Saturday, 8 December 2007
The Chimneypots of the Sir John Soane's Museum
I didn't realise it was going to be a gala opening. Stephen had merely told me to ‘endear myself to the casual cause’ but I should have known something was wrong when he turned up dressed like James Bond out for a night of baccarat and berettas.
‘Ah, this?’ said Fry, adjusting his black bow tie. ‘This was just the first thing I saw hanging in the closet.’
‘But how does it make me look? Like a semi-casual dwarf. I’ll be lucky if I get through the day without being called Nick Nack at least once.’
‘Oh, you look fine,’ said Judy, brushing something non-existent from my shoulder. ‘Now, Stephen, take good care of him. Remember, he doesn’t like crowds and don’t let anybody ask him for his opinion about anything. He’s only too likely to give it to them and then it will end up in the papers and we’ll all be in trouble.’
‘Fear not, dear Judy,’ said Stephen, ‘your husband's safe in these hands, already slightly moist at the excitement of a day of chimneypots.’ He turned to me and smiled in the impish way that wins us all over. ‘Shall we go?’
‘I suppose,’ I said. ‘So long as it doesn’t involve exploding underground lairs and our being left marooned on the high sea in a large inflatable dingy with little to do and lots of time in which to do it.’
‘Richard,’ he laughed, ‘you have the imagination of a three year old child. Deary me. Think chimneypots. Chimneypots!’
I didn’t think chimneypots at all. ‘Deary me’ was much closer to the mark. I had reasons to be fearful; reasons that became apparent as Stephen drove me to the Sir John Soane’s Museum.
From the back of Stephen’s black cab, the streets of London seemed more circular then I remembered them. Then I realised that Stephen was using every roundabout between the Madeley estate and the centre of London to demonstrate that the black cab has the tightest turning circle of any car. Or at least I think that’s what he said. I was soon sitting with my head between my knees and wondering why the world had taken on a forty five degree list to my right.
When the journey finally came to an end, I climbed from the cab feeling not a little queasy. Outside the museum, the pavement was banked with photographers and celebrities all there to see the opening of the new exhibition.
‘All these people are here for the chimneypots?’ I asked, still a little confused.
Stephen grabbed my arm as I staggered dizzily into Jordan’s gaping breasts, specially brought out for the occasion.
‘No, Richard, they are here for the publicity surrounding the chimneypots. You know how celebrities are. Do you think Jordan’s breasts care a jot for great art and artists? Jordan's breasts care only about appearing in the newspapers. All these celebrities are the same. They’re not here for the museum but for their own glory, their own self-seeking… You’ll want my good side, sir!’ He was now shouting at a photographer who had jumped out to get a shot of the two of us together. Stephen pulled me to his side as the flash bulbs began to ignite.
‘You’re looking a bit peaky, Judy,’ shouted one of Fleet Street’s finest.
‘Looks like Madeley’s shrinking,’ shouted another as Stephen laid his great paw of a hand on my shoulder.
The first snapper embroidered the quip. ‘He looks like that little fella out of that James Bond film.’
‘Oy, Nick Nack,’ shouted the second. ‘Where’s Judy? You swap her for something taller?’
‘Judy’s at home,’ I replied, the flashlights adding to my slight feeling of nausea. ‘She’s fitting a new toilet seat.’
‘I think that’s enough,’ said Stephen, helping me up the steps to the museum. When we were out of earshot of the press, he lowered his head and whispered. ‘I confess, Richard, I had wondered about Judy’s overalls and the large money wrench in her hands but I didn't like to ask. It's a shame as I had thought to invite her. There was plenty of room in my cab.’
‘You can’t get between Judy and her plumbing,’ I said. ‘I’ve tried it many times and I’ve always failed.’
‘Oh, far be it for me to complain. I glad you’ve finally got around to that seat. I’ve been meaning of mentioning it for some time. Yet one has a reluctance to discuss the matters of the bathroom, even with close friends.’
