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The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett
Faber and Faber
Released

Like Her Majesty the Queen (or unlike if you're a Republican), Alan Bennett is a national treasure. He also has a rare talent for mimicry. The working-class Northern lad effortlessly demonstrates this in The Uncommon Reader by stepping into the shoes of somebody whose upbringing is not so much upper class as beyond class.

This is not the first time that Bennett has chosen to write about Her Majesty. Many will recall Prunella Scales regally portraying her in A Question of Attribution.

Some readers might question why we feel it appropriate to review a short story on a theatre website. To an extent, this is self-indulgence but there is little doubt that many readers will be genuinely interested in a new work by Alan Bennett.

In any case, while this is ostensibly a whimsical fantasy told in prose, it is actually also an extension of ideas that featured prominently in The History Boys and by its nature, has several obvious and some more obscure references to the theatre and dramatists.

Bennett's premise is very simple. He toys with the idea that even the Queen might be able to read and if so, she could become as addicted to literature as the more learned of her subjects.

Much to the annoyance of her protective equerries, not to mention her Philistine husband, after discovering a travelling library in her grounds, the old lady becomes a fan of pretty much anything in print from Proust and Dickens to Shakespeare, Genet and Wilde.

What makes this book interesting is the effect that this enlightenment has on a woman, seen as the protagonist in a life-sized play, who had previously hardly noticed the world passing her by.

Swiftly, she becomes a humanist thereby proving that the theory of the wonderful Mr Hector in what is surely Bennett's finest play is correct. Eclectic learning for its own sake through the medium of literature will turn even the hardest hearted into a thinking, caring person.

This being Alan Bennett, the style is delicious and the comedy extremely funny. There are also tender moments abounding in a short story that should be on everybody's reading list, even that of the most august occupant of Buckingham Palace, though she may be a wee bit taken aback by the kind of final sentence that would have landed writers of an earlier generation in the Tower.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher