Alan Bennett’s autobiographical and diary collections are no strangers to my end of year Top 3’s with his earlier volume of TV plays “Objects Of Affection” (1982) also being one of my favourite books the year I read it (2005).
Perhaps Britain’s best-loved and most recognised living playwright whose work also encompasses the extraordinary screenplay adaptation based on the biography of Joe Orton “Prick Up Your Ears” perhaps in decades to come Bennett will be best remembered for his occasional sizeable publications of a mixture of diaries and other writings which have really established him at the top of best seller lists and are highly critically acclaimed. This is the third such collection following “Writing Home” (1994) – my 3rd best read of 1996 and “Untold Stories” (2005) my 2nd best read of 2006.
I was put off from buying this in hardback because of its size, waited for the paperback and bought it in the first few days after publication, put it on the shelf and forgot about it until I decided last week it was the perfect coming-to-the-end-of-lockdown (hopefully!) reading treat. It fitted the bill and is every much as enjoyable as the preceding volumes.
Diary-wise this encompasses the years 2005-2015 and inevitably reflects the slowing down of a man in his 70’s/80’s (although I’m sure Alan Bennett would be the first to say he was never exactly speedy). Here we get a lovely domestic life in London, regular trips to Yorkshire and the professional demands which continue to push him more to the forefront than he would naturally want to be. There is the filming of “The Lady In The Van” (which, to be honest, I didn’t love) and “The History Boys” (which I thought was a much better film) which is contained in its own separate diary found after the main one. There is also his work on his Benjamin Britten/WH Auden themed play “The Habit Of Art” which I don’t know much about probably because the subject matter does not appeal.
More than the professional it is the domestic side of life which I find most enthralling here. There’s always the feeling, perhaps more than anybody in his field, that we, the readers, know Alan Bennett and are comfortable in his company. I am sure this must infuriate this private man as much as it fascinates him. Of course, the vast majority of us will live our lives having never met him, it is the quality and style of his writing that fools us into thinking otherwise.
The diaries are definitely the star turn here (lots of eating of sandwiches and visits to old churches) but the collection of other writings once again flesh out what we know about him. Whereas his diaries are never going to be as showy or as unputdownable as the diary superstars (the posthumous collections of Noel Coward, Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams immediately springing to mind) they illuminate the man and go a long way to explaining why Alan Bennett is a British national treasure.
Keeping On Keeping On was published by Faber & Faber in 2016. I read the 2017 paperback edition.