Category Archives: Alan Bennett

The Lady in the Van – Alan Bennett

I have been somewhat berating myself of late over the fact that I seem to be reading more shiny new books than I do the backlists of authors that I am either big fans of or think I could be big fans of. (I have mentioned my thoughts on an author binge of late who I have been meaning to read much more of.) I was therefore delighted when my lovely friend Barbs chose Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, both as it was short and I have been prize judging (she’s very considerate) and because Bennett is a writer I love who I haven’t read enough of. Shockingly though I have read it twice I don’t have a review of The Uncommon Reader on the blog which is a HUGE favourite here as it is with most readers. Anyway, I was excited to read this and chat about it with three ladies in a restaurant…

Profile Books, paperback, 1989 (1999 edition), non fiction, 96 pages, bought by myself for myself

‘I ran into a snake this afternoon,’ Miss Shepherd said. ‘It was coming up Parkway. It was a long, grey snake – a boa constrictor possibly. It looked poisonous. It was keeping close to the wall and seemed to know its way. I’ve a feeling it may have been heading for the van.’ I was relieved that on this occasion she didn’t demand that I ring the police, as she regularly did if anything out of the ordinary occurred. Perhaps this was too out of the ordinary (though it turned out the pet shop in Parkway had been broken into the previous night so she may have seen a snake). She brought her mug over and I made her a drink, which she took back to the van. ‘I thought I’d better tell you,’ she said, ‘just to be on the safe side. I’ve had some close shaves with snakes.’

And so The Lady in the Van starts as it means to go on and throws us straight into the (very much true) story of Alan Bennett and his neighbour Miss Shepherd. Well, when I say neighbour, I actually mean the woman who lived in a van on his road until some people complained to the council and Bennett kindly offered her the space on his drive/front garden in front of the garage. What Mr Bennett didn’t realise was that the invite to stay there for a couple of weeks turned into the small time of a mere fifteen years. Through short sharp diary entries he lets the reader into a relationship and friendship of sorts which he never expected.

It is almost too obvious to say that what I loved most about The Lady in the Van was Alan Bennett’s writing, yet it is true – I just love his writing. The way he captures people’s characteristics is wonderful and Miss Shepherd’s full (or full on) personality comes loud and clear, what a character she was. Some people might have made me more of a figure of fun, some might have made her a tragic case, Bennett brings all of her sides and intricacies to life; at times she is witty, difficult, frustrating, upsetting, a villain and a victim. Bennett is also very good at writing honestly (or as honestly as one can) about himself. He isn’t some hero in shining armour who befriended an old lady and made her life wonderful, he is a man who did something very kind and sometimes wondered why on earth he had bothered yet at the same time he made as much a difference to her life as she did to his. It is deftly done.

October 1984. Some new staircarpet fitted today. Spotting the old carpet being thrown out, Miss S. says it would be just the thing to put on the roof of the van to deaden the sound of rain. This exchange comes just as I am leaving for work, but I say that I do not want the van festooned with bits of old carpet – it looks bad enough as it is. When I come back in the evening I find half the carpet remnants slung over the roof. I ask Miss S. who has put them there, as she can’t have done it herself. ‘A friend,’ she says mysteriously. ‘A well wisher.’ Enraged, I pull down a token piece but the majority stays put.

As much as it made me laugh at times, especially when Miss S decides to become a member of parliament or hints at moving in or pretends the utter mess she lives in is merely blown from all over the road, I was also very much moved by The Lady in the Van. As whilst it is a tale of a crazy lady who ended up in Bennett’s garden, it is also the story of a woman with no family or friends to speak of who has been spending the most of her last decades alone and seen as ‘a character’ which may be the case on the outside but what about on the inside and why she ended up surrounded by cake crumbs, papers and a spotless cutlery set in a van and clothes in a robin reliant. You chuckle, then you think a little deeper.

