A typical Friday evening. The better half went out to eat with some of her girlfriends. I enjoyed a supper of cold pork and refried greens with the dog and then decided to visit an opium den in Limehouse where I am known. The dog, like all dogs, is physiologically incapable of sucking, a pipe would be wasted on him, so I leave him shut in the front room.
Lascars from the great ships are chattering in their corner. A Chinese woman offers me some tea. I decide not to take my full pipe but to hold some conversation with the white men in our corner. This is not straightforward. Most of them lie on their sides staring impassively and silently ahead. One has been frozen in that attitude, I swear, throughout the six years that I have been going there. However another of them, a Court of Appeal judge as it happens, it would take a pile-driver to silence. I notice for the first time as he lies there how old-fashioned his tailoring is. His trousers are cut high in the crotch, the waistband up towards his chest. He has slipped his braces off his shoulders when he lay down with his pipe on the bench – a very different bench from that which constitutes his trade! I talk about the iniquity of the directive extending the period of copyright for recorded music. But as I say, he is a verbose man, I soon tire of his conversation and I leave for home.
The better half returns minutes after I do with a confused story, indeed one from which the interesting bits seem to have been removed. An American man, apparently a film director, was in the restaurant. He was wearing track suit bottoms and had no doubt been allowed into the restaurant in error. A discussion ensued in which words were spoken and voices raised. The proprietor of the restaurant asked them all to leave.
At least I think that that is what she said, but I was still feeling a little remote, from the opium, and, despite the better half’s high spirits, disinclined to concentrate.
In 2008 we went to the opening at the wonderful de la Warr pavilion in Bexhill of Unpopular Culture, a show of paintings and photographs taken from the archives of the Arts Council and curated by Grayson Perry. I went because among the works featured was a painting by my old friend and hero Carel Weight, The World We Live In, as well as work by other now-unfashionable artists who flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. I found it depressing. Grayson Perry’s thesis seemed to be that the work of that era, safely before the YBAs and the arrival of the artist as celebrity, was actually quite agreeably quaint. He juxtaposed the paintings with photographs that were of a far-away world, 1950s beauty pageants and so on, whereas it seems to me that Carel Weight – and indeed Francis Bacon, who was around then too, though apparently not represented in the Arts Council cellar – are as relevant and unquaint now as they ever were. I thought that what Perry had to say was patronising and suggested that he hadn’t bothered really to look at the paintings in his own show.
But seeing The World We Live In again and the opportunity to spend the weekend on the edge of Romney Marsh were worth a journey to Bexhill.
So it was without much enthusiasm that I went to see Grayson Perry’s new show at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. I went largely because of the marvellous assembly at the BM in 1985, Lost Magic Kingdoms, in which Eduardo Paolozzi combined obscure and wonderful things from the BM’s collection with his own work.
My lack of expectation was confounded. It’s marvellous. Perry draws a distinction between his collection and Paolozzi’s, saying that Paolozzi reacted to the work that he found whereas Perry made his work and found material in the BM collection that resonated with it. Of course for the viewer that makes little difference.
What we have is a few strong themes and some amazing objects. The themes are perhaps unexpected in the world we live in: the importance of craftsmanship, the assembly of things that make up civilisation, humility, tolerance, holding one’s beliefs lightly. Perry invents a religion around his childhood bear, with whom he rode to Germany on a specially designed bear-mobile, a pink motor bike with a monstrance on the back. Then he tells us not to take it seriously as a concept, or indeed at all.
One of the objects from the BM’s collection is a soul house for the dead. Perry says that he likes it partly because nothing extraordinary seems to await us in the next world.
Some of the pieces are moving. Perry has created twin sculptures, Our Father and Our Mother. Both stumble along weighed down with the impedimenta of the past, but quite cheerfully. Our Father has a small dog, who is not weighed down by anything but adds, like the semi-divine childhood bear, to the general merriment. I reflect that the à la blague family has elevated its dog to the status of ironic semi-divinity.
The show is partly a love song to the BM itself. There are all sorts of things here from the collection that normally don’t make their way out of the cellars: miscellaneous tribal artefacts, badges from Russia in the 1980s, slipware made by artisans rather than artists, not things that make headlines in auctions. I remember (or at least I think I remember) when I was a child, when the Museum aimed at comprehensiveness rather than comprehensibility – the mission to explain. There were endless dusty display cabinets with things in: some of them very strange things. This show is a celebration of them.
The better half is at the show today and may well have things to say. Her Russian readers will be interested in the eighteenth century Russian print of The Money Devil Showering Coins On The Greedy. No changes there.
Tomas Luis de Victoria: Requiem Mass
Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States: George R Stewart