The Lady in the Van

Alan Bennett

‘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, it looked poisonous. It was keeping close to the wall and seemed to know its way. I’ve a feeling it may have been heading for the van.’ I was relieved that on this occasion she didn’t demand that I ring the police, as she regularly did if anything out of the ordinary occurred. Perhaps this was too out of the ordinary (though it turned out the pet shop in Parkway had been broken into the previous night, so she may have seen a snake). She brought her mug over and I made her a drink which she took back to the van. ‘I thought I’d better tell you,’ she said, ‘just to be on the safe side. I’ve had some close shaves with snakes.’

This encounter with the putative boa constrictor was in the summer of 1971 when Miss Shepherd and her van had for some months been at a permanent halt opposite my house in Camden Town. I had first come across her a few years previously, stood by her van, stalled as usual near the convent at the top of the street. The convent (which was to have a subsequent career as the Japanese School) was a gaunt reformatory-like building that housed a dwindling garrison of aged nuns and was notable for a striking crucifix attached to the wall overlooking the traffic lights. There was something about the position of Christ, pressing himself against the grim pebbledash beneath the barred windows of the convent that called up visions of the Stalag and the search-light and which had caused us to dub him ‘The Christ of Colditz’. Miss Shepherd, not looking un-crucified herself, was standing by her vehicle in an attitude with which I was to become very familiar, left arm extended with the palm flat against the side of the van indicating ownership, the right arm summoning anyone who was fool enough to take notice of her, on this occasion me. Nearly six foot, she was a commanding figure and would have been more so had she not been kitted out in greasy raincoat, orange skirt, Ben Hogan golfing cap and carpet slippers. She would be going on sixty at this time.

She must have prevailed on me to push the van as far as Albany Street, though I recall nothing of the exchange. What I do remember as I trundled the van across Gloucester Bridge was being overtaken by two policemen in a panda car and thinking that, as the van was certainly holding up the traffic, they might have leant a hand. They were wiser than I knew. The other feature of this first run-in with Miss Shepherd was her driving technique. Scarcely had I put my shoulder to the back of the van, an old Bedford, than a long arm was stretched elegantly out of the driver’s window to indicate in textbook fashion that she (or rather I) was moving off. A few yards further on, as we were about to turn into Albany Street, the arm emerged again, twirling elaborately in the air to indicate that we were branching left, the movement done with such boneless grace that this section of the Highway Code might have been choreographed by Petipa with Ulanova at the wheel. Her ‘I am coming to a halt’ was less poised as she had plainly not expected me to give up pushing and shouted angrily back that it was the other end of Albany Street she wanted, a mile further on. But I had had enough by this time and left her there with no thanks for my trouble. Far from it. She even climbed out of the van and came running after me, shouting that I had no business abandoning her, so that passers-by looked at me as if I had done some injury to this pathetic scarecrow. ‘Some people!’ I suppose I thought, feeling foolish that I’d been taken for a ride (or taken her for one) and cross that I’d fared worse than if I’d never lifted a finger, these mixed feelings to be the invariable aftermath of any transaction involving Miss Shepherd. One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation.

It must have been a year or so after this, and so some time in the late Sixties, that the van first appeared in Gloucester Crescent. In those days the street was still a bit of a mixture. Its large semi-detached villas had originally been built to house the Victorian middle class, then it had gone down in the world, and though it had never entirely decayed, many of the villas degenerated into rooming-houses and so were among the earliest candidates for what is now called ‘gentrification’, but which was then called ‘knocking through’. Young professional couples, many of them in journalism or television, bought up the houses, converted them and (an invariable feature of such conversions) knocked the basement rooms together to form a large kitchen-dining-room. In the mid-Sixties I wrote a BBC TV series, Life in NW1, based on one such family, the Stringalongs, whom Mark Boxer then took over to people a cartoon strip in the Listener, and who kept cropping up in his drawings for the rest of his life. What made the social set-up funny was the disparity between the style in which the new arrivals found themselves able to live and their progressive opinions: guilt, put simply, which today’s gentrifiers are said famously not to feel (or ‘not to have a problem about’). We did have a problem, though I’m not sure we were any better for it. There was a gap between our social position and our social obligations. It was in this gap that Miss Shepherd (in her van) was able to live.

October 1969 When she is not in the van Miss S. spends much of her day sitting on the pavement in Parkway, where she has a pitch outside Williams and Glyn’s Bank. She sells tracts, entitled ‘True View: Mattering Things’, which she writes herself though this isn’t something she will admit. ‘I sell them but so far as the authorship is concerned, I’ll say they are anonymous and that’s as far as I’m prepared to go.’ She generally chalks the gist of the current pamphlet on the pavement, though with no attempt at artistry. ‘St Francis FLUNG money from him’ is today’s message and prospective customers have to step over it to get into the bank. She also makes a few coppers selling pencils. ‘A gentleman came the other day and said that the pencil he had bought from me was the best pencil on the market at the present time. It lasted him three months. He’ll be back for another one shortly.’ D., one of the more conventional neighbours (and not a Knocker-Through), stops me and says: ‘Tell me, is she a genuine eccentric?’

April 1970 Today we moved the old lady’s van. An obstruction order had been put under the windscreen wiper, stating that it was stationed outside No 63 and is a danger to public health. This order, Miss S. insists, is a statutory order: ‘And statutory means standing, in this case standing outside No 63, so if the van is moved on, the order will be invalid.’ Nobody ventures to argue with this but she can’t decide whether her next pitch should be outside No 61 or my house opposite. Eventually she decides there is ‘a nice space’ outside 62 and plumps for that. Nick Tomalin and I heave away at the back of the van but while she is gracefully indicating that she is moving off (for all of the fifteen feet) the van doesn’t budge. ‘Have you let the hand brake off?’ Nick Tomalin asks. There is a pause. ‘I’m just in the process of taking it off.’ As we are poised for the move, another Camden Town eccentric materialises, a tall elderly figure in long overcoat and Homburg hat, with a distinguished grey moustache and in his buttonhole a flag for the Primrose League. He takes off a grubby canary glove and leans a shaking hand against the rear of the van (OLU 246), and when we have moved it forward the few statutory feet, he puts on his glove again, saying: ‘If you should need me I’m just round the corner’ (i.e. in Arlington House). I ask Miss S. how long she has had the van. ‘Since 1965,’ she says, ‘though don’t spread that around. I got it to put my things in. I came down from St Albans in it and plan to go back there eventually. I’m just pedalling water at the moment. I’ve always been in the transport line. Chiefly delivery and chauffeuring. You know,’ she says mysteriously, ‘renovated army vehicles. And I’ve got good topography. I always have had. I knew Kensington in the black-out.’

This van (there were to be three others in the course of the next twenty years) was originally brown but by the time it had reached the Crescent it had been given a coat of yellow. Miss S. was fond of yellow (‘It’s the Papal colour’) and was never content to leave her vehicles long in their original trim. Sooner or later she could be seen moving slowly round her immobile home, thoughtfully touching up the rust from a tiny tin of primrose paint, looking in her long dress and sun hat much as Vanessa Bell would have looked had she gone in for painting Bedford vans. Miss S. never appreciated the difference between car enamel and ordinary gloss paint and even this she never bothered to mix. The result was that all her vehicles ended up looking as if they had been given a coat of badly-made custard or plastered with scrambled egg. Still, there were few occasions on which one saw Miss Shepherd genuinely happy and one of them was when she was putting paint on. A few years before she died she went in for a Reliant Robin (to put more of her things in). It was actually yellow to start with, but that didn’t save it from an additional coat which she applied as Monet might have done, standing back to judge the effect of each brush-stroke. The Reliant stood outside my gate. It was towed away earlier this year, a scatter of yellow drops on the kerb all that remains to mark its final parking place.

January 1971 Charity in Gloucester Crescent takes refined forms. The publishers next door are bringing out some Classical volume and to celebrate the event last night held a Roman Dinner. This morning the au pair was to be seen knocking at the window of the van with a plate of Roman remains. But Miss S. is never easy to help. After 12 last night I saw her striding up the Crescent waving her stick and telling someone to be off. Then I heard a retreating middle-class voice say plaintively: ‘But I only asked if you were all right.’

