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.

On Sundays, Aunt Eveline comes over from Bradford and there are musical evenings at Gilpin Place. The children are warned to keep back as a shovelful of burning coals from the kitchen range is carried smoking through the house to light the fire in the sitting-room, before we sit down to high tea in the kitchen. After tea, we all adjourn and, the sitting-room still smelling of smoke, Aunt Eveline arranges herself on the piano stool and with my father on the violin (‘Now then, Walter, what shall we give them?’) kicks off with a selection from Glamorous Night. Then, having played themselves in, they accompany Uncle George, my father’s brother, in some songs. Uncle George is a bricklayer and has a fine voice and a face as red as his bricks. He sings ‘Bless This House’ and ‘Where’er You Walk’, and sometimes Grandma has a little cry.

Some Sundays, though, we are taken over to Halifax to see Uncle Norris, Aunt Eveline’s ne’er-do-well brother, a dapper white-haired little man looking a bit like Gandhi and now in a Halifax council home. He is always eager, cheerful and over-talkative, because he knows he is unlikely to be in the home for long, nor any of the other inmates either. All will be liberated and amply provided for once the world acknowledges what he has been proclaiming for years, namely that he, Norris Peel, has discovered the cure for arthritis.

Uncle Norris’s cure consists of cutting off the feet of one’s socks, thus going barefoot in one’s shoes with the rest of the sock worn simply as an anklet, secured to the foot by a piece of elastic running under the instep. This is how he wears his socks and since he doesn’t suffer from arthritis, it must be a cure. That he has never had arthritis in the first place – nor anybody else in the family – doesn’t occur to him. We are never there more than five minutes before he fetches out the dog-eared letter he has had from Mr Churchill’s Private Secretary, taking note of his comments in which Mr Churchill, the letter says, has been most interested. Uncle Norris has written suggesting that his cut-off socks should be made standard equipment for all the Armed Forces and the fact that the country has emerged victorious in 1945 is proof that his advice must have been taken. Recognition can only be a matter of time.

Churchill is only one of the celebrities he has written to. Wilfred Pickles, Isobel Barnett, Semprini, a personality has scarcely to shove his or her nose above the horizon before Uncle Norris tries to enlist them in the no feet in the socks campaign. And his faith never falters. When he is already dying, he sends a letter promising us a share in the fortune he is about to inherit. He has discovered the existence in America of a multi-million-dollar research project into the cause of arthritis and has written telling them to abandon their research and just cut off the feet of their socks. Now he daily expects a reply in which they make over to him their entire endowment.

‘He’s batchy,’ says Dad, meaning he’s crazy but, as a child, I don’t think Uncle Norris’s ideas are particularly mad or even eccentric; they are only slightly more so than my aunties’ insistence that we are descended from Sir Robert Peel, or my own thought, once voiced at Gilpin Place and briskly squashed by Dad, that Uncle Clarence, my mother’s brother killed in the First War, might be the Unknown Soldier.

I still have much of Aunt Eveline’s music, albums covered in brown paper, the edges bound in brown paper too for easier turning over when in the darkened pit of the Electric she gazes up at the silent screen while thumping out ‘Any Time’s Kissing Time’, ‘Mahbubah’ or ‘The Careless Cuckoo Cake Walk’ by Ernest Bucalossi, in brackets ‘very animated’.

Here is ‘The Mosquito’s Parade’ by Howard Whitney, ‘At the Temple Gates’ by Gatty Sellars, and sheets and sheets of Ivor Novello. Every Sunday night she thumps out these old standards on the Gilpin Place piano, with occasional updates, ‘Forgotten Dreams’ by Leroy Anderson, the theme from Limelight, which I give her a few years or so before she dies.

But it isn’t death that puts paid to these musical evenings, though when Aunt Eveline dies we inherit her piano and take it home. What takes its place in the smoky sitting-room is a second-hand television set and it’s this which, within a year or so, makes such musical evenings inconceivable. My other aunties don’t mind, as talking has always had to be suspended while Aunt Eveline presides at the piano, whereas with the TV no one minds if you talk. And until they get a proper table for it, the TV even squats for a while in triumph on the piano stool that Aunt Eveline has occupied for so long.

As a child I am always conscious – and always guilty – that I love my mother more than my father. I am happier with her than with him, feel easier alone in her company, whereas with him I am awkward and over-talkative and not the kind of boy (modest, unassuming, unpretentious) that I feel he wants me to be and has been himself.

In my teens I become fearful that my mother and, to a lesser extent, my father will die. My concern is not entirely unselfish – ‘What will happen to me?’ probably at the bottom of it – and it declares itself in an odd fashion.

