Keeping On Keeping On Alan Bennett (Faber & Faber, Profile Books, £25)
I MUST admit I’m an Alan Bennett diary virgin. This is the writer’s fifth book about himself and, having only caught up with him in his seventies and eighties, I’ve missed a great deal. However, I’m delighted with the entries and find that Mr Bennett moves from subject to subject with ease and ebullience. Here he is in 2005: ranting about the police killing of the Brazilian boy Jean Charles de Menezes; describing neighbour Dr Jonathan Miller remonstrating with an Australian for peeing in Mr Bennett’s garden; being visited by Tracey Ullman dressed as a Botticelli angel; and blackberrying in Yorkshire—all in three pages.
The thing about Mr Bennett is that, although his diaries are waspish, he comes across as good at heart. He meets grandees of every kind, but never seems in awe of them (apart from, possibly, The Queen, whom he writes about in his story The Uncommon Reader). Visceral hates include the police, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and most politicians, although Chris Mullin gets an award for decency and he approves of Jeremy Corbyn for sticking by his convictions.
Travels take him from Versailles to Bettys tearooms in Ilkley. With his partner, Rupert Thomas, editor of World of Interiors, he visits churches all over England armed with copies of the ‘Shell Guides’, which, unlike Pevsners, ‘don’t make one feel a fool for not knowing what a soffit is’. They make regular trips to the north, buying rummers in a Settle antique shop and Victorian dinner plates in a junk shop in Kirkby Stephen. One shop owner dismisses the previous customer: ‘There goes someone with more money than sense.’ ‘I don’t doubt she said the same of us,’ says Mr Bennett. He makes me feel at home.
Despite being more than 700 pages and the weight of an Encyclopaedia Britannica, this book is unputdownable. Credit must also be given to the indexer: Secret Life of Cows comes neatly before Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. Leslie Geddes-brown