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Monday, 29 March 2010

Naming the Bones


Naming the Bones Sometimes I’m sent books to review. Sometimes I put in specific requests. I asked to be sent a copy of Louise Welsh’s fourth novel, Naming the Bones. I knew nothing about the book and here’s all I knew about the author: she used to run a second-hand bookshop on Dowanside Lane in the west end of Glasgow and one of the better second-hand bookshops it was, too. I visited regularly and so I saw Louise often until the shop relocated and then vanished completely. The last time I remember seeing her she was cycling along Great Western Road or thereabouts. She was a soft-spoken, quiet, wee thing – she really is totie (probably about five feet tall) – but pleasant enough; she has a face that always looks as if it’s smiling. I doubt we passed more than the time of day if I’m being honest but it’s always interesting when someone you know, even someone you only know in passing, is cast in a different light. She never looked like a writer but then what does a writer look like, eh?

When the book arrived there was little to give away what was inside. The cover you can see: a stormy sea, an overcast sky and her name three times bigger than the title embossed on the cover. I’d heard that she was a crime novelist and indeed after a quick check I confirmed that her first novel, The Cutting Room, was joint winner of the 2002 Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year Award and the CWA John Creasey Memorial Dagger. So I don’t suppose it was unreasonable of me to assume this would be similar fare especially considering the blub of the back, which I’ll reprint here in full:


Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here?

Loaded with Welsh’s trademark wit, insight and gothic charisma, Naming the Bones is Welsh’s darkest and most irresistible yet.

‘It’s not magic that takes us to another world – it’s storytelling. And Louise Welsh is master of that dark art.’ – VAL McDERMID

I think one of the hardest jobs in the world must be marketing. You can’t fault your publisher for wanting to sell your book. You want them to sell your book. But I wouldn’t want someone to be disappointed with their purchase because it wasn’t what they expected. Murray Watson does indeed end up knee-deep in mud but it takes him 350 pretty much mud-free pages to get there – and the book is only 389 pages long. A lot happens before he ends up in that field. My gut feeling is that the cover is meant for people who have read her before and have simply been waiting patiently for her next book. A nice position for any author to be in.

There are other things here that lead you to draw certain conclusions. A recommendation by crime novelist Val McDermid whose own works are known for tbullet300heir graphic depictions of violence and torture and the use of the word “dark” twice certainly suggests something unpleasant might take place between the covers. McDermid  mentions “magic” too which was a central theme of Louise’s novel The Bullet Trick where the protagonist was a magician so it’s likely she’s not talking about this book specifically.

The product description on the Amazon website is slightly better:

SOME SECRETS ARE BEST LEFT BURIED - Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? His quiet life in university libraries researching the lives of writers seems a world away, and yet it is because of the mysterious writer, Archie Lunan, dead for thirty years, that Murray now finds himself scrabbling in the dirt on the remote island of Lismore. Loaded with Welsh's trademark wit, insight and gothic charisma, this adventure novel weaves the lives of Murray and Archie together in a tale of literature, obsession and dark magic.

Better. But not perfect. I’m a bit hazy on what “gothic charisma” might be. Gothic is a word that gets a bit mis- and overused and it can be confusing. There is precious little in this novel I could call gothic (having just boned up on the subject to review a couple of other books) and I know Louise knows exactly what the word means: she wrote an article in The Glasgow Herald to support the Radio 4 feature A Gothic Quest where she talks about the history of the word and in particular the history of Scottish Gothic fiction. In interview she’s talked at length about her affection for gothic literature (Robert Louis Stevenson being listed as one of her influences) and there’s no doubt that she feels her first novel uses “gothic rather than crime conventions”[1] but I’m wondering if she’s worked that out of her system in this book. In fact, since her second book, Tamburlaine-Must-Die300 a novella, Tamburlaine Must Die, charts the last days of playwright Christopher Marlowe, I think she might have worked it out of her system in her first book. But ‘dark’ sells. And so do titles with the word ‘bones’ in them.

There are areas of the book where the gothic could be turned up but the opportunity is missed. Some of the opening half of the book takes place in Edinburgh, for example, but I never got the feel for Rankin’s “hidden Edinburgh” and the same goes for the scenes on the island of Lismore which could have had a Wicker Man vibe but that’s not the direction she takes. “Missed” is probably not the right word. Louise makes a conscious choice; don’t read into this that I think she’s failed to do what she intended to do. That’s the problem with blurbs, they can leave you feeling disappointed with a perfectly good novel because it isn’t what it says on the tin. There is nothing wrong with her descriptions: I recognised many of the places she talks about; she has a flair for nuanced descriptions in fact:

They walked down the bridge a little way and stood looking down onto old Edinburgh. Meikle nodded at the darkened street below. ‘From up here, it could be a hundred years ago.’


In the street below, two old men with open cans of lager in their hands made unsteady progress, arm in arm. ‘Classic Edinburgh: up here it’s hustle and bustle, down there it’s drink and decay. Like lifting a stone.’ Down below, the old men lowered themselves onto the kerbside. One of them gestured expansively, elaborating on some point while his companion tipped his beer can to his mouth. Transport them to a gastro-pub and they might be two professors of English literature debating the finer points of theory.

This is a mystery. It’s not a crime novel. It’s not a police procedural novel. There are no forensic pathologists, world-weary detectives or a sexually dysfunctional psychologist trying to figure out whodunit and to stop them doing it again. No, what we have instead is a university lecturer who’s decided to write a biography about a little known poet who died in a boating accident thirty years earlier at the age of twenty-five. So, yes, someone has died and throughout the book other people we learn have passed away and some even meet their end during the events described in the book but it still doesn’t feel like a crime novel even though crimes have been and are committed. Yes, Dr. Murray is trying to piece together the life of the writer Archie Lunan, but he thinks he’s doing research not playing detective. As far as he’s aware the man died in a tragic accident, end of story.

So, some horrible things happen but this is not a horror novel either despite the sly suggestion on the back of the book. This doesn’t mean that the “dark arts” don’t appear anywhere in the book because they do actually, much to the good doctor’s (and my) surprise, but this is a novel grounded in the real world. So no graphic descriptions of black masses or a cameo appearance by the horned one and even when one character is accused of being a “spellbinder” all she has to say in response is:

Being called a witch isn’t the slander it once was.

More than anything else this is a character study. Most of the people in the book are academics; even the girl in the working man’s pub Murray finds himself in at one point is reading Camus. His brother, John, is an artist. I didn’t mind this; in fact I was pleased that the focus of the book was literature. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t scared we’d end up with caricatures rather than fully fleshed out people; academics so often come across as eccentrics; perhaps it’s a side effect of the job. Our protagonist is who we spend most time with. He’s in every scene. And if you’re going to given that much page time (the literary equivalent of screen time?) then you want a charismatic ewan_mcgrego lead. Tom Hanks managed it in The Da Vinci Code but he’s a bit on the old side to play Murray Watson. I think Ewan McGregor could still pull it off.

Flawed heroes are all the rage. All you have to do is look at Ian Rankin’s Rebus or Val McDermid’s Tony Hill. Murray Watson is having an affair with a married colleague and his dad’s dead and that’s about as conflicted as I found him. Okay, maybe he drinks a little too much and hasn’t been so lucky in love but no one’s perfect. Welsh’s previous protagonists sound more interesting from the reviews and interviews I’ve read but I’m trying to review this book on its own merits . . . which, as you can see, I’m finding hard to do. But Murray Watson is basically a decent bloke who wants to do the right thing. I feel I’m selling him short here. This is how Claire Black described him in her review:

Watson is a fine creation: a flawed self-sabotager, but with enough self-awareness to be thoroughly likeable. The snatches of interior monologue – Watson imagining himself as a movie star, an image dissolved by the flashing outskirts of Edinburgh glimpsed from the train, or bemoaning his ever-present desire for sex – add to his bleak Romanticism.[2]

The novel opens with him beginning his quest:

Murray Watson slit the seal on the cardboard box in front of him and started to sort through the remnants of a life. He lifted a handful of papers and carefully splayed them across the desk. Pages of foolscap, blue-tinted writing paper, leaves torn from school jotters, stationery printed with the address of a London hotel. Some of it was covered in closepacked handwriting, like a convict’s letters home. Others were bare save for a few words and phrases.

One cardboard box with a few tantalising clues: a list of names, a drawing of a stick-woman, pages of sums, three tarot cards, a napkin from a café, a newspaper clipping, an address book with no addresses in it amongst other things. Only once you’ve pretty much reached the end of the book do we know which of these titbits are of any use but that is as it should be. In fact as it was only as I was writing this review that I realised we’d been given so much to start us off.

Murray has taken a sabbatical to write his book. He’s a lecturer at Glasgow University. It’s his dream job. Lunan he discovered by chance in a second-hand bookshop: “a tangerine-tinted studio shot of a thin man with shadows for eyes” catches his eyes and, for the princely sum of fifty pence, the book was his although it takes him a year to get around to actually reading the thing.

It turns out that Lunan had attended the university in his day and some of the professors who were there then are still around. In particular Professor James who “had been everything that Murray, fresh from a comprehensive school staffed by corduroy-clad progressives, had desired in a university professor” a man who “approached the lectern like a United Free Church of Scotland minister about to deliver a sermon to a congregation set on damnation.” Now eighty-seven and well aware that his days are numbered he’s happy to share some of what he knows about the young Lunan who, he reveals, attended his “little group” of writers along with his friend, Bobby Robb, his girlfriend, Christie, and a colleague of Murray’s, Fergus Baine whose wife, Rachel, Murray happens to have been having an affair with.

Murray tries to make contact with Christie, now a novelist, who has remained on the small island of Lismore after the death of Lunan. After some delay he gets a letter in response from her solicitors declining him access, wishing him every success in his project and reminding him of “the government’s recent anti-stalking legislation.” It seems like his biography has stalled before it’s barely begun. But there are options open to him before he gives up completely. Professor James gives him a number of pointers along with some encouragement although it’s clear he’s not going to do his job for him, Fergus is not especially accommodating but unexpected help comes in the shape of George Meikle, the head bookfinder at the National Library, who had been an old drinking crony of Lunan’s back in the day. Meikle points Murray in the direction of Bobby Robb, a little too late as it turns out, but that doesn’t stop the resourceful doctor and bit-by-bit clue after clue finds its way into his Moleskin notebook.

An ad in the paper looking for information from anyone who knew the late Archie Lunan gets one response, a phone call from Audrey Garrett, the widow of Alan Garrett, a suicidologist, who had taken an interest in Lunan’s untimely death. Her husband had travelled to Lismore to learn more and ended up losing his own life in the process; he crashed his car into a tree. Murray, up until this point anyway, hadn’t seriously considered Lunan’s death as anything more than an accident; on leaving Audrey’s flat lismore however he’s not so sure even though all he comes away with from the visit is a short pencil sketch of Lunan, literally a list with eight items on it.

By this time his sources in Glasgow and Edinburgh have all dried up. He’s left with no choice but to drive to Oban, board the ferry to Lismore and take it from there. We’re at the half point of book now and know surprisingly little still. Of course that’s not true. We know a hell of a lot more than we realise but that’s the way with good mysteries, evidence sits in plain sight but how do you distinguish what’s evidence and what’s not?

And that’s the problem all detectives face, those with badges and those with university diplomas.

There are only supposed to be x number of basic plots, seven some say: The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth, Comedy, Tragedy, Overcoming the Monster and Rags to Riches. I’ve sat and thought about this book for a while and really can’t decide which of the first three it is. Murray is on a quest, that’s a given (he wants to find out about Archie Lunan and write his book), but what he finds out is not what he expected; the question is how much his adventure changes him. I have to say that I was completely stunned by his actions following the book’s climax; it made me feel that I’d missed something because I felt he was overreacting (or at least acting out of character) but perhaps not. Put it this way, I didn’t see it coming. You’ll have to decide that yourself.

What I can say is that the book is beautifully and carefully plotted. Its hero may be a little on the passive side (Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones he most certainly is not) but the journey he takes is believable enough. Everyone pretty much has a secret and a piece of the puzzle. Typically in this kind of book we get drip-fed the facts and no one seems willing to tell everything they know on one visit, be it Professor James, his daughter, the landlord of the pub Bobby Robb frequented, Meikle, Fergus, Mrs Dunn (Murray’s landlady on Lismore) or Christie. But that’s fine. We expect that. Frankly we don’t want to know too much too soon. Some of the clues I got right away but there were enough red herrings and dead ends chucked in to make sure I had just a bit too much to keep in my head.

People squabble all the time over the term ‘literary’ and there will be those who will happily think of this book as a literary mystery novel. It is a well-written mystery novel and I was particularly impressed by how often Louise chose just the right word (the word ‘draymen’ to describe brewery delivery men was one) but I’m not sure this is a book where the language is enough; it’s the story that drags you along more than how it is told. Is it a page-turner? Put it this way, I read it in two days and those of you who know how slow I normally read can draw your own conclusions from that.

Naming the Bones is published by Canongate and retails at £12.99.


louisewelsh After studying history at Glasgow University, Louise Welsh established a second-hand bookshop, where she worked for many years. Her first novel, The Cutting Room, won several awards, including the 2002 Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey Memorial Dagger, and was jointly awarded the 2002 Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award. Louise was granted a Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Award in 2003, a Scotland on Sunday/Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award in 2004, and a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2005.

She is a regular radio broadcaster, has published many short stories, and has contributed articles and reviews to most of the British broadsheets. She has also written for the stage. The Guardian chose her as a “woman to watch” in 2003.

Her second book, Tamburlaine Must Die, a novella written around the final three days of the poet Christopher Marlowe's life, was published in 2004. Her third novel, The Bullet Trick (2006), is a present-day murder mystery set in Berlin.

She recently collaborated with the composer Stuart MacRae on a chamber opera, Remembrance Day for Scottish Opera's Five:15 series and her play, Memory Cells, opened at The Arches in Glasgow last October. Earlier this year she was a fellow at the Villa Hellebosch, Vollezele, Flanders. Her work has been translated into twenty languages.

She lives in Glasgow with her partner, the writer Zoë Strachan.

You can read the first chapter of the novel online here.



[1] Crime writer Louise Welsh talks,

[2] Claire Black, ‘Book review: Naming the Bones',, 28 Feb 2010

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Alan Bennett: an introduction (part two)


Life is generally something that happens elsewhere – Alan Bennett[1]

Part One



Ten of the twelve Talking Heads involves a woman and all but one is a mature woman opening the door to some of the country’s finest character actresses like Penelope Wilton, Stephanie Cole and Eileen Atkins. A young Julie Walters is the one exception and, although she gives it her all, it will not be the performance that she will be remembered for. “Alan writes so beautifully for women,”[2] Eileen Atkins has said.

Bennett portrays embarrassment probably better than any other living writer, people uncomfortable in their own skins:

Many of Bennett's characters are unfortunate and downtrodden, or meek and overlooked. Life has brought them to an impasse, or else passed them by altogether. In many cases they have met with disappointment in the realm of sex and intimate relationships, largely through tentativeness and a failure to connect with others. – Wikipedia

The title of the very first official Talking Heads monologue was A Chip in the Sugar. The character may be called ‘Graham’ but he’s ‘the Alan Bennett character’ on full throttle. When Graham and his mam are taken to a new café he is appalled to find a chip (a fat, soft Northern version of the American french fry) in the sugar bowl. What’s funny here is the snobbery. It’s a café for God’s sake not a Michelin-star restaurant. The café they usually patronise is “plain, but it’s classy, no cloths on the tables, the menu comes on a little slate and the waitresses wear their own clothes and look as if their doing it just for the fun of it.” This new place is all “done out in red” and the one thing that Graham and his mother agree upon is that “red is a common colour.”

Bennett has said he’s “never been able to get worked up about class and its distinctions” but he has noted that his own mother’s social sensibilities “admitted to much finer distinctions than were allowed by the sociologists. She’d talk about people being ‘better-class’, ‘well-off’, ‘nicely-spoken’, ‘refined’, ‘educated’, ‘genuine’, ‘ordinary’ and – the ultimate condemnation – ‘common’.[3] It’s clear from this interview with Mark Lawson that he was acutely aware of snobbery as a child:

Mark Lawson Talks to Alan Bennett (2009)

It’s unusual for the snob to be the son. But in many respects Graham is just an extension (or perhaps a proxy) for his off-screen mother. Snobbish mothers are a mainstay Thora Hird of Northern humour and Thora Hird has made a career out of playing them in sitcoms like Meet the Wife or, playing it straight, in the film-adaptation of A Kind of Loving. This role (the mam), of course, is caricatured to the extreme in the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances (written by fellow Yorkshireman Roy Clarke) where Patricia Routledge, who has been cast in a number of Bennett’s plays, hams it up as the eccentric, social-climbing snob Hyacinth Bucket (which she pronounces “bou-quet”) and we just love to see humiliated week in and week out. She starred in Bennett’s play, A Woman of No Importance, which was televised six years before Talking Heads but was also a dramatic monologue and paved the way for the creation of the series. The story is typically Bennett:

Peggy Schofield, clerical worker and self-described linchpin of her office, finds that when her strict regime is disrupted, her world crumbles around her. Her health deteriorates and she is rapidly spirited away to hospital, where she reconstructs her office routine, appropriating doctors, other hospital staff and patients as replacements for her co-workers. It is soon revealed, through hints that she has lost her job and her co-workers haven't bothered to visit, that she is not as popular and significant as she assumed. – Wikipedia

This is not a million miles away from the character she came to play in the second Talking Heads, A Lady of Letters, where she is cast as Irene Ruddock, a compulsive letter writer and interfering busybody whose conflated sense of her own importance lands her in hot water. Here’s a short clip from an interview in which she talks about being approached to do the first play:

from an interview with Alan Titchmarsh

Bennett had hoped to have directed A Woman of No Importance, in fact he admitted that was partly in his mind when he wrote the script, but, in the end, Giles Foster did the honours. Foster can be credited with coming up with the title Talking Heads because that was his initial opinion of A Woman of No Importance; he was worried that the public might dismiss the play as “talking heads” the standard euphemism in the trade for televisual boredom. What he was missing is that people like being told stories. All he had to look at was the long-running children’s programme Jackanory which, especially in the early days, involved little more than a person sitting in a chair reading a story. Bennett himself read his first one in 1968, The House at Pooh Corner.

