Sat Jun 28, 2003

Writing Home

I picked up Alan Bennett’s Writing Home last night. It was first published about ten years ago. I remember reading the reviews, and even seeing it in a Waterstone’s in Cork at one point. But I never read it, and now I realise this was a big mistake. Luckily, it’s just been reissued (and updated) in the U.S.

The book is a collection of Bennett’s occasional writings, diaries and reviews. Sandwiched in the middle is “The Lady in the Van,” a long account of an eccentric woman who lived for years in a van in Bennett’s garden. His sensibility is acute and tinged with melancholy. He is also very funny. This morning I opened it at random and read his diary entry for December 7th, 1983:

To a party at the Department of the History of Medicine at University College. I talk to Alan Tyson … [W]hen Mrs Thatcher came to the college for a scientific symposium Tyson was deputed to take her round the Common Room. This is hung with portraits and photographs of dead fellows, including one of the economist G.D.H. Cole. Tyson planned to take Mrs Thatcher up to it saying, “And this, Prime Minister, is a former fellow, G.D.H. Dole.” Whereupon, with luck, Mrs Thatcher would have had to say “Cole, not Dole.” In the event he did take her round but lost his nerve.

If you poke them a bit (and maybe buy them a few drinks), many academics will confess to sometimes feeling like impostors perenially threatened with humiliating exposure. It’s part of the transition from being forced to take exams to forcing others to take them. A few pages before the Thatcher story, in his entry for May 9th, Bennett puts his finger on a related and familiar anxiety.

James Fenton has been recruited by the Times and today reviews Peter Nichols’s autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind. Feeling you’re behind is a feeling I share, though Fenton professes to be mystified by it. Nichols has written many excellent plays, Fenton protests; he is well thought of, prosperous, but at fifty-seven confesses to feeling that nothing he has done is much good. In Nicols Fenton finds this ridiculous, though not presumably in Kafka, whose thoughts in much the same vein have made him revered. But Nichols is not Kafka. Precisely. That is what he is on about.

“Feeling you’re behind” is what Erving Goffman would have called a “leaky utterance.” You’d want to be careful using that phrase on the radio. Later on in Writing Home, Bennett reviews Goffman’s Forms of Talk, which contains a litany of leaks culled from Radio and TV bloopers. These range from the ignorable (“She’ll be performing selections from the Bach Well-Tempered Caviar”) to the embarrassing (“Good evening and welcome to the Canadian Broadcorping Castration”) to the catastrophic (“Tonight I am going to consider the films of Alfred Hitchcack … cock!CACK!). “Sociology begins in the dustbin,” Bennett comments, “and sociologists have always been licensed rag-and-bone men trundling their carts round the backyeards of the posher academic establishments.” He brilliantly summarizes Goffman’s approach by extending a line of Auden’s just a little: “We must love one another or die—of embarrassment.”

Those were just three bits that caught my eye. Go look for yourself. There’s plenty more.