A collection of Bennett’s diaries and essays, covering 2005 to 2015
Alan Bennett’s third collection of prose, Keeping On Keeping On, follows in the footsteps of the phenomenally successful Writing Home and Untold Stories. Bringing together the hilarious, revealing, and lucidly intelligent writing of one of England’s best-known literary figures, Keeping On Keeping On contains Bennett’s diaries from 2005 to 2015with everything from his much celebrated essays to his irreverent comic pieces and reviewsreflecting on a decade that saw four major theater premieres and the films of The History Boys and The Lady in the Van. A chronicle of one of the most important literary careers of the twentieth century, Keeping On Keeping On is a classic history of a life in letters.
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About the Author
Alan Bennett has been one of England's leading dramatists since the success of Beyond the Fringe in the 1960s. His work includes the Talking Heads television series and the stage plays Forty Years On, The Lady in the Van, A Question of Attribution, and The Madness of King George III, which was made into a major motion picture. His play The History Boys won six Tony Awards, including best play, in 2006. His other books include the critically acclaimed collected writings Untold Stories and Writing Home, Smut (short stories), The Uncommon Reader (a novella), and many more.
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9 January. To Solopark near Cambridge, a vast but highly organised architectural salvage depot where (with unexpected ease) we find four suitable blond flagstones for the hallway. Something of the abattoir about such places and still there are the half dozen pepperpot domes from Henry VII's chapel at Westminster which we saw when we were here last and which were taken down by Rattee and Kett in the course of their restoration of the chapel in the 1990s. They are, I suppose, late eighteenth-century or early nineteenth-century and so less numinous than their predecessors would have been – though even these will have witnessed the fire that destroyed the House of Commons and the original Palace of Westminster.
13 January. Papers full of Prince Harry who's been to a fancy-dress party wearing a Nazi armband. Not a particularly bright thing to do though what I find sympathetic is that he can no more draw a proper swastika than I could as a child, none of my efforts looking other than a lot of silly legs chasing one another in a rather Manx fashion and not the chilling symbol one saw on the pitiless arm of Raymond Huntley or Francis L. Sullivan's over-filled sleeve.
18 January. To lunch at the Étoile with Michael Palin and Barry Cryer, nice and easy with Barry telling innumerable stories and jokes and Michael reminiscing about Python, particularly Graham Chapman. I contribute less in the way of jokes or reminiscence, though we talk about the Cook–Moore play, something similar now threatened for the Pythons. We're all of us very different. I'm the oldest by a couple of years but all of us still have a good head of hair with Michael as handsome as he was when younger though his face more leathery and Gary Cooper-like. Both of them say how utterly dependent they are on their wives, Michael's routine currently disrupted because Helen has had to have a knee replacement so his household doesn't run as smoothly as he would like. God knows what he would make of our routine but I tell them they're very lucky.
Michael is fascinated by Graham Chapman and his sexual boldness. Tells how booking into a hotel somewhere, Graham hadn't even signed in before he disappeared with one of the hotel staff, and Chapman like Orton in his capacity to detect or to generate mischief.
Says G. was probably the best actor of the group, his performances often utterly serious however absurd the dialogue and instancing Graham's meticulously named 'Vince Snetterton-Lewis' telling how he used to have his head nailed to the wardrobe in a performance of documentary straightness.
28 January. Fly to Rome for a British Council reading. It occurs to me that a lot of the camp has gone out of British Airways and that as the stewards have got older and less outrageous so the service has declined. This morning there is scarcely a smile, not to mention a joke, the whole flight smooth, crowded and utterly anonymous.
The British Council reading is packed, with two hours of radio and TV interviews beforehand. All the interviewers are well-informed, with sitting in on the proceedings a simultaneous translator, Olga Fernando. She's astonishingly clever, translating aloud while at the same time taking down a shorthand transcript of what is being said, a skill she normally employs in much more exalted circumstances; next week for instance she is accompanying the Italian president to London to meet Jack Straw and she also translated for Bush on his visit to Italy last year.