Stephen, as always, was right. It has been too long and it had been wrong of us to do nothing about it. The seat to the old toilet in the guest’s bathroom was much too close to the water. Anybody using it was likely to incur terrible splashback.
‘Now, now, now,’ murmured Stephen as we breached the inner sanctity of the museum. He was holding hands clasped together as though in prayer. ‘Chimneypots!’
The actual exhibition hall was almost empty. Like you find at most of these celebrity gatherings, the celebrities we’d seen outside had immediately walked out the back door where the cars that had dropped them at the front were waiting to pick them up. Of the few who remained, I recognised Loyd Grossman standing on the other side of the hall, and my old friend John Humphrys who was standing chatting to Boris Johnson. Most of the other visitors were ordinary folk and really not worth mentioning beyond the fact that they all seemed to have an unnatural interest in chimneypots.
They weren’t alone.
‘Do you know what the secret of a good chimneypot is?’ asked Stephen as he bowed down to inspect the first glass case. ‘A good flue. Not for the Victorians these narrow tubes that get clogged up with soot. They were people whose chimneys were like great cathedrals, with flues the size of an underfed child or bigger.’
‘Really?’ I said, looking at what Stephen was looking at and seeing only a brown tube made of pot.
‘And look here, a later period chimney with the typical crenellations of that great chimneypot designer, Sir Toby Perceval of Portobello. And here,’ he said, striding to another. ‘If I’m not mistaken, this is actually a virgin chimneypot that’s never tasted the sweet musk of smoke. It has the distinctive mark of being hand crafted. Marvellous. Simply marvellous.’
He went on like this for an hour. I can’t remember everything he told me about chimneypots but, then again, I’m ashamed to say that, after ten minutes or so, I began to find it all quite interesting. Stephen has a way about him that is sorely wasted in the field of light entertainment. He should have an academic post where he could share his encyclopedic knowledge with those that need it. If there’s every a professorship on chimneypots, I’d nominated Stephen before any other.
When I got home around one o’clock, I found Judy sitting on the downstairs toilet, rocking forwards and back.
‘I think I’ve got it just right,’ she said. ‘I’ve raised it four inches. How were the chimneypots?’
‘You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,’ I replied, scratching my head. ‘But they were wonderful! There’s so much you can learn about them. In fact, I was wondering, after I’ve had a bite to eat, if you’d like to go back with me and look at them some more?’
‘Are you quite alright, Richard. You sure you’re not feeling peaky?’
‘No, I’m fine,’ I said, perhaps flushing slightly after a journey home involving ninety three traffic islands. ‘Honestly, Jude, you can’t believe the interesting things that Stephen told me. How they used different types of glaze to protect the pots, and how they had to fire them carefully to stop them cracking… He said if we’re up for it, there’s a special demonstration later today when they’ll be putting smoke through one of the oldest chimneypots in the collection. He’s going back and he said we’re welcome to join him.’
Judy began to rock again on the seat. ‘I think it’s safe to say that any guest using this toilet seat will leave with a dry bottom,’ she said.
I could see that I’d said the wrong thing. A tear sat on the edge of her eye.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I sighed. ‘In all these excitement about chimneypots, I’d forgotten to praise you for your work on the chamberpot.’
‘It’s alright,’ said Judy, smiling a little at my word play. ‘I know what it’s like being with Stephen. It’s just sometimes hard to compete with him...’
I threw my arm around her. ‘He’s not even in your league,’ I said. ‘Now come on. Go upstairs and put on your best dress. You know how much you love your plastering? Well, at the Sir John Soane’s museum, they have a room dedicated to Victorian building supplies and they have the biggest collection of early mortars in the UK.’
She smiled, here eyes wrinkling with excitement. ‘You know, Richard,’ she said, ‘you always know how to make a woman feel special.’
I nodded in that way you sometimes nod when you know that somebody is just so very right.