Our ash trees are dying, but don't despair: catastrophes are natural events in the lives of trees

Dutch elm disease is a tragic thing to watch, but we shouldn't be too gloomy. Woody vegetation responds, adapts, regroups. What emerges in its recovery stage may not be the same as before, but it will always be a vital, dynamic, arboreal community.

These spring days I gaze out of my study with a mite of foreboding, waiting for a premature and possibly terminal autumn. Rooted in the bank of the ancient pond beyond the window are two multi-trunked ashes, airy, sprawling trees, which together form a canopy stretching 20 metres across. They’re fine at the moment, but just a few miles further north is the wood (its name, Ashwellthorpe, now seems an eerie black joke) where ash dieback first appeared in the wild. All winter the gales have been blowing Chalara spores southwards and it’s almost inevitable that the fungus will reach our garden. If these two trees are smitten, it will change the whole feel of our home patch.

They have a spaciousness that ashes rarely have the chance to reach on narrow hedgebanks or in the tight ranks of woods. They’re amphitheatres for flocks of birds, vast and dramatic weathervanes. Ash branches are elastic, and when they flail in the wind it is as if waves of wood are breaking across the garden. Losing them would bring not just a transformation of our view, but an unsettling shift in our sense of what constitutes a landscape, and what it contributes to our sense of home and security.

Much of Britain waits for the coming summer in a similar mood, wondering what the country will look like without our third-commonest tree. Ash doesn’t have the craggy grandeur of oak or the voluptuous grace of beech. It’s short-lived, usually collapsing at about 200 years, unless it’s been coppiced or pollarded. Its pale trunks and filigree leaves, and a habit of regenerating in dense colonies, make it an often unnoticed choral background in woods, a visual hum behind the strong timbres of the big trees. But it’s this quality that we love in it, that quiet, pale, graceful, background presence. Woods will, for a while, look emptied of depth if the disease hits badly, and in hedgerows they make up a tenth of all mature trees. Most of the older individuals are pollards, low-slung and often cloaked with second-storey thickets of ivy, so these, too, are easily passed by, unremarked. We will notice their absence, if and when they go.

But catastrophising (entirely understandable after Dutch elm disease) is not a helpful response to threats to trees, and our anxious concern for them is easily trumped by our ignorance of their survival skills and community life. So, back home, I take a dispassionate surveyor’s tour of the garden, trying to imagine what it will be like if these two great sheaves of wood, and half a dozen younger trees, succumb. Close to, the portents don’t look so bad. Our ashes are surrounded (as they are in many places) by thorn trees, burgeoning self-sown oaklings, suckering wild cherries. In ten years’ time the gaps they will leave, if struck down, will have closed up, and the ashes will be metamorphosing into complex catacombs of decaying wood, full of beetles and woodpecker probings.

We have a cultural block against looking at trees like this, as dynamic and evolving vegetation. We want them to stay exactly as and where they are, and don’t entirely believe in either their powers of self-generation or their afterlife. In an unstable world they’ve become monuments to security, emblems of continuity and peacefulness. We hug them, plant them as civic gestures and acts of reparation, give them pet names. When this cosy relationship is turned upside down – as it was, for instance, during the great storm of October 1987 – we are shipwrecked, wondering if we’ve been bad guardians, not protected them enough. “Trees are at great danger from nature,” warned the Tree Council after that storm – in an extraordinary solecism that seemed to place the arboreal rep­ublic entirely inside the kingdom of man. Very rarely do we ask whether we might have mothered them too much.

When Chalara struck the UK in 2012 it was clearly, in part, a breakdown in proper stewardship. The general public (and a good number of landowners) had never heard of the disease, but woodland ecologists and commercial foresters had been nervously tracking its inexorable westward march across Europe since the mid-1990s. Some urged the government to impose greater restrictions on the importation of ash saplings, but most had few ideas about how to interpret or react to it. That is not surprising. The fungus, now known as Chalara fraxinea, is biologically mysterious, an entirely new organism of uncertain origins. It probably evolved in eastern Asia, where it appears to be harmless to native ash species. Its ancestor is a benign and widespread leaf fungus called Hymeno­scyphus albidus, native even in the UK. But at some recent date, this threw up a mutant, Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, with slight genetic differences but a terrible virulence. The windblown spores infect ash foliage in spring, turning the leaf-tips brown. The fungal “roots” (hyphae) spread through the leaf stalks into the branches and trunk, blocking off the tree’s water supply. Diamond-shaped lesions appear on the trunk and the leaves turn brown and wilt. Young trees can die within year, but older ones appear able to survive for much longer. The fungus forms its spores in the leaf litter in summer and these are dispersed in the wind over the following months. This is effective at spreading the disease over relatively short distances, but wind dispersal is limited by the fact that the spores survive in the air for only a few days. In Norway, Chalara has moved by between 20 and 30 kilometres a year.

