The Uncommon Reader- Alan Bennett presents a fictitious scenario wherein Queen Elizabeth II takes up reading- much to the horror of her cabinet, and be extension, the misguided public. In reading, the Queen begins to question her entire career, and realizes that at such an old age, she is only just beginning to learn about the world.
“Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting.”
Sir Kevin wonders why the Queen feels a need to read books which “were just a reflection of the world,” (29) which she had seen virtually all of anyway. The Queen poses an interesting insight into why one ought to read: “I read . . . because one has a duty to find out what people are like,” (30). I can understand Sir Kevin’s bewilderment: the Queen, one would suppose, is most likely to be one of the most informed persons of the world: her occupation is to meet and greet, to visit, to oversee- and she is equipped for such, Sir Kevin argues, with highly involved briefing. The Queen comments, “but briefing is . . . the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting,” (21).
She later laments that the people she meets in person are on their best behavior; and this, she understands, limits her experience. In some way, it cheapens her role as a leader: just as she comments, “Once I start a book I finish it. That was the way one was brought up,” (11) she expects that her upbringing and preparation might require her to handle the “untidy” aspects of her job. As I thought about this, I wondered what a detriment it is that in the most public and formal of circumstances, honesty is severely lacking.
I was living in Ghana when government officials invited world leaders, including the Queen, to visit the capital, Accra, for the 50th anniversary of the nation’s Independence. It was an exciting time, and the government went all out- they spent enormous amounts of money on decorations, and prepared for months, cleaning up litter and expanding road works. As I saw it happening around me, I remember thinking how sad it was that only a celebration could motivate a government to do something so needed.
I rode the same way to school every day, and every day I passed twelve or so regular beggars. These people were naked every day, their hair wild, their feet covered in plastic bags. One week before the celebrations were to begin and officials would touch down in their fancy private jets, these homeless beggars disappeared. I searched for them for a couple of days until, on the third day, I did a double take as I recognized the eyes of one of the beggars. He was dressed in a suit; his hair had been cut and slicked back. He was wearing shoes: they all were. Shocked as I was, I was (naively) impressed that at least they were now being taken care of.
The day after the prestigious visitors left the country, the beggars were once again stripped naked, dirty and begging. I wonder what the benefits were, in this instance, to being on one’s “best behavior.”
I appreciate the notion that respect ought to be given where it is deserved. One wouldn’t neglect to clean and organize one’s home if one were to hold an open house. But how honest might one consider this to be? Should one consider respect more important than honesty? Surely dishonesty is disrespectful?
Bennett portrays a definite flaw in the administration of the Queen’s household- and probably intends for us to see this in other administrations too. There is a distinct need for accuracy in the presentation of publics to officials: officials like the Queen have at least some influence in making changes. Bennett rightly suggests that the Queen begins to crave honest opinions and sentiments of the writers in particular that lacked such courage in her presence (21). She reads that she might “know” the things that are so “respectfully” shielded from her.