Friday, 9 May 2014

Don't call him "a National Treasure"

“Books are not about passing time. They're about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand.”

“Sometimes there is no next time, no time-outs, no second chances. Sometimes it’s now or never.”

“Life is rather like a tin of sardines - we're all of us looking for the key.”

"Mark my words, when a society has to resort to the lavatory for its humour, the writing is on the wall."

"If you think squash is a competitive activity, try flower arranging."

Alan Bennett - "don't call him 'a National Treasure'; he won't like it," as Frances de la Tour says - is a man Francis Wheen once described as “the nation’s favourite teddy bear”. He (and the nation) celebrates his 80th birthday today.

Tom de Lisle in Intelligent Life described him perfectly:
A founding father of modern British satire in Beyond the Fringe, a master of the television play with Talking Heads, a pillar of the National Theatre with The History Boys, an affable memoirist with Untold Stories and a sardonic diarist on the London Review of Books.

He was a bright boy - a butcher’s son from near Leeds who went to Oxford, got a first and taught history - but a shy one. He was 26 when he took up comedy (via cod sermons) and 34 when he wrote his first play, Forty Years On. The history never melted away: he has turned George III, Auden, Britten, Burgess and Blunt into drama, and led the way in putting words in the Queen’s mouth. He has survived cancer, recorded Winnie the Pooh, given his papers to the Bodleian ("in gratitude to the nanny state") and campaigned for less famous libraries. He is an old leftie beloved of conservatives, a cosy uncle whose pen is a double-edged sword.

When asked by Sir Ian McKellen in 1997 whether he was heterosexual or homosexual, he famously said: "That's a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water." Nonetheless, he and his partner of twenty years (journalist Rupert Thomas, editor of World of Interiors) "tied the knot" once civil partnerships became law. From an article by Mark Lawson in the Radio Times:
As with much in his life, Bennett’s own civil partnership provoked a comic anecdote. “I’d written about how my parents got married at eight in the morning and then my dad went to work and my mam went home. And I think they went to see The Desert Song in the evening.”

Eight decades later, although Alan and Rupert were among the couples making social history, family history weirdly repeated itself - minus a screening of the movie. “There were just one or two people there, relatives of Rupert. And we couldn’t think of what to do afterwards so we were going to have some coffee and we couldn’t find anywhere. Eventually, we did get some coffee, but that was it. So it was a replay of my parents’ marriage. But it wasn’t a landmark because sometimes we can’t even remember the date of it. At Camden Register Office at that time they were trying to jazz things up a bit. They said, ‘Do you want flowers?’ and we said not really. ‘Do you want music?’ Not really. Disappointment on every score.”
Alan Bennett will be celebrated in a special interview with Sir Nicholas Hytner, to be broadcast at 9pm on BBC4 tomorrow (10th May 2014). A direct clash with the Eurovision Song Contest. Alan probably loves that idea.

Alan Bennett (born 9th May 1934)


  1. If I can't call him 'a National Treasure,' may I call Sir David Attenborough a national treasure?


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