Both my parents have false teeth. Dad has all his teeth out when he is 25, and having been a martyr to toothache for much of his youth he counts himself well rid of them. With Mam it takes longer but eventually she has all hers out, too. This is not unusual at the time, having your teeth out almost a rite of passage before entering middle age.

So when I am 14 or so, both my parents have long had false teeth (and called that, never dentures). At night Dad sleeps in his top set but takes out his bottom teeth and leaves them on the draining-board. Mam, who is that much more hygienic, puts her set in a glass, or, more often, a cup that has lost its handle. They will have given them a perfunctory going-over with an ancient brush but the teeth are never immersed in any cleanser other than water so they are always coated in a greyish lichen-like fur that is very hard to brush off, with Dad’s teeth noticeably worse than Mam’s as he is still in those days a smoker.

At 14 I am convinced that this coating is a bad thing and that it harbours every known germ, and that my parents’ health and indeed survival depends on it being removed. So, every night after they have gone to bed, I take it upon myself to scrub and swill their teeth to try and rid the plates of this grey accretion, noting even then that the proportion of dentures I have to do, two for Mam and one for Dad, corresponds fittingly with the respective degree of affection I bear, or think I bear, for each of them.

That I undertake this nightly ritual cleansing is never acknowledged by them or referred to by me, but it must seem odd, particularly to my father. What is this strange creature they have nurtured … still at 14 looking like a boy of 10, never away from church or the library, and given to furtively scrubbing their false teeth? It’s no wonder that Dad seems to have little time for me or that there are none of the conventional rows he’s had with my brother at the same age and who is already asserting his independence in the stock ways, smoking on the quiet, coming home tipsy once or twice – stages in adolescence Dad has long been led to expect. But who has ever heard of a son who scrubs his parents’ false teeth? The best plan is to say nothing and hope that it will pass.

Central to my mother and father’s way of looking at things is the conviction that they aren’t quite like other people. This extends to clothes. Dad wears a suit every day of his life – not a smart suit, just a working suit, though always with a waistcoat. He has this suit and what he calls ‘My Other Suit’, which he keeps for best. Except that one is more worn than the other, they are identical and when the working suit gets too worn the Other Suit is demoted to be the working suit, and he buys a replacement, exactly the same, for best.

When he retires, both he and my mother make an effort to live up to what they feel their lives ought to be and this includes clothes. Briefly, Mam gets him to what she calls ‘branch out’ and change his style. So once, arriving at Lancaster Station where they are to meet me, I am shocked to find my mother waiting with what I take to be another man. But it is only my father dressed in what I suppose must be described as Leisurewear – a check sports coat, a two-tone cardigan, soft-collared shirt and Hush Puppies, the name of which Mam cannot remember and so calls Push Buttons. To my relief, this sartorial revolution is shortlived and not to Dad’s taste, and it’s not long before the new outfit is relegated to clothes for doing the garden in and he goes back to the old regime of My Suit and My Other Suit.

The war between the sexes is not a campaign in which Dad ever enlists. When he retires, my mother, who is no more of a natural joiner than he is, nevertheless enrols in the Women’s Institute. Now, if the WI ladies go off on a trip, Dad goes along too, wholly unconcerned that he is the only man in the party and, if only because he doesn’t drink and seldom swears, he would probably have felt more uncomfortable were the opposite to be the case and he found himself in all male company.

He made you believe in Dickens and the unlikely goodness of some of his characters, as it is hard to see where his natural refinement had come from.

During the war he ekes out his butcher’s pay by getting a fretsaw and making wooden toys to patterns from Hobbies magazine. These he hawks round Leeds without much success, until he finds quite a posh toyshop down County Arcade that will take all he can make, though at a reduced price. His speciality is penguins which he puts on a four-wheeled cart that a child can pull. These penguins he cuts out in front of the fire, sitting pedalling the fretsaw (a paper down against the sawdust) on the hearthrug at Halliday Place. Then he marks up their contours and paints them in the scullery where they are ranged on top of the wringer to await the finishing touch, the eye. I see these ranks of sightless birds standing there blank then, suddenly, with a touch of his paint-brush acquiring character.

My parents are always everything to each other and my clearest memory of the war is of Mam’s tearful leave-takings from my father, often on Harrogate Bus Station, though there is something ridiculous about them as he is going back not to certain death, but only to Leeds and Armley Lodge Co-op. Or it might be at Morecambe, where my brother and I walk with my mother across the hard-ribbed sands up at the West End when, having put him on the train, she is still weeping bitterly and, though the parting is only for four or five days, it’s every bit as tragic as if he is bound for the Middle East.