Through Alan’s observations and thoughts we ponder old age and how no matter how old we get there is still the same person and personality within that body that looks somewhat different than it once did. It also looks at care for the elderly and the benefits (and pitalls) that independence can bring. It also highlights the fact that we tend to forget that elderly people have lived a full life, possibly full of all sorts of secrets and lessons we could learn, yet all we see is the result of those years and sadly sometimes judge them. In fact I would say judging people is probably one of the biggest themes of the book along with kindness, after all how many of us would have done what Bennett did if we found ourselves in that position?

So for me Alan Bennett triumphed once again with The Lady in the Van. As with his fictional writings such as Smut, The Uncommon Reader and his Talking Heads series (which I used to have on tape and listened to religiously before bed in my teens) and with memoir like A Life Like Other People’s he hits us just at the spot where humour and poignancy meet. He is a lover of character and characters and celebrates them with their flaws and all. I must read more of his work and I must see this when the movie comes out in November…

What about all of you? Have you read, or seen the play of, The Lady in the Van? Which of Alan Bennett’s other works have you seen or read and should I head to Untold Stories, Writing Home or Telling Tales next?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Book Group, Books of 2015, Non Fiction, Profile Books, Review

Smut – Alan Bennett

One of the bonuses of having read so much (with all my hospital and recovery time of late) is that I have managed to get lots and lots of reading done and have lots of reviews at the ready. However when you pick up a book that’s freshly arrived and you simply can’t wait to discuss it, it involves a fair bit of regigging but for a book like Alan Bennett’s latest ‘Smut’ it is definitely worth it. I had mentioned at the weekend how excited I was about this novel and the book thoroughly lived up to all my expectations when it dropped through the letterbox yesterday morning and had been read by teatime.

Profile Books, hardback, 2011, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

There are ‘two unseemly stories’ which make up ‘Smut’. Both look at the rather more racey and sexual side of different peoples lives. The first story is of ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’ a tale, which would sit comfortably in Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ collection (which I have very recently read and as yet reviewed anywhere), of a widow who after her husbands death needs to increase her income and so takes on a rather unusual job which brings along a possible suitor plus, and in some ways rather more importantly some lodgers who are forever running late with their rent. These two strands lead Mrs Donaldson into an unlikely situation which, without giving too much away, opens up her eyes to a side of life she thought she knew about and yet really it seems, rather unseemingly, didn’t.

“Mrs Donaldson’s first instinct was to look away so that rather than frankly considering this naked young man kissing his equally naked girlfriend with his hand buried between her legs she found herself looking at the floor and wondering if it was time she had the carpet cleaned.
 ‘Bring back memories?’ said Laura, Andy’s face now where his hand had been.
 ‘Ye-es,’ said Mrs Donaldson, though the truth was it was a memory of a vase in the British Museum.”

The second of the tales ‘The Shielding of Mrs Forbes’ is rather different and in some ways a less lovely and insular world that Bennett often wonderfully writes. In fact it’s a tale of a whole family, who are welcoming a new member through marriage, and all the secrets that they hide. Mrs Forbes is a wonderful matriarch adoring her son Graham and rather disliking his new bride to be whilst Mr Forbes, a rather silent man, looks on. As the wedding approaches the reader begins to see that for not of these characters things are ever as they might initially seem. It’s a rather wonderful farcical family tale, to give too much of it away would be a disservice to anyone who goes onto read it – and you should, which has all the witty observations of people and their lives we have come to know and love in Bennett’s writing.

“For though she could never admit it, Graham’s mother blamed herself for calling him Graham in the first place. In the years since he was born her sights had risen and Graham was not nearly the classy name she’d once thought. She wished now that she could get rid of it as she had got rid of the dark oak dining suite that belonged to the same period.”

