A love letter to Alan Bennett

7 February 2006 at 08:01 Leave a comment

[Don’t worry, it’s not that kind of love letter. Just think of ‘love’ as ‘appreciate in a deep way’ this once…]

I have been trying to write this letter to you for months.

I came across your Writing Home after picking out a random book to read that had come with my furnished house here in Manchester. I simply loved it.

In it you mention a film that you had written and the plot sounded so familiar…so I looked it up and realized that I had actually first come across your writing when I saw Prick up Your Ears some time in the late 80s. It was the first time I’d had the experience that I was flipping channels and couldn’t find anything to watch, and I’d gotten up to go to the restroom and something on the screen arrested me and I stood there, mesmerized, until I finally came to my senses and sat down. I’d never known its name but had remembered the film vividly for, well, over a decade. The only other film that has done this to me is My Dinner with Andre. Funny that Wallace Shawn is in both of them.

Amazingly, just a few months after I’d read Writing Home, your Untold Stories came out (I see it is due out in April in the U.S.). I picked it up just before Christmas, and it’s become one of those books that I haven’t finished because I don’t want it to end.

“Hymn” is simply a perfect piece of prose.

I’ve started several times to try to sum up how much your writings have meant to me. Your writing is so human, like Twain, like Keillor and yet also so distinctly British that I never could find the right words. Everything I wrote seemed to suffer from hyperbole.

But last night I had a dream:

I was standing at a bus stop across the street from a yard-ornamenty kind of shop. What do you call ’em? Anyway, it was a replica of such a shop I had seen in the Missouri Ozarks.

I must point out that I hate lawn ornaments. There are many contrived things we as human beings do and act like they are normal, and the planting of yard ornaments is probably the most contrive-y. There was a house on a bend not too far from where I grew up that had about 15-20 of them lined up in a row, ordered by size, so that you started with a garden gnome and ended with a deer (I believe there was a pig somewhere in the middle). Why not, really, the whole thing is absurd, but that image always adds bold-face and italics to every little gnome I see tucked away under a bush. But I digress…

We were standing at this bus stop, me, you on my right, and on my left a girl I knew in high school but am no longer friends with (yeah, that was uncomfortable). You weren’t my friend or even acquaintance, we were all just waiting for the bus. As we stand there, a Cadillac drives by. The Cadillac is an old 50s model, a convertible, with the top down and the mostly-bald head of the rather large man at the wheel is red in the sun, his clearly more sensible wife in the passenger seat has a hat on. They are in their early 60s. The extraordinary thing is that the car is heavily laden with large granite, um, ashtrays.

Well, they look like those granite-y ashtrays you can buy with metal around the rim for extra decoration and to set your cigarette on except they are huge. Set on their ends and lined up like glazed donuts, a row of 8 of them fills the back seat, weighing the back of the car down. They are all sorts of colors, pink, red and orange, a deep luminescent green. We all watch it drive by the ornament shop and then make a right, parking, on a nearby road on our side of the street.

I thought they were terribly funny, here was the absurdism of lawn ornaments taken to its logical extreme (and where else can one smoke anymore but outside?) and as it drives by and we’re all staring at it, I laugh out loud and say, “Who could keep from buying one of those green ones?!”, which were the most ridiculous looking.

The girl I knew in high school glances at me and turns away, folding her arms, so, her, apparently, but you, wearing the same coat as is on the cover of Untold Stories, glance at me, give me a quick apologetic smile and walk off down the street to the right.

I’m a bit embarrassed about having said that out loud to Former-Friend and Esteemed-Stranger, so I blush and stand there looking down the street to the left as if looking for the bus (which was going to be coming from the right – um, I guess this was set in England. But the sunshine had a more American feel.)

Then you returned, bringing the Cadillac man’s wife with you to help me sort out how I’m going to get the ashtray that you’ve bought for me shipped home, and I stammer and say that I live in the States, and you both agree it’s no problem but to leave it to her, as she says, “What with international customs regulations being what they are,” and I’m astonished and grateful.

You sit down on the bench, your job apparently done, and I sit down next to you and carefully put my head on the edge of your knee, which is boney, looking toward the road, and say very quietly, “Thank you”.


That’s how I feel about you, Alan Bennett.

Like you just gave me a huge green granite ashtray lawn ornament.

And I didn’t even ask you to.


Entry filed under: Alan Bennett, reading.

All STOP Overheard VI

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What I’ve been reading:

  • James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. (London, 14 King William Street, Strand: William P. Nimmo, 1876). 4 years ago
  • Marsilio Ficino, Letters of Marsilio Ficino, v. 3, trans. Language Dept. School of Economic Science, London (New York: Gingko Press, 1985). 4 years ago
  • Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). 4 years ago
  • Stephanie Kallos, Broken for You (New York: Grove Press, 2004). 5 years ago
  • Marsilio Ficino, Letters of Marsilio Ficino, v. 2, trans. Language Dept. School of Economic Science, London (New York: Gingko Press, 1985) 5 years ago

T. Anderson Painter

I am a misanthrope. No one ever believes me, but this seems to prove my point.



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