An Empathetic Portrait

8:34 PM 28 FEBRUARY 2017

The musings of Alan Bennett, based on his observations of people and his experience of life in general, are almost guaranteed to draw a smile from even the most world-weary. As one reads his diarised account of life after the eccentric Miss Shepherd had moved her clapped-out van into his front garden…..and then stayed for fifteen years, it is hard not to be touched by a mixture of humour and pathos, which is both funny and moving in equal measure. 

So improbable is the bizarre sequence of events that ‘you couldn’t make it up’ and the knowledge that Bennett is recounting ‘real life’ somehow adds to the riveting nature of the book. Though now a ‘major motion picture’ starring Dame Maggie Smith, as I read, I could frequently ‘hear’ Bennett’s distinctive northern, nasally voice, wanting to remain compassionate, but nonplussed by the chaotic and seemingly irrational choices made by his visitor. Yet, it is hard not to have more than a sneaking regard for the enigmatic Miss Shepherd. Though seemingly destined to persistently rail against conforming to social norms, Miss Shepherd is nonetheless like an iceberg, with only a small fraction of herself showing above the community waterline. Indeed, perhaps it was the prospect of hidden depths, which so intrigued the author.

Still, we can also applaud Mr Bennett for his very uncommon response, in the circumstances, which has permitted a tender, yet unsentimental portrait of a  fascinating human being. Since, Miss Shepherd could potentially be any one of us, Bennett also manages to make a powerful case for tolerance and an acceptance of difference. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, there is perhaps an argument here suggesting that same village may also foster a dignified end of life for our elders.

By including an epilogue, the author also provided a thoughtful conclusion, which deftly answered some of the questions arising about Miss Shepherd’s past. This was my first foray into the written work of Alan Bennett, but from this example, it is easy to see why he is regarded by many as a national treasure. I look forward to more dipping into a substantial body of work.

Rating: 4 out of 5.