Alan Bennett at Hay festival. 30-05-09

Most of the people sitting waiting for Alan Bennett at the Hay festival had had their tickets for some time and they were as excited as a quiet, well heeled and frankly rather posh bunch of literary types ever get. He was announced by an equally excited person who was anxious not to waste our time with any words of his own that might deprive us of some of the great man’s. When we finally saw him some of us cheered just because he was standing in front of us. He accepted his reception with quiet detachment, simply stating that if any of us had been there the day before we would be getting a rerun with a few diversions. Only Alan Bennett could get away with that when those listening had paid £25 a ticket for an hour in his presence.
It was very simple. Pure Bennett really. He read from Untold stories (his published diary extracts) and moved, amused and delighted his audience in equal measure. His sense of timing is pitch perfect and to hear his own unique voice live, reading his equally carefully timed anecdotes and musings was something to treasure. As a public person he is quiet and unassuming, giving nothing away and keeping out of the limelight, but his writing tells us everything we need to know about his basic decency, wisdom and compassion for the world around him. It is all there laid out for us in his prose with wit and economy and that’s why his readers feel not just admiration but enormous warmth for him and even love.
After some very brave and starstruck members of the audience asked a few questions which he answered carefully and politely without giving much away (he has told us anything he wants us to know already in his work) James Naughtie presented him with a Listening Books award. It was presented with love to the greatest living Englishman and nobody in the audience was in any danger of nominating someone else for that title. He liked it too, even the quiet thank you which was all he said as he walked off stage made that clear. No wonder. Rather than a useless bit of glass or metal work they had found him a first edition of Bleak House.

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