Friday, 9 January 2009

Nice diary, shame about the politics

Extracts from Alan Bennett's diary of the preceding year have become a regular feature of the New Year issue of the London Review of Books. It would be easy to send up these edited extracts, with their luvvy name-dropping and predictably Bennettian observations on the minutiae of daily life, if Bennett and the LRB didn't do it so well themselves: the front page byline for this year's diary is 'Alan Bennett eats his lunch'. 

This year there are the usual entertaining glimpses into the world of the London literati, including an account of Ned Sherrin's memorial service ('The best speech, regrettably, is David Frost's') and of meeting the Prime Minister at a Downing Street reception ('We're...astonished at how different Brown is from the dour figure he presents in the Commons' 'Andy Burnham...looks as if he's strayed out of an early Pasolini movie'). And only Bennett, writing about encountering Marxist literary academic Arnold Kettle and his wife at a protest meeting when he was a schoolboy, would think it important to note that they were 'customers at our butcher's shop'. This year Bennett has included quotations collected in the notebooks that he has been keeping for the past forty years, such as this from his mother: 'I wouldn't want to be as bald as that. You'd never know where to stop washing your face'.

But to enjoy these nuggets of humorous observation, you have to put up with an awful lot of predictable pseudo-leftish political comment, such as this entry for 14 March:

Every day practically I bike past the two bored policemen who, armed and bullet-proofed, guard the house of the foreign secretary. I could give the address, and were I a Muslim and even had it in my possession, it would be enough to land me in custody. Passing the policemen so often, my natural inclination would be to smile. I never do because though I know they're bored and it's not their fault, I feel to smile condones a state of affairs (and a foreign policy) which necessitates ministers of the crown being under armed guard. 

From a writer whose best work demonstrates a mature sagacity, this is disappointingly juvenile. Attributing the terrorist threat (which means that some of his fellow-writers, as well as politicians, have to live under armed guard, and could do with solidarity not scorn from the likes of Bennett) to our old friend the BFP (British foreign policy), thus letting off the hook the theocratic ideology that inspires it (and would tear down everything that Bennett stands for), aligns Bennett with the shallow politics of the Galloways, Pilgers and Milnes of this world - poor company for a writer of such wisdom and wit. But you can see  why  the LRB loves  him.


Brigada Flores Magon said...

I dropped my subscription to the LRB a couple of years ago for all the reasons you adumbrate here. I admire a lot of Bennett, but agree with you that he can be a pain in the dowp at times. The interesting question is why is there no acceptable left wing magazine on the news-stalls?

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis of the shallow frivolity of Bennett's political views - pity in such a good writer. But I suppose there's no particular reason why a writer of Bennett's kind should be specially alert to political complexities or even simplicities.

Martin said...

Thanks for the comments.

BFM: You'll see from my previous posts about the LRB that my own subscription has been in peril at times, but for now I'm sticking with it - at least it's not as bad as the New Statesman. But I agree with you - why isn't there a decent (in every sense) left wing magazine in the UK? Except for Democratiya of course - but as I've also said before, I think its impact is reduced by only being online...much as I love it.

Eve -I think 'frivolity' captures it very well. It could also apply to other writers with similarly kneejerk pseudo leftish views - the late Pinter being a prime example. I'm coming to realise the truth of what you say: that just because I admire a writer's creative work, it doesn't mean I'll agree with their political views - and that creative genius does not necessarily coincide with political acumen, indeed it often goes along with stunning naivety and juvenile oppositionalism (one of my favourite novelists, Jose Saramago, being a prime example).