jueves, 3 de noviembre de 2011

Beyond the Schoolboy Fringe - Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

Untold Stories by Alan Bennett is something of a pot pourri. It starts with an autobiographical exploration of social and family origins, and then moves on to include occasional pieces on travel, architecture and art, copious diaries from 1996 to 2004, reflections on previous and current work and essays on contemporaries, educational experience and culture. The fact that it all hangs together beautifully is a result of its author’s consummate skills, both linguistic and perceptive.

Untold Stories takes its title from the autobiographical sketch that opens the book. Alan Bennett was the physically late-developing child of a family in the Armley district of Leeds, a northern English industrial city. His father was a butcher who owned two suits, both of which smelled of raw meat. His mother was the supporting pillar of the household, but was also prone to bouts of depression. As a child, Alan Bennett seemed to dream less than most. Perhaps he is still less than able to admit the breadth of his flights of fancy. “With a writer the life you don’t have is as ample a country as the life you do and is sometimes easier to access.” This sounds remarkably like e e cummings, a character that would not usually be linked with someone as apparently domesticated as Alan Bennett.

But reading all of Untold Stories, the reader is repeatedly struck by how much of the eventual content of Alan Bennett’s perceptive, witty and perspicacious writings has its origins within the four walls of the family home. Many of the values, assumptions, attitudes and standpoints, whose apparently unquestioning adoption by his fictional characters lead the listener to question them, arose from a wider family that feverishly tried to be mundane but, like all families, never achieved that goal. The family was, after all, made up of individuals, each of which had his or her own reality alongside unresolved and often shared misgivings. Thus, immediately, a writer has several lifetimes of real and imagined material.

Alan Bennett, perhaps by virtue of having at least potentially crossed some of the chasms of social class that so profoundly divide British society, seems able to comment, often with no more than an occasional word or phrase, on those tentative but agreed assumptions that make us what we are. “Minor writers often convey a more intense flavour of their times than those whose range is broader and concerns more profound.”

But this, despite the authenticity of his flavours, is no minor writer. Not for a moment would anyone wish this writer’s passing, but there is no doubt that Alan Bennett’s work will live on, probably grow in stature as its ability to comment on the changing Britain of the twentieth century develops a sharper focus.

Essentially Alan Bennett comes across as a conservative type. He dresses and even looks like a 1950s schoolboy, visits churches to describe architectural details of selected tombs in Betjemanesque prose, probably doesn’t indulge in fusion cooking, shuns recognition, inhabits the inner city but is perhaps never quite at home there. But then there’s the anti-establishment side, the satirist, the overt homosexuality and general anti-bigwig mentality. And all of this from a First at Oxford. “But taste is no help to a writer. Taste is timorous, conservative and fearful. It is a handicap. Olivier was unhampered by taste and was often vulgar. Dickens similarly. Both could fail, and failure is a sort of vulgarity, but it’s better than a timorous toeing of the line.”

Untold Stories is a long read, but one which offers a simple yet sophisticated joy from beginning to end. Alan Bennett revisits topics he has written about in the past. Miss Shepherd, The Lady In The Van is here, as are his early plays and Beyond The Fringe. So are Talking Heads and The History Boys. But throughout he selects and applies language with much wit and humour to offer apparently ephemeral perspectives on everyday life, perspectives that on reflection are anything but shallow. He is a man of taste, as revealed by his regular revulsion with Classic FM, but he is also an enigma because he keeps listening to it.

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