‘The Many Lives of Arnold Bennett’ at Keele

The fourteenth annual Arnold Bennett Conference was held at Keele University last weekend, and was an extremely enjoyable affair.

samira ahmed
Samira Ahmed

It began on Friday evening, when Samira Ahmed, the BBC radio and television presenter, gave a public lecture. Her topic was ‘What can Bennett Teach Post-Brexit Britain?’
This was a lively talk, and her enjoyment of Bennett shone through, as she discussed the writer’s qualities, some of which are in short supply these days. She stressed his humanity and his sympathy for others, but the most interesting moment was when she was talking about Denry Machin, Bennett’s ‘Card’. She praised his quality of cheek, of being unfazed by the opinions of those who set themselves up as his superiors. She found the same quality in Joe Orton and the Beatles, but then mentioned a modern-day character who is sometimes taken for ‘a bit of a card’ and a cheeky chappie – Nigel Farage. With his public-school education and his nasty attitudes, Ms Ahmed, suggested, he was actually the exact opposite of Bennett’s working-class-lad-made-good. At which point, a loud and throaty voice sounded from the back of the hall: ‘Well I like him!’
This was a reminder that North Staffordshire was the dark heart of Brexit country, where BBC attitudes do not always go down well.
Put off for no more than a microsecond, Ms Ahmed assured him that he had every right to like Nigel Farage, even though she didn’t. She carried on smoothly.
For me at least, this interruption from the heart of Brexit Britain was a reminder that cosmopolitan Francophile Bennett needed to escape from the Potteries as quickly as he could. Its narrowness and restrictions would be a mine that he exploited in his fiction for many years, but he really didn’t like the place (though in a way he loved it). It’s from the contradictions in he feelings that he produced his great novels – but he preferred to do so from a distance.
On Saturday morning, the crowd was more homogeneous. What’s nice about this kind of conference is that you are among people who care about the same things as you do, who are happy to chat about the Edwardian literary marketplace, or about Lord Raingo.
Proceedings began with a keynote lecture from Randi Saloman. She told us of her joy at finding, at last, copies of the Golden Penny magazine that included instalments of The Grand Babylon Hotel, Bennett’s breakthrough novel and his first real success. This kind of detective work is one of the great pleasures of literary research, and seeing a text in its original context can be highly illuminating. It tells us much about Bennett’s status at this time that he appeared in such a down-market context – and tells us much about his character that he was able to lift himself into more reputable literary spheres.
This year the conference had attracted a lot of paper proposals, so there were simultaneous panels. This always leaves one anxious that one is missing out, and I think I made at least one wrong choice. Never mind. The papers will all be published together next year, so I’ll be able to catch up.
I very much enjoyed the panel that featured Fred Hughes talking about the politics of Clayhanger and Hannah Scragg discussing Lord Raingo with great warmth. She focused on the personal side of that rich novel, and on Sam Raingo’s almost Wordsworthian gleams of insight and understanding.
At lunchtime, John Prescott formally launched The Arnold Bennett Companion, Volume Two.

companion II

Now I have an interest to declare here, since it contains my own chapter ‘An Out and Out Radical: Arnold Bennett and Politics’, but it really is a first-rate collection. So far I’ve enjoyed John Shapcott’s own round-up of Bennett’s later literary journalism, Tim O’Sullivan’s account of the 1952 film of The Card, Nicholas Redman’s chapter on ‘Arnold Bennett, Brighton and Sussex’ and Paul Jordan’s analysis of the 1909 novel, The Glimpse. This is generally agreed to be Bennett’s very worst novel (since it lurches uneasily into weirdo Theosophical territory) but Paul Jordan’s account of it has got me ordering a copy from Abebooks.
In the afternoon, I gave my paper on Bennett at the Ministry of Information. I wrote a while ago on this blog about the file in the National Archives that shows Bennett the administrator at work. I went to Kew a few weeks ago for another look at the file, and this talk was the result.
Later John Shapcott talked about Bennett among the artists (drawing attention to the remarkable number of descriptions in his work of paintings and sculptures). These often define a scene or comment on their owner (Pity the sentimental types who have Marcus Stone prints on their wall; they will feel the full force of Bennett’s scorn.). Then Jonathan Wild talked about Bennett the Edwardian, teasing out the meanings of that sometimes misused adjective, and showing how Bennett represented the best of his time.
So it was a very rewarding day. I had never been to Keele before, and found the campus rather confusing to start with. But then I’d got off the bus at the wrong stop to begin with, so no wonder I got lost. A very friendly local rescued me, though, and gave me a lift to where I needed to be. For which many thanks.
I had a short look round Hanley in the afternoon. Last year I reported that the local Waterstones contain not a single copy of an Arnold Bennett novel. This year is Arnold Bennett year, though, and there have been all sorts of local celebrations of his 150th birthday. Visitors have come from all over the world. Waterstones have therefore improved slightly. Their fiction shelves offer one book, a copy of Clayhanger. It’s a start.


  1. Stephen Paradis
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    A reminder of the kind of entertainment no longer deemed necessary in our better age.

    If the cast cards don’t make you sigh, feel free to switch it off.

    • Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Thanks for posting this link. The film is pure joy.
      Did you know that there was an earlier film version of ‘The Card’? It was made in 1922, starring Laddie Cliff (noted revue artist of the time) as Denry. The film is generally presumed lost, like so much of the silent movie heritage, but a while ago I saw a DVD of it advertised on a website. Excited, I sent off for it, only to be told that their supplier could not send more copies.
      This implies that there is at least one copy of it somewhere out there. Any ideas?
      This is the IMDB page about the film:

      • Stephen Paradis
        Posted September 9, 2017 at 4:15 am | Permalink

        I can find nothing in the usual places. The BFI might have a definite answer for now, but things are always turning up in film vaults places like in Buenos Aires.
        Very pleased to learn that Glynis Johns is still with us, at 93.
        And not long ago I found this.

        About 11 minutes in. It seems that her father Mervyn Johns, possibly the least dashing actor in the profession, was once Biggles.

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