‘The Lady in the Van’ by Alan Bennett

LadyInVan

Non-fiction – paperback; Profile Books; 96 pages; 1999.

This short essay, labelled as Bennett’s “most  famous piece of non-fiction”, first appeared in the London Review of Books in 1989. It has since been made into a play, for both stage and radio. I decided I had to read it after hearing Bennett mention it in passing in a BBC4 documentary that I watched last year. I couldn’t quite get it out of my head that this famous writer and playwright had let a female tramp park her decrepit van, in which she resided, in his driveway for some 15 years! I mean, who does that sort of thing?

The piece, which is published in a delightfully small pocket-book format (14.8cm x 9.2cm, if you’re interested), is easily devoured in half-an-hour or so. But it’s one of those reads that packs such a powerful punch and reveals so much about the human condition that it lingers in the mind long afterwards and invites a second or third reading.

Miss Shepherd’s van

Essentially, the lady in the van was an elderly woman by the name of Miss Shepherd. She had been parked in the London street where Bennett resides and had become somewhat of a local attraction — and nuisance — since the late 1960s. By June 1971 “scarcely a day passes without some sort of incident involving the old lady” including a young man giving the van a “terrific shaking”, another banging on the side of the van to “flush out for his grinning girlfriend the old witch who lives there” and passing drunks smashing all the windows.

[…] to find such sadism and intolerance so close at hand began actively to depress me, and having to be on alert for every senseless attack made it impossible to work. There came a day when, after a long succession of such incidents, I suggested that she spend at least the nights in a lean-to at the side of my house. Initially reluctant, as with any change, over the next two years she gradually abandoned the van for the hut.

Eventually, when parking restrictions come into play, Bennett invites her to park her van in his driveway, and there it stays, sandwiched between Bennett’s front door step and his garden gate, for 15 years. If it wasn’t enough that visitors to Bennett’s house now had to squeeze past the van and be scrutinised by the mad woman living inside, they often got a glimpse of the interior, “a midden of old clothes, plastic bags and half-eaten food”. It sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

Sadly, the longer she stays put, the worse her living conditions become. Her hygienic practises, or lack of them, become questionable, and, at one point, when Bennett gets a load of manure delivered to fertilise the garden she complains that people passing might think the smell is coming from her van.

She wants me to put a notice on the gate to the effect that the smell is the manure, not her. I say no, without adding, as I could, that the manure actually smells much nicer.

A portrait of eccentricity

The book charts, diary-style, the ups and downs of having Miss Shepherd living in such close proximity. It’s a mixture of frustrating observations, outlandish humour, hopelessness, despair and melancholy. Bennett does a superb job of describing Miss Shepherd’s eccentric nature without mocking or denigrating her. While she quite clearly tries his patience — for instance, when she buys a Reliant Robin in 1984 Bennett has to constantly recharge it for her because she drains the battery by simply sitting in it and revving the motor every Sunday morning, driving all the neighbours mad — he never gives up on her.

The question that came to mind as I read this was not so much what made Miss Shepherd so kooky and “different”, but what made Bennett tolerate her for so long? There are hints of an answer in the postscript which accompanies this edition in which Bennett admits he has done almost anything to live a quiet life.

I mull it over too [a phone call he has with Miss Shepherd’s long lost brother], wondering at the bold life she has had and how it contrasts with my own timid way of going on — living, as Camus said, slightly the opposite of expressing. And I see how the location of Miss Shepherd and the van in front but to the side of where I write is the location of most of the stuff I write about; that too is to the side and never what faces me.

If you ever get the chance to read this essay then I urge you to do so. It’s a beautiful portrait of English eccentricity — and tolerance.

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15 thoughts on “‘The Lady in the Van’ by Alan Bennett

  1. kimbofo: Great to see this excellent review of one of my favorite pieces of writing (and as a lover of fiction that is a hard list for an essay to make). Indeed, this essay is so good that it could be fictional :-). Your review brings back fond memories, although I do admit that I pull it off the shelf every two years for another read. Folio Society members, incidentally, should be aware that it is available in hard cover volume with three longish short stories, all of which are almost as good as the title essay. Alan Bennett is a treasure of a writer — I’m only sorry that I have never been able to see a production of History Boys.

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  2. This sounds fascinating. I see that Bennett also adapted the experience into a play; as always art imitates life.
    Like Kevin, I would also love to see a production of The History Boys and as yet have only seen the film (which in my opinion was very good).

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  3. How fascinating. I hadn’t heard of this until Xmas when my brother gave an audio version of this to my visually impaired mother in law. It’s quite different from her usual fare but it has fascinated her. She was very keen to share it with us all when we were at the coast a fortnight ago but unfortunately packed the wrong CD. Clearly, I will have to borrow it from her.

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  4. Am tempted to join the Folio Society myself; the books always look so gorgeous.
    I’ve got a couple of other Bennett books in the queue now; I’d never really had any interest in reading his stuff before I saw a series of documentaries about him during BBC4’s “Alan Bennett season” last year. If The Lady in the Van is anything to go by then I am in for a real treat!

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  5. The radio play was broadcast this time last year; Maggie Smith played Miss Shepherd. I didn’t hear it, but I bet it was brilliant.
    The stage play was done yonks ago.
    According to this article in The Times not everyone’s so keen on Bennett’s tendency to reinvent/recycle The Lady in the Van though: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/tv_and_radio/article5795615.ece
    I’d like to see The History Boys too. Still kicking myself I didn’t bother last time it was on at the National.

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  6. If one of those Bennett books is The Uncommon Reader, set it in a special place for sometime when you want an absolutely delightful 75-minute read. It is as charmingly funny (and outrageous) as any book I know. If you don’t own it, I suspect your mobile library will have a copy sometime when you wander in.

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  7. Thanks for the link — what an incredibly stupid piece for The Times to publish. True, those who have read the essay and seen the play might find a radio play excessive, but what about the millions who have not? This is the kind of “critic” who illustrates why British journalists have such a bad reputation in the rest of the world (of course, those who work in specialized publications are not included in that judgment).
    We in Canada have been putting up with pompous UK journalists like this for the last 10 days during the Olympics. Since they have no athletes to cover, they spend all their time taking shots at the organization and the weather. I wonder what they would do if Great Britain actually had medal contenders. As I write this, Canada has 11 medals, Australia 2 and GB 1 — the US has 25. Perhaps a look inside rather than slamming outside might be more appropriate.

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  8. What a brilliant sounding book this is, I have never seen this as a play or read it and now really want to especially with the premise and you comment of “a beautiful portrait of English eccentricity” sounds too good to miss!

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  9. Don’t worry, Kevin. You’ll get your own back when London hosts the 2012 games and the whole thing turns into a complete farce. I’m already planning to make sure I’m in a different hemisphere when they are hosted here.

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  10. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this. I also read out large chunks to the Other Half, because I couldn’t believe half the things M. Shepherd got up to and wanted to share them with somebody. She sounded like a crackpot, but a terribly nice crackpot, if you get my drift. But honestly, I don’t think I would want her living in my front garden!

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  11. I have heard the CD now – the Maggie Smith/Alan Bennett BBC-4 radio play. Loved, loved it. And my little copy with that gorgeous cover has arrived from Book Depository so will try to read it in the next few days.

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  12. Couldn’t help adding that I just finished reading The Uncommon Reader. It is an uncommon book, a delight to be savoured. And Bennett is a very uncommon writer.

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