November 2015. The First days of my marvellous permanency in London, in my thirties… (Am I old? No, of course not!) Age is a state of mind. I truly thinks so, and I do believe that Miss Shepherd could say the same while rolling down the street in her wheelchair like a child, don’t you?
I love everything about this City, even the chaos, even the endless excess! And I love the food as well. I know, I am Italian, I shouldn’t – don’t spread around that I love the weather as well – especially when it’s raining! Boom! Better change the subject. Anyway, I love Marks and Spencer. One morning I was there as usual for my breakfast and I met a lady, in her fifties. Again, she said she’s old! At her age!? Crazy! We clicked, we started to speak. Where do you live? Where do you come from? Good exercises for my rusty English. I am Italian, I am living in the neighbourhood. Like every exercise after a while it becomes boring. But my attention woke up when we started to speak about a spiritual way of live, without referring to a specific discipline. We discovered we both love the simple meaning of life: sharing our lives with others. She told me: “Do you know that a very nice movie was shot, recently, around here? Gloucester Crescent!”, “Really?”, I answered back convinced and pretending to understand all of what she was saying.
Despite this, I love movies, so my interest piqued while she was speaking, even though I had to do my best to keep up with what she was saying. We separated, and promised to see each other soon. While I was walking back home, I saw a poster, just outside the Odeon Theatre in Camden Town: “The Lady in the Van”. I immediately said to myself I wanted to see it and I tried to say it in proper English but no way, still rusty. So, I just thought: see it!
In the evening, the same day, my friend was waiting for me just outside the Odeon. We got in. What should I say about what I’ve seen?
Amazing! This word is good, but not enough!
What really surprised me about the movie is its ability to describe and design characters. The movie is to some extend autobiographic and talks a meeting in the posh(ish) Camden Town in the 1970s, between the writer Alan Bennet and an old (again, old?) homeless, Miss Shepherd. They start a particular relationship that flows into a strange house-sharing situation, with the writer living inside and she living in his driveway, in a van, for fifteen years! The screenwriter is Allan Bennet himself and this movie is an adaptation from his homonymous book and play. I read the little book as well, I have to say the movie is better. The book is a kind of diary; you can’t appreciate the depth of the character’s emotion as you can do watching the movie. Apparently, these two characters look like two totally different people, but, to use screenwriting vocabulary, underneath the surface they are both travelling angels: they just have a slight sense of changing within the film’s plot but in substance they remain the same. The purpose? To show us what is the story about, to tell us as the truth, to give us a story in his reality. It tells us: life is that way, for us, it can be difficult to change. But perhaps not impossible. But so does the writer at the end using a dream sequence to add some hope to the story plot. Mr Bennet and Miss Shepherd are similar to another extend as well: they both has something to hide, they both are acting like they are actually two different people from themselves. She committed a homicide, running someone over driving away, pretending that nothing happened. On the other hand, he has for himself an alter ego so as to be able to face certain events. He said to his other self: “I write; you live”. He complains about giving too confidence to the woman. What confidence? Maybe just to make the effort.
Regarding this last issue, the stratagem to have an alter ego to speak with, I think it is a very fascinating metaphor regarding the relationship between a writer and his writing. A writer lives because he writes and he writes because he lives. There’s no way to just live. The writing process doesn’t ask to simply be, but, in the spirit of Heidegger, also being in the world. But sometimes it is not possible, so you need a compromise or you need an alter ego. And so does Alan Bennet, showing us the difficulty between writing as a private way to give back a personal gaze over the world and writing from a social perspective, being in the world. Alan Bennet has described the second one. Just observing Miss Shepherd’s distress without intervening. And all the neighbourhood do the same, as well. Social Indifference, bad stuff. A cruel but true way to tell a story. No happy endings. No fairy tales.
The same day I saw the movie, before I met the lady I told you at the beginning of this tale, a homeless guy came into the supermarket. More than one person chased him out: “We’re not a charity, go away”.
He looks at me, his hand held out to ask me for money: “Sweetheart…”. I just smiled at him. I regret I didn’t do something more. He turned back, walking away. I thought, “We are all a charity, for us and to others, we are here forced to share, it is the only way, the compassion as the only way out, but we refuse to see. We don’t choose a spiritual way. We play “the Life Game” pretending that it’s true”. I did the same. They did the same. No dreams came true. Awareness: maybe the first step to change.