Monday, 21 March 2011

The Laying On Of Hands

Alan Bennett

The Laying on of Hands is the story of a particularly well-attended memorial service. Clive Dunlop, who died aged 34, was ostensibly a masseur, but his talents stretched far beyond that.

Father Jolliffe, taking the service, was also a friend and client of Clive. He is surprised by the array of show-business types on display at the service; and the show-biz themselves are surprised at the extent of Clive's connections, too. He was, as well as warmly tactile, scrupulously tactful.

We hear Father Jolliffe preparing mentally for the service, as well as wrestling with the implications of his own association with Clive; we hear Archdeacon Treacher, (standing for dignity, formality and self-restraint, Bennett tells us), vetting the service for his Bishop; we hear the publisher, attending the funeral as a dutiful favour to the author he is probably losing, searching for the easiest way to cash in on the collective and esoteric fame united in the church.

Through whipsered conversation, the mutations of spreading rumour, and moments of inner dialogue, we trace the audience (as Jolliffe has always thought of a congregation as, anyway) question the cause of death. There is the unspoken worry, very practical to many in attendance, of Aids. And as people (invited by Jolliffe) contribute their favourite memories of Clive, it soon becomes far less unspoken, and much more of a worry. Aids is a certainty, then questionable, and then -- hope heartbreakingly dashed -- a certainty again.

By the time Clive's doctor speaks up to finally set the record straight, Jolliffe has completely lost control of his audience. Treacher, hidden away near a pillar, makes a final, scornful note, condemning the service and Jolliffe's role in it. We look over his shoulder as he does so, to Bennett's obvious pleasure, and our own.

In fact, Bennett takes obvious pleasure in walking invisible through the church and the Order of Service, sitting next to whoever he chooses, listening in to any private conversation he likes, pencil and pad in hand. The only cruelty, as always, is in capturing exactly what people do say, and nothing more.

There is a sharper satire here than at first glance. Bennett, who uses such gentle colours and such humble brush-strokes, can paint a far more honest picture than most. How we judge, who we judge, and how we present ourselves are all here, but the real target, as with all good satire, is hypocrisy.

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