Thursday, November 15, 2007

Alan Bennett - An Uncommon Writer. . .

Reps spend a lot of time alone on the road in their cars and when I've got a long drive ahead of me, I always make sure to bring along some Alan Bennett audio CDs. Being a Yorkshire girl myself (at least born, if not bred), I love his sense of humour and his characters' accents and turns of phrases often remind me of my grandfather, who lived not far from Bennett's native Leeds. I highly recommend his Talking Heads series - a collection of funny and poignant monologues by some of Britian's best actors - Eileeen Atkins, Maggie Smith, David Haig - or the audio version of his play The History Boys. And I have to say that the sound of Michael Gambon's excruciatingly prolonged vomiting while playing Guy Burgess in Bennett's An Englishman Abroad is truly one of the most extraordinary things ever captured on audio!
So it was with great delight that I opened up Bennett's latest print offering - a delicious little novella called The Uncommon Reader. In this story the Queen accidentally comes across a travelling library parked outside the palace kitchens, and not wanting to appear rude, decides to borrow a book. She also makes the acquaintance of one of her kitchen servants, an avid reader named Norman who eventually is promoted to amanuensis and charged with advising on all matters literary. The Queen becomes more and more addicted to reading, much to the chagrin of her family and advisers who fear she is letting her duties slip in the process. And then she decides reading isn't enough - she wants to become a writer! This is an extremely witty little tale; it's fun to see the types of books Bennett imagines her Majesty reading (only a Yorkshireman would throw in the wonderful Winifred Holtby). There is a very funny scene where the Queen hosts a gathering of writers and the ending is suitably cheeky.
And it brings up some very good points about how society really doesn't expect (or perhaps want) our leaders to be engaged with reading for pleasure. We care about what Oprah is reading but why not the Queen? Or our heads of states, our mayors and cultural ministers, even our bosses? I wish celebrities would flash their reading material as readily in front of the press as they do their latest designer purses.
I've also been dipping into a quirky little book, first published in 1926, called The Truth About Publishing by the British publisher Stanley Unwin. It's a type of primer on the industry and what is so fascinating about reading it, is to see how little has changed. The same arguements about the prices of books, the discounts given to bookstores, the existence of too many books published every year! But then there are these lovely little gems of wisdom sprinkled throughout such as the following:
"For the fact that more and better books are not read, we are all in a measure responsible. It is not the unwanted books that bar the way. It is the lack of early training and the lack of guidance. It is often a lack of knowledge or an absence of realization of the joys of reading and the inexhaustible treasures of English Literature."
Amen. I trust the Queen has already discovered the truth of this. (Thanks to Great War Fiction for leading me to the Unwin book)

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