This was the original opening chapter to Wrestliana. I think it was the hardest bit to leave out.
If the family portrait is to be trusted, I and my two younger sisters – one fair and one dark – are the human offspring of a Giant and a Witch.
I mean, don’t we look just magnificently, gorgeously odd?
The words in that book, upside-down on the canvas, scratched into the acrylic paint in soft-leaded pencil, are –
DAVID HAVE MY
And the painting is dated 1974.
Meet the Litts of Dunstable Street, Ampthill, Bedfordshire, as envisaged by Hannelore – a German artist, and the good friend of the wife of my father’s best customer, Manfred Heyduck.
My father is an antique dealer whose business, whose antiques shop, is doing rather well. A year ago he and my mother bought this five-bedroom Georgian house, at auction, for £14,500.
(I was five when I walked through the large front door, turned right into what came to be known as ‘the playroom’ and placed an object – I can’t remember which object – on the new orangey pine shelves. A toy, perhaps. Probably a car.)
To most people, I think, the house would have seemed a lot like a museum or an antiques shop. Although built around a Tudor house, it looked from the outside very Georgian, and my father had furnished it appropriately. Of course, it didn’t seem weird to me that I’d grown up surrounded by eighteenth century teapots, brass and ormolu candlesticks, china cats, ostrich eggs, tortoiseshell tea caddies. This had been my landscape since I looked up at the bottoms of tables, seeing where the leaves locked into one another, where I could get a handhold to pull myself onto my feet.
This portrait is my parents announcing, ‘We’re here – our family is complete – our home is settled – carpets down – we’ve made it.’
They were there and they had made it. Mr and Mrs D.H.B.Litt were destined to live happily in the house on Dunstable Street for over thirty years. A marriage of opposites, hearty and reserved, vague and precise, but Giant and Witch? Come on, Hannelore.
My father was very big and my mother was very small. That may prove to be the defining sentence of this book, as far as my place in it is concerned.
Although the family portrait exaggerates their size difference, the point is there. My father was 6’5”, my mother was around 5’1”. At my tallest, I ended up just short of six foot. Okay, more like 5’10” and a half. My father looks far too big for the space. If he stands up, his head would surely go through the ceiling. My mother, by contrast, looks far too small for my father. She’s more in scale with me than with him.
I know that my parents were more than a little embarrassed by how Hannelore had made us appear, and after a couple of years hanging in exactly the spot on the wall where the map of England hangs, the family portrait found its way up to the attic. The colours it was painted in didn’t match any part of the house, not even the room it showed. My sisters never liked the painting either. Too odd. And it was not until I moved into a house of my own, and put it up in an off-white sitting-room that the painting came good.
When the artist Frances Upritchard – maker of sculptures about the cult of Prince Charles and lopsided, bomb-crater creatures (not mere animals) – attended a party at ours, I was keen to show her a big photorealist portrait I’d bought, by an artist shortlisted for the BP prize; Frances hated that and moved straight towards the family portrait. She said it was the best contemporary family portrait she’d ever seen.
It was only looking at it subsequently, and taking it a little more seriously (If Frances rates it, this could actually be quite good) that I realized Hannelore was having some marvellous fun, probably at our expense – even though she said we had her love.
There are multiple visual gags here. Surely that sofa is meant to suggest the gigantic scallop in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus? But instead of a vision of female gorgeousness we get the Giant, the Witch and the Naked Babe – all gathered around a moonlike white balloon.
And, in another joke, aren’t Georgina and I floating on the carpet just like cherubs from a renaissance ceiling? – there we hang in the green, unevenly zig-zaggy foreground, which seems to be covered in petals or inexplicable potato crisps.
On the shelves to either side of my parents, painted in the style of Egyptian figures or even hieroglyphs, stand teapots and tea caddies and china plates and heavy crystal glasses. They are valuable possessions but they are also merely empty outlines.
Resolutely above us five is a map of our country, as if to say, ‘Behold the English, in all their glory!’
My father’s profile is echoed by that of the East Coast of England and perhaps parodied by the West Coast, with Cornwall coming out of his mouth and turning the whole country into a speech bubble. He’s saying the nation, or breathing it out like smoke. Further up, the Bristol Channel licks away from his glasses like a tongue of flame, Wales lifts crab-pincers toward his forehead, after which it’s fairly featureless – apart from a dent for Morecombe Bay, just north of where he grew up, until the big Eastwards overhang where Scotland juts out, towards my father’s hairline, above the Solway Firth and over Cumbria, where (as he told us) we – Litts – ‘come from’.
The white balloon in Charlotte’s little hands seems to be it’s own world, but balloons pop. Perhaps there is a reason why these funereal English need Hannelore’s love.
But you’ve been thinking about the feet, haven’t you? My father almost never wore a suit, didn’t possess a black one, and certainly never wore a black suit with bare feet – except when asked to, by a visiting German artist. Yet his feet are the most definite part of the painting, and probably the most endearing.
The least endearing thing are my mother’s awful shoes, which may have been another reason why the portrait spent two decades up in the attic – among the wine bottles and tea cases.
There’s a reason why Helen Litt is wearing shoes. Hannelore liked, when she could, to paint people barefoot, because – she said – it revealed more about them. My parents had seen her previous portraits. I still have a catalogue to her shows. The family of Dr Manfred Bergener surround the squiggly cross-section of a human head, all of them barefoot. Kurt and Lisette Neyers picnic, barefoot. My father’s best customer Manfred and his wife Meichen sit on a spindley bench and gaze at one another, her bare toes caressing his bare toes. But my mother totally refused to be shown like this – she probably thought it was affected – so Hannelore rewarded my mother, as Snow White’s wicked stepmother was rewarded, with iron shoes.
Perhaps, to finish her off, Hannelore also gave my mother a deliberately odd hairstyle. Part Brian Eno, part Morticia Addams. I can’t ever remember my mother looking so goth.
My father looks smilingly down at Charlotte whose red cheeks reveal the strongest emotion on display here: passionate embarrassment. My mother touches the surface of balloon, as if it really were the moon. She is impassive, only the bulge of her belly declaring motherhood. The paper in her hands is a pale mystery.
The family – apart from my father’s tie and Georgina’s blonde hair and my brown hair – is a series of black and white alliances.
Pale Georgina and paler Charlotte are aligned with the book, the paper in my mother’s hands, the linen of my father’s collar, with the map of England and the white balloon that popped some time in 1974.
It is slightly odd to put a child in such a black outfit as I’m shown wearing. And I can’t remember ever owning such colourless clothes. My darkness aligns me with my gigantic father just as much as my witchy mother; but the outfit I’m wearing is almost identical to my mother’s.
There I am, with my sister, united and opposing, she relaxed, me dreamy, she looking off to the something on the right, me gazing down at a book with my name in it.
A happy boy.