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Book Review: Untold Stories by Alan Bennett

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An idle moment some weeks ago saw me participate in a Facebook game where players quoted 12 lines from the page of the book they were currently reading.

I’m still unsure whether I spoilt the fun for everyone else by revealing that my quote came from writer, Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories.

I had treated myself to his mammoth compendium of memoir and general writing when it was published by Faber and Faber in 2005. But I kept it with a shelf of other unread tidbits as consolation for losing most of my home library before emigrating to Israel last year.

The coincidence could not have been neater: My reading overlapped exactly with the growing scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s News International group in the U.K., most shamefully the News of the World.

Not once, twice — but four times and with acid acuity — Bennett, one of the U.K.’s best-loved wordsmiths, warns readers about Murdoch’s character, alleging that he “is a bully and should be stood up to publicly and so, however puny the gesture, it needs to be in the open.”

These initial comments come in a diary entry on 17 November 1998 as Bennett explains why he feels constrained to decline an honorary degree from Oxford University, where he spent the first part of his adulthood.

He considers, despite counter-arguments about bad money being put to good use, that the university had demeaned itself by establishing the “Rupert Murdoch Chair in Language and Communication” and that the News Corporation chief is not a name with which the university should be associated.

Indeed “good money from bad people” is a principle which troubles Bennett very much. He also discusses at length outwardly worthy men of substance who are often discovered to be petty villains. He uses, as example, the sort of character found in popular films of the 1940s who “seemed the embodiment of respectability” but ultimately were revealed to be crooks:

“Kind to children, a president of orphanages, a donor of playing fields and a guarantor of symphony hall, he is prominent in every good cause. But the committee of charitable ladies who can rely on him for a generous contribution would be surprised to learn that their money comes indirectly from the pocket of their husbands, paid over to the many prostitutes of the city or in its poker dens and illicit drinking clubs behind all of which is this immaculately suited villain.”

I don’t know what it is about the Yorkshire air, its men of letters and similar personalities, but Leeds-born Bennett’s comments here reminded me first of An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley and then of “Alderman Foodbotham,” the parodical fantasy Lord Mayor of Bradford invented by Michael Wharton for his “Peter Simple” column in the Daily Telegraph.

Bennett names no Yorkshire business people, but his description could apply to a myriad over-celebrated tin-pot philanthropists everywhere whose every smile and handshake are recorded in parochial newspapers; the sort of local worthies who, for example, seem blithely unconcerned that money they may amass from the casino industry has been generated on the backs of the weak-minded unfortunates who are later forced to accept help from the charities they support.

Then I looked again at Bennett’s personal history – that of an intellectually gifted youngster from an impoverished background rising ever higher largely by hard work and self-will.

Several times he returns to the subject of personal “decoration” and the British “Royal Honours” system – where so often, in my view, unwholesome, disreputable “dignitaries” are awarded laurels they do not deserve.

Bennett has declined most awards offered him. He insists this is not false modesty or inverted snobbery but due in part to an upbringing where it was considered wrong to push oneself forward or worse:

“to be under an obligation or to owe someone a favour, particularly someone outside the family – an attitude not uncommon in their (his parents’) class and circumstances.”

Elsewhere in his sprawling, occasionally poorly edited and at times repetitive, even tedious and dreary book, Bennett refers to “a lot of” antisemitism in Leeds, even post-World War II. This is unsurprising and probably due in part to personal envy as several local Jewish “celebrities” made a genuine, hard-won and well-earned fortune in the city having settled there as humble immigrants from Eastern Europe.

As a second rank Bennett fan, what I did not expect was the occasional misspelling (one instance of “complimentary” for “complementary” medicine) and even a misuse of “who” and “whom.” These errors may have been corrected in later editions.

However, I also found the echoes between the diaries and some of the essays rather tiresome and the parallels between his mother’s long years in care homes and the description of his own illness a mite maudlin.

Finally (sic) the endless trudging round country church graveyards and the like with his partner — another “Rupert” and a man young enough to be his son — gave me a sense of great unease. But to say more would be to find myself in deep hot water.

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About Natalie Wood

Born in Birmingham, England, U.K., I began working in journalism a month before the 1973 Yom Kippur War began. I emigrated from Manchester to Israel in March 2010 and live in Karmiel, Galilee where I concentrate on creative writing, running several blogs and composing micro-fiction. I feature in Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoirs On Jewish Life and contribute to Technorati, Blogcritics and Live Encounters magazine.