Like with my previous review of Us I feel I should prologue this review with some major bias.
I love Grayson Perry. I too was raised in Chelmsford and it took an awfully long time for someone of relevent youth to emerge from its grey shopping centres, someone for me to point at and go “HIM! HE IS ALSO FROM CHELMSFORD….Chelmsford….its in Essex…well it’s actually the county town….No, lots of people think its Colchester, but its actually Chelmsford…well yes, but Chelmsford has a cathedral… actually its a city now! Crikey, a city………The V Festival? No? Well anyway, HE, that magnificent person is also from Chelmsford so it must be doing something right.”
Only other people who come from bland, grey-buildinged towns where nothing ever happens apart from one more wine bar opening can understand how almighty it feels to have someone SO set apart from the place to call upon as a fellow alumni. I’m not embarrassed by my hometown, it was where I grew up, where I met people I love and will hold on to forever, and it was a bolthole during some miserable times in London that saw me running for trains I could barely afford just to get home. My spirit may sometimes groan about the place, but I have felt monumental relief pulling into Chelmsford station.
But if I stay there too long, like any long-left-behind hometown, I’m reminded of its blight, its blandness, its apparent lack of a cultural identity (well one that can’t be scrapped from the high street on a Monday morning anyway). It feels small and small-minded, so close to London, but so far removed from the energy and the mix. White face upon white face bob along the strangely beige bricked high street. The people live for shopping, the theatre is kept away out of sight (and possibly harms way) and the museum is so far removed from the centre of town you become a wornout relic of yourself just trying to walk there before lunch.
That someone as spectacularly vivid as Perry could somehow have lived there, amongst the multi-storeys and the Argos fills me delight and, finally, a little pride. That he got out of the place through pottery and transvestism of all things will continue to astonish me. (Though I do find much much mirth in the fact that Chelmsford museum houses one of his pots alongside some “plain white examples of crockery from Tesco” – Chelmsford – the sublime and the ridiculous).
So, platitudes over and on to the book.
If you listened to Perry’s brilliant Reith Lectures last year (if not, you can listen here), then this is the perfect accompaniment. In fact it was great to sit down and revisit his very fresh and involving take on art and his theories about how tweaking the way you look at things can suddenly open up a whole world of accessibility. In fact, you could easily read it in a day and I suggest you do just that – get yourself to your local gallery (if you are lucky enough to have one), take this in your pocket and intersperse your visit with chapters and passages. I guarantee, if you are a novice art Looker-Ater than this book will make your visit (and all subsequent ones, because you will fall in love with art after this, or at the very least fancy it a lot and want to be around it whenever you can) a whole lot less daunting – hey! It may even make you feel ok about laughing at stuff or perhaps not “getting” or liking everything you see.
I don’t think it would be possible for Perry to write a book about art that wasn’t full of colour and humour (his illustrations are a hoot) that also managed to hold onto a level of gravitas and intelligence. Ok, it may not be for the seasoned gallery visitor but for budding and buzzing fans like me it was a perfect little holding of the hand.
And hopefully it will finally lead to some recognition from his (AND MY!!!) hometown, I suggest a full-colour, 11-foot statue in the high street outside McDonald’s, where all the cool kids used to sit, snog and drink before they took the seats away, dressed as opulently as you would expect from Chelmsford’s very first transvestite potter and cutting through the grey like a prism.