Guest blogger: Lucy Foster, Editorial Assistant, Sceptre

‘The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included.’

Two Roads book club, Alan Bennett, the Uncommon Reader, the Queen, The End of Your Life Book Club, bunting

a royal flush

We all love Alan Bennett. But first things first – Will and Kate are tying the knot this month so the April Two Roads Book Club was a patriotic feast of HRH bunting, regal tea towels, commemorative paraphernalia, strawberries and cream, Victoria sponge, and pictures of all of our favourite royals and their gigantic engagement rings.

We opened the discussion with thoughts of different ways in which to mark The Big Day (Cornish street parties, camping on Clapham Common, running for the hills, TV watching) and then we moved onto the book. For anyone who doesn’t know The Uncommon Reader, the first thing to mention is that it is gloriously, audaciously short – a brevity that perhaps only King Alan could get away with at £7.99. The second thing to mention, also audacious, also only excusable if carried out by a national treasure, is that it is written almost entirely from the point of view of the Queen, and in many of her own words. ‘Is one allowed to borrow a book? One is a pensioner…’.

Two Roads book club, Alan Bennett, the Queen, Royal Wedding, Uncommon Reader

A collection of national treasures: Alan Bennett, The Queen, Victoria Sponge & Cath Kidston. Two Roads April book club showed no restraint.

It is the story of Elizabeth II and her life-changing encounter with literature, when the wayward corgis lead her away from the garden to a mobile lending library behind the palace kitchens. It is a book about reading, and, like Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, about finding a spare moment and a quiet place to do this. The queen rests an open book in her lap while waving to her subjects from inside a Bentley/horse-drawn carriage/limousine, she thinks about her book while opening monuments, launching ships, knighting Sirs. She begins to neglect her duties because she would just much rather be reading.

Nearly all of us loved this book: the way that reading made the queen more sensitive to detail and concerned for her subjects’ humanity, she chides herself for never having had much to say to the great authors she has had the privilege (she now realises) of meeting in the past, and tries to get to know some unnamed contemporary authors, but none of them are interested in speaking

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to her. We loved grumpy old Prince Philip, and the queen’s pragmatic reactions to Henry James, Nancy Mitford, Shakespeare, Ivy Compton Burnett, My Dog Tulip, Christopher Isherwood; some of us were slightly disgruntled, though, that Alan did not think she would like Jane Austen.

The conversation fluttered from the queen to the lady in the van to Bennett’s mother in Untold Stories, and from the extinction of mobile libraries, like the one the queen encounters outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, to talk of England and of milkmen, milk floats, fish vans, orange juice in glass bottles, chimney sweeps, coal holes, doorstep scrubbing, street parties and back to bunting again.

Two Roads book club, Alan Bennett, the Queen, Royal Wedding, Uncommon Reader, cake

Let them eat cake. Minutes later this cake was history.

We are grateful to Alan Bennett for writing such a short, characterful, British masterpiece (‘It would be the same, she thought, if she had developed a passion for God, or dahlias’) and for giving The Two Roads Book Club such a lovely afternoon of patriotic reminiscences.

Arriving back at my desk, full of sandwiches and strawberries, I couldn’t believe my luck when I found an email from a friend asking if I’d like a ticket to the ceremony on April 29 – there would be police checks, and a small fee, but it would definitely be worth it I agreed, enthusiastic. The invitation was an April fool (of course) but that didn’t occur to me until later because why wouldn’t I be invited to Westminster Abbey, now that The Queen and I know each other so well?

2 responses to “two roads book club: the uncommon reader by alan bennett”

  1. Susie Burge says:

    love this book, genius. Love this post – whoops sorry read it so late, scrolling back through the loveliness of the two roads blog on a catch up thursday night in rainy wintery Sydney

    • Lisa says:

      no worries…glad the quality of the posts could distract you.
      quite difficult to read the Bennett without his voice in one’s ear. But it’s a good voice. Summer here of course and long evenings – but we have the rain in common. Pit pat

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