Alan Bennett was supremely himself when he made a guest appearance at the NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) conference in York.
With his trademark glasses, jumper, tie and West Yorkshire accent, Bennett read from his collected diaries for 45 minutes.
Much of the content was anecdotal, small stories of humour and absurdity, like the woman who said to Bennett after a reading: ‘‘I want to be buried next to you’’, Or the famous ‘‘lady in the van’’ who inhabited Bennett’s drive for 13 years. ‘‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’’ Bennett asked her on one occasion. ‘‘Don’t trouble yourself, half a cup will do,’’ was the response.
These gentle tales became hilarious as they were delivered in a deadpan style by the elder statesman of Yorkshire humour. During questions, Bennett was asked about the ‘‘dark side’’ of his writing and struggled to provide an answer.
Simon Armitage, by contrast, had his dark side fully on display. Beginning with an acidic piece from his brilliant collection Seeing Stars, in which a bear inhabits a recycling site and seems addicted to drugs, his reading took in several texts and styles. The ecological slant to his recent work is born of pessimism: ‘‘I think we’re doomed’’ he stated without sentiment at one point in the evening, before reading a poem called The Present, about searching for an icicle for his daughter in the Yorkshire countryside and returning empty-handed.
There were touches of humour. Armitage remarked how the men from Disney took an interest in his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and took him out for a ‘‘power breakfast in Huddersfield’’.
Both men were excellent, but the second’s unsettling power was in contrast to the cosier performance by Bennett.
Review by Miles Salter