Feb, 2006. For the past five months I have been living alone in a car at the edge of the woods — jobless and homeless and totally unable to find a way out. I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't scream loudly enough, alI I can do is write. So here I am laying down tracks...hopefully the start of an online paper trail out of here. (Update: my blog was 'discovered' and I eventually got a publishing deal and made it out of my car to write a book about it... Miracles do happen.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Alan Bennett

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: wanderingscribe@btinternet.com 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...


At 1:01 am, Blogger Chelsea said...

WOW you met a writer. I really admire you, Anya.
I've read your book and I sent you an email but I'm not so sure you received it because you didn't reply to me. I've been waiting for a reply for over three months now. Please Please reply to that email. I'd love to hear from you!

At 11:37 pm, Blogger Tina Damant said...


I finished reading your book earlier today and had to check out your blogs right after that. I'm so touched by your story. I wish you'd write something more to be published! You have such a way with words! You met a writer today and I'd like to meet the "lady in the car", I think she'd be far more interesting to meet one day....I plan to keep your book always for a reminder that "someone else always has it worse then we do"....I carry you in my thoughts more then you will ever know....

At 6:29 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have just read ur book in 1 day i couldnt put it down.i will never again think i am badly done to when i am feeling down and sorry for myself.u r a very brave lady and i wish u joy and happiness in whatever u do in ur life.take care and keep fighting.

At 8:31 am, Anonymous positive affirmation said...

nice article.., inspiring..

I forgive myself
As I forgive myself. I leave behind all feelings of not being good enough, and I am free to love myself.

At 3:38 pm, Anonymous kristine0019 said...

I read your story in the February 2008 edition of Reader's Digest. I admire your courage and resillience.

At 11:22 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

o.k so I went to the library today and got your book out...not because anyone told me to, but because it stuck out for me and i decided yep this is the book I will read. Now I have to add I honestly have not sat and read a book for years, I barely read the paper. I got home just before lunch time and began reading....I couldn't put it down so I continued reading word for word inbetween cooking tea for the kids etc, but it is now 11.20pm (NZ time) and I have finished the book. You are one exceptional lady, I now think myself lucky . All I can say is Wow, I am amazed at how you have pushed past and come through on the other side.
I'd love to read another book of yours.

At 1:15 am, Anonymous dancin-bearette said...

my sister wanted to take my two youngest kids for an overnight visit yesterday leaving me with not much to do except relax with a book,which just happened to be yours.started yesterday and finished today,you are so brave and i just want to give you a big hug. im so glad everything has turned out well.iv only just found your blog so i hope all is still well.and if its good times for you just now, please believe you totally deserve it and enjoy it.lots of scottish hugs and you'll hear from me when ive caught up a bit...lol just previewed and read the comment above,it seems im not the only one who couldnt put it down.

At 10:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I just finished reading your book, took me only 1 1/2 days, I just couldn't put it down. Good to know that everything has turned around for you and your in a better place now.

At 10:30 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi it looks like you have not written on here for some time but today I finished reading your book. There's not many books out there that make some sort of impression on your life but yours has. I have also listened to the audio interviews and its weird putting a voice to the person I have been reading about for the past week. :-) I wish you every happiness for the future Anya X x

At 10:36 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi it looks like you have not written on here for some time but today I finished reading your book. There's not many books out there that make some sort of impression on your life but yours has. I have also listened to the audio interviews and its weird putting a voice to the person I have been reading about for the past week. :-) I wish you every happiness for the future Anya X x

At 11:03 pm, Anonymous Erica said...

I have just finnished your book abandoned it was really great to read your story it was sadly too I hope everything is much better now. Greetings from Sweden love Erica

At 11:52 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

your book has really touched me your an amazing person!! sorry you had to go through so much pain i cried reading your book! hope you doing ok now

At 2:45 am, Blogger lishababy said...

How exciting that you met a writer! So I just finished reading your book which I started reading at midnight last night and I couldn't put it down! You are an amazing person and such an inspiration. I would love to read another book of yours because I love the way you write! Would love to hear from you!

At 9:03 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished reading your book, touched me so much. You truly are a survivor & an inspiration, and I wish you all the luck and love in the world x

At 10:22 am, Blogger Charlotta said...

Here is a hug from sweden.

I just finished reading your book..
I think of you and wisches you all luck.
I don't know what more to say, more than hugs from me.

At 12:36 pm, Blogger miami lakes kia said...

A Nice Article.,
Kia Hollywood

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At 2:21 pm, Blogger ezzafatima tariq said...

I was going through my old stuff and came across 2008 edition of readers digest which feaatures your story ...reading it moved me so much...that brought me here...u hav shown great strengh in hard times!now i m surely going to read your book too:)

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