It’s been a while since we heard from Alan Bennett.
His 1988 diaries describe a visit to Russia in the company of writers like (sic) Timothy Mo and Sue Townsend, arranged by the Great Britain-USSR Society (yet more “international cultural exchange”):
I am disturbed to find Melvyn Bragg working in the hotel as a doorman. He pretends not to recognise me.
To Massenet’s Werther at the Bolshoi. It is an indifferent production, the scenery and sets almost Music Hall, but the house is packed and Nina and Galina, our guides, say that this is the first time for years they have managed to get a ticket, which makes us all feel worse for not enjoying it. Someone who is enjoying it is Melvyn Bragg, this time in the back row of the chorus.
Another visit to the Bolshoi, this time for an evening of ballet excerpts. […] By now I am unsurprised to find Melvyn is in the ballet as well as the opera, and he even takes a curtain call, accompanied, as ballet calls are the world over, by a deadly hail of tulips.
This is brilliantly observed, working perfectly for our images both of Bragg and of the various scenarios in which he appears.
Talking of lookalikes, à la Private eye, my friend Hugh observes that Li Manshan is a dead ringer for Andy Capp.
Might they perhaps be related? I think we should be told.
Further to Signoffs and other cross-pond drôlerie (NB n.3 there) and indeed my helpful exegeses of the alarming Teach yourself Japanese, here’s a parallel text, hopefully of use to travellers in either direction:
US: Hey man—can I get a Diavola to go?
British: A very good day to you, my dear chap. Now would you be so obliging as to provide me with with one of your fine pizzas, engagingly (and with a certain mischief, perhaps?) known as Diavola—enclosed, moreover, in some kind of disposable container, if you would be so kind; for such are the exigencies of modern life that I regrettably find myself unable to relish said comestible at your own fine place of purveyance, but, rather, will be reluctantly compelled to consume it in less salubrious and elegant surroundings while otherwise occupied.
I acknowledge my debt to the cheeseshop sketch. And, come to think of it, to the great Gerard Hoffnung’s 1958 Advice for tourists, still irresistible after all these years:
As with the Alan Bennett Sermon (and indeed as with live performance generally), the pleasure is augmented by the audience response, and the vignette it now affords us into that particular milieu of late-1950s’ English society.
In Hoffnung’s wiki entry I like the succinct description of his brief sojourn at the Hornsey College of Art:
He was expelled for his lack of gravity in the life class.
Alan Bennett’s art criticism is refreshingly down-to-earth (e.g. Untold stories, pp.453–514), but less blunt than this story.
A northern friend of mine took his dad to see Monet’s Rouen cathedral in the morning fog. He took one look at it and sniffed,
“If he’d have waited a bit longer he wouldn’t have to paint t’ bloody thing at all!”
Whenever I surprise myself by somehow getting my head around some arcane (to me) computer technique—like a screenshot, or a widget (What kind of language do you call that, ask the Plain People of Ireland), I recall Alan Bennett’s 1984 diary entry:
1 October, London. I mend a puncture on my bike. I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs—mending a fuse, changing a wheel, jump-starting the car—because these are not accomplishments generally associated with a temperament like mine. I tend to put sexual intercourse in this category too.
This 1983 diary entry by Alan Bennett (Writing home, p.127) bears both on professional tact and the insecurity of the freelance artist:
3 March, Yorkshire. I take a version of a script down to Settle to be photocopied. The man in charge of the machine watches the sheets come through. “Glancing at this,” he says, “I see you dabble in playwriting.” While this about sums it up, I find myself resenting him for noticing what goes through his machine at all. Photocopying is a job in which one is required to see and not see, the delicacy demanded not different from that in medicine. It’s as if a nurse were to say: “I see, watching you undress, that your legs are nothing to write home about.”
Still thinking about Alan Bennett’s feet and early religious culture:
In the wonderful song Jerusalem, rather like those questions they ask you at the airport check-in desk, you think all the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes (sic, see below) just in case.
Great that it’s tipped for our new national anthem, to replace the meretricious God save the Queen (although the version here is fine)—but we have to take care not to “leave it unattended at any time” in case it gets hijacked by “Paul Nuttall and the UKIPs”.
Mind you (and talking of keeping on your toes), if I had an anthem like this (Wow! Italian opera at its most intoxicating! 1831-ish, see here)
even I would score a goal like this:
(1970—“ancient time”?] That’s right up there with Ronnie’s 147.
I was in Washington DC with the amazing Hua family shawm band in 2002 [more on that story later…] when Brazil won the World Cup. We all crowded into the hotel bar early in the morning to cheer them on, suitably lubricated with A Pint of Plain—It’s Your Only Man.
And then there’s our fantasy football team/Daoist ritual band—
“which will bring us back to”…
[Been at the Bombay Sapphire again, Dr Jones?—Ed.]
Alan Bennett (for it is he) reflects on his transition from earnest young Oxford historian to star of Beyond the fringe:
I wasn’t getting any better at [teaching], though the celebrity of the revue to some degree compensated my pupils for the shortcomings of the tuition. This period came to an end in 1962, when the show went to Broadway, thus putting an end to my dwindling hopes of being a historian. The rest, one might say, pompously, is history. Except that in my case the opposite was true. What it had been was history. What it was to be was not history at all.