In the Talking Heads monologues these people get to tell their stories. In his introduction to the published texts he calls them “artless” – “They don’t quite know what they are saying and are telling a story to the meaning of which they are not entirely privy.”[4]

Bennett’s monologuists remind us of the apparently self-sufficient protagonists of Beckett’s monologues – Winnie, Krapp, the Mouth in Not I – who do not know why they speak, only that they must.[5]

They address us personally. There is next-to-no action. Occasionally they’ll shift position, fiddle with a prop or the screen will fade to grey and open in another location with the same person sitting perhaps in an easy chair this time rather than at a table. Sometimes time passes, occasionally months even but every time we return to our storyteller they’re alone in a room, a living room, a bedroom, a hotel room, a prison cell; two of the characters finally wind up in jail. In the hands of a lesser writer these would have had people switching channels in their droves but they entranced audiences and even though the Talking Heads have dried up the BBC has recorded a number of short films since (Bennett on Bennett, Telling Tales) where all we have is Bennett reminiscing talking directly to the camera and no one seems to mind a bit.

He told the writer, George Brandt, in an informal interview where the idea for the plays probably had its roots:

My mother had two sisters and one of them used to tell you everything that happened to her in Proustian detail. She worked in a shoe shop in Leeds, and used to come up after work and tell you everything. And when she’d gone, my dad used to say, “I wouldn’t care but you’re no further on when she’s finished.[6]

stephanie_cole If there is one character that embodies what these monologues is about it’s probably Stephanie Cole’s portrayal of Muriel in Soldiering On, who, following the death of her husband, finds herself backed further and further into a corner due to relying on her inept – possibly dishonest – son. Like a female Job she takes whatever life throws at her squarely on her very square chin:

I wouldn’t want you to think this was a tragic story . . . I’m not a tragic woman . . . I’m not that type.

She is the epitome of British stiff-upper-lipedness. Those are her final words to us sitting in her drab flatlet as she picks up her Walkman and headphones with which insulates herself from any disturbing thoughts or doubts that might creep into her mind.

Pathos is hard to pull off. An appeal to pathos asks an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with the character on stage and say: “They are one of us,” as Rosemarie Jarski put it. It doesn’t matter that Graham is gay and I’m not, that Susan has a drink problem and I never have or that Miss Fozzard is avaricious and I’m certainly not. They’re all ordinary people like me. A dramatic monologue is not a soliloquy, these people are not talking to themselves, they’re addressing us directly, they make eye contact, and they desperately want to be understood. They don’t orate. They don’t declaim. They simply tell their tales: this is how I got to be here.

Routledge When Bennett was thinking about writing his first monologue he recalled an earlier play, A Visit from Miss Prothero, where an office worker, a fussy middle-aged spinster (played again by Routledge), visits her (up until then) happily retired boss and tells him about how they’ve reorganised the office since he left scrapping a billing system he spent four years perfecting, essentially informing him that his life’s work has been effectively destroyed. (You can watch a clip here.) Bennett says:

It’s quite funny but she’s a really unpleasant person. Anyway, when I started thinking about doing another one, I thought, Well, it’s the same sort of person, and then I thought, Well, the more you know about her the more you perhaps come to understand a person like that.[7]

But here’s the key point: Bennett felt that to allow her to tell her story in her own words would be “somehow to redeem her.” Why are all these characters talking at us? Why do they insist on us hearing their tales? There’s a touch of the Ancient Mariner about all of them, talking themselves towards redemption. The jabbering trio is Beckett’s Play also come to mind.

I’m not sure I could pick a favourite. I can tell you that Thora Hird work the BAFTA for Best Actress for both her roles in A Cream Cracker Under the Settee and Waiting for the Telegram and Maggie Smith won a Royal Television Society award for Best Actress for A Bed Among the Lentils. Penelope Wilton I have to admit though a fondness for Penelope Wilton’s portrayal of Rosemary in Nights in the Gardens of Spain but frankly there’s not a bad performance in the lot of them.

Thora Hird’s characterisations are worthy of special note. Her career spanned eight decades beginning in repertory theatre and she continued working right up until her death in her nineties with a small part in Roy Clarke's, Last of the Summer Wine. Best known as a comic actress she appeared in a number of Bennett’s plays. In an audio recording of one of his diary entries Alan Bennett tells an anecdote about Thora from her memorial service at Westminster Abbey:

In his book, Writing Home, Bennett mentions a 1979 TV film, Afternoon Off, which featured Thora as a patient in hospital being visited by her husband:

‘I bet the house is upside down,’ she says to him.

‘It never is,’ says her husband. ‘I did the kitchen floor this morning.’

‘What bucket did you use?’

‘The red one.’

She is outraged. ‘That’s the outside bucket. I shall have it all to do again.’

After giving us this brief excerpt, Bennett explains where the idea for this little interchange originated:

I am assuming this is common ground and that the tortuous boundary between the clean and the dirty is a frontier most households share. It was very marked in ours. My mother maintained an intricate hierarchy of cloths, buckets and dusters to the Byzantine differentiations of which she alone was privy. Some cloths were dishcloths but not sink cloths; some were for the sink but not for the floor. There were dirty buckets and clean buckets, brushes for indoors, brushes for the flags. One mop had a universal application while another had a unique and terrible purpose and had to be kept outside, hung on the wall. And however rinsed and clean these utensils were they remained tainted by their awful function.[8]

This scene is not a uniquely Northern one, not by any manner or means, but this is precisely the kind of thing that Bennett hones in on in his writing; the devil is in the detail. We’ve just had a flood, Carrie and I. The little girl upstairs turned on all the taps and we were the recipients of several gallons of murky-coloured water filtered through their floor and our ceiling. While Carrie hammered on their door I got busy arranging buckets and towels under the worst leaks only to find myself chided, once things had calmed down and the drips subsided, for not knowing that there were towels specifically set aside for this purpose in (of all places wouldn’t you know) the towel cupboard.

My parents were both Northerners and so I grew up hearing the pair of them express their views on the world and on each other and I wish I’d written down some of the things they said. The simple fact is that both of them, but especially my mother, would have been an endless source of inspiration. That said although my mother was one for most of my life I’ve never been able to equate her with the type of over-fifty ladies that seem to fascinate Bennett. Of course she loved to gossip. I’ve never met a woman who didn’t love to gossip although the same goes for most of the men I’ve known too; they just use fewer words. Which brings me to a wee anecdote by someone I can only identify as ‘Graham’ who left it in a comment on a video clip in YouTube; a glimpse of the ‘real Alan Bennett’ perhaps:

Funny how oblivious he is to being famous.

Fresh and Wild logo He was in the queue in front of me in 'Fresh And Wild' – a shop in Camden and I started to talk to him about an old cassette I had of his called Poetry in Motion and he chatted away to me as though he knew me.

As we spoke I was aware of part of my brain thinking "you're talking to one of Britain's major writers" but he seemed to think he was gossiping to a neighbour.

He gathered his shopping and said "Ok – see you!"

It was an amazing experience.

