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Smut

by Alan Bennett

I think it can be said without prejudice and without contradiction that Alan Bennett is a unique phenomenon in English literature. Only he can compare the predicament of the NHS, middle aged women, and age versus youth with exactly the right amount of compassion and laughter, in a few pages of incomparable dialogue and a whole world of light-hearted wisdom. Not a moment of his recent illness (he has had cancer) and his exposure to hospital has been wasted. He writes with joy and sorrow about the diseases that man is heir to, and how doctors and patients cope with them. The stories in SMUT concern two women in middle life who are different from one another. How they deal with life's surprises and problems only Alan Bennett could write about with such honesty and fun.

The first story, The Greening of Mrs Donaldson, is about a fifty-five year old woman who has been recently widowed. She finds herself in limbo, at a loss to know what to do with herself now that she no longer has Mr Donaldson and his illness to attend to. Due to a muddle over her husband's pension she is less well provided for than had been foreseen. She decides to put her name on the list of prospective landladies and presently she has a couple of student lodgers. Also she slips easily and almost involuntarily into the respectable and praiseworthy troupe of SPs, or Simulated Patients, who assist Dr Ballantyne as he seeks to familiarise his medical students with the symptoms and predicaments presented by patients. In this and in other ways she discovers qualities in her character that had previously been entrapped in her humdrum marriage. But apotheosis suddenly becomes transgression: lying on her suburban bed in utter mortification, she grieves for the respectable woman she had once been thought to be, as she sees herself fallen into laughter and contempt. It is the thought of her work as an SP that consoles her. After all, it was dignified by a faintly thespian aura and she had succeeded in her complex roles as patient with both physical and mental illnesses. She was an actress, she told herself: in future, boldness and courage would be her part to play as she lived through the daily sniggers and innuendo of her peers. And play it she does, with an aplomb that would have astonished Mr Donaldson, and would surely have enriched their married life.

The second story in SMUT is also about a woman of a certain age, as they say, but in her case the metamorphosis comes about in her husband. Each story is alive with irony and gently honed wit and Alan Bennett's consummate and matchless gift of astute perception. There is no author to compare with him. His readers vary in that they are either indiscriminate devotees of all Bennettiana or are discerning critics of his works and as analytical as connoisseurs ever are. Which is why my bookgroup is no longer on speakers: it is all the fault of Alan Bennnett and his brilliant and controversial book, SMUT.

Paula McMaster

Profile Books 180pp.

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