Book Review by Mike Sansbury, manager of The Grove Bookshop: Keeping On Keeping On by Alan Bennett, published by Faber and Faber/Profile in hardback at £25.

IT IS often all too easy to underestimate the full range and depth of Alan Bennett’s talents. To many he is the National Treasure whose wry comic pieces and nostalgic slices of memoir bring a smile, while others recall the comic performer from Beyond the Fringe or the serious playwright whose work has shed light on subjects as diverse as the monarchy, the National Trust and the friendships and proclivities of Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden. Despite his many serious dramas and sometimes withering statements on public and political affairs, he remains to many people a symbol of Northern cosiness and gentle observation. As he says, with mild exasperation, in a diary entry in this new book, “Were I to stab Judi Dench with a pitchfork, I should still be a teddy bear.”

Keeping On Keeping On is the long-awaited third volume of Bennett’s collected prose, diaries and assorted writings. The first two books, Writing Home and Untold Stories, were instant bestsellers and the latest book shows every sign of being one of this year’s Christmas hits. It contains many of the traditional ingredients, from his perennially popular diary extracts to introductions to his most recent plays, as well as a full-length radio play, several of his public speeches, and appreciations of the film director John Schlesinger and the medieval historian K.B. McFarlane. There is wit and warmth, affection and anger in equal measure in the richly varied pieces included within the pages of Keeping On Keeping On, so much so that to read the book all the way through would perhaps give us the rounded view of Alan Bennett which the man deserves.

There is a rather delicious irony in the fact that the most eagerly-awaited section of this book is the ten years’ worth of diary entries. For someone so renowned for eavesdropping and picking up little snippets of speech to use later, Bennett is remarkably candid when writing down his thoughts. The Judi Dench comment apart, he can happily publish a remark which, written in haste, could quite easily and painlessly have been held back from publication. It is this honesty which adds to the rounded picture. There is political opinion, there are insights into the author’s domestic life, and also, by popular demand, those sly observations; “A child in Settle is said to have asked what the Mafia was and his grandfather said, ‘It’s like the Settle Rotary Club, but with guns.’”

One of the most intriguing parts of this collection is the section of diaries relating specifically to the filming of The History Boys in 2005. Placed in a chapter of their own, they shed light on many aspects of Bennett’s persona, from his innermost thoughts to his creative process, as well as showing how he relates to actors, directors and, in particular, young people. It is all the more fascinating for concentrating on his working relationship with a close group of people, whereas the diaries in general include a cast of hundreds, many of whom have the briefest of cameo roles.

Though to some people he will always be that cosy teddy bear, this new collection is testament to the depth and diversity of Bennett’s writing. We at the Grove Bookshop might be slightly biased, as he is a regular visitor and supporter, but I would heartily recommend Keeping On Keeping On to people who think they know him and to those who haven’t quite made up their mind.