Smut, By Alan Bennett

Smut is a curious mix of the Alan Bennett we know of old, whose clucking, mid-life Northern treasures - Thora Hird and the like - divulge their secrets in gently subversive sotto voce, and the Alan Bennett we are coming to know, post-cancer scare, who might one day be seen as late, uncloseted Bennett, with sex increasingly on the brain.

Thankfully, Bennett takes the subject beyond the uncomfortably repressed homosexual bottom-groping of The History Boys. Here, there is all manner of sex, wholesome and joyous, and not just the smutty variety of its title: there is straight marital, gay extra-marital, virtual, voyeuristic and bedroom farce. The result is not half as shocking as it may sound: neither straightforwardly comical nor sexually-charged, just amusingly peculiar.

The first of the two novella-sized stories is "The Greening of Mrs Donaldson", whose 50-something, recent widow takes on a job as a "demonstrator" in a medical school to act out ailments for a class of students, but after renting out her spare room for extra cash, she also takes to watching her young tenants go at it, in lieu of the rent. So begins her liberated new life - exhibitionist by day, voyeur by night.

The narrative tone is both tender and comic towards its heroine-protagonist, and just as Bennett brings out the nuances of English life in a fully clothed story, so he does the same as she sits politely, legs folded, watching her tenants perform their sexual gymnastics and providing cups of post-coital tea and Custard Creams afterwards. Whenever the sex occurs, in fact, so Mrs Donaldson welcomes it with a furious bout of tea-making, the boiling kettle a suggestive substitute for her own fulminating yet impossibly English sensibility. For this is Bennett's world, were repression is never far from the sexual act. Mrs Donaldson's desires are piqued but stay passive, peeping above the parapet but extending only to voyeurism. The story ends just before the promise of sexual consummation can be fulfilled. Yet we do feel an admiration for our elderly adventurer, and we leave her hoping she may just become a latter-day Moll Flanders while she is still the right side of 60.

The joyous anarchism of this story - of a person in middle-age experiencing a late sexual liberation - might obliquely refer to the autobiographical "coming out" in Bennett's own Untold Stories, and its tone is moving in a way that the second story's is not.

"The Shielding of Mrs Forbes" is a less intimate family farce which send-ups up the vanities and hypocrisies of Middle England and takes the Mrs Bucket motto of 'Keeping Up Appearances' to its extreme conclusion. The story of a marriage between the handsome narcissist, Graham Forbes, and his dowdy but rich wife, quickly pivots on its axis to become a travesty of the sacred vows, in which everyone is sleeping with everyone else: Graham with a rentboy-cum-policeman, his father with his wife, his mother also with the rentboy-cum-policeman. The central irony is a predictable but amusingly delivered one: that a delicate family secret is such an open one that everyone knows.

The two subtitled "unseemly stories" that comprise this light, readable book turn out not to be that unseemly at all. The characters are endearingly conventional who are merely owning up to their carnality. It is good, old-fashioned British humour with the lightest of subversive twists.

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