Leeds lad lances cant

Alan Bennett

November 21, 1997

Alan Bennett is a radical political and moral satirist in the great tradition of undoers of cant about Englishness, who is perennially in danger of being cast as just another northern comic, and a twee, loveable one at that, purveying bits of fun like currant buns at yet another do down at the vicarage. It is an amiable mistaking that is helped not least because he is a northern comic, and one who does like playing the Thora Hird sound-alike, gloving the steel - and the guilts, the sadness and the terrors - in the folksy oh-dear-me's of his old Mam from Leeds. So a commentary on Bennett needs to be as shrewdly undeceived as can be. Alas, Alan Bennett: In a Manner of Speaking does not tell the critical story that we, and Daphne Turner's students, could really do with. Her account is a proper curate's egg, in fact, good or good-ish in some parts, but less appetising, even downright bad, in a lot more.

The right kind of themes and issues are, to be sure, all in place, more or less: the play of Bennett's native northern-ness against the southernism he acquired at Oxford and in NW1; the unconcealed nostalgias for destroyed pasts and human-ness and the cravings for English pastorals which animate his oldsters of all classes; the giving of a voice to the marginalised and otherwise voiceless people, like Bennett's old northern ducks or the smelly old lady perched in a rotting van on his doorstep; the writing about writing and writers; the question of Bennett's self-fashioning within the large arena of his secrecy about himself and the hermeneutics of secretiveness; the formal problem of the way Bennett's imagination is continually prompted by his realism. And Turner is nicely sympathetic on Bennett's "first version of the North" in his television film of 1972, A Day Out (the one about the pre-Great War Halifax cycling club). She mounts a credible comparison between A Private Function (1984), about the illicit pig-rearers in a heavily rationed Leeds of 1947, and Michael Balcon's film Passport to Pimlico from that very era. She gets on the inside of the wonderfully contrived lingo of Miss Shepherd, the Lady in the Van, and of the wonderful talkers of Bennett's dramatic monologue series Talking Heads.

But, sadly, these occasional acutenesses and heart-warming attentivenesses get mired and muffled in too many plodding plot summaries, lecturettes on things you might expect even dull students to get for themselves, thin dabblings in social history, and rather incomplete literary historical summaries. If Turner's implied readership were not so much duller than her subject she might well, you think, have flaunted some of Bennett's bigger words - his acute use, for example, of paralipomena to describe his self-supplementing literary labours. The word is nicely applicable, too, to his preferred sidelong vision, his lop-sided stance on the edge of things, what he calls letting only his "back parts" show.

Turner, no good at all on Bennett's recurrent God-bothering, does not spot the biblical reference to Jehovah letting Moses see Him only from behind. She is enthusiastic, though, for the metaphor. But does she know what she is saying? You look vainly for a hint of a smile when she has George III allowed "to release his outrageous back parts" or has Bennett suggesting "the back parts of the personality as formless anarchic energy". It would have helped hereabouts if she had shown any awareness of the way Bennett's repeated lavatory visits, encounters, and jokes, connect him with the great line of jesting back-parts satirists, Juvenal, Rabelais, Swift, and the rest. Or if she had made some link with the not-unrelated interests and activities of Bennett's large roster of homosexual men. But no, as so often here, the words are splashed around, while you are left wondering about what targets, in text and context, are in mind. It is all too slapdash: which is what Mam accuses Dad of when he goes to the lavatory in Bennett's Enjoy. "Don't wet on the floor," she advises. It is good advice.

And Turner pays curiously little heed to Bennett's Mam, and his great cluster of mums - their hold over their sons, their pleasure in their soft boys, their role as models of criticism and observation in the Bennett mould. For that matter the repeatedly awful fathers, the Hermann Kafkas and their kind, who hate their wives' mothers' boys, are not really scrutinised either. Their occurrences are noticed, of course, but what they might add up to is left in the air. Turner prefers staying mum on the subject - respecting too much Bennett's desire to have us stay mum, accepting his thus-far-and-no further hinting, in fiction and out of it, about all those mothered and moithered souls, including "Alan Bennett" himself, and about all the muddled and transgressive male sexuality that fills his pages. "No point in having a secret if you make a secret of it," says Bennett's exiled spy Burgess in An Englishman Abroad. But there is no point either in not investigating a secretiveness which makes no secret of itself.

But then, Turner is too distracted from such necessary investigations by her big story about Bennett's double-mindedness - the alleged fissure in his selfhood and writing between North and South, which for her means the opposition between literariness, power, establishment, the system, Oxford, Bloomsbury, on the southern hand, and family, cultural deprivation, Mam, Dad the butcher, non-literariness, on the northern. A key allegory of the opposition is Mam's meeting T. S. Eliot and his mother-in-law, Mrs Fletcher, in Leeds and being impressed only by Eliot's "beautiful overcoat". But it is surely wrong to read Bennett's wry narrative of the encounter as a revelation of two cultures, two nations, two discourses tearing him apart. Rather, it is an allegory of Bennett's sense of how North and South cannot be separated in him and his life and work, of how the ordinary woman and the literary grandee converge, how a T. S. Eliot can be related to someone in Leeds, and a Nobel prize-winner's mother-in-law needs her pork chops, and how a butcher's boy can become an Oxford graduate and enter the Eliot world and be published by Faber and poke fun on equal terms at all the Bloomsberries who think they own the culture. It is like knowing, as Bennett does, that Wittgenstein's people owned steel works, or that Kafka's dad ran a button shop, or that the Yorkshire Symphony players were middle-aged men in overcoats going home on the bus after producing sublime music. A main point of Bennett's is that the goods of culture and language and self cut right across our conventional divides of geography and class just as wickedness, treachery, weakness and nostalgia do. To read Bennett otherwise is to blunt that golden arrow of radicalism shooting through all his work from Beyond the Fringe on, the unmisgiving hostility to posh buggers everywhere, to the despisers and doers-down, headmasters, planners, Stalinists, the town councillors and the Princesses Royal who flit smiling through the old folks' homes: the iconoclasm that sits George III on the loo and has T. S. Eliot shaking hands with the butcher's missis. "If Virginia Woolf had been born in Brighouse she'd never have got off the ground." Which is not, as Daphne Turner suggests, a point about the irrelevance of literature to ordinary life, but, more cuttingly, about those who would specialise literature as something southern and posh - as her reading of Bennett seems to do.

Valentine Cunningham is professor of English, University of Oxford.

Alan Bennett: In a Manner of Speaking

Author - Daphne Turner
ISBN - 0 571 17748 4
Publisher - Faber
Price - £9.99
Pages - 162

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