Bernard Trafford: Maybe there's a reason for Alan Bennett being so sour

Journal columnist Bernard Trafford on the cycnicism and misery those pre-election promises can inspire

Alan Bennett
Alan Bennett

“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

I’ve quoted that saying before, attributing it to French playwright Jean Giraudoux. He published it in 1980, the same year in which American comedian George Burns put it in his memoir. However, Wikipedia tells me both probably borrowed it from a 1962 newspaper column by Leonard Lyons quoting actress Celeste Holm.

Who cares? It’s a great line, and I was reminded of it by that national treasure, Alan Bennett, asked on Radio 4’s The World at One to name Britain’s greatest achievement.

Bennett considered Swaledale (loyal Yorkshireman), mediaeval churches and the National Trust. In the end, though, he decided that the thing the English are best at is hypocrisy.

“We glory in Shakespeare, yet we close our public libraries … A substantial minority of our children receive a better education than the rest because of the social situation of the parents. Then we wonder why things at the top do not change or society improve. But we know why. It’s because we are hypocrites … Our policemen are wonderful, provided you are white and middle-class and don’t take to the streets.”

I’m sorry the writer I’ve always admired, and over whose works I have cried with laughter, is becoming pretty sour nowadays. (Note to self: now you’re middle-aged, check that you’re not getting grumpy or cynical).

Hypocrisy: it’s a strong word, and not one I generally level at politicians, though I often talk about their lack of self-awareness. They certainly have a knack of failing to see the irony in their ill-considered pronouncements: only a high-profile few become truly hypocritical.

They do talk nonsense though! In this season of pre-election rubbish, I was amused to see both major parties absolutely committed to increasing the amount of housing. The Tories will build 200,000 homes in every year in a new government. Not to be outdone, Ed Milliband is promising a Labour project of building (wait for it) 200,000 new homes a year.

Still, there is clearly a difference between the two parties. Labour says the Tories only look after the rich: the Tories accuse Labour of planning the next class war. One is the unattractive flipside of the grotesque other. Given constant finger-pointing, counter-accusation, and the unremitting misery of the BBC’s Question Time programme on a Thursday night, I’m unsurprised Bennett’s disillusioned.

Here’s a thought! Perhaps he’s got writer’s block. A newspaper article this week reported that nostalgia has been proved to be a cure for that condition. Southampton University researchers gave two groups of Irish undergraduates a writing task. One had to write about an ordinary event in their life, the other about a nostalgic experience.

Those indulging in nostalgia wrote more fluently and imaginatively. Now I think of it, Bennett’s most popular works are nostalgic, harking back to his youth and dealing with old-fashioned attitudes and characters comically bewildered by a changing world.

Where would television drama be without nostalgia?

Perhaps there’s so much nowadays (including forthcoming re-makes of Poldark and Dad’s Army) because writers can’t think of anything new to say in the modern age. How else do we account for the phenomenal success of Downton Abbey?

I wrote a few years ago that watching it was like wallowing in a bath of warm chocolate. At that stage we were only on Series 2. Now I’m bored with it: even the wonderful Dame Maggie Smith can only deliver so many withering one-liners before becoming predictable.

Still, she remains the best bit. In a disarming interview last week she confessed to amazement that they keep writing her into each new series. After all, she admitted, to her knowledge her character must by now be 110 years old.

Well, the Queen Mother passed 100. Let’s see if the Dowager Duchess can make it to 120. Meanwhile, let’s look back, cheer up, and avoid becoming grumpy!


Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal


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