all most famous – his plays. But what I have kept up with are his published diaries.

These have now become an artfully spontaneous institution. Written in longhand on masses of paper by Bennett himself, the diaries are scrupulously (and with absolute discretion) typed up by Sue, who has assisted him for decades; they are then edited and published annually in one-year installments in The London Review of Books; and then, with Dinah, his long-time editor at Faber, they are re-edited in ten-year collections for hardback and paperback publication. It is probably true, however, that the two earlier volumes are more crammed with incident, as from memory, both contain far more about caring for his parents and the period leading up to his mother’s death.

With the latest volume one might think that some kind of law of diminishing returns might have set in, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, and the acute chatty rambling mixture of the domestic, the literary, of social observation and (increasingly) political exasperation is as fascinating as ever.

But of course we don’t read Bennett’s diaries solely for what they say; we also read them for their authorial voice – Bennett’s own supremely articulate, cadenced, Northern, self-deprecating Eeyore-ish tones, as familiar to many of us (or at least we like to think) as the voice of our own parents, our closest friends, perhaps even our own spouse or partner. Given his notorious reticence and fabled reserve, it seems unlikely that Bennett would welcome such a view; and yet nor can he be unaware that this is what people do think – they turn up in droves, after all, to hear the man speak, read and reminisce.

But this is not to say that his diaries are predictable: they are familiar, but that is not the same thing. As the years have progressed Bennett has become less guarded, perhaps even modestly cavalier in his self-revelation, and consequently what may crop up in the diaries has become increasingly unpredictable. He has also become somewhat spikier, slightly more acerbic – a rather late revolt against cosiness, it seems. And it is this unpredictability, coupled with the breadth and magpie-like intelligence and curiosity that informs everything he considers that makes the diaries such a joy.

Bennett is on record as saying he can’t believe there will be a fourth volume. What he means, of course – he turned eighty-three this year – is that there won’t be time for a fourth volume. Perhaps understandably, then, this present collection has a more deeply valedictory tone than its predecessors – a grudging acceptance of ageing and infirmity, a slowing down certainly, but also a clearing up, a tidying away, an almost certainly final house move, and the chastening pleasures of ploughing through a lifetime’s papers as he prepares his archives for donation to the Bodleian. It is, as a consequence, more deeply affecting and more emotional, I think, and I found my eyes prickling with tears on several occasions as I read.

But I think it would also be a falsehood if we said we read Bennett’s diaries only for their beautifully turned stories and sharply etched memories. We also read them for their dense domestic detail, because over the decades we feel we have grown to know the Bennett household and its cast of recurring characters. This sense of intimacy is not a coincidental factor. It’s one of the qualities we turn to diaries for – and whether he intends it or not, Alan Bennett is a writer of great (but never shocking or gratuitous and certainly never spurious) intimacy. (He is also nowhere near as conventional as he seems to believe himself to be, and this has its own vicarious fascination.)

Bennett’s friends and neighbours weave in and out of the narrative, almost like the personae in Anthony Powell’s novel sequence Dance to the Music of Time – which Bennett’s diaries increasingly resemble, I think – and we sense an almost discernible pattern that seems to hover just beyond recognition. And we promise ourselves that one day, when time permits, we’ll settle down with all of the diaries and read them again from beginning to end and not only will their pattern become clear, we’ll also finally understand why and how that distinctive voice rising from the page has become one of the most deeply loved and comforting presences in contemporary literature.

If you already love Alan Bennett then of course nothing I can say here will make a scrap of difference – you will already have devoured the diaries. But if on the other hand you think you’re not the kind of person who reads writers’ diaries, then try and make an exception in this case and give these a try. For like all great diarists he has the ability to reveal a life as it is lived – in all its repetition, its mundanity, its melancholy, its exaltation and consolation – and his diaries, I am convinced, will earn a deserved place beside those of Virginia Woolf, Pepys, and Harold Nicolson.


Alun Severn

October 2017