Read Untold Stories Online

Authors: Alan Bennett

Untold Stories

Untold Stories


1 My father, aged twelve

2 St Bartholomew's Church, Armley

3 & 4 My parents, shortly before they were married

5 Grandma Peel

6 Grandad Peel

7 Dad, on holiday as a young man

8 Mam and Gordon with Aunty Kathleen

9 Aunty Myra

10 Jordy and Ossie

11 Aunty Kathleen in manageress mode

12 Otley Road, 1950

13 Among the marigolds in Grandma's garden, Gilpin Place, 1947

14 Dad in the Otley Road shop

15 Mam on an outing with Somerset Maugham, 1952

16 Joint Services School for Linguists, Cambridge, 1953

17 With Mme Chernysheva in the garden of Salisbury Villas, Cambridge, 1953

18 Self-portrait, Oxford, 1955

The Drinking Party
, BBC TV, 1966 (left to right: Roddy Maude-Roxby, AB, John Fortune, Leo McKern, Barry Justice, Michael Gough)

20 With Dudley Moore and Joan Collins in Arnold Weissberger's bedroom, 1963

21 With Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller,
Beyond the Fringe
, 1962

22 Yorkshire

23 In Christopher Fry's garden, 1992

24 With Rupert Thomas and Madge Hindle, Venice, 1996

25 L'Espiessac, 1997

26 L'Espiessac, 1997

27 With Harry McNally, New York, 1985

28 With Lynn Wagenknecht, 1987

29 Rupert, Fountains Abbey, 1999

30 Palazzo S. Justina, Venice, 2001

31 Miss Shepherd, 1989

The Lady in the Van
(left to right: Kevin McNally, Maggie Smith and Nicholas Farrell)

33 Leeds Modern School, 1952

34 J.S.S.L., Bodmin, 1954 (left to right: AB, Michael Frayn, David Thompson, P. B. Naylor)

The History Boys
, 2004 (left to right: Jamie Parker, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett, James Corden, AB, Andrew Knott, Samuel Anderson, Sacha Dhawan, Russell Tovey)

36 Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour in rehearsal

37 Exeter College, Oxford Staircase 5:6

38 Exeter College, Oxford Staircase 9:11

39 Leeds Town Hall

40 George Fenton (and one of Miss Shepherd's vans), 1974

41 Mam and Dad, 1970

42 County Arcade, Leeds

43 The Masons' Loft, York Minster

44 Templets (
) in the loft

45 1953

At Christmas when I was a boy and hung my pillowcase at the end of the bed one of the presents I could generally count on was an annual. The comics that I read weekly throughout the year all produced a Christmas annual. There were
for me, who was the youngest,
Knockout, Wizard
for my brother, three years older. Annuals, which were also albums, had a long tradition, stretching back to the Edwardian
, and even in the wartime 1940s the books were still quite substantial and in gaily decorated hard covers with a medley of strip cartoons, stories and games that kept us absorbed well into the new year, when they could be swapped for other children's annuals.

The appeal of such compendium books was not confined to the young; there were adult annuals, the most notable (and still a staple of second-hand bookshops)
The Saturday Book
with poems, short stories, paintings and autobiography, a revue in book form. The fashion for such adult versions seems to have gone out but I imagine there are children's annuals still, or a version of them. I hope so, as for me they were the beginning of childhood reading, and memories of the feel and smell and the excitement of those Christmas volumes come back to me as I write.

So if I have a model book it is not Jane Austen or Dickens or Evelyn Waugh; it is one of those long-forgotten annuals which lured you on from story to story through pictures and puzzles, a real box of delights. And it is my memories of such volumes that reconcile me to the seemingly scrappy nature of this one. There are no cartoons and few pictures, and it is a
mixture of autobiography, diaries, lectures and occasional writings that could at a pinch have been sorted out into two less variegated volumes, autobiography, say, and the rest. But on the model of those childhood annuals long ago I'm happier to see them jumbled together. I've a feeling there was indeed a comic called
. Or was that just William's dog?

That's part of it, but there is other stuff in the book which, while I was writing it anyway, I did not expect or want to see published in my lifetime. I had no objection to it being read; I just didn't want to be in the room at the time.

What changed my mind on this was being diagnosed with cancer in June 1997, and having what I was told then was only a fifty/fifty chance of recovery. Though I made no particular secret of it, I didn't go public on my illness as these days tends to be the mode, thinking that if there was time I would write about it. This in due course I did, the account included in this book under the title ‘An Average Rock Bun'.

I had regarded some of these writings as tidying up, topics I'd been wanting to write about but had never got round to. A death sentence, like moving house, meant that the tidying up had to be done and done quickly: there was a deadline. My earlier misgivings about what I was prepared to see published in my lifetime now seemed almost laughably irrelevant: none of it was likely to be published in my lifetime, so where was the problem?

To be told you only have a short time to live makes any notion of self-preservation of scant importance, death mocking dignity and reputation, the important thing just to get as much as you can down on paper. (And it was paper in my case, not a screen.) The threat of death, provided it's unaccompanied by diminished energy, can be a laxative and so it was with me. Now I could write what I wanted and leave the question of publication to my executors.

I had not felt particularly cooped up in hospital. There was a good view over to some trees on a hill and playing fields which I took to be part of Harrow School, and sometimes I saw a hawk swooping low over the flat roofs of the hospital. As soon as I could I started going downstairs to sit on a seat near where the cars were parked, a bleak-seeming picture such as
might figure in a poem by Larkin, though it did not seem especially bleak to me.

I found, though, that in the months that followed I was spending every moment that I could out of doors, very often sitting in a long chair outside my front door in Camden Town. It was a place I had not had much say in previously, occupied as it was from 1974 to 1989 by Miss Shepherd and her van. Even after she died I could not bring myself to sit there, not out of piety but because there was no shelter from the street, and anybody coming past the house was able to see me as they had been able to see her. In my newly straitened circumstances this was another consideration that ceased to matter.

After I began a course of chemotherapy which entailed two days in hospital every fortnight this urge to be in the open air became a compulsion, and every day I took my place outside my door like a passenger on an ocean liner. I skipped the bouillon but everything else was to hand: books, writing materials and a large straw hat, the chair itself a present from my agent, Rosalind Chatto. Fortunately it was a warm and tranquil autumn, though even on the greyest of days I still lay out in the chair, only rain driving me indoors; I would even sit out on the step in the evening.

Before I had been taken ill (though I never felt ill) I had begun work on some autobiographical sketches, the connecting thread the suicide of my grandfather which went unmentioned in the family for more than forty years. These were to be entitled
Untold Stories
, an extract from which was published in the
London Review of Books
in September 1999.

Even had I been able to, I felt it was inadvisable for the moment anyway to try and write a play. The process invariably ties me in knots and, who knows, maybe that was what had brought on the trouble in the first place. Besides
Untold Stories
, though, I wanted something I could fairly effortlessly scribble down as I sat outside convalescing so I began a series of slightly chattier reminiscences. These came easily, and not having expected to see the enterprise brought to a conclusion it was a surprise when I found I had assembled a batch of a dozen or so memoirs, which were then recorded for BBC TV and published as
Telling Tales

Unfortunately the programmes passed almost unnoticed and the book similarly. Had I said more about being ill and the impending curtailment that caused the memoirs to be written there would, I'm sure, have been more attention paid and sympathy extended. But cancer is not a career move, and I kept quiet, which, since I'm still here, turned out to be the right thing to have done. Had I done otherwise I might have died of embarrassment.

My continuing presence in the world meant, though, that the decision about the supposedly posthumous chapters which I had thought to shuffle off onto my executors remained my own. However, in the meantime there had been another development.

In 2001 I had been the subject of a somewhat speculative biography, written without my co-operation and with little help from my friends and acquaintances. Knowing there is not much to be done to prevent such an enterprise, I had given the author no help but not made much of a fuss about it. When the book came out it was thought to be kind but dull, not unlike its subject, with the author complaining rather forlornly about how little help he'd received in his self-imposed task. Still, it was the publication of this book that made me press on with my own autobiographical efforts and start thinking of them as pre-posthumous.

Lastly, my continuing remission from cancer coincided with a long period in which I found myself unable to write … or certainly to write plays. It's true I finished
The Lady in the Van
in 1999, but that was really something I'd prepared earlier. After that, though, nothing much seemed to occur, and it may be that the so-called battle against cancer, which in ‘An Average Rock Bun' I tend to disclaim, took more out of me than I was aware and that the suppression of the growth which that may have involved was a shutdown all round. Autobiography, though, was different, and with no plot needed and the story given it seemed almost therapy.

Most of the other stuff reflects my interests and occupations. Diaries and autobiography apart, there are a couple of lectures on art, given when I was a Trustee of the National Gallery; the last monologue I wrote for Thora Hird, and an account of recording it; and some writings on visiting
churches, a hobby I had as a boy and have taken up again now that I'm getting on and have someone to visit them with.

But there is little here that doesn't have something to do with one or another aspect of my life. I might have preferred to tell it differently – in the form of plays, say, or fiction – but this album is a quicker if less face-saving way of doing it.

‘Pass it on,' says Hector in
The History Boys
. ‘Just pass it on.'

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