‘Smut’ is a pure delight to read. Alan Bennett takes his readers both into a familiar narrative in the first instance and a rather new, and slightly more explicit, one in the second. It’s a collection which proves eye opening and outrageous all in one and shows a new side to Bennett which I hadn’t encountered before, keep in mind I haven’t read all of his works though, and really enjoyed. It’s a tale which, as Bennett himself said in an interview recently, shows ‘there’s nowt queer as folk’. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This was a delight to read, and done so in a single setting. It has of course made me want to re-read and re-watch all the ‘Talking Heads’ once more plus revisit ‘The Uncommon Reader’. I think I might try something new though and head to his diaries next instead, are they any good? Which Bennett novels have you read, any recommendations?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Profile Books, Review

I Want ‘Smut’… When Authors Surprise Us!

I have to admit that I been wanting to do a title post along those lines ever since Alan Bennett’s new book, or two novella’s in one volume, title ‘Smut’ was revealed. In fact Alan Bennett’s new book (containing ‘two unseemly tales’) brings up a question or two I have been meaning to ask you all for some time. But I think before we go any further we really should see a clip of the man himself reading from one of the two stories in his latest release. This clip is from ‘The Greening of Mrs Donaldson’

The way he looks at the camera, and then off into the distance, at the very end really tickles me each time I have watched it. It’s like he knows he is doing something slightly naughty or ‘unseemly’ as the book promises, and indeed if some reports are to be believed this book could upset some of his fans. Alan Bennett is deemed as a ‘National Treasure’, a title I am not sure he loves, and it looks like with ‘Smut’ he is trying out something a little different and rather more risqué.

Not that I have it yet though, this is yet another scheduled post (though a rather late Sunday afternoon one, sorry, as I wanted as many of your thoughts on my Daphne Du Maurier Season idea as possible) but I do believe it is out now, and it is riding high at the top of the list of books that I am bursting to read. Part of that is because I love Alan Bennett anyway and partly it is because I want to see Bennett behaving badly and doing something that his readers might not quite expect.

I wondered what your thoughts were on authors doing things differently, or doing something a little bit naughty. Do you like it or would you rather they stuck to what works already? Do authors who do the same tricks every time bore you, or can it be comforting? Should authors always be trying to do something knew and leave you guessing what might come next? What book, if any, have you read by a favourite author that was so different from anything they had done before it didn’t pay off and put you off? What subject would you love to see your favourite author write that they haven’t and why? What books by your favourite author have outraged you… for whatever reason?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Book Thoughts

Reading Me Like A Book (Or Ten)

I got tagged by the lovely Simon T of Stuck in a Book last week in a meme he had created. It’s a great idea and one that, should you wish to, you can all have a go at. You simply go to your shelves close your eyes and pull ten random books of them and then tell your readers what those ten books tell the world about you. Simon says (ha, I normally am on the receiving end of that saying) that you can cheat a bit which is what I had to do a bit as I only took books of my shelves with books I had read on and some of the titles didn’t work. Anyway on with the books which as you can see I carefully arranged on the sofa… sort of.

Blackmoor by Edward Hogan
This is the best casing point of proving that I wasn’t cheating and as soon as I had picked it I thought ‘oh no’ as I couldn’t think of anything it said about me. I then remembered that it is set in Derbyshire and that is where I am from so that tells you more about me doesn’t it.

The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley
Now you probably already know I am a bit of a Mitford maniac so that’s not really something new. But I am a huge fan of letter writing. I used to write sides and sides of A4 letters to my friends but sadly it’s gone out of fashion, I am thinking I should make some new pen-pals but not sure how you go about it.

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins
Now after my sensation season I don’t need to fill you all in on how much I love the genre or how fascinated I am by all things Victorian but its worth a mention. Did you also know that I am into all thinks ghostly and though I haven’t stayed in a haunted hotel I worked in on in Devizes and have stayed in a few haunted sites like Peterborough Museum which was once a hospital and a mansion (I even spent a while in the old morgue) I have also slept in the London Tombs a lovely bunch of plague pits for charity.

