Ben­nett brings the Queen to ( real) life

The Un­com­mon Reader By Alan Ben­nett Profile, 128pp, $ 24.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sam Leith

SINCE The His­tory Boys was trans­ferred first to Broad­way and then to the cin­ema, Alan Ben­nett has made the jour­ney from English na­tional trea­sure to in­ter­na­tional su­per­star. The dust­wrap­per of this droll novella spends two lines on the Bri­tish gongs that play picked up, and more than five lines on the Amer­i­can awards. The cat­a­logue of glory reaches a fi­nal cli­max: he was named Reader’s Digest au­thor of the year in 2005. I imag­ine that would have made Ben­nett smile when the proofs came through. It’s the award that would make the most sense to one of Ben­nett’s char­ac­ters, the one that most fits into his dis­tinc­tive world.

The Queen, too, def­i­nitely fits in. The con­ceit of the story is that, while walk­ing her cor­gis around the back of the palace, she chances on the City of West­min­ster trav­el­ling li­brary van parked out­side the kitchens. Curious, she pokes her head in and meets a kitchen boy called Norman Seakins, gawky, gay and ginger- haired. ‘‘ Saw this ex­tra­or­di­nary crea­ture this af­ter­noon,’’ the Duke of Ed­in­burgh later re­marks. ‘‘ Ginger- stick- in­wait­ing.’’ In as much as the Queen can fall into con­ver­sa­tion with a nor­mal per­son, she falls into con­ver­sa­tion with Norman. She takes a book away, then an­other and an­other. She starts, late in life and with grow­ing en­thu­si­asm, to read. Norman, pro­moted from the kitchen, be­comes her lit­er­ary ad­viser.

The Un­com­mon Reader plays, in its light way, with the re­la­tion­ship be­tween pub­lic and the private life, the Queen, as con­ceived by Ben­nett in the early stages of the book, be­ing an ex­treme ex­am­ple of some­one who more or less only has a pub­lic life. As she reads more, it oc­curs to her that other peo­ple have in­ner lives. She be­comes in­ter­ested in them. She ceases to ask her sub­jects on walk­a­bouts whether they have come far and what the traf­fic’s like, and in­stead non­plusses them by ask­ing about books. She wants to quote po­etry in her Christ­mas mes­sage and no­tices how badly writ­ten is her ad­dress at the state open­ing of par­lia­ment. She’s in­tro­duced to Alice Munro and be­comes a fan.

If he pushed this an­gle fur­ther, Ben­nett would risk be­ing preachy, but re­ally he’s play­ing it for laughs. He’s very funny, for ex­am­ple, on how the Queen strug­gles with so­cial com­edy: There was such a chasm be­tween the monarch and even her grand­est sub­ject that the so­cial dif­fer­ences be­yond that were some­what tele­scoped . . . To be­gin with at any rate, Jane Austen was prac­ti­cally a work of en­to­mol­ogy, the char­ac­ters not quite ants but seem­ing to the royal reader so much alike as to re­quire a mi­cro­scope. From read­ing fol­lows writ­ing. Her Majesty starts to scrib­ble in a note­book. She makes forth­right lit­er­ary- crit­i­cal sal­lies that, you strongly sus­pect, stand in a side­ways re­la­tion­ship to Ben­nett’s own tastes. ‘‘ Am I alone,’’ she won­ders, ‘‘ in want­ing to give Henry James a good talk­ing- to? I can see why Dr John­son is well thought of, but surely much of it is opin­ion­ated rub­bish.’’ She starts to pique her­self a lit­tle on her apho­risms: ‘‘ Eti­quette may be bad but em­bar­rass­ment is worse.’’ All of this — not the apho­risms, but the de­vel­op­ing of an in­ner life — is greeted with sus­pi­cion. Philip gets grumpy. Some courtiers worry that read­ing is elit­ist. Oth­ers think she has Alzheimer’s: ‘‘ Thus it was that the dawn of sen­si­bil­ity was mis­taken for the on­set of se­nil­ity.’’

The Prime Min­is­ter in­sists it be dis­cour­aged. Books go miss­ing when the Queen puts them down, and are claimed to have been ex­ploded by the bomb squad. An­noyed by the prefer­ment of young Norman, the Queen’s go- ahead private sec­re­tary, the splen­didly named Sir Kevin, starts schem­ing to bring him down.

There’s not much to the plot. There’s not much to the book, in the best way. It’s partly a sly read­ing list, partly the story of a friend­ship, and mostly a se­ries of lovely jokes.

This is not a book that is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in telling us what the Queen is like. Fair enough; it’s fiction. It is not a book, ei­ther, that is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in imag­in­ing plau­si­bly what the Queen may be like. Rather, it vamps round the stock ideas, avail­able to any television sketch show or stu­dent re­vue, of what she is like. The dif­fer­ence with The Un­com­mon Reader is in the sen­tences. What dis­tin­guishes this, and most of Ben­nett’s work, is not its per­cep­tive­ness about the world or its imag­i­na­tive achieve­ment, but its droll and ex­act stylis­tic com­mand.

The ef­fect is to make him the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of a car­toon­ist. He some­how ap­pro­pri­ates the cliche of the Queen and fits it into the

Ben­nett uni­verse. What she’s like, in that uni­verse, is Alan Ben­nett. At one point, ad­dress­ing the Privy Coun­cil, she says: One has waded through ex­cre­ment and gore; to be Queen, I have of­ten thought, the one es­sen­tial item of equip­ment a pair of thigh- length boots.’’ That con­struc­tion — the trail­ing qual­i­fy­ing clause with the verb to be elided — is a hall­mark of Ben­nett’s style. Two para­graphs later she says: Some­times one has felt like a scented can­dle, sent in to per­fume a regime, or aer­ate a pol­icy, monar­chy th­ese days just a gov­ern­ment- is­sue de­odor­ant.’’

I re­mem­ber notic­ing this process of Ben­net­tisa-


‘‘ tion most starkly in his mem­oir of his can­cer, col­lected in . It was called

, sup­pos­edly be­cause this was im­age Ben­nett’s colono­scopist hit on to ex­plain to him how big his tu­mour was.

How many rock buns do you see around the place th­ese days? How many med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als do you imag­ine would find the rock bun their first metaphor­i­cal re­sort when an­nounc­ing a po­ten­tially fa­tal con­di­tion to a pa­tient? And what are the chances that one of those would hap­pen to be danc­ing at­ten­dance on a man whose imag­i­na­tive world hap­pens to be in­fested by

Un­told Sto­ries Av­er­age Rock Bun


An pow­dery old maids and north­ern teashops? It would be im­per­ti­nent, both in its sense of ir­rel­e­vance and of in­so­lence, to say that this story was un­true. But it would be truth­ful to say that I didn’t be­lieve it. It was too good, too per­fectly Ben­net­tish, to sound true.

In fiction and non­fic­tion alike, ev­ery sen­tence of Alan Ben­nett is Ben­net­tish; ev­ery char­ac­ter talks in a Ben­net­tish way. You’re al­ways aware of the shap­ing intelligence: amused, in­ter­ested in ba­nal­ity, shep­herd­ing the bathos, slip­ping the down­beat joke into the af­ter­thought. You’re never in dan­ger of en­coun­ter­ing re­al­ism.

I do not mean this as a slight. Many great comic writ­ers end up be­ing all about them­selves. The world is the oc­ca­sion for an ex­er­cise in style. Ev­ery­one in P. G. Wode­house talks like a Wode­house char­ac­ter; like­wise Da­mon Run­yon and Kings­ley Amis; less so, but oc­ca­sion­ally, Eve­lyn Waugh.

The way Ben­nett bur­lesques the world is so en­tirely his own that by now there should be a word to iden­tify it. For­get mak­ing him a peer of the realm. Let’s give him his own ad­jec­tive. Ben­nettesque is ugly, and Ben­net­tish, though I’ve been forced to use it for clar­ity, sounds al­to­gether too queru­lous. The Queen is poised to in­herit El­iz­a­bethan. I think Alan would do.

The Spec­ta­tor

Il­lus­tra­tion: David Fol­lett

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