Last weekend my wife and I found ourselves standing at the grave of two people neither of us had met, yet whose images were clear within my mind as though they had actually been known to me. To explain, one has to go back to the start of a series of coincidences, the remarkable concurrence of events without apparent causal connection, which began sometime during late 2005.
Betty’s Tearooms in Ilkley is where it started.
One Friday afternoon, late in 2005, my wife and I stopped off at this delightful, aforementioned establishment whilst travelling to the Yorkshire Dales. On leaving, I happened to bump into a very tall gentleman as he entered the tearoom. He was carrying a sheaf of newspapers and was dressed, amongst other things, in a raincoat, sweater and scarf. Now, I don’t normally go around bumping into people. Even less so do I tend to recognise them, and the chance of my actually being able to give them a name is almost zero.
‘That was Alan Bennett,’ I remarked to my wife as we walked out the door. A comment which, you will now understand, was quite astonishing for me, the great blinkered one. Even more so, as at that moment I couldn’t think of one thing he had written, nor when I had last seen him on television.
A quick burst of time travel then takes us to Waterstones in Harrogate where, a few weeks before Christmas, I was browsing the ‘best sellers’ and ‘new releases’ shelves, eager to divest myself of some book vouchers which had been burning a hole in my pocket. (Yes, perceptive reader of the past postings on this site, I was partaking in that noble sport, the Book Hunt and suitably dressed for the occasion – corduroys, tweed jacket, open-neck Barbour shirt, spectacles on nose, wad of ammunition in pocket.) Pausing for a moment, I picked up a copy of Alan Bennett’s new book, Untold Stories, flicked through a few pages and, for a reason which, in retrospect, is hard to explain, replaced it on the pile, deciding that it wasn’t for me.
Zoom forward two months to February 2006. An email announces that a complimentary copy of Alan Bennett’s book, Untold Stories, was on its way to me with a request that I write a short review for the magazine in question. As promised, the book duly arrived the following day and, over the course of the following week, was devoured with interest. Why I had ever rejected it whilst in Waterstones I will never know, except that providence had now enabled me to receive a free copy! It made for a most interesting read and I heartedly recommend it.
Well, it would probably have ended there if Mr Bennett had not made one statement in his book which particularly whetted my curiosity. It is in the introduction to the section in Untold Stories entitled Diaries. There he states, ‘Craven is the village in Yorkshire to which my parents retired and where we still have a house.’ Nothing special about that, you may think. However, we live in Craven and Craven is not a village, it is a district within North Yorkshire. Cue Sherlock Holmes.
For the next few hours I combed through Untold Stories, picking out the various clues. Then armed with an Ordnance Survey map of the area and Pevsner’s West Riding of Yorkshire, I pinpointed the suspect village. The next task was to prove the theory.
Which is why, last weekend, we stood in a lonely country cemetery, on the outskirts of a village, west of Settle, paying our respects to Mr & Mrs W Bennett, the late parents of Alan Bennett.
Returning to Lincolnshire on Sunday evening, I switched on the television and the first programme I saw was the tail-end of something to do with the history of Jackanory. Who should be reading an excerpt from Winnie the Pooh? Why, yes, Alan Bennett!
So, from knowing very little about the man, in a short space of time I had bumped into him, rejected his book, received a free copy of his book, reviewed his book, discovered where his Yorkshire home is, found where his parents are laid to rest and, at long last, seen him on television. No wonder I was beginning to feel like a literary stalker. However, there it ends. Have no fear, Mr Bennett. I will not come lurking outside your house, nor indeed will I identify the name of your village. Professional etiquette forbids me that.
Nevertheless, should you ever be passing through our own village, which is not so far from yours, then please do feel free to drop in for a cup of tea. After all, I would always be happy to give you some free advice regarding your next script…