The first European cases were recorded in Poland in 1992. It had reached Lithuania by 1994 and then moved west and north, arriving in Italy, France and the Netherlands between 2007 and 2010. In Denmark the susceptibility of trees proved to be almost total, with not much more than 1 per cent of Danish ashes left alive since the disease first arrived there in 2003.

It was this frightening, epidemic contagiousness that caused such alarm and confusion when Chalara was spotted in Britain, first on nursery saplings imported from Holland, then on wild trees, which it can only have reached on the wind. Fantastical statistics were banded about in the media – that 30 per cent of all Britain’s trees were ashes and that, with a host of other tree diseases already established here, we were facing a dead and denuded landscape, like the Somme after the Great War. In fact, ashes make up a little over 5 per cent of our tree cover in Britain and they are highly diverse genetically. The consequences of this variability, in terms of disease susceptibility, are already making themselves shown in Poland, the first country to be hit. Between 10 and 25 per cent of Polish ashes are showing some level of natural immunity. In closely monitored populations in Lithuania, 10 per cent of trees have survived infection for eight years and appear to be able to pass this resistance on to their offspring.

Natural resistance is likely to be the best hope for the survival of a core population of ashes in the UK. Isolated from the continent for nearly 8,000 years, our trees may be more genetically diverse than those in Poland. For example, ashes that thrive in the sparse clitter of Yorkshire limestone are quite distinct from the tall poles that grow in damp East Anglian loams, and neither will survive if transplanted to the other habitat. Many ashes have male and female branches (and therefore flowers) on the same tree, so the potential for complex cross-pollination and extreme genetic variation is high. It’s a relief that for once the government has listened to its scientists and based its response on giving time and space for natural resistance to appear, and then capitalising on it, if need be, with cross-breeding. Sanitation felling, which was talked about in the first wave of panic, would have been worse than useless, doing the disease’s work for it by eliminating potentially resistant trees and throwing more dormant spores into circulation.

But this laissez-faire approach isn’t much liked. The public cry is for “something to be done”, for the excoriation of scapegoats in what is as much a natural event as a bureaucratic disaster, for raising the barricades, conjuring up a new woodland estate for the next generation. How have we come to regard trees like this? As human products or, worse, dependent arboreal children, capable of appearing only if we artificially inseminate the ground. As vulnerable to abuse from outside agencies (“nature” or nasty foreign organisms), but never from ourselves, and best put out of their misery if they become ill or old. Understanding how these stereotypes and attitudes originated, and what perpetuates them today, is crucial if we are to make a proper cultural response to, and an accommodation with, ash dieback, and with the many other diseases that are likely to affect our trees in the decades to come.

The 17th-century jobbing journalist, whimsical gardener and discreet royalist John Evelyn is most often credited with popularising the idea of trees as property, as status symbols, models of order, heritable goods, investments with a guaranteed growth rate. His book Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (1664) was publicly commissioned in response to a largely imaginary naval wood shortage, but its hidden agenda was to provide a manifesto for a tree-farming bonanza, a wood rush. Evelyn, plucking figures from the air, boasted to the king that his book had been “the sole occasion of furnishing for your almost exhausted dominion with more than two millions of timber trees”, or maybe just one million, he suggested in the second edition. But plantation fever was really ignited in the next century, by German forest science. Forstwissenschaft was steering the growing of timber towards a mathematically precise system, with the trees (increasingly conifers rather than “hearts of oak”) spaced and organised for maximum productivity.

This devotion to order and tidiness entered the aesthetics of landscape, too, and planners such as Capability Brown, whose regimented parks are still mystifyingly seen as epitomes of rural beauty, made fortunes. Not all his contemporaries admired him. The radical landowner Richard Payne Knight urged the people to vandalise Brown’s landscapes to release the incipient wildwood. Uvedale Price, the doyen of the picturesque movement, was more subtly scathing of Brown’s trademark – the clump, a kind of woodland canapé: “the clump”, Price wrote, “a name, which if the first letter were taken away, would most accurately describe its form and effect . . . from the trees being generally of the same age and growth, from their being planted nearly at the same distance in a circular form, and from each tree being equally pressed by his neighbour, [they] are as like each other as so many puddings turned out of a common mould”.

For their part, ordinary rural people were mystified by the need for plantations, having lived for thousands of years with woods that renewed themselves spontaneously and indefinitely by seeding, or by regrowth from cut coppice stools and pollards. In place of this system of natural regeneration came the notion of trees as artefacts, biddable machines for the production of timber, programmed at every stage of their lives from planting to cutting.

The fundamental grammar of our relationship with them had been changed. Previously, “growing” had been an intransitive verb in the language of woods. Trees grew, and we, in a kind of subordinate clause, took things from them. In the forest-speak of the Enlightenment, “growing” became a transitive verb. We were the subject and trees the object. We were the cause of their existence in particular places on the earth.

In our own time, the idea that trees have reproductive processes of their own has almost disappeared from our cultural memory. Instead, we like to believe that they can begin their lives only if we deliberately instal them – an idea that feeds off our ecological guilt. Tree-planting has become the great ritual of atonement, a way of making painless amends for the devastation our species had wreaked across the planet. It is a perfect symbol of procreation: the penetration of the soil, the implantation of new life, the years of aftercare and cosseting. This is the way to repair the earth, nudge it towards renewed vitality, without in any way surrendering our authority over it. Human beings know best, make better parents than nature.

Now, in the extremities of ash dieback, we can see that decades of well-intentioned planting have been not only often unnecessary, but, quite possibly, dangerous. Runtish saplings, often mislabelled and of unknown provenance, are shoved into the ground, regardless of whether they might be vectors for disease, or whether the soil is right and the site appropriate. Often they are so completely misplaced (compared to the exact choices that have been made by successful, naturally sprung seedlings) that they soon expire, even with the tree equivalent of intensive care. Those plantations that do survive into maturity are sometimes as conducive to epidemic disease as hospital wards. The trees are too closely packed, too evenly aged, too genetically uniform.

Natural regeneration isn’t universally appropriate. Trees don’t easily establish themselves in thick grassland, for instance, or, necessarily where we want them. But in most situations they are irrepressible (oak, ash and birch especially), witness how much time is spent hacking them down, in gardens, in nature reserves, on road verges and heathland. Nor, when it is successful, is the result often recognised as young or nascent woodland. It’s written off under that pejorative term, “scrub”. This transient vegetation, full of wild rose, brambles and thorn bushes, which act as protection for broadleaved saplings in their vulnerable early years, is another demonised natural form. The landscape architect Nan Fairbrother was dismissive of it in her influential 1970 book, New Lives, New Landscapes. “Incipient scrub always lurks,” she wrote, “only temporarily suppressed: it is the state of original sin in our landscape.”

In this dystopian vision – the opposite of the Romantic ideal of the immemorial wildwood – woodland ravaged by disease, mugged by alien squirrels and bashed about by un-British extremes of weather could only survive with continuous human vigilance. Scrub, the recovery mode, was not woodland in the making; it was the threatening new climax vegetation, the bleak future of unmanaged England.

This patronising desire for human control, an insistence that trees’ natural growth should conform to our current cultural stereotypes, pesters them at every stage of their life. Middle-aged trees, which lack a commercially viable uprightness, or are ruffed with low branches, are referred to as “rubbish”, or examples of “inadequate management”, as economic and aesthetic judgements meld. We have a soft spot for the truly old, for those gnarled and hollow hulks that inhabit Arthur Rackham’s drawings and, in the real world, ancient wood-pastures such as the New Forest. But we don’t like either the circumstances or the stages that are necessary to generate these awesome wooden monuments. Gale damage, fungal invasions, lightning strikes, repeated defoliation by insects are all regarded with distaste, and as intrinsically inimical to a tree’s “health”.

In fact, trees deal with stress and disease and ageing much better than we do. Oaks easily recover from complete defoliation by insects within a month or two. “Stag-heading”, where a fork of dead branches protrudes above a reduced crown of leaves, is looked on with horror as some kind of illness, a malformation that transgresses our fixed ideas of what a tree “should” look like. Yet it is an almost universal adaptation, a budgeting move that trees make when they need to economise with water. What looks like decrepitude in an old tree is often a sign of a state of calm senescence that can last for centuries. Trees knocked flat by gales can survive perfectly well in a horizontal position.

Oliver Rackham tells a cautionary story about the ancient beeches in the Pindus Mountains in northern Greece. Pindus is a remote area, far from any industrial centres, but in the 1980s the beeches showed all the signs of another fashionable affliction – Waldsterben, forest death from acid rain. The symptoms were the familiar ones of stress: dieback at the tops of trees, leaf-yellowing, early leaf fall. But many of the huge trees were then more than 300 years old. They were covered in luxuriant lichens, a sure sign of unpolluted air. And their narrow annual rings showed they had been in this state of retrenchment for centuries. Reduced vitality was the reason for their survival.

There are, of course, degrees of stress that trees can’t survive – prolonged drought, epidemics such as elm disease and the Asian canker that devastated sweet chestnuts in America. But bufferings by the weather, minor ailments, limb loss, have been the circumstances of their evolution, and they’re well able to cope. It is worth considering what a wood unaffected by any of the organisms we regard as hostile would be like. There would be no insects, and therefore no birds. No lichens or toadstools or intriguing hollows. It would not be an ecosystem at all, just barren rows of leaves on poles.

I’m not immune to the lure of ideal woodland images myself. In the 1970s and 1980s I owned a 16-acre ancient wood in the Chil­terns, which I ran as a community project. But it was also a private playground and I got to understand very well the seductive licence to control that ownership grants you. I behaved like a matronly gardener at times, clearing brambles around my pet flowers and clipping twigs to give seedling trees more light. I thought I knew what I was doing at the time, but I’m not so certain now.

In one sense, I was entirely selfish. I wanted the wood to be my kind of wood, to my taste, yet I wanted it to be ecologically sound, too. I nipped and tucked the vegetation round our primrose clumps so they would make a better show. I ring-barked the spongy, alien poplars to provide a bit of standing deadwood. But when they started to topple over, years later, I nudged them into a position where they’d take down other trees’ branches with them, in a wildwood-circus tumbling act. I lopped sycamores that were shading out ash, and ashes that were shading beechlings, as if I had certain know­ledge of the proper hierarchy in trees. And I remember the excuses I made to myself for gardening in a place that was supposed to be halfway wild. I was simply speeding up its progress towards a more “natural” state. I was doing no more than would be done by a localised wind, or a tribe of bark-beetles making a corner of the wood commodious for themselves. I was part of nature myself, for heaven’s sake, deserving of a niche along with the rest of them.

This was true, but disingenuous. Finding a balance between affectionate engagement and overbearing management is a philosophical and practical conundrum that needs a different approach in every situation; the challenge presented by ash dieback is no exception. But there are precedents, such as the great storm of 1987, which toppled 15 million trees in a matter of five hours. An important lesson which emerged from that event was the folly of rushed or aggressive action. There was more damage caused by reckless clearing up after the storm than by the wind. Still-living trees, millions of seedlings and even the topsoil were swept away by bulldozers in many woods, in response to political pressure and the public distaste for what appeared to be “untidiness”.

The contrast between the miserable replanting in these areas and the spectacular regrowth in areas left completely alone is a lesson that has been absorbed by conser­vation organisations, but not yet into our civic culture.

That favourite GP’s phrase – “watchful waiting” – is also appropriate. There is still much to learn about the Chalara fungus, about, for instance: its speed of spread and which ages of trees are most susceptible. The detection, and protection, of trees that seem to be resistant must be the highest priority. So, wherever issues of safety aren’t important, should the preservation of larger trees that succumb. A “dead” tree is still a tree, and provides a rich habitat for birds, insects, fungi and mosses.

The existence of a large population of indigenous ashes is our best safeguard for the future and makes rather baffling the Forestry Commission’s experiment, initiated early in May, of planting out trial plots with 150,000 saplings of “15 different varieties”. The intention is to discover whether a few may be resistant and eventually propagate from them. But as 80 million ashes from probably ten times that number of genotypes are already engaged in just such an experiment across Britain, it is hard to see this as much more than a PR exercise – one that fits tidily in to our long, hubristic belief that the salvation of trees lies with us and our superior arboreal intelligence only. Beyond that, the encouragement of much more diverse, self-regenerating and uneven-aged woodlands – even where these are non-native (such as sycamore, sweet chestnut and turkey oak) – is the best contribution we can make.

The sycamore is currently demonised as an “invasive alien”, introduced to Britain some time in the late Middle Ages (though it is quite possibly an indigenous species given to erratic and untypical behaviour for a native because of its own fungal affliction, tar spot). But we will need to make an accommodation with it as perhaps the best natural coloniser of bare patches that is available. It can’t host many of the insects that have co-evolved with ash over thousands of year, but it will be a partial refuge for the lichens which are ashes’ outstanding familiars, and restore a general ambient woodiness. Climate change is making the categories of native and non-native increasingly fuzzy and we may find ourselves grateful for some immigrant biodiversity.

Above all, the lesson of the storm was that catastrophes – be they disease, or climatic trauma, or insect predation – are entirely natural events in the lives of trees and woods. Woody vegetation responds, adapts, regroups. What emerges in its recovery stage may not be the same as before, but it will always be a vital, dynamic, arboreal community. The same process will happen with ash, perhaps more quickly than we think.

Copyright Richard Mabey. The Ash and the Beech by Richard Mabey was published by Vintage Books on 6 June (£9.99).

Waving, not drowning: we take the palely unobtrusive ash for granted and yet strain to impose unnatural order on the tangle of our forests. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Alan Bennett: “I hope I’m not being too old-gittish”

At 82, Alan Bennett has lost none of his wit or compassion – nor his anger at the “nastification” of Britain.

“The blond one will have to go,” declared the impresario Donald Albery in 1961, as he considered bringing Beyond the Fringe to the West End. Yet Alan Bennett, looking very much like the clergyman he once intended to be, did not go. In the half-century since, he has proved himself to be the most enduring of the four wits behind the comedy revue. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore died young: the former from alcoholism, the latter from progressive supranuclear palsy. Jonathan Miller, the great polymath, lives on in the revivals of his many theatrical productions but seems to have retreated into retirement.

Now 82 and still somehow boyish, Bennett is easily recognisable from his early photos, as he and his Oxbridge chums found fame in the revue that brought satire to the masses. He is a little slower and stiffer than he was the last time we met, and a touch deaf – Keeping On Keeping On, his new collection of diaries and writings, regales the reader with the inevitable mishearings. He has survived cancer and a stomach aneurysm and has had a couple of joints replaced, but his life seems to proceed largely unimpeded.

“You can’t sort out the symptoms of anything going round from the symptoms of just getting older,” he tells me. “I still go on my bike, because it’s easier to ride than it is to walk, and I try to do half an hour each day. There’s a niggardly bit in Regent’s Park that they allow people to cycle down . . . The canal I always find rather scary, because the rules of the road don’t seem to apply and other cyclists come along at such a rate.”

We are chatting in the lime-washed front room of the Victorian terrace house in Primrose Hill that has been his home for almost a decade, shared with his partner of 24 years, Rupert Thomas, the editor of the World of Interiors. Bennett tells me that the recent Paddington adaptation was filmed in one of the flashier, colourful houses opposite. The walls and shelves bear witness to the couple’s travels and interests – many of the paintings were bought by Thomas – and the effect is low-key and lived-in. Bennett is settled in a Carver chair by the window, beneath a portrait that looks like it’s of Thomas but isn’t. (“He wouldn’t be flattered!”)

This patch of NW1 has long been Bennett’s stamping ground. In the 1980s he lived on the same street as Miller, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and Mary-Kay Wilmers (Bennett’s editor at the London Review of Books). It’s a literary cohort captured with comic detail by Nina Stibbe, who was then Wilmers’s nanny, in her collection of letters, Love, Nina. “She’s funny, is Nina,” Bennett concedes, “but the character in the book bears no relation to me as far as I can see, and I didn’t think he was very funny, either. The notion that I could mend a fridge is absurd. I think she just wished that on to me to make me more interesting as a character, which I understand because I’ve done the same thing myself.” He didn’t recognise himself in the TV dramatisation but, he says, “Mary-Kay was happy because she was played by Helena Bonham Carter, so she found that rather flattering.”

