Tag 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

Is The Play The Thing?

Last week ended up being a bit bonkers, with a trip to a big expo for work down in London (and somehow managing to squeeze in an interview with Rose Tremain, which was amazing and surreal and I will share soon) so there was no blogging for me. I am however back off to London again this week for a mini 4 day break so plan on catching up with everything, and myself, then. I am really looking forward to it. This weekend I have been away again this time to my mother’s for for a weekend of family culture.

Forget a Saturday night line up of the delights of Strictly Come Dancing and the X Factor, I had quite an amazing double whammy of entertainment. First up myself The Beard and I went to see An Inspector Calls which starred none other than my little sister Mim, who some of you will know having blogged here a few times, who was playing the role of Sheila…

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Then if that wasn’t enough, once the curtain had fallen and we had congratulated Mim on being brilliant, we headed off to a drinking establishment not a million miles down the road to see The Mandolin Orchestra of South Shropshire and a special guest singer… My mum!

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The band is actually made up of my stepdad, to the right of my mother in the picture, and his mates. My mum joins them for a second set and sings all sorts from The Beautiful South to Tina Turner, from Queen to Ella Fitzgerald. Despite what she had thought my reaction would be, I wasn’t embarrassed but actually doubly proud of her and Mim, the talented pair.

Seeing Mim in An Inspector Calls though reminded me of something booky, but first another picture of my little sister acting (see I am proper proud)…

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I love An Inspector Calls and have seen it a few times (always forgetting the twist) yet I have never read the play. Nope not even at school, we just had Romeo and Juliet endlessly. Yet talking about plays later on, with a lot of cheese, with my mother I was reminded of others, like Alan Ayckbourn (The Norman Conquests in particular), Alan Bennett etc that I love. Yet I realised I never read plays as a book. I am now wondering if, every now and again, I should start. The question of course is where?

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The Library of Unrequited Love – Sophie Divry

If ever a recently published book was going to be read by me on the title alone then it would be ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ throw in the gorgeous cover and it seemed that its fate was sealed. I love a book about books or about libraries and so from the title alone I was hoping this was what it would be about, though of course you shouldn’t always judge a book by its title should you? Fortunately not only was this very much a book about books and libraries it was also an unusual and quirky book that gave me much more than I was initially expecting.

*** MacLehose Press, hardback, 2013, fiction, 92 pages, translated Sian Reynolds, kindly sent by the publisher

If you were a librarian, working in the basement section, you might be a little disconcerted upon finding a random stranger sleeping in your section after having been locked in overnight. This is not the case in ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ as our unnamed protagonist sees this as a chance to get much off her chest, it seems she has been waiting for this moment for quite some time and has no plans on letting this opportunity go to waste. So starts a monologue which covers her thoughts on libraries and books, some of the history of France, the state of society today and indeed an unrequited love that she has for a young man who comes to the history section every day.

I think it might be the ‘mono’ in monologue that always makes me think they are going to be rather dull, or just a rant about the state of things. I shouldn’t think this as I have read and listened to many of Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ and interestingly Sophie Divry’s debut novel reminded me of them a little, especially the lonely woman who rambles on being at the heart of it. ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ is, in a way, rather a rant and it does have a lot to say about the state of the modern world, mainly libraries as a resource and what on earth is happening to the book in society, yet it does so with as much a sense of humour as it can whilst also being incredibly impassioned about books and their importance.

“Love, for me, is something I find in books. I read a lot, it’s comforting. You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books. They lift my spirit. The main thing is to be uplifted.”

Our unnamed protagonist is one of the reasons that the book becomes so much more than just a tirade on the importance of literature, as is the way that she talks to the person she finds asleep in section 900 – 910, who of course becomes us. She lives a very solitary life, surrounded by books she might be yet she is clearly very lonely with it. She looks at everything with an arched eye and occasionally I thought there was a much darker undertone to her character. Divry wonderfully takes us on a journey of a character as in some moments we feel sorry for her, sometimes concerned for her (and her mental state) and then we laugh with her and even sometimes as her, just as the person who has been captive all night in the library does.

My only slight quibble with the book was not the fact that you never understood why the listener kept listening, as I felt they were like me and simply couldn’t tear themselves away watching this woman unravelling, yet the character and the idea behind the book slightly contradicted themselves. On the one hand this is a book about the importance of libraries and books, yet the protagonist has clearly been driven mad surrounding herself with them day in day out through her job. Maybe I am over thinking it though?

