In 2012 I attended a ceremony on 12 May in London celebrating Edward Lear’s bicentenary, when a plaque was unveiled in Stratford Place.
Later there was an event at the nearby Fine Art Society, where there were a few short speeches about Lear, and where some of his work could be viewed. Among the small crowd was Sir David Attenborough. I’m useless at recognising celebrities, but there was no mistaking him. His benign aura filled the room. Here he was an observer, not a speaker: he has said he first became acquainted as a child with Lear through The Owl and the Pussycat, but later was entranced by Lear’s exquisite bird drawings and paintings, which were much valued by naturalists before the age of photography. Sir David had become a collector of nature prints, and especially prized Lear’s work.
When I told my father of my A-list celebrity spotting, he wanted to know whether I’d asked Sir David whether his father had ever taught at Granby Street school in Liverpool. Of course I hadn’t, I knew nothing about this. Dad explained that his parents – before they married – were both colleagues of David’s father Fred at the school in 1912, and was able to produce a photograph showing them all. Apparently my Taid had been good friends with Fred, and had gone with him on at least one holiday.
I wished that I had known this at the Fine Art Society, but all was not lost. I wrote to Sir David to ask whether it was indeed true that his father had taught at Granby Street, and to my delight he sent a short handwritten letter confirming that this was so.
I attended a Bicentennial Conference in Oxford in September, so I took a couple of photographs with me in case he should turn up. The first day passed pleasantly enough with several academics – I thought – over-analysing Lear’s nonsense: but it was after all an academic conference, and the robust joy in Lear’s writing survived the intellectual bombardment.
But on the afternoon of the second day, there was a talk on Lear’s bird illustrations, and Sir David was there. Everyone in the room tried to carry on as normal, but every so often eyes would dart back to take him in one more time. He made a couple of insightful contributions.
At tea break he was sitting with a woman who I took to be a secretary or family member. I steeled myself: he probably gets very bored with being accosted by strangers, though presumably most are well meaning. But I needn’t have worried: as soon as I approached the great man and drew his attention to the photograph, he beamed with pleasure, and pointed out his father.