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BENNETT MINES THE HUMAN PSYCHE

The Clothes They Stood Up In
By Alan Bennett
Random House
161 pages, $24.95

Just about everybody in Great Britain knows Alan Bennett. He's the lovable old uncle who reads to the children and has one of the most recognizable voices on the BBC. He was also the playwright nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for the film, "The Madness of King George" and countless essays, "Writing Home" being a fine collection. And, if you're of a certain age, you'll remember that he appeared with Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the comedy "Beyond the Fringe," 40 years ago.

So it's a genuine pleasure to see Random House publish "The Clothes They Stood Up In," which started out to be a play, but turned into a rather long, leg-puller of a story with cosmic implications. It was first printed by the Times Literary Supplement a few years ago.

Here's the frame: Put yourself in the place of conservative middle class English couple Maurice, a barrister, and Rosemary Ransome, married more than 30 years who return from the opera to find their Notting Hill apartment stripped. The burglars have taken everything; there's absolutely nothing left, not even toilet paper or the stove with the casserole warming inside.

How would you cope? What would you do? I suppose I'd call the police, the insurance adjuster, make lists of what went missing; that sort of thing. The Ransomes do the same. Maurice is a music lover, so he especially misses his Mozart CDs and stereo. Since even the phone has been ripped out, he is reduced to making a public call from a launderette.

How do people on the street cope, he asks? Maurice didn't own a "mobile" phone. He had ... resisted this innovation ("Betrays a lack of organization").

Mrs. Ransome has more scope for emotional growth. She buys a new TV and becomes strangely addicted to watching American daytime chat shows. She stares in disbelief at a an overweight American couple ... being questioned by a black lady in a trouser suit about how, as the lady put it, "they related to one another sexually." ... "Get a load of that body language," said the lady in the trouser suit, and the audience, mystifyingly to Mrs. Ransome who did not know what body language was, erupted in jeers and laughter.

Of course, there's more to it than this; there always is with Bennett. He takes what appears to be a goofy premise, with plenty of tongue in cheek -- and lots of cheek besides -- and begins to quarry the human condition. The police send around an equivalent grief counselor, a large woman who calls herself Dusty, to deal with their loss of carpets, curtains, furniture and fittings.

Just as the Ransomes receive their check for everything stolen, all is mysteriously replaced, and their seemingly plainsong lives become more complicated. As Bennett says, lots of people can give things up. What they can't do is stop shopping for things. There's more to this little gem than its sparkling dialogue. Bennett mines the human psyche and we're better for it.