Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?

lady-in-the-vanThe Lady in the Van
by Alan Bennett

This is my third Alan Bennett and, honestly, my least favourite. It’s also the first of his non-fiction memoirs that I’ve read, which doesn’t bode well for completing his backlist as that’s the bulk of his work.

This particular story, made into a film last year starring Maggie Smith, is about the decidedly odd Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van on Bennett’s driveway from 1974 until 1989. First published in 1989, this is essentially annotated and edited excerpts from Bennett’s diaries in those years. He is fighting very hard not to judge the elderly “Miss S.” for her eccentricities, and he is certainly extremely tolerant in the face of her difficult temperament. And she is extremely difficult.

October 1969. When she is not in the van Miss S. spends much of her day sitting on the pavement in Parkway…She sells tracts, entitled ‘True View: Mattering Things’, which she writes herself, though this isn’t something she will admit…She generally chalks the gist of the current pamphlet on the pavement, though with no attempt at artistry…She also makes a few coppers selling pencils. ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he had bought from me was the best pencil on the market at the present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly.’ D., one of the more conventional neighbours…stops me and says, ‘Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?’ ”

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Christmas reads in brief

As I may have mentioned once or thrice, most of our spare time lately has been spent chivvying builders/cleaning up after builders/redecorating. While I have managed to squeeze in some reading, I think I’m going to skip writing full reviews for this holiday and get back in the swing next week. That’s a good way to start the new year, right?

Modesty Blaise: the Black Pearl

Modesty Blaise: the Black Pearl
by Peter O’Donnell (story) and Jim Holdaway (art)

Modesty Blaise: the Green-Eyed Monster
by Peter O’Donnell (story) and Enric Badia Romero (art)

I punctuated my holiday with two volumes of the long-running comic strip about the very British super-capable heroine Modesty Blaise. As I’ve written about her before, there is little new to say. O’Donnell puts her in a variety of locations and intrigues but tries not to make his stories Bond-like, so although she has a good friend high up in the British secret service, she is not a spy. She is a gun for hire, but most of the time she finds her own work, happening, like a young sexy martial-arts-trained Miss Marple, upon crimes and capers wherever she goes. Some stories impressed me with their nuanced political intrigue but then there was the occasional racism that reminded me that this was popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

First published in the London Evening Standard and the Glasgow Evening Citizen 1966–1971.
These collections published 2004 and 2005 by Titan Books.

The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett

This tiny book is a novella about a middle-aged couple whose fancy flat is burgled while they’re out at the opera. Everything has been taken, even the carpets, light fittings, toilet rolls and telephones. It’s almost a farce, with the well-to-do middle class slowly picked apart as they try to navigate public telephones and immigrant-run corner shops. Bennett is of course spot-on with his observations and had me laughing out loud from page one. But it’s also moving, sad even, to see how unhappy marriage can be and how far apart people who live together and love one another can become. Highly recommended.

First published in the London Review of Books in 1996. This edition published in 1998 by Profile Books.

Wild Girls: the Love Life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks
by Diana Souhami

On the back of the excellent Mitfords book I thought I’d try another biography. Unfortunately, this one was not as good. It felt a little rushed although perhaps they were really only interesting by virtue of the circles they moved in? Barney was a poet and Brooks an artist. Barney surrounded herself by the elite of Paris culture, particularly the gay section of that crowd, and had affairs with everyone (or rather every woman who would have her). Brooks started out in this crowd but became a recluse. Souhami tells of the wonderful long life of Barney versus the painful slow decline of Brooks and it’s sad but I never felt I had got to know either of them. Extracts from their passionate love letters are repetitive and overblown. Souhami’s intensive research has led to strange chaotic annotations/references in several different formats, which were near impossible to navigate when I actually wanted to. Interesting, but felt like it could have been more than it was.

First published in 2004 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

So that’s what I read over the holidays. What about you?

One likes to read

The Uncommon Reader
by Alan Bennett

This is a brilliantly funny, astute, thought-provoking book that is sadly small enough to read in one short sitting. I immediately added a whole bunch of Bennett books to my wishlist (any advice on which to read next appreciated).

The “uncommon reader” of the title is the Queen, who has never had much time for reading, but on bumping into a travelling library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace takes out a book, initially to be polite. Politeness turns to genuine interest, tempered by a keen awareness that she doesn’t know much about books besides having met most of their authors. So she promotes kitchen hand Norman, the library van’s only regular customer, to be her amanuensis and literary adviser. As her passion for reading grows, she becomes distracted from, and then bored by, her royal duties, and her staff conspire to cure her of this bad habit.

The first half of this book is acutely observed, laugh-out-loud funny, with the character of the Queen being charming, intelligent and completely believable. There is absolutely no doubt that this is Queen Elizabeth II and not some nameless dateless monarch. From the corgis to the extended family to the list of prime ministers she has worked with, this is undoubtedly our very own Queen. And Bennett has made her initially very likeable:

“‘Do you know,’ she said one evening as they were reading in her study, ‘do you know the area in which one would truly excel?’
‘No, ma’am?’
‘The pub quiz. One has been everywhere and though one might have difficulty with pop music and some sport, when it comes to the capital of Zimbabwe, say, or the principal exports of New South Wales, I have all that at my fingertips.’
‘And I could do the pop,’ said Norman.
‘Yes,’ said the Queen. ‘We would make a good team. Ah well. The road not travelled.'”

In the second half of the book, the tone shifts a little. The emphasis is a little less overtly comedic and more seriously looks at how reading can change a person, both in perhaps obvious ways such as informing and widening horizons, and in less obvious ways – increased observation of details, reduced tolerance for the status quo, an appearance of being constantly distracted – that in some people might not be a problem, in fact might be welcomed, but in the Queen are seen as troublesome and even dangerous.

I was a little sad about the reduced comedy but still greatly entertained and impressed by how smartly Bennett envisaged this scenario and how various people might react. The denouement is fantastic, though I’ll admit it did change my mind about making this book the topic of any conversation I may ever get to have with the actual real-life Queen.

First published in 2006 in the London Review of Books.
Published as a book by Faber in 2007.