The library at the British Council is busy and full of students who only leave when it closes at 8 p.m., and seeing these young Italians reading English books and magazines, watching videos and generally finding this a worthwhile place to be is immensely heartening. The British Council can still be thought a bit of a joke but like the BBC World Service it's a more useful investment of public money than any number of state visits, or, in Blair's case, holidays with Berlusconi (who, incidentally, I never hear mentioned throughout).
29 January, Rome. Seduced by its name, first thing this morning we go to look at Nero's Golden House, or such parts of it as have been excavated. It's a mistake. Walking through these tall narrow chambers, none with natural light and few with more than the faintest fresco, I feel it's no more inspiring than a tour round a nineteenth-century municipal gasworks, which it undoubtedly resembles. Most of the party wear headphones and follow the cassette guide and so become dull and bovine in their movements with sudden irrational darts and turns dictated by the commentary. Deprived of one faculty they become less adept at the others, and when they talk do so in loud unregulated voices. Wayward and dilatory in their responses they are seemingly without purpose, though of course they are the purposeful ones. What to us are featureless alcoves of scrofulous masonry (and with no evidence of gold) presumably echoed to the orgies and barbarities which are even now being detailed on the cassettes to which everyone else is listening intently.
On Saturday evening to the Campidoglio where the Capitoline Museum opens late, if to very few visitors and we are virtually alone in the vast galleries, though there are more people looking at the pictures which we skip in favour of the sculpture. I stroke the back of the Dying Gaul and would have done the same for the Boy taking a Thorn from his Foot, but the attendant is there. Afterwards we brave the wind and go round the corner onto the terrace to look across the Forum but it's too dark to see much and what one can see means nothing – the biggest handicap in Rome as in Egypt or China that I have no perspective on its history.
Eat at a friendly little restaurant down the street from the hotel, and recommended by the British Council – and twice, Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner, at La Campana, off the Piazza Nicosia not far from P. Navona – a lovely old-fashioned restaurant recommended by Matthew Kneale, and reminiscent of the old Bertorelli's – tiled floor, blond wood, old waiters and a huge menu. Note how unobtrusively friendly the Italians are, both neighbouring tables, to which we had not spoken during the meal, say good night to us when they leave. We tip, which perhaps doesn't do here and which probably does us no favours but one wants to reward the waiters (and the restaurant) for still being as they are.
Our waiter could well be played by Michael Gambon, though what a monologue by an old waiter could be about I can't think.
4 February. Condoleezza Rice announces that the US has no plans to attack Iran at the present moment, the implication being that we should be grateful for such forbearance.
One forgets what a vile paper the Telegraph still is. Last Sunday I was sickened by a vicious profile of Clive Stafford Smith, which implied that he was unbalanced and that his (to my mind saintly) efforts on behalf of those on Death Row in America were an unwarranted interference in the democratic process – and that if the people of Texas want to condemn their fellow citizens to death, justly or unjustly, they should be allowed to do so.
9 February. I use proof sheets as scrap paper and today it's one from Afternoon Off (1978), a TV play we shot at Whitby with a scene in a café and a long speech by Anna Massey. Stephanie Cole plays the other part, but it's hardly a conversation as she only has one line with Anna doing all the talking. And I realise, as I haven't until now, that I was writing monologues long before I specifically tried to, only in the earlier plays they were just long (long) speeches. Afternoon Off has several, because the leading figure is a Chinese waiter with very little English so everybody talks at him.
13 February. As with Havel once, I seem to be the only playwright not personally acquainted with the deceased Arthur Miller and with some line on his life and work. Many of his plays I still haven't seen, though years ago when I was reading everything I could get hold of on America and McCarthyism I came across Miller's novel Focus, in which a character begins to look Jewish when he takes to wearing glasses. It's a powerful piece and in retrospect rather Roth-like. No one quite says how much of his street cred came from his marriage to Monroe, though paradoxically more with the intellectuals than with Hollywood.