Animals People by Indra Sinha
India is one of the countries that I most want to go to, fact one. The second fact is that I have always been a big fan of pets. In fact from about 3 years old I had a duck called Rapunzel who lived indoors with us and would fly to me if I shouted her, she was one of the best pets ever. Since then though I have reverted to cats and goldfish, I only have the latter at the moment but we could be getting two little sets of whiskers in the house soon. Very excited! Ooh and thirdly I did my work experience at a vet surgery and was in the Swindon press after we helped save a dog’s life.

Spies by Michael Frayn
My fantasy job, as I soon decided I didn’t want to be a vet, is now to be a spy. It won’t happen in a million years but I would love it, apart from being terrified all the time. It is also why I am addicted to Spooks when it’s on.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld
If I had done a degree my aim was to become a psychologist and to go onto do criminal profiling and working out why people kill and how their killings say so much about a killer. I think its fascinating and why I like crime fiction so much and need the occasionally binge.

Daphne by Justine Picardie
Good old Daphers is my favourite author and Rebecca is my favourite book, can’t say more than that can I? Ha!

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Well I am an avid reader and hopefully the books I read aren’t common. Hmmm, how do I put that better? I hope I read a diverse collection of books. Also apart from age and national treasure status I like to think I have a lot in common with Alan Bennett he’s northern, a writer etc, etc.

The Accidental by Ali Smith
I am one of the clumsiest people you could ever meet, seriously it’s ridiculous. Falling seems to be one of my specialities or bumping into things or tripping, basically anything is a health hazard.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
This was my only cheat and it’s a bit of a tenuous fact. I am a big fan of cats; in fact as a kid I wasn’t interested in dinosaurs but I wanted a sabre tooth tiger as a pet. So I think if I could be any animal it would be snow leopard or white tiger. I know that’s pushing it a bit but it’s the best I could do.

So there you have it! Who else is up for doing this? I wont tag particular people just leave it up to all of you to have a go at and if you do it do pop a link in the comments, or of course if you have already done it. Do you think these books say a lot about me; do you feel you know me a little bit better?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Ali Smith, Aravind Adiga, Book Thoughts, Charlotte Mosley, Edward Hogan, Indra Sinha, Justine Picardie, Michael Frayn, Wilkie Collins

A Life Like Other People’s – Alan Bennett

It seems timely when a certain book arrives and you are in just the mood to read it, which has happened with Alan Bennett’s most recent memoir ‘A Life Like Other People’s’. It has been a bit of a Bennett fest on the television of late here in the UK as Elaine at Random Jottings has been discussing to mark his 75th Birthday. He also has become some what of a national treasure which he says doesn’t sit with him very well. I read and loved The Uncommon Reader a while back and have enjoyed many of his Talking Head monologues, not just recently, but for a while in fact I had them on audio cassette when I was younger.

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2009, non fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A Life Like Other People’s, which I keep wanting to call A Life Amongst Others though I have no idea why, is about his formative years though mainly it looks at the relationships of his parents. I don’t have any of Bennett’s previous diaries and memoires to compare this too, though I will be making sure that changes, though what I have always loved about Bennett is his ‘real writing’. He looks at people, and himself, and the actions of real people their emotions there thoughts the whole gambit. There are no tricks and though there is often drama its never written to be dramatic or to gain readers its simply life.

The simplistic and honest writing style is incredibly endearing. Scenes can be quite harrowing and emotional and yet there will be some slight comedy around the corner, its not intentional or planned it’s just the way it is. Two scenes that really hit me were between him and his mother, which almost made me cry, and his mother searching for her sister in a dementia ward. I loved the story of his parents wedding and why there were no pictures as his parents didn’t want any ‘splother’. You will have to read the book to find out just what that means and how they got around it.

Bennett was clarely very close to his mother, though of course he loved his father they didn’t have that same relationship. He seemed to get to know him best when he was driving him to see his mother when she was in hospital on several occasions for depression. In fact these trips, where his father got most annoyed about making sure everything was on time, showed a wonderful dedication between husband and wife, father and mother, that I found deeply affecting. I loved the relationship between them and think that love like that seems to be becoming much rarer in today’s society. I wonder if Bennett would agree. If only I could sit and discuss it all further with him over a pot of Yorkshire tea. We can all dream can’t we?

