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The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader

Review by George Harbinson

Alan Bennett delivers a witty subversive book about the Queen, the monarchy and the state.

The Queen addressing her subjects on the occasion of her 80th birthday: -

‘One has had, as you all know, a long reign. In fifty years and more I have gone through, I do not say seen off – laughter – ten prime ministers, six archbishops of Canterbury, eight speakers and, though you may not consider this a comparable statistic, fifty-three corgis – a life as Lady Bracknell says, crowded with incident.’

What a lovely little hardback book this is (124 pages); outside and in. The Queen’s army of corgis are distracted and come to end up next to the mobile library that visits the palace once a week. Our sovereign knowing nothing about this weekly occurrence climbs aboard, much to the surprise of librarian, Mr Hutchings. Norman, a well-read regular to the vehicle and humble kitchen worker, doesn’t bat an eyelid. He suddenly finds himself in a job as her right-hand man, her reading aide, advising on books, ordering and delivering.

Thus starts a very unhappy tale of events for Her Majesty’s backroom boys of power, the cogs in the wheels of the state.

We lead up to celebrations on the Queen’s 80th birthday. A period of time for Her Majesty to reflect on her whole life, who she has been, how she’s spent her time. Meanwhile, she won’t stop reading, and reading, and reading. A whole spectrum of literature digested. She starts being late for appointments; she starts taking less care in her daily appearance. She has changed, not quite the lady of meticulous duty that she has been for fifty years. Has the old bird started to lose her mind? Matters must be addressed. Dealt with. The state is not amused. Sir Kevin Scatchard, her Private Secretary, tries to restore order, using all manner of underhand tactics.

Bennett likes the Queen a great deal. Unlike many a portrait over the years – here is a likeness of the Queen one can believe in. He paints her with great warmth. For our state however, he paints something altogether less pleasant, rather a dark canvas, hidden away, not for public show.

A very satisfying ending and pleasingly subversive read.

Alan Bennett – The Uncommon Reader (Faber & Faber) Hardback £10.99

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