If you’ve never heard of Alan Bennett then please do yourself a favour and take the time to get acquainted with him. If you’re not a Brit you might still have come across his work. He was nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of his stage play The Madness of George III. The film had to be called The Madness of King George because it was thought that Americans would think it a sequel and avoid it otherwise. Anyway, this is what The New York Times had to say:

Alan Bennett playwright, writer, actor, comedian and chronically embarrassed person -- was nominated for an Academy Award last year for the screenplay of The Madness of King George, but he didn't go to Hollywood, put on formal dress or even watch the awards on television. He just went to bed.[9]

Reminds one a little of a certain New York filmmaker who prefers to play the clarinet with his mates rather than go hobnobbing with superstars, stars and wannabe-stars. I mentioned that no one writes embarrassment like Alan Bennett, well, how does his portrait of the King of England compare to his more modest offerings? In an interview he says:

George III, for one, is nervous and shy, like many royals. His bluntness and heartiness proceed from social unease. But his role is to present himself as King. When madness sets in, he drops this façade; he isn't embarrassed anymore. Embarrassment is a continuing theme in my work. I can't say I'm George III, but I certainly understand him![10]

The Madness of King George (trailer) (1994)

From king to tramps it doesn’t seem to matter. Alan Bennett could have easily written Waiting for Godot. I can just see his Didi saying to Gogo: “Nowt t’be done, lad.” Many of his characters are waiting for something that will never come or at least may never come trapped within unforgiving lives or unalterable personalities, marooned and alone.

Two things inspired this essay. The first was discovering a book in the local library entitled Alan Bennett: In a Manner of Speaking which I took out mainly because no one had borrowed it since August 2002 and I felt sorry for it; the second was a poem by Dave King:

Voices in his head
Alan Bennett's Talking Heads
silent now - writer's block?

I asked him what inspired the piece and he told me:

Alan Bennett told an audience a couple of nights ago that his Talking Heads had been drawn from voices that he heard in his head. Now they are not there anymore. He doesn't hear them and the scripts have dried up. He has tried to write new scripts, but he can't. Some newspaper articles have described it as a specific form of writer’s block.

I can’t pretend for a second I wouldn’t jump at the chance to see a new monologue by Bennett. The BBC had a little retrospective recently and I watched all but one of the plays and I was miffed at myself because the one I missed, A Woman of No Importance, I’d never seen before. But if he never wrote another monologue he can die happy in the knowledge that he has raised the bar exceedingly high.

If there’s one thing that Bennett could be accused of doing wrong, wrong that is if he ever wanted to be truly remembered as a great British playwright, it was this: fellow Northerner Victoria Wood hits the nail on the head when she said of him, "I really think he's been underestimated over the years because he's accessible and that somehow is considered less worthy than being obscure." Incidentally she said this following the 2005 Olivier Awards where his play The History Boys won three prizes and he himself was presented with a special award for his outstanding contribution to British theatre.

We started this with Maggie Smith and I think it’s only fair we end with her. She’s like me, an honorary Northerner, born in Essex to a Glaswegian mother and a Geordie father. Apart from her award-winning casting in A Bed lady blog Among the Lentils she also received great acclaim for her performance as Miss Shepherd in Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. Miss Shepherd is not a fictional creation despite bearing all the hallmarks of one. She lived in a van in Camden Town and briefly parked her van in his garden except that what he had intended as a short time to help her out ended up lasting fifteen years. No writer could have asked to be imposed upon by a more inspiring character who constantly spoke in anecdotes. All the man had to do was write them down which he did in his diaries many of which have been published; indeed an annual event is the appearance of selected entries from his diaries in the London Review of Books.

If he did not always feel generous ("One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation"), he always acted generously. To allow this radical intrusion in a quiet life seems the emblem of English accommodation. But, Bennett insists, "allow isn't quite the word. I was just faced with her – it was like Eleanor Roosevelt moving in! I just got used to it. I know this sounds odiously modest, but I don't think it needed much goodness. It's more laziness. Just as you can do harm by being lazy, you can do some good as well."[11]

As you can probably appreciate this article only skirts over Alan Bennett’s output. All you have to do is skip to the bottom of his Wikipedia entry to see what he’s been doing for the last fifty years. He’s not been idle. Don’t be put off by expressions like, “Mozart of the mundane” or “bard of the drab” – they’re meant to be affectionate pokes at him but they really sell him short. He is to the ordinary what Beckett was to the downtrodden, a voice crying in the wilderness.

I’ll leave you with Maggie Smith in A Bed Among the Lentils, the only Talking Heads incidentally directed by Bennett himself. “Bennett says that the idea for the piece came to him from finding the words ‘Get lost, Jesus’ written in ‘tiny, timid letters’ in a hymn book at his school.”[12] The play is a brilliant analysis of the role of women (wives especially), the diminishing power of religion and the changing face of English society. Unlike A Woman of No Importance Bennett did not begin the play with Smith in mind – “I didn’t think she’d do it,” he admitted, “She’s very choosy.”[13] – but he’d worked with her before and they’d got on well so he sent the play straight to her bypassing her agent. And, to his surprise, she liked it. She had very little time to prepare having only a single day’s break between completing her last job and beginning this one. You’d never know it but Bennett believes that much of the subtlety in her performance comes from her thinking on her feet. It is an acting master class.

The comparison to Beckett’s Happy Days is an easy one to make. Winnie is, of course, literally buried; Susan, figuratively so, and, as the play progresses we see her sink deeper and deeper. She begins the play as a social embarrassment but is still allowed a certain freedom of expression; she can go where she wants and do what she wants as long as she does it quietly. By the end, when she gets transformed into a paragon (I choose my words carefully) she has become completely entrenched, buried up to her neck in a life from which there is no escape.

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5



Say Something Happened (1982) (5 parts)

Intensive Care (1982) (9 parts)

A Lady of Letters (1988) (4 parts)

Playing Sandwiches (1998) (4 parts)


[1] Alan Bennett, Talking Heads, p. 13

[2] Joseph H. O'Mealy, Alan Bennett: a critical introduction, p. 85

[3] Alan Bennett, Writing Home, pp. 43,44

[4] Alan Bennett, Talking Heads, p. 7

[5] Joseph H. O'Mealy, Alan Bennett: a critical introduction, p. 87

[6] George W. Brandt, British television drama in the 1980s, p. 21

[7] Ibid, p. 22

[8] Alan Bennett, Writing Home, pp. 441,442

[9] Sarah Lyall, ‘Home Is the Place That Is Heartening For Alan Bennett’, The New York Times, 19 October 1995

[10] Richard Corliss, ‘Bard of Embarrassment’, Time, February 27, 1994 Volume 145, No. 9

[11] Ibid

[12] Daphne Turner, Alan Bennett: In a Manner of Speaking, p. 57

[13] George W. Brandt, British television drama in the 1980s, p. 26

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Black Spider

Black Spider

Spoiler Alert: I probably reveal a little more in this review than you might expect from such a short novel. I concentrate on the build-up to the first appearance of the black spider and say nothing about its second appearance. No one is going to read this novel and be shocked to discover there’s a black spider in it any more than anyone is going to read Dracula and go: “Oh, my God! He’s a vampire.”


Unlike some of the books being released by Oneworld Classics, the translation of Jeremias Gotthelf’s novella The Black Spider by Herbert Morgan Waidson is not a new one. It comes from Calder Publications’ back catalogue and dates back to 1958. This is not a criticism because Waidson’s translation is very readable indeed. There has been a more recent translation, in 1992, by B. Adefope but it’s out of print. What puzzles me is that it took so long to  translate a book written in 1842 in the first place, a book gotthelfof which Thomas Mann said, "And so I read Jeremias Gotthelf, whose Schwarze Spinne I admire almost more than anything else in world literature" [1]

The Black Spider, written in German[2], is Gotthelf’s best-known book but little else is available in English. In Germany things are very different and several films have been made based on his work including a 1983 version of Die Schwarze Spinne. I would have been surprised if the book had not been filmed because it’s perfect material for a little horror movie. I can just see a gaudy fifties-style poster in the style of Reynold Brown with an oversized spider with flaming eyes about to bite the neck of a helpless (and scantily-clad) female and I’m sure that Gotthelf would have disapproved.

Jeremias Gotthelf [Gotthelf = may God help] was the pseudonym of Albert Bitzius, a Swiss clergyman who lived from 1797 to 1854 mostly working as curate to the remote village of Lützelflüh in the Emmental. “A thoroughly genial temperament (!) made him popular with all classes except, perhaps, sluggards and big wigs,” reported the British Quarterly Review in 1863.[3]

‘Jeremias Gotthelf’ was coincidentally the name of the protagonist in his first novel, The Farmer’s Mirror (Der Bauernspiegel):

Der Bauernspiegel is a product of Gotthelf's social indignation, fed by first-hand experience. It is, as he puts it, a one-sided mirror which reflects the dark side of the peasant's life. In homely and robust language, he portrays Swiss country folk and their life, shows an unerring eye for concealed or unconscious motive, and has an infinite compassion for the suffering of the humble and the inarticulate. –

I mention this because this book sets the scene for much of his writing. Gotthelf's deep interest in the welfare of the peasantry prompted him also to undisguised political and social writing. So, why is his best-known work a gothic horror story? And what’s more, why was this book (which fundamentally is a fight between God and the Devil) co-opted by the Nazis during World War II? In his article on The Black Spider Paul Raymont writes:

It is not hard to see why; one of the story's motifs concerns the collective guilt of a community that has acquiesced in the evil plotting of one (or more) of its members.

