Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Ransomes and Miss Shepherd

The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van is really a sort of accidental read for me. I had plenty to read at home, but I got antsy and had to get out of the house and the library is a perfect distance away. So that was how the reading of On Borrowed Wings and this came about. I wanted to see if they had any Alan Bennett, hoping for The Uncommon Reader (which I ordered from the library and will probably read soon), and this is what they had. So this is what I read.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is a novella about a middle-class, middle-aged, fairly boring couple who go to the opera one evening and come home to find someone has stolen the entire contents of their flat. Not just all the valuables, but the sofa, the light fixtures, the stove, the casserole in the stove, and the toilet paper rolls. Now what? It's an odd little story, but quite a good one.

The really remarkable half of this book, though, is The Lady in the Van. This story is true, and comprised largely of Alan Bennett's diary entries from 1969 until 1990. During this period of years, Miss Shepherd lived in a van full of clothing, dead batteries, sherbet lemons, serious rubbish, and talcum powder, in front of his house. She's a remarkable character, of the sort who could well have come out of a novel but is so much better because she didn't. It's quite a hilarious story, another of the sort that I couldn't help but read aloud. Some combination of Miss Shepherd's oddness and Alan Bennett's writing makes it so hilarious. It's paragraphs like these that I have to read aloud:
"May 1982. As I am leaving for Yorkshire, Miss S.'s hand comes out like the Ancient Mariner's: do I know if there are any steps in Leeds Station? 'Why?' I ask warily, thinking she may be having thoughts of camping on my other doorstep. It turns out she just wants somewhere to go for a ride, so I suggest Bristol. 'Yes, I've been to Bristol. On the way back I came through Bath. That looked nice. Some beautifully parked cars.'"
The two stories go together well, despite having relatively little in common apart from profusion and lack of worldly possessions. I loved the book, which even after only this and History Boys, I've come to expect of Alan Bennett.

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