Interview with the much-loved playwright, Alan Bennett
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
A 50-year friendship with Tetbury-born David Vaisey brought the wonderful Alan Bennett to Cheltenham to present awards recognising the great work of the county’s libraries
He has been described as a national treasure but Alan Bennett has never lost that sense of self-depreciation.
The writer, broadcaster, dramatist and diarist has been friends with Tetbury-born David Vaisey for more than 50 years.
They met as young men at Exeter College, Oxford, united by a love of history and a greater love of books. While Alan went on to find fame with first Beyond the Fringe and then with such classics as The History Boys, The Uncommon Reader and The Lady in the Van, David went on to become Bodley’s Librarian (head of the Bodleian Library at Oxford) and Keeper of the Archives.
“It’s because of a seemingly casual remark David made to me years ago, long before he was head of the library, that my papers have ended up in the Bodleian. . . a mixed blessing for them, I sometimes think, as they can’t have bargained for the plethora of paper that resulted,” says Mr Bennett in his self-abasing way.
“Though at least they are paper, not email or floppy discs, which I’m ashamed to say are a closed book to me, though fortunately not for David and it’s thanks to him that the library was put in the forefront of modern technology, overseeing as he did the digitalisation of the catalogue so that the resources of the library became available not just to immediate readers, but to the public at large. This is his signal achievement.”
When a new initiative was launched to award Gloucestershire libraries for their innovative approaches to get young and old reading, it was only fitting it was named in honour of the county’s most celebrated scholarly librarian, Mr Vaisey.
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And who better to award the inaugural David Vaisey Prize at Cheltenham Literature Festival than Mr Bennett?
“Our backgrounds were not all that different, though I’d been at a state school in Leeds,whereas David, born in Tetbury, had been to primary school and won a scholarship to public school at Rendcomb,” Mr Bennett told guests at the awards ceremony.
“But . . . and this cannot be said too often. . . . neither of us, in the conditions that prevail today, would have been able to go to university. My father was a butcher, David’s a gardener and we were both of us the first of our families to go to university, let alone to Oxford.
“We were both of us on a full grant, which, though not munificent, was adequate. It’s a set-up students today can only dream of and one day I still hope that we’ll get back to it. One notion that we have lost in David and my lifetime, is of the state as nurturer. For both of us, the state was a saviour, delivering us out of poverty and putting us on the road to a better life.”
Mr Bennett has been a much loved part of England’s cultural landscape for decades. He was born in 1934 - making him a contemporary with Michael Frayn, Joe Orton, and the late Simon Gray. His latest diaries - Keeping On Keeping On - project contentment, valediction and more than a hint of grumpy old men’s “why-oh-why”.
It’s also full of the joy he derives from his life with Rupert Thomas, editor of the World of Interiors, with whom he made a civil partnership in 2006. Recording marriages, deaths, memorials and the other everyday events of life are a sweet and sour mix, never too cloying or too sweet, saved by that well-known acerbic wit.
Mr Bennett has been a long-time and passionate supporter of libraries. Earlier this year he took time out after his appearance at Ilkley Literature Festival in his beloved Yorkshire to show his support for a campaign to retain a village library.
“In one respect though our childhood’s differed. Whereas in my childhood in Leeds there had always been libraries, in Tetbury there was no library, which, a cod psychologist might say, explains why David eventually ended up as head of one of the world’s greatest libraries.
“There’s a library in Tetbury today which thrives as a voluntary enterprise, like that of my own local library in Primrose Hill. But again, we should not allow ourselves to be persuaded that this is the norm: libraries, like hospitals, like public transport, should come out of the race for taxes. They are, or should be, a community service.”
The young Alan ready early as a child - from about the age of five. “My brother and I were both avid readers of comics, with my comics - Dandy, Beano, Knockout - largely pictorial whereas my brother, three years older, had graduated to comics with serials and stories - Hotspur, Wizzard and Champion.
“I learned to read, it’s always seemed to me, by dint of lying on the hearthrug, beside my brother and staring at the columns of print that he was absorbing and probably pestering him to tell me what they meant. Suddenly, as it seemed to me then, one day looking over his shoulder I found the words made sense and we could both read the same comics.
“Thereafter, I read chiefly Richmal Crompton’s William books and Hugh Lofting’s books about Doctor Doolittle. There were no classics – no Winnie the Pooh, no Alice, no Wind in the Willows – I suspect I thought them too posh. William, I knew, was a made-up character embodied in perpetuity in the illustrations of Thomas Henry who, and this is entirely by the way, as a child lived opposite DH Lawrence in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire.”
