Alan Bennett dedicates Kipling poem A Dead Statesman to Boris Johnson
Alan Bennett’s yearly diary excerpt sees the playwright dedicating Rudyard Kipling’s poem A Dead Statesman, in which the narrator proclaims that “all my lies are proved untrue / And I must face the men I slew”, to Boris Johnson.
Bennett’s annual chronicling of his life, published on Wednesday by the London Review of Books, moves from his problems getting a haircut in February – his partner Rupert Thomas takes on the task in lockdown and “manages to make me look like a blond Hitler” – to politics.
In March, he criticises how “with his customary foresight and good judgment, one of the first acts of the current prime minister was to hasten to the side of President Trump”, and how the former speaker John Bercow was the one to rule out Trump addressing parliament in 2017. “His reward was to be refused the customary peerage on retirement by the prime minister, who happily doled out peerages to umpteen millionaires, all of them donors to the Tory party. And so we go on,” writes Bennett.
By 30 May, Bennett is reduced to simply writing out the whole of Kipling’s poignant A Dead Statesman, noting that it is “a poem for Boris”.
“I could not dig: I dared not rob: / Therefore I lied to please the mob. / Now all my lies are proved untrue / And I must face the men I slew. / What tale shall serve me here among / Mine angry and defrauded young?” writes Kipling in the extract from Epitaphs of the War.
Reading Rory Stewart’s account of his time in Iraq, Occupational Hazards, causes Bennett to note in September that “it is hard to imagine this man, however briefly, as MP for Penrith and a contender with Boris Johnson, but on this evidence alone he would have been a sounder dealer with our intractabilities and a more honest one”.
Bennett also takes time to chronicle his reading habits – in particular Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth biography, which was later dropped by its publisher over allegations of sexual assault. “It’s a fucking big book, which I actually fell over yesterday on my birthday,” he notes in May, also writing about his own unexpected mention in the biography, when he meets Roth at a dinner in the 1960s.
Bennett’s own “recollections of the evening are more embarrassing”, he says. “Talking to Jonathan [Miller] beforehand, I had made a poor joke about Portnoy’s Complaint being The Gripes of Roth,” he remembers. “I’m sure I wasn’t the first to pick up on this, but it was new to Jonathan, so when Roth arrived he insisted on telling it to its subject. Maybe he even insisted on me repeating it myself. I’ve no memory of Roth’s response – unamused, I would have thought – but remember my own embarrassment, as fresh now with Roth dead as it was 50 years ago.”
The diary is published in the London Review of Books’ 1,001st issue. Mary-Kay Wilmers, who had edited the magazine for almost 30 years, founding it in 1979 along with Karl Miller and Susannah Clapp, stepped down from her role in January. “In the early days I would get cross because Karl Miller tried to take out my jokes, often through not understanding them,” remarked Bennett of the LRB’s history. “He seldom gave a verdict on the piece, so you were never sure you’d come up to scratch.”