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“The Uncommon Reader” (2006) by Alan Bennett


Betty Mountbatten accidentally discovers Westminster Council’s mobile Library by the Staff Quarters after the Corgis run amok, and so is launched, much to the dismay of her snooty officials, a late-in-life love affair with literature.

Pathos (c. L. Naughton of West Drayton. It’s a long story). This is the word that best sums up Bennett’s considerable body of work which includes, “The Lady in the Van” (1989) which has just been made into an excellent film starring Maggie Smith, the “Talking Heads” monologues (1988) plus the wonderful screenplays for “The Madness of King George III”  (1994) and 2006’s “The History Boys” which made stars of James Corden and Russell Tovey.

I am a huge fan of Alan Bennett’s work due to his use of humour which draws out the pathos in everyday life, and this is a supreme example as we see how Mrs. Mountbatten is separated from everyone else on all kinds of levels, due to an accident of birth but in common with everyone, she yearns for those routine encounters that we take for granted.

George Best, and to a certain extent Paul Gascoigne suffered similar isolation as they simply had no one on their level, especially in Best’s case, with whom they could empathise and relate to, and this book is about that horrible feeling of loneliness in a crowded environment.

We have no idea what the Queen is really like as an individual and this gives Bennett considerable scope in his characterisation. Despite refusing a Knighthood from New Labour, the Yorkshireman describes himself as, “the last monarchist”  and gives the Monarch a warmer and more engaging personality than the cold fish portrayed by Helen Mirren in Stephen Frears film, “The Queen”, (2006). Bennett does, however have a very low opinion of the flunkies and politicians that surround the Queen.

Most importantly Bennett’s overarching thesis is that literature has the power to educate, encourage empathy and a more rounded, less abrasive view of things is something that I feel passionately about. Reading is just so important for a myriad of reasons, and in this case it is subversive and enables the Queen to see through her toadying advisors, and her oleaginous Prime Minister. Enjoy.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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