Thursday, 27 January 2011

Alan Bennett, Talking Heads

Alan Bennett's monologues Talking Heads are surely classics now, the first of which are as funny today as they were when written and recorded for television in 1987.

But what is quite different now – at least in the western world – is the role of women. Those in most of Bennett's work are the age of his mother and, until the 1960's, many such married women were restricted, sometimes repressed, often frustrated. Trapped. Some knew themselves to be more able than their husbands, capable of much more than they were permitted to do.

Pre-war, wives were judged on the cleanliness of their homes, mothers on that of their children, and so many put their vigour – and sometimes their vitriol – into it with a vengeance. All this comes across in Bennett's monologues - fortunately with the most wonderful humour.

Eavesdrop at a bus stop today, a works canteen or social club, and you might still overhear much the same sort of conversations as Bennett relays. But the directness and deadpan delivery of northern humour is not universal. And it needs someone with an 'ear' for such things as innuendo and a masterful ability to form it into something that an audience wants to hear. Not as easy as it may seem.

Although in the majority of the monologues we associate with the views of an elderly mother or grandmother, in some - Bed Among Lentils and Her Big Chance for instance - we can recognize characteristics or emotions that could apply to those of any generation. We all know a character like Lesley in Her Big Chance who tries to convince everyone of her worth – a woman who thinks her talent is greater than it is and whose morals are unimpeachable – but who is quite unaware that she is fooling no-one.

Most of Bennett's characters do not 'see' themselves at all, and he cleverly lets the character reveal this bit by bit as the monologue progresses. Muriel, in Soldering On, really knows that her husband is reprehensibly responsible for his daughter's 'problems', and that their son is a conniving cheat, but she still keeps up appearances and maintains a stiff upper lip – in denial right to the end.

His characters are often disappointed or disempowered in some way. I guess this is simply because happy, jolly characters would not make for such interesting stories. The bitterness of the narrator of A Lady of Letters, and the extent of her meddling, slowly unfolds. In Bed Among the Lentils, the dissatisfaction of the vicar's wife in drives her to drink, but the joy of an illicit affair gives her the strength to carry on.

A Chip in the Sugar, written in Alan Bennett's 'voice' – and indeed recorded by him – is one of the best. This one is not a monologue and the straight talking characters are sometimes cruel but their love for each other is not only a taken, it is spoken. This mother and son are - to the onlooker at least - 'married'. They are as close to bickering husband and wife – with their point scoring and their pretence at independence – as any real married couple might be. Their inter-dependence is clear, humour their saving grace.

Bennett picks up on social taboos and bigotry and shows us how easily these infiltrate and affect ordinary peoples' lives. The stories are sometimes poignant, occasionally sad, but the way that Bennett manages to convey this with humour is nothing short of masterful. Dig out a copy, read and enjoy.


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Planning on Gardening

The ground is soggy after the snow and nothing looks appealing in the garden. Surely no-one enjoys gardening in the cold, wet, winter weather anyway. I know I don't. Fair weather gardener, me. But it is the perfect time for planning. For looking at your plot and seeing the bare bones. Because the structure is obvious now, not overshadowed or softened by billowing plants.

The structure in many an urban garden may be the hedges, fences and walls, the paths and pond. But in my country garden it is trees and evergreen shrubs that constitute most of the structure. Sure, there is a wall, and a stone and gravel terrace, but the clipped box and yew are just as important.

Here hedges mark the boundary, trees give the sense of enclosure. But lest I mislead, darker forces are at work threatening this idyll of nature controlled. It is now, in the depths of winter, that all the evils – in summer covered by leaf and deciduous shrubs – are apparent. The bank of brambles that has got out of hand, self-sown saplings grown into trees, hedges too large, shrubs too leggy.

So, waterproof, thorn-proof gear donned, we go as if into outer space, pruning saws drawn, secateurs pocketed, to battle with the triffids and enormous green monsters. Slashing and burning, hacking and chopping we grapple with the overgrown shrubbery and the vicious brambles. My romantic little border of ferns and lily of the valley has been ravaged by ground elder. Sneaking in undercover in some alien pot plant.

Rubus cockburnianus, which looks so wonderful with its frost blue white stems, has taken cruel advantage and gone where not intended. Sambucus, common elder to most of us, has multiplied and magnified to terrifying proportions whilst Clematis montana, which flowered so prettily and pofusely for so long, is now a mass of twiggy stems. All my fault for not pruning hard enough.

And that under appreciated evergreen, Eleagnus ebbengei, has somehow grown to take up three times its allotted space, completely smothering some shy little shrubs close by. I love its glossy silver green leaves, and the perfume from its retiring flowers, but it's time it was cut down to size. Slash and burn. Hack and chop.

And whose bright idea was it to plant Euphorbia characias, in the Pet Cemetry. Meant to be a quiet corner – only white and pastel pink flowers allowed – where beloved dead pets could be assured they'd not be dug up. Get this, plants chosen: the tiny white rose 'Little White Pet', a pink and a white bleeding heart; the above mentioned ghostly rubus; snowdrops; geranium; lilies; heavenly scented philadelphus and lilac and a Kiftsgate rose climbing over the pear tree.

Should be the sweetest place. Pretty, perfumed and subdued. Instead it has become a battle ground with the euphorbia and Geranium sanguinem fighting for supremecy. The euphorbia is not only the wrong colour (though I love the acidic green), it is a positive thug that looks like overpowering everything in sight. And the Kiftsgate rose – a wonder for two weeks in June – has decided to wage war and send out its vicious thorny shoots over everything including the fence, the wall, the lilac and the veg patch, quietly minding its own business on the other side of the hedge.

It is a relief to get inside to the gardening books and warm fire. To plan and dream that my jungle will look like the beautiful photographs of tranquil gardens where shrubs are pruned to perfection, lawns roll smoothly out into the distance and borders display the most wondrous, tastefully chosen flowering plants. Fat chance.