An amusing story from English writer Alan Bennett…
In 2010, Bennett described being mugged by two women who sneakily splashed him with ice cream in Marks & Spencer, Camden Town. As they made a show of wiping off the ice cream with tissues, the two stole from his coat pocket £1,500 cash he had withdrawn from the bank a short time earlier. Initially grateful the women had helped clean his coat Bennett said later that the experience made him less likely to believe in the kindness of strangers.
Though not working on anything in particular right now, Bennett continues to write everyday, always in longhand. He bought a computer not long ago but hasn’t yet taken it out of the box. “It sits in the corner of my study like an unexploded bomb,” he says. “I’m not looking forward to using the display though…when you’re typing and you see it going up on the screen, it’s finished, but I don’t regard it as finished at that stage.”
On my bedside table this past week was the latest book (2010) from Bennett, two longish short stories published together in a slim volume called Smut. Bennett says the title is meant to give his readers a little rattle, but really should be taken with an understanding that what’s inside will not be obscene, if a little racy. Actually, this book of two stories is a good healthy laugh from beginning to end and rather than smut, much more about people’s misconceptions about themselves and the masquerades they act out in covering up who they really are.
The main characters in each story are British matrons, Mrs. Donaldson and Mrs. Forbes. Bennett credits his ability to get into the mind of a middle-aged woman to his childhood years of listening to his aunts talk endlessly. And he replicates that quality with great panache in these two stories.
In “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” a recently widowed mother finds that she has need for a little more money, as well as company. To this end she rents out a room in her house and takes a job at a hospital demonstrating medical conditions to students. Mrs Donaldson says of her new occupation, “It’s a way of not being yourself.” It isn’t long before Mrs Donaldson becomes a hospital Meryl Streep, acting out a sundry of gripes and afflictions. Her repertory includes the role of a depressed daughter of a demented mother, a stroke victim, and finally going as far as a male patient in drag with a bad knee. Her life at home takes a less dramatic but different form of role playing when her student lodgers propose an unusual form of rental payment—watching the two of them make love in Mrs Donaldson’s own bed. But she makes for an odd sort of voyeur, distracted by dust on the floor, comparing sexual positions to vases she’s seen at the British Museum and in one shaky moment, reaching out from her chintz-covered bedside stool to steady the headboard in an effort to prevent a lamp falling to the floor. Such farce might seem contrived or excessive, but Bennett is challenging the expectations of both his characters and his readers.
The second and shorter story is "The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes" in which Mrs Forbes’ son Graham is mostly gay and in the closet but marries Betty for her money, who in the mother’s eyes is an unsuitable bride. After his marriage Graham continues to carry on with Gary, who blackmails him. At the other end is the browbeaten father, Mr Forbes who takes a liking to his daughter-in-law Betty who reciprocates, leading to some clandestine business with them. Graham’s ‘friend’ Gary finally connects with Mrs Forbes and that relationship too leans toward the unusual. The whole is a witty comedy of repression, role-playing, transgressive sexuality and blackmail.
A close look at the photo of the Picador paperback above reveals a cleverly designed cover showing three rows of paired white teacups, each pair joined in a pose from the Kama Sutra.