19 February. Shop in Settle, calling in first at Mr Midgley's antique shop at the end of Duke Street. It's closed and as Mr Midgley has been ill we assume it's that and are going away when Mrs M. comes to the door to say that John died yesterday. Both of us much affected by this, partly because we were fond of him but also because it will alter the landscape, visits to the shop always part of our Saturday morning routine.
Mr Midgley was originally an architect, trained at Leeds but who had had an antique shop in Settle as long as I can remember. His stuff was good and not dear, ceramics and glass mainly and over the years I must have bought dozens of rummers and heavy Victorian tumblers, the latter £2 or so for many years and even today only £10 or so. Whatever you bought from him would have a meticulously written label attached describing exactly what the piece was and its date and whether it was damaged – though he was such a skilled repairer you often couldn't tell where the chip or the crack had been. These labels were almost scholarly productions particularly when relating to the umpteen nineteenth-century potteries south of Leeds and I've kept some of them on the objects concerned lest the information be lost.
Once upon a time shops such as his were a feature of any small town but as rents have risen actual antique shops are seldom come across – dealers showing at fairs or having stalls in antique centres like Brampton. But what I think of is how much expertise has died with him – Victorian plates just plates, pretty or handsome enough, but unassigned now to a particular pottery or to Leeds or Castleford – John Midgley, antique dealer.
21 February. Snow arrives on cue around four but alas doesn't lay; 'It's laying!' one of the joyous cries of childhood.
22 February. To the private view of the Caravaggio at the National Gallery. Crowded, but because only the paintings are lit and not the rooms the crowds melt into the gloom, or form a frieze of silhouettes against the pictures. Only sixteen paintings on show and whereas in some of the earlier paintings that we saw in Rome one was struck by how clamorous they were – boys howling, heads screaming – here the pictures are much calmer and it is character that prevails. Some of the expressions are so subtle as to be beyond interpretation: in the Supper at Emmaus (1606) from Milan, a more tranquil picture than the same subject in the NG, the figure to the left of Jesus has a look both of interest and concern far more intriguing than the mere wonder and astonishment evident in the NG's 1601 version. And right at the end of the exhibition (and Caravaggio's life) there is Goliath's head, which is supposedly Caravaggio's own, and whether it's that but the look on the young David's face is so troubled and so overwhelmed he seems only to regret what he has accomplished.
24 February. To a Faber meeting for their sales reps at the Butchers' Hall, which is just by the back door of Barts, bombed presumably and rebuilt in undistinguished neo-Georgian some time in the 1960s. Doorman sullen and no advertisement for the supposed cheerfulness of the butchering profession. In good time so have a chance to look at the occasional paintings, including a couple of nice early nineteenth-century old masters (of the Butchers' Company, that is), besides various ceremonial cleavers including the one used to cut up the first New Zealand lamb brought to England and served to Queen Victoria in 1880. Nicest though are two Victorian or Edwardian toy butcher's shops. They're bigger and grander than the one Dad made for Gordon and me c. 1940 but whereas these joints are nailed into place, Dad's were all made to unhook so we could serve them to our imaginary customers at the counter.
25 February. A propos civil liberties the government spokesperson most often put up, particularly on television, is the junior minister at the Home Office, Hazel Blears. With a name that combines both blur and smear and which would have delighted Dickens the lady in question has always shown herself to be an unwavering supporter of Mr Blair, though lacking those gestures in the direction of humanity with which her master generally lards his utterances.
1 March. On Saturday to Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum. I used to regard the first room on the right at the top of the stairs as a shrine to recent literary celebrity, an anteroom to fame. Here were Thomas Hardy, G. B. Shaw, William Nicholson and many more. Now they are all scattered – Shaw and Hardy I spot on the gallery of the room next door and no sign of William N. at all. But still full of delicious paintings – like a sweet shop so many lovely things – and so un-grand, half the contents (I like to think anyway) left to the university by generations of dons, whose treasures they once were.
