For many years now I have been fascinated by the lives and habits of eccentrics and vagrants. I am not entirely sure why, and I am suspicious of any attempt to bring the pseudo-science of psychology into the matter, but it may be because I am myself an eccentric (or at least a recluse), and I may one day end up a vagrant. I am familiar with George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, as well as the extraordinary and ascetic life of Quentin Crisp. I recall the tragic life of Sebastian Flyte and the disheveled women of Grey Gardens. The sadistic brutality of “Shack” from Emperor of the North contrasts with the shuffling figure of Crayford, “Old Smoky,” resigned to his lot. Collectively, the stories here provide a sobering view of how difficult life can be for people who are different, whether by daring to be so or because life itself has dealt unfairly or unkindly.
The latest for me in this series is Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith as the eponymous Mary Shepherd, whose true name, Margaret Fairchild, was “buried to sin;” and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. “Miss Shepherd,” as she is known throughout the film, is a crotchety old tramp who lives in the back of a van in Camden Town. The locals, well-to-do people of a somewhat liberal worldview, put up with her, due, in Bennett’s view, to their guilt at the disparity between their lot and hers. Accepting her as a mild nuisance, albeit a presence to plummet the value of their Victorian houses in the eyes of the Joneses, they live their middle-class, middling lives around Miss Shepherd, a woman whose talents are as multi-flavoured as her aroma. An accomplished pianist, she studied music in Paris under Alfred Cortot and drove an ambulance during the War. She spent some time in a convent, but was expelled; she also spent some time in a lunatic asylum, but seemingly gave them the slip. It seems that she was driving from the asylum when a cyclist crashed into her and died. She managed to avoid arrest by bribing a corrupt policeman but spent the rest of her days in fear of him. Now (or rather then) she spends her time selling pencils at the roadside and, like Blanche DuBois, living off the kindness of strangers, and her long-suffering brother in Broadstairs. She died in 1989 having spent fifteen years living in Bennett’s driveway.
The interesting thing about the garbled stories of her life is that they are all true. Unlike “Old Smoky,” who I once overheard telling a passerby that he’d tamed elephants on Brighton beach, Miss Shepherd really did fall from grace. This is interesting given her repudiation of her Christian name, ostensibly because of a perceived sin for which she spends her life atoning. Did she choose to embrace life in the van, the instrument of another’s death, and in time the very place of her own, or was she chosen? Can people live their lives any other way than they have chosen? Or what happens in people’s lives to make them the way they are? Bloody bad luck, as the Tramp Major said of George Orwell in The Spike, or other things? Pride, resignation and incorrigibility seem to be a common element.
I do recommend this film. It’s as funny as it is sad; gritty and frank. In fact, it’s so good I have ordered the book.