Alan Bennett’s Greatest Hits

Saturday May 4th: With Mum to the Duchess Theatre off Aldwych to see the new Alan Bennett memoir show, Untold Stories, featuring Alex Jennings playing Bennett. First half is Hymn, a monologue from 2001, written to accompany music performed by a live string quartet (who are quite brilliant). Second half is Cocktail Sticks, a brand new collection of dramatised reminisces about his parents, acted out by Jennings with a small cast. Much of the material is hardly ‘untold’ – the bit about finding an unused tube of cocktail sticks in his mother’s old home dates back to at least the early 80s, when he talked about it on The South Bank Show (something I found online recently). In fact the piece is like an Alan Bennett Greatest Hits gig, with lots of quotes from older work, like the line about his parents finally discovering an alcoholic drink that they like – ‘bitter lemon’. But I think he’s never dramatised this material before – it just feels like he has. And he is meant to be a playwright first and foremost, so it makes sense to finally get such lines into the context of a staged narrative.

Quentin Crisp quoted himself all the time, to the point where the answers he gave in interviews were like picking from a set of cue cards. Wilde did it too, reusing at least one quip from Dorian Gray in Importance of Being Earnest (the one about a widow’s hair turning gold with grief). If it’s a good answer, why not keep giving it? Everything is brand new to someone. Like Judith Butler says about gender, information of worth needs to be repeated or risk erasure. Records can be kept, but they still need to be read.

In fact, that’s what happened to Mrs Thatcher’s ‘the lady is not for turning’ quote, which was bandied about on her death the other week. The point of it was that it was a pun on the Christopher Fry play The Lady’s Not For Burning. But the longevity of the Thatcher quote has eclipsed mainstream awareness of the Fry play, so now it looks like Thatcher (or rather her script writer) coined the euphonious phrase from scratch. As it is, she didn’t even get the Fry reference herself. It’s clear from the way she puts the wrong emphasis on ‘not’.

It’s difficult to mourn politicians who didn’t even get the jokes they had someone else write for them.


In the BA English course I’m doing at Birkbeck, the proper classes for the second year have ended, and I’m now in the exam revision period; the exams are on May 20th and 22nd. One on Chaucer and Renaissance plays, one on the history of the novel. But I’m also rushing to get the last essay of the year – on the acquiring of masculinity in Middlesex and Boys Don’t Cry -finished over the next two or three days. Get it done and delivered and then… on with the revision.

I keep forgetting how irksome I find the editing part of writing. Today I finished the first draft of the essay, which came in at 4500 words. The essay word count is 3500 words. The trick with the subsequent drafts (I always force myself to do five rewrites) is to hope that the bits I cut out don’t leave the tutor writing feedback comments along the lines of ‘You needed to say more about this’. To which the answer is, ‘But I did say more! The word count wouldn’t let me…’

All finished writing is just edited highlights of what one really wanted to say.

The fear is that the real highlights are in the bits one has edited out.

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Not David Hockney

To Piccadilly to meet Mum for lunch, then we both visit the massive David Hockney exhibition of Yorkshire landscapes at the RA. The place is packed, but the paintings are so big that it doesn’t matter – one really has to stand back to properly appreciate them. His sheer productivity and variety of materials is impressive alone – oil on canvas, charcoals, crayons, watercolours, video art, as well as the much-trumpeted use of iPads and computer printing. One wall has five iPads mounted on it.

At the RA shop, the Hockney merchandise includes special iPad covers and a cigarette lighter. Given his public rants against the smoking ban, I like to think the latter was very much his idea.

There’s one surprise tucked away, with the exhibition’s multi-camera film installation. After the expected shots of country lanes and trees, there’s footage of what looks like Hockney’s studio, with assistants milling around and cute dogs fed by aloof young men draped on sofas. The studio is then cleared, and there’s a little scene of ballet dancing, with tap dancing to ‘Tea For Two’. The colourfully-dressed dancers are young and clearly professionals, and one of them is an older man – presumably the choreographer. I wonder if it’s Wayne Sleep, and later find out that, yes, it is:

Interview with Wayne Sleep about the Hockey film

It’s so good that Hockney still has this camp side, experimental yet playful, sharing territory with Derek Jarman, Gilbert & George and Warhol. What’s more unexpected is the way he can find room for an arty little ballet film alongside more profound and mainstream statements about looking at the English countryside – and that it all works.

Overheard at the Hockney, by someone on Twitter: “Isn’t it nice that they got Alan Bennett to do the audio guide?”

Then on to Cecil Sharp House to see the Hockney soundalike (and slight lookalike) himself. Despite the venue, Mr Bennett doesn’t do any folk dancing or singing, though there is a raffle halfway through the evening, sponsored of the local health centre, with the winner getting ten free pilates classes. Second prize is something called ‘gyrotonic’ classes. It’s not clear whether these classes are with Alan Bennett or not.

Even though it’s a benefit for Primrose Hill library, he doesn’t read his recent essay on libraries (there’s already a video of him doing so online). Instead does his usual ‘An Evening With…’ format of diary selections (updated to include his visit to the Occupy London camp), then a Q&A, and then the ‘mantelpiece’ speech from Enjoy. 

Someone asks him about his memories of Peter Cook’s Establishment club in the early 1960s. AB says he saw Lenny Bruce there, doing a set about taking drugs. As the druggier period of the Sixties was still to come, Bruce’s set wasn’t so much rebellious or shocking, just baffling.




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At college, I’m constantly having to stop myself over-researching, getting swamped by the flood of books and articles there are on each essay subject. For the literary theory module, I’m thinking of choosing the question on ‘how is literature gendered‘. And of course there’s just no end to the amount of materials one can consult  – from Virginia Woolf through to Judith Butler and all points in between. I often stand in the college library and stare at the many shelves full of books about Woolf alone, and just think: there’s so much work that’s been done. Other people are so productive. I compare this to feeling too tired when I wake, to feeling too tired when I get back from class. It seems so wrong to feel tired full stop when made aware of the work of others – such a sin not to spend every waking moment making new stuff.

Watched a BBC documentary on David Hockney’s new show, which I’m going to later this week. His constant trying out of new ideas and new technology is inspiring – painting with an iPad, experimenting with multi-camera films. He even builds a doll’s house model of the Royal Academy in order to hang his latest show.

Another old timer, Woody Allen, quietly won the best Original Screenplay Oscar this week, for Midnight In Paris. Again, he just carries on doing new work, one film every year, and sometimes it’s not so great and sometimes it wins an Oscar.

In music, I was thinking one prolific grafter who just carries on would have to be Mark E Smith, with The Fall. But I’ve just realised that even his 29 albums are nothing compared to Billy Childish’s various incarnations – 140 albums and counting.

There’s so much to read, to watch, to see. In London, more so. The sheer choice of culture, versus the limited time and energy one has to spend on it, makes one weigh up all kinds of variables when deciding what to do with one’s consumption time. Isn’t it about time I had a go at Proust? But I still haven’t seen The Artist!

(What is it I like again? Everything! No – nothing! Oh, I always get those two confused…)

I actually find myself pleased when some live attractions turn out to be unavailable or just too expensive. Concerts, for instance. It seems the more people expect music to be free on the internet, the more they crave the physical experience of concerts, perhaps in a kind of analogue off-set. And once they feel the urge to go to an event, they have to work out how much they’re prepared to pay for it.

There’s been a documentary and ensuing furore about the way ticket agencies rip-off customers with ludicrously elevated prices. Here’s an interesting blog post on the subject:

It made me wonder if some people were really prepared to pay over £600 to see Pulp. The Viagogo agency seems to think so.

In my case, I was lucky enough to see Pulp several times in the 90s, along with Blur, Oasis, Suede, MBV, and the Pixies. But the box-ticking aspect aside, my urge to go to big concerts has dwindled regardless. Because I’m usually by myself, I find it hard to connect with the crowd experience. I’m too acutely aware of being by myself, or being my age, wondering if this night out was a good idea after all, or I just can’t stop thinking about the act of being in the audience, and what that means. Either that, or my taste has just changed (it’s probably more to do with that).

But there are still things I want to go to. One event I was quite excited to hear about this week was of Alan Bennett doing a talk at Cecil Sharp House. I managed to get a ticket online before they sold out.

Ticket price: £10. Plus 50p postage. And it includes a glass of wine.

Admittedly, the evening will be less of a visual spectacle than, say, a Take That gig. And with rather fewer dance routines. Though one never knows.

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