Surely no British institution has made quite such a habit of refusal. Over the years he has declined a knighthood (“It would be like wearing a suit every day of your life”); the award of Commander of the Order of the British Empire; and an honorary degree from Oxford University, his alma mater, on the grounds that Rupert Murdoch had recently sponsored a department chair at the school.
Credit Hugo Glendinning
“Keeping On Keeping On” comprises a decade of diary entries, from 2005 to 2015, all originally published in The London Review of Books, each one a burst of intellectual fire and feeling — but unpretentious and unsentimental to the core. There’s not a damp squib to be found.
The notion of a public diary might seem oxymoronic, an attempt to satisfy two opposing impulses. But it suits Bennett, who prefers to riff rather than reveal. His book is a string of wry asides to the audience — pensées, jokes and anecdotes with the compression and tang of a Lydia Davis short story. Here’s one entry in full: “I almost bump into an aged New York lady as I come into the grocery store and she comes out. ‘Oh sorry,’ she says. ‘I zigged when I should have zagged.’ ”
The small dramas of life are on display — he tries (and fails) to protect his eyebrows from his barber’s clippers — as well as the unappeasable longings and sorrows. He remembers the tobacco-stained hands of his father, long dead. He records his shame at his country; how after Britain’s initial participation in the so-called war on terror,“sometimes being English it felt as if one smelled.”
But pleasure is never distant from Bennett’s view, nor is it trivial. For him, the inextinguishable thrill of life is in noticing. Nothing is too small: “The inside of a bean pod, shaped to the bean and furred like the inside of a violin case, has always seemed to me an instance of the prodigality of nature, a thing that is beautiful in itself and suited to its function.” He is endlessly attentive to birds — a baby robin with “fierce black eyebrows,” a pigeon “hitting the same note again and again like a piano tuner” — and the beauty of men, their own ways of preening and posing.
This lightning shift between registers is just one example of Bennett’s relaxed virtuosity. This brick of a book — more than 700 pages — goes down like ice cream.
But just as you’re lolling complacently in your chair, a saw-toothed observation startles you to attention.
On Margaret Thatcher: “No one had done such systematic damage to the North since William the Conqueror.” On Tony Blair: “Less perilous, I would have thought, to have a leader intoxicated with whiskey than one like Blair, intoxicated with himself.”
Political outrage is the engine of the book. Bennett has had a lucky life, and he knows it. His parents were each finished with formal education by the age of 13; their son went on to become, for a time, a medievalist at Oxford. His fame was instantaneous, established when he co-wrote and performed in “Beyond the Fringe” at an Edinburgh festival in 1960. So when he takes stock of the gutting of the social services and education systems that made him, it’s with a kind of filial outrage. “Closing libraries is child abuse,” he writes.
He has been publishing his diaries for 30 years, and a valedictory note inevitably creeps in. What has it all been for? What, even, is this book for? (Questions you wish more writers would consider.) In the case of Bennett — this wolf forced into sheep’s clothing — the proof is on every page. He remains energetically and profitably exasperated, committed to exposing corruption, the abuse of language, the exploitation of people and assorted foolishness of all kinds.
In one scene he lovingly reshelves his 13-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and then looks up a word. That word is “rankle.”