Alan Bennett has become inextricably linked with the life of Miss Shepherd, the tramp (by her behaviour and attitudes she could never be called anything else) who lived in a derelict van on his driveway for nearly twenty years, but this book is where it all began.
Though this is a slim volume it still carries so much pathos. It is constructed from entries from Bennett’s diary that chronicle his relationship with Miss Shepherd. It began when he allowed her to park her van, in which she lived, in his driveway, to avoid the new residents’ parking restrictions in his area of North London. He intends it as a short time arrangement, but it runs into a nearly twenty-year residency.
Bennett’s book chronicles Miss Shepherd’s eccentric behaviour and beliefs, which are uncomfortably far right. At the beginning of the book her actions are portrayed as comic, and she certainly gets some of the best lines in the book. But as the book progresses the tone slowly becomes darker, Miss Shepherd’s behaviour more poignant than comic. Her own preparation for her death is so sadly poignant. It is only after her death that Bennett is able to piece together the real events of her life, which her eccentric behaviour hid when alive.
This book is unsentimental in its portrayal of Miss Shepherd, her life and the effects she had on those around her. So many times Bennett recounts how angry and frustrated he was by her, Miss Shepherd was never grateful for any help given her. But it also illustrates a life that fell through the huge cracks in Thatcher’s Britain. Miss Shepherd was at the bottom of the economic ladder, so poor her home was a broken-down old van, with mental health problems, surviving on the charity of local people.
Though a short volume this book is a fascinating read, a chronicle of life that could have been so easily forgotten about once she had died.
Edited by Drew Payne
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