A brush with greatness

Sir David Attenborough, English broadcaster and naturalist, at his home in Richmond, Borough of Richmond upon Thames, England UK

In 2012 I attended a ceremony on 12 May in London celebrating Edward Lear’s

bicentenary, when a plaque was unveiled in Stratford Place.
plaque

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.

parrot
(The day ended with a wreath laying at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where Roger McGough was to read How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear.  However, he showed up late.  “Have I missed it?”  “Yes Roger, you have.”)

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.

Teachers at Granby Street School, Liverpool
Fred is standing at the top right.  My grandfather Bob is standing, fourth from the left, and my grandmother Maggie is seated second from the left: they married three years later.
And in person he was everything you would have expected, and hoped, from his TV appearances: courteous, eyes twinkling with enthusiasm, and completely charming.  He said that he had recently received the same photo in the post, and I said yes, my father had sent him a batch of them, which my cousins David and Susan – custodians of our grandfather’s album – had carefully prepared.  He said he was really grateful to receive them, as he had very few pictures of his father from his early years, and indeed, sent my Dad a lovely thank you note.
Attenborough note001
He had even offered to pay, but really, who sends him an invoice?  And he might have found some of the photos revealing.  On Desert Island Discs earlier the same year he had described his father as demanding and formidable, but some of the photographs might have surprised him, showing Fred as they did in lighter mood.
Sacrifice of Fred, at Port Mulgrave
The sacrifice of Fred
The expression ‘national treasure’ is much overused, but without doubt applies to Attenborough.  Some say you should never meet your heroes.  Nonsense.  I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity.