It’s fair to say that in her youth Eleanor had been used to better things than a small, cheerful but very basic cafe in a run down seaside town, even though Filey had something of the faded, fragile beauty that she possessed herself. Perhaps that was why she felt at home here. Like her the place had once been well to do, fashionable and stylish, a place sought out by the rich and famous. Now both she and her setting had seen better days but still managed to keep their pride and honour their memories in spite of everything. Eleanor had lived all over the world, as she explained calmly and politely to the two over enthusiastic and rather clueless members of the public who thought that she was like them. She had sung at Covent Garden, and graced more musical shows than she could ever remember, walking out into the spotlight from a hundred dark and dusty wings to deliver her perfect colaratura soprano voice. The shows had all merged into one in her mind now, but one thing had always remained the same- the low buzz of conversation behind a heavy curtain and the sharp smell of excitement before the lights went down. Frisson. One of her favourite words.These people meant well, but they had never felt that, they had no idea. Could they not see her beret, worn, even inside the cafe, at just the right angle over long, perfectly blonde, straight hair? The cheekbones? The fine leather shoes? Of course the shoes had been resoled but then they had lost “everything, darling, everything” when their business folded. Everything but their self respect of course.
You couldn’t mistake Eleanor’s presence, even now. She still had the light of a born performer in her eyes. Without being the least bit overstated she still believed that she was somebody and she was right. However small her world had become she was still engaged with it, seeking out new things and examining what she found. She was curious, she still wanted to know, even when what she found out disappointed her. One shook one’s head slightly and moved on. There was always the next time. Over the years she had become used to failure and success and she had found that they sometimes followed on from each other surprisingly quickly, tripping each other up in their eagerness to build a life. So much music, so many shows. Her favourite opera had been Turandot. Such drama. Such bravura. Such romance. She told them how she had sung all along this coast- sung everywhere in fact. They were closing the places she had performed now- a dreadful pity- those times would never come back. That big theatre down the road in Scarborough. She had sung there. They were going to pull it down soon. So ironic that it was called the Futurist. When she had lived in Stratford Upon Avon she had produced big charity concerts at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the actors had come in and eaten all the food that she had put on for the guests! I mean, my dear! Her eyes widened at the audacity of it, even after so many years. Shocking! Good behaviour was important, no matter where you found yourself. Even if you found yourself living in Hornsea, where there was absolutely nothing to do, nothing, you kept your chin up. You found your light.
The coffee mugs were empty and it was time to go. One should always leave them wanting more. The exit was a good one, slow and graceful with a straight back and head held high. There should have been a round of applause.
Ice snaps its fingers
and water stops in its tracks.
A new world, freeze framed.
Have you seen the coming
of the Coca- Cola truck,
spreading light and peace and joy
with the fizz of soda pop?
Hurry now, make your way east
to stand with the waiting faithful
and sample the magic of a fast food Christmas.
Gaze on its perfection as it celebrates the wonder
of a brand loved across the world,
bringing you rivers of sweet, dark hope.
The rolling wheels of the Coca-Cola Santa
hold out the promise of a new salvation.
From the moment of its conception
in the secret depths of an advertising agency long ago,
it spoke of longing and desire,
until miraculously, exactly one hundred years later,
in a glorious second coming
it reached the lighted screens
of a hundred million giant televisions
in a hundred million living rooms..
Give thanks for the generosity
of inspired product placement!
For generations it has poured forth
the honeyed magic of Coca-Cola
into the arms of the waiting faithful,
harnessing both the brands heritage
and its core media platforms
to bring its followers the candied reality
of a consumer dream come true.
You’ve seen it on the telly
and now it’s here for you!
In the depths of a winter sea fret,
far out along the beach,
the ice cream van waits.
Out of the fog the lost children
The children who have flown their kites,
dug their castles, grown and gone.
The children whose laughter
still echoes in the still air
above the waves.
They hold out their pennies,
stretching their hearts upwards
towards the lure of a funny face,
an orange maid, a super sea jet
or a sky ray.
Their shadows wait, shivering
in their damp swimming costumes,
for the timeless magic of the tinkling siren,
to restore their innocence, one by one,
in return for a silver sixpence.
Cold lips meet cold air.
The Agony in the Car Park. Grayson Perry 2012. Courtesy of the Victoria Miro gallery.
It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.
Bernard Shaw. From the preface to Pygmalion.