Pay our usual visit to Archbishop Laud wickedly placed next to another Van Dyck, of the voluptuous Countess of Southampton at whom Laud plainly cannot bear to look. You can practically hear his impatience and irritation.
12 March, Yorkshire. A cold bright day and I sit briefly at the end of the garden, watching a plane cross a vast sea of blue sky, leaving a single unfurled trail behind it. A plane such as this moving across virgin space must be more of a treat for the spectator than the pilot; it puts me in mind of myself as a child longing to be the first to jump (never dive) into the still swimming bath at Armley. The pleasure there was in disrupting the calm but also in being able to see through the undisturbed water to the murky end of the bath.
15 March. To Rousham in the morning to look at the gardens then to Daylesford Organic Farm Shop for lunch. The colour scheme is that greyish green one was first conscious of forty years ago when Canonbury and Islington took it up and then the National Trust: 'tasteful green' it might be called (it's the colour of the coalhouse door in Yorkshire). It's a definite spread – shop, restaurant, a cloister cum herb garden, together with barns, farm buildings and, one presumes, living quarters for the many employees. It's cheering to think that, if Nigel Slater is to be believed re residential catering establishments, the young people who largely staff the place will be screwing each other rotten. Not that there's a hint of that front of house, which is chaste, cheerful, middle- aged, middle-class and above all well off, the car park full of four-wheel drives, Pioneers, Explorers, Conquerors, Marauders, all of which have blazed a fearless trail across rural Oxfordshire to this well-heeled location a mile or two from Chipping Norton where the best is on offer in the way of lifestyle choices: delicious, wholesome food, multifarious cheeses, fifteen different types of loaf. 'Look, darling. Look what they've got,' calls one loving middle-aged wife to her browsing husband and then to the assistant: 'He's a real cheese man.'
Odd how I could take such a place without question did I come across it in New York, say, or California. But here it's so bound up with class and money and all one's complicated feelings about England I hold back. Like Saga, another rich and popular establishment catering to an obvious demand, it's so successful it becomes slightly sinister – the Daylesford Experience like the Saga one a perfect front for subversion of some kind, with the Daylesford philosophy that sort of bland and smiling philanthropy which in thrillers always masks elaborate villainy.
16 March. To St Etheldreda's, Ely Place for the funeral of my neighbour Anna Haycraft (aka Alice Thomas Ellis) who died a week or so ago in Wales and whose body had therefore to be brought down for the funeral and then presumably taken back to Wales to be buried beside Colin, her late husband, at their Welsh farmhouse. This, I gather, is pretty remote and the track to it hardly hearse-friendly so the grave when she eventually achieves it likely to be something of a relief.
The church is interesting, though only the shell is the thirteenth- century original, with the blind arcading and crocketed pinnacles particularly pleasing. Nor is there a lot of garish statuary and the images of English Catholic saints standing on medieval corbels round the walls are soberly painted and quite secular. Note how these occasions flush out the devout, the fluent genuflection before entering the pew the first indicator. Charles Moore sinks to his knees straight away and prays for a considerable period of time, and Piers Paul Read similarly. Some admiration for this, men who pray in public not uncourageous, though more often met with at Catholic rather than Anglican services.
Excerpted from "Keeping On Keeping On"
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Table of Contents
The Diaries 2005-2015
Baffled at a Bookcase
The History Boys, Film Diary
Introduction to The Habit of Art
Introduction to Hymn
Introduction to Cocktail Sticks
Introduction to People
Foreword to The Coder Special Archive
Art and Yorkshire
Nights at the Opera
Bruce McFarlane 1903-1966
John Schlesinger 1926-2003
The National Theatre at Fifty
On Nicholas Hytner
Introduction to Denmark Hill and The Hand of God
The Hand of God