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Untold Stories is an anthology of prose, family memoir, diaries, reviews and general writings by Alan Bennett. The book is over 600 pages long and recieved a glowing critical reception when it was first published in 2005. The book is certainly more candid and personal than the previous Bennett collections. While it was being put together and written, Bennett was battling cancer and given less than a 50% chance of survival. Bennett, aware that the book might well be published after his death, was inspired to tell some 'untold stories' about his family and his personal life so, for the first time, we are able to read Bennett's thoughts about being gay and his relationships as well as some bittersweet memories of his parents and a moving account of his mother's struggle with mental illness. Happily, Bennett confounded his Doctors by beating cancer and was around to enjoy the plaudits Untold Stories was greeted with.
The book begins with a very long and touching family memoir with Bennett writing warmly about his parents and their eccentricities and life in Leeds. The reader is taken right into this world and Bennett's parents become very vivid characters. 'It's a talk on the third world in church,' Dad wrote to me, writes Bennett. 'Well, your Mam and me don't even know where the third world is. Next week it's Buddism. We're going to give it a miss.' This section details Bennett's mother suffering from mental illness and there are some absorbing but somewhat harrowing accounts by the writer of his visits to Lancaster Moor Hospital and discovering that this condition is not new to the Bennett family. Another family memoir concerns Bennett's colourful Auntie Kath. Bennett famously said that each family had a secret and that secret was that it wasn't like other families. This is true enough of his own family. Bennett's Auntie Kath was living with an Australian man called Bill in Yorkshire, which always seemed to bemuse Bennett and family and supplies some amusing reflection. '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.'
One of the best chapters in the book is 'Written on the Body' which is about Bennett's sexual awakening and realising that he is gay - not a pleasant thought to him in those very different times. 'Unfortunately, until well into my twenties I regard sex as a club and one to which I have no hope of belonging,' he writes. This is a very moving pice and I like this section too because of Bennett's memories of roaming the streets at night as a lonely but romantic teenager. '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.'
'Seeing Stars' is a short piece about going to the cinema in Leeds in the forties and memories of stars like Lauren Bacall and Bette Davis and the highlight of the book, Bennett's 1996-2004 diaries (taken from the London Review Of Books) follow. The diaries run for not far off 200 pages and are good fun with Bennett's wry comments on life around him during this period including, of course, his thoughts on the death of Princess Diana, 9/11, and the Iraq war. 'Bush is extraordinary,' writes Bennett. 'Seldom can there have been a leader of a modern democratic nation who showed such unfeigned eagerness and enthusiasm for war.' Bennett's dislike for Tony Blair is another amusing theme to the diaries which include pleasant entries about visiting churches, tributes to friends like Alan Bates and Alec Guiness or a simple day blackberrying up some country lane in Yorkshire. On the tabloid paedophile obsession Bennett says; 'The joy of being a mob these days, is that it's probably the first time the people on this estate have found common ground on anything; it's the community they've been told so much about and for the first time in their lives each day seems full of purpose and exciting.'
Bennett's loathing for classic FM is also funny; '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.'
Bennett's diaries are excellent comfort reading.
'The Lady In The Van' is a piece about the play Bennett wrote about Miss Shephard, the eccentric pensioner who lived in his garden in an old van for many years. There are also essays about the National Theatre and Bennett's History Boys play. 'Hymn' is a short piece where Bennett relects on being part of the last generation who can sing hymns without need of a book. 'Up the words come, unbidden, known but never learned...it's a dwindling band, old-fashioned and of a certain age.' Elsewhere, 'Cheeky Chappies' is about Bennett's dislike of comics like Max Miller and Tommy Trinder (and Jim Davidson!) for their lack of camp and self-deprecation and 'Last Of The Sun' is a memoir of the last time Bennett worked with Thora Hird including some transcripts of the radio play in question.
There are also tributes to Thora Hird and Linsay Anderson and a section titled 'Art, Architecture and Authors'. This includes essays on paintings, some arising out of notes Bennett made for a 1994 BBC2 documentary. There are Bennett pieces on County Arcade Leeds, York Minster, memories of boarding at Oxford and a piece on Phillip Larkin and Denton Welch, a man whose diaries of visits to rural Kent churches in the forties delighted Bennett.
'Staring Out Of The Window' is about writing with Bennett reflecting on the months spent over a typewriter or computer gazing outside and there is also an interesting piece where Bennett talks about the honours system and why he refused a Kighthood. Bennett admits he isn't a Republican and writes about why he declined. There is some interesting info about the honours system and how it works here.
'A Common Assault' is a piece about how Bennett and his boyfriend Rupert were attacked in Venice on his birthday, Bennett having an iron bar thrown at him resulting in a lot of blood. The somewhat homophobic Italian police are not very helpful and suggestions are made that Bennett was up to no good. Bennett's anger at this whole affair is very evident in this piece. There is some amusing detail about how something bad always happens on Bennett's birthdays and the implication in Italy that because he is gay he must have been mooching around Venice following men leads to Bennett writing about how this, unlike many gay friends, was one thing that he could never do. '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.'
The book ends with 'An Average Rock Bun', an account of his battle with Bowel Cancer and some of Bennett's diaries are included in addition to gain an insight into his frame of mind at the time. It's a difficult piece at times but Bennett's humour is never far away, even in these circumstances. Bennett has some interesting things to say about NHS v Private and the ups and downs of such an ordeal. It's also interesting to read about how the press got whispers of his illness and sneakily phone him up from time to time looking for a story or quote. Bennett decides that if he is going to die it will not be through newspapers or articles like others but quietly and privately. 'An Average Rock Bun' is ultimately an uplifting piece though because we know Bennett won the fight. It's another untold story.
