An Open Letter to Alan Bennett

Playwright Alan Bennett.  Photo by Cato Lein.

*Warning – contains minor spoilers for The Lady in the Van*

I gather from your work that you don’t have a lot of time for sentimentality, so I’ll try to keep this mostly stern and brief. I may fail in this effort.

I moved to California last summer. For my first thirty years, I lived pretty much exclusively in northern England, mostly recently in Manchester. So while I love it (read, prefer it) out here, there are certain, specific, mostly art-related things I miss about England. The proliferation of your works being amongst these. So I was incredibly happy when the little independent cinema within walking distance of my front door announced they would be showing Lady in the Van. I have just returned from a screening, and felt compelled to jot my thoughts down.

I have admired your writing for about twenty years. I am forever grateful to my high school English teacher, Mrs. Marchant, for showing Talking Heads to a largely indifferent group of thirteen-year-olds. The monologue in question was Lady of Letters, and I was gripped by the dark humor. I was always considered a little strange in school, and quietly laughing at some of the lines didn’t exactly win me any credibility points. But I didn’t care; I had literally never seen anything like it before.

Another vivid memory associated with you is reading a copy of Talking Heads 2 at the bus stop near my sixth form college. I avoided the school bus, as my aforementioned strangeness often drew negative attention. I’d just started my A Level English course, and was handed a copy of Talking Heads 2. So propped up against a fence, a safe distance from pre-pubescent cries of “goth”, I quickly began devouring the monologues I wasn’t already familiar with. One of these was Playing Sandwiches. I will never forget reading the line… “So I took her in the bushes.” I don’t think I’d ever read anything so dark. To this day, both Talking Heads 1 and 2 are amongst my favorite pieces of literature. I revisit them every six months or so, and I always find something different.

While watching The Lady in the Van today, I was reminded of my teenage isolation for various reasons. Sitting amongst twenty or so elderly Californians, I was alone in laughing at jokes concerning M&S, MOTs and stairlifts, but my laugh was loud and proud. As I’ve got older, I’ve learned to embrace my weirdness, and it has won me some wonderful, lifelong friends, not to mention an incredible husband.

The film is a great adaptation. The story, of course, is beautiful. My heart soared every time a former History Boy appeared, and I have to admit I shed a little tear at the shot of the National Theatre (which remains one of my favorite places in the world). But when you wheeled up on a bike at the end of the film, it was like seeing an old friend. Your work has been with me throughout my adult life, and I’m glad you’ve been so prolific that I will probably never stop discovering new things.

I love my life in California. I have the opportunity to explore my capabilities, and start an entirely new life for myself. And as someone who sincerely wishes people “a great day”, I’m received pretty well over here. But today, for a couple of hours, I was reminded of who I used to be, and how my love of your writing has helped me to develop into a woman who northerners might describe as “alright, you”. I would love to thank you in person, but I don’t imagine you Skype very often. And that’s one of the many things I love about you.

With eternal gratitude,

Tracey

Photo by Cato Lein

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