Title: The Lady in the Van.
Author: Alan Bennett.
Genre: Non-fiction, humour, old age, diaries, social criticism, class struggle.
Publication Date: Diaries from 1969-1989 (essay 1989, this compendium 1994).
Summary: This is a true account, excised from autobiographical memoirs mostly in the form of diaries, of Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric tramp of uncertain origins, who parked her van in Bennett's garden "for a short while," and stayed for fifteen years. After her passing, Bennett attempts to unravel her history to uncover what had reduced her to life on the streets and brought her to Camden Town.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ She must have prevailed on me to push the van as far as Albany Street, though I recall nothing of the exchange. What I do remember was being overtaken by two policemen in a panda car as I trundled the van across Gloucester Bridge; I thought that, as the van was certainly holding up the traffic, they might have lent a hand. They were wiser than I knew. The other feature of this first run-in with Miss Shepherd was her driving technique. Scarcely had I put my shoulder to the back of the van, an old Bedford, than a long arm was stretched elegantly out of the driver's window to indicate in textbook fashion that she (or rather I) was moving off. A few yards further on, as we were about to turn into Albany Street, the arm emerged again, twirling elaborately in the air to indicate that we were branching left, the movement done with such boneless grace that this section of the Highway Code might have been choreographed by Petipa with Ulanova at the wheel. Her "I am coming to a halt" was less poised, as she had plainly not expected me to give up pushing and shouted angrily back that it was the other end of Albany street she wanted, a mile further on. But I had had enough by this time and left her there, with no thanks for my trouble. Far from it. She even climbed out of the van and came running after me, shouting that I had no business abandoning her, so that passers-by looked at me as if I had done some injury to this pathetic scarecrow. "Some people!" I suppose I thought, feeling foolish that I'd been taken for a ride (or taken her for one) and cross that I'd fared worse than if I'd never lifted a finger, these mixed feelings to be in the invariable aftermath of any transaction involving Miss Shepherd. One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.
♥ What made the social set-up funny was the disparity between the style in which the new arrivals found themselves able to live and their progressive opinions: guilt, put simply, which today's gentrifiers are said famously not to feel (or "not to have a problem about"). We did have a problem, though I'm not sure we were any better for it. There was a gap between our social position and our social obligations. It was in this gap that Miss Shepherd (in her van) was able to live.
♥ These attacks, I'm sure, disturbed my peace of mind more than they did hers. Living in the way she did, every day must have brought such cruelties. Some of the stallholders in the Inverness Street market used to persecute her with medieval relish – and children too, who both inflict and suffer such casual cruelties themselves. One night two drunks systematically smashed all the windows of the van, the flying glass cutting her face. Furious over any small liberty, she was only mildly disturbed by this. "They may have had too much to drink by mistake," she said. "That does occur through not having eaten, possibly. I don't want a case." She was far more interested in "a ginger feller I saw in Parkway in company with Mr Khruschev. Has he disappeared recently?"
♥ Miss S.'s daily emergence from the van was highly dramatic. Suddenly and without warning the rear door would be flung open to reveal the tattered draperies that masked the terrible interior. There was a pause, then through the veils would be hurled several bulging plastic sacks. Another pause, before slowly and with great caution one sturdy slippered leg came feeling for the floor before the other followed and one had the first sight of the day's wardrobe. Hats were always a feature: a black railwayman's hat with a long neb worn slightly on the skew so that she looked like a drunken signalman or a French guardsman of the 1880s; there was her Charlie Brown pitcher's hat; and in June 1977 an octagonal straw table-mat, tied on with a chiffon scarf and a bit of cardboard for the peak. She also went in for green eyeshades. Her skirts had a telescopic appearance, as they had often been lengthened many times over by the simple expedient of sewing a strip of extra cloth around the hem, though with no attempt at matching. One skirt was made by sewing several orange dusters together. When she fell foul of authority she put it down to her clothes. Once, late at night, the police rang me from Tunbridge Well. They had picked her up on the station, thinking her dress was a nightie. She was indignant; "Does it look like a nightie? You see lots of people wearing dresses like this. I don't think this style can have got to Tunbridge Wells yet."