Bennett is as active as ever, writing new plays and having older ones transferred to the big screen, most recently last year’s The Lady in the Van – the third film of his work (after The Madness of King George and The History Boys) to be directed by Nicholas Hytner, whom he met while adapting The Wind in the Willows for the stage in 1989. He doesn’t regard himself as a particularly speedy writer but: “Gradually, it gets done. Nick Hytner, at the end of the talk we did at the National [Theatre in London] about The Habit of Art, said the plays were normally four years apart. He felt that was a bit long, and if the audience felt that, too, would they applaud? It was like applauding Tinker Bell in Peter Pan!” He did speed up a little: it was only three years before he was able to pop his next script through Hytner’s letter box. The extent of his work is impressive – more than a score of stage plays and a dozen films, not to mention TV, radio and books. He giggles: “It’s appalling, isn’t it!”

Born in Armley, Leeds, to Lilian and Walter, a butcher, Bennett learned Russian during his national service and then read history at Oxford. He began and then aborted a PhD in medieval history, supporting himself with teaching, at which he insists he was “very bad”. He joined the Oxford Revue, out of which Beyond the Fringe grew, and its success in Edinburgh, in the West End and on Broadway (where President Kennedy attended) changed the course of his life. His first stage play, Forty Years On (1968), was followed by acclaimed plays and television dramas and a series of poignant Talking Heads monologues in 1988. Since 1994, three bestselling volumes of memoirs and diaries, often first published in the London Review of Books, have raised the curtain on the Yorkshire boyhood that has shaped so much of his work.

In 2008, Bennett donated his papers to the Bodleian Library in Oxford – all the diaries, letters and multifarious drafts of his plays. “I can’t believe that minute changes are of interest to anyone at all . . . They made out I was doing them a favour but it was the other way round, really – they were taking them off my hands.” Bennett doesn’t approve of selling archives unless a writer needs the money. “The British Library trumpets the manuscripts it’s bought for such and such, implying it’s philanthropy on the part of the writers – and it isn’t at all.”

To read Keeping On Keeping On is to be in the company of an old friend, one who defies the maxim that we get more right-wing as we get older. At the core of both the man and his work – whether he is writing about the Queen or Mary Shepherd, the homeless woman who lived in a van parked on his driveway – are warmth and humanity. Although there may be something teddy-bearish about Bennett, he is never cosy: almost all of his work is quietly unsettling, raising uncomfortable questions about ourselves and about society.

Bennett is moral in the best sense of the word, preoccupied always with unfairness and injustice and thus perplexed by what Daily Mail readers find in his work. “Papers full of Charles Kennedy being, or having been, an alcoholic,” he wrote in his diaries on 6 January 2006, observing that Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith weren’t ­exactly teetotal. “Less perilous, I would have thought, to have a leader intoxicated with whisky than one like Blair, intoxicated with himself.” Later that year, the news that the policeman who shot Jean Charles de Menezes was still in his post made him “ashamed to be English”.

An admirer of Gordon Brown, Bennett told me in 2008 that if David Cameron were elected, it would be “government by estate agent”. Things turned out worse than expected, and his discomfiture and anger are palpable throughout the diaries. “I blame it all on Mrs Thatcher,” he tells me several times during our conversation, regretting the end of consensus politics.

That the Liberal Democrats went into coalition was incomprehensible to him from the outset. “The Tories are not to be trusted. You knew they would just take advantage. When it was plain we weren’t going to get proportional representation, which might have saved the day, that was really the end of it . . . You look back and you think Macmillan was a liberal prime minister. He was prime minister of the whole country, despite the fact that he was aristocratic. [Thatcher] bequeathed the fact that they just govern in favour of a class.” While Blair was “hard to forgive”, Cameron was “contemptible”. As for Theresa May: “We’ll see.”

Shopping in Camden Town on the morning after Cameron’s 2015 victory, he felt a sense of “bereavement in the streets”. He wanted a Labour government so he could “stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well intentioned”.

Were he a party member, he wrote last year, he would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn, “if only out of hope that the better part of salvation lies not in electoral calculation but in the aspirations of the people”. When I ask whether he would have done so this year, however, he equivocates. “I can’t say that, no. Let’s see how things turn out.”

Bennett was surprised by the Brexit vote, “but then so was everybody else. Little England – I hate the notion. The sense of helplessness is new. It seems there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m afraid my reaction is that I shan’t be here much longer.”

