Alan Bennett once remarks amusingly in his diaries that his mother is with him ‘on a state visit’. However regal his mother may have been, Bennett himself is endearingly down-to-earth; though a successful playwright who hobnobs with the great and good, he retains a sort of Piglet-ish self-doubt. Piglet is one of my favourite characters in the world of Pooh because he agonises. He is highly intelligent but timid and yet overcomes his timidity by rescuing Pooh and Owl from a fallen tree. (Here’s AB himself talking about doing the audio book.)
I’ve been rewatching the recent series of The Crown, and it reminded me of what an ardent royalist my mother was. We sat down in fascination to watch the ill-fated series showing the Royal Family at home (‘weah jahst like eny femmily rahly’) and at that time I had no idea it was such a flop. My mother was something of a monarch herself, which is why I think she identified so strongly with the Queen and the Queen Mother before her. My grandma, another family matriarch, was also a strong royalist. To be honest I think we all identified slightly with the royal family in their palace: it’s a bit of a goldfish-bowl existence living in a vicarage as it’s a semi-public space and you never know who you might bump into. I have gone into the lounge in my pyjamas to watch TV only to find it occupied by visiting bishops, and more than once slammed the door on a furious argument to bump into startled banns couples in the hall. In those days vicarages were not the cheerful ‘pop-round-for-a-coffee’ places they have since become; they were grand, austere buildings, a bit like a palace in miniature. Of course we had no servants (unless you count the cleaning lady) but there were reminders of them; a bell in the dining-room, a scullery and what would have been servants’ quarters in the attic. I always longed to discover a ghost – some forlorn maid-of-all-work, perhaps, or a love-struck footman – but I never did. The house remained stolidly prosaic and so did the garden, in spite of my efforts to dig up underground tunnels or secret chambers. We did once discover an air-raid shelter while playing, though we were never allowed to explore it.
I used to wonder what it would be like to live in an ‘ordinary’ house. Well, I soon found out…