|Jan/Feb 2009 Book Reviews|
The Uncommon Reader.
Faber. 2007. 124 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 84668 049 6
It was, as Alan Bennett tells us, the fault of the dogs: the "bloody dogs" as Prince Philip was famously overheard calling them. And the result was that the Queen—she who didn't have hobbies because she was "a doer"—suddenly took up reading. Which caused all sorts of problems.
It all began because the Corgis discovered a City of Westminster traveling library van in the palace yard and made such a fuss that the Queen felt bound to go in and apologize. There, she met Mr. Hutchings, the driver/librarian and Norman, a palace kitchen-hand, and she discovered that she was allowed to borrow up to six books. Being polite, she borrows one, and although this is not very inspiring reading, when she returns it the following week she borrows another—just so that Mr. Hutchings does not feel he has failed. And with this second book, she is hooked.
Young Norman, who is coerced into offering reading suggestions (although his own reading is guided by whether an author is gay or not) is soon promoted to be the Queen's library assistant. And although Westminster City Council cancels the visits of the library van, the Queen finds other sources of books, including, occasionally, books from one of her own libraries. Through her reading, she develops a new perspective on life. And instead of the usual small-talk, for which those who meet her are carefully prepared, she begins to ask visiting functionaries, and the members of the public that she speaks to at official functions, what they are reading. It is all very uncharacteristic, unexpected, and often, embarrassing. No one knows quite what she will do next.
Alan Bennett tells this story with his tongue firmly in his cheek. He has great fun with the Queen's reactions to various authors ("Oh do get on!" she exclaims when reading Henry James for the first time) and her sharp, intelligent wit in the midst of all the formal duties and the stuffy meetings that she has to suffer is a delight. Prince Philip adds his dry comments and the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury are each confounded by literary questions. Altogether, this is a little gem of a book: short, funny, subversive and most enjoyable.
If the Queen reads it (and undoubtedly she is already an uncommon reader), will it be "Arise Sir Alan" or "Off with his head!"? Or will she think up a more sophisticated and subtle revenge, such as that which she devised for her Private Secretary, Sir Kevin, in the book? "It was the block but it took longer," as the author remarks of this particular piece of Royal come-uppance. Let's just hope that Alan Bennett survives and flourishes and keeps on writing.