Untold Stories is a wonderful collection of writing that you can dip into when you're stuck for something to read. It's great value simply because so such material is included and the book is poignant, sad, and funny but also warm and nostalgic. Some bits will be more interesting than others to individual readers but Untold Stories is a great addition to any bookshelf and a welcome follow-up to Bennett's earlier 'Writing Home' collection.
Four years ago I read Alan Bennetts Writing Home. It was a collection of short writings, his Lady in the Van, excerpts from his diaries during the nineteen eighties, notes on his plays and some short pieces to finish with. It was all topped off with some decent black and white photos which linked neatly with the text. I found the book enjoyable, but not overwhelmingly so and concluded that it had been published with the intention of making the most of the Christmas market. I decided that I wouldnt buy another like it. It reminded me of a large suitcase into which everything gets stuffed.
Theres no accounting for gifts though and that was how I acquired Untold Stories, published in October 2005 just in time for the Christmas market. Theres an important difference with this book which makes it far superior to Writing Home. In June 1997 Alan Bennett was diagnosed as having cancer and given only a 50/50 chance of survival. He wrote with the thought that his executors would make the decision as to what was published and what was not. The result is a book which is more open, more frank and, for me, more readable than Writing Home. Hes made the most of the freedom to write as he wished and then been brave about what he published.
The title of the book is taken from the first few stories. Ive always had the impression that Bennett was close to his mother Mam as he called her but his stories about the family background and his parents social inadequacies paint a darker picture. His mother suffered from depression and the burden fell heavily on the family. He allows his exasperation with his mother, with the people who treated and cared for her to show through more clearly than ever before and to me he seemed more human and I liked him the better for it. Its all sharply observed but gently understated. There are pen portraits of his relatives and the interaction of an ordinary family is fascinating to read.
In Written on the Body he talks openly for the first time about his homosexuality. Hes never gone to any particular trouble to hide the fact but prefers it to be something understood rather than talked about. Hes gentle and self-deprecating as he charts the development of his sexuality and talks about other gay men. The writing is frank but theres nothing there to which you could take offence. Sometimes I wanted to laugh: sometimes I wanted to cry.
The excerpts from his diaries cover the period from 1996 to 2004. Theyd previously been published elsewhere and this was why I found them a little odd. Having read at the beginning of the book that hed been ill with cancer I fully expected the diaries to show how this had affected his professional life but he avoids the subject, not wishing to live his illness in the public view as John Diamond so famously did. Disregarding this point though, the diaries make for compelling reading, not least for the picture they paint of a man who never seems to be in one place for very long.
In the Theatre and Plays section I was a little annoyed, to begin with, that there was another piece about The Lady in the Van. It struck me that hed written about Miss Shepherd (who lived in a van in his drive for fifteen years) then written a play about her stay and now was writing about the play. Shed certainly given good value. Reading this piece (and the others in the section) gave me a different view as this wasnt about the experience itself but about converting it for the stage. This section and the following Radio and TV give a valuable insight into his profession and the people who work in and around it. Theres a particularly moving piece about Thora Hird who died in 2003.
Ill be frank and say that the chapter on Art, Architecture and Authors largely left me cold. Its beautifully written and insightful, although the reproductions of pictures in black and white did seem a little miserly, but the subject is generally one which leaves me cold and even our national treasure couldnt warm my heart. Thats down to me though, not him.
The best part of the book was the final chapter Ups and Downs. The first part could loosely be called Accidents Ive had on or around my birthday, culminating in a homophobic attack on himself and his partner in Italy. He seemed most incensed about the fact that his insurance company refused to refund his air fair back to London, so that the money hed not been robbed of in Italy was effectively removed from him by a suited gentleman in the City. In Arise, Sir he discusses his feelings about the Honours system. Hes always refused to discuss whether or not hes been offered any honours and I couldnt make up my mind whether he wrote this piece thinking that it was unlikely it would be published in his lifetime or because information about who has refused an honour is now freely available. I must confess that I was less interested in whether or not hed been offered an honour than in his thoughts on the system.
The best piece in the book is undoubtedly An Average Rock Bun which was how his doctor described the size of his malignant tumour. Its written with a wry sense of humour and there isnt a trace of self pity. It may sound strange to say that sometimes I found myself laughing out loud and I was completely in sympathy with his views on medical insurance.
Once again theres an interesting set of photographs in the book. One of them is slightly risqué and I couldnt really see the reason why it was included. I cant see it giving a great deal of offence though. I was mortified by the picture of Alan Bennett on the cover no man in his seventies has the right to have such a full head of hair with hardly any sign of grey!
The books recommended.
Hardcover 672 pages (October 3, 2005)
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Price £20, but available on Amazon at £8.39 in January 2006
Untold Stories is Alan Bennett's first collection of prose since Writing Home and takes in all his major writings over the last ten years. The title piece is a poignant family memoir with an account of the marriage of his parents, the lives and deaths of his aunts and the uncovering of a long-held family secret. Also included are his much celebrated diaries for the years 1996 to 2004, as well as essays, reviews, lectures and reminiscences ranging from childhood trips to the local cinema and a tour around Leeds Art Gallery to reflections on writing, honours and his Westminster Abbey eulogy for Thora Hird. At times heartrending and at others extremely funny, Untold Stories is a matchless and unforgettable anthology.