A LIFE LIKE OTHER PEOPLE'S
By Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 242 pages, illustrated
Alan Bennett is one of Britain's most distinguished dramatists, also one its finest actors, and he has long since acknowledged his homosexuality in a characteristically low-keyed manner, but he is about as far removed as possible from being a drama queen. Indeed, homosexuality does not figure much in his oeuvre, except in his most recent hit play, "The Habit of Art," about the fraught artistic and intellectual relationship between two very different characters: the poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.
Generally speaking, Mr. Bennett's forte is capturing the essence of ordinary characters through their banal but revealing speech. Even when he is writing about royalty, as in his famous "The Madness of King George," his trick is to render monarchs as regular folk, real flesh and blood, feeling human beings. In short, bringing them to life like other people, to paraphrase the title of this latest book, a memoir of his parents. So it is not surprising to find that one of Queen Charlotte's most touching speeches about her husband George III's demented state is taken verbatim from Mr. Bennett's mother.
Lilian and Walt are at the heart of this touching memoir, which looks at them with a sharp but understanding filial eye, penetrating deep to reveal their essence but always managing at the same time to be profoundly respectful as well as deeply fond. And it is equally clear that the respect and love flowed in both directions, for these were loving, nurturing parents, who wanted the best for Alan and his elder brother, particularly the education that had not been available to them.
Walt Bennett was a butcher and had the benevolence and mildness of character that surprisingly so often accompany those who practice this literally bloody and brutal seeming trade. Lilian's family, the Peels, had come down in the world, socially and economically, and even claimed a distant connection with the great Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.
Both parents disdained any overt pretension, dismissing it as "splother," a wonderfully expressive Yorkshire term for fuss and bother, something Mr. Bennett eschews throughout his own text. But he sees his mother's unfashionable penchant for collecting bric-a-brac and bits of antiques as a reaching out for something: "Desperate I think it now, and touching too, this faith she had in what constituted a better life."
Writing about them, their son is generally admirable in his severity with himself rather than with them, holding himself to high standards of good taste and honesty throughout. Discussing his mother's crippling depression that struck almost as soon as the Bennetts moved from Leeds to a village in the Yorkshire Dales following Walt's retirement, he censures himself for feeling that such an affliction would have been better suited to more articulate, better educated folk. The most affecting aspects of this book involve seeing how different temperaments deal with human tragedies that are indeed universal.
This is an admirably un-whiny memoir, unlike many others. Mr. Bennett is so understanding, so forgiving of his parents' foibles, even as he catalogs them unflinchingly:
"[A] nother instance of our family never managing to be like other families, of which there were far more urgent and contentious instances. ... There was never being allowed to wear an open-necked shirt, for instance, for fear we caught TB; there was never going without a cap lest we got sunstroke; never having a drink of cold water and it always having to be 'aired,' and not being allowed to share a lemonade bottle with other boys (TB again); after Wolf Cubs most of my friends would have two-pennyworth of chips, but we weren't supposed to as they kept us awake, Mam even smelling our breath for vinegar just in case. Our family was no better or worse off than our neighbours but in all sorts of ways, that were no less weighty for being trivial, we never managed to be quite the same."
He doesn't shy away from the effect all this had on him, in making him the person he is, but he never plays the blame game.
The Bennetts' inability to be quite the same as other folk lies at the heart of this book, as its title indicates:
"Every family has a secret and the secret is that it's not like other families. My mother imagined that every family in the kingdom except us sat down together to a cooked breakfast, that when the man of the house had gone to work and the children to school there was an ordered programme of washing, cleaning, baking and other housewifely tasks, interspersed with coffee mornings and (higher up the social scale) cocktail parties. What my parents never really understood was that most families just rubbed along anyhow."
It is Alan Bennett's particular genius to capture what it is like for people to "rub along anyhow," to get on with their lives. Showing us how his parents managed to do this will makes us laugh and cry by turns, but will always make us admire them - and their son.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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