Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Nation's Frailty

Fortunately, Alan Bennett has already declined a knighthood - meeting England's sword wielding Queen after publishing The Uncommon Reader might be a little, shall we say, 'ambiquous'.

But then again, Alan Bennett has a charm and humour which might, if the present monarch does actually read, disarm even the most, "We are not amused!"

The story is simple; England's Queen suddenly develops a passion for reading which humanises her. It does not, however, result in any final satisfaction and at the end of the book we are left with a twist that seems to be setting Mrs Windsor off on a whole new adventure.

In such stark outline it is a piece of amusing trivia ... and I've read several reviews which don't seem to have moved beyond this level of comprehension: That is to greatly underestimate both Mr Bennett and his understanding of the character of the British Monarchy. It is also to reduce what is an interesting essay into the relationship between reader and writer to mere amusement.

Bennett is superb with 'odd' characters - his Talking Heads series takes individuals and exposes both the bleakness and the richness of their humanity.

He does a similar job here on 'The Queen'. But to mistake the character for the real thing is to mistake Mr Bennett's purpose ...

The Queen of England (Elizabeth II - she doesn't even have a real family name!) represents in a way which is unique in the modern world, a nation. That nation is not even England ... it is the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or UK. The poor woman has even got the extra burden of several other states and nations tucked around her.

As such, any individuality or personality has been subsumed under the mantel of duty ...and that is Mr Bennett's starting point. Through her passion for reading, the character of the Queen undergoes an education which releases her individuality and causes her to reject that lifetime of duty.

This is, of course, a manifesto and a metaphor ... if the Queen is representative of the UK then it is as duty bound as she and there is a need for the liberating effect of reading.

But it goes beyond being a simple cry for more education, it is a call for the appreciation of the creative in us all.

As the Queen, tentatively at first, makes her way through the world of literature she absorbs everything from high to low. It causes her to ask embarrassing questions about Jean Genet of the French President; to force old paperback copies of Hardy's poetry on the Prime Minister; to eventually send her private secretary back home to the bleakness of the southern hemisphere.

The early journey is supported by the dish-washing homosexual 'Norman' - too ugly to make it as page. His promotion upstairs leads to resentment and his eventual removal whilst the Queen is away both fortunate and unfortunate.

Prince Philip trots around like one of 'the dogs' and several un-named grandchildren flit in and out. So too do a remarkable list of authors, all given a little pungent assessment - which is one of the delights of the book.

Politicians are given short shrift ... but not the main character herself. There is an affection in the writing which belies the suggestion that Mr Bennett is taking a swipe at the monarchy. He's too good a writer for that.

Oh, by the way - it is very, very witty!

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Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Damned Silly!

“One is tempted to say,” said the white wine and soda, “it was a positive wolf in the grass slothing lambs wool mittens!”

The tea with milk, no sugar, agreed.

With a clear and unambiguous title, Blandings Castle emblazoned on the dust cover, one is not expecting trips to Hollywood, even with the inestimable Mr. Mulliner and his ubiquitous family.

Sneakily slipped inside is the full title, ‘Blandings Castle and Elsewhere’. Damned cheek I’d call it – especially as I’d settled in to my summer holiday read and, like England, was expecting …

In two clear parts with and entr'acte of mixed pedigree, this collection of short stories takes you through an early phase of Lord Emsworth’s passions (strictly horticultural at first but moving swinewards), deals with the suicidal American publisher and comes to rest in the US of A’s bitter world of celluloid sweat-shop.

Emsworth here seems to be a bit stronger - to be able to offer resistance to that most formidable of avenging hosts, his sister and even takes to refusing his Glaswegian sourpuss Head Gardener – but only with the helping hand of a London waif.

These are tales which wag with all the drunken puppy-dog vigour you would expect from Blandings and don’t disappoint. The young characters are chumps, the older characters either fighting against the encroaching idiocies of youth, or rich enough to indulge them. Sailing through it all is Emsworth, concerned only with the important things of life – watching his marrow grow or fattening his pig to Shropshire Show prize winning proportions. His son is more concerned with selling dog biscuits.

This ends all too quickly – at page 160 of a 300 page book.

Mr Potter, publisher, gets dragged down to a very Blandings-inferior country residence for the between acts entertainment marking a sort of obvious transition – an American in England before we hit the English in America. What he is doing sneaking out of a punt and into the moat I’ll leave it to you to find out – but star (or rather Lady Wickham’s celebrated willpower) crossed love is involved, and furniture piled against the door.

Mr Mulliner then, as is his want, engages in a bit of storytelling in the local pub to assembled drinks. All are of related Mulliners, their blighted loves and interactions in the jungle we know as the film industry.

Mr. Wodehouse seems to have a wormwood like inflection towards the Californian dream factory and one wonders if personal experience hasn’t coloured his attitude.

Monstrous moguls, scheming starlets and writing prisons all feature in this most deceptive of environments – and the bland drift of English youth towards it is reminiscent of Pacific flotsam.

Amusing but cautionary, the moral high ground is scaled, whilst in the cellar the police are locked out of the illicit liquor store.

Good tales – but not what I wanted on the hot summer riverbank as I lazily watch the local hookers attempting to land the indolent carp.

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