The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett

At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.

‘Now that I have you to myself,’ said the Queen, smiling to left and right as they glided through the glittering throng, ‘I’ve been longing to ask you about the writer Jean Genet.’

‘Ah,’ said the president. ‘Oui.’

The ‘Marseillaise’ and the national anthem made for a pause in the proceedings, but when they had taken their seats Her Majesty turned to the president and resumed.

‘Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted? Or, more to the point,’ and she took up her soup spoon, ‘was he as good?’

Unbriefed on the subject of the glabrous playwright and novelist, the president looked wildly about for his minister of culture. But she was being addressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

‘Jean Genet,’ said the Queen again, helpfully, ‘Vous le connaissez?’

‘Bien sûr,’ said the president.

‘Il m’intéresse,’ said the Queen.

‘Vraiment?’ The president put down his spoon. It was going to be a long evening.

It was the dogs’ fault. They were snobs and ordinarily, having been in the garden, would have gone up the front steps, where a footman generally opened them the door.

Today, though, for some reason they careered along the terrace, barking their heads off, and scampered down the steps again and round the end along the side of the house, where she could hear them yapping at something in one of the yards.

It was the City of Westminster travelling library, a large removal-like van parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors. This wasn’t a part of the palace she saw much of, and she had certainly never seen the library parked there before, nor presumably had the dogs, hence the din, so having failed in her attempt to calm them down she went up the little steps of the van in order to apologise.

The driver was sitting with his back to her, sticking a label on a book, the only seeming borrower a thin ginger-haired boy in white overalls crouched in the aisle reading. Neither of them took any notice of the new arrival, so she coughed and said, ‘I’m sorry about this awful racket,’ whereupon the driver got up so suddenly he banged his head on the Reference section and the boy in the aisle scrambled to his feet and upset Photography & Fashion.

She put her head out of the door. ‘Shut up this minute, you silly creatures,’ which, as had been the move’s intention, gave the driver/ librarian time to compose himself and the boy to pick up the books.

‘One has never seen you here before, Mr …’

‘Hutchings, Your Majesty. Every Wednesday, maam.’

‘Really? I never knew that. Have you come far?’

‘Only from Westminster, maam.’

‘And you are …?’

‘Norman, maam. Seakins.’

‘And where do you work?’

‘In the kitchen, maam.’

‘Oh. Do you have much time for reading?’

‘Not really, maam.’

‘I’m the same. Though now that one is here I suppose one ought to borrow a book.’

Mr Hutchings smiled helpfully.

‘Is there anything you would recommend?’

‘What does Your Majesty like?’

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer. So she gazed round the book-lined van and played for time. ‘Is one allowed to borrow a book? One doesn’t have a ticket?’

‘No problem,’ said Mr Hutchings.

‘One is a pensioner,’ said the Queen, not that she was sure that made any difference.

‘Maam can borrow up to six books.’

‘Six? Heavens!’

Meanwhile the ginger-haired young man had made his choice and given his book to the librarian to stamp. Still playing for time the Queen picked it up.

‘What have you chosen, Mr Seakins?’ expecting it to be, well, she wasn’t sure what she expected, but it wasn’t what it was. ‘Oh. Cecil Beaton. Did you know him?’

‘No, maam.’

‘No, of course not. You’d be too young. He always used to be round here, snapping away. And a bit of a tartar. Stand here, stand there. Snap, snap. So there’s a book about him now?’

‘Several, maam.’

‘Really? I suppose everyone gets written about sooner or later.’

She riffled through it. ‘There’s probably a picture of me in it somewhere. Oh yes. That one. Of course, he wasn’t just a photographer. He designed, too. Oklahoma, things like that.’

‘I think it was My Fair Lady, maam.’

‘Oh, was it?’ said the Queen, unused to being contradicted.

‘Where did you say you worked?’ She put the book back in the boy’s big red hands.

‘In the kitchens, maam.’

She had still not solved her problem, knowing that if she left without a book it would seem to Mr Hutchings that the library was somehow lacking. Then on a shelf of rather worn-looking volumes she saw a name she remembered. ‘Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.’ She took the book out and gave it to Mr Hutchings to stamp.

‘What a treat!’ She hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. ‘Oh. The last time it was taken out was in 1989.’

