Alan Bennett’s ‘Untold Stories’ – reviewed

For some strange reason, I’ve allowed myself to be invited to a book club. Perhaps I thought, as Otherphil did, that it was a front for a swingers club. I was even less overjoyed to find that not only was the book one that I would never, in a million years have picked off the shelf (which I suppose is the whole point of book clubs), but I had a little over three weeks to read it!

Alan Bennett must be a very intersting person and I think I was aware of his early involvement with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and John Cleese in “Beyond the Fringe”. The trouble is, I’ve always been turned off by the snippets of his work I’ve heard before. They always seem to be about mundane upbringings and uninspiring characters (often himself). So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up my copy of “Untold Stories” and began to read.

The first one hundred or so pages relate some of the characters and his family during his formative years, but in essence, they are entirely about death; the death, one-by-one of his parents and aunts, or at least the relentless progress towards their death. Perhaps this is why the vibes Alan gives off are so gloomy! To be fair, his use of language is good (although not as good as Wodehouse) and he did make me laugh out loud while on the 17:52 from London Bridge. Any book that makes me chortle on a packed commuter train deserves some pluadits as I feel that it makes others think that I am either having a far more enjoyable life than they are, or am completely mad, both of which are preferable to the tedium of the rat race.

After that, the middle part of the book is devoted to extracts from his diaries which don’t seem to have any overriding theme other than a passion for visiting churches and name dropping. Unfortunately I’m not well enough read to make sense of his more intellectual observations about Wittgenstien or Harold Pinter etc. I suppose the name dropping is excusable as the general audience for a book by Alan Bennett is likely to be the sycophantic, pseudo-intellectual crowd who’ll want his place among the greats validated. Of course my own ‘diaries’, namely this blog, aren’t exactly going to set the world alight, but then I don’t make my living doing this kind of stuff!

If the last third of the book has anything worthy, I’ll be sure to mention it. In the meantime, I wonder if Alan, having achieved the kind of noteriety and social position that his parents secretly dreamed of (but would have been too shy to embrace), has discovered that it does not make life any more meaningful than the humdrum existence experienced by the rest of us.

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