From Brooke Allen's "READER'S DIARY" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
Alan Bennett (born 1934) is something of a rarity among showbiz stars of his generation: he has not written a memoir. To be sure, his work has often contained autobiographical elements. The Lady in the Van dealt with incidents in his life; the character of Posner in The History Boys is impossible not to associate with the author; even The Madness of King George, it turns out, drew inspiration from Bennett's family. His wonderful miscellanies Untold Stories and Writing Home contain autobiographical essays, but these only confirm the author's personal elusiveness. He seems happier writing about himself obliquely, as a supporting player in the lives of others, rather than straight on.
So far as one can deduce, his character contains equal measures of exhibitionism and reserve. As a performer of outrageous comedy from his earliest days in Beyond the Fringe, Bennett has always been fearless. But he is also shy, even painfully so; by his own admission he was practically middle-aged before he drummed up the courage to enter the sexual arena. The shyness was inherited (or caught) from his parents, whose portraits he movingly limns in the newly published A Life Like Other People's.
In this beautiful narrative (which was originally included in Untold Stories), Bennett resuscitates a culture -- an ethos -- which, though still within living memory, is as thoroughly dead as that of ancient Athens: pre-war, working class, provincial Britain. Nowadays it's hard to credit how very narrow the mental and geographic boundaries were for such people in those pre-television days, how limited the horizons. Diffident by nature, Bennett's Mam and Dad never questioned the roles society dealt them. Dad was musically gifted and "in happier circumstances he would have been a professional violinist but there was never any question of that." He was removed from school at the age of twelve and apprenticed to a butcher, and a butcher he remained. Mam, as a married woman, stayed home while her more adventurous (and single) sisters had careers and, during wartime, joined the armed services. Both Mam and Dad bitterly regretted their lack of schooling; education represented for them "a passport to everything they lacked: self-confidence, social ease and above all the ability to be like other people."
Over the years the reticent Bennetts turned in on themselves to the point where their shyness became pathological. How had this happened? "Other people's mothers," Bennett reflects, "learned to drive, went Old Tyme Dancing, did aerobics: a friend of mine's mother, not much younger than Mam, was Lord Mayor of Blackburn; what was it about our family that we were disqualified from normal social life, and which kept Dad out of the pub, Mam out of the WI [Women's Institute] and me, I suppose, out of the Garrick?" Mam and Dad were unhappily conscious of their own oddity and had fantasies of joining the human throng, a process Mam referred to as "branching out." With the ambition of branching out Mam would sometimes plan exotic events like "cocktail parties" (though the closest she ever got to imbibing an actual cocktail was when she took Communion wine on Sundays) and envisage refreshments she imagined to be sophisticated, like sausages-on-sticks. But she could never drum up the courage actually to invite any guests. Coming across a little box of wooden cocktail sticks hidden at the back of the cupboard after his parents' death, Bennett found the object unbearably poignant.
In 1966 Mam suddenly succumbed to a mysterious malady that was diagnosed as depression but included fantasy, delusion, and paranoia. The condition subsided after several months and a stay in a mental hospital, but over the next decade it would recur on a regular basis, requiring the unfortunate Mam to undergo numerous hospitalizations and ECT treatments. In the course of discussing her condition with doctors and family members it was revealed -- to Bennett's utter astonishment -- that Mam's father had not died of a heart attack, as the family had always maintained, but instead had killed himself. The half-century cover-up of this fact, Bennett thought, took natural Yorkshire repression to an undreamed-of extreme.
It was an era of particularly foolish notions about madness. "The fashionable analyst was R. D. Laing and madness, while not quite the mode, was certainly seen as an alternative view of things, the mad the truly sane a crude view of it." Laing and his followers, Bennett points out acidly, seldom discussed "the effect an illness like depression had on the rest of the family, in this case my father. The reverse, the effect the family had on the patient, was much discussed and it was one of the central tenets of Laing's writing that mental illness was generally the work and fault of the family." In this case Dad's sufferings were hardly less than Mam's. Alan and his brother had their young lives to get on with; Dad, retired, was available as a full-time caregiver, and during Mam's frequent hospital stays he unquestioningly went to visit her every day, sometimes driving as far as fifty miles in each direction. It was the strain of all this, Bennett believes, that brought on Dad's fatal heart attack at the age of seventy-one. Bennett squarely confronts his own guilt on this subject, suspecting that if he had been willing to shoulder more of the burden his father might have lived a longer and easier life.