I’m not saying he’s wrong but I guess anyone can twist anything to their own needs. If there's one thing most readers will agree upon when looking at Gotthelf's work in general is that he is a didactic writer; he produced “narrative prose that has at its core the goal of proclaiming a ‘right’ course of action or belief”[4] and although I know the Nazis believed they were right, I still struggle to see why this work piqued their interest. I would be keen to learn more.

The structure of the book is a curious one. The story of the black spider is framed by the events surrounding a christening hundreds of years in the future. The guests have returned from the christening which has gone according to plan, despite the flurry of activity described in great detail in the opening pages (particularly the godmother’s panic when she realises she’s forgotten the baby’s name). Everyone is in good humour. They have been well fed, so well fed in fact that they have to take a break in the proceedings to give their tummies a rest. It is during this lull that one of the guests passes a comment about the house:

“I like the house extremely well,” one of the women said. “We too ought to have a new house for a long time now, but we always shy off at the expense. But as soon as my husband arrives, he must have a good look at this house; it seems to me that if we could have a house like this, I should be in heaven. But all the same I would like to ask – and don’t take it amiss, will you? – why ever that ugly black window post is there, just by the first window; it detracts from the appearance of the whole house.”

The grandfather doesn’t jump to tell his tale. He makes excuses but, on being pressed – “don’t beat about the bush ... tell the truth and give an honest account” – he gives in and tells those assembled a blood-curdling tale beginning generations earlier when the land was ruled by a succession of Teutonic Knights:

[T]he one who was in charge here was known as the district commander. These superiors changed frequently, and for a time there was somebody from Saxony, and then somebody from Swabia; consequently no sense of trust could grow, and each commander brought manners and customs with him from his own country.

The name of the district commander at the time during which the black spider makes it appearance, and “[o]ne of the worst,” was Hans von Stoffeln who had the bright idea Swiss Castle of building a great castle on the Bärhegenhubel, a wild, bare hill in the midst of deserted country, and the peasants who were attached to the castle have to do the building. He showed no pity and his bailiffs drove the people on mercilessly:

At last the castle was finished, with its walls that were five yards thick; nobody knew why it was standing up there, but the peasants were glad that it really did stand, if it had to be there at all, and that the last nail was knocked in and the last tile fixed into place on top.

They wiped the sweat from their brows, looked round their own property with dejected hearts and sighed to see what extent the accursed building work had held them back.

Not so fast. After some teasing from his knights von Stoffeln realises he needs an “avenue of trees to provide a shady walk.” Fine. But he wants it in a month and they can’t use local trees, no, he wants “a hundred full-grown beech trees from the Münneberg” which is a steep hill, a three-hour journey away over rough tracks. It is an impossible task, something he realises later, but he has spoken and what he has commended must take place.

Now, I don’t know about you but a lot of this is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s mistreatment of the Israelites when they were in captivity in Egypt – I can even picture Yul Brynner delivering the line: “So let it be written, so let it be done” – and, when he specifically mentions the thickness of the walls I couldn’t help think of the way the walls of Babylon were described.[5] Maybe I’m reading too much into this but once you start down this route it’s hard to stop.

The men are disconsolate especially since it’s the month of May and they need to be at work in the fields if they want to have bread and food for the winter. Suddenly, “the tall, figure of a green huntsman” appears; no one sees him arrive:

A red feather was swaying on his bold cap, a little red beard blazed in his dark face, and a mouth opened between his hooked nose and pointed chin, almost invisible like a cavern beneath overhanging rocks ... “What’s the matter, good people...?”

Coincidentally the green huntsman is a kind of spider. It doesn’t build webs preferring to hunt insects in green vegetation, where it is well camouflaged

Green Huntsman

Long story, short: he says he is willing to assist with the transportation and implantation of the trees “for very little payment ... nothing more than an unbaptised child.” At this point “scales fell from their eyes, and like spray in a whirlwind they scattered in different directions.” (Now, where else have we heard about scales falling from eyes?)[6] “Think it over,” he says “or see what your womenfolk have got to say about it; you’ll find me here again in three nights’ time!”

Which is where Christine enters the picture.

She was not the sort of woman who is happy to be at home, to fulfil her duties in quietness and to care only for home and family. Christine wanted to know what was going on...

When the Devil reappears she is the only one brave enough to deal with him. (This parallels the events in the framing story: it’s a woman who is curious and a man who hesitates.) The problem is there’s no unbaptised child available. No problem. The Devil is perfectly happy to wait. He doesn’t even require a signature and he accepts that his arrangement is solely with her; all he asks is a kiss on the cheek to seal the deal:

At this he pursed up his mouth towards Christine’s face, and Christine could not escape; once more she was as if transfixed by magic, stiff and rigid. Then the pointed mouth touched Christine’s face, and she felt as if some sharp-pointed steel fire were piercing marrow and bone, body and soul – and a yellow flash of lightning struck between them and showed Christine the green huntsman’s devilish face gleefully distorted, and thunder rolled above them as if the heavens had split apart.

A kiss on the cheek, now where I have heard that before?[7] And does that face with the little flash of yellow not sound awfully serpentine to you? Is Gotthelf not alluding EveAppleSerpent back to the temptation of Eve here? And was she not to blame for the fall of Man? It’s easy to read into the text here and assume that what he’s getting at is the sin of female independence. And yet, lo and behold, a woman has become the peasants’ saviour. The trees are transported with minimum fuss. Only one child, “an innocent boy, dear in the sight of God and man” accidentally witnesses how, however.

The job done, von Stoffeln happy (happy that is until he goes walking between them whereupon he finds himself “seized by a secret horror”), all the village has to do is wait until the next child is due and try and figure out a way to wriggle out of Christine’s deal, assuming that if they don’t deliver up a child she will be the one who will be punished. And they do indeed devise a plan.

As the birth approaches a black mark appears on Christine’s cheek, and once that mark assumes the shape of a black spider her neighbours begin to avoid her. When she complains how her face burns and begs them to reconsider they refuse:

[W]hat was tormenting Christine did not hurt them and what she was suffering was in their opinion her own responsibility, and if they could no longer escape from her, they said to her: ‘That’s your affair! Nobody has promised a child, and therefore nobody is going to give one.’

The next child is born and baptised and they all breathe a sigh of relief. Now, if only they follow the same procedure when each subsequent birth takes place everything will be all right. The Devil is not so easily cheated though and he sends spiders to attack their animals. But why pick on the poor spider? They crop up in the Bible from time to time but usually as an example not as a bad guy.[8] What the author is tapping into is a more primal fear:

Recent studies of spider phobia have indicated that fear of spiders is closely associated with the disease-avoidance response of disgust. It is argued that the disgust-relevant status of the spider resulted from its association with disease and illness in European cultures from the tenth century onward. The plague development of the association between spiders and illness appears to be linked to the many devastating and inexplicable epidemics that struck Europe from the Middle Ages onwards, when the spider was a suitable displaced target for the anxieties caused by these epidemics. Such factors suggest that the pervasive fear of spiders that is commonly found in many Western societies may have cultural rather than biological origins, and may be restricted to Europeans and their descendants. – Graham Davey, ‘The "Disgusting" Spider: The Role of Disease and Illness in the Perpetuation of Fear of Spiders’ in Society and Animals, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1994 , pp. 17-25(9)

When the next child is due the villagers agree that what must be done must be done and Christine is allowed to take the child. Even the father agrees saying that he will make a show of going to get the priest but will drag his feet giving Christine all the time she needs. No sooner has the umbilical cord been cut she snatches the baby and heads out to meet the demonic woodsman at the designated place only to be confronted by the parish priest who stands firm and faces the woman alone. He wins but at a cost. This is where the titular black spider appears and it’s like no spider anyone in the village has encountered below.

The grandfather who has been telling the guests this tale explains how the creature is finally captured and trapped within a hole in a piece of wood, held there by a wooden peg.

“What, in that black piece of wood there?” the godmother cried, starting up from the ground in one movement as if she had been sitting on an anthill. She had been sitting against that piece of wood when she had been inside the room. And now her back was burning...

Gradually the guests are calmed and it looks as if that’s that until one guest just has to ask:

“Hasn’t the spider ever got out of the hole since then? Has it always stayed inside all those hundreds of years?”

