Keeping On Keeping On by Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett is our “greatest living writer”, said Roger Lewis in The Times. In “his appreciation of national traits” – our melancholy, our resignation, our preference for the low-key – he is the “heir to John Betjeman and Philip Larkin”. If he isn’t a candidate for the Nobel Prize, that’s only because the committee prefers “grim sods” like Harold Pinter. Keeping On Keeping Onis Bennett’s latest collection of assorted writings. Like previous volumes, such asUntold Stories (2005), it is a “rag-bag, a bran tub” – a mix of essays, memorial addresses, scripts and diaries. As ever, Bennett, now 82, spends much of his time “pottering around England on branch line railways”, these days usually accompanied by Rupert Thomas, his civil partner since 2006. Never forgetting to pack their “gluten-free sandwiches”, the pair take in churches, junk shops and tea rooms. A typical day might involve a visit to a cake stall, an hour or two “snooping round” Knole Park, and then the purchase of a “drop-leaf table” from “Mr Midgley the antique dealer”.
Though Bennett has a reputation as “cosy and essentially harmless”, he’s actually not such a teddy bear, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. His upbringing in 1940s Leeds filled him with “violent prejudices”, which he freely gives vent to in his diaries. Chief among his bugbears are Tories (“self-seeking liars”), the internet-savvy young (“millions of opinionated and empty-headed people” regaling the world “with their fatuities”), and the middle class (at a farmers’ market, he can feel them “hugging themselves in self-congratulation”). But whatever his “hang-ups and grumbles”, these diaries are “inexhaustibly fascinating, because Bennett has an eager, enquiring mind and a sharp way with words that can break your ideas open”.
At 700-plus pages, this volume is a little “onerous to carry about”, said David Sexton in the London Evening Standard. Never mind: it’s wonderful to have “so much more of such an enjoyable writer”. These days, Bennett is a “little different” from in the past; he’s “definitely happier”, more open about love and sex, and less obsessed with “barmy old ladies”. But he hasn’t changed all that much: there’s the same “deflation of all afflatus”, the same self-deprecation (and, less endearingly, the same “comfy-Left predictabilities”). “I have been very lucky,” Bennett remarks near the end. We, too, have been lucky to have him.