‘Twas world book day and Glasgow’s Aye Write 2009 started the proceedings with a national treasure – an English treasure to be sure but ssssssssssh – let’s not shout it from the rooftops. On second thoughts let’s, if only because I luxuriated in the Northern English twangs of Bennett’s voice. Aaaaaah – nostalgia is sometimes everything it’s cracked up to be!
Years ago I read “The Clothes They Stood Up In”, a short story following the comical travails of a couple who are burgled when they visit the theatre. Since then I’ve read “The Uncommon Reader”, twice – the Anita Brookner moment, elicting as much pleasure in the anticipation as the delivery. In preparation for the event I also read the first entry in the beautiful Folio Society volume The Lady In The Van and Three Stories.(The paperback equivalent is Four Stories.)
The Lady in The Van is a revelation – one of those life is stranger than fiction stories. It is the tale of the tramp, Miss Shepherd, who parks her dilapidated van in Alan Bennett’s driveway and ends up staying there for 15 years! As I read this last week, I began to rue the day when I decided to offload my unread copy of Untold Stories. I rued that decision even more during the 30 minutes that Bennett spent reading a selection of entries from his diaries which were by turns erudite, deliciously wicked and aisle-rollingly funny. Capturing too the minutiae of my Northern childhood – the mantelpiece decorated with 50’s kitsch and the 3 paperclips which Mum wouldn’t throw away because they would come in handy. Throwing up also the memories of my university days at Bedford College, London with his anecdote of helping a plump lady scale the locked gates of Regent’s Park. (The park being the shortcut from the college to the student accommodation, but closed in the hours of darkness .) I only breathed a sigh of relief when he told of the rather bemused Japanese tourists who were photographing the proceedings. (Phew, I have never – knowingly – been snapped by Japanese tourists, whilst scaling the gates of Regent’s Park.) There were also tales of Bennett’s famous buddies – have you heard the tale of Russell Harty’s snotrag? As I said, fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.
In the Q&A Bennett was asked what Her Majesty thought about The Uncommon Reader. He doesn’t know; he’s never met her. A bonus, he said, because if he had, he probably wouldn’t have been able to write his novella. As it was, it was very easy to write. The Queen being so well-known, there wasn’t much backfill needed and he could write the story with the lightest of touches.
What does he think about web technology, in particular, weblogs? He claimed not to know what they are! In which case, let’s get scurrilous …. Actually there was no trace of the “curmudgeon laureate” (Mark Jones) last Friday. The cute, cuddly “national teddy bear” (Francis Wheen) held the stage, the audience and the laughter.