I adore Alan Bennett’s writing; he makes me laugh so much. This is a non-fiction story about Mrs Shepherd who is homeless and lives in her van, and who Alan takes pity on and invites her to park her van on his driveway and connect to his electric supply. He is then generally taken advantage of by the old lady while being regarded by her in a rather scornful manner. The book is extracts from Alan’s diaries, though with sometimes quite a gap between entries, and it is a joy to read.

The slight craziness and eccentricity of Mrs Shepherd and the things she says and does provided me with much amusement, particularly her political opinions and the letters she writes. She seems fiercely independent and not in any particular need or want of help, but I am struck firstly by how extraordinarily generous Alan must be and what a lovely kind man he is to ‘house’ her all that time from 1974 to 1989!

Some of my favourite tales of Mrs Shepherd are her putting washing powder on a dry blanket and leaving it outside so that when it rains it will be therefore be washed – and Alan’s resigned comment in his diary that, “No rain is at the moment forecast”; her using a wheelchair to get around (even though she can walk) and asking a passerby to push her to the market, yet refusing to pick her feet up off the ground while being pushed therefore making the pusher’s task much more difficult than it need be; her unusual clothes, including a hat made from cardboard and a skirt made from orange dusters; Alan’s gradual realisation that, “she knows exactly what she’s about”; Alan offering to make her a cup of coffee and her saying, “Well, I wouldn’t want you to go to all that trouble; I’ll just have half a cup”; and her advice to Alan of TV series he should write and various ideas of how he could earn money.

I was concerned about the lack of help for her from organisations, and the fact she seems to be unsupported apart from by Alan. I do wonder, though, if she actually appeared to the authorities as not needing much help, as of course when she was parked in Alan’s garden she technically had a permanent address so could claim Social Security! She did seem to be helped slightly more by the authorities when she was getting older and weaker, and Alan suspected this help was only accepted by her because she was weaker. I did wonder, therefore, if help had always been available to her from the authorities but that she had refused to accept it. It was sad to see how pathetic she was towards the end and how dirty and smelly she and her van became, and very difficult to imagine someone living in such a way.

I found it interesting that the contemplation of Mrs Shepherd’s life made Alan look at his own life. I also found it fascinating to discover Mrs Shepherd’s history and past life and family.

This is an unusual story, a fascinating and entertaining one, and one that is brilliantly written.

The Lady in the Van (Paperback)

By (author): Alan Bennett

A work of non-fiction that follows the author's other little blockbuster "The Clothes They Stood Up In".
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