House Arrest: Pandemic Diaries by Alan Bennett review – typical Bennett on atypical times

The octogenarian playwright documents the baffling absurdities of lockdown with his usual flair

It is 16 August 2020 and Alan Bennett and his partner are on their customary evening walk. Given that 86-year-old Bennett is hobbled with arthritis, this is hardly an ambitious excursion – literally three minutes “round the block” of their north London street. Suddenly the windows fly open and neighbours start banging pots and clapping. Since he needs to lean heavily on his walking stick, Bennett is unable to join in, but he compensates by standing in the street and nodding enthusiastically. Until, that is, the horrible thought strikes him that it must look as if he is acknowledging the applause, perhaps even trying to generate it himself. To disavow this, he tries shaking his head, “but this just looks like modesty”.

It is a typical Bennett moment, part gentle social comedy part revelation about the self-delusions of the ego. It probably never occurred to the hollering neighbours that their joyful noise for the NHS might be misconstrued as directed at one elderly, slightly famous playwright. Bennett’s diaries, which he has been publishing since the early 1980s, are full of these “absurd and inexplicable” moments.

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