Remember the scene in Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts and Richard Gere go to the opera? She wears a long red dress, and he presents her with an expensive necklace before their date.
It was not the date, nor the jewellery I envied. It was the fact that she cried during the opera. For a long time I wanted to cry at the opera. I heard that people did. My partner often cries at opera, so moved is he by it. I never have. I’ve tried, because I thought that’s what happened if you really got it, if you were somehow more cultured than I thought I was, if you had a beating heart inside your body. But no.
I grew up in an Italian house where opera was frequently played. I really appreciate opera. I absolutely love some of it. I think the singing is fantastic and I can really appreciate all the hard work that goes into it. But it doesn’t make me cry, and for a really long time, I thought there was something wrong with me. What made me cry, what makes me cry still are cheesey-to-anyone-else Italian tunes from the 1950s and 60s. If you want to see me go silent, turn my back to you and then discreetly pull a hanky from my pocket, with a magician’s slight of hand, play me Claudio Villa.
He’s not an opera singer. He may not even be a very good singer. I don’t know. What I do know is that he makes me cry, because it resonates with me. It reminds me of being little, being in Italy, when I still had two generational layers in front of me, shielding me from the world. When I could look sideways at my family tree, and a little bit up, and see lines and lines of cousins and aunts and uncles. He reminds me of hot afternoons with the orange ‘mangia disco’* in the corner ‘eating’ our vinyl 45s. The canopy pulled down over the balcony shielding us from the worse of the day’s sun, my belly full of gnocchi made by my grandmother and the lunch table a graveyard of bread crumbs and wine corks.
Then there’s art. Growing up, art was for people who had studied it. Who understood. Who knew dates off by heart and who could say thing like..well things like I can’t say because I don’t know. I stayed away from art galleries.
And then, a few things happened. I met my partner, Pete, in 1997. He taught me that art was what you made it – what spoke to you. And what that was was entirely personal to you. That it was okay to not like some art, even if everyone else loved it. And it was okay to like art even if nobody else did. That gave me confidence. Just a few months after I’d met him, (warning: some monumental name dropping coming up) I found myself at the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the only British journalist – for some reason – invited to a dinner and then a do (where there were other journalists) with Jeff Koons, Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. I was sat next to Koons and before I’d simply not have been able to talk to him, but, suddenly I felt able to. I can’t pretend it was the most interesting dinner I’ve ever been to: it wasn’t. But it was memorable.
I was working at the Independent at the time, and my friend, Chris Maume (now obituaries editor of the Independent) was one of those journalists who was so learned that he could write about sport or art and imbue each with knowledge from outside the actual subject. I think that’s a real skill, because if no man is an island, no subject is, either. He came into the office one day having been to an art exhibition (I wish so much I could remember which, now) and when I asked him how it was he said “God, it was BRILLIANT, I wanted to fuck the art.”
Well. I had never heard any of the art journalists describe art like that. Little by little, I got the confidence to go to art galleries, to realise that it was my response to stuff that mattered.
I still didn’t cry at the opera. But a few months ago, we went, en famille, to see Proms no.69: Carmina Burana, and I did cry. At the Latin choir. And that’s when I realised that it wasn’t just Claudio Villa and his ilk that make me cry. Sung Latin does it too. When I used to go to the sung Latin mass at St Etheldreda’s, where there is a splendid choir, I used to cry. In the middle of mass. Like I was having a religious experience, which perhaps, I was.
Last weekend, we went to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival at Snape Maltings, which is not far from where I live. I love Snape. It has a bit of everything: concert hall, shops, walking, Pump Street Bakery where I can drop £20 on breakfast pastries and pretend I have a family of ten. Ostensibly we went to catch Hollie McNish, whom I’ve been a fan of for some years, ever since I saw her on You Tube reciting a poem about breastfeeding. We all went to a little talk she did about Freedom, where she talked about how she was free to write whatever she wanted, but, in fact, she didn’t always feel free to perform her poems, because some of them got loads of hate mail. One of them was, ironically, the first poem of hers that I ever heard and the one that my children had listened to: Embarrassed, about breastfeeding her daughter. She read it out. I struggled to say upright. I went up to talk to her afterwards to say that I, too, had stopped writing about breastfeeding because of the hate mail. It gets hard to deal with, after a while.
The next day, at her performance, she read out other poems: about what it’s like to be old, what real beauty is, what happens to your body when you have a baby. I felt incredibly moved. I may have cried again. My children were sat, transfixed. I love how Frozen hardly touched them, but here they were in a concert hall listening to a slam poet and utterly in the moment. My youngest wrote poetry all the way through in this little note book she’d been given. Two were utterly brilliant, one was about the sea and one was about her going into a coffee shop and drinking 17 coffees. She’s six.
I was so emotional that afterwards, when I went up to Hollie again and get her to sign her second book, Cherry Pie, for my girls, all I could utter was ‘hi’.
On the Saturday, my eldest and I had also been to see Jack Rooke‘s performance: Good Grief. Rooke is 21 and his dad died six years ago. The performance is about his dad, his nan and Jack’s grief. No poetry was read out. It was a great performance: so well observed and funny. Plus he gave out malt loaf, Get out of Shit cards (mini moo cards yay!) and a tin of custard creams was passed round half way through. There was a bit of swearing. Swearing and biscuits. I could see my eldest thinking “wow, this poetry festival is great!” But half way through he does this bit about his dad, and how for six months after he died, he’d still call his dad’s number, asking him to “come home now”, asking him to pick him up (he was a cab driver).
*mangia disco means record player in Italian but it literally means ‘eats the records’.