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Collected Untold Stories is a bumper audio book of Alan Bennett reading the four parts of his acclaimed 2005 non-fiction volume. Untold Stories was much more candid and personal than Bennett's previous work as he was ill when he wrote it and wasn't expecting to live much longer. He felt it was the appropriate time to get some 'untold stories' off his chest about himself and his family and write openly about things like his sexuality and family secrets. The first part is a family memoir which includes poignant pieces about his parents marriage and his mother's battle with mental illness, and then you get readings from his always amusing diaries, a piece about his childhood and schooldays, and four other bits and pieces including musings on the class system and Bennett's account of him and his boyfriend Rupert being attacked in Venice in a homophobic assault on his birthday. I don't have many audio books but I've found this one to be a great companion at the train station and actually found Bennett speaking to me through my earphones more engrossing than reading the actual book.
The first part of the collection has Bennett reading from the sections of the book about his memories of his family and some of the colourful relatives who flitted in and out of their lives. Bennett's Auntie Kath for example was for some reason living with an irritating Australian man named Bill in Yorkshire, something which always seemed to bemuse Bennett and family. 'Quite what he was doing in England is not plain as he seldom misses an opportunity of running it down along with blacks, Jews, and, when Mam and Auntie Kathleen are out of the room, women generally.' This section is also about Bennett's mother suffering from mental illness and there are some compelling but somewhat harrowing recollections by the writer of his visits to Lancaster Moor Hospital (and of discovering that this condition is not new to the Bennett family). You almost feel as if you have gone back in time and are visiting the hospital with the young Bennett as he describes these visits. It's very atmospheric at times and what music there is in the collection is very restrained and gentle and used to signal the end of a particular chapter.
Life growing up in Leeds is very vivid too with many recollections of amusing things his parents said and some of the more eccentric qualities of the Bennett family. 'It's a talk on the third world in church, Dad wrote to me. Well, your Mam and me don't even know where the third world is. Next week it's Buddhism. We're going to give it a miss.' A section called Written on the Body is a fascinating recollection by Bennett of his schooldays, realising he is gay, and roaming the streets at night as a lonely adolescent. 'My lonely patrols take me over the gaslit streets of Headingley, Woodhouse and Meanwood, the world to me at fifteen suddenly a place of inexpressible wonder. I marvel at the wind streaming through the beech trees on the edge of Becket Park, the colours of the rain washed flags and the lights of Leeds laid out below.' Bennett knows he will have to keep his sexuality to himself in these very different times and generally feels rather set apart from everyone. 'Unfortunately, until well into my twenties I regard sex as a club and one to which I have no hope of belonging.'
The readings from Bennett's sporadic diaries are fun (and do lighten up what is sometimes quite a sad and dark collection) with the author railing against everything from Classic FM to George Bush, telling us about blackberrying near his house in Yorkshire, bumping into celebrity friends near his house in London, visiting churches (this seems to Bennett's favourite hobby and activity these days) and generally musing on whatever has been in the news. 'Bush is extraordinary. Seldom can there have been a leader of a modern democratic nation who showed such unfeigned eagerness and enthusiasm for war.' This is an enjoyable part of Untold Stories and supplies more humour than some other chapters, especially when he has a go at Tony Blair and other things in the modern world he can't stand, like Classic FM for example. 'I loathe Classic FM more and more for its cosiness, its safety and its wholehearted endorsement of the post-Thatcher world, with medical insurance and Saga holidays rammed down your throat at every turn.'
A Common Assault is Bennett's account of visiting Venice on his birthday with his boyfriend Rupert and having an iron bar thrown at him after they, for some reason, drew the attention of a group of rather homophobic and aggressive Italians. Bennett lost a lot of blood in the assault but what seems to anger him more than anything is the attitude of the Italian police who aren't very sympathetic and give the impression they think Bennett was up to no good and perhaps shuffling around the city following young men or something. This is, Bennett declares, something he could never do even if he'd ever wanted to. 'It was partly that, never feeling I would be much of a catch, I saw no point in trawling the streets looking for someone who might feel differently.' There is some humour in this piece too as Bennett tells us that something bad always happens on his birthday, telling us about previous years when he nearly died on this day!
Untold Stories is an excellent audio collection that I really enjoyed listening too and became quite engrossed in with Bennett's quiet Yorkshire accent almost becoming slightly hypnotic at times. Obviously this is one for Bennett fans only but if you are then you'll find this a warm, nostalgic and bittersweet listen with many poignant and amusing moments along the way. The mixture of observation, understatement, sadness and humour is always quietly compelling and this collection will certainly keep you going for quite a while and pass the time whenever you need something to listen to. Highly recommended.