Libraries were the Aladdin’s store - the place where he could find new books to read. That love of libraries would last a lifetime. As all those who have read Bennett’s books, his Mam was a larger-than-life character and whose views on books stayed with her son.
“Quite early on, I was at home with books, borrowed from local libraries in Leeds, Armley and Headingley, though I was never allowed to read library books in bed because of my mother’s fear of our catching TB or scarlet fever, and the books themselves, including the ones she and my father had borrowed, were kept out of sight because my mother thought they made the place untidy.”
His first part-time job was to do with books, working at a prosperous bookseller in Leeds. “Underneath the shop was a cellar, lightless, airless and knee-deep in books, some new and remaindered, but mostly second-hand. They were in no sort of order, not even in piles, a sea of print with my job to dredge up any I thought saleable, for which Saturday work I was paid ten shillings and not really even paid that as I took my wages in books.
“This though, was an early and useful vaccination against the charm of books. Books, I realised, could be quite mucky. This was a sea of mucky books – and I don’t mean pornography. Books that were heavy, dirty and unwieldy and, at that stage of my life, sifting through them to find a stray volume for yet another run of Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic, there was no romance to them at all.”
One of Mr Bennett’s earliest recollections of David Vaisey was of the two of them in Exeter Hall to sit the History Scholarship examination in 1953.
“I first remember him as seeming very grown up and with handwriting to match whereas my handwriting was gawky and still unformed, though David remembers there was a lot of it as I kept having to go up for more paper. It was bitterly cold but we both bagged seats near the fire in conditions which nowadays would be thought almost mediaeval.”
After Oxford the men followed their own career paths. David’s first posting was in Wellington, Shropshire.
“He used to write me long letters in those early days and I remember once him telling me how he was alone in the library one evening, gas-lit as it was then, and how he was clearing out a store room - dirty work - and in the gloom he saw a box on a top shelf.
“Climbing the ladder he opened it and nearly fell off. There, staring him in the face, was the death mask of Palmer the poisoner. I don’t think the Bodleian, to which he shortly afterwards returned, ever furnished comparable horrors but it proved for him an ideal place, as he was notably businesslike and practical, qualities at that time which were not always in evidence there.”
Mr Bennett called the making of the film The Lady in the Van as a “bit of a reunion” because it involved many of the cast from The History Boys and Dame Maggie Smith in the starring role. What was it like to see himself played by someone else?
“I got used to seeing myself on screen as Alex Jennings, who played the part in the film, played me in an autobiographical play at The National Theatre. I expect he’s been doing imitations of me as a party piece long before that. With this lackadaisical voice I am very easy to imitate.”
Mr Bennett is adamant libraries still have a place in today’s society. “While their functions have changed, libraries as places haven’t changed. Our library (in Primrose Hill) has a children’s library which is always full after school. It’s full of children learning to read or to use computers.
“It’s all very well to say everyone has computers now but they don’t. Also there are children who come to the library for a bit of peace. It’s the only place where, if you come from a large family where the telly is going the whole time, you can be on your own. That function hasn’t changed and I don’t think it will change.”
With the advancing years Mr Bennett admits his reading has slowed. “I was a voracious readers as a child but I’m less a voracious reader now. I wish I was a voracious writer.”
But that magic of reading is still there.
“Reading is a risky business. You are, after all, putting your mind and your imagination at the service of someone else - being taken for a ride and not always knowing where. “We read”, wrote CS Lewis, “to know that we are not alone”, which is a more succinct way of saying what Hector the old schoolmaster says in The History Boys: ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something...a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things... which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have not met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
“In the multiplication of such moments, libraries and librarians are indispensable, and the David Vaisey Prize celebrates that.”
Bream Community Library was the winner of the inaugural David Vaisey Prize. The community library received £5,000. Three runners-up - Longlevens, Brockworth, and a combined entry from Tuffley and Matson - received £1,000. Twenty libraries competed.
The initiative was launched with support from the Gloucestershire Library Services, the Booker Prize Foundation, leading Gloucestershire law firm Willans LLP, the Honourable Company of Gloucestershire, playwright Alan Bennett and writer Jilly Cooper, among others.
The Prize encourages readers of all ages to borrow more books, read and discuss titles, as well as sparking community support and help from volunteers.
Broadcaster Anne Robinson chaired the charity’s judging panel, with Marianne Hinton, Cheltenham Music Festival chair Edward Gillespie, author Jamila Gavin, and Trevor Lee, Head of Literacy at Kingshill School in Cirencester.
“We are delighted that the inaugural David Vaisey prize had been won by Bream Community Library for a innovative project which encourages children to read through the use of Lego,” said Jane Everiss, Head of Gloucestershire Library Services.