It’s not a long book and so I can’t really write too much about it without giving lots of things away. I think overall that poignant, in all its ways, is what best describes this work. If you like books about real people and real lives then I don’t think you can het much better. I can only wonder what his diaries and ‘Writing Home’ have in store for me to read in the future. I think 2010 may have to involve a bit of a Bennett binge as I also want to read the whole of Talking Heads again now too. What about you, what Bennett have you read and loved? Or is he someone you have yet to read? If it’s a case of the latter I can think of nothing better than whiling away an afternoon in the company of Alan Bennett. This book comes very, very highly recommended.

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Books of 2009, Faber & Faber, Profile Books, Review

Simon’s Bookish Bits #1

So it’s already Saturday once more and I thought I would do another Simon’s Bookish Bits (thanks for all your votes and comments last week) featuring all things bookish that has caught my eye this week. I have to admit I haven’t really been whizzing around the blogs too much over the last week and I blame Gran for that completely, ha, that will get me in trouble.

I have created a new blog though! After having a chat with Kimbofo, who I founded a book group with, we decided that a separate site for The Riverside Readers would be good (my page is looking a bit barer now) and you can pop here and check it out, do feel free to leave feedback over there. I think its nice giving it its own space as it’s out there for everyone in its own right rather than a page on Savidge Reads.

What I have seen on the blogs that have caught my eye are delights such as the link which Thomas at My Porch put up so you can create your own blue plaque and waste a good few hours, lovely! I also thoroughly enjoyed Simon Stuck-in-a-Book’s post on children’s books which I will be doing my own special post about on Tuesday. That doesn’t seem much to report but I do have some serious blog reading catching up today.

I have once more managed to go to a book shop and spend absolutely no money at all. This week it was quite worrying and also shameful as it was at Persephone Books on Lambs Conduit Street. I think I was overwhelmed by all the titles and just being there. I wish I had known of this shop when I worked on Gray’s Inn Road even though it would have meant I would never have had any money. I did manage to get a couple of pics though I didn’t introduce myself as they seemed to be in the middle of a huge mail out or something exciting. Gran loved it; she is now an official Persephone convert.

  

Podcast of the week has to be The Dog Who Came in from the Cold which is the serialised sequel to Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith. I save them for a binge of six in one long listen over the weekend. There’s only ten episodes to go so if you want to download the series you don’t have long left, you can pop here and it’s easy as pie.

Finally, though I have still not bought a book since November (which I will have to break for the next book group choice) somehow several have arrived in the post from lovely publishers. Parcels from Profile, Canongate, Hodder and Headline brought some joys.

  • A Life Like Other Peoples – Alan Bennett
  • Perfumes: The A-Z – Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez
  • The Bird Room – Chris Killen
  • Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde
  • The Gates – John Connolly
  • Hell’s Belles – Paul Magrs

However Random House seemed to go crazy, in a good way, with all there imprints (Vintage etc) sending me joys in the post. Some of these parcels did date from the 11th of November though, so it seems all is not well in my sorting office, not impressed at least they are arriving now though. Sorry I digressed…

  • Sunday Daffodil & Other Happy Endings – P. Robert Smith (what a fab title)
  • Once on a Moonless Night – Dai Sijie
  • The Mayor’s Tongue – Nathaniel Rich
  • Voluntary Madness – Norah Vincent
  • The Last Dickens – Matthew Pearl
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
  • Get Me Out of Here – Henry Sutton
  • February – Lisa Moore
  • The Convent – Panos Karnezis

Have you read any of these books or authors? What has been going on for you that’s bookish this week?

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Filed under Alan Bennett, Canongate Publishing, Headline Review, Hodder & Stoughton, Jasper Fforde, John Connolly, Paul Magrs, Persephone Books, Profile Books, Random House Publishing, Simon's Bookish Bits, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics