For many years now I have been fascinated by the lives and habits of eccentrics and vagrants. I am not entirely sure why but it may be that as an eccentric myself (or at least a borderline recluse) I feel a sense of commonality with them. I am familiar with George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, as well as the extraordinary, ascetic life of Quentin Crisp. I recall the monastic tragedy of Sebastian Flyte and the disheveled women of Grey Gardens. The sadistic brutality of "Shack" from Emperor of the North contrasts with the shuffling figure of Crayford, "Old Smoky," resigned to his lot. Collectively, the stories here provide a sobering view of how difficult life can be for people who are different, whether by daring to be so or because life itself has dealt unfairly with them.
"Old Smoky," whose real name is Les, pictured on 8th September (false style).
The latest for me in this series is Nicholas Hytner's adaptation of Alan Bennett's play The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith as the eponymous Mary Shepherd, whose true name, Margaret Fairchild, was "buried to sin;" and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. "Miss Shepherd," as she is known throughout the film, is a crotchety old tramp who lives in the back of a van in Camden Town. The locals, well-to-do people of a somewhat liberal worldview, put up with her, due, in Bennett's view, to their guilt at the disparity between their lot and hers. Accepting her as a mild nuisance, albeit a presence to plummet the value of their Victorian houses in the eyes of the Joneses, they live their middle-class, middling lives around Miss Shepherd, a woman whose talents are as multi-flavoured as her aroma. An accomplished pianist, she studied music in Paris under Alfred Cortot and drove an ambulance during the War. She spent some time in a convent in Camden, but was expelled; she also spent some time in a lunatic asylum, but seemingly gave them the slip. It seems that she was driving from the asylum when a motorcyclist crashed into her and died. She managed to avoid arrest by bribing a corrupt policeman but spent the rest of her days in fear of him. Now (or rather then) she spends her time selling pencils at the roadside and, like Blanche DuBois, living off the kindness of strangers, and seemingly also her long-suffering brother in Broadstairs. She died in 1989 having spent fifteen years living in Bennett's driveway.
The interesting thing about the garbled stories of her life is that they are all true. Unlike "Old Smoky," who I once overheard telling a passerby that he'd tamed elephants on Brighton beach, Miss Shepherd really did fall from grace. This is interesting given her repudiation of her Christian name, ostensibly because of the perceived sin of murder, for which she spends her life atoning. She never quite got over her expulsion from the convent either, and lived in the vicinity thereof, living a quasi-religious life in her van. We'll never know exactly why or how she ended up this way. Was it "bloody bad luck," as the Tramp Major said of George Orwell in The Spike upon discerning that he was a gentleman; or were there other motivations? Pride, resignation and incorrigibility seem to be a common element.
Do watch the film if you haven't seen it already.