. . . to Buckingham Palace

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Last Christmas I had pneumonia. I lay in bed feeling utterly miserable, listening to the sounds of sociability below. Occasionally someone came up to tempt me with a tiny morsel of Christmas food, but I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t even bring myself to listen to the Queen – for I must admit to being a royal groupie who watched ten episodes of The Crown at one sitting. It was, however, a ‘royal’ book that marked the beginning of my recovery. One morning, I took it from the shelf beside the bed, opened it and, instead of closing it listlessly after a paragraph or two, went on reading – or rereading – until I’d reached the end.

It didn’t take long – it’s only 120-odd pages. Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, which first appeared in 2007, is a gloriously funny and subversive little book about a serious subject – the importance of books to humanize us and their power to change our lives. And despite or perhaps because of its hilarity, it delivers a message just as telling as does Virginia Woolf ’s famous book which gave it its title.

Entering Bennett’s parallel universe, we discover the Queen, alerted by the barking of the corgis, chancing upon the Westminster mobile library parked by the dustbins in one of the Palace courtyards. Mounting the steps to apologize for the row, she finds the librarian, Mr Hutchings, and a single customer, Norman, ‘a thin, ginger-haired boy in white overalls’.

Having broken the ice (‘Have you come far?’) the Queen discovers that gay Norman, who works in the Palace kitchens, is a passionate, self-educated reader, absorbed that day in a book about Cecil Beaton. Slightly at a loss now, she wonders whether perhaps she should borrow a book.

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

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About the contributor

Despite co-editing Slightly Foxed, Hazel Wood feels she still has a long way to journey in the great republic of literature.

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