I have, over the weekend, been reading Alan Bennett’s ‘Four Stories’.
Reading Alan Bennett is the literary equivalent of taking ecstasy.
It makes you feel utterly benevolent, uplifted, and generally in love with the human race.
As long as they don’t get too close to you.
Four Stories consists of: The Laying on of Hands; The Clothes They Stood Up In; Father! Father! Burning Bright and The Lady in the Van.
At least two of these have been published as individual books in the past to my knowledge.
The stories are wonderful. As you know, I am a huge fan of Bennett. His ear for dialogue is absolutely spot on; his comic timing is impeccable and he is able to move from heart breaking pathos to filthy and hilarious smut in the wink of a paragraph. For me, he can do no wrong.
The Laying on of Hands is a story about a vicar in a fashionable parish of Central London, who is in charge of a memorial service for a rather dubious character called Clive, masseuse (and extras) to the great and good. The tale deals with how the vicar has to manoeuvre his way through the sensitivities of his church, his audience, the Arch Deacon who has come to judge his performance, and Clive’s more than colourful life and reputation.
Father! Father! Burning Bright is the bittersweet story of Midgley, a man whose teaching career and home life are unfulfilling and misery making, and who is saved from the horrors of parents evening by a call telling him his father is in hospital and not expected to see the night out. Midgley’s vigil at his father’s bedside is dark, funny and achingly sad.
The Lady in the Van is the glorious story of Miss Shepherd, the woman who Bennett allowed to park on and live in his driveway for the last fifteen years of her eccentric existence. He has also turned this into a play, which is a thing of great wonder and delight. This short story is a fabulous addition if you have already seen the play, and a great introduction if you haven’t, and you are thinking of going to see it.
Some of the story consists of his diary entries from the time:
A staple of Miss. S.’s shopping-list these days is sherbet lemons. I have a stock of them in the house, but she insists I invest in yet more so that a perpetual supply of sherbet lemons may never be in doubt. ‘I’m on them now. I don’t want to have to go off them.’
I ask her if she would like a cup of coffee. ‘Well, I wouldn’t want you to go to all that trouble. I’ll just have half a cup.’
And then, there is ‘The Laying on of Hands,’ which is my favourite story. It is about a middle class couple in their fifties, who get back to their flat after a night at the opera to find that everything has been taken in a burglary, from the carpets to the toilet roll:
The only paper in the flat was the programme from Cosi and passing it round the door Mrs. Ransome saw, not without satisfaction, that Mr. Ransome was going to have to wipe his bottom on a picture of Mozart.
Both unwieldy and unyielding the glossy brochure (sponsored by Barclays Bank PLC) was uncomfortable to use and unsinkable afterwards, and three flushes notwithstanding, the fierce eye of Sir George Solti still came squinting resentfully round the bend of the pan.
The police arrive at the scene, and the sergeant needs to use the facilities:
‘Well at least our friends had the decency to use the toilet but they’ve left it in a disgusting state. I never thought I’d have to do a Jimmy Riddle over Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Her recording of West Side Story is one of the gems of my record collection.’