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Alan Bennett, with his combination of pitiless observation and gentle understatement, is perhaps the best-loved of English writers alive today.
Untold Stories is an anthology of prose, family memoir, diaries, reviews and general writings by Alan Bennett. The book is over 600 pages long and received a glowing critical reception when it was first published in 2005. The book is certainly more candid and personal than the previous Bennett collections. While it was being put together and written, Bennett was battling cancer and given less than a 50% chance of survival. Bennett, aware that the book might well be published after his death, was inspired to tell some ‘untold stories’ about his family and his personal life so, for the first time, we are able to read Bennett’s thoughts about being gay and his relationships as well as some bittersweet memories of his parents and a moving account of his mother’s struggle with mental illness. Happily, Bennett confounded his Doctors by beating cancer and was around to enjoy the plaudits Untold Stories was greeted with.
The book begins with a very long and touching family memoir with Bennett writing warmly about his parents and their eccentricities and life in Leeds. The reader is taken right into this world and Bennett’s parents become very vivid characters. ‘It’s a talk on the third world in church,’ Dad wrote to me, writes Bennett. ‘Well, your Mam and me don’t even know where the third world is. Next week it’s Buddism. We’re going to give it a miss.’ This section details Bennett’s mother suffering from mental illness and there are some absorbing but somewhat harrowing accounts by the writer of his visits to Lancaster Moor Hospital and discovering that this condition is not new to the Bennett family. Another family memoir concerns Bennett’s colourful Auntie Kath. Bennett famously said that each family had a secret and that secret was that it wasn’t like other families. This is true enough of his own family. Bennett’s Auntie Kath was living with an Australian man called Bill in Yorkshire, which always seemed to bemuse Bennett and family and supplies some amusing reflection. ‘Quite what he was doing in England is not plain as he seldom misses an opportunity of running it down along with blacks, Jews, and, when Mam and Auntie Kathleen are out of the room, women generally.’
One of the best chapters in the book is ‘Written on the Body’ which is about Bennett’s sexual awakening and realising that he is gay – not a pleasant thought to him in those very different times. ‘Unfortunately, until well into my twenties I regard sex as a club and one to which I have no hope of belonging,’ he writes. This is a very moving piece and I like this section too because of Bennett’s memories of roaming the streets at night as a lonely but romantic teenager. ‘My lonely patrols take me over the gaslit streets of Headingley, Woodhouse and Meanwood, the world to me at fifteen suddenly a place of inexpressible wonder. I marvel at the wind streaming through the beech trees on the edge of Becket Park, the colours of the rain washed flags and the lights of Leeds ….
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