Non-fiction - paperback; Profile Books; 96 pages; 1999.
This short essay, labelled as Bennett's "most famous piece of non-fiction", first appeared in the London Review of Books in 1989. It has since been made into a play, for both stage and radio. I decided I had to read it after hearing Bennett mention it in passing in a BBC4 documentary that I watched last year. I couldn't quite get it out of my head that this famous writer and playwright had let a female tramp park her decrepit van, in which she resided, in his driveway for some 15 years! I mean, who does that sort of thing?
The piece, which is published in a delightfully small pocket-book format (14.8cm x 9.2cm, if you're interested), is easily devoured in half-an-hour or so. But it's one of those reads that packs such a powerful punch and reveals so much about the human condition that it lingers in the mind long afterwards and invites a second or third reading.
Essentially, the lady in the van was an elderly woman by the name of Miss Shepherd. She had been parked in the London street where Bennett resides and had become somewhat of a local attraction -- and nuisance -- since the late 1960s. By June 1971 "scarcely a day passes without some sort of incident involving the old lady" including a young man giving the van a "terrific shaking", another banging on the side of the van to "flush out for his grinning girlfriend the old witch who lives there" and passing drunks smashing all the windows.
[...] to find such sadism and intolerance so close at hand began actively to depress me, and having to be on alert for every senseless attack made it impossible to work. There came a day when, after a long succession of such incidents, I suggested that she spend at least the nights in a lean-to at the side of my house. Initially reluctant, as with any change, over the next two years she gradually abandoned the van for the hut.
Eventually, when parking restrictions come into play, Bennett invites her to park her van in his driveway, and there it stays, sandwiched between Bennett's front door step and his garden gate, for 15 years. If it wasn't enough that visitors to Bennett's house now had to squeeze past the van and be scrutinised by the mad woman living inside, they often got a glimpse of the interior, "a midden of old clothes, plastic bags and half-eaten food". It sounds delightful, doesn't it?
Sadly, the longer she stays put, the worse her living conditions become. Her hygienic practises, or lack of them, become questionable, and, at one point, when Bennett gets a load of manure delivered to fertilise the garden she complains that people passing might think the smell is coming from her van.
She wants me to put a notice on the gate to the effect that the smell is the manure, not her. I say no, without adding, as I could, that the manure actually smells much nicer.
The book charts, diary-style, the ups and downs of having Miss Shepherd living in such close proximity. It's a mixture of frustrating observations, outlandish humour, hopelessness, despair and melancholy. Bennett does a superb job of describing Miss Shepherd's eccentric nature without mocking or denigrating her. While she quite clearly tries his patience -- for instance, when she buys a Reliant Robin in 1984 Bennett has to constantly recharge it for her because she drains the battery by simply sitting in it and revving the motor every Sunday morning, driving all the neighbours mad -- he never gives up on her.
The question that came to mind as I read this was not so much what made Miss Shepherd so kooky and "different", but what made Bennett tolerate her for so long? There are hints of an answer in the postscript which accompanies this edition in which Bennett admits he has done almost anything to live a quiet life.
I mull it over too [a phone call he has with Miss Shepherd's long lost brother], 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.
If you ever get the chance to read this essay then I urge you to do so. It's a beautiful portrait of English eccentricity -- and tolerance.