♥ And almost for the first time ever she smiled, and said how they had all been bunched up trying to get into this one carriage, a great crowd, and how she had been hoisted up. "It would have made a film," she said. "I thought of you." And she stands there in her grimy raincoat, strands of lank grey hair escaping from under her headscarf. I am thankful people had been nice to her, and wonder what the carriage must have been like all that hot afternoon. She then tells me about a programme on Francis Thompson she'd heard on the wireless, how he had tried to become a priest but had felt he had failed in his vocation, and had become a tramp. Then, unusually, she told me a little of her own life, and how she tried to become a nun on two occasions, had undergone instruction as a novice, but was forced to give it up on account of ill-health, and that she had felt for many years that she had filed. But that this was wrong, and it was not a failure. "If I could have had more modern clothes, longer sleep and better air, possibly, I would have made it."
"A bit of a spree," she called her trip to Dawlish. "My spree."
♥ Yesterday she was wearing a headscarf and pinned across the front of it in a blue Spontex sponge fastened at each side with a large safety pin, the sponge meant to form some kind of peak against the (very watery) sun. It looked like a favour worn by a medieval knight, or a fillet to ward off evil spirits. Still, it was better than last week's effort, an Afrika Korps cap from Lawrence Corner: Miss Shepherd–Desert Fox.
♥ "..I was thinking of offering to hep Mrs Thatcher with the economy. I wouldn't ask any money, as I'm on social security, so it would come cheap for her. I might ask her for some perks, though. Like a caravan. I would write to her but she's away. I know what's required. It's perfectly simple: Justice."
♥ Occasionally she would write letters to other public figures. In August 1978 it was to the College of Cardinals, then busy electing a Pope. "You Eminences. I would like to suggest humbly that an older Pope might be admirable. Height can count towards knowledge too probably." However this older (and hopefully taller) Pope she was recommending might find the ceremony a bit of a trial, so, ever the expert on headgear, she suggests that "at the Coronation there could be a not so heavy crown, of light plastic possibly or cardboard for instance."
♥ It turns out she just wants somewhere to go for a ride, so I suggest Bristol. "Yes, I've been to Bristol. On the way back I came through Bath. That looked nice. Some beautifully parked cars." She then recalls driving her reconditioned army vehicles and taking them up to Derbyshire. "I did it in the war," she says. "Actually I overdid it in the war," and somehow that is the thin end of the wedge that had landed her up here, yearning for travel on this May morning forty years later.
"Land" is a word Miss S. prefers to "country". "This land..." Used in this sense, it's part of the rhetoric if not of madness at any rate of obsession. Jehovah's Witnesses talk of "this land", and the National Front. Land is country plus destiny – country in the sight of God. Mrs Thatcher talks of "this land".
♥ Miss S. (bright-green visor, purple skirt, brown cardigan, turquoise fluorescent ankle socks) punts her way out through the gate in the wheelchair in a complicated manoeuvre which would be much simplified did she just push the chair out, as well she can. A passer-by takes pity on her, and she is whisked down to the market. Except not quite whisked, because the journey is made more difficult than need be by Miss S.'s refusal to take her feet off the ground, so the Good Samaritan finds himself pushing a wheelchair continually slurred and braked by these large, trailing, carpet-slippered feet. Her legs are so thin now the feet are as slack and flat as those of a camel.
♥ January 1988 I ask Miss S. if it was her birthday yesterday. She agrees guardedly. "So you're seventy-seven." "Yes. How did you know?" "I saw it once when you filled out the census form." I give her a bottle of whisky, explaining that it's just to rub on. "Oh. Thank you." Pause. "Mr Bennett. Don't tell anybody." "About the whisky?" "No. About my birthday." Pause. "Mr Bennett." "Yes." "About the whisky either."
♥ Her outfit this morning: orange skirt, made of of three or four large dusters; a striped blue satin jacket; a green headscarf – blue eyeshield topped off by a khaki peaked cap with a skull-and-crossbones badge and Rambo across the peak.