‘She’s not a popular author, maam.’

‘Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.’

Mr Hutchings refrained from saying that this wasn’t necessarily the road to the public’s heart.

The Queen looked at the photograph on the back of the jacket. ‘Yes. I remember that hair, a roll like a pie-crust that went right round her head.’ She smiled and Mr Hutchings knew that the visit was over. ‘Goodbye.’

He inclined his head as they had told him at the library to do should this eventuality ever arise, and the Queen went off in the direction of the garden with the dogs madly barking again, while Norman, bearing his Cecil Beaton, skirted a chef lounging outside by the bins having a cigarette and went back to the kitchens.

Shutting up the van and driving away, Mr Hutchings reflected that a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett would take some reading. He had never got very far with her himself and thought, rightly, that borrowing the book had just been a polite gesture. Still, it was one that he appreciated and as more than a courtesy. The council was always threatening to cut back on the library and the patronage of so distinguished a borrower (or customer as the council preferred to call it) would do him no harm.

‘We have a travelling library,’ the Queen said to her husband that evening. ‘Comes every Wednesday.’

‘Jolly good. Wonders never cease.’

‘You remember Oklahoma?’

‘Yes. We saw it when we were engaged.’ Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.

‘Was that Cecil Beaton?’

‘No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.’

‘Smelled delicious.’

‘What’s that?’

‘A book. I borrowed it.’

‘Dead, I suppose.’

‘Who?’

‘The Beaton fellow.’

‘Oh yes. Everybody’s dead.’

‘Good show, though.’

And he went off to bed glumly singing ‘Oh, what a beautiful morning’ as the Queen opened her book.

The following week she had intended to give the book to a lady-in-waiting to return, but finding herself taken captive by her private secretary and forced to go through the diary in far greater detail than she thought necessary, she was able to cut off discussion of a tour round a road research laboratory by suddenly declaring that it was Wednesday and she had to go change her book at the travelling library. Her private secretary, Sir Kevin Scatchard, an over-conscientious New Zealander of whom great things were expected, was left to gather up his papers and wonder why maam needed a travelling library when she had several of the stationary kind of her own.

Minus the dogs this visit was somewhat calmer, though once again Norman was the only borrower.

‘How did you find it, maam?’ asked Mr Hutchings.

‘Dame Ivy? A little dry. And everybody talks the same way, did you notice that?’

‘To tell you the truth, maam, I never got through more than a few pages. How far did Your Majesty get?’

‘Oh, to the end. Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up. Books, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate. That’s always been my philosophy.’

‘There was actually no need to have brought the book back, maam. We’re downsizing and all the books on that shelf are free.’

‘You mean, I can have it?’ She clutched the book to her. ‘I’m glad I came. Good afternoon, Mr Seakins. More Cecil Beaton?’

Norman showed her the book he was looking at, this time something on David Hockney. She leafed through it, gazing unperturbed at young men’s bottoms hauled out of Californian swimming-pools or lying together on unmade beds.

‘Some of them,’ she said, ‘some of them don’t seem altogether finished. This one is quite definitely smudged.’

‘I think that was his style then, maam,’ said Norman. ‘He’s actually quite a good draughtsman.’

The Queen looked at Norman again. ‘You work in the kitchens?’

‘Yes, maam.’

She hadn’t really intended to take out another book, but decided that now she was here it was perhaps easier to do it than not, though, regarding what book to choose, she felt as baffled as she had done the previous week. The truth was she didn’t really want a book at all and certainly not another Ivy Compton-Burnett, which was too hard going altogether.

So it was lucky that this time her eye happened to fall on a reissued volume of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. She picked it up. ‘Now. Didn’t her sister marry the Mosley man?’

Mr Hutchings said he believed she did.

‘And the mother-in-law of another sister was my mistress of the robes?’

‘I don’t know about that, maam.’

‘Then of course there was the rather sad sister who had the fling with Hitler. And one became a Communist. And I think there was another besides. But this is Nancy?’

‘Yes, maam.’

‘Good.’

Novels seldom came as well-connected as this and the Queen felt correspondingly reassured, so it was with some confidence that she gave the book to Mr Hutchings to be stamped.

The Pursuit of Love turned out to be a fortunate choice and in its way a momentous one. Had Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good and there would be no story to tell. Books, she would have thought, were work.

As it was, with this one she soon became engrossed and, passing her bedroom that night clutching his hot-water bottle, the duke heard her laugh out loud. He put his head round the door. ‘All right, old girl?’

‘Of course. I’m reading.’

‘Again?’ And he went off, shaking his head.

The next morning she had a little sniffle and having no engagements, stayed in bed saying she felt she might be getting flu. This was uncharacteristic and also not true; it was actually so that she could get on with her book.

‘The Queen has a slight cold’ was what the nation was told, but what it was not told and what the Queen herself did not know, was that this was only the first of a series of accommodations, some of them far-reaching, that her reading was going to involve.

The following day the Queen had one of her regular sessions with her private secretary, with as one of the items on the agenda what these days is called human resources.

‘In my day,’ she had told him, ‘it was called personnel.’ Although actually it wasn’t. It was called ‘the servants’. She mentioned this, too, knowing it would provoke a reaction.

‘That could be misconstrued, maam,’ said Sir Kevin. ‘One’s aim is always to give the public no cause for offence. “Servants” sends the wrong message.’

‘Human resources,’ said the Queen, ‘sends no message at all. At least not to me. However, since we’re on the subject of human resources, there is one human resource currently working in the kitchens whom I would like promoted, or at any rate brought upstairs.’

Sir Kevin had never heard of Seakins but on consulting several underlings Norman was eventually located.

‘I cannot understand,’ said Her Majesty, ‘what he is doing in the kitchen in the first place. He’s obviously a young man of some intelligence.’

‘Not dolly enough,’ said the equerry, though to the private secretary not to the Queen. ‘Thin, ginger-haired. Have a heart.’

‘Madam seems to like him,’ said Sir Kevin. ‘She wants him on her floor.’

Thus it was that Norman found himself emancipated from washing dishes and fitted (with some difficulty) into a page’s uniform and brought into waiting, where one of his first jobs was predictably to do with the library.

Not free the following Wednesday (gymnastics in Nuneaton), the Queen gave Norman her Nancy Mitford to return, telling him that there was apparently a sequel and she wanted to read that too, plus anything else besides he thought she might fancy.

This commission caused him some anxiety. Well-read up to a point, he was largely self-taught, his reading tending to be determined by whether an author was gay or not. Fairly wide remit though this was, it did narrow things down a bit, particularly when choosing a book for someone else, and the more so when that someone else happened to be the Queen.

Nor was Mr Hutchings much help, except that when he mentioned dogs as a subject that might interest Her Majesty it reminded Norman of something he had read that could fit the bill, J.R. Ackerley’s novel My Dog Tulip. Mr Hutchings was dubious, pointing out that it was gay.

‘Is it?’ said Norman innocently. ‘I didn’t realise that. She’ll think it’s just about the dog.’

He took the books up to the Queen’s floor and having been told to make himself as scarce as possible, when the duke came by hid behind a boulle cabinet.

‘Saw this extraordinary creature this afternoon,’ HRH reported later. ‘Ginger-stick-in-waiting.’

‘That would be Norman,’ said the Queen. ‘I met him in the travelling library. He used to work in the kitchen.’

‘I can see why,’ said the duke.

‘He’s very intelligent,’ said the Queen.

‘He’ll have to be,’ said the duke. ‘Looking like that.’

‘Tulip,’ said the Queen to Norman later. ‘Funny name for a dog.’

‘It’s supposed to be fiction, maam, only the author did have a dog in life, an Alsatian.’ (He didn’t tell her its name was Queenie.) ‘So it’s really disguised autobiography.’

‘Oh,’ said the Queen. ‘Why disguise it?’

Norman thought she would find out when she read the book, but he didn’t say so.

‘None of his friends liked the dog, maam.’

‘One knows that feeling very well,’ said the Queen, and Norman nodded solemnly, the royal dogs being generally unpopular. The Queen smiled. What a find Norman was. She knew that she inhibited, made people shy, and few of the servants behaved like themselves. Oddity though he was, Norman was himself and seemed incapable of being anything else. That was very rare.

The Queen, though, might have been less pleased had she known that Norman was unaffected by her because she seemed to him so ancient, her royalty obliterated by her seniority. Queen she might be but she was also an old lady, and since Norman’s introduction to the world of work had been via an old people’s home on Tyneside old ladies held no terrors for him. To Norman she was his employer, but her age made her as much patient as Queen and in both capacities to be humoured, though this was, it’s true, before he woke up to how sharp she was and how much wasted.

She was also intensely conventional and when she had started to read she thought perhaps she ought to do some of it at least in the place set aside for the purpose, namely the palace library. But though it was called the library and was indeed lined with books, a book was seldom if ever read there. Ultimatums were delivered there, lines drawn, prayer books compiled and marriages decided upon, but should one want to curl up with a book the library was not the place. It was not easy even to lay hands on something to read, as on the open shelves, so called, the books were sequestered behind locked and gilded grilles. Many of them were priceless, which was another discouragement. No, if reading was to be done it were better done in a place not set aside for it. The Queen thought that there might be a lesson there and she went back upstairs.

Having finished the Nancy Mitford sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, the Queen was delighted to see she had written others, and though some of them seemed to be history she put them on her (newly started) reading list, which she kept in her desk. Meanwhile she got on with Norman’s choice, My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. (Had she met him? She thought not.) She enjoyed the book if only because, as Norman had said, the dog in question seemed even more of a handful than hers and just about as unpopular. Seeing that Ackerley had written an autobiography, she sent Norman down to the London Library to borrow it. Patron of the London Library she had seldom set foot in it and neither, of course, had Norman, but he came back full of wonder and excitement at how old-fashioned it was, saying it was the sort of library he had only read about in books and had thought confined to the past. He had wandered through its labyrinthine stacks marvelling that these were all books that he (or rather She) could borrow at will. So infectious was his enthusiasm that next time, the Queen thought, she might accompany him.

She read Ackerley’s account of himself, unsurprised to find that, being a homosexual, he had worked for the BBC, though feeling also that he had had a sad life. His dog intrigued her, though she was disconcerted by the almost veterinary intimacies with which he indulged the creature. She was also surprised that the Guards seemed to be as readily available as the book made out and at such a reasonable tariff. She would have liked to have known more about this; but though she had equerries who were in the Guards she hardly felt able to ask.

E.M. Forster figured in the book, with whom she remembered spending an awkward half hour when she invested him with the CH. Mouselike and shy he had said little and in such a small voice she had found him almost impossible to communicate with. Still, he was a bit of a dark horse. Sitting there with his hands pressed together like something out of Alice in Wonderland he gave no hint of what he was thinking and so she was pleasantly surprised to find on reading his biography that he had said afterwards that had she been a boy he would have fallen in love with her.

Of course he couldn’t actually have said this to her face, she realised that, but the more she read the more she regretted how she intimidated people and wished that writers in particular had the courage to say what they later wrote down. What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.

But there was regret, too, and mortification at the many opportunities she had missed. As a child she had met Masefield and Walter de la Mare; nothing much she could have said to them, but she had met T.S. Eliot, too, and there was Priestley and Philip Larkin and even Ted Hughes, to whom she’d taken a bit of a shine but who remained nonplussed in her presence. And it was because she had at that time read so little of what they had written that she could not find anything to say and they, of course, had not said much of interest to her. What a waste.

She made the mistake of mentioning this to Sir Kevin.

‘But maam must have been briefed, surely?’

‘Of course,’ said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’

‘I wonder whether I can bring Your Majesty back to the visit to the shoe factory,’ said Sir Kevin.

‘Next time,’ said the Queen shortly. ‘Where did I put my book?’

Having discovered the delights of reading herself Her Majesty was keen to pass them on.

‘Do you read, Summers?’ she said to the chauffeur en route for Northampton.

‘Read, maam?’

‘Books?’

‘When I get the chance, maam. I never seem to find the time.’

‘That’s what a lot of people say. One must make the time. Take this morning. You’re going to be sitting outside the town hall waiting for me. You could read then.’

‘I have to watch the motor, maam. This is the Midlands. Vandalism is universal.’

With Her Majesty safely delivered into the hands of the lord lieutenant, Summers did a precautionary circuit of the motor then settled down in his seat. Read? Of course he read. Everybody read. He opened the glove compartment and took out his copy of the Sun.