I would definitely recommend every book lover give ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ a whirl, at a mere 92 pages you can devour it in a single sitting. I also think, aside from all the book love which makes it a joy to read for the booklover in anyone, it is an intense and grimly fascinating portrayal and explanation of character. I was left wondering what might be on the horizon for this woman, thank goodness no one mentioned the K***** word to her that is for sure – the results could be horrific. With a short quirky debut like this I am very much looking forward to seeing what Sophie Divry comes up with next, be it a darkly epic masterpiece or another short tale I will definitely be reading it.

Who else has read ‘The Library of Unrequited Love’ and what did you make of it? Does anyone else get drawn to any book with ‘book’ or ‘library’ in the title like I do?

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Filed under Books About Books, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review, Sophie Divry

Two Bookish Books I Think We Should All Be Reading…

I try not to bark ‘read this now’ as an order too often on Savidge Reads. If I really love a book then I hope the enthusiasm comes of the screen and you might want to go and have a look at it in a book shop or read about it more online. It’s very unusual then that I am pretty much going to bark the orders ‘read these now’ about two books that I actually haven’t read myself the whole way through…

 

‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’ and ‘The Library Book’ are two books from separate British publishers which are all about books, reading and libraries. Really that should be enough to have you rushing to your nearest bookshop or book selling website shouldn’t it, in fact it might already have done just that, however I thought I would tell you a little more about both – just to really push you over the edge.

‘Stop What You Are Doing And Read This!’ is an anthology which asks the question ‘why should you stop what you are doing and read a book?’ The ten essay responses collected here are from the likes of authors such as Jeanette Winterson, Blake Morrison, Mark Haddon and Zadie Smith, along with Jane Davis founder of ‘The Reader Organisation’ and Carmen Callil who founded Virago and rather famously quit the International Man Booker judging panel. These ten essays simply tell you, in varying ways, the power of the book and the joys of reading. I have only dipped in and out of a few so far but from what I have seen it’s only going to make my love of reading and desire to read all the stronger. I know that Simon T of Stuck in a Book loves this book.

There is a different twist on the joys of reading with ‘The Library Book’ as this book is of course celebrating the library itself. Some of my favourite authors like Susan Hill, Val McDermid and Alan Bennett (there are lots more Kate Mosse, Julian Barnes, China Mieville, Stephen Fry – I could go on, there are 23 pieces in this collection) have all contributed works to this book, not all of them are essays though as of course we go to libraries for fiction, and so some of the authors have made fictional shorts along with the other essays throughout – all about the library, of course. Again, I have only had a glimpse at this book (as it only arrived this morning) but I am very, very excited about what’s inside. In fact what am I doing here writing this? I should be reading them already!

What I think is another thing that’s special about these books, if I haven’t sold these two you by now you may be a lost cause, is that they are working with the charity The Reading Agency (all the proceeds of ‘The Library Book’ are definitely going to this charity, it doesn’t say with ‘Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!’) which encourages people to read in all sorts of ways and is developing exciting library programmes. What could be better?

I am hoping some of you have stopped reading the blog by now and run off to find out more, or even gone and got the book. I am off to sit with my copies for a while. I will report back, I hope you will too!

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Boxing Day Books (The Savidge Reads Advent Winners)

Hello one and all, I do hope you have a lovely Christmas Day? Thank you for your festive wishes. Mine was very nice; I had goose for the first time and found it rather delicious. I have also been playing card games (mainly spite and malice, which my thirteen year old sister has been teaching me), scrabble, drinking rather a lot and worn my party hat all day long. Oh and I had presents, no books but I got a really funky set of psychedelic proper chef knives for my new pad (I am moving at the end of Jan, oh the books are going to have to be sorted), lots of Jelly Belly – too many is never enough and my favourite present so far has been three pairs of Mr Men lounge pants (Messy, Tickle and Bump) so there was one present with a literary twist. I have been reading but not as much as I would have expected, that is normally left for today, Boxing Day, my favourite Christmas Day.