My second television play, Sunset across the Bay, is set in Morecambe, and has a farewell scene on those same sands which is every bit as sad. I write it with no premonitions but when a few months later it virtually comes to pass, I wish I hadn’t. Anyone who writes is aware that the act of writing carries with it a degree of involuntary prediction, the future, as it were, let out of the bag. So it’s on the same sands that I have staged a fictional farewell that, a few months later, Mam and Dad take their last walk together. Unknown to her, and perhaps unknown to him, his heart is giving out. She walks ahead across the sand, looking at the sunset, only he has stopped.

‘Nay, Mam,’ he says, ‘I’m jiggered. We shall have to go back.’

There are no tears now, when the occasion genuinely warrants it, as neither of them realises the seriousness of what is happening. But ten days later he is dead.

A few weeks after he dies, I go to Scotland to stay with friends by a remote loch in Morvern. It is early evening when I arrive and they are out for the day so I sit outside the cottage in the last of the sunshine and make some notes about my father.

He always washed up.

He generally liked to be in bed before my mother and slept on the right.

He always wore black shoes.

He often picked up stuff in the street – coins, naturally, but which pleased him out of all proportion to their value; nuts, screws, bits that had fallen off cars. Mam disapproved of this habit lest the things might be dirty.

He had no smell at all, and when he dies scarcely a grey hair; paleish blue eyes and a worn red face brimming over with kindness and pleasure. When he washed, he dried his face so vigorously that it squeaked.

Now the holiday party has returned and I put away these notes. Joan says that two miners from Falkirk have come to camp by the loch. They sleep all day and fish all night and every morning she finds a cleaned and gutted sea trout waiting on the windowsill.

To have been born and brought up in a Northern provincial city seemed in those days more of a handicap than an inheritance. ‘How,’ I think at the time, ‘how will I ever get out of here? Who in this place has ever come to anything?’ And (a question that has cropped up from time to time since): ‘Where is Life?’

In those days the answer to that seemed to be Down South, capital D, capital S, certainly not in the West Riding, dark, rainy, ringed by mills and wild moors. And if not Down South then the North and East Ridings seem more of a promised land if only because life there is a bit more up my imaginary street.

Go east of Leeds and certainly beyond York, and there are smiling cottages round village greens, duck ponds and even the occasional thatched roof, with only the busy red buses of the West Yorkshire Road Car Co (terminus on Wellington Street opposite the Central Station) to remind one that this is home still, and mucky Leeds not far off. Past York there is a prospect of distant hills and sunlit uplands (Herriot country these days and home of Heartbeat) and then the moors you crossed to get to Whitby or Scarborough. In other Ridings than ours there are soaring churches and grand gateways into great parks that promise Palladian houses and glimpses of that storybook world that as a child I always hanker after.

Leeds, though, is different and it is being brought up in a city that is almost entirely of the 19th century that makes me, as a boy, famished for antiquity and long to get away from Leeds so that I can find some.

What I do not appreciate, though, is how deeply the city puts its stamp on me. No child brought up in Leeds, or any large provincial city, can help but be aware that his or her life is underpinned and overseen by the Corporation. The arms of the City of Leeds are embossed on public library books and on the exercise books we write in at school; they are emblazoned on the side of the trams and on the dustcarts; any public celebration sees medallions with the arms of the city fixed to lamp-posts and public buildings and even strung across the streets in the city centre. There was – and it’s still there – a coat of arms fixed to the wrought-iron tracery over the entrance to the City Markets in Kirkgate; another more battered one survives over the Headrow entrance to what was then the Police Department and City Reference Library. The arms could even be found growing in Roundhay Park where, together with the Floral Clock, the owl and the lamb are painstakingly planted out in alyssum and lobelias by the Corporation Parks Department.

Thus it is that a child is reminded of the identity of the city at every turn, much as – and I don’t think the comparison is fanciful – a 15th-century citizen of Florence or Venice was reminded in the same way.

This presence of the Corporation in our lives is constant and largely benevolent. A reasonable performance in Higher School Certificate or any acceptance by a university, means, for instance, that a boy or girl is automatically awarded a scholarship by the city. Slightly better results produce a scholarship from the state, but the city educates its own, and any award by a college or university, art school, drama school or whatever, is topped up as a matter of course by the Corporation Education Department, with its imposing offices opposite the side door of the Town Hall in Calverley Street.

The effect of this continuing Corporation presence is to instil even in the most heedless of its children a sense of belonging. And it isn’t the same as the windy stuff about pride in the school that we are regularly regaled with at Morning Assembly; no one takes that seriously for a moment. But it is a kind of pride, and though one wouldn’t have wanted to think so or be told so then, a boy or girl nurtured in Leeds or Bradford or Manchester has some sense of being a son or daughter of a solid self-confident city and that when, in due course, one went away as I did to university, the sense of being still part of the city, like it or not, is in one’s baggage.