Class lies at the heart of English society and it always has done. It defines us in the way that we live, the words that we use and the choices we make. Class mobility is far rarer and more difficult than we would like to think. If you move into another class you are likely to give away your origins in a hundred small ways that the natives of your new class will notice immediately. Grayson Perry’s series of six large tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences, is an astute and exuberant look at the different modern tribes in English society. He tells the story of the rise and fall of an upwardly mobile IT consultant Rakewell. Like Hogarth’s rake in The Rakes Progress he comes to an unfortunate and untimely end and there are references to Hogarth throughout the series, as well as allusions to classical religious paintings from the medieval period. Grayson Perry’s tapestries have the same telling detail and earthy quality that The Rake’s Progress series has. The deadly accurate social commentary in them was taken from life, as they were made alongside his BAFTA award-winning television series about taste and the people and situations in them spring from direct observation.
The lives of ordinary people are given a touching dignity and grandeur as they are woven into the fictional story. Cage fighters present gifts to the baby Rakewell and his mother, who is bringing him up alone with the help of her nan. As a young man he sings karaoke, emoting with his microphone, idolised by those listening, a modern Christ in front of a cruciform crane. Finally a successful IT entrepreneur he watches as a sad-faced upper class stag is about to breathe its last, attacked by a pack of thoroughly medieval looking dogs. His death is recorded in the final tapestry and the accident scene in a characterless modern retail wasteland becomes a kind of Pieta. Each image carries a weight and meaning of its own while being part of the unfolding greater story. A young woman looking at them alongside me marveled at the detail, “every time I look I see something different”. Everyone around me was fascinated. A small boy- who was probably about seven years old- pointed out the pug with the curly tail to his little sister and read out some of the text which wound its way across the tapestry in which Rakewell escapes his humble origins, pronouncing the unfamiliar words carefully. “He was welcomed into the sunlit uplands of the upper classes”. Text is an important part of the images. It is all verbatim speech from the people Grayson Perry met in the filming of the television series, and it both explains and amplifies what is going on. There is something epic about the tapestries, both in their size and in their ambition and the story itself has a grand sweep to it. The rise and fall of a single human life is laid out before us. There is no judgment being made, just a fearless recording by Grayson Perry, of what he saw, his observations woven into a new shape and meaning by his Art. It reminded me of Arthur Miller’s wish, in his play Death of a Salesman, to show that the downfall of an ordinary flawed man could have the impact of a classical tragedy.
I wasn’t sure that Temple Newsam Hall was a good home for The Vanity of Small differences, despite the echoes of class consciousness that a great house provides. They were sometimes poorly lit and positioned so that it was hard to get a detailed look- something that they cry out for. In spite of that I am very grateful for the fact that it is touring, allowing so many people to see the tapestries. One day I hope that I shall see them again, beautifully lit in a clear space where the whole story can be seen easily in sequence.
This series is a real feast for the eyes and as time passes it will become an even more poignant and telling chronicle of our life and times. A moment in our society has been captured forever by an artist who is as shrewd as he is talented. I wonder what those people who look at The Vanity of Small Differences in two or even four hundred years time will make of us?
I am not the kind of woman who men buy diamonds for.
I am not the kind of woman who wears heels,
covets a lipstick shade called berry sexy
and photographs her new nails.
There are no girly nights out,
no princess moments,
no pampering sessions,
and no diets.
The women who I am not
shine brightly from television sofas
and the front pages of glossy magazines,
They explain how I can be better
in dresses that skim over a round belly
and make short legs seem longer.
They promise that ten pounds will disappear
in two short weeks
without the need for hunger
while I share Cheryl’s baby agony.
They show me how to bake the same cake
that my gran made,
Their faces are fixed
in one gleaming, endless, empty smile,
their skin is airbrushed,
their feet and elbows positioned just so.
Each dress is a triumph of engineering,
each pair of jeans has been painted on with care,
each hair ruthlessly tonged
into its rightful place.
Glibly they show me how it is done.
Teasing me with perfection.
They will not be allowed to grow old.
They will be held in place,
as they cling on to the racks in the newsagents
until their usefulness is past
and they remain unsold-
caught in their own trap.
There is room for pity.
We hold a version of our past
locked away, deep inside our head.
Sometimes a fragment of it seeps out,
to take us by surprise
as it arrives, blinking nervously,
into the bright light of the present.
A glance, a smile, a trick of the light,
a sound, a taste or a smell.
Something that we may have heard or seen
brings back something that we may have thought.
We frown at it, quietly wondering
if it was really so?
Perhaps everything that we ever knew
is hidden away behind the barricades
of forgetfulness and self preservation.
Everything that made us who we are
lies, tucked away behind a dusty mirror,
grinning away at our delusions.
Our memories are not real.
They are made up of what we think that we remember,
a story that we have made our own
to comfort us through the dark nights,
a white lie which adds meaning
to a long string of random days.
Hold onto those rare moments of truth
when your past opens its heart and sings,
they are your real self.