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Doing silly turns
Three years before Macmillan's "never had it so good" speech, in October 1954, a tall, fair-haired, bespectacled twenty-year-old Yorkshireman arrived at Oxford to read Modern History. "The lodge of my college," he recalls,
was piled high with trunks: trunks pasted with ancient labels, trunks that had holidayed in Grand Hotels, travelled first-class on liners, trunks painted with four, nay even five, initials ... They were the trunks of fathers that were now the trunks of sons, trunks of generations. These trunks spoke memory. I had two shameful Antler suitcases that I had gone to buy with my mother at Schofields in Leedsan agonizing process, since it had involved her explaining to the shop assistant, a class my mother always assumed were persons of some refinement, that the cases were for going to Oxford with on a scholarship and were these the kind of thing? They weren't. One foot across the threshold of my college lodge and I saw it, and hurried to hide them beneath my cold bed. By the end of the first term I hadn't acquired much education but I had got myself a decent second-hand trunk.
Alan Bennett was the first of his family to go to university. Two years later, in 1956, Dennis Potter came up to Oxford from the Forest of Dean determined to flaunt, even exaggerate, his working-class origins as a way of achieving fame among his fellow undergraduates. Bennett, however, saw nothing in his background to shout about: "I was born and brought up in Leeds, in what Isuppose must have been a working-class family. When I say 'I suppose,' I do not mean that I did not actually notice, but imply that it all seemed perfectly satisfactory to me at the time. I had, after all, nothing to compare it with."
He claims that his childhood in the 1930s and 1940s was dull rather than deprived"the Utility version, childhood according to the Authorized Economy Standard"and he had no great expectations of university. Yet his personal manner was misleading: "People ... think I'm sad ... I think it's because I've got an unfortunate face. But I always feel much more cheerful than they imagine that I am." And his upbringing had in fact been mildly unusual: "I already knew at the age of five that I belonged to a family that without being in the least bit remarkable or eccentric yet managed never to be quite like other families."
He was the younger son of Walter Bennett, a butcher working for the Co-Op in the Armley district of Leeds. Mr. Bennett was an amateur violinist who had also once taken up the double-bass to play in a dance bandusually an indication of at least mild eccentricity. He was also something of a writer and regularly entered competitions in such magazines as Tit-Bits, and was even sometimes paid for sending in short humorous paragraphs. He was expert (recalls Alan) at coming up with "a telling phrase on a given topic," something "witty, ironic or ambiguousin effect a verbal cartoon"; a good mimic, too, who could take off his sisters-in-law, Alan's aunts. One of them had played the piano in the silent cinema, and the other was the manageress of a shoe shop; Alan alleges that for every birthday she gave him the same present, a pair of shoe-trees.
Alan's mother Lilian was less ebullient than her husband, obsessed with household cleanliness and prone to depression. Yet she too had literary inclinations, at least as a reader, being addicted to stories of escape from humdrum life into something more exciting. Alan says she hoped that when he grew up he would become a gentleman farmer. (When he began to portray North Country women of her generation in his television plays in the 1970s, she joked that she was supplying him with most of his dialogue.)
Bennett loved and admired his parents, and was distressed, though also amused, by their obvious feeling of insecurity in the class hierarchy of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. Oxford confused them. Visiting him at Exeter College, "they took my scout for a don," and it was worse if all three Bennetts went out for a meal:
When we were at home we always had our dinner at lunchtime. For my parents, anything that came after that was never more than a snack. But when I was at university and they came to see me, we'd go into the hotel dining room at night and the waiter would present the menu, and my Mam would say the dread words, "Do you do a poached egg on toast?" and we'd slink from the dining room, the only family in England not to have its dinner at night ... "Would you like the wine list?" the waiter would ask. "Not really," Dad would say, and one had to be quick in order to stop Mam explaining about his duodenal ulcer. Mind you, what wine was there that would go with spaghetti on toast? "Which is really all we want at this time in the evening. Mr. Bennett has to watch his tummy."
Alan gradually realized that literature seemed to his parents to offer an escape from the rigidity of class: "They imagined that books would make them less shy and (always an ambition) able to 'mix.' Quiet and never particularly gregarious, they cherished a lifelong longing to 'branch out,' with books somehow the key to it." Their son was eventually to do the "branching out" for them; yet in childhood it never seemed to him "that great hopes were set upon me."
He and his brother Gordon were sent to local grammar schools. Alan found his school dull: "It wasn't old. It wasn't new. There was not even a kindly schoolmaster who put books into my hands. I think one may have tried to, but it was not until I was sixteen, and a bit late in the day."
