Guest review 2 – and it’s Smut!!

Introducing my second Guest reviewer! EE has chosen Alan Bennett’s Smut. I haven’t read this yet – so I’m hoping that I can borrow it from her…

Sniggers and Smut

Alan Bennett’s ‘Smut: Two Unseemly Stories’


These two entertaining stories are full of the down to earth humour and deft social observation you would expect from this writer.  The brevity of this volume (slighter material than a lesser author would get away with for the price of a hardback volume) would make it suitable for book groups balking at ‘War and Peace’.


In these risqué tales, all the characters are putting on various kinds of acts in order to keep up appearances of respectability, usually only deceiving themselves.  In the first story, Mrs Donaldson, left with a certain emptiness in her life and her finances after the death of her dull husband, finds more diversion than she anticipates, taking in young lodgers and acting as a ‘Simulated Patient’ for medical student training.  In the second story, Mrs Forbes is a snobbish, overbearing wife and mother to her frustrated husband and secretly gay son but, nevertheless, the family feel they must rally round to protect her from unpleasant facts…


The predicaments of the main characters are shown with compassion and a wry comic eye as well as giving unsettling hints of a darker side to their sexual adventures.  The first story is, in my view, the finer of the two, evoking Mrs Donaldson’s dilemmas with an intimate sympathy which is missing from the more ‘knowing’ narrative tone of the second story.


I am underconvinced by the stories in one major respect.  The presentation of the women  characters seems worryingly outdated.  The stories are set in the present day, or something close to it – Mr Forbes hides from his wife on dubious websites and Dr Ballantyne grills his students about ‘the new polyclinics’.  Yet Mrs Donaldson, a modern fifty-five, is described as if she were decades older, in both her clothes and her sheltered gentility.  Of course, her primness increases the comic potential of the story; but the discrepancy about her age is odd.  Fifty-five is not as old as Bennett seems to think.  No, not even for women…


Sex aside, the marvellous role-play scenes with the medical students and the splendidly sarcastic Dr Ballantyne are the hilarious high point of the book, as well as being entirely convincing.


Entertaining and unsettling.

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories

Thanks EE! I agree that fifty five isn’t old; especially for a woman…


A Bookshop, a Book Quarterly and royal madness

So, Son One and I went to see “The Madness of King George” Alan Bennett’s play now back on tour, even unto the Frozen North. It was a very confident production, with impressive acting and doubling up of parts. The latter was impressive as I remember the film version of the play being well populated and not many companies can run to a huge cast on tour. The parts of the King, Pitt and the Page were well played. Sadly, while I spent best part of four years looking at the literature of the period, my political history is a little less secure. Despite this I still enjoyed the production, including some relevant jokes about needing five years to restore the Nation’s economy! It did go on a bit after the King was restored in order to tie up all the loose ends and people, and to balance up the fact that the episode only lasted 6 months. Unfortunately the play started at 8pm and was long, so finished late. And the North felt particularly Frozen that night! If the production appears near you, it’s worth watching, but wrap up warmly!

On The Dabbler Website the is a feature of 1p book reviews. I confess to a passion for the concept of buying books for 1p (plus postage) online, especially as I’m not getting to independent bookshops at the moment. It is often also possible to buy them from charities, including Oxfam, which sort of helps justify my impulse buys.

One of these buys has been Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Bookshop”.

This is best described as a long short story, rather than a novel, and to be honest starts really well then goes into a bit of a decline. It is set in a fictional Suffolk coastal town, which is very well described, and a book loving widow is the central character. Florence decides to set up a bookshop, which meets with some local opposition. She is invited to a party in order for the local lady of the manor to inform her that the shop building is actually required as an arts centre, and that she should open her shop elsewhere. There are encounters with the local children,a recluse and even the “rapper”, a poltergeist.

My quibble with this book is that it is too short. There are some super characters, well set up and established, and some promising situations developing, when the book suddenly fades away. While the resolution of the novel, such as it is, rather disappoints, I just think that it was a shame not to explore some more of the potential avenues opened up in this book. The underhand tactics employed to disrupt her business would be worth exploring, as would the unusual assistants she acquires. The best selling book is mentioned, but its implications are ignored. I really enjoyed most of this book, but felt let down by the ending. I would certainly like to read more by this author, and hope that the next book would be longer and the story more developed.  Any suggestions of other Fitzgerald recommendations?

And finally, if you are not totally devoted to the emergence of new novels, a worthwhile read is “Slightly Foxed” , a quarterly journal of book reviews. None of the books are recent, though most are within living memory. Some are out of print, and consequently may take a bit of tracking down, but all the articles are worth reading in their own right. Many of the books recommended are happy books, but all of them have stood the tests of time and memory. Some reviewers write about the authors themselves, and many interesting stories emerge. It is worth a look at, and this book magazine at least doesn’t have to be read within a month to get the best value. These books are not fashionable and will not date…