Alan Bennett's 10 funniest quotes
‘We were put to Dickens as children but it never quite took. That unremitting humanity soon had me cheesed off.’ - The Old Country, 1977
‘If you think squash is a competitive activity, try flower arranging.’ - Talking Heads, 1987
On being asked whether he was gay or straight: ‘That’s a bit like asking a man crawling across the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Malvern water.’
‘At eighty, things do not occur; they recur.’ - The Uncommon Reader, 2007
‘There’s no better way of forgetting something, than commemorating it.’ - The History Boys, 2004
'Definition of a classic: a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have.’
On journalist Arianna Stassinopoulos: ‘So boring, you fall asleep halfway through her name.’
‘Mark my words. When a society has to resort to the lavatory for its humour, the writing is on the wall.’ - Forty Years On, 1968
‘It was the kind of library he had only read about in books.’ - The Uncommon Reader, 2007
‘If you find yourself born in Barnsley and then set your sights on being Virginia Woolf, it’s not going to be roses all the way.’
He was a famous dramatist living in an upmarket north London street. She was an unwashed old bigot of uncertain origin living in a van. In his drive. But Alan Bennett and the homeless Miss Shepherd formed an unlikely friendship - of sorts. He ran errands for her, did her shopping and, though she showed him little gratitude despite staying outside his house for 15 years after the council said she couldn’t park in the street, engaged her in eccentric conversation about politics, religion and life.
After she died in 1989, he wrote about her in the memoir, The Lady in the Van, and, later, an acclaimed play. And this month sees the highly anticipated release of the film version of The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd and Alex Jennings (of the BBC’s Cranford and Silk) as the playwright.
To mark the occasion, Alan Bennett, the man behind The History Boys and Talking Heads, writes exclusively for Saga Magazine about his occasionally hazy memories of Miss Shepherd, what might happen if she turned up in the same London street now and what she’d have thought of being a film star.
Alan Bennett on Lady in the Van
‘I moved to Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, in 1969. I was 35 and had never had a house before, so it was what nowadays would be called getting a foot on the property ladder. Though at £11,500 the house hardly seemed a snip, it was cheaper than some of the other houses in the street because, imposing and double-fronted though it was, it was smaller than the others. But that didn't matter, as I was on my own. For the moment.
At that time, Miss Shepherd was living in her van at the top of the road, whereas I lived at the bottom. Thomas Hardy has a poem, The Convergence of the Twain, about the inexorable coming together of the Titanic and its iceberg. Looking back, it could be about Miss Shepherd and me, as by 1974 she and her van had drifted down the street to opposite my house then into my (quite small) drive.
To begin with, I thought this was a temporary expedient while she decided where she intended to go. St Albans had been mentioned, much as Harold Pinter’s Caretaker mentions Sidcup, and I thought I would be giving her shelter for three months at the outside.
I was a reluctant (and, of course, unpaid) landlord but what worried my mother on one of her rare visits to London was what the neighbours would think.
‘This isn’t Leeds,’ I told her. ‘They won’t think anything at all.’
The residents of the crescent were a mixed bag: the odd judge, a bishop and quite a few writers and artists. Next door to me was Alice Thomas Ellis, the novelist, higher up the street was Ursula Vaughan Williams, the widow of the composer, and round the corner, literary luminary Angus Wilson. Though there were no longer any lodging houses, council properties still survived. So people tolerated Miss Shepherd – even if they were just relieved I’d been landed with her and not them.
Forty years later, though there are remnants of the old community, many of the residents have gone up in the world - they are bankers and stockbrokers - along with their properties. A few council homes remain, but the Thatcherite policy of selling them off, plus the current financial pressure on local authorities, means their status can hardly be secure. It’s a form of social cleansing that has been to the detriment of the street, which is now more homogenously rich than it has ever been. So I’m not sure today’s residents would have the same attitude towards Miss Shepherd as we did. I am certain the estate agents wouldn’t.