In childhood, many of the children's books he encountered had been an uncomfortable reminder of his parents' social uncertainty:
The families I read about ... had dogs and gardens and lived in country towns equipped with thatched cottages and mill-streams ... [and] comfortable pipe-smoking fathers and gentle aproned mothers, who were invariably referred to as Mummy and Daddy. In an effort to bring this fabulous world closer to my own ... I tried as a first step substituting "Mummy" and "Daddy" for my usual "Mare" and "Dad," but was pretty sharply discouraged. My father was hot on anything smacking of social pretension.
There were no such social nuances in Hugh Lofting's wistfully comic Doctor Dolittle books about talking animals, and these became "my favourite."
Another refuge was music. With school friends, he attended Saturday concerts by the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, feeling that "music showed you how to live your life." Brahms's Second Piano Concerto made him believe his future would be lofty: "I saw myself modestly ascending shallow staircases to unspecified triumphs." But reality soon broke in. A character in his 1971 play Getting On says, "I thought life was going to be like Brahms ... Instead it's, well, it's been like Eric Coates."
Another spell was less easily broken. In his mid-teens he was "a fervent Anglican." Having gained his initial religious upbringing in a Congregational Sunday school, he had become attracted by Anglo-Catholicism, and at fifteen was confirmed by H.H. Vully de Candole, the Bishop of Knaresborough, in St Michael's, Headingley. He recalls "Easter at St Michael's ... the great lilies on the altar, the copes and the candles and the holy ladies plummeting to their knees at any mention of the Virgin's name." Here, he became
devoutly religious, a regular communicant who knew the service off by heart. It might be thought this would rejoice a vicar's heart and maybe it did, but actually I think the parish clergy found my fervour faintly embarrassing. A fervent Anglican is a bit of a contradiction in terms anyway, but I was conscious that my constant presence at the Eucharist, often midweek as well as Sundays, was thought to be rather unhealthy ... Shy, bespectacled and innocent of the world I knew I was a disappointment to the clergy. What they wanted were brands to pluck from the burning and that was not me by a long chalk; I'd never even been near the fire.
He emphasizes that in his teens he was "an awful Tory ... Oh, awful. It was dreadful, the list of right-wing convictions that I had." To some extent this never changed. In the 1970s he described himself as politically left-wing but socially right-wing. When attending church as a teenager, he was devoted to the language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; years later it was still "the only work of literature of which I know large sections off by heart." As to a choice of career, "I ... thought I would be a clergyman."
That he did not become the Revd Alan Bennett, a right-wing traditionalist High Churchman, was largely the consequence of National Service. Most of his schoolfellows assumed this would be a bore, but for him it was worse, partly because he was physically a late developer: "It was touch and go which I got to firstpuberty or the call-up." Yet when National Service began, it proved to be "the happiest time of my life."
Like other recruits, he had to begin with basic infantry training"I actually didn't even mind the drill"and he was soon selected for the Joint Services Russian Language course. The Cold War was then at its height, and the aim was to train a body of young men in the language of the enemy. First, they studied Russian at A level, and some were then sent to work in the War Office as translators of Russian documents (Dennis Potter was among these), while others were posted to NATO monitoring stations along the Iron Curtain. An elite, Bennett among them, were picked out to spend the rest of their National Service improving their Russian still further at Cambridge; in theory they could then be recalled in time of emergency to use their linguistic skill.
Bennett therefore found himself in the Cambridge School of Slavonic Studies. He says that, compared to most National Service postings, it was "a cushy number." He remembers writing much about "the Russian soul ... it was always a useful theme to pad out one's weekly essay." Outside the classroom, "the discipline was lax," and he was able to experience a life very much like that of a Cambridge undergraduate: "What most people get at university I had in the army in a much more intensified form."
He soon found himself part of "a congenial group which included Michael Frayn." Bennett and Frayn both wrote material for mess-room cabarets. "He wrote a few items," explains Frayn, "and so did II don't think we actually collaborated together on a script. But one of the things Alan used to do in those cabarets was a prototype of the clergyman he had in Beyond the Fringe."
Considering the importance of this impersonation in his future life, Bennett himself retains surprisingly little memory of its birth. "I did something with Frayn," he says, "and I can't remember what it was." Fortunately Frayn recalls it in some detail:
He did it as a minor canon at a provincial cathedral, taking morning muster paradesetting off the army against the church. Every morning in an army unit, everyone has to go on parade in order to be counted, like a school, and there's a set drill. Alan just imagined that they would do the same at cathedralwould check all the deans and minor canons. He did it with that preposterous ecclesiastical accent he later used in the sermon in Beyond the Fringe.
