A Cure for Arthritis and Other Tales

Alan Bennett

Insofar as my mother ever voices any ambitions for my brother and me, it is that we should become gentlemen farmers earning £10 a week. This would have been in the early 1940s when £500 a year is a not unrespectable income, though why she has settled on farming, gentlemanly or otherwise, for which neither of us has any inclination – is not plain. Getting away from Leeds has something to do with it, probably, escape always attractive to my mother, particularly an escape from the North – or the dark, satanic mills aspect of it anyway.

It is this, I think, that makes her very occasionally urge on me the attractions of the writer’s life, instancing the novels of Leo Walmsley or Naomi Jacob – even, going up the scale a bit, the Brontë sisters, whom she has never actually read, but thinks of as local girls who have kicked over the traces and made good Down South. The novelist and ex-Bingley librarian John Braine of Room at the Top fame will later come into the same category.

The only writer she does read with any regularity, though, has nothing to do with the North at all. This is Beverley Nichols, of whose column in Woman’s Own she is a devoted fan, and whose life, Beverley writing about his gardens and chronicling the doings of his several cats, seems to my mother one of dizzying sophistication. I don’t share this admiration nor the literary ambition she occasionally wishes on me. Had I had any thoughts of ‘being a writer’ (which is not the same as writing), I would have been discouraged when I looked at my family, so ordinary do they seem and so barren the outlook.

I scan the unfeatured landscape of my childhood and find no one the least bit larger than life, and a dearth of eccentricity. The only possible candidates to present themselves are my mother’s two sisters, Aunty Kathleen and Aunty Myra. They both of them marry late in life, and for most of my childhood are what they are pleased to call career girls. This actually means shop assistants, Aunty Kathleen working in Manfield’s shoe shop on Commercial Street, Aunty Myra in White’s, Ladies’ Mantles on Briggate.

My aunties both like to think of themselves as good sports, vivacious and outgoing the kind of adjective they aspire to and, to be fair to her, Aunty Kath is always laughing, a big toothy laugh, her ridiculous attempts at gentility redeemed by a streak of coarseness.

Neither of them is what used to be called a maiden aunt, though it is tacitly assumed that now they are in their forties they are unlikely to marry, particularly Aunty Kathleen whose role is to stay at home at Gilpin Place and look after Grandma. But neither of them is at all straitlaced and they’re too vulgar often for my father, who hates anything that he calls cheeky, or ‘off-colour remarks’. In this respect my mother is more like her sisters than he cares for, all the women who figure in my childhood markedly more vulgar than the men.

Both aunties are marathon talkers, Aunty Kathleen in particular, who after work often comes up home and regales us with all the news of her day selling shoes at Manfield’s, told in Proustian detail. She talks with exaggerated care and correctness, her conversation punctuated by phrases like ‘as it transpired’, ‘if you take my meaning’ and ‘if you follow me, Walter,’ little verbal tugs intended to make sure her audience is still at her heels, following her down the track of some interminable, over-detailed and ultimately inconsequential narrative. Dad suffers this tedious saga with as good grace as he can muster, then, when the door finally closes behind her, he bursts out: ‘I wouldn’t care but you’re no further on when she’s finished.’

Aunty Kathleen and Aunty Myra are both social climbers, albeit very much on the lower slopes. I’ve told the story before, but it is Aunty Kathleen who makes me aware that social pretension is a relative business. We are on a tram going down Wellington Road and passing the gasworks, when she lays a hand on my arm. ‘Alan. That is the biggest gasworks in England. And I know the manager.’

A different order of aunt is Aunt Eveline Peel, my grandmother’s sister-in-law. Aunt Eveline is never Aunty Eveline. I suppose because she is older and too substantial for that. A pianist for the silent films, come the talkies she takes up housekeeping in Bradford, her employer a widower, a Mr Wilson, somebody big in the woollen trade who lives near Challow Dene.

Aunt Eveline speaks of Mr Wilson with exaggerated deference, but on the only occasion we are taken upstairs to meet him he turns out to be a small fat man who looks like a toad with immense circumferential flies that end halfway up his chest. He is smoking a huge cigar and looks like the capitalist in the cartoon. It’s a shock when I realise that Aunt Eveline treats him with such respect because she wouldn’t say no to becoming his second wife – an ambition that is never realised.

On the side, Aunt Eveline is a corsetière, fitting and selling corsets to a private clientèle on a freelance basis, a regular sideline of single ladies, particularly substantial ladies like Aunt Eveline, who plainly wear and therefore advertise the product they are marketing.

However, it is always dinned into my brother and me that we must never say Aunt Eveline is fat, or indeed mention anyone being fat in Aunt Eveline’s presence, fatness a subject to be avoided altogether. Had size not been put on the agenda, as it were, it would never occur to either of us to say anything, because to say Aunt Eveline is fat implies that there is a possibility of her being something else, whereas to us, as children, her name and her shape are inseparable. She does, it’s true, have an enormous bust and one which as a child actually confuses me about the nature of the female anatomy. Her breasts are so large as to make the cleavage between them seem like a dark and even mossy chasm. Aunt Eveline is wont to shield the entrance to this mysterious shaft with a lace-bordered frontal not unlike the antimacassars that grace the backs of Grandma’s three-piece suite – between the back of the easy chair and the proud swell of Aunt Eveline’s bust there not being much to choose. Half hidden though it is, this cleavage seems to my ten-year-old eyes so deep as to lead to a definite orifice, a kind of Gaping Ghyll going down into the recesses of the body.

There’s no evidence of such an orifice on the only naked woman I’ve seen, the frontispiece to our copy of Everybody’s Home Doctor, but that she shows no trace of a pectoral vagina or an inter-mammary cleft does not entirely dispel the notion, which persists until the brink of adolescence when I happen to mention it to my brother, who puts paid to it with some scorn.

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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