Alan Bennett's "Hymn"


Alan Bennett is a peculiar phenomenon, isn't he? A pudgy, elderly, softly-spoken homosexual, he seems to have become one of the grande dames of the British literary and theatrical establishments. Up there with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. If anyone deserves a Dame-dom, it's our Alan - someone should whisper in the Queen's ear and the world would be forever transformed.
The thing about Bennett is that he is so damned clever. And clever in that understated, self-deprecatory way that always wins out in the end. I mean, just look at the people with whom he rose to fame. Peacock-ish, playboy figures like Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller - all gone or forgotten. And Bennett, always the quietest one, plods determinedly along, resting snug in the arms of an adoring public across the Anglosphere. A hare and tortoise moral lesson there.
Bennett's great genius is in his instinctive love of nostalgia. He manipulates the emotional forces of everyone's nostalgia while specifically drawing on his own memories of childhood, family and class. Stephen Fry did a brilliant pastiche of Bennett's oeuvre, identifying with cutting accuracy the key elements of his work that are always there: the pronounced regionalism, the elevation of the mundane, the careful naming and categorisation of minutiae, the specific identification of elements and objects. It is Bennett's skill that keeps these elements fresh, even while in constant use.
I love all things Bennett. He seems to think like me (and that, I would venture, is his great attraction for many - he is so damned normal, and remarks on all the things that normally go unremarked), and his halting, affectionate journeys down memory lane are exactly the kinds of mental excursions I take myself on in quiet moments. And his great gentleness and affection for the flawed speak to me of an almost spiritual quality. There is always something of the Zen master in Mr. Bennett.
Hymn is an exquisite spoken piece by Bennett accompanied by the Medici String Quartet. Only running for 50 minutes, it is a little journey through Bennett's life with music. He reflects on the hymns that influenced him, along with the popular music of his day (including my favourite song of all time, 'Mairzy Doats'). He also assays his eduction in classical music without once slipping into pretension - a difficult task indeed, and something perhaps only Bennett would be capable of.
But, like all Bennett-iana, it is ultimately about family and about the quiet, cloistered state of his Leeds upbringing. He evokes wonderful images of his butcher father attempting to teach him violin, and sings a paean to publicly-funded orchestras.
It is a simple but brilliant idea, perfectly executed. The writer and performer in me wants to steal it and do my own version, and perhaps someday I will. Anyone who is a music lover will respond to this recording, marking as it does so affectionately the relationship between music, memory and emotion. And for Bennett fans it is essential, allowing us to glory in the burbling, avuncular voice of our hero for a full 50 minutes.

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