Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

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Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A collection of short pieces written with the knowledge that he had cancer and possibly would not survive. The writing is franker than in "Writing Home" and more thought-provoking.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 672 Date: October 2005
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571228305

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Four years ago I read Alan Bennett's 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 wouldn't buy another like it. It reminded me of a large suitcase into which everything gets stuffed.

There's no accounting for gifts though and that was how I acquired "Untold Stories", published in October 2005 - just in time for the Christmas market. There's 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". He's 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. I've 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. It's 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. He's never gone to any particular trouble to hide the fact but prefers it to be something understood rather than talked about. He's gentle and self-deprecating as he charts the development of his sexuality and talks about other gay men. The writing is frank but there's 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. They'd previously been published elsewhere and this was why I found them a little odd. Having read at the beginning of the book that he'd 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 he'd 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. She'd certainly given good value. Reading this piece (and the others in the section) gave me a different view as this wasn't 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. There's a particularly moving piece about Thora Hird who died in 2003.

I'll be frank and say that the chapter on "Art, Architecture and Authors" largely left me cold. It's 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 couldn't warm my heart. That's 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 I've 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 he'd 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. He's always refused to discuss whether or not he's been offered any honours and I couldn't 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 he'd been offered an honour than in his thoughts on the system.

The finest piece in the book is undoubtedly An Average Rock Bun which was how his doctor described the size of his malignant tumour. It's written with a wry sense of humour and there isn't 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 there's an interesting set of photographs in the book. One of them is slightly risqué and I couldn't really see the reason why it was included. I can't 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 book's recommended.

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Buy Untold Stories by Alan Bennett at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Untold Stories by Alan Bennett at Amazon.com.


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