Others, notably Norman, were more sympathetic, and from him she made no attempt to hide her shortcomings as a reader or her lack of cultural credentials altogether.

‘Do you know,’ she said one afternoon as they were reading in her study, ‘do you know the area in which one would truly excel?’

‘No, maam?’

‘The pub quiz. One has been everywhere, seen everything and though one might have difficulty with pop music and some sport, when it comes to the capital of Zimbabwe, say, or the principal exports of New South Wales, I have all that at my fingertips.’

‘And I could do the pop,’ said Norman.

‘Yes,’ said the Queen. ‘We would make a good team. Ah well. The road not travelled. Who’s that?’

‘Who, maam?’

‘The road not travelled. Look it up.’

Norman looked it up in the Dictionary of Quotations to find that it was Robert Frost.

‘I know the word for you,’ said the Queen.

‘Maam?’

‘You run errands, you change my library books, you look up awkward words in the dictionary and find me quotations. Do you know what you are?’

‘I used to be a skivvy, maam.’

‘Well, you’re not a skivvy now. You’re my amanuensis.’

Norman looked it up in the dictionary the Queen now kept always on her desk. ‘One who writes from dictation; copies manuscripts. A literary assistant.’

The new amanuensis had a chair in the corridor, handy for the Queen’s office, on which when he was not on call or running errands, he would spend his time reading. This did him no good at all with the other pages, who thought he was on a cushy number and not comely enough to deserve it. Occasionally a passing equerry would stop and ask him if he had nothing better to do than read, and to begin with he had been stuck for a reply. Nowadays, though, he said he was reading something for Her Majesty, which was often true but was also satisfactorily irritating and so sent the equerry away in a bad temper.

Reading more and more, the Queen now drew her books from various libraries, including some of her own, but for sentimental reasons and because she liked Mr Hutchings, she still occasionally made a trip down to the kitchen yard to patronise the travelling library.

One Wednesday afternoon, though, it wasn’t there, nor the following week either. Norman was straightaway on the case only to be told that the visit to the palace had been cancelled due to all-round cutbacks. Undeterred, Norman eventually tracked the library down to Pimlico where in a schoolyard he found Mr Hutchings still doggedly at the wheel, sticking labels on the books. Mr Hutchings told him that though he had pointed out to the Libraries Outreach Department that Her Majesty was one of their borrowers this cut no ice with the council which, prior to axing the visits, said that inquiries had been made at the palace and it had disclaimed any interest in the matter.

Told this by the outraged Norman the Queen seemed unsurprised, but though she said nothing to him it confirmed what she had suspected, namely that in royal circles reading, or at any rate her reading, was not well looked on.

Small setback though the loss of the travelling library was, there was one happy outcome, as Mr Hutchings found himself figuring on the next honours list; it was, admittedly, in quite a lowly capacity, but numbered among those who had done Her Majesty some special and personal service. This was not well looked on either, particularly by Sir Kevin.

Since he was from New Zealand and something of a departure when he was appointed Sir Kevin Scatchard had inevitably been hailed in the press as a new broom, a young(ish) man who would sweep away some of the redundant deference and more flagrant flummeries that were monarchy’s customary accretions, the Crown in this version pictured as not unlike Miss Havisham’s wedding feast – the cobwebbed chandeliers, the mice-infested cake and Sir Kevin as Mr Pip tearing down the rotting curtains to let in the light. The Queen, who had the advantage of having once been a breath of fresh air herself, was unconvinced by this scenario, suspecting that this brisk Antipodean wind would in due course blow itself out. Private secretaries, like prime ministers, came and went, and in Sir Kevin’s case the Queen felt she might simply be a stepping-stone to those corporate heights for which he was undoubtedly headed. He was a graduate of the Harvard Business School and one of his publicly stated aims (‘setting out our stall,’ as he put it) was to make the monarchy more accessible. The opening of Buckingham Palace to visitors had been a step down this road, as was the use of the garden for occasional concerts, pop and otherwise. The reading, though, made him uneasy.

‘I feel, maam, that while not exactly elitist it sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude.’

‘Exclude? Surely most people can read?’

‘They can read, maam, but I’m not sure that they do.’

‘Then, Sir Kevin, I am setting them a good example.’

