A Life like other People’s – Alan Bennett

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

A sardonic portrait of his parents’ marriage and his Leeds childhood, Christmases with Grandma Peel, and the lives, loves and deaths of aunties Kathleen and Myra. Originally released in 2005 in the compilation `Untold Stories’ it was released on it own in 2009.

The petty, lower-middle-class worries over what was common or not common; the aspiration to hold cocktail parties; the horror of putting oneself forward: these were the things that dominated Bennett’s early life, expressed as they were by his shy, unsure mother.She imagines that other families – those that weren’t common – enjoyed cooked breakfasts and hosted cocktail parties, this last a constant obsession. “What my parents never really understood,” says Bennett, “was that most families just rubbed along anyhow.”

Bennett blames his mother’s timidity on his aunties, Kathleen and Myra, who bullied and shamed her with their more dazzling lives. But their ends were not dazzling, nor was his mother’s, and this memoir, dominated by the women in his life, is Bennett’s cry against the worst that age and illness do.

Within their own family, however, there are those who are different. Bennett’s two aunties, his mother’s sisters Myra and Kathleen, are regarded as “sisters of subversion”.

When war comes Aunty Myra joins up as a WAAF and is posted to the Far East, where she has servants, returning after the war with various exotic souvenirs and an intimidating (to Dad’s thinking) collection of photographs. She marries an RAF warrant officer, while Aunty Kathleen marries an Australian widower.

Later there is a family rift when Myra, staying with Dad and Mam, takes it upon herself to dismantle and clean their Belling gas oven, an act charged with social ramifications, both intentional and misconstrued. Kathleen is mocked for buying a Utility armchair with compartments for cocktail paraphernalia and reading matter.

Mam thinks it common, Dad sees it as impractical and therefore pretentious, being the opposite of its purported utility. “Splother”, says Bennett, was his Dad’s invented word “for the preening and fuss invariably attendant upon the presence of aunties”, but it also serves to describe anything pretentious and showy.

In 1966, when Bennett’s Dad retired from his job as a butcher, he and Mam moved out of “mucky Leeds” and settled in a cottage with a back garden in a village in the Yorkshire Dales. There, in a supposedly idyllic setting, Mam descended into semi-madness as Dad became “both nurse and gaoler”.

Over the next years she was in and out of institutions, where Dad would visit every day, even when it meant a 50-mile trip. But Mam’s mental illness is unfailingly “modest” and unassuming: “She might be ill, disturbed, mad even, but she still knew her place.” It’s called ‘depression’ but sounds more like paranoid schizophrenia.

Questions about his mother’s mental illness open the 242-page book and remain central to the story. Popular in the 60s/70s were psychiatrists R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, known as “radical therapists.”

Laing advocated “an anarchy of experience” and thought family dynamics created mental instability. Szasz focused on love and loss within families as the spark that ignites the fuse of illness. Both themes — anarchy, and love and loss — inform Bennett’s memoir.

I know most of the places and churches he talks about. I can hear Bennett’s flat Leeds’ vowels and steady, homely drone throughout the narrative.

Psalm 91 ‘Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day’ at Compline simply wasn’t true.

I had to look up ‘kist’ = a chest used for storing clothes and linen.

Quotations:

“Frank died last week, haven’t we been having some weather.”

“Seldom can a comma have borne such a burden.”

So while she rests at the undertaker’s my brother and I consult our diaries and decide on a mutually acceptable date for the funeral, and I take the train to Weston-super­Mare for what I hope will be the last time now, though get­ting off at Nallsea, which is handier for the crematorium. It’s a low-key affair, the congregation scarcely bigger than the only other public occasion in my mother’s life, the wed­ding she had shrunk from more than sixty years before.

Of the four or five funerals in this book, only my father’s is held in a proper church; the rest, though scattered across England, might all have been in the same place, so uniform is the setting of the municipal crematorium.

The building will be long and low, put up in the sixties, probably, when death begins to go secular. Set in country that is not quite country it looks like the reception area of a tasteful factory or the departure lounge of a small provin­cial airport confined to domestic flights. The style is con­temporary but not eye-catchingly so; this is decorum-led architecture which does not draw attention even to its own merits. The long windows have a stylistic hint of tracery, denomination here a matter of hints, the plain statement of any sort of conviction very much to be avoided.

Related settings might be the waiting area of a motor showroom, the foyer of a small private hospital or a section of a department store selling modern furniture of inoffen­sive design: dead places. This is the architecture of reluc­tance, the furnishings of the functionally ill at ease, decor for a place you do not want to be.

It is neat with the neatness ill-omened; clutter means hope and there is none here, no children’s drawings, no silly notices. There are flowers, yes, but never a Christmas tree and nothing that seems untidy. The whole function of the place, after all, is to do with tidying something away.

In the long low table a shallow well holds pot plants, African violets predominating, tended weekly by a firm that numbers among its clients a design consultancy, an Aids hospice, the boardroom of the local football club and a museum of industrial archaeology.

In the unechoing interior of the chapel soft music plays and grief too is muted, kept modest by the blond wood and oatmeal walls, the setting soft enough to make something so raw as grief seem out of place. It’s harder to weep when there’s a fitted carpet; at the altar (or furnace) end more blond wood, a table flanked by fins of some tawny-coloured hardwood set in a curved wall covered in blueish-greenish material, softly lit from below. No one lingers in these wings or makes an entrance through them, the priest presiding from a lectern or reading desk on the front of which is a (detachable) cross. A little more spectacular and it could be the setting for a TV game show. Above it all is a chandelier with many sprays of shaded lights which will dim when the coffin begins its journey.

Before that, though, there will be the faint dribble of a hymn, which is for the most part unsung by the men and only falteringly by the women. The deceased is unknown to the vicar, who in turn is a stranger to the mourners, the only participant on intimate terms with all concerned, the corpse included, being the undertaker. Unsolemn, hygienic and somehow retail, the service is so scant as to be scarcely a ceremony at all, and is not so much simple as inadequate. These clipboard send-offs have no swell to them, no tide, there is no launching for the soul, flung like Excalibur over the dark waters. How few lives now end full-throated to hymns soaring or bells pealing from the tower. How few escape a pinched suburban send-off, the last of a life some half-known relatives strolling thankfully back to the car. Behind the boundary of dead rattling beech careful flower beds shelter from the wind, the pruned stumps of roses protruding from a bed of wood-chips,

My mother’s funeral is all this, and her sisters’ too; grue­some occasions, shamefaced even and followed by an unconvivial meal. Drink would help but our family has never been good at that, tea the most we ever run to with the best cups put out. Still, Mam’s life does have a nice postscript when en secondes funebres she is brought togeth­er with my father and her ashes put in his grave.

Sometimes as I’m standing by their grave I try and get a picture of my parents, Dad in his waistcoat arid shirtsleeves, Mam in her blue coat and shiny straw hat. I even try and say a word or two in prayer, though what and to what I’d find it hard to say.

`Now then’ is about all it amounts to. Or ‘Very good, very good, which is what old men say when a transaction is completed.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] A lot of this book has already been told in ‘A Life Like other People’s’ […]

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