June 1971 Scarcely a day passes now without some sort of incident involving the old lady. Yesterday evening around ten a sports car swerves over to her side of the road so that the driver, rich, smart and in his twenties, can lean over and bang on the side of the van, presumably to flush out for his grinning girlfriend the old witch who lives there. I shout at him and he sounds his horn and roars off. Miss S. of course wants the police called, but I can’t see the point and indeed around five this morning I wake to find two policemen at much the same game, idly shining their torches in the windows in the hope that she’ll wake up and enliven a dull hour of their beat. Tonight a white car reverses dramatically up the street, screeches to a halt beside the van and a burly young man jumps out and gives the van a terrific shaking. Assuming (hoping, probably) he would have driven off by the time I get outside, I find he’s still there, and ask him what the fuck he thinks he’s doing. His response is quite mild. ‘What’s up with you then?’ he asks. ‘You still on the telly? You nervous? You’re trembling all over.’ He then calls me a fucking cunt and drives off. After all that, of course, Miss S. isn’t in the van at all, so I end up as usual more furious with her than I am with the lout.

These attacks, I’m sure, disturbed my peace of mind more than they did hers. Living in the way she did every day must have brought such cruelties. Some of the stallholders in the Inverness Street market used to persecute her with Medieval relish – and children too, who both inflict and suffer such casual cruelties themselves. One night two drunks systematically smashed all the windows of the van, the flying glass cutting her face. Furious over any small liberty, she was only mildly disturbed by this. ‘They may have had too much to drink by mistake,’ she says, ‘that does occur through not having eaten, possibly. I don’t want a case.’ She’s far more interested in ‘a ginger feller I saw in Parkway in company with Mr Khrushchev. Has he disappeared recently?’

But to find such sadism and intolerance so close at hand began actively to depress me and having to be on the alert for every senseless attack made it impossible to work. There came a day when after a long succession of such incidents I suggested that she spend at least the nights in a lean-to at the side of my house. Initially reluctant, as with any change, over the next two years she gradually abandoned the van for the hut.

In giving her sanctuary in my garden and landing myself with a tenancy that went on eventually for fifteen years I was never under any illusion that the impulse was purely charitable. And of course it made me furious that I had been driven to such a pass. But I wanted a quiet life as much as, and possibly more than, she did. In the garden she was at least out of harm’s way.

October 1973 I have run a lead out to the lean-to and now regularly have to mend Miss S.’s electric fire which she keeps fusing by plugging too many appliances into the attachment. I sit on the steps fiddling with the fuse while she squats on her haunches in the hut. ‘Aren’t you cold? You could come in here. I could light a candle and then it would be a bit warmer. The toad’s been in once or twice. He was in here with a slug. I think he may be in love with the slug. I tried to turn it out and it got very disturbed. I thought he was going to go for me.’ She complains that there is not enough room in the shed and suggests I get her a tent which she could then use to store some of her things. ‘It would only be three feet high and by rights ought to be erected in a meadow. Then there are these shatterproof greenhouses. Or something could he done with old raincoats possibly.’

March 1974 The Council are introducing parking restrictions in the Crescent. Residents’ bays have been provided and yellow lines drawn up the rest of the street. To begin with, the workmen are very understanding, painting the yellow line as far as the van, then beginning again on the other side so that technically it is still legally parked. However, a higher official has now stepped in and served a removal order on it, so all this week there has been a great deal of activity as Miss S. transports cargoes of plastic bags across the road, through the garden and into the hut. While professing faith in divine protection for the van, she is prudently clearing out her belongings against its possible removal. A notice she has written declaring the Council’s action illegal twirls idly under the windscreen wiper. ‘The notice was served on a Sunday. I believe you can serve search warrants on a Sunday but nothing else, possibly. I should have the Freedom of the Land for the good articles I’ve sold on the economy.’ She is particularly concerned about the tyres of the van which ‘may be miraculous. They’ve only been pumped up twice since 1964. If I get another vehicle’ – and Lady W. is threatening to buy her one – ‘I’d like them transferred.’

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