Bennett's account of his family, which includes brilliant miniature portraits of his two rakish aunties, is written with his characteristic elegant simplicity, never a word or a comma wasted. Readers familiar with his work will be struck by the way his family's personal "style" seems somehow to have molded Bennett's style as an artist. Unlike his parents, Alan Bennett eventually "branched out." Indeed he branched out with a vengeance. But Mam and Dad's understated modesty and self-deprecating humor managed to permeate not only their son's psyche but his authorial voice as well. He is one of those brilliant changelings who sometimes pop up in unremarkable families, but he is also very much a product of his timid Yorkshire clan.
Now in his seventies, Bennett has moved back to the cottage where his mother first went mad more than four decades ago. "I still live here with my partner, as the phrase is," he concludes, "who is fonder of the house and the village even than I am. He is thirty years younger than me and what the village makes of this I do not know and now at last I do not care. That, at least, my parents' lives have taught me."
From the Publisher
"Fans of Bennett know what to expect—bracingly good prose, a well-seeded laugh here and there and much food for thought."
A relentlessly self-aware memoir by Bennett (The Uncommon Reader, 2007, etc.), that most inward-searching of dramatists and autobiographers.
The English have a fine confessional tradition, but when writing about family, the potential for embarrassment seems to silence, or at least gentle, many a brave voice. ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad," Philip Larkin famously wrote, and while England was shocked, no one rushed to correct him.) Not so Bennett, who writes affectingly and fearlessly of his mother's long, slow descent into dementia. Mam had had barmy days before, he writes, but that changed to depression. Eventually the depression began taking more severe turns, which had the effect of uniting the siblings in concern over her condition—"but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays." But Mam's spells inspire a quest, as the author examines his family's past to understand his parents, and himself. Thus it is that he discovers Grandad, "bald as an egg," who had suffered through an explosion in a gasworks that blew off all his hair. Bennett also remembers an eccentric aunt, determined and steely, "recounting the events of her day in Proustian detail," a great lesson for a budding storyteller in how not to attempt to bewitch an audience. Then there's his parents' own discovery, well into adulthood, of alcohol, and not just the booze but the snacks to accompany it, "cocktail snacks, bits of cheese and pineapple, sausages-on-sticks, food that nowadays would come under the generic term of nibbles." Unfortunately for Bennett, Dad passed on, Mam remembered nothing, and it was up to the author to be the conscience and memory of his little tribe—a duty he discharges forthrightly and elegantly.
Fans of Bennett know what to expect—bracingly good prose, a well-seeded laugh here and there and much food for thought.
Read an Excerpt
There is a wood, the canal, the river, and above the river the railway and the road. It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds, and going home on the train I pass the place quite often. Only these days I look. I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me. Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog. I suppose it’s a beauty spot now. It probably was then.
‘Has there been any other mental illness in your family?’ Mr Parr’s pen hovers over the Yes/No box on the form and my father, who is letting me answer the questions, looks down at his trilby and says nothing.
‘No,’ I say confidently, and Dad turns the trilby in his hands.
‘Anyway,’ says Mr Parr kindly but with what the three of us know is more tact than truth, ‘depression isn’t really mental illness. I see it all the time.’
Mr Parr sees it all the time because he is the Mental Health Welfare Officer for the Craven district, and late this September evening in 1966 Dad and I are sitting in his bare linoleum-floored office above Settle police station while he takes a history of my mother.
‘So there’s never been anything like this before?’
‘No,’ I say, and without doubt or hesitation. After all, I’m the educated one in the family. I’ve been to Oxford. If there had been ‘anything like this’ I should have known about it. ‘No, there’s never been anything like this.’
