Smut: Two Unseemly Stories, by Alan Bennett, Profile, RRP£12, 160 pages
It’s all right Mavis and Ken, Edna and Rog, keep your support hose on and pour yourself another stiff G&T, The National Treasure hasn’t gone all nasty on you. Naughty, yes, but not nasty. Despite the title of this artfully entertaining book of two long short stories, Alan Bennett’s Smut is mostly the kind you wipe from the corner of your eye. The only whiff of rubber here is that of hot-water bottles.
The stories have a dark, knowing, shrewdness about erotic mischief, young and old, but then we always knew, didn’t we, that behind Bennett’s tousled owlishness there was a Bit of Lad. The trick of these tales is to sprinkle middle-class, middle-aged life with a dash of dirty – a spot of nookie amid the nasturtiums.
But how shocking is that, actually? Is it really news that the cosy and the concupiscent bed down together, and that, as in one of the stories, a post-coital performer rather fancies a nice cup of tea? The danger is that nice will smother naughty. This doesn’t happen in the stronger, sharper, gayer, second story “The Shielding of Mrs Forbes”, which is racy in both senses (its pace is speedy, the prose bounding) and is as wicked as anything that Joe Orton might have dreamed up, which is saying something.
But “The Greening of Mrs Donaldson” suffers from a heavy dose of the adorables and gives off a damp laboriousness, as if the Marquis de Sade had fetched up in Huddersfield and written A Hundred and Twenty Nights of Bingo.
Which isn’t to say that Smut is just for those among you who were turned on by Mrs Thatcher, with or without a handbag. On one particular subject Bennett is incomparably brilliant: role-playing, which is the meat of both stories.
The Mrs Donaldson of the first story has a paid job at a hospital pretending to be a patient, stricken with whatever condition the medical students need for their instruction. “What have we got tomorrow?” wonders the presiding medic who has more than a professional interest in the widow. “You don’t want rectal bleeding do you? Otherwise it’s just gallstones ... ”
The requirements of the job, however, open Mrs Donaldson to more possibilities than she had suspected; especially when student lodgers offer to pay the rent in kind by putting “on a demonstration for you”. Which turns out to be satisfactory for all parties, even though “Mrs Donaldson’s first instinct was to look away so that rather than frankly considering this naked young man kissing his equally naked girlfriend with his hand buried between her legs, she found herself looking at the floor and wondering if it was time she had the carpet cleaned”.
Dimly aware of the two-way trick of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and disappointed when the two students manage to pay their rent in actual cash, Mrs Donaldson consoles herself with nightly vigils at the door of the performers, ear pressed against the timber hoping for a moan or two.
The poignancy of the story is meant to lie in the unlikely reawakening of a 55-year-old woman: “an age when should she take her clothes off, full light was to be avoided” – an assumption that makes you feel that Bennett needs to get out more.
As always the writing is tonally perfect, laced with deadpan as well as bedpan comedy. “On the night before his wedding, Graham was in bed with a youth called, he thought, Gary.” Note the calculated commas.
From there on “The Shielding of Mrs Forbes” unfolds as a wicked comedy of appearances and deceptions of such nimble raunchiness that it would be criminal to divulge the dénouement. If you are expecting the usual Bennett bag of acid-drop laughs, you won’t be disappointed. At her son’s wedding, Mrs Forbes can’t help noticing that all his friends are really good dancers, but that they seemed to like dancing mostly among themselves.
Best of all, the merriment doesn’t prevent Bennett from occasionally offering one of his many unsentimentally tender insights, between moments of havoc. “This is where love comes in: whether the inequality between the partners is physical or social or indeed financial, evening up the score is what love is about.” It does no harm to the fun whatsoever to acknowledge, gratefully, that is true.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor