A Writer’s Review of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.
“Goes to the very heart of what literature does.”
ALAN Bennett has made a career out of writing about ordinary people, in fact he seems embroiled in a competition with himself to ‘out-ordinary’ his cast of characters who fade into the wallpaper, noticing the dust and fingerprints on the skirting board as they disappear.
From his gripping Talking Heads series to the divine ordinariness of memoirs about his Yorkshire family in Untold Stories, this has been a fascinating journey into the humour and pathos of the seemingly mundane.
At the other end of his oeuvre sits Bennett’s ruminations on those most would class as ‘extra’-ordinary, most notably in Bennett’s stage- and screenplay The Madness of George III, famously altered to The Madness of King George at the cinema so as not to confuse US audiences about having missed I and II in the series, a ‘Bennettian’ twist if ever there was one.
Written a decade later, The Uncommon Reader is a beguiling companion piece to that previous study of royal character and frailty. Like King George, Queen Elizabeth II is quickly overtaken by something those around her consider madness after a fashion, when she exhibits a surprising appetite to read, and read voraciously.
As the novella’s protagonist, Elizabeth proves every bit as plucky, observant and youthful as a Jane Austen heroine. Reading affords her a sense of escapism and leads her to seek connections with those around her.
But a pervading sense of regret waits around every corner for Her Majesty. As literature becomes the great companion that Bennett observes is missing from this privileged life, it comes with a realisation of enormous opportunities missed.
In this regard, the Queen becomes less Lizzie Bennet and more like the central protagonist in one of Bennett’s monologues, which I’ll speculatively title Mrs Mountbatten Turns Over a New Leaf, in honour of how his characters always seem to find the key to reaching out.
Whether they manage to turn that key – and thereby escape their circumstances – is the rich seam of Bennett’s tragicomic style, and there are some stark differences between the journey of Queen Elizabeth and the classic Talking Heads mix of self-delusion of characters who tend to remain in their comfort zones.
The Uncommon Reader is a divine little diversion, but don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity.
This book goes to the very heart of what literature does, and how it has the potential to change the world through opening hearts and minds.
NEWS sites are getting harder to access for free of late. Paywalls are up and apparently profitable for News Corp and Fairfax. Crikey has had one for years and last year Wendy Harmer’s flagship site The Hoopla shut the gate on free reads with its 34-cent per day subscription.
“Some of our most enduring book titles are in the Murdoch stable.”
Media-hungry online consumers are faced with a choice about where to get value for our money, but despite there being much more on offer than the old Fairfax vs Murdoch choice, the landscape is still dominated by these two big players.
This doesn’t matter if we’re not interested in reading anything published by the mainstream media. After all, progressive digital online media consumers have standards, right?
Since I started participating in the social media I’ve seen plenty of lashes given to News Limited (the former name of News Corp). The bumper stickers: “Is that true, or did you read it in the (insert your state’s Murdoch daily/weekly)?” did the rounds. We all had a laugh and a chuckle, and called them ‘News Corpse’ when they changed names in 2013.
Seems newspaper reading is as much of a team sport as politics. Media hubs tend to pick sides on the major issues, and we follow their leads willingly.
But here in Queensland we’re hard-pressed to secure any kind of Fairfax title at a service station or shopping centre. If there are any copies of The Sydney Morning Herald or The Financial Review left by late morning, they’re down there in the shadow of the enormous stack of The Courier Mail which dominates the newsstands. I asserted as much on Twitter once and got rather angry responses from disbelieving right-wingers in the southern states, even after I posted the photographs which proved my point.
We have The Brisbane Times, a Queensland-focused online Fairfax news site (with no paywall as yet), but online news sites do not ‘hit the stands’ where three-word slogans are concerned.
Clearly, Rupert rules the newsstands in Queensland, where voting habits tend to support his team, but what if I told you the coffee tables, magazine racks, DVD collections and bookshelves of staunch anti-Murdoch slacktivists across the country would reveal reading habits and literary choices replete with Rupert?
News Corp (and News Limited before it) is a lateral-thinking publishing company, not limited to news print or online hubs. Some of their lifestyle choices may shock you, from Gardening Australia magazine to MasterChef.
Movie production and DVD publishing are also a great forums for Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox empire striking back, so check your purchases of the Star Wars franchise if you want to be a Murdoch-free household.
Literature is not off the hook either. Some of our most enduring book titles are in the Murdoch stable. Lemony Snicket was borne of HarperCollins publishing in the years after 1989, when Murdoch acquired the company, along with the publishing rights of J.R.R. Tolkien. Who knew? Gandalf and Gollum turned team Murdoch!
I’m far from innocent, I hasten to add. The first job I managed to secure after a year of postgraduate study in the United Kingdom was a temp position at the enormous HarperCollins office in Hammersmith, west London, as a mail despatch boy pushing his trolley all day for a month in the late English winter of 1993.
Off the despatch room, entire skips of remaindered books sat outside, and we mail boys were allowed to take whatever we wanted before the contents went off to landfill. I retrieved plenty of Murdoch-owned titles by the likes of Janet Frame and C.S. Lewis.
My first freelance journalism income came from TheWeekend Australian, when I managed to sell two stories to the Weekend Professional section. I’m acutely aware that for certain social media purists, me getting 75 cents per word from Rupert Murdoch is tantamount to betrayal.
Great English playwright Alan Bennett, the quietly spoken Yorkshireman who gave us The Madness of King George and The History Boys, had much higher standards than me when he made an admirable stand against Rupert Murdoch in 1998.
Offered an honorary degree by Oxford University, Bennett wrote to the institution which had accepted him (to read history) and Rupert Murdoch (to read philosophy, politics and economics) in the 1950s, to explain why he would have to decline due to the university’s creation of the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Communications, funded by the graduate himself.
Being a playwright, Bennett added his own brand of literary flair for the Vice Chancellor: “If the university thinks it’s appropriate to take Rupert Murdoch’s money perhaps they ought to approach Saddam Hussein to found a chair in Peace Studies.”
Bennett had more cause than me for Murdoch disdain, having watched his friend – British television personality Russell Harty – exposed in The News of the World for alleged association with rent boys.
At Harty’s 1988 funeral, Bennett delivered a eulogy which revealed how Murdoch-employed reporters harangued his friend in his hospital room. They were after a ‘Harty Has AIDS’ headline, but they did not find it. ‘Harty Has Hepatitis’ would have had a better (and more factual) ring to it. Bennett is surely gleeful at the demise of The News of the World 15 years on, its criminal invasions of privacy the cause.
So, where does all this leave the average punter who doesn’t want to line Rupert’s pockets with purchases of online subscriptions, books, DVDs, movie tickets and the like?
To avoid new versions of Murdoch’s HarperCollins titles, your local second-hand bookshop would be a great start. Old mags are piling up in op-shops – try them for back issues of Rupert titles like Inside Out and Donna Hay magazine.
For news, perhaps fork out for a subscription to the non-Murdoch source of your choice. Try one of the indies, or make a donation to No Fibs.
Going to the movies and buying DVDs is going to be fraught with potential hypocrisy – do your research in the broad-ranging licensing network of Murdoch’s media empire.
Or you could just get over it and accept that somewhere, somehow, if you read you’re probably going to be lining Rupert’s pockets, even just a little.
Don’t feel bad, just don’t take it out on Bilbo Baggins – like the cornered Luke Skywalker, he’s possibly in shock at revelations about his new ‘father’, Rupert.
OVER many late nights during my last year of drama school, overworked head full of theatre productions, closeted young body starved of sex, I came across Alan Bennett on the television screen.
Volume down very low so that my grandmother (with whom I lodged) would not be disturbed, I encountered Patricia Routledge, Maggie Smith and Julie Walters in their now iconic episodes of Bennett’s first Talking Heads series.
Bennett remained the cursory sketch of the opening credits until the episode in which he appeared – A Chip in the Sugar.
The tale of the hapless Graham Whittaker living with his ‘Mam’ in Yorkshire drew me into its closeted fold, where I recognised absolutely everything about the character’s world, right down to the old woman sleeping in the room next to mine.
“Alan Bennett keeps explaining what’s behind his writing style, it’s just that no one’s really been listening.”
A month after I was born, the great writer E. M. Forsterdied publicly closeted despite reaching the era in which homosexuality was decriminalised in England. His gay-themed writing was entrusted to friends and took time to come to light.
He’s rarely comfortable admitting it, but Alan Bennett is something entirely different. Yes, the first thirty-six years of his life were lived under laws against homosexual acts between men, but these days he’s a right here, right now gay writer and actor, infinitely closer to generations of men easing our way out of the closet than Forster ever was.
