Easy to understand why the British consider Alan Bennett a national treasure. It started in 1960, when with a group of friends he achieved almost instant fame with the satirical West End review Beyond the Fringe. Bennett has always been as comfortable on stage as he is in the writer’s chair, appearing in plays and television shows too numerous to list, and writing at least fifteen plays that have been produced in either London or New York. He also writes stories, novellas, essays and memoirs that delight readers everywhere.
My first reading of Bennett was his novella Smut, a surprise that suddenly lit up the room. The Uncommon Reader came next, another of his novellas and that one put his name permanently on my library and bookstore ‘look for’ list. Last Friday I hit upon another one and snatched it off the shelf in a flash—a small volume with two more novellas, The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady in the Van. Reading the second will come later, but about The Clothes They Stood Up In I offer a warning that reading it in a public place will draw the stares of people around you because it’s a story guaranteed to make you laugh long, often and loudly.
Maurice and Rosemary Ransome are a long married couple living in north London, in a spacious and comfortable flat that has been home for many years. Theirs is a marriage that has settled into convenience and silent resolve to make life quietly agreeable despite his unsmiling stiffness and her diffidence. One night the two go out for an evening at the opera and return to find their flat has been burgled. But this is not the ordinary burglary where certain things are missing; their home has been stripped down to an empty shell leaving nothing but the standing walls. The telephones, the wall-to-wall carpeting, the toilet paper, the casserole in the oven—every sign of occupancy is gone, the only thing left being the clothes they stand up in.
As bad as it sounds, the disappearance of their domestic setting has some positive results that come in the wake of confusion and a laissez-faire lack of concern by the police. Mr Ransome views the burglary as an opportunity to get a better stereo sound system through the insurance claim while the effect on his wife is deeper, gradually leading her to find new life in the absence of all possessions. There isn’t much in it to ruffle the brusque ways of her husband, but in replacing the bare essentials, Mrs Ransome discovers a new and for her unheard of freedom.
Some weeks pass before a letter arrives directing Mr & Mrs Ransome to an address some distance away. They find there a large storage facility containing their north London flat recreated down to the smallest detail and filled with all their possessions. The young man hired to stay there and look after things has no idea of who or why, but has followed the written instructions of an unknown employer. Of course, they are free to reclaim their belongings, with the comical addition of a few tokens from the temporary caretaker and his girlfriend.
Once everything is put back in place and life slips back to its pre-burglary humdrum routines, Mrs Ransome finds there is something less than satisfying about the return of her old life and all its clutter. She has learned (mostly from newly discovered daytime talks shows on television) during their post-burglary days that she and her husband have not been connected for too long. The earlier lack of confidence is gone and she makes the decision to effect a change in the unfeeling relationship with her husband. But then comes the next blow.
The Clothes They Stood Up In is a short and charming evening’s read. Whether it’s this one or another, give yourself the treat of an Alan Bennett book.