This brings us to the grandfather’s second tale, a kind of recapitulation. After the first defeat of the black spider the villagers become quite pious. They’ve had a narrow escape and they know it. Two hundred years down the line, however, their descendents have begun to lose their way spiritually and no one believes the old stories about the black wood:

[P]ride and arrogance made their home in the valley, brought there and increased by women from other parts. Clothes became more pretentious, jewels could be seen gleaming on them, and indeed pride dared to display itself even on the holy implements themselves and, instead of people’s hearts being directed in prayer fervently to God, their eyes lingered arrogantly on the golden beads of their rosaries.

Only a matter of time before someone (a man as it happens this time) unplugged the hole just to prove the old stories were bunkum. This is a recurrent theme in the Bible throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites would sin, suffer, repent, prosper and then fall back into the same cycle generation after generation. Often though the things that befell them were not direct punishment from God. All he did was remove his protection and let nature take its course. And that is what happens in this second tale. Interestingly the hero this time round is a man called Christian.

Was the old man just making up a scary story, the kind people do round a campfire, or was there a malevolent spider really trapped in that beam? His guests are left guessing. We are left guessing. The celebration concludes, the guests depart, but you can just imagine how they might have filmed the final scene, the camera slowly zooming in on the black lump of wood, the narrator warning of the consequences of sinful behaviour:

But what power the spider has when men’s spirits change is known only to Him Who knows everything and allots His strength to each and all, to spiders and to mankind.

Much of what I’ve talked about so far might suggest that this is an outdated morality tale and I would agree that the book’s intended purpose won’t find much of an audience these days. We live in a godless world and no one is nearly as superstitious as the people in this book. This is the book’s subtext. You don’t have to dig very deep to get to it but primarily it’s a good little horror story. It’s not Stephen King or James Herbert. It was written with a 19th century audience in mind. But it is genuinely scary. Spiders are scary. Big spiders that won’t be killed and move around and super speed are especially scary especially when they shoot flashes of lightning from their eyes.

Historically, to put it in context, The Black Spider was published between those most famous gothic novels, Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1897) though there were Dracula1st others before and after. Where it falls down perhaps when compared to these two is on the depth of characterisation. Most people in The Black Spider go without names: “the grandfather”, “the midwife”, “the knights”, “the peasants”, “the woodsman”; I could be wrong but, I think the only named characters are von Stoffeln (a historical figure who was actually a benevolent master who is commemorated in one of the windows of the Sumiswald Church), Christine [follower of Christ] and Christian [the male equivalent]; the name of the baby in the framing story is also mentioned, Hans Ui. This has to be deliberate. This could be any community; these people are a template. One point worthy of note was made by The New Quarterly: “He does not preach, but narrates.”[9]

When it was first published The Black Spider didn’t create much of a stir. It was actually Uli the Farmhand, the novel that preceded this which was the first to become at all generally known outside Switzerland. It wasn’t until 1949 when Thomas Mann drew people’s attention to it that it started to be read widely. In his introduction to this edition, the translator and author of a study on Gotthelf, Herbert Waidson, suggests this as a reason:

Perhaps the psychological theories of Freud and Jung and the nightmare fantasies of Kafka had to be absorbed before the European imagination was ready for Gotthelf’s The Black Spider.

That makes a lot of sense. It does allow for a deeper reading of the text, certainly deeper than the one the author intended which is why this morality tale is worth taking another look at. His treatment of mob mentality is also worth highlighting another reason why names are unimportant.

The book is not without its detractors. One Amazon reviewer says that the tale could’ve been told in twenty-five pages. Yes it could but you need to build up to things. How many horror films spend the first few minutes showing how perfect the world is on which they’re about to unleash their own particular embodiment of evil? Gotthelf makes you feel for this nameless, oppressed people. They are not bad people. And that’s the point, they are ordinary people – Gotthelf’s intended audience – but put under extreme pressure (think Job here) will not even the most pious man sin? So, yes, we could have the bullet points in twenty-five pages but it would lose a lot.

What about the second story? After all isn’t he just saying the same thing, underlining a point he has already hammered home? Having read his Bible our curate knew too well the answer to that one. For God’s sake, the nation of Israel had just witnessed the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and within days they were bowing down to a golden calf: if Gotthelf felt the need to lay it on thick he clearly felt there was precedent.

As for the framing story. It’s more than that. Although the events being described are happy a closer look at the people reveal them to be:

The villagers in the framing story treat each other as mere means to self-praise, or to the enhancement of their reputations, showing little real concern for another person as an end in himself or herself (a locus of intrinsic value that may call for the sacrifice of something of one's own). – Paul Rayment, Gotthelf’s Black Spider

Is history about to repeat itself? Is this the thin edge of the wedge? Is this why the telling of this tale is a timely one? Perhaps.

Today, though, I’m not sure who this book would appeal to other than those who have a taste for Gothic novels. It’s a good story, well written but if, like me, you’re drawn to character-driven stories rather than allegories or historical fiction this might not be for you but at only 109 pages it’s worth a look.

You can read a fair chunk of the book here if you’re interested. It’s not from the Oneworld Classics edition but it is Waidson’s translation.

The Black Spider is available now, RRP £8.99.




Dr Michael Haldane, Jeremias Gotthelf’s Die Schwarze Spinne


[1] The Story of a Novel, trans. Richard and Clara Winston [NY: Knopf, 1961], p. 63

[2] “Swiss literature appears in four languages: German, French, Italian and Romanish.” – Heinrich Meyer, ‘Report on German-Swiss Literature’, 1966

[3] British Quarterly Review (October 1863), pp. 305-6

[4] Susan Suleiman quoted in Jamie Rankin, ‘Spider in a Frame: The Didactic Structure of “Die Schwarze Spinne”’ in The German Quarterly, 61 [1988]: p. 403

[5] Jeremiah 51:58, see Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary note

[6] Acts 9:18, the healing of Saul of Tarsus by Ananias

[7] Matthew 26: 47-56, the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane

[8] Bert Thompson, Spiders in the Bible

[9] The New Quarterly (April 1845) quoted by John S. Andrews in ‘The Reception of Gotthelf in British and American Nineteenth-Century Periodicals’, 1956

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Alan Bennett: an introduction (part one)

Alan Bennett

A Geordie friend of mine advised me that when judging Southerners we must always remember that they have not had the benefit of our disadvantages.

Harry Pearson

If you were to ask a non-Brit to name an English playwright after Shakespeare my guess is that top of the list would be Harold Pinter. Were you to ask for a living playwright I wonder how many would come up with the name Alan Bennett? Maybe not so many. I think there are a number of reasons for this but the main one is that he is a quintessentially English playwright. Not only that but a quintessentially Northern playwright and there’s definitely a sense of the parochial about his work. To others, however, he is now regarded as perhaps the premier English dramatist of his generation. He is to theatre, and in particular television drama, what Larkin, another Northerner, was to poetry; both draw attention to the plight of ordinariness. I was not surprised to find out that Bennett is an admirer of Larkin’s work. I’ve rarely seen a photo of either man where they aren’t wearing a hound dog expressions and each of them has a voice to match; lugubrious, world-weary.

Neither are jokey writers. Their humour is dry, deadpan. In one of Larkin’s best-known works, ‘Church Going’, a man enters an empty church:

                                         Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

The opening line of Bennett’s television play, Bed Among the Lentils, a vicar’s wife, played by Maggie Smith, opens with this line:

Geoffrey’s bad enough, but I’m glad I’m not married to Jesus.

Neither line is played for laughs, simply stated, almost in passing.

Trying to define ‘Northern’ humour is a difficult thing. There are Northern comics who stand on stages and tell victoriawood gags (Bernard Manning) or present long observational monologues (Victoria Wood) but they’re doing a job of work. I’m talking about the humour of the man and woman in the street. A lot of the time they’ll say things that are funny and don’t react and the people around them don’t react and you’re left wondering if they meant to be funny. An example:

Lil went into the restaurant an' asked for a coffee. The waiter asked if she wanted black or white. Her response? “I'll have black wi' milk in."

Was she being funny? Probably not intentionally.

The North is a cultural region rather than a government administrative region; it’s an amalgamation of counties stretching from the River Trent in the south up to the border with Scotland. It’s where those “dark Satanic Mills” Blake wrote about are. The North is where the working class, the salt of the earth and the unwashed masses all North-South live. So it’s a bit crowded. The thing is they’ve been looked down or (or felt they were looked down on) for so long, that they’ve come to have a bit of a chip on their shoulders when it comes to anything that remotely tries to be above itself; they want to cut it down to size, even something as seemingly innocuous as a white coffee. A white coffee’s just a posh name for a black coffee with milk in it.

Northerners are down to earth people. They call a spade a spade and they shovel shit with it. In her book, The Wit and Wisdom of the North, author Rosemarie Jarski has this to say about Northern humour:

Northern humour is above all the humour of recognition. Northern comedians don't try to be cleverer or smarter than us. Southern comics tell us how they got one over on someone; Northern comics tell us what a prat they made of themselves.

There are no airs and graces and any attempts at one-upmanship invariably come to nothing. They are one of us.

Northern humour elicits empathy. When Ernie Wise tells Eric Morecambe to bugger off and we watch Eric cross the back of the stage, with his suitcase and dressed in that raincoat and flat cap he’s very, very funny . . . but our les1 hearts also go out to him. And the same goes for the downtrodden comic persona of Les Dawson:

Remember, no matter how bad things get, there's always someone worse off than yourself – me.

For a long time British theatre and literature ignored the North but in the late fifties and sixties with the advent of the kitchen sink drama suddenly Britons found themselves exposed to ultra-realistic dramas set, not in country homes, but in two up, two downs and working men’s pubs, with plays like John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, books like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and films like A Taste of Honey grabbing the public’s consciousness by the lapels and shaking it.

While all this was shaking was going on a quiet, bright boy from Leeds was working his way through a degree in history at Oxford University; he’d applied for a scholarship because his parents didn’t have the money to pay his tuition fees. While there he somehow managed to get involved with the unlikely trio of Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook who, along with Bennett, were to gain international success writing and performing in the satirical revue Beyond the Fringe. Afterwards his cohorts moved off into what became very successful careers in entertainment leaving Bennett to settle down to teach Medieval History before realising he wasn’t cut out to be an academic either whereupon he following the other three into television.

Beyond the Fringe - The English Way of Death (1960)

His first success as a TV writer has to be the short series, On the Margin a hotchpotch of cutting-edge comedy, leavened with serious interludes of original music and, of all things, poetry by John Betjeman and Philip Larkin. Again, Bennett, now writing alone for the most part, was in a satirical frame of mind and yet he managed, and always has managed, to tread that surprisingly fine line between cringeworthy patriotism and flat out treason. Both subjects interested him, in fact in later years, two of his best-known plays, An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution each dealt with traitors, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt respectively. Both of these are complex men, the former who insists on projecting the outward appearance of an English gentleman whilst living in exile in a shabby flat in Moscow (played to perfection by a wintery Dundee) and the latter, who has managed to win “immunity from MI5 but, a Cambridge man through and through, won’t stoop to betray any of his comrades”[1] and is finally let loose to be ravaged by the British press.

Possibly the highlight of these two particular plays would be the razor-sharp conversation between Blunt and a droll Queen Elizabeth II (simply H.M.Q. as the credits refer to her), played by Prunella Scales. Pure Noël Coward. With a dash of Pinter for good measure. Hard to imagine the son of a butcher from Leeds wrote this.

A Question of Attribution (1991)

One of the most abiding themes in Bennett’s work was to be one of nostalgia, a mourning for an England which if it ever truly existed has now certainly gone forever. While Bennett was flirting with the television world he was also having a fling with theatreland. His first West End play was called Forty Years On, set in a British public school called Albion House, which is putting on an end of term play in front of the parents, i.e. the audience, in which the boys demonstrate the ways in which the country has declined since the end of the First World War. "Mark my words," says the headmaster, "when a society has to resort to the lavatory for its humour, the writing is on the wall." The headmaster was played by John Gielgud, one of the greatest stage actors of the twentieth century, and only the first of a long line of highly accomplished actors who have given life to his characters. These have included Alec Guinness, Alan Bates and Daniel Day-Lewis but it is in his portrayal of women that he excels.

The changing face of England is something Bennett also explores in his first proper TV play, A Day Out, filmed in black and white in 1972, just after colour TV became widely available. It is the most understated piece of writing. It shows a day in the life of the members of a Halifax cycling club in 1911, following them from the town to the ruins of Fountains Abbey and eavesdropping on their conversations. They ride there, they ride back. There is a brief, almost wordless, coda where the action jumps ahead to after the war and we witness the survivors of this group standing before the newly erected war memorial. It is the only one of his plays specifically written in a West Yorkshire dialect despite the fact that most of his TV plays are set there.

A Day Out (1972)

A Day Out sets the tone for much of his work for the seventies although he started to concentrate on contemporary issues rather than the historical typified by his next TV play, Sunset Across the Bay, which centres on an elderly couple (similar to, but not based on, Bennett’s own parents) who leave their native Leeds to spend their retirement in Morecambe, only to find that it fails to measure up to their expectations – or their memories.

But they know that returning to Leeds is impossible. Their world has vanished literally as well as metaphorically, their last sight of the street they inhabited for decades being that of the houses starting to be demolished. They don't want to move forward but they can't move back, so they remain in a limbo that's only interrupted by Dad's unexpected but banal death in a gentleman's lavatory that Mam, properly, refuses to enter even when it's clear that something's badly wrong.[2]

The irony here is that Bennett’s own father died just before filming began which left him with a feeling of “involuntary prediction ... having written my father’s death I had helped to occasion it;”[3] life following art for once.

There is a tendency to skip over this period in Bennett’s career which I’m also going to do, mainly because probably the last time I saw any of these plays was thirty-odd years ago besides there is so much else to cover. This is a shame because this period of writing for TV is often referred to as a “golden age”. One of my earliest blogs talked about strands like commercial television’s Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and the BBC's The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Play for Today (1970-84) and the fact that (cue Northern accent) they don’t write plays like what they used t’do. Why is this stuff not being repeated or even remade?

Both A Day Out and Sunset Across the Bay have one thing in common, the fact that their characters fail to articulate their feelings even when they do talk. This is a common thread in Bennett’s writing even in Talking Heads where his actors barely have a moment to catch their breath (I exaggerate) before plunging into another eleven or twelve minute take. Bennett’s people talk a lot but only say what they mean in between the lines or we realise, from a look in the actor’s eye or from their tone, that when they’re saying one thing they mean something else entirely.

It’s over this time period that the ‘Alan Bennett character’ begins to take form. When, in 1985, five of his TV plays were published, they came out under the title, The Writer in Disguise, alluding to the fact that in so many of his plays you can identify one particular male character with him. Occasionally he casts himself:

I can ... see that the central figure in a lot of my television plays is the same. He's a vague, rather melancholy, rather troubled figure, not having much fun, and he's not actually much fun to write, as distinct from the characters surrounding him, who one has a great deal of fun with.[4]

Intensive Care (1982)

Despite beginning his career writing comedy sketches none of Bennett’s plays or film scripts are really what you’d think of as comedies, with the possible exception of A Private Function and even there the humour is subdued. It’s a film full of gentle wit, eccentric characters and a complete lack of glamour and romance and as such was never destined to be a blockbuster especially since it lacks the requisite happy ending. A diarrhoeic pig probably never helped. Again the core of the film is nostalgia:

In a small Northern English town in 1947 the citizens endure continuing food rationing in the United Kingdom. Some local businessmen want to hold a party to celebrate the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip and illegally decide to raise a pig for that occasion. However the pig is stolen by Gilbert Chilvers who was encouraged to do so by his wife Joyce. Meanwhile a food inspector is determined to stop activities circumventing the food rationing. – Wikipedia

In this film, the Michael Palin character clearly is “the writer in disguise.”

Everyone has a time they look back to with affection. With me it’s the 1970s and yet the simple fact is that wasn’t a particularly happy period in the UK’s history either. Surprisingly Bennett has railed against being nostalgic for the England of his childhood. In Writing Home he maintains:

I do not long for the world as it was when I was a child. I do not long for the person I was in that world. I do not want to be the person I am now in that world then. None of the forms nostalgia can take fits. I found childhood boring. I was glad it was over.

The film, ostensibly a star vehicle for Michael Palin, featured an embarrassment of British acting talent. Palin’s co-star was the actress Maggie Smith, now Dame Maggie. She, among others, like Dame Thora Hird and Patricia Routledge (only a CBE there I’m afraid) have been drawn Talking Heads back to Bennett’s work time and again. It’s Maggie Smith who plays Susan, the vicar’s wife, and the only character in the play I mention at the beginning of this article. Only it’s not really a play, it’s a dramatic monologue, the third of Bennett’s first Talking Heads series; there were two, one in 1987, the second in 1999. The pieces have since been broadcast on BBC Radio, performed in live theatre, and included on the A-level and GCSE English Literature syllabus. A few episodes also found their way onto PBS in the United States as part of its Masterpiece Theatre programme. They are arguably his best-known and most popular work.

I’ve seen both series of Talking Heads twice, some episodes, like the famous Thora Hird vehicle, A Cream Cracker Under the Settee, several times. Of the twelve only two feature men, one in series one, played by Bennett himself, the second, in series two, played by David Haig. Bennett’s character is Graham in A Chip in the Sugar, a repressed homosexual with a history of mild mental health problems who lives with his aged and controlling mother (yet another of his “writer in disguise” guises); Haig takes on the difficult job of bringing humanity to a reformed paedophile living under a false identity and working as a much-praised maintenance man in a public park.

What is surprising is that Bennett manages to take characters like the aforementioned traitors or, as in his recent film, The History Boys (an adaptation of his stage play), the obese teacher Hector whose crushes on the sixth year boys he teaches are only tolerated by the rest of the school staff only as long as he can keep his hands more of less to himself. These are not necessarily likeable  characters but they are three-dimensional characters. Hector is a zealous teacher, less interested in preparing the boys in his charge to pass exams, than he is in igniting a passion for learning in HistoryBoys_Poster290them. His sexual predilections are just one aspect of who he is. Bennett is not condoning the school’s inattentiveness; he is telling it as he’s seen it. The wayward professor features regularly in Hollywood films. Usually they’re chasing girls or drinking themselves into the ground and often a blind eye is turned to their weaknesses as long as there’s no bad press. When Hector oversteps the mark, he’s let go. "A grope's a grope," as teacher Mrs. Lintott says when this revelation comes out. If the play has one major fault it’s the fact that he sets it in the eighties when attitudes were beginning to change; it would have worked better in the sixties perhaps since clearly a lot of Bennett’s own history is incorporated into this satire; in this play the “writer in disguise” is actually one of the schoolboys, Posner.

For the record Bennett is gay but he’s not a gay playwright in the way Orton was. Far from it. In fact for many years he refused to be drawn on the subject. When Sir Ian McKellen once pressed him publicly on the subject all Bennett would say in response was: “That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water.” He finally did come out, quietly and hoping, I expect, for the minimum of fuss. He’s not big on fuss. He’s also a man, not unlike Woody Allen who I’ll come back to later, who managed, at least for a great many years, to exercise a considerable level of control over his public image. They’ve both tackled this the same way by hiding in plain view. Bennett, always a wonderful performer, created, in his own image, the eternal provincial scholarship boy, face pressed against the window of metropolitan life, and passed it off as himself in exactly the same way as Woody Allen convinced us that the stammering neurotic he so often played onscreen was really him. Even with his parents Bennett played a part.

'Our Alan's like us,' Mam would say, 'Shy.' And it is both boast and excuse, but with the pride uppermost, because though shyness is an elusive virtue there is no doubt in my mother’s mind that it is a virtue, or at least has merit attaching to it.[5]

Bennett went along with this, in part because it was a description that allowed him and his parents to circumnavigate his homosexuality. It was easier to be thought of as shy than gay. He’s probably less of a shy man than he is a private man and he insists he’s not a nice man[6] but no one’s buying that.

Bennett on Bennett – Shy (2009)

Many of Bennett’s characters are a poor fit. They’re not necessarily outsiders but they’re not comfortable in their own skins and are people we wouldn’t automatically feel comfortable around. It’s not surprising to discover that he would be attracted to one particular “nonbelonger” – Franz Kafka, a “German-speaking Czech who was neither Christian nor Jew.”[7] He writes about him in two plays, The Insurance Man and Kafka’s Dick. The latter is an unusual one in Bennett’s canon in that it abandons realism and resurrects Kafka and his friend Max Brod in the present day where the two of them pay a visit on Sydney, a Yorkshire-dwelling Kafka aficionado. Since Kafka died before Brod he has no idea that his friend disobeyed his instructions to destroy all his works and that he is now world famous because of this. Later on Kafka’s overbearing father also appears.

In his introduction to the two plays Bennett calls Hermann Kafka one of the many “Parents of Art”[8] and quotes from Larkin’s poem ‘This Be the Verse’:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

explaining that if they “bring up a child and he turns out a writer, posterity never forgives them – though without that unfortunate upbringing the writer might never have written a word. They bring up a child well and he never does write a word. Do it right and posterity never hears about the parents; do it wrong and posterity never hears about anything else.”[9]

Being Alan Bennett (2009)

The “dick” in the title is Kafka’s penis. “Whereas Hermann’s penis was large, Franz’s was small, and he was self-conscious about it.”[10] It is a complex play but what ties all four characters together is guilt.

Bennett didn’t have a domineering father. His dad was also deemed to be a shy man. If his parents are to be accused of anything it’s probably coddling and the biggest guilty party there would be his mother.

The Insurance Man is “[a] black comedy about corporate bad faith”[11] and focuses on exploring what the term “Kafakaesque” really means, “the psychological and spiritual burdens of surviving in a bureaucracy whose one survival depends on acts of cruelty and absurdity.”[12] In this play Kafka is not the main character; Franz, a young employee in a dye works is. There is no mention even that Kafka is a writer; we only see his everyday life working as an employee of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. Of course, ‘Franz’ and ‘Kafka’ are doppelgängers, different sides to the writer. They spend much of the play apart. Bennett is here stating plainly that a writer often is a person who has to function in the world just like everyone else. I get that completely. In no job I’ve ever had have people thought of me as ‘Jimmy the writer’. ‘Franz’ represents the writer’s private world.

The Insurance Man (1986)

When The South Bank Show did a show on Kafka in 1988, Bennett made this note in his diary:

Watch the The South Bank Show on Kafka [Bennett has a tendency to drop the personal pronoun], which fails in the customary mistakes, Tim Roth playing Joseph K, in the usual style – blank-faced, anonymous, cosmic. There are long, featureless corridors and lofty rooms, distorted camera angles and all that, and, though the actual trial is set in an attic, as it should be, it’s an attic so vast it could be a tithe barn.

The mistake in dramatising Kafka is always the same (and we didn’t manage wholly to sidestep it in The Insurance Man): actors and directors don’t play the text, they play the implications of the text. So Joseph K., instead of just being a bank clerk, wrongly accused, becomes emblematic of everyone who has been accused. What Kafka writes is a naturalistic account of ordinary behaviour, and that is what actors should play and let the implications take care of themselves. Directors similarly. Or, as Arthur Miller says somewhere, ‘Just play the text, not what it reminds you of.’[13]

In a later diary entry (5th April 2002) he adds:

Kafka dealt with the world as he found it and didn’t dress it up (or down) to suit him.[14]

You can say that too about Bennett particularly in the Talking Heads which I’ll discuss more in Part Two.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, Bennett’s characters are often people we would not want to spend much (or indeed any) time with. He has also taken note of the number of “maimed and stigmatised characters who have turned up in [his] plays over the years.”[15]

The prevalence of the damaged and disabled says something about me. It’s not, as I might like to pretend, a plea for sympathy and understanding for the handicapped; this doesn’t really come into it. However irritating and unfair it may seem to the actually disabled, these characters turn up out of a sense of identification because I do not think it is fanciful to suppose writing itself a form of disablement; it’s certainly a handicap when it comes to getting on with things, writing in some sense a substitute for doing.

Roaring, which you occasionally do in the ordinary world with laughter, in Leeds means also to cry, ‘Don’t start roaring’ a warning to a child to fetch it back from the brink of tears. I roared a lot when I was a child – out of shame, rage or simply because I couldn’t see any other way out. Now, I suppose, the writing has replaced the roaring but the reasons are much the same.[16]

Part Two



[1] Steve Vineberg, ‘Duets and Solos: The Pleasures of Alan Bennett’, Threepenny Review, p. 24

[2] Michael Brooke, Sunset Across the Bay (1975), Screenonline

[3] Alan Bennett, Me, I'mAfraid of Virginia Wolff, p. 55

[4] Interview with Martyn Auty at the National Film Theatre on 19 Sept 1984 reproduced in The Guardian

[5] Alan Bennett, Untold Stories, p. 147

[6] William Langley, ‘Alan Bennett: A writer who endures an embarrassment of talents’, Daily Telegraph, 21 Feb 2010

[7] Peter Wolfe, Understanding Alan Bennett, p. 85

[8] Alan Bennett, Two Kafka Plays: "Kafka's Dick" and "The Insurance Man", p. xiii

[9] Ibid

[10] Peter Wolfe, Understanding Alan Bennett, p. 90

[11] Ibid, p. 103

[12] Ibid, p. 105

[13] Alan Bennett, Writing Home, pp. 226, 227

[14] Alan Bennett, Untold Stories, p. 308

[15] Ibid, p. 551

[16] Ibid, p. 552

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