And, of course, for me and most of my schoolfellows, everything we have in the way of education has been provided for us free of charge. My education – elementary school, secondary school, university – costs my parents nothing, their only sacrifice (which they don’t see as a sacrifice) that by staying on at school beyond 16, I’m not bringing in a wage. Education in its wider sense is free, too. The libraries are free, open every day except Sunday from nine in the morning until eight at night; the art gallery is free, the museums; even symphony concerts are virtually free – a school ticket to sit behind the orchestra in 1950 costing 6d.

The rightness and appropriateness of this is not questioned by either of the political parties on the City Council – though the orchestra, which is less generally acceptable, is starved of funds by both. So much, though, we take for granted, and in my view rightly – it being, it seems to me, the mark of a civilised society that certain privileges should be taken for granted such as education, health care and the safety to walk the streets (and to have pleasant streets to walk in). Though there is much that irritates, saddens and angers me about Leeds and what has happened to it since, I shall always be grateful for what I was given there. And so when, particularly in the 1980s, one found a different so-called philosophy prevailing, namely that people properly value only what they pay for, I remember my growing up in Leeds and what we were given then, and want none of it.

To find much of that thinking now embraced by the Labour Party, in particular where education is concerned, is especially bitter. Of course, it has to be paid for; but to say ‘Education has to be paid for,’ and ‘The students must pay for it,’ is not the same thing.

As I say, my parents paid not a penny for my education, but had they been told that in order to go to university I must take out a loan, however reasonably it could be repaid, so strong is their fear of debt that I would not have been allowed to go, nor, I’m sure, would many of my contemporaries. I would be surprised if this is not the case still in many households today and I think it is wrong.

Of course, I keep saying that our education was free, though there is a sense in which it was not free at all, as it had already been paid for by what had been withheld from our parents and grandparents, packed, in Larkin’s words, into

… close-ribbed streets [that] rise and fall,

Like a great sigh out of the last century.

Our education was not free; it was owing. It was our birthright because it had not been theirs. Now I am not sure anyone has a birthright or knows what a birthright means.

The proud municipal tradition I have been talking about has gone; began to crumble I suppose in the 1960s when the great provincial cities started to tear themselves apart in the name of profit and redevelopment, so that by the end of the 1970s one place looked very much like another.

Long since gone are those permanent officials whose names never seemed to change throughout my childhood and youth: George Guest, the Director of Education, W. Vane Morland, the Director of Transport, R.A.H. Livett, the Director of Housing, names that I remember and which I see Leeds-born Keith Waterhouse, slightly older than I am, remembers too. They were the municipal pillars of my youthful Leeds world, their names as constant and unchanging as Tyrrell of Avon, the film censor whose certificate preceded every film one ever saw; or H.O. Peppiatt, the Secretary of the Bank of England, whose signature authenticated every note – grand and mysterious personalities who peopled one’s childhood through endless years the same.

The downfall of these municipal great men was handily symbolised when, in an architectural salvage warehouse in Elland, in 1988, I saw stacked up the fixtures and fittings from the Leeds Corporation Education Department building. So the panelling that used to deck out the office of the redoubtable George Guest, to whom I and many others of my age owe our education, now graces some converted barn in Wensleydale or kits out some modish design consultancy canalside.

The accent of course doesn’t seem to change – a Leeds accent not at all rough-sounding to me but rather wet and lackadaisical. I tried to lose my Northern accent at one period, the 1950s I suppose, when the provincial voice was still looked down on. Then it came back and now I don’t know where I am, sometimes saying my ‘a’s long, sometimes short, though it’s the ‘u’s that are a continuing threat – words like butcher, study, sugar, and names like Cutbush always lying in ambush.

Once in the 1970s at Cambridge I did a recital with Judi Dench, Northern herself but from York which is rather different. I had to read a passage by Goldsmith about Garrick:

He cast off friends as a huntsman his pack

For he knew when he pleas’d he could whistle them back.

Of praise a mere glutton he swallow’d what

came

And [here it comes] the puff of a dunce he

mistook it for fame.

On the night in question I had to have two stabs at it: the first time it came out as ‘the paff of a dunce’, the second time as ‘the poof of a dance’, thereby, I’m sure, causing a good deal of pain to Dadie Rylands, one of the last survivors of Bloomsbury, who was directing the proceedings. Dame Judi didn’t help by openly giggling. The truth is anyone from the North who ventures south of the Trent contracts an incurable disease of the vowels; it’s a disease to which weather forecasters are particularly prone, and, for some reason, lecturers in sociology.