There is something about Boxing Day that I have always found rather joyous, and not just the left-over’s from Christmas dinner which normally end up in a sandwich (though my Mum is currently off making pastry for a pie this year) and the endless supply of crisps and chocolates that we all buy for Xmas day and then don’t eat because we are too full. I love the fact it’s a delightfully lazy day, well at Savidge Christmas’s it is, we generally spend most of the day lounging around reading before a big TV fest in evening (Miranda Hart going trekking with Bear Grylls will be my Christmas TV highlight) so I am looking forward to that, I have already recorded an episode of The Readers so I feel I can now slob – that was my hard work of the day, now it’s time for my good deed of the day. It’s time for present giving…

Boxing Day can be another day of presents as the family you didn’t see might pop round, we won’t be seeing any other family members so today I have plucked all the Savidge Reads Advent Calendar winners from a random number generator and here are the winners…

Day 1; The Complete Nancy Mitford – Reading With Tea
Day 2; Burned by Thomas Enger – Harriet and Ellen B
Day 3; Smutt by Alan Bennett & Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan – Steel Reader and Gaskella
Day 4; Godless Boys by Naomi Wood & Snowdrops by A.D. Miller – Louise and Dog Ear
Day 5; The Great British Bake Off Book – Dovegreyreader and Janet D and Novel Insights
Day 6; Jennifer Egan books – TBA
Day 7; The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall – Rhonda Reads and Simon Saunders and Belinda
Day 8; Shes Leaving Home by Joan Bakewell  – Gaskella and Mystica
Day 9; Sophie Hannah’s series – Emma
Day 10; In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood & China Mieville books – Louise and Ragamuffinreader
Day 11; Sue Johnston autobiography – Sue and Simon T and Ann P
Day 12; Wait for Me by Deborah Devonshire – Janet D and Dominic
Day 13; Selected Agatha Raisin books – Kirsten and Victoria
Day 14; The Beautiful Indifference by Sarah Hall – Janet D and Ann P
Day 15; When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman – Femke and Ruthiella and Alex and Joanne In Canada
Day 16; all David Nicholls novels – Sue
Day 17; Patricia Duncker novels – Gaskella
Day 18; A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French – Ann P and Gabrielle Kimm
Day 19; all the Yrsa Siguardardottir novels – Kimbofo
Day 20; Frozen Planet & White Heat by MJ McGrath – Emma and Mystica
Day 21; A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse & The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey – Nose in a Book and Novel Katie
Day 22; The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan – Jenni and Ann P and Femke
Day 23; Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series  – David
Day 24; Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series – Harriet

Merry Christmas to both those of you who won (and some of you won a few times) and those who didn’t. If you did email me savidgereads@gmail.com with the book/s you have won in the subject and your address and I will make sure these are sent out in the first week of January. Right, I am off to go and pick at some stuffing before curling up with my book. Hope you are all having a wonderful time, what did you get for Xmas?

Oh and a MASSIVE thank you to the publishers who got involved: Penguin, Faber and Faber, Profile Books, Hodder, Picador, Atlantic, Serpents Tail, Ebury, Corsair, Constable and Robinson, Portobello, Little Brown, Virago, John Murray, Headline, Bloomsbury, Europa Editions, Mantle, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster & Transworld

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Books That Surprise – The Savidge Reads Advent Calendar Day 3

Apologies for belatedly posting this, as my computer got wiped by a nasty virus everything has been a little delayed. Just imagine you have been away for a weekend and forgotten your advent calendar so you have double/triple the treats to catch up with. 

Rather than just pop up posts simply giving books away, though in essence that is what these advent posts are all about, I thought I would use them to discuss brief things about books or books this year that I have wanted to discuss but have never thought would quite make a post all of its own… and now are. I didn’t think you could ramble or waffle in a blog post, look how wrong I am. So to cut to the chase I thought I would ask you about books that have surprised you in 2011 and give two away which indicate what I am on about.

I was going to discuss books that have been underrated and overrated in 2011 and I thought that actually had too many negative possibilities and so instead I thought I would mention books that have come out in 2011 which you either surprised you as you were really looking forward to and yet they never had the impact you thought they would, and the books that seemed to come from nowhere and delight everyone who read them. The books I have chosen to highlight this and give away are Smut by Alan Bennett and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. I expected Smut to be read here there and everywhere, just because it was a Bennett if I am honest not just because I loved it, yet it wasn’t and then there was Half Blood Blues which I had heard nothing off and then with the Man Booker nominations and the Giller Award has been everywhere (my review vanished in the computer wipe caused by aforementioned virus, apologies) and people are really glad to have discovered.

 

So anyway I am giving two lucky readers a copy each of both these books, you can enter the draw wherever in the world you are, all you have to do is tell me a book you thought was going to be huge because you loved it, and yet sadly it wasn’t as huge as you would have liked, and then a book that seemed to come from nowhere and surprise you by how wonderful it was – so much so you want to read anything and everything else by said author. This way we can all spread the word about two books that we think are wonderful. It’s that simple, you have until 11am GMT on December the 7th, good luck!

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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