“I ran into a snake this afternoon,’ Miss Shepherd said. ‘It was coming up Parkway. It was a long grey snake – a boa constrictor, possibly…'”
POSSIBLY, is one of Miss Shepherd’s trademark conversational gambits in this miniature masterpiece, a short profile of a great British eccentric who parked her van(s) in the dramatist’s garden for the best part of two decades in Camden Town.
The insights are double edged, revealing as much about the author as portraitist, himself a bit of a great British eccentric, possibly.
By way of supporting role there is the backdrop of Camden itself taken over by a generation of knockers-through, with its large semi detached villas, never entirely decayed, and the Williams and Glynns bank outside of which Miss S sells her tracts, chalking their titles on the pavement stones, the barred windows of the convent…it takes one eccentric to appreciate another.
Brevity though is no obstacle to the whole media circus coming to town, this original text having evolved into radio, a stage play and now a film with Maggie Smith assuming the lead peculiarities of Miss Shepherd, not her real name but borrowed as it were from the Good Shepherd.
And there is also a marvellous Complete Edition which wraps up an introduction and the stage play script revealing the full workings of plot and humour, the bridge between diary and drama, including delicious extra details like Miss S’s encounter with the Virgin Mary (outside the post office) and her perennial painting of her van with bits of Madeira cake mixed into the yellow emulsion for extra effect. It is a special tome with drawings by David Gentleman.
The diary was first published in 1989 in the London Review of Books. The gestation for writing projects to reach media maturity is counted in decades, barely in a mortal’s lifetime; in Bennett’s case notwithstanding his success with the Madness of King George (1994) and History Boys (2004) and of course being part of the same media family of Camden itself. Writing is sluggish business, commercially speaking. What we might think of as modern, is in fact last century, looking back down the years.
Another book too that finally also reached the big screen this year, Patricia Highsmith’s Carol was first published in 1952. Highsmith died in 1995. It has taken more than half a century to reach a mass audience. The Bennett effect is only half as quick.