The Uncommon Reader

The Times recently described Alan Bennett as a national treasure, and here he is writing about another national treasure: the Queen. Yes, the real Queen – Elizabeth II, though he never actually names her, but contemporary references make it quite clear who she is. This book has been reviewed a lot recently as a perfect beach-read; for me, it was the perfect accompaniment to a train journey – not too demanding, suitably thought-provoking and just the right length (121 pages). The premise of the book is perfect: what if the Queen stumbled upon a mobile library whilst walking her corgis, and became an avid reader? What if she discovered the hitherto unknown and often subversive delights of literature, even neglecting her duties to pursue this new voracious interest?
Not only the Queen – who becomes more and more human and interesting as her reading takes over – but also the characters surrounding her, stuffed-shirt Palace officials, librarians etc, are comically described. It’s an amusing read (for example, after reading Proust, she says, ‘the curious thing about it was that when he dipped his cake in his tea (disgusting habit) the whole of his past life came back to him. Well, I tried it and it had no effect on me at all.’ However, it’s more thought-provoking than that; the effect that literature can have is explored in all its glory. Actually, I was gripped by the very first page, in which HM questions the president of France on his views on Jean Genet: ‘Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,’ – and she took up her soup spoon – ‘was he as good?’
Of course, a Queen who reads – really reads, proper literature, the written equivalent of heroin -is dangerous; she is perceived by those around her as being out of control. Is literature that dangerous? Can it upset what we see as normal, stable, day-to-day life? Of course it can – or what’s the point of it? Bennett is gently poking fun, on the surface; but underneath one suspects he is raging at the lack of cultural understanding there seems to be in this country. This particular reader is ‘uncommon’ not because she is the Queen (and therefore as uncommon as one can be!) but because she is really reading, with a sensitive inner eye that understands, digests, really thinks for herself and is not afraid of the consequences. If only more readers were that uncommon.

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