For those of us who look at the world and feel that the race to the bottom is forever picking up speed, Alan Bennett’s writing has made congenial reading. The Yorkshire-born writer, actor and playwright has been publishing his diaries since the 1980s, bundling them into what now comes to three volumes. “Keeping On Keeping On,” the latest, covers the years 2005 through 2015 — by which time he finds himself to be 81 years old, “which though it has been a long time coming, is still a bit of a surprise.”
During the period covered, Bennett moved in London from his longtime residence at Gloucester Crescent (whose front garden was home to “The Lady in the Van”) to a house on Primrose Hill, where the first word he looks up in his dictionary on its new shelf is “rankle.” As expected, that which rankles him is legion, most especially the dismantling of the National Health Service, the privatization of public utilities and railways and free-marketeers in general, one of whose think tanks he has dubbed “the Adam Smith Institute for the Criminally Insane.”
Margaret Thatcher, a “mirthless bully,” comes in for a final drubbing. He deplores the ceaseless destruction of fine old buildings to replace them with expressions of architects’ triumphal vanity and the gutting of modest 19th-century houses to suit the taste (if that is the word) of the “young turks from the City with too much money and no knowledge of what to do with it.”
“One tries not to be an Old Git,” he says, “but they don’t make it easy.” Still, naysayer par excellence though he may be, he also writes of what gives him pleasure: his friends, books, riding on trains and a well thought-out sandwich. He takes what we may call an activist role in the welfare of birds, spending part of an afternoon hiding out in his gazebo armed with a water pistol, “hoping to surprise the squirrel rifling the (squirrel-proof) bird feeder.”
Aside from accounts of his doings and druthers and blasts against the powers that be, the entries include reflections on a vanished England and on departed friends, accounts of productions of his work, gleanings from past notes, outtakes from his plays and whatever else crosses his mind or gets under his skin. (“I find tattoos hard to understand, even to forgive.”)
The second half of this enormous book is devoted to a radio play and film script, a couple of obituary tributes and a number of introductions to his works and talks, including pleas for fairness in education and against closing libraries, public institutions that one forward-looking economist referred to as “prime retail opportunities.”
This is the language that makes the world we live in, one where, as Bennettt writes with his melancholy wit, “the road to Damascus would be called ‘a steep learning curve’ ” and the season of Advent is “The Countdown to Christmas.”
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers is a past winner of the Nona Balakian citation for excellence in reviewing and the author of “Suitable Accommodations.”
Keeping On Keeping On
By: Alan Bennett.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 722 pages, $40.