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Keeping On Keeping On

Alan Bennett


From the Introduction

Since diaries make up the bulk of this book a diary entry is an appro­priate start:

10 December 2015. Trying to hit on a title for this collection I pick up Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings... a presentation copy inscribed to me by Larkin at the request of Judi Dench back in 1969 when she and I did An Evening With... for the BBC. Looking at Larkin is a mistake as I am straight away discouraged: his poems are full of such good and memorable stuff that to plunder them just for a title seems cheap. Though it's easier for Larkin, I think, as at eighty-one I'm still trying to avoid the valedictory note which was a problem Larkin never had, the valedictory almost his exclusive territory. I find nothing suitable though The Long Slide is a possibility, which seems valedictory but isn't... The Long Slide is to happiness not extinction. Would Pass It On do, Hector's message at the end of The History Boys But pass what on... I'd still find it hard to say.

Nothing else done today except a trip over to Profile Books to sign copies of The Lady in the Van. The driver who takes me there is a big nice-looking young man with close-cropped hair and curling eyelashes. He is also a noticeably courteous driver. When we get to Clerkenwell I compliment him on his courteous driving but not (the subtext) on his eyelashes though it's something at eighty-one I'm probably allowed to do. No danger. Not that I ever have been.

In one particular respect the valedictory is not to be sidestepped as it was in 2006 that Rupert Thomas and I said farewell to Gloucester

Crescent, the street in Camden Town where I had lived for nearly forty years, moving (though only a mile away) to Primrose Hill. It's said that newcomers to London often settle near the point of arrival and this was certainly true of me, who could be taken to have arrived from Leeds at King's Cross and been a denizen of North London ever since.

I started off my life in London in 1964 when I had a top-floor flat for £10 a week in Chalcot Square not far from where we have moved to. I was nervous about the move. In Gloucester Crescent I'd worked in a bay window looking onto the street where there was always enough going on to divert me in the gaps of my less than con­tinuous flow of composition. In Primrose Hill I was to look out over a tiny back garden where the only excitement would be the occasional squirrel and I was nervous lest the spell of the Crescent such as it was, would be broken. Could I actually work there? This was such a real concern that for a month or two I kept office hours, cycling back to the old house and the table in the window that I was used to. But this soon palled so saying a reluctant farewell to the vibrant street life of Gloucester Crescent (drunks, drug dealing, snogging by the wall and the occasional stop and search) I embraced the tranquillity of the back garden in Primrose Hill and just got on with it.

In another respect, too I was hoping it would be a new beginning. Having failed in our old house to turn back the rising tide of paper I looked forward to a new start. I wasn't yet ready for a computer but I resolved to make fewer notes, not write so many drafts and generally keep paperwork to a minimum. This has not happened and having fled one nest I now have made another. I am not proud of being computer-illiterate and this too I hoped to alter so we did get a com­puter. However its sojourn was brief as it was the single item stolen in a break-in one afternoon and in this respect Primrose Hill proved hardly more law-abiding than Camden Town: my bike, chained to the railings outside was soon stolen, a would-be burglar tried to con his way into the house and a neighbour was badly mugged on our actual doorstep. Still it's a friendly neighbourhood and a socially mixed one and even if I can't quite cosify it as 'the village' as some do, most peo­ple speak or pass the time of day though whether it will survive when HS2 senselessly rips the guts out of it remains to be seen.

Shortly after we moved house in 2006 we entered into a civil part­nership. Rupert and I had first got together in 1992 though we didn't live in the same house until 1997 after I was operated on for bowel cancer as is related in Untold Stories. We had now been together for fourteen years, our partnership domestic long before it was civil, so the ceremony was hardly a landmark. And even less so, thanks to me.

It was a rainy morning in Camden Registry Office, with the reg­istrar performing the rites in the presence of Rupert's parents, his brother and a few friends and with scant ceremony, so scant in fact that even the registrar felt it a bit of a let-down, with the happy couple and everyone else doing nothing more celebratory afterwards than adjourning for some coffee on Great Portland Street. This was entirely my fault as, never keen on parties, had a more festive occa­sion been envisaged I might have jumped ship. It was only later that I realised how closely our ceremony mirrored the early morning marriage of my parents which is also described in Untold Stories. They, too, had had only a few relatives present with my father imme­diately afterwards dashing off to work where he was a butcher at the Co-op. Their only concession to the occasion was a visit that evening to the Theatre Royal and The Desert Song. We didn't even do that (or its equivalent). It's something (if only occasionally) that I am never allowed to forget.