A LIFE LIKE OTHER PEOPLE’S
Faber and Faber, 2009; bound in cloth, with dust jacket featuring photo of the author’s family; copy signed by the author; slip case added.
About thirty years ago, I went to the theatre in the West End to see two one act plays. Each play featured just one actress. The first had Margaret Tyzack, and the second featured Maggie Smith – the cream of the English stage. I can recall standing in a queue to collect my tickets, and hearing the lady behind me say ‘I could listen all day to Maggie Smith reading the phone book.’ In my experience, the English do appreciate that they are fortunate to have the best actors in the world.
I cannot recall the name of the first play, but it was about a woman whose husband, I think a banker, had been convicted of embezzlement. She had had to live with the degradation. The mood varied from wistful to wrenching. But at the end, Margaret Tyzack from a spotlight looked straight at us in the audience and said something like ‘But don’t you dare feel sorry for us – we are not that kind.’ This was the perfect way to evoke the very strong reaction of the audience that the play and performance warranted. The whole thing was so very English.
The second play was Bed Among the Lentils. We knew from the program notes that it was about the wife of a vicar who has it off with a Pakistani greengrocer. Well, that should give a decent playwright something to work with. As the curtain went up, Maggie Smith was standing centre stage under a narrow spot. Dressed in grey, white and black, she was drabness and fatigue personified – ennui. After a considered pause, she looked up at us and said words to the effect: ‘Being married to Geoffrey is bad enough, but I’m glad I’m not married to Jesus.’ Well, the whole theatre just erupted, and it remained cocked on Vesuvial for the rest of the play. I feared that the lady beside me may not have survived the show – she would wail in anticipation in the same way that some American ladies did in the 60’s when listening to Shelley Berman.
This was a great night out at the theatre. Great entertainment, and a lyrical reflection not just of the English, but of what is human in each of us. The playwright was Alan Bennett. The plays reminded me of David Williamson – with that gift of putting on the stage characters that immediately call to mind members of your family or friends or neighbours. Some may wish to put the comparison at a higher level. Ibsen and Chekhov were not minded to write for laughs like that, but the greatest playwright of the lot certainly was – just think of the hilarity with which we greet the outrages of Falstaff.
A Life Like Other People’s is a memoire of the early life of Alan Bennett. It is obviously the work of a naturally gifted writer. It comes to us clean and simple – pure, even. You wonder if the writer ever bothered to change a word. Partly for that reason, the book comes to us as being candid. It reeks of truth. (In this, it reminded me of the memoire of Joseph Heller – another natural.) The book starts this way:
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.
For some people – not many – it’s just like turning on a tap and watching the water flow out.
The photo on the front of the book is of an English family of the time – probably during the war. Dad is in a suit with a shirt and tie, a buttoned up overcoat, a trilby, a cigarette and a deferential smile. He looks very like Stan Laurel. Mum has a buttoned up coat and a beret for a hat. (Her struggle with mental health is a large part of the book.) She has her hands on Alan who has a shirt and tie, a home knitted sleeveless jumper and school cap. The daughter is much younger, but she too sports a hat.
Alan got a scholarship to Oxford and for some time thought of teaching history. But his involvement with the Oxford Review and people like Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller led him to the stage, cinema and television. He has been prolific and hugely popular in all fields, especially in his autobiographical writing. His personal life looks to have had its Byzantine moments. People like Groucho Marx, Spike Milligan and Alan Bennett, who offer slashing and potentially lethal insights, tip-toe closer to the volcano than the rest of us. Patrick White conveys the same feeling for me. (Ibsen and Joyce terrified people – but for different reasons.)
The book fairly ripples with anecdote. The ultimate threat to his family was to be described as ‘common.’ His Mum and Dad were very shy. They wanted a quiet wedding – before work. Dad’s boss would not give him time off to get married. The vicar agreed to start the ceremony before 8 am but finish it on the knocker so that Dad could be at work by 8.15. In lieu of a honeymoon they got tickets for The Desert Song at the Theatre Royal. He once asked Dad an awkward question about whether he ‘touched’ Mum enough. Dad told him to mind his own business, but years later Mum made a surprising disclosure that ‘Dad does very well you know’ – at seventy-one. Bennett talks about hugging ‘and that other loveless construct, caring.’ And the aunties were like my Mum – infatuated with Now Voyager. The attraction of that film, and Bette Davis, to ladies of that generation was fabulous. ‘Oh, Jerry. Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.’
This is raw diamond of a book. It is included here to celebrate the life and work of the author. It ends this way.
Sometimes as I’m standing by their grave I try and get a picture of my parents, Dad in his waist coat and shirtsleeves, Mum in her blue coat and shiny straw hat. I even try and say a word or two in prayer, though what and to what I’d find it hard to say.
‘Now then’ is about all it amounts to. Or ‘Very good, very good’, which is what old men say when a transaction is completed.
Here, then, is someone who tells it as it is – and he didn’t learn how to write like that at Oxford.