‘On Bear Ridge’: Sherman Theatre. A view.

Did that thing again where you try not to learn or know anything about the event, beforehand; with some success. Wanting to look – really look – and listen without too much intelligence or baggage, or prejudice.

Wasn’t sure, for example if the ‘Bear Ridge’ of the title was in Wyoming or the Black Mountains or Beacons of Wales. Wasn’t sure  if this might be a one-man jobber, in fact, having just heard, yaknow,  ‘Rhys Ifans’.

Have been absent from the Sherman for too long, so interested in the vibe, the thrum around the foyer and the feel of the place. In truth both the foyer/bar/lounge-upon-laptop space and the auditorium are pret-ty ordinary, eh? (No offence). They function, rather than lift the soul. But hey – deep breath, glass of water, focus… and in.

Into an atmospheric world. Snowy, non-specific somehow, despite the occasional name and the constant flow of memory. Bleak uplands; rocks that shadow and maybe fore-shadow; a homestead almost abandoned.

Ifans is lying in the snow, stirring then into something stirring. Words. Sure there is some drama here and a brooding, evocative set but this (we soon learn) is utterly about words performed.

John Daniels and his wife Non and their home, farm, shop: their source. Rich with their own history but poverty-stricken, isolated or struck down by unspecified change. A murderous, bi-polar world, with wintry-but-noble John and Non beset by a creeping, catastrophic now.

We hear planes, we hear tell of the City by the Sea. We learn that old ways and the Old Language are being throttled by something new and hostile.

Indeed there ‘really is’ a war going on: witness the arrival of a Captain, complete with great-coat and gun and his own, enervating torment. A Captain who nearly wastes the Slaughterman, emerging from the cellar.

All sounding bit ‘stagey’, bit ‘symbolic?’ Fear not. The cast of four are strong – Ifans and Rakie Ayola particularly so – and the lyricism and wit and and angularity of the piece places it substantially beyond the ordinary, the predictably-familiar. This is absolutely about the spirit of something but Ed Thomas conjures plenty of real life: convincingly so via his *Kollwitzian (and therefore universal?) couple.

John Daniels is that daft Welsh butcher from up on the hill, with the lived-in beard and shoulders bearing against tragedy and loss – of son, of memory, of tongue. He is that… but he is more. Nonnie, his steadfast wife is with him, always (and therefore always against the grain of the times); stoic on the one-hand, strong-willed and hearty on the other.

In truth I found the Captain a tad less convincing: not sure if this was through less crystalline writing or by dint of the performance on the night. (Something about the mix of threat, near-affability, body-language, direction, maybe, that didn’t ring entirely true? Maybe I need to see again.)

Ironically but hardly accidentally, the apprentice/slaughterman (listening to “White Riot, if I am not mistaken, when emerging from the butcher’s cellar?) was a full participant in the weaving of stories rather than the cleaving of meat or ‘action’. He pours tea and/but he too, has poetry. Local, individual-but-communal richnesses are suggested: the central ‘act’ (the brutal overwhelming of Twm) is described.

‘On Bear Ridge’ felt like a significant piece of theatre – some stood to applaud.

It is poignant love song and it is protest song. The piece bears witness to the betrayals, insidious and unseen and to the malevolent ‘othering’ all around us. These humble, magnificent characters are invested in The Biggest of Things – seeking out poetry and meaning both in their language and in material life. Tragically, change, history, progress and/or cruel inertia is burying them.

Thomas’s first play for fifteen years reiterates his conviction that a) our words must be sung, from the ridge-top to the City by the Sea and b) that traditional theatre – that is theatre predicated on words not tricks, pyrotechnics or that which would be original – defies and endures.

(I say this having been conflicted about whether drama this word-centric conciliates too much, is too dry, too easy, too necrophiliac, even?)

But no – and this may be another of the play’s triumphs – Ifans and Ayola make dynamic once more the notion that in live performance phrases carved with care, well-acted, can transport, can question, can impact upon us. The writer’s contribution is made.

 

 

*As in Käthe Kollwitz, the great socialist artist. (Do not John and Non have something of the Beautiful Beleaguered Peasant about them? In a wonderful way?!?

Wise Children.

Let’s gush, for a moment. For this really could be the best night I ever had at the theatre. The most enjoyable, the most delightful. ‘Wise Children’ at the Bristol Old Vic. Let’s rush backwards before we really go in.

My Angela Carter phase began about thirty-odd years ago. Meaning that the fuss around ‘Company of Wolves’ (I think) precipitated a period of reading and as it were, familiarisation. I’ve been on Team Carter ever since, howling along with that extravagant wolfiness, dancing with the seductive, luxuriant-but-plain otherwordliness – the prismatic fable.

She speaks for all of us who won’t behave, or take a reasonable look at things, or deny the imagination. And I love that. All her values are charged.

Carter knows that, sees that everything is a dance, a ‘story’, a place to soak up or unpick life’s sexiness. She has dumb blokes like me both skewered by her electrifying awareness, the force of her sexual politics… and yet even I feel somehow liberated, too. She became one of my goddesses – the boss, in fact, the matriarch, the guru or Senior Lecturer to them all.

I arrive in Bristol, however, strangely unburdened by anticipation. Neither foaming nor twitchy, just tired-ish and *swallows heavily* actually unaware that the family mission (booked as so often by my brilliant wife) was to see a Carter extravaganza. Yup, because if I ‘did hear anything’ I had completely forgotten that ‘Wise Children’ was Angela’s baybee!! DOH!

(In my defence, I often go to events deliberately underinformed; can be a great way of stimulating good, engaged and unencumbered watching and listening. I think probably I had, in this case, chosen to swerve any conversational build-up with this Healthy Neutrality in mind: arse that I am).

The Bristol Old Vic is a striking venue. The redeveloped gathering-hall and bars feel all of grand and intimate, cool and wonder-ful. The auditorium remains gorgeously old-school. But the play, the play…

In her programme notes, the Artistic Director speaks eloquently of Carter’s ‘wonder tales’ – of her ‘mythical truths’. In a couple of words, Emma Rice – for it is she – delivers, triumphantly on both wonder and story fronts.

The production is deliciously ablaze and dancing and singing and charming and blisteringly poignant. It’s musical in every movement, every moment. Though ostensibly we should note, a story of Common People, it positively soars and swoops and sinks and seethes (and I do mean positively) with transcending love, with issues, with comedy. This is channeling Catherine Tate as well as the redemptive power of sisterhood.

Performances are great; feels ridiculous, superfluous or  just downright wrong to single anyone out in the mercurial melody and flow. ‘Wise Children’ is built around Nora and Dora’s invincible closeness but the wonder may be springing more from the overall vision.

The word ensemble feels a tad pretentious here; this lot make a fabulous group. The playing and moving together is the making of this: chapeau, then, to both the Director (Rice) and to Etta Murfitt (Choreography) and Ian