She smiled sweetly, while noting that these days Sir Kevin was much less of a New Zealander than when he had first been appointed, his accent now with only a tincture of that Kiwi connection about which Her Majesty knew he was sensitive and of which he did not wish to be reminded (Norman had told her).

Another delicate issue was his name. The private secretary felt burdened by his name: Kevin was not the name he would have chosen for himself and disliking it made him more aware of the number of times the Queen used it, though she could hardly have been aware of how demeaning he felt it. In fact she knew perfectly well (Norman again), but to her everybody’s name was immaterial, as indeed was everything else, their clothes, their voice, their class. She was a genuine democrat, perhaps the only one in the country.

To Sir Kevin, though, it seemed that she used his name unnecessarily often, and there were times when he was sure she gave it a breath of New Zealand, that land of sheep and Sunday afternoons, and a country which, as head of the Commonwealth, she had several times visited and claimed to be enthusiastic about.

‘It’s important,’ said Sir Kevin, ‘that Your Majesty should stay focused.’

‘When you say “stay focused”, Sir Kevin, I suppose you mean one should keep one’s eye on the ball. Well, I’ve had my eye on the ball for sixty years so I think these days one is allowed the occasional glance to the boundary.’ She felt that her metaphor had probably slipped a little there, not, though, that Sir Kevin noticed.

‘I can understand,’ he said. ‘Your Majesty’s need to pass the time.’

‘Pass the time?’ said the Queen. ‘Books are not about passing the time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand.’

With two mentions of his name and one of New Zealand Sir Kevin retired hurt. Still, he had made a point and he would have been gratified to know that it left the Queen troubled, and wondering why it was that at this particular time in her life she had suddenly felt the pull of books. Where had this appetite come from?

Few people, after all, had seen more of the world than she had. There was scarcely a country she had not visited, a notability she had not met. Herself part of the panoply of the world, why now was she intrigued by books which, whatever else they might be, were just a reflection of the world or a version of it? Books? She had seen the real thing.

‘I read, I think,’ she said to Norman, ‘because one has a duty to find out what people are like,’ a trite enough remark of which Norman took not much notice, feeling himself under no such obligation and reading purely for pleasure not enlightenment, though part of the pleasure was the enlightenment, he could see that. But duty did not come into it.

To someone with the background of the Queen, though, pleasure had always taken second place to duty. If she could feel she had a duty to read then she could set about it with a clear conscience, with the pleasure, if pleasure there was, incidental. But why did it take possession of her now? This she did not discuss with Norman, as she felt it had to do with who she was and the position she occupied.

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. Actually she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies, honorary degrees and the like, though without knowing quite what it meant. At that time talk of a republic of any sort she had thought mildly insulting and in her actual presence tactless to say the least. It was only now she understood what it meant. Books did not defer. All readers were equal and this took her back to the beginning of her life. As a girl, one of her greatest thrills had been on VE night when she and her sister had slipped out of the gates and mingled unrecognised with the crowds. There was something of that, she felt, to reading. It was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised.

These doubts and self-questionings, though, were just the beginning. Once she got into her stride it ceased to seem strange to her that she wanted to read, and books, to which she had taken so cautiously, gradually came to be her element.

One of the Queen’s recurrent royal responsibilities was to open Parliament, an obligation she had never previously found particularly burdensome and actually rather enjoyed: to be driven down the Mall on a bright autumn morning even after fifty years something of a treat. But not any more. She was dreading the two hours the whole thing was due to take, though fortunately they were in the coach not the open carriage so she could take along her book. She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds. The duke didn’t like it one bit, of course, but goodness it helped.

Which was all very well except it was only when she was actually in the coach, with the procession drawn up in the palace forecourt and ready for the off that, as she put on her glasses, she realised she’d forgotten the book. And while the duke fumes in the corner and the postillions fidget, the horses shift and the harness clinks Norman is rung on the mobile. The Guardsmen stand at ease and the procession waits. The officer in charge looks at his watch. Two minutes late. Knowing nothing displeases Her Majesty more and knowing nothing of the book he does not look forward to the repercussions that must inevitably follow. But here is Norman, skittering across the gravel with the book thoughtfully hidden in a shawl, and off they go.

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