‘He manages to make me look like a blond Hitler’: Alan Bennett’s pandemic diaries reviewed

You have to be a major National Treasure to get away with publishing a book of only 49 pages, especially when the text has already appeared in the London Review of Books. Luckily, Alan Bennett attained National Treasure status years ago, and this slim volume of his pandemic diaries is exquisitely printed and bound.

He admits that lockdown makes little difference to his life, given that he is effectively housebound with age (86) and arthritis. He used to enjoy pottering round Camden Town and riding his bike in Regent’s Park, but after Covid, his daily exercise became a three-­minute walk round the block with his partner, Rupert Thomas. 

One evening, forgetting it was Thursday, he was caught outside as his neighbours start clapping and banging saucepans, and – unable to join in because he was holding his stick – was mortified in case it looked like he thought it was for him: “I try to disavow this by feebly smiling and shaking my head, but this just looks like modesty.”

The first intimation of lockdown came in February 2020, when Rupert, then editor of The World of Interiors, was asked by Condé Nast if it would be feasible for him and his staff to work from home. Bennett was pleased about this because it meant “I get regular cups of tea and a lovely hot lunch.” Rupert also gave him a haircut (which made him look like a “blond Hitler”) and asked for the offcuts, “in case they might find a market on eBay”.

The tour of The Habit of Art, ­Bennett’s play about Auden and Britten, was cancelled, but a couple of days later, Nick Hytner rang, very excited, to say that the head of BBC drama had suggested they could revive Bennett’s 1988 Talking Heads monologues as a television series. The cast and crew would only be paid a token fee and all profits would be given to the NHS. Bennett was amazed when Hytner told him they might raise £1 million. Alas, he could not attend rehearsals or meet the actors, but he was thrilled to receive a lovely thank you card from Martin Freeman, who replaced him in A Chip in the Sugar, and Bennett carried it “about with me in my pocket like a hand warmer.”

He listened to Boris’s address to the nation on May 11 and found it ­feeble. “He is such a poor orator and speaker generally, one almost feels sorry for him, with the plainness of Keir Starmer a relief.” He is predictably anti-Boris, anti-Brexit, anti-Trump, and says that the “most lowering” item of news in The Observer is that, “on account of his support for Brexit, Ian Botham is thought likely to be raised to the peerage”.

Although this is a diary, Bennett doesn’t really say how he spends his days – staring out of the window, presumably, and remembering the past. He talks about the year his family spent in Guildford just after the war, where they noticed that the fish and chip shops used oil instead of beef dripping. “To us the oil smelled disgusting and was yet another score on which ‘down south’ proved a disappointment.”

Before that, during the war, he remembers his father deciding to take the family fishing, all dressed in their Sunday best. There was a fishing train from Leeds City station on Sunday mornings – Mam hated it because the luggage racks were crammed with fishing tackle and “maggots drizzled down on the anglers’ indifferent heads” – and they went to a particularly dull stretch of the River Wharfe. Of course, they never caught anything.

He notes being sent a new bio­graphy of Graham Greene, but he wouldn’t read it because he was never a fan. “I’ve been put off by the Catholicism showing through and his frequent ‘rare’ interviews. A ­darling of the Sunday papers in the l960s, he was always said to be retiring while in fact being avid for publicity.” He only met Greene once, when he came to see his play The Old Country, and Alec Guinness introduced them. He remembered that, “Greene’s was the limpest hand I’d ever shaken. Nor did he say a word about the play, for or against.”

His two favourite novels are Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Andrew Barrow’s The Tap Dancer, which he wishes he’d ­written himself. When Harriet ­Walter, one of the Talking Heads actors, asked Nick Hytner how come Bennett “did posh so well”, Hytner guessed it might be because of his friendship with Debo, ­Duchess of Devonshire. Bennett says that could be a factor, but more because his literary diet is “too many memoirs”, “some Evelyn Waugh” and The Pursuit of Love, which he is always rereading.

He is observant of language and notices that robust is “a favoured word of the right. It also means ­callous.” He has no idea what ­“double down” means, but says it doesn’t matter because he will never use it. Normally, he eschews clichés, so I was shocked to find him saying that Victoria Wood’s performance of Let’s Do It was “the stuff of legend”. Pray tell us the legend of Victoria Wood, Mr Bennett. But such lapses are rare.

The diary ends in autumn 2021 with a return to their pre-lockdown routine, taking the train to Leeds (Bennett in a wheelchair), then Rupert driving them to their cottage in North Yorkshire. Along the way, Bennett noticed the church where his parents were married and talks about the various bookshops and junk shops they used to stop at, now mostly closed.

There is a valedictory feel to these final entries. Rupert no longer edits The World of Interiors, so perhaps they will give up London and stay in Yorkshire? But as long as Bennett keeps writing, it doesn’t really matter. This is a mere fragment, but still precious.

House Arrest by Alan Bennett is published by Profile/Faber at £6.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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