‘Well,’ Dad says, and the information is meant for me as much as for Mr Parr, ‘she did have something once. Just before we were married.’ And he looks at me apologetically. ‘Only it was nerves more. It wasn’t like this.’
The ‘this’ that it wasn’t like was a change in my mother’s personality that had come about with startling suddenness. Over a matter of weeks she had lost all her fun and vitality, turning fretful and apprehensive and inaccessible to reason or reassurance. As the days passed the mood deepened, bringing with it fantasy and delusion; the house was watched, my father made to speak in a whisper because there was someone on the landing, and the lavatory (always central to Mam’s scheme of things) was being monitored every time it was flushed. She started to sleep with her handbag under her pillow as if she were in a strange and dangerous hotel, and finally one night she fled the house in her nightgown, and Dad found her wandering in the street, whence she could only be fetched back into the house after some resistance.
Occurring in Leeds, where they had always lived, conduct like this might just have got by unnoticed, but the onset of the depression coincided with my parents’ retirement to a village in the Dales, a place so small and close-knit that such bizarre behaviour could not be hidden. Indeed it was partly the knowledge that they were about to leave the relative anonymity of the city for a small community where ‘folks knew all your business’ and that she would henceforth be socially much more visible than she was used to (‘I’m the centrepiece here’) that might have brought on the depression in the first place. Or so Mr Parr is saying.
My parents had always wanted to be in the country and have a garden. Living in Leeds all his life Dad looked back on the childhood holidays he had spent holidays on a farm at Bielby in the East Riding as a lost paradise. The village they were moving to was very pretty, too pretty for Mam in her depressed mood: ‘You’ll see,’ she said, ‘we’ll be inundated with folk visiting.’
The cottage faced onto the village street but had a long garden at the back, and it seemed like the place they had always dreamed of. This was in 1966. A few years later I wrote a television play, Sunset Across the Bay, in which a retired couple not unlike my parents leave Leeds to go and live in Morecambe. As the coach hits the M62, bearing them away to a new life, the wife calls out, ‘Bye bye, mucky Leeds!’ And so it had seemed. Now Dad was being told that it was this longed-for escape that had brought down this crushing visitation on his wife. Not surprisingly he would not believe it.
In their last weeks in Leeds Dad had put Mam’s low spirits down to the stress of the impending upheaval. Once the move had been accomplished, though, the depression persisted so now he fell back on the state of the house, blaming its bare unfurnished rooms, still with all the decorating to be done.
‘Your Mam’ll be better when we’ve got the place straight,’ he said. ‘She can’t do with it being all upset.’ So, while she sat fearfully on a hard chair in the passage, he got down to the decorating.
My brother, who had come up from Bristol to help with the move, also thought the state of the house was to blame, fastening particularly on an item that seemed to be top of her list of complaints, the absence of stair-carpet. I think I knew then that stair-carpet was only the beginning of it, and indeed when my brother galvanised a local firm into supplying and fitting the carpet in a couple of days Mam seemed scarcely to notice, the clouds did not lift, and in due course my brother went back to Bristol and I to London.
Over the next ten years this came to be the pattern. The onset of a bout of depression would fetch us home for a while, but when no immediate recovery was forthcoming we would take ourselves off again while Dad was left to cope. Or to care, as the phrase is nowadays. Dad was the carer. We cared, of course, but we still had lives to lead: Dad was retired – he had all the time in the world to care.
‘The doctor has put her on tablets,’ Dad said over the phone, ‘only they don’t seem to be doing the trick.’ Tablets seldom did, even when one saw what was coming and caught it early. The onset of depression would find her sitting on unaccustomed chairs – the cork stool in the bathroom, the hard chair in the hall that was just there for ornament and where no one ever sat, its only occupant the occasional umbrella. She would perch in the passage, dumb with misery and apprehension, motioning me not to go into the empty living room because there was someone there.
‘You won’t tell anybody?’ she whispered.
‘Tell anybody what?’
‘Tell them what I’ve done.’
