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!

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Powered by ScribeFire.

No comments: