I began 2017 reading Alan Bennett and Carrie Fisher – both books are a blend of memoir and diary extracts. ‘Keeping On Keeping On’ is a seven hundred page not-quite extravaganza, more of a consoling compendium, and that’s what Alan Bennett has become for me. He’s the figure who turns up and tells you that all is – perhaps not quite well - but at least doing as well as might be expected.
The ten years’ worth of diary extracts are the highlight of this volume. I’m less interested in the two plays at the end, which I found quite tricky to read, and the introductions to other plays and books which pad out the second half of the book. I wonder why Faber think his fans are as completist as this? There’s quite a lot of repetition of ideas and underlining of the same themes and, while I hardly ever disagree with what he says, I do find the repetition tiring in the end. In a book of this length and with so little editorial crack-down Alan B comes to seem like the J K Rowling of shuffling about and watching the world go by.
No doubt he would hate to hear this, but he’s best when he’s writing about what happens when he pops into the local shop and some woman bumps into him and says something pithy, well-meaning and odd. Those are his greatest bits. I could do with hearing less about Britten and Larkin and Auden and I could definitely hear less about church furnishings and much more about the woman in the post office, or the one outside the corner shop. I like it best when he’s interested in living people and the random bumping-into that seems to go on around him.
The switch into Carrie Fisher’s also-recently published memoir, ‘The Princess Diaries’ was startling. I was transported back to 1976 and I was amazed to find how young and funny and dweeby the cast of Star Wars all were. How unaware they were of starring in something that would end up attracting so much attention. They were not quite iconic and each having a slightly dull time of it – the highlight being meals in London restaurants and stolen snogs in the back of hired cars. It’s very sweet and banal – this tale of being a pretend-Princess who falls into having weekend sex with a man who can barely talk to her, while during work hours they’re saving the galaxy.
My favourite bit in the whole book comes when the film is released and takes off like a rocket. Carrie and her girlfriends are cruising around LA in a car, staring amazed at the queues going round the block (hence the term ‘blockbuster’ – which I never knew!) When she sees the biggest queue of all, Carrie springs half out of the car’s sun roof and yells at everyone: ‘I’m in that movie! I’m the Princess!’ Then, when people start to cotton on and pay attention, she thinks: ‘Uh-oh!’ She comes to her senses, dives back into the car and yells at her friend: ‘Drive away!’
The actual verbatim diary extracts from 1976 are neither here nor there. Sort of Dorothy Parker - the teenage years. A bit of lovelorn poetry and a lot of longing. But they’re amazing to read because they’re so ordinary, and because she wasn’t having the time of her life at all.
Later chapters describe the fandom and convention circuit – her later career in ‘lapdancing’ as she calls it. There’s some very funny material here, in what is perhaps the definitive account of the vast, commercial sf conventions. The highlight of the whole book for me are the monologues she writes in the voices of fans who have come to see her: extolling her virtues, bubbling and gushing, accidentally insulting her, and giving so much away about their own lives. These are monologues almost as good as Alan Bennett’s own. Her essays are pithy, her memories are entertaining – but it’s her pin-sharp observation of people, and her pitch-perfect ear for everyday speech that shows up as the most brilliant of her talents.
It’s a sculptural gift: carving and editing out the verbiage and leaving a perfect monologue. Leaving a perfect column of utterance on the page – that’s the real thing. And that’s the thing that both these wonderful writers – on the surface so very different – have in common.