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.
Tags: alan bennett
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.
Tags: alan bennett
, david hockney
, lenny bruce
Violence Is A Cliche
This morning: I write a little article for Green Wedge, wondering why today’s newspapers not only choose to misrepresent the student protests with a cliched window-smashing image, but also why they all plump for the same photograph. I name nine newspapers, but later discover there’s a tenth culprit: the newly launched “i” newspaper. Ten different publications rushing to be exactly the same as each other. Or rather, the same as Sky News.
Afternoon: To Waterloo Station with Mum, to see the stage production of The Railway Children. Manages to balance the nostalgia with touches of innovative stagecraft and Arabian Nights-style narrative dialogue.
Rather ingeniously, the show uses Waterloo’s mothballed Eurostar terminus to stage E Nesbit’s classic; last time I was here was for a Fosca trip to Paris in 2001. A real 1870s locomotive and saloon compartment are the stars; the saloon is even the same one used in the 1970 Lionel Jeffries movie. Bernard Cribbins’s part is taken by Marshall Lancaster, aka DC Chris Skelton off Life Is Mars / Ashes To Ashes. He’s rather superb – and there’s a touching photo in the lobby of he and Mr Cribbins together. Sarah Quintrell is equally spot-on in the Jenny Agutter role.
Throughout the show, Waterloo’s normal trains constantly rumble offstage, which would normally be an irritation. Instead, they enhance the show’s site-specific quality, adding to its uniqueness. Such a great idea.
Tags: green wedge
, student protests
, the railway children
To Thine Own Patchwork Be True
A few people have asked me if my mother is aware of the major exhibition on British quilting at the V&A, which opens this week. There’s something similar on at Liberty’s too.
Well, yes, Mum is aware all right. She’s up in town to attend both, staying with Linda Seward, who spoke about quilting on Monday’s Women’s Hour.
Mum says some quilters are slightly chagrined that the V&A show includes works by Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin. These are, after all, famous artists who’ve occasionally made quilts, rather than quilters per se. It’s fair enough, though: I’m a firm believer – as is Mum – of the rubbing-off factor of galleries, and the Emin and Perry quilts can only encourage serendipity for the uninitiated. They’ll bring in people who might not otherwise have gone, and who could well leave with their minds’ own patchwork newly illuminated.
Slideshow of the V&A exhibition with audio commentary (BBC News site).
Podcast of Women’s Hour, 22.3.2010 (mp3 file)
Tues eve: Mum and I have dinner in Islington. She tells me an anecdote from me and my brother’s childhood that sums up at least one difference between us. Tom once told some playground joke to a room of other children, and everyone laughed. I apparently tried doing the same – with the same joke (I’m assuming at a different occasion, though it wouldn’t surprise me if I did it immediately afterwards). Most of them didn’t laugh, and someone left the room in tears.
Yesterday, I look on Twitter and – catching the mood of the hour – find myself trying to think of a topical gag about David Cameron’s wife becoming pregnant. Then I stop myself. Much as I love satire, if I ever managed to write something pithily hilarious about an item in the news – a straight gag – it would feel strange, even out of character; a snivelling attempt to join the cool boys’ gang. Which just isn’t part of my patchwork.
Tags: being dickon edwards
Endangered Species In Their Natural Environment
Mum returns from a quilting trip in Kenya (including a proper safari) and sends me a few photos.
This is a Rothschild Giraffe called Laura. Funnily enough, I visited the eponymous Walter Rothschild’s museum of stuffed animals in Tring a few weeks ago. Favourite exhibits included the elephant seal high up in the dark on top of the display cases, underlit as if he were on a stage reciting a soliloquy. Plus two fleas dressed as Mexican farmers, a gynandromorph bird – male on one side, female on the other – and a bowler hat containing a wasps’ nest. 45 minutes from Euston.
This photo isn’t a trick of perspective – Laura really is that big a girl.
Orphaned baby elephants, wearing blankets for heatstroke because they have no parent to shelter under:
And left over in the family camera from a few months ago, an example of flaneur dickonsius, grazing. Taken by Dad at the Paddington Bear stall in Paddington Station.
, lazily posting photos because I want an early night