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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

You know how he writes:

It was the City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors. This wasn’t a part of the palace she saw much of, and she had certainly never seen the library there before, nor presumably had the dogs, hence the din, so having failed in her attempt to calm them down she went up the little steps of the van in order to apologise.
The driver was sitting with his back to her, sticking a label on a book, the only seeming borrower a thin ginger-haired boy in white overalls crouched in the aisle reading. Neither of them took any notice of the new arrival, so she coughed and said, ‘I’m sorry about this awful racket,’ whereupon the driver got up so suddenly he banged his head on the Reference section and the boy in the aisle scrambled to his feet and upset Photography & Fashion.
She put her head out of the door. ‘Shut up this minute you silly creatures’ – which, as had been the move’s intention, gave the driver/librarian time to compose himself and the boy to pick up the books.
‘One has never seen you here before, Mr . . .’
‘Hutchings, Your Majesty. Every Wednesday, ma’am.’
‘Really? I never knew that. Have you come far?’
‘Only from Westminster, ma’am.’
‘And you are . . . ?’
‘Norman, ma’am. Seakins.’
‘And where do you work?’
‘In the kitchen, ma’am.’
‘Oh. Do you have much time for reading?’
‘Not really, ma’am.’
‘I’m the same. Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.’
Mr Hutchings smiled helpfully.
‘Is there anything you would recommend?’
‘What does Your Majesty like?’
The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer. So she gazed round the book-lined van and played for time. ‘Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’t have a ticker.’
‘No problem,’ said Mr Hutchings.
‘One is a pensioner,’ said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.
‘Ma’am can borrow up to six books.’
‘Six? Heavens!’

Bennett pokes (what appears to be) gentle fun at establishment figures, but he is relentless about it, and his surface restraint hides a deeper rage against Philistinism and the kind of middle-brow culture which supports the political state to which we are all too easily becoming accustomed.
The novella is, however, slight, showing us a Queen of England who develops a passion for reading, much to the chagrin of her ministers and Palace lackeys. He does get the voice right, though. Anyone who has heard the lady speak will recognise it right off the page.
Bennett writes with a mock paternalistic tone, giving one the feeling of having strayed into a young adult novel. But he has, nevertheless, an infectious sense of humour which sets of an internal rumble making chuckles seem like part of life.
And the story works because he never deviates from the relentless inevitability of Her Majesty’s destiny once she is truly gripped by the Bitch Goddess of reading. Her new passion leads the ageing Queen to a foregone conclusion, which, like myself, you may not fully comprehend until the final paragraph.

This book was given to me by the publicist at Profile Books, but I wouldn’t hold that against it.

One Response to “The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett”

  1. Jim Murdoch says:

    Bennett is one of those characters (‘national treasures’ we like to call them) like Ustinov and Kenneth Williams whose facility with words has always enthralled me. He’s the kind of guy one wants to follow around with a tape recorder to catch any little gems he lets slip although I’m sure were that preposterous thing to occasion itself he would have some wry comment to make about a man following a horse around with a bucket; he could self-deprecate for his country and I have no doubt the pun lying in wait there would not have missed him but he’d do a far better job of squeezing the humour out of that than I’m managing.

    jb says: Hi Jim. And I agree. He can hit the spot.