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Hymn and Cocktail Sticks

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Alan Bennett, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks: Two Recollections

 

The Hymn composed by George Fenton was first performed at the Harrogate Festival in 2001. This selection is prefaced by Bennett’s apologia, explaining what the music means to him and reflecting on his youthful struggles as a violinist and his father’s homely approach to the whole business of art, where there’s no need for ‘a lot of carry-on, or as Dad always put it, “a lot of splother.” Whether the reader is a musician or not Hymn is a useful lead into Cocktail Sticks, the typically whimsical Bennettian world of middle-class mores that exist no more.

 

In his introduction to Cocktail Sticks the author takes a wry look at Northern Writers and their stance towards something that used to be called ‘culture.’ It involves of course educational achievement, a kind of alienation from family roots and a plundering of personal experience, the grubbier the better. Looking back to the Sixties he finds, ‘There seemed to be agreement that a working class child educated at university found it difficult thereafter to come to terms with – relate to if you like (which I didn’t much) - his or her parents who looked on bewildered at this graduate cuckoo they had reared in their back-to-back nest.’ In this painfully funny play Bennett shows his parents trying to reconcile their no-nonsense ‘working class’ values with the newly ‘educated’ offspring. There is ample scope for misunderstanding between the generations, beautifully exploited here by Bennett.

 

Every scene, dialogue frequently intercut with mature Bennett commentary, is alive with acute observation and an unerring ear for real speech. The reader cannot help but imagine gestures, pauses, the cringing postures of the hapless characters playing out their roles:

 

Mam You’ve been to college. You’ve got your cap and gown, what more credentials do you want?

 

AB I want a past that’s a bit larger than life. I wish I’d had a harder time.

 

Mam We do our best, let you stay on at school and go away to college and now you’re saying you wish we’d sent you out to work at sixteen. You might have been like Eric Portman. He had to work as an assistant in a gents’ outfitters in Halifax. I’ve been in the shop many a time. He was sensitive, you could tell that.

 

AB Do you mean he was homosexual?

 

Mam I mean he was polite to his mother and didn’t come out with words like that.

 

Here Mam typically cites people she holds up to her son as models of decent and correct behaviour; they personify her notion of having arrived, having become rich and even more important decent and famous for it. AB, like his father, understands but doesn’t share Mam’s urge to better herself by mixing with the right people and ‘doing things properly.’

 

Mam I wish we went out a bit more.

 

Dad We do go out. We go on a bus ride practically every week. Otley. Ilkley. Harrogate.

 

Mam I don’t mean that.

 

Dad Well, what do you mean?

 

Mam I’d like to go to cafés now and then.

 

Dad We do go to cafés. We never go out but what we go to a café.

 

Mam No, I mean proper cafés – where the waiter’s a man and they come up with the pepper. A café where everything doesn’t have tea, bread and butter included. I was reading about these artichokes.

 

As ever, we find Bennett looking back on his past with a mixture of warmth and wonder. Here is the History Boy delving into the archives of his past with affection and puzzlement. Bennett is never found looking back in anger or even regret; he has always known that there’s nowt so queer as folk, and finds in the domestic confusion and misapprehension inherent in his Leeds childhood the ideal terrain for his comic vision.

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