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…
‘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?