Queueing for the Leonardo

The better half is in France, skiing with Daughter 3, Daughter 3’s Alex and Daughter 3’s Alex’s Daniel, so I decided that I would have an adventure and queue to see the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery. I was inspired by a Russian friend of the better half. This friend wanted very much to see the show. She was told that all the advance tickets had been sold, so that the only alternatives were to queue at dawn for one of the small allocation of tickets available on the day, or to buy them from her hotel. The hotel would send someone to queue at dawn and would sell the tickets on for a correspondingly inflated price. Her reaction naturally was to try to blag some.

After a couple of unsuccessful approaches she contacted a friend of hers who is the Director of an enormously prestigious national gallery elsewhere in the World and she asked him to use his influence. Of course, he said; consider it done.

The Director called back rather shamefaced. His counterpart at the National Gallery had told him that there were no freebies; his own wife had to queue. When I heard this I was intensely proud to be British and vowed to do my bit for our island nation by queuing at dawn.

Of course when I investigated last weekend it turned out that dawn was optimistic. Someone came at six yesterday and couldn’t get in, said the man at the Enquiries desk, with a grim twinkle in his eye.

I set the alarm, but woke up at four and got up anyway. My friend Katy, whose blog you should read, at all-sweetness-and-life.blogspot.com, also writes about her adventures and before she has them she agonises about the removal of body hair. Actually I don’t know if she agonises, but the prior removal of body hair does seem to be rather a theme. I reckoned that with this sort of adventure undisciplined body hair was less likely to be a serious issue; it was so cold that a fully-clothed fumble against the gallery wall in the dark was the most that one might expect, and as it turned out there was precious little even of that.

Other preparations were however necessary: stout lined boots; two t-shirts and a sweater; a hat (the better half having borrowed the obviously suitable woolly one, to ski in); no liquids, as the opening of the nearest lavatory would be four hours away; an iPod to repel conversation.

Gloves: these hadn’t been needed so far this winter. I found them in my briefcase. They were clasped like something from Hammer Horror around a banana, which had rotted long ago and turned black and from which I had to prise the fingers.

I asked the dog if I could borrow the horse blanket.

No, he said; I need it.

Come too, I said, and we’ll share it.

He snorted.

Despite his colour-blindness and his difficulties with the two-dimensional convention, the dog is by no means hostile to the visual arts. Yesterday for instance we went to the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy and he was most excited, especially by the paintings of trees. That man has a feeling for trees that is almost canine, he said approvingly. But for Leonardo he would not be moved.

You’ll like The Lady with the Ermine, I said coaxingly.

Ermine! He snorted again. Rat, more like.

So I went without the horse blanket.

It was dark and freezing. I settled in for a wait at the bus stop but a night bus arrived almost immediately and I was at the National Gallery before five. How embarrassing to be first, I thought. There was no one there except the usual West End huddle of homeless people. When I looked closer, of course, that was the queue. They, unlike me, had been allowed to borrow the horse blanket. How unlike art-lovers they look, I thought. I’d seen art-lovers. I’d been to Frieze.

It’s possible that some of them had Armani suits on under their horse blankets, but I don’t think so.

The first hour passed in silence.

At about six it was still completely dark and it became colder. Vicious little whirlwinds of freezing air redistributed the used carrier bags at our feet and cut through our clothes, just like eddies.

Conversation started. Didn’t there use to be a large bottle on that plinth, someone asked. There isn’t now.

We speculated whether it had been stolen in the darkness, under our noses. Then we speculated whether the tiny woman five ahead of me in the queue, who was entirely covered by her horse blanket and who appeared to have no head, had arrived without her head or had had it removed, possibly by the same ruffians who had made off with the large bottle on the plinth.

We took turns to walk to the far end of the queue, now about a thousand people away, smiling sadly and shaking our heads.

Some of us had queued many times. They couldn’t see the show often enough and thought, rightly I’m sure, that they’d never have the chance again to see anything like it.

We talked about the value of the tickets that we were earning through our five hours in the cold and the night. £500 on eBay, someone said. A lawyer had engineered a business meeting as a pretext and flown down from Glasgow. Two of us had come in by extended journeys through the outer suburbs on night buses; one had been alone on the bus with a madman.

My immediate neighbour had also queued many times, but she’d never seen the show. Like a hen with her eggs, she turned the tickets over to the hotel that employed her, which sold them on to its guests who had not booked and to blag were ashamed. She is a graduate and is working for her second degree.

I told her that the better half and I had had a champagne tea at her hotel; it had been a birthday present. Did you have the little cakes, she said. Funny, aren’t they?

We all became best friends, and of course when the doors opened at ten o’clock we separated in the melee and will never meet again.

The exhibition is wonderful beyond my power to describe. Or maybe not, but not now.

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