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A moment of pure unalloyed happiness


Travel experience you wouldn't get today
Brian Sewell Writer
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In France, on the way down from Paris... arriving in Dijon on a Friday night and not being able to find a cheap hotel, but we did find a sort of office where they would put you in touch with a family in a house. And so we knock on the door of the house, six of us. And, 'Yes, yes, yes, that’s alright. Do you want to eat?' 'Yes, we would like to eat'.

And so we are shown into two rooms, two girls in one, the four boys in the other. The four boys are expected to sleep in one bed. One admittedly enormous bed, but nevertheless. And the ceiling up there has one very weak, sort of, 25-watt bulb, and you are moving around in the gloaming. And I remember looking above the bed and seeing a rather random pattern of what I thought were painted rosebuds and thinking, to myself, how charming. Then we all got into bed and slept for the night, and woke up in the morning. And they weren’t rosebuds at all, they were squashed bedbugs.

Dinner that night, as it was Friday and this was a good Catholic household, consisted of bread and lentil soup. And lentil soup is a very sort of farty diet. And so four boys in a bed farting was quite eventful. And then we had breakfast, and moved on. And gosh, you know, you don’t have experiences like that. Of course, we’d all got lice. The girls had got lice, too, from the bed. So by the time we arrived in Geneva, we were, all of us, itching like crazy, and... Jill had experienced lice before, so she knew what was going on. So Jill and I went into a Swiss chemist, and rather hesitantly explained, in our inadequate French, we didn’t know what… what is the French for a louse? And this very severe woman with her hair strained back and her rimless glasses, in perfect English, said, 'You have lice. You need this. Apply it generously'. So we all retired to our various places to apply this awful white liquid. Which was a killer. The lice didn’t have a chance. Nor did our genitals after that. It was terrible.

But I… you know, it’s experience. And I don’t think people get it anymore. I don’t know, I… what boys and girls do now on their gap year, I don’t know if having no real objective deprives them of what we had, which was this driving thing about looking and talking about what we were seeing. And I was very touched, the last time I was in the Uffizi, because there was a group of about half a dozen German boys and girls of 17 or thereabouts, in the great room where the big Botticelli’s are, and they had obviously come prepared to talk to each other. And so five of them would sit on a bench and one would stand up and talk about some aspect of painting. And I thought, that is absolutely brilliant, they are teaching each other. That is precisely what we did all those years ago: we taught each other. We shared our knowledge, we shared what we could see. And it’s such a help, because, well, you looked at that picture and you didn’t see the dog. And there would be… if there were half a dozen of us here, someone would talk about the dog and someone would then talk about dogs in art... and how important the dog is for Titian, for example, or van Dyck, or Velázquez, that without those dogs, the pictures don’t work. So you have to look at everything.

Born in England, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was considered to be one of Britain’s most prominent and outspoken art critics. He was educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently became an art critic for the London Evening Standard; he received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Sewell also presented several television documentaries, including an arts travelogue called The Naked Pilgrim in 2003. He talked candidly about the prejudice he endured because of his sexuality.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: France, Dijon, Florence, Uffizi Gallery, Geneva, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, Sandro Botticelli, Tiziano Vecelli, Tiziano Vecellio, Titian, Sir Anthony van Dyck, Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Jill Spencer Allibone, Jill Spencer Rigden

Duration: 5 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013