Although back in the 1980s, nobody seemed to question Bennett’s ability to create characters on a scale E. M. Forster only dreamt of.
The most infamous query came from Ian McKellen, who asked the playwright publicly whether he was gay or bisexual at an event raising funds to fight Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28 regulations in June 1988.
Fifty-four at the time, Bennett’s answer left him rather begrudgingly out of the closet ever since.
But that news didn’t reach Australia, not in my world anyway. It did not need to – I could tell by the ‘takes one to know one’ method that Bennett was not just acting like a gay man in A Chip in the Sugar.
Although that realisation meant that I was going to have to do some clever acting of my own to put people off the scent of the truth.
Writing this now I feel of a kind of rage that a gay drama school student did not feel validated by Bennett’s achievements.
Instead, it left me afraid, with the sense that there was nowhere to hide; that all gay men were bound to the apron strings by the kind of fear which Graham Whittaker manifested as mental illness. It offered little hope for those men who did not stay silent.
Perhaps that’s why I disconnected from Alan Bennett for a decade, during which I lived in England and did my level best to become a theatre and film-maker. ‘Gay’ was kept at arm’s length, and I got certain very specific signs that I needed to keep it there.
The most direct of these came during my year of drama training in Yorkshire (Alan Bennett ‘country’) when I was taken aside by one of the pivotal staff members and told that I needed to curb myself or the work I would get on graduation would be “limited”.
His admonishing tone about my natural demeanour came, as it always seems to, with the “I’m only saying this to you because I know plenty of gay people” lie.
By the time I’d gathered the courage to go home to Australia and come out, six years later, Alan Bennett made another appearance in my life, in the form of his memoir Writing Home.
The book was given to me with an unusual amount of sadness by one of the many male friends I’d made in England who were soon to come tumbling out of the closet in the wake of my own coming out.
Bennett’s book helped me realise that being openly gay would not necessarily be an issue, but it would probably leave me more prickly than ever.
I have paid much closer attention to Alan Bennett ever since, but it’s taken another decade to understand the writer who constantly tells us that he does not want to be understood.
You see, Alan Bennett keeps explaining what’s behind his writing style, it’s just that no one’s really been listening.
One of his recent plays – The History Boys – is also one of his most popular, regularly featuring at the top of ‘Britain’s Favourite Play’ lists.
The story of a group of school boys preparing for their university entrance examinations, Bennett instilled this play with a major theme in his writing – authenticity versus artifice.
Ever since his own entrance into Oxford in the 1950s, Bennett has employed a writing technique which he used when answering examination questions.
He calls it “taking the wrong end of the stick”, a journalist’s approach to ‘the facts’. In entrance examination answers it can be utilised to impress with a new ‘out there’ angle on a subject that has been ‘done to death’; an attention-grabber, if you like.
This is also the key to the pathos in all Bennett’s work. His characters show pluck in the face of diversity. They laugh when it might be more appropriate to cry. They see obstacles as opportunities.
Good use of pathos is funny, not in the side-splitting sense but in the chuckling one. It’s right up the other end of the stick from turgid, and it totally avoids the branch of melodrama.
It took maturity, and an understanding of pathos, for me to realise that Gordon Whittaker’s salvation came with his mother’s admission that she had found his hidden gay pornography.
It is the great power shift in A Chip in the Sugar, when Graham’s ‘chip’ is seen as considerably smaller than Mam’s, giving the viewer hope that the result is a more accepting future for Graham.
There is some proof of this in Bennett’s recent writing. In A Life Like Other People’s (published in 2005 as Untold Stories) Bennett let slip that the mental illness he imbued Graham Whittaker with in Talking Heads (1987) was actually that endured by his real-life mother years before.
In the early 1970s, Bennett (‘Graham’) was torn away from a healthy same-sex life in London to care for his mother (‘Mam’) in Yorkshire.
Art stood in for life until Bennett ‘came out’ about the true nature of his family’s struggles with mental illness, thirty years after the fact.
So, ‘Graham Whittaker’ wasn’t in the least bonkers and went on to live a successful life as one of England’s finest playwrights and found love with a man. Phew.
Alan Bennett has published enough about himself for people to leave him alone about his sexuality, although in recent interviews he’s hinted at posthumous diaries which may come to rival E. M. Forster’s.
He’s also managed to avoid the tag ‘gay playwright’ by taking the wrong end of the stick whenever one is offered.