♥ The chair goes on the hoist, and slowly she rises and comes into view above the level of the garden wall and is wheeled into the ambulance. There is a certain distinction about her as she leaves, a Dorothy Hodgkin of vagabonds, a derelict Nobel Prize-winner, the heavy folds of her grimy face set in a kind of resigned satisfaction. She may even be enjoying herself.
When she has gone I walk round the van noting the occasions of our battle: the carpet tiles she managed to smuggle on to the roof, the blanket strapped on to muffle the sound of the rain, the black bags under the van stuffed with her old clothes – sites of skirmishes all of which I'd lost. Now I imagine her bathed and bandaged and cleanly clothed and starting a new life. I even see myself visiting and taking flowers.
This fantasy rapidly fades when around 2.30 Miss S. reappears, washed and in clean clothes, it's true, and with a long pair of white hospital socks over her shrunken legs, but obviously very pleased to be back. She has a telephone number where her new friends can be contacted, and she gives it to me. "They can be reached," she says, "any time – even over the holiday. They're on a long-distance bleep."
As I am leaving for the theatre, she bangs on the door of the van with her stick. I open the door. She is lying wrapped in clean white sheets on a quilt laid over all the accumulated filth and rubbish of the van. She is still worrying that I will have her taken to hospital. I tell her there's no question of it and that she can stay as long as she wants. I close the door, but there is another bang and I reassure her again. Once more I close the door, but she bangs again. "Mr Bennett." I have to strain to hear. "I'm sorry the van's in such a state. I haven't been able to do any spring cleaning."
♥ The server, a middle-aged man with white hair, doesn't wear a surplice, just ordinary clothes with an open-necked shirt, and, but for knowing all the sacred drill, might have been roped in from the group on the comer outside. The Good Mixer. The priest is a young Irish boy with a big, red peasant face and sandy hair, and he, too, stripped of his cream-coloured cassock, could be wielding a pneumatic drill in the roadworks outside. I keep thinking about these characters during the terrible service, and it reinforces what I have always known: that I could never be a Catholic because I'm such a snob, and that the biggest sacrifice Newman made when he turned his back on the C of E was the social one.
♥ The neighbours, who are not quite mourners, wait on the pavement outside as the coffin is hoisted on to the hearse. "A cut above her previous vehicle," remarks Colin H.; and comedy persist when the car accompanying the hearse to the cemetery refuses to start. It's a familiar scene, and one which I've played many times, With Miss S. waiting inside her vehicle as well-wishers lift the bonnet, fetch leads and give it a jump start. Except this time she's dead.
♥ In the interval between Miss Shepherd's death and her funeral ten days later I found out more about her life than I had in twenty years. She had indeed driven ambulances during the war, and was either blown up or narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded nearby. I'm not sure that her eccentricity can be put down to this any more than to the legend, mentioned by one of the nuns, that it was the death of her fiancé in this incident that "tipped her over". It would be comforting to think that it is love, or the death of it, that unbalances the mind, but I think her early attempts to become a nun and her repeated failures ("too argumentative," one of the sisters said) point to a personality that must already have been quite awkward when she was a girl. After the war she spent some time in mental hospitals, but regularly absconded, finally remaining at large long enough to establish her competence to live unsupervised.
The turning-point in her life came when, through no fault of hers, a motorcyclist crashed into the side of her van. If her other vans were any guide, this one too would only have been insured in heaven, so it's not surprising she left the scene of the accident ("skedaddled", she would have said) without giving her name or address. The motorcyclist subsequently died, so that, while blameless in the accident, by leaving the scene of it she had committed a criminal offence. The police mounted a search for her. Having already changed her first name when she became a novice, now under very different circumstances she changed her second and, calling herself Shepherd, made her way back to Camden Town and the vicinity of the convent where she had taken her vows. And though in the years to come she had little to do with the nuns, or they with her, she was never to stray far from the convent for the rest o her life.
♥ I mull it over too, 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.
♥ Her grave in the Islington St Pancras Cemetery is scarcely less commodious than the narrow space she slept in the previous twenty years. It is unmarked, but I think as someone so reluctant to admit her name or divulge any information about herself, she would not have been displeased by that.