In 1974, the homeless Miss Shepherd moved her broken down van into Alan Bennett’s garden. Deeply eccentric and stubborn to her bones, Miss Shepherd was not an easy tenant. And Bennett, despite inviting her in the first place, was a reluctant landlord. And yet she lived there for fifteen years.
This account of those years was first published in 1989 in the London Review of Books. The play premiered in 1999, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Dame Maggie Smith, who reprise their roles in this new film adaptation. Shot on location at Bennett’s house, Alex Jennings plays the author, alongside household names including Frances de la Tour, Jim Broadbent and Dominic Cooper.
This book was the unlikely topic of conversation with a friend after a few drinks. Slightly dejected, he recounted his guilt over his grandmothers death and wondered if he had done enough as she spiralled into eccentricity. What brought on this rather morose reminiscence I asked, and he mentioned that he had recently seen the movie “The Lady in the Van”, and she reminded him a little of his slightly-batty granny.
I looked it up when I got home, and seeing that it was based on a book, I promptly bought it. It was a short read – a brief memoir by Alan Bennett, who it turns out is not only a talented writer, but a pretty decent human being, as I don’t think many people would tolerate a slightly mentally ill homeless pensioner camping in their garden. Most people wouldn’t put up with this for a week – let alone 15 years. Of course these days they’d get whisked off to a nursing home, but back in the 1970s things we didn’t have the factory-line ready and waiting for anyone who inconvenienced society like we do today, and the support of the street who allowed her to remain there allowed her to slip through the net. So instead of ostracising her and making her someone else’s problem, the community sort-of embraces her, tolerating her, in many ways encouraging her. Despite the bizarre living situation, despite the smells and the physical problems, the missing mental pieces, I never felt sorry for her, as she seemed to be having a whale of a time tormenting the street and living a life of freedom, if not luxury.
It is written with humour, and a frank honesty that moved me. It was a short memoir, taking me less than an hour to read, but in that hour managed to give me a variety of emotions. I felt Alan’s frustration, his confusion, his humour, his appreciation and ultimately, I felt a little bit of guilt over the fact that I don’t think I would have been as patient… or as kind. It reminded me that sometimes kindness is letting people live, and existing with them, despite their problems and eccentricities, and not shutting up everyone who is slightly convenient in a hospital or home, to wither behind closed doors. But at the same time… it also reminded me that we have a severe lack of mental health facilities, and it was bittersweet, because who knows what her life could have been had she had medical treatment early on. Would she have hated an institutionalized life? Would she have improved, and been able to live independently in that flat that she wanted, and reconnect with her family? I tried to take a positive slant on Alan Bennett’s kindness in allowing her to live there – but of course, there is a definite sadness to the fact she was in this situation to begin with.
I don’t read a lot of memoirs / true fiction, but I’m glad I gave this one a chance and I’m looking forward to seeing the movie.