The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
(Faber and Faber, 2007)

I first saw Alan Bennett perhaps 50 years ago when he appeared in Beyond the Fringe. He is a playwright and author of extraordinary range:

The Madness of George III
The History Boys
The Lady in the Van

This book, breathtakingly short (124 pages), dazzles with imagination — sheer whimsical imagination.

Here is the plot:

Had the dogs not taken exception to the strange van parked in the royal gounds, the Queen might never have learnt of the Westminster travelling library’s weekly visits to the palace. But finding herself at its steps, she goes up to apologise for all the yapping and ends up taking out a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, last borrowed in 1989. Tough read though it proves to be, upbringing demands she finish it and, so as not to appear rude, she withdraws another. This second, more fortunate choice of book awakens in Her Majesty a passion for reading so great that her public duties begin to suffer. And so, as she devours work by everyone from Hardy to Brookner to Proust to Samuel Beckett, her equerries conspire to bring the Queen’s literary odyssey to a close.

So, once she becomes a reader, change occurs:


As it was, with this one she soon became engrossed and, passing her bedroom that night clutching his hot-water bottle, the duke heard her laugh out loud. He put his head round the door. ‘All right, old girl?’

‘Of course. I’m reading.’

‘Again?’ And he went off, shaking his head. [p. 14]


Every Tuesday evening the Queen saw her prime minister, who briefed her on what he felt she ought to know. The press were fond of picturing these meetings as those of a wise and experienced monarch guiding her first minister past possible pitfalls and drawing on her unique repository of political experience accumulated over the fifty-odd years she had been on the throne in order to give him advice. This was a myth, though one in which the palace itself collaborated, the truth being the longer they were in office the less the prime ministers listened and the more they talked, the Queen nodding assent though not always agreement. [p. 56]

‘And what would the book be, ma’am?’ The prime minister looked unhappy.

‘That one would have to think about.’

‘Something about the state of the world perhaps?’ He brightened.

‘Possibly, though they get quite enough of that from the newspapers. No. I was actually thinking of poetry.’

‘Poetry, ma’am?’ He smiled thinly.

‘Thomas Hardy, for instance. I read an awfully good poem of his the other day about how the Titanic and the iceberg that was to sink her came together. It’s called “The Convergence of the Twain”. Do you know it?’

‘I don’t, ma’am. But how would it help?’

‘Help whom?’

‘Well’ — and the prime minister seemed a trifle embarrassed actually to have to say it — ‘the people.’

‘Oh, surely,’ said the Queen, ‘it would show, wouldn’t it, that fate is something to which we are all subject.’

She gazed at the prime minister, smiling helpfully. He looked down at his hands.

‘I’m not sure that is a message the government would feel able to endorse.’ The public must not be allowed to think the world could not be managed. That way lay chaos. Or defeat at the polls, which was the same thing. [pp. 58-59]


The inattention, though, and the boredom were not all his, and as she had begun to read more, she resented the time these meetings took up and so thought to enliven the process by relating them to her studies and what she was learning about history.

This was not a good idea. The prime minister did not wholly believe in the past or in any lessons that might be drawn from it. One evening he was addressing her on the subject of the Middle East when she ventured to say, ‘It is the cradle of civilisation, you know.’

‘And shall be again, ma’am,’ said the prime minister, ‘provided we are allowed to persist,’ and then bolted off down a side alley about the mileage of new sewage pipes that had been laid and the provision of electricity substations.

She interrupted again. “One hopes this isn’t to the detriment of the archaeological remains. Do you know about Ur?’

He didn’t. So as he was going she found him a couple of books that might help. The following week she asked him if he had read them (which he hadn’t).

‘They were most interesting, ma’am.’

‘Well, in that case we must find you some more. I find it fascinating.’

This time Iran came up and she asked him if he knew of the history of Persia, or Iran (he had scarcely even connected the two), and gave him a book on that besides, and generally began to take such an interest that after two or three sessions like this, Tuesday evenings, which he had hitherto looked forward to as restful oasis in his week, now became fraught with apprehension. She even questioned him about the books as if they were homework. Finding he hadn’t read them she smiled tolerantly.

‘My experience of prime ministers, Prime Minister, is that, with Mr Macmillan the exception, they prefer to have their reading done for them.’

‘One is busy, ma’am,’ said the prime minister.

‘One is busy,’ she agreed and reached for her book. ‘We will see you next week.’

I read this down from Stationer’s Hall in the fall of 2007 next to St. Paul’s in London. I was sitting on a high stool in the sunlight looking down the slope of a descending road, sheltered with an umbrella of joy.

I then returned to a lecture at Stationer’s Hall to sit near Harold Macmillan’s portrait who, in the morning, as publisher of MacMillans, dealt with all the great authors of the day and then in the afternoon, off to Parliament.

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