Last week...almost the week before now, I met the writer Alan Bennett. Well, I stood next to him in a cafe, both of us queuing for coffee...
Alan Bennett! Of all the writers to meet, to have him, the writer who wrote The Lady in the Van. Has anyone read that? It's a book about a lady who lived in her van in Alan Bennett's driveway before she died! One day, (as you do at the beginning) I Googled myself - 'Wanderingscribe' — and in amongst 'woman living in her car' articles, and references to Wanderingscribe, and all the dross, I came across the book by Alan Bennett. I bought it the very next day. It is a slim volume, and of course I read it in one sitting... She wasn't like me at all; the Lady he writes about was a real bag lady, who had lived like that for years - though who knows that I might not have turned out like that under other circumstances. Anyway, I went on to read lots of Alan Bennett in the end, this way or that way. His name seemed to generally cross my path — as it does when you come across something new: I'd go into a bookshop and there it'd be, a book by Alan Bennett on the table or the counter, or a picture of him on the book jacket or some publicity flyer. He writes plays too, he wrote the 'History Boys', which was turned into the film, and so his picture was there in all the publicity for that, so you couldn't help knowing what he looks like. And I remember going to the Southbank one evening for a reading of 'Nocturnes' by Kazio Ishiguru, I think it was, and in one of the other theatres must have been something on by Bennett because there in the corner was a lifesize cardboard cut out of him. Yes, the long coat, the green scarf, the shirt and tie under a v-neck, the black specs, the newly cut hair, that boyish grin. It could have been him standing there in the corner, life-size, watching the comings and goings in the foyer. Anyway, it's a image everyone is probably familiar with, iconic almost.
A few months after that, I went out for the day to London, a place where there is a large park and, nearby, lots of smart cafes and the kind of little boutiques where dresses are chained to the rail, and I'd be terrified to even slow down to window shop past, and as I was choosing between cafes, walking towards me, looking very pleased with himself, grinning that grin, was Alan Bennett. Larger than life, pushing a bike, with a bunch of yellow flowers in the crook of one arm, and a couple of A4 writing pads under the other. Just walking towards me as if he had walked straight out of one of his own book jackets, Writing Home
, or that cardboard cut-out I saw at the Southbank. Except surprisingly tall, taller than you'd imagine from the photos.
I haven't been to that place since. Until the week before last. Again I was out for the day, and walked from the train along to one of those cafes. This time I had some writing in my bag, and so hurried there, determined to finish a chapter of something. I chose my cafe, staked a claim at a table outside, ordered a coffee and then wandered down to the bookshop further along to get a book. The bookshop owner commented that he personally knew the author whose book I ended up buying. It wasn't Alan Bennett, but was apparently one of his neighbours. 'His children go to school with our children. He often pops in...' he said. And as he said it, it reminded me of the writer I had seen the last time I was there. I had it in mind to tell him my Alan Bennett story: that the very last time I was there I saw him, walking down the street towards me, pushing his bike with those yellow flowers in the crook of one arm, the writing pads under the other. I didn't tell him though. But as I walked out into drizzle and down to drink the coffee already waiting on the table, I had that image firmly in my head. It was as clear as if he was there again, slowly walking towards me along that same stretch of pavement, in that long coat and scarf, those yellow flowers tucked in the crook of one arm, and then past me, walking on, with that expression as if laughing at a continuous stream of jokes he is inventing as he goes along.
I forgot about the image. I drank my coffee. I lost myself in the writing. The words came so well in the end that I didn't dare break the spell and decided to stay and have a second coffee. I went inside to order at the counter at the far end, and as the waiter wiped cappuccino pipes and frothed milk in a metal jug, I turned around and who was walking down the long aisle towards the counter...but Alan Bennett! I did a double take, cleared my vision by staring blankly at the waiter, and then glanced around again and there he was, still there. No yellow flowers under one arm. I gave a cautious, probably very stunned, half-smile of aknowledgement, which he returned with that boyish grin. He then almost dropped himself into a chair at a small table by the counter, and waited to order. Seeing him sitting there, Alan Bennett dressed as Alan Bennett, was like looking at the cover of a book and again made me smile. It was table service, so sitting at that small table by the counter, he could only have been there for takeaway. I tried not to say hello. I tried hard...but in the end I couldn't help myself. I said in one breath, 'I know I shouldn't speak to you...' at which he waved a hand and said 'no, that's fine' which I spoke over anyway saying '...but it's almost like I just summoned you up, because I was literally just thinking of you as I walked along from the bookshop... ' He threw his head back and laughed when I said that, and I told him about nearly telling the man in the bookshop about seeing him last time I was in the area too, and how instead, just twenty minutes or so ago, I'd carried his image in my head all the way back down the street to my waiting coffee. I didn't tell him that I was there to write that day, that I'd taken my book bag with me and was writing for the first time in I don't know how long...and then I think of him coming from the bookshop and turn at the counter and there he is walking up and queuing beside me for a coffee! Amazing! On the day I blow the dust off my notepad as well...Hopefully a good omen.
I wished I'd said more...I wish I'd been able to say more: 'Can I walk with you, Mr Bennett, talk to you about writing?' The things he could have told me...the tips, the advice. I think mostly I wanted to tell him that I lived in my car too, like the woman he wrote about, and that I wrote about it too. That maybe I wrote for her, maybe I wrote her side of things, or a not too dissimilar version of it maybe...? Maybe I'm how it starts,the Mrs Shepherd thing, maybe she was how it could have ended. There but for the grace of God...But of course I couldn't have told him any of that...He did chat for a few minutes though as we waited for coffee, he was relaxed and approachable, with this great avuncular charm about him. He told me he used to live in Gloucester Place, and in the 60's lived in a flat around the corner from where we were, which he loved so much he wished he had back. When my coffee was ready, I could either hang around like some stalker or go back to my table outside. I wanted to hang around and talk to him, about anything, just be in his aura for a bit. But of course I said how nice it was to meet him and left, and minutes later saw him walk away in the other direction with his takeaway coffee, the long coat swinging as he walked off home. In a way I'm still kicking myself for not talking to him, for there not being a way to do that.
If you know Alan Bennett's agent, could you mention it: Anya Peters would love to get a message to him! I'm joking of course, why would he ever contact a complete stranger, I don't think he even uses email (although apparently his partner is editor of one of those glossy ideal home type magazines, surely he uses it. Borrow it Mr Bennett, drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org and next time you have coffee at that cafe I could share one with you, show you some writing I've done, get some advice on it. Or just talk. Of course you won't... I'll probably have to just summon you up again one day, instead...