Having played Miss Shepherd on the stage, the radio and now in film, it’s hardly surprising Maggie Smith should have virtually wiped out any memories I have of the real Miss S, though Maggie has never ceased to wonder how I put up with her for so long.
I have told Maggie, lamely, that after a while Miss Shepherd ‘didn’t impinge’.
‘Didn’t impinge?’ the dame has exclaimed. ‘Didn’t impinge?’ She probably still thinks I was barmy.
Certainly, had it been put to me in 1974 that this woman was going to be in my driveway for the next 15 years, I would, of course, have drawn the line and let her head off into the sunset or up the A1 to St Albans. But life isn’t like that. People creep up on you in associations, friendships, marriages even, and it’s often easier to let life take its course. Or death, which eventually claimed Miss Shepherd at the age of 78 in April 1989.
If I had done right by her, it was with an ill grace and if Miss Shepherd was thankful, she never got round to saying so. The privilege, as she saw it, was all mine.
After she died, her brother, a good and decent man, insisted on giving her meager savings to charity but said, rather wistfully, that he had worked all his life as a vet in Africa, whereas she had done nothing but live in a van, thereby becoming more famous than he could ever have hoped for. Miss Shepherd would not have been surprised, though. She always thought she was a person of some eminence and in her mind rubbed shoulders with popes and prime ministers to whom she regularly wrote or had me write for her.
Had she been alive, I’m sure she would have been at the film premiere, smelly as ever, pushing her ‘wheelie’ shopping trolley and taking her rightful place on the red carpet.’
The Lady in the Van is in cinemas nationwide from November 13.
Who Was the Lady in the Van?
The Sunday before she died, Miss Shepherd attended mass, which she had not done for a while. On the Wednesday she allowed herself to be bathed at the day centre that a local former nurse, who had befriended her, had persuaded her to visit. She was given clean clothes and put to bed in the van on fresh sheets.
She died that night.
Bennett felt filled with remorse for his sometime frustration with her and regret for all the questions he had never asked. ‘One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation,’ he said later.
However, a while after her funeral, he began to piece together the facts of her life. She had shown him an envelope ‘in case anything happens to me, possibly’. It was in her van, so he gritted his teeth and decided he had to go through her possessions. No easy task as the interior was in a sorry, filthy state, with clothes, papers and blankets heaped everywhere and only a tiny aisle to get to the seats where she had ‘knelt, prayed and slept’.
There, he found old documents and finally the envelope marked ‘Mr Bennett, if necessary’. He opened it, hoping for it to provide some explanation for the enigma that was Miss S. But true to form, inside was simply a man’s name, different to her own, and his contact details.
The man said he knew no one called Miss Shepherd. However once described, he realized that ‘Miss Shepherd’ was in fact his sister. He had not seen her for years. Before then, she had been persecuting their mother and in the end had been committed to a mental hospital in Hayward’s Heath – something he regretted but in the end, over which he had no choice.
Before her delusions struck, Miss S had been an ambulance driver in the war, her brother wondering if a bomb that exploded near her ambulance triggered some kind of shellshock. She had been a promising pianist, too, who had once studied with Alfred Cortot before giving up music to become a nun at a convent near Bennett’s Camden home. She apparently left the Order because she was too quarrelsome, though obviously felt she wanted to be close to it, later in life, when she returned to the area with her van.
As Bennett wrote in Untold Stories ’She inhabited a different world from ordinary humanity, a world in which the Virgin Mary could be encountered outside the post office in Parkway and Mr Khrushchev higher up the street…Seeing herself as the centre of this world, she had great faith in the power of the individual voice, even though it could only be heard through pamphlets photocopied at Prontaprint or read on the pavement outside Williams and Glyns Bank.’
Read the whole story in The Lady in the Van and Writing Home by Alan Bennett. (Profile Books/Faber & Faber)