Alan Bennett: ‘I blame Brexit on Mrs Thatcher, the Tories were not to be trusted’
PUBLISHED: 08:00 27 October 2016 | UPDATED: 10:11 31 October 2016
Ahead of his live broadcast from his local library in Primrose Hill, Liz Thomson talks to the writer about his latest memoirs, class, education, allotments, the ‘nastification of Britain,’ and trying not to turn into an ‘old git’
A sturdy old-fashioned bike, saddle swaddled against the rain, marks the spot where Alan Bennett lives. One of the colour-washed houses opposite was “home” to the Brown family and the world’s most famous adoptee in Paddington.
Primrose Hill has been home to the playwright and his partner Rupert Thomas for some years now, though he still owns the house in Gloucester Crescent where Miss Shepherd was given refuge.
Neighbours there included Jonathan Miller and Mary-Kay Wilmers, whose nanny, Nina Stibbe, gave Bennett a starring (if inaccurate) role in Love, Nina.
Bennett likes the neighbourhood. “I don’t go along with people calling it ‘The Village’, but people do speak and it’s a friendly place. Such stupid things happen: we had a really useful organic shop and because the lease was so expensive it went. The place now does face lifts. Charity shops are creeping like fungi, the same with estate agents.”
Our chat is the fifth in a series of encounters that began in the mid-nineties, when Bennett published his first volume of memoirs. Keeping On Keeping On, his latest outing, combines highlights of his 2005-15 diaries with miscellaneous writings.
Reading it you’re in the company of an old friend, one who, since notching up his biblical three-score years and 10, seems more at ease with himself.
The book’s span includes four National Theatre premieres and the film of The Lady in the Van. Less happily, it also includes the Iraq war, Labour’s defeat and the coming of coalition and, finally, the Conservative victory which led inexorably to Brexit. Bennett’s discomfiture and anger is palpable throughout.
“I blame it all on Mrs Thatcher”, he says several times during our chat, regretting the end of consensus politics.
That the Liberal Democrats went in to coalition was inconceivable from the outset: “The Tories are not to be trusted – you knew they would just take advantage.” The LibDem failure to secure proportional representation was the last straw.
While Blair is “hard to forgive”, Cameron is “contemptible”. As to Theresa May, “we’ll see”. Though not a party member, last year he’d have voted for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, feeling he better represented the aspirations of the people. This year he equivocates: “Let’s see how things turn out.”
Not surprisingly, Bennett has been active in the campaign to save local libraries, including Primrose Hill, and was happy to support Occupy’s campers at St Paul’s.
As to Brexit, “I’m surprised, but then so was everybody else. Little England, I hate the notion. The sense of helplessness is new, the fact that there’s nothing you can do about it, or it seems there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Education is the issue about which he’s most passionate. That students are “saddled with these enormous debts is just monstrous.” It is, he believes, “the mark of a civilised society that you do not think: who’s going to pay for my education?”
Had he been required to take a loan, he would not have gone to university. It’s “a standing rebuke” that Scotland still provides free education. As to public schools, Bennett believes their charitable status should go and that public and state schools be amalgamated at sixth-form level – a move that would negate the “need” for grammars.
The iniquities of private education were the subject of a sermon delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in June 2014, when Bennett declared: “to say that nothing is fair is not an answer”.
Class, and a reluctance to dilute the advantages of a private education, are the problem, he says: “I can understand the Etonians saying they refuse to feel guilty, but it’s a waste, that’s what’s wrong with it.
People are wasted; they don’t reach their full capacities. And not to reach your full capacities because your parents are in the wrong position is dreadful.”
In the sermon, Bennett suggested that if something isn’t fair, “then maybe it’s not Christian either”. So is it possible to be Conservative and Christian? “If I said no the shit would really hit the fan!” He giggles. “I don’t know; I’m not competent to say that.”
The book is suffused with Bennett’s compassion and humanity, his distress that “fair play” is no longer what Britain is about, be it the persecution of Charles Kennedy for drinking; the lack of justice for Jean-Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and other victims of police misdemeanours; even for Abu Hamza who, however “reprehensible”, is a British citizen who should not have been extradited.
Lansley’s abolition of the NHS leaves him aghast.
He writes of “the nastification of Britain”, of “ideology masquerading as pragmatism”. The BBC, who helped nurture his own talent, is not immune. The Big Allotment Challenge was a particular affront: “Allotments are cooperative enterprises, not competitive – except for marrows. That business of saying someone’s not as good as someone else – I just hate it.”
Keeping On Keeping On is not all angst and upset. There are wonderful character sketches (Alan Clark “began life as a used car dealer and though with a silver spanner in his mouth remained one”) and thoughts and aperçus fill the book, the serious and the silly cheek by jowl.
In the Vatican Museum, Bennett conjures up an image that could come from a Donald McGill seaside postcard, eyeing “a Michelangelo hulk – hunk, too, probably once upon a time – thighs and crotch that has lost its cock but kept its scrotum.”
The self-portrait begun in Writing Home is ever more detailed, vignettes offering glimpses of life with Rupert: visiting old churches, rummaging in antique shops and communing with nature, perhaps in search of mushrooms or blackberries – something of a surprise given the urban nature of Bennett’s work. Creatures great and small gambol throughout the pages. Hens, he notes, “don’t repay affection”.
We discover a shared love of donkeys, he regretting he’s never kept one.
“I used to go and stay with Alec and Merula Guinness and there was a donkey in their field,” Bennett recalls. “I remember once feeling very low and I was sat in this field and the donkey came and licked my head. That was a blessing, really. They seem such benevolent creatures.”
The word sums up Bennett, but he’s worried becoming an “old git”. “I hope I’m saved from the worst of it by Rupert, who’s thirty years younger than I am. He pulls me up if I’m too old and gittish.” As if.
Keeping On Keeping On by Alan Bennett is published by Profile Books and Faber, £20 hardback.
Alan Bennett’s Diaries Live will be broadcast live to UK cinemas from Primrose Hill Community Library on November 16. For more information and to book tickets visit alanbennettlive.co.uk