Education is the issue about which he is most passionate. That students are “saddled with these enormous debts is just monstrous”, he tells me. “I feel it’s a mockery.” It is, he believes, “the mark of a civilised society that you do not think: who’s going to pay for my education? Mine was paid either by Leeds City Council or by the state, so it didn’t cost my parents a penny from start to finish.”

Leeds Modern School, which Bennett attended from 1945, was “a grammar school, though I always thought of it as just a state school. The grammar was Leeds Grammar School, a really snobbish place, and still is.” He went to Oxford after winning a Senior City scholarship. Had he been required to take out a loan, he would not have gone to university. It is “a standing rebuke” that Scotland still provides free education. When he gained the Freedom of the City of Leeds in May 2006, he said in his acceptance speech, “I feel I was given the freedom of this city more than 50 years ago . . . I was given an education for life and a freedom for life that education gives you.”

“The other thing I’m old-fashioned about is public schools,” says Bennett, who believes that their charitable status should go (“Blair could have done it easily, with the majority he had”) and that public and state schools should be amalgamated at sixth-form level – which would immediately dispense with the “need” for grammar schools. “It wouldn’t be an enormous social up­heaval and, once you’ve merged them at one level, the others would gradually follow.”

The iniquities of private education were the subject of “Fair Play”, a sermon that Bennett delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 2014. “I can understand the Etonians saying they refuse to feel guilty about it, but it’s a waste, that’s what’s wrong with it,” he says. “People are wasted. They don’t reach their full capacities. And not to reach your full capacities because your parents are in the wrong position is dreadful.”

In the King’s College sermon, he suggested that if something isn’t fair, “then maybe it’s not Christian, either”. So is it possible to be Conservative and Christian? “If I said no, the shit would really hit the fan!” he answers, giggling. “I don’t know. I’m not competent to say that.”

Devoutly religious as a teenager, Bennett wrote in 1988 that he had “never managed to outgrow” his religious upbringing, and the diaries are full of references to hymns, readings, religious paintings and churches, about which he is knowledgeable “in a slapdash way”. With Thomas, he likes to visit “tiny churches in the middle of nowhere” – buildings that haven’t been “knocked about” by the Victorians.

There is a sense in which Bennett is an Everyman, quietly advocating for the confused, accused and misused and railing against the “nastification” of Britain. Compassion is evident everywhere in his plays and in his life, although typically he denies that offering Mary Shepherd of The Lady in a Van refuge on his driveway was altruism (she was less of a distraction there than when she was parked on the street, under constant attack from unkindly passers-by).

The diaries reflect his quiet fury at various ways in which standards have slipped. Abu Hamza’s opinions, he argues, are “reprehensible . . . But he is a British citizen and he should not be extradited to the United States.” Watching the Trooping the Colour ceremony, he notes that there are “no grieving mothers, of course, and the deaths that have been mentioned are all noble ones and not due to inadequate equipment”. Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms leave him aghast.

He writes of “ideology masquerading as pragmatism”, as shown in the fate of the East Coast Main Line, which was sold back into private ownership despite turning a profit while publicly owned. Bennett is a frequent passenger and, he tells me, “The people on it, who tend not to change and are funny and eccentric, are its saving grace.”

The BBC, which has been the outlet for so much of Bennett’s work, is similarly short-termist in the way it operates. “It’s to do with the way the whole thing is financed,” he says: another black mark against Thatcher for the damage that she did to the corporation’s management and principles. He is irritated by “the form of the programmes now, where someone is sent home at the end and they’re lined up and told which one it is”. He occasionally watches The Great British Bake Off but The Big Allotment Challenge was a particular affront: “Allotments are co-operative enterprises, not competitive, except for marrows. That business of saying someone’s not as good as someone else – I just hate it.” He and Rupert watch the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory “to fill a gap. The rest is . . .” He trails off. “We don’t watch Scandinavian crime. Too gloomy.”

Bennett is wary of becoming a codger and feels that he should shut up. “I hope I’m saved from the worst of it by Rupert, who’s thirty years younger than I am. He pulls me up if I’m too old-gittish.”

“Keeping On Keeping On” by Alan Bennett is published by Profile Books and Faber & Faber

Liz Thomson edited, with Patrick Humphries, the revised and updated edition of Robert Shelton’s “No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan”

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood