Chipping Norton Bookshop and The Uncommon Reader

Whilst we were in the Cotswolds last week we drove through Chipping Norton and decided to stop for a coffee. There is a small parking area on Middle Row, just off the main road through the town and there was just one space available. When we got out of the car, we saw behind us some tables and chairs outside a bookshop and thought great that’s just what we wanted – a bookshop and a cafe too!

This is Jaffe & Neale, a bright, welcoming bookshop with a good variety of books on offer. There wasn’t much space left inside to sit and have a drink, but in the car park there was just one table left. It was our day for sure! We had coffee and I was very tempted by the cakes, but resisted.

It was just too much to expect me to resist buying a book and I had a wander round the shelves. They had some books that have been signed by the authors and I was really pleased to find a pile of books signed by Alan Bennett. I had seen on the BBC website a while ago that Alan Bennett had been reading his new book The Uncommon Reader on Radio 4, but I hadn’t managed to listen. So I was delighted to find it here.

It’s a lovely little hardback book and it only took me a couple of hours to read it. It tells the story of Her Majesty, not named, but she has dogs, takes her summer holiday at Balmoral and is married to a duke. She comes across the travelling library, thanks to the dogs, parked next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors at the palace and ends up borrowing a book to save the driver/librarian’s embarrassment. There are some wonderfully amusing touches, such as the Queen asking:

‘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. ‘Ma’am can borrow up to six books’. ‘Six? Heavens!’

Helped by Norman, who works in the kitchen, she borrows books regularly and this changes her life. This little book is full of interesting ideas about books and the nature of reading and society. As the Queen expands her range she realises that ‘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.’

I love the way Bennett describes how the Queen becomes a bookaholic (my word, not his) and wants to discuss her books and what she is reading. The French President had mentioned Proust to her, when she had asked him what he thought about Jean Genet, which led to her taking Proust’s novel, all thirteen volumes of it, and George Painter’s biography of Proust, as her holiday reading at Balmoral. What an image!

This book is only 124 pages, but what a lot is packed into those pages, not a word is wasted. It’s amusing and thought provoking as well. I wondered where it was leading and how Bennett was going to end the story, but all I’ll say is that the Queen realises that books have enriched her life ‘in a way that one could never have expected.’ Her next venture follows inevitably. Do read this book. I wonder if the Queen has.

5 thoughts on “Chipping Norton Bookshop and The Uncommon Reader

  1. The Bennett book sounds great! I heard an interview he did on the radio, and he said he thought it’s unlikely that the queen read it — mostly, I think, because it’s not the sort of thing the queen would read. Too bad!


  2. I so want to read this… but am still baulking at the price for such a small book. Have a feeling I may throw my scruples to the wind this afternoon…


  3. I thought the same, Simon, but I did enjoy it and I’ll read it again some time. Maybe you could you borrow it from the library?


  4. I can’t wait to read this. I love Bennett’s plays, and would love to read some of his fiction. I read about this in the NY Times Book Review and it sounded good–your review clinches it! It’s on my list!


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