‘You haven’t done anything.’
‘But you won’t tell them?’
‘Mam!’ I said, exasperated, but she put her hand to my mouth, pointed at the living-room door and then wrote TALKING in wavering letters on a pad, mutely shaking her head.
As time went on these futile discussions would become less intimate (less caring even), the topography quite spread out, with the parties not even in adjoining rooms. Dad would be sitting by the living-room fire while Mam hovered tearfully in the doorway of the pantry, the kitchen in between empty.
‘Come in the pantry, Dad,’ she’d call.
‘What for? What do I want in the pantry?’
‘They can see you.’
‘How can they see me? There’s nobody here.’
‘There is, only you don’t know. Come in here.’
It didn’t take much of this before Dad lapsed into a weary silence.
‘Oh, whish’t,’ he’d say, ‘be quiet.’
A play could begin like this, I used to think – with a man on stage, sporadically angry with a woman off stage, his bursts of baffled invective gradually subsiding into an obstinate silence. Resistant to the off-stage entreaties, he continues to ignore her until his persistent refusal to respond gradually tempts the woman into view.
Or set in the kitchen, the empty room between them, no one on stage at all, just the voices off. And what happens when they do come on stage? Violence, probably.
It was all so banal. Missionary for her sunless world, my mother was concerned to convince us in the face of all vehement denial that sooner or later she would be taken away. And of course she was right.
Her other fears … of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected … were ordinary stuff too. This was not the territory of grand delusion, her fears not decked out in the showy accoutrements of fashionable neurosis. None of Freud’s patients hovered at pantry doors; Freud’s selected patients, I always felt, the ordinary not getting past, or even to, the first consultation because too dull, the final disillusion to have fled across the border into unreason only to find you are as mundane mad as you ever were sane.
Certainly in all her excursions into unreality Mam remained the shy, unassuming woman she had always been, none of her fantasies extravagant, her claims, however irrational they might be, always modest. She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.
It may be objected that madness did not come into it; that, as Mr Parr had said, this was depression and a very different thing. But though we clung to this assurance, it was hard not to think these delusions mad and the tenacity with which she held to them, defended them, insisted on them the very essence of unreason. While it was perhaps naïve of us to expect her to recognise she was ill, or that standing stock still on the landing by the hour together was not normal behaviour, it was this determination to convert you to her way of thinking that made her behaviour hardest to bear.
‘I wouldn’t care,’ Dad said, ‘but she tries to get me on the same game.’ Not perceiving her irrationalities as symptoms, my father had no other remedy than common sense.
‘You’re imagining stuff,’ he would say, flinging wide the wardrobe door. ‘Where is he? Show me!’
The non-revelation of the phantom intruder ought, it seemed to Dad, to dent Mam’s conviction, persuade her that she was mistaken. But not a bit of it. Putting her finger to her lips (the man in the wardrobe now having mysteriously migrated to the bathroom), she drew him to the window to point at the fishman’s van, looking at him in fearful certainty, even triumph; he must surely see that the fate she feared, whatever it was, must soon engulf them both.
But few nights passed uninterrupted, and Dad would wake to find the place beside him empty, Mam scrabbling at the lock of the outside door or standing by the bedroom window looking out at a car in the car park that she said was watching the house.
How he put up with it all I never asked, but it was always this missionary side to her depression, the aggressiveness of her despair and her conviction that hers was the true view of the world that was the breaking point with me and which, if I were alone with her, would fetch me to the brink of violence. I once nearly dragged her out of the house to confront an elderly hiker who was sitting on the wall opposite, eating his sandwiches. He would have been startled to have been required to confirm to a distraught middle-aged man and his weeping mother that his shorts and sandals were not some subtle disguise, that he was not in reality an agent of … what? Mam never specified. But I would have seemed the mad one and the brute. Once I took her by the shoulders and shook her so hard it must have hurt her, but she scarcely seemed to mind. It just confirmed to her how insane the world had become.
Excerpted from A Life Like Other People’s by Alan Bennett.
Copyright © 2009 by Alan Bennett.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.