Alan Bennett’s Yorkshire is not one of beautiful countryside, proud civic architecture and quaint rows of red brick houses. In his memories, it is a landscape with very little colour of its own and has contributed to Bennett’s lifelong feeling that life is something that happens elsewhere: ‘It was a childhood dull, without colour, my memories done up like the groceries of the time in plain, utility packets‘. These drab memories of Leeds, defined by soot-covered facades and subdued expectations, no doubt sprang from the limitations of the 1940s and early 1950s – in fact, young Alan’s first day at school was delayed by the outbreak of World War 2. The family caught a bus to Nidderdale to evacuate themselves, but when it became clear there was no immediate danger in Leeds, they returned to their terraced house in Armley. Bennett’s childhood territory ranged from the back-to-back streets of his family’s house (in the ‘Hallidays’) and his grandmother’s house in Wortley.
Bennett described himself as a quiet child, and as a natural observer and eavesdropper on the life around him; a sociologist of human speech and behaviour from an early age. It is the speech patterns and the characters in Bennett’s work which make the northern landscape come alive. During his early years, excitement was thin on the ground, so Bennett’s writing later magnified things that others might have passed off as everyday and unremarkable. The detail of small exchanges, of register, pitch and social eccentricity are still the foundations of Bennett’s repertoire as a writer. His upbringing turned out to be one of the dominant themes of his work – ‘had I known it would become fashionable I would have enjoyed it more‘, Bennett remarked later on.
Bennett’s father worked at the Co-op butcher on Armley Lodge Road and the Bennetts moved to Headingley in 1946, when Walter Bennett took over a butcher’s shop there. Young Bennett found the family home wanting – and children’s books provided confirmation that there was a more colourful and exciting world he was not privy to. His mother’s longing for social sophistication and interaction (or ‘mixing’) is magnificently captured in the play Cocktail Sticks.
Bennett’s father was of a very ‘Yorkshire’ sensitivity in that he loathed any hints of ‘showing off’ or of ‘putting it on’. It was important to ‘know one’s place’. Bennett, a bright child, would sometimes show off his ability, much to the distaste of his father. To escape spatial and other confines, Bennett spent a lot of his time in three neighbouring buildings. Here is an extract from his speech on receiving the Freedom of the City of Leeds:
[…] the library, [what was] then the Reference Library, a superb piece of high Victorian architecture and a wonderful library where I regularly used to do my homework […] And next door to the library is, of course, the Art Gallery which was another part of my education, and across the road the Town Hall where every Saturday night throughout my adolescence I went to concerts and learned to love music. So you see that when I say was given the freedom of the city many years ago, this is what I mean.
(Alan Bennett, Keeping On Keeping On, 2016, p. 60)
Knowledge and art offered a way forward, housed in buildings central to the Corporation, embodying the way it ‘looked after its own’. Bennett’s free education was only one of the many ways the ‘constant and largely benevolent‘ presence of the Corporation was imprinted on him. He used his voice to criticise the destruction of local city and town environments in his television plays of the 1970s and 80s and has explored Leeds landmarks in his documentary work.
Kara’s talk will further explore Bennett’s writing relating to Leeds specifically and to Yorkshire more generally – environment, characters, language, biography, history, architecture: all the things which make up our home. Her talk is Wednesday 15 May, 1.00 – 2.00pm, Third Floor, Leeds Central Library. Reserve your free place through Ticketsource.
Dr Kara McKechnie is a Lecturer in Dramaturgy at the University of Leeds. She has published widely on Alan Bennett, including a monograph on his work for television (Manchester University Press, 2007), and has contributed to productions of Bennett’s plays at Leeds Playhouse. She is also the author of a book about Opera North.
The Local and Family History department at Leeds Central Library houses the Alan Bennett Collection, of signed books and ephemera. Contact us to find out more: 0113 37 86982 or via firstname.lastname@example.org