Before tucking into Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, I re-read the preface to his previous collection of essays, reviews and diary extracts, Writing Home. As I’m sure you know, Alan Bennett came from a working-class family and did so well at school that he went up to Oxford to read Medieval History. In this introduction he tells a typically droll story that shows the gulf, never quite overcome, between his background and his aspirations.
I was born and brought up in Leeds, where my father was a butcher As a boy I sometimes went out on the bike delivering orders to customers, one of whom was a Mrs Fletcher. Mrs Fletcher had a daughter, Valerie, who went away to school then to London, where she got a job in a publishing firm. She did well in the firm, becoming assistant to one of the directors, whom, though he was much older than she was, she eventually married. The firm was Faber and Faber and the director was T S Eliot. So there was a time when I thought my only connection with the literary world would be that I had once delivered meat to T S Eliot’s mother-in-law.
The story goes on to tell of his mother being introduced to Eliot by Mrs Fletcher and how Alan later had to explain to her who he was (great poet, won the Nobel Prize etc), but ‘without much success, The Waste Land not figuring very largely in Mam’s scheme of things.’
Well, it doesn’t figure very largely in mine either, but the anecdote put me in mind of my own similarly tenuous links with a Famous Poet, namely Ted Hughes.
One of my professors at Newcastle University was Barbara Strang, a leading light in Linguistic Studies, and Prof. Strang’s husband was Colin Strang, a philosophy professor whose previous wife — I’m getting there — had had an affair with Ted Hughes. Unlike Alan Bennett’s Mam, however, I never was fortunate enough to meet my Great Poet via such a connection. Understandable, under the circumstances, I suppose.
Professor Strang (C), by the by, was a notable eccentric on campus (and probably off it as well — is this de rigueur for philosophers, one wonders?) He regularly appeared in the lecture hall with his trousers at half mast, revealing stripy pyjama bottoms flopping round his ankles. No wonder Patsy strayed. I bet Ted Hughes remembered to take his jim-jams off before he got dressed.
But there is another possible, though still tenuous, connection (well, I can dream, can’t I?): Ted Hughes’ mother’s maiden name was Farrar, which is also my maiden name, and like her I come from South Yorkshire stock from at least the 17th century. A good old Yorkshire name, and not so common in that spelling.