From Alan Bennett, the author of The Madness of King George, come two stories about the strange nature of possessions...or the lack of them. In the title story, The Clothes They Stood Up In, the staid Ransomes return from the opera to find their Regent’s Park flat stripped bare--right down to the toilet-paper roll. Free of all their earthly belongings, the couple faces a perplexing question: Who are they without the things they’ve spent a lifetime accumulating? Suddenly a world of unlimited, frightening possibility opens up before them.
In “The Lady in the Van,” which The Village Voice called “one of the finest bursts of comic writing the twentieth century has produced,” Bennett recounts the strange life of Miss Shepherd, a London eccentric who parked her van (overstuffed with decades’ worth of old clothes, oozing batteries, and kitchen utensils still in their original packaging) in the author’s driveway for more than fifteen years. A mesmerizing portrait of an outsider with an acquisitive taste and an indomitable spirit, this biographical essay is drawn with equal parts fascination and compassion.
I actually read this a few months back in 2014 but just realized I never did a write up for it, so here ya go!
The title story, The Clothes They Stood Up In, is a novella that tells the story of well-to-do couple Maurice and Rosemary Ransome, who go out for an evening at a concert, only to come back and find every single thing in their home has been stolen. Everything. Down to the carpets and appliances. During the following weeks, as they try to recover, the Ransomes not only learn a good deal about themselves but also about the world around them. Mr. Ransome, each time he relays the story of the robbery to his friends, finds that each friend has their own "1 up" kind of tragedy story they respond with, sort of negating his traumatic experience, confounding Maurice. The poor guy just wants a damn sympathetic ear. But hey, we'll all had those kind of friends. Heck, maybe we've even been guilty of being that kind of friend. Meanwhile, Rosemary is trying to figure out how to replace things in the home, since the insurance company admits there will be a delay in the coverage coming through, what with the home insurance policy being stolen as well. She finds herself drawn to a camping goods store, where she ends up finding creative and inexpensive solutions to all the items they lost. One of my favorite moments is when she discovers beanbag chairs, exclaiming to her husband, "They're even popular with people who haven't been robbed. People sit on them by choice!"
Losing their possessions inevitably teaches the Ransomes about what really matters in life... and spoiler, it's not the stuff! ;-)
Then there is the short story, "The Lady In The Van", which I believe I read is at least inspired by a true story of a woman the author, Alan Bennett, actually once knew from his neighborhood. Though the account is fictionalized, it is still told in first person perspective and tells the story of a Miss Shepherd, a woman with strong hoarding tendencies who lives out of her van (or vans, as she has a few different ones throughout the course of the story). Over time, the narrator of the story develops a grudging friendship, or at least an acquaintance with Miss Shepherd, which leads to her parking her van in his driveway. It is only meant to be temporary, but as these things sometimes go... she never really leaves. The narrator then has to accomodate his life around this woman and her van, apologetically explaining the situation to friends and family when they visit, doing favors & errands for Miss Shepherd as her behavior becomes increasingly erratic and agoraphobic.
At night the impression was haunting. I had run a cable out from the house to give her light and heating, and through the ragged draperies that hung over the windows of the van a visitor would glimpse Miss S.'s spectral figure, often bent over in prayer or lying on her side like an effigy on a tomb, her face resting on one hand, listening to Radio 4. Did she hear any movements, she would straightaway switch off the light and wait, like an animal that has been disturbed, until she was sure the coast was clear and could put the light on again. She retired early and would complain if anyone called or left late at night. On one occasion Coral Browne was coming away from the house with her husband, Vincent Price, and they were talking quietly. "Pipe down," snapped the voice from the van, "I'm trying to sleep." For someone who had brought terror to millions, it was an unexpected taste of his own medicine.
The longer the narrator knows Miss Shepherd, he cannot help but develop an attachment to her, though over all this time he realizes she's revealed largely nothing about her past ... so though he cares about her as a person, becomes more and more concerned with her well-being, he realizes he's never learned about her family, her past, how she came to be living out of a van crammed with bizarre odds & ends and garbage (I'm not being judgmental here, at one point it literally starts filling up with garbage -- food wrappers, rotting food scraps, etc...). It's not until the very end that the narrator gets at least a few answers to his questions and the reader can't help but be left wondering over those odd characters we've all met in our lives that maybe we should have learned more about. That's what I loved about this particular story, how it leaves you pondering about how people end up with the lives they have, and how just thinking about these things, putting yourself in someone else's shoes (even hypothetically, if that's all you have to go off of) can really remind you to always strive to be that good-hearted, empathetic person.
A perfect bind-up of two thought-provoking stories that any reader can benefit from!