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.