It is 16 August 2020 and Alan Bennett and his partner are on their customary evening walk. Given that 86-year-old Bennett is hobbled with arthritis, this is hardly an ambitious excursion – literally three minutes “round the block” of their north London street. Suddenly the windows fly open and neighbours start banging pots and clapping. Since he needs to lean heavily on his walking stick, Bennett is unable to join in, but he compensates by standing in the street and nodding enthusiastically. Until, that is, the horrible thought strikes him that it must look as if he is acknowledging the applause, perhaps even trying to generate it himself. To disavow this, he tries shaking his head, “but this just looks like modesty”.
It is a typical Bennett moment, part gentle social comedy part revelation about the self-delusions of the ego. It probably never occurred to the hollering neighbours that their joyful noise for the NHS might be misconstrued as directed at one elderly, slightly famous playwright. Bennett’s diaries, which he has been publishing since the early 1980s, are full of these “absurd and inexplicable” moments.
The pandemic is the background and, indeed, the foreground to this latest and most slender tranche of journals, which runs to a mere 64 pages. The entries begin on 24 February 2020, with the diarist chipper about the unlikelihood of the new virus in Milan having much effect on London living, and chunter on to the autumn of 2021 when the crisis appears to be in the rearview mirror (we know, although he does not, that Omicron is lurking in the wings). The fact that Bennett’s new normal now involves being met by helpful staff with a wheelchair whenever he travels between Leeds and King’s Cross tells us just how frail he has become in the intervening 18 months. It doesn’t stop him, though, keeping a beady eye on the competition. In November 2020 he notices that the Queen, nearly 10 years his senior, is able to walk backwards when laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. The fact that Her Majesty could probably not manage this today is a reminder of how swiftly treacherous advanced old age can be.
It is not all doom and gloom. On 26 March of that first year, Nicholas Hytner rings with the exciting news that the BBC would like to record a new version of Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues of 1988 because it is exactly the sort of thing that could be done on Zoom. The director pops round later that day to discuss details, which he is obliged to semaphore from the other side of the street. Bennett, in turn, worries that weeks of social isolation have robbed him of the power of speech. On the phone to the optician about his broken glasses, he finds that he has lost the words, and his partner has to take over. Later, arriving at the vaccination centre for his first jab, Bennett firmly announces that he is here “for the virus” (in his defence, he points out that both of them are “v words”).
If Bennett’s speech can be jumbled, his writing remains as deft and seamless as ever, especially when dealing with that most numinous of subjects, his childhood in working-class Leeds. Contemplating the current regime of hand-washing and elbow-bumping pitches him straight back to the 1940s when the unfortunate family next door succumb to TB. Young Alan was strictly forbidden from setting foot in this den of contagion until, lured by Mrs Sherwood’s cloud-like yorkshire pudding, he decides to risk it: “It was as if I’d signed my own death warrant.”
There is something about this early lesson in the danger that other people pose that contributes to the impression Alan Bennett always gives of having been primed for apartness. He recounts a telling anecdote from 1941 in which the whole family went on a Sunday fishing expedition in the country. Bennett and his brother wore their school caps, his mother her swagger coat, and his father the suit with the good trousers. Having failed to catch anything – were they even in the right place? – the unlikely sportsmen take themselves stoically home. “We never joined in, got the gear, looked the part,” recalls Bennett and it is clear that he is thinking of more than just fishing.
Where this tortured restraint does not reach, though, is into Bennett’s ethical worldview which remain as richly communitarian as ever. The news that the cast and crew of the new Talking Heads series have agreed to take only a nominal fee and donate the profits to the NHS gives him a rare rush of pleasure in a world dominated by the bleak economics of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. More than £1m is raised, an act of generosity that reaches far beyond the awkward performance of a Thursday night community clap.