Forget Disney, I’d prefer to visit Alan Bennett’s world.
‘Writing Home’ is a collection of Alan Bennett’s assorted writings, such as diaries, book reviews, and the odd speech from a memorial service. And I love it, it’s perfect ‘bath book’, ideal for dipping in and out of.
The are entertaining observations, such as nuns buying meringues and the fun of repairing bike punctures, and anecdotes about famous people, and the funny, natural, quips they made off stage or camera. There is also what was in the news at the time, such as the miner’s strike, and reading about the Falkland war reminded Adrian Mole’s diary, where at the tea table he can’t find the Falklands on the map, but then his mum discovers them under a lump of fruitcake.
My favourite is the honest and tender section on ‘The Lady in the Van’, about Miss Shepherd, a strong character who lived in a decrepit, junk-filled van in Bennett’s street, which was then later moved to his garden, and she also colonised his lean-to, and shed. Even when complaining about her we can see Bennett is a very good guy, as very few other people would get that involved with someone that eccentric, but also vulnerable, and for so many years.
February 1981 Miss S. has the flu, so I am doing her shopping. I wait every morning by the side window of the van, and with the dark interior and her grimy hand holding back the tattered purple curtain, it is as if I am at the confessional. The chief items this morning are ginger nuts (‘very warming’) and grape juice. ‘I think this is what they must have been drinking at Cana,’ she says as I hand her the bottle. ‘Jesus wouldn’t have wanted them rolling about drunk, and this is non-alcoholic. It wouldn’t do for everyone but in my opinion it’s better than champagne.’
March 1988 ‘I’ve been doing a bit of spring cleaning.’ says Miss S., kneeling in front of a Kienholz-like tableau of filth and decay. She says she has been discussing the possibility of a bungalow with the social worker, to which she would be prepared to contribute ‘a few hundred or so’. It’s possibly that the bungalow might be made of asbestos, ‘but I could wear a mask, I wouldn’t mind that, and of course it would be much better from the fire point of view.’ Hands in mittens, made from old socks, a sanitary towel drying over the ring, and a glossy leaflet from the Halifax offering a ‘fabulous investment opportunity.’
I love that a successful writer who had homes in Yorkshire, London and New York, who was often surrounded by incredibly famous people, also did things such as this –
March 1989 There was a thin layer of talcum powder around the back of the door of the can and odd bits of screwed up tissues smeared with what may or may not be shit, though there is no doubt about the main item of litter, which is a stained incontinence pad. My method of retrieving these items would not be unfamiliar at Sellafield. I don rubber gloves and put each hand inside a plastic bag as additional protection, then, having swept the faecal artefacts together, gingerly pick them up and put them in the bin. ‘Those aren’t all my rubbish,’ comes a voice from the van, ‘some of them blow in under the gate.’
At his New York apartment, there is an older woman called Rose who lives downstairs, and is constantly shouting at the other tenants about a boy who is bouncing a ball off a wall. She corners them in the hallway and rants and raves, and apparently has done for the past 25 years. It reminds me of something Sylvia Plath said about every experience and person in her life are raw material. We probably all have our fair share of characters, it’s just some people choose to pay closer attention to them.
And I love books that have photograph sections in the middle, childhood and family photos, as well as we get to see Miss Shepherd, and also pictures from the sets of television and stage productions.
And Alan Bennett’s parents also fascinate me. He says he had a happy childhood, and has always written very touchingly about his parents, especially about his mother, and the dementia of her final years. I remember listening to a shortened version of his memoir play ‘Cocktail Sticks’ on the radio and it making me blub like a baby. It’s pretty rare thing for a writer to have a happy childhood, some would even say that would be a disability for an artist, but I love reading about it. With the exception of my brother, my family are a distant bunch of generally polite people who nod at each other at funerals and can go years without speaking to or seeing each other, and so it’s always been my hope that things won’t be like that with my daughter, and when she’s grown up she will visit me, and I her, and there’ll be at least weekly phone calls like normal parents/children, and so I read about Alan Bennett’s mum and hope my kid will say such nice things about me one day.
*Edit – I wrote this post the day before it was published and had read the book in the week preceding, the whole time being unaware that ‘The lady in the Van’ is a soon-to-be-released film with Maggie Smith (also unwittingly mentioned in this post). I’ve just come out of the Cumberbatch live theatre transmission of Hamlet to see a poster for it, and had an excited moment in the foyer. So yes, go see the film, I bet it’s great!