House Arrest: Pandemic Diaries by Alan Bennett review – typical Bennett on atypical times

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It is 16 August 2020 and Alan Bennett and his spouse are connected their customary evening walk. Given that 86-year-old Bennett is hobbled with rheumatoid arthritis, this is hardly an ambitious excursion – virtually 3 minutes “round the block” of their northbound London street. Suddenly the windows alert unfastened and neighbours commencement banging pots and clapping. Since helium needs to thin heavy connected his walking stick, Bennett is incapable to articulation in, but helium compensates by lasting successful the thoroughfare and nodding enthusiastically. Until, that is, the horrible thought strikes him that it indispensable look arsenic if helium is acknowledging the applause, possibly adjacent trying to make it himself. To disavow this, helium tries shaking his head, “but this conscionable looks similar modesty”.

It is simply a emblematic Bennett moment, portion gentle societal drama portion revelation astir the self-delusions of the ego. It astir apt ne'er occurred to the hollering neighbours that their joyful sound for the NHS mightiness beryllium misconstrued arsenic directed astatine 1 elderly, somewhat celebrated playwright. Bennett’s diaries, which helium has been publishing since the aboriginal 1980s, are afloat of these “absurd and inexplicable” moments.

The pandemic is the inheritance and, indeed, the foreground to this latest and astir slender tranche of journals, which runs to a specified 64 pages. The entries statesman connected 24 February 2020, with the diarist chipper astir the unlikelihood of the caller microorganism successful Milan having overmuch effect connected London living, and chunter connected to the autumn of 2021 erstwhile the situation appears to beryllium successful the rearview reflector (we know, though helium does not, that Omicron is lurking successful the wings). The information that Bennett’s caller mean present involves being met by adjuvant unit with a wheelchair whenever helium travels betwixt Leeds and King’s Cross tells america conscionable however frail helium has go successful the intervening 18 months. It doesn’t halt him, though, keeping a beady oculus connected the competition. In November 2020 helium notices that the Queen, astir 10 years his senior, is capable to locomotion backwards erstwhile laying a wreath astatine the Cenotaph. The information that Her Majesty could astir apt not negociate this contiguous is simply a reminder of however swiftly treacherous precocious aged property tin be.

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It is not each doom and gloom. On 26 March of that archetypal year, Nicholas Hytner rings with the breathtaking quality that the BBC would similar to record a caller version of Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues of 1988 due to the fact that it is precisely the benignant of happening that could beryllium done connected Zoom. The manager pops circular aboriginal that time to sermon details, which helium is obliged to semaphore from the different broadside of the street. Bennett, successful turn, worries that weeks of societal isolation person robbed him of the powerfulness of speech. On the telephone to the optician astir his breached glasses, helium finds that helium has mislaid the words, and his spouse has to instrumentality over. Later, arriving astatine the vaccination centre for his archetypal jab, Bennett firmly announces that helium is present “for the virus” (in his defence, helium points retired that some of them are “v words”).

If Bennett’s code tin beryllium jumbled, his penning remains arsenic deft and seamless arsenic ever, particularly erstwhile dealing with that astir numinous of subjects, his puerility successful working-class Leeds. Contemplating the existent authorities of hand-washing and elbow-bumping pitches him consecutive backmost to the 1940s erstwhile the unfortunate household adjacent doorway succumb to TB. Young Alan was strictly forbidden from mounting ft successful this den of contagion until, lured by Mrs Sherwood’s cloud-like yorkshire pudding, helium decides to hazard it: “It was arsenic if I’d signed my ain decease warrant.”

There is thing astir this aboriginal acquisition successful the information that different radical airs that contributes to the content Alan Bennett ever gives of having been primed for apartness. He recounts a telling anecdote from 1941 successful which the full household went connected a Sunday sportfishing expedition successful the country. Bennett and his member wore their schoolhouse caps, his parent her swagger coat, and his begetter the suit with the bully trousers. Having failed to drawback thing – were they adjacent successful the close place? – the improbable sportsmen instrumentality themselves stoically home. “We ne'er joined in, got the gear, looked the part,” recalls Bennett and it is wide that helium is reasoning of much than conscionable fishing.

Where this tortured restraint does not reach, though, is into Bennett’s ethical worldview which stay arsenic richly communitarian arsenic ever. The quality that the formed and unit of the caller Talking Heads bid person agreed to instrumentality lone a nominal interest and donate the profits to the NHS gives him a uncommon unreserved of pleasance successful a satellite dominated by the bleak economics of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. More than £1m is raised, an enactment of generosity that reaches acold beyond the awkward show of a Thursday nighttime assemblage clap.

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