Asked if he was impersonating any particular clergyman, Bennett says, "If it was based on anybodyand I don't recall that it wasthe sermons I heard most often were from the Vicar of St Michael's, Headingley, who was Canon R.J. Wood, a Canon of Ripon. He had a very round, grand style, and if it came from anywhere it was him." The real target of his mockery seems to have been not the Church but his own previously pious persona. He explains that his view of himself changed considerably during these years:
I think that until I went into the army I thought that being a clergyman was what I was going to do, and then it faded away, for all sorts of reasons. Before I did my National Service, I was worried as to whether I ought to be a conscientious objector, but I chickened out of that. However, having done National Service, I began in my first year at Oxford to feel much more strongly about it. Ex-National Servicemen had to do Reserve Training in the long vacation, and I certainly felt I ought to object to that. CND hadn't really started yet, but there was already much more of a pacifist feeling around. But if you did refuse to do Reserve Training on moral grounds, there was no tribunal you could go in front ofit was regarded as a military offence, and you were sent to one of the military prisons. And I certainly failed that test, did the Reserve Training, and became reconciled to the fact that I didn't have much moral fibre!
This process of readjustment included the fading of what he had regarded as religious faith. "It would be easy to say I no longer believed," he told an interviewer years later, "but I don't think I ever believed in the first place." He also fell in love.
Before beginning National Service he had managed to win an undergraduate place at Cambridge, but during the Russian course he decided to try for Oxford. It was partly that he had already experienced Cambridge, but chiefly because "I had a hopeless crush on one of my fellow officer cadets, who was bound for Oxford."
Years later he said that, until his mid-forties, he assumed that he was exclusively homosexual: "I'd always been in love with guys, you see, but always unhappily. They were always straight, and it was always totally unfulfilled." Yet he was not celibate: "I was interested in sex, and whichever way any sex came along, you just had to take itthat's how it seemed to me. And it very, very seldom went with being in love, which I tend to regard as totally separate, separate from sex." Even loveless sex was hard to come by. In the 1980s the actor Ian McKellen, crusading for gay rights, asked Bennett about his sexual orientation. He replied, "That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water." However, in 1993 Bennett revealed to a New Yorker interviewer that for some years he had been having a relationship with Anne Davies, described by the interviewer as a "darkly attractive woman who had been doing his house-cleaning." Ms. Davies, whom Bennett had installed as the proprietor of a café in the Yorkshire village where he had his country home, told the Daily Mail: "I suppose you could describe me as his common-law wife."
He got a scholarship to Oxford, not to the athletically minded Brasenose College, where the object of his affections had gone, but to Exeter, which proved to be "inward-looking." This suited him: "I was happy to settle down in the cosy, undemanding atmosphere of the Exeter Junior Common Room." Yet initially Oxford was a disappointment after National Service; he was socially uneasy there, and lonely. "I became a member of no clubs; no cards decorated my mantelpiece; no societies met in my room. It was all very dull and, apart from the fact that I had to share a set [of rooms] with someone who had been in the same barrack room for much of my National Service and whom I loathed and who loathed me, I was quite happy."
Michael Frayn had stayed on at Cambridge, as an undergraduate, and had immediately joined the Footlights, the university revue club. Bennett found that there was no such organization at Oxford. "I'm sure if there had been I would have failed to join that too." Indeed, he avoided all university theatre groups: "I had no theatrical ambitions. I might have acted a bit, but I was overawed by the people who did. I lived a college rather than a university life, and steered clear of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and the Experimental Theatre Club."
Yet fairly soon he found an outlet for his humourthe unlikely one of the Exeter College Junior Common Room (JCR) Suggestions Book. "As a respository of actual suggestions," Bennett writes,
the Suggestions Book was useless, but it served besides as a college newspaper, a diary, a forum for discussion, and a space in which those who were so inclined could attempt to amuse and even paddle in the direction of literature. The result was a volume (in time a succession of volumes) that was parochial, silly and obscene, but to me, and possibly to others, of a particular value. A family atmosphere, a captive audience and a set of shared references are good conditions in which to learn to write, and I think it was through my contributions to the JCR Suggestions Book that I first realized I could make people laugh and liked doing it.
Excerpted from A GREAT, SILLY GRIN by Humphrey Carpenter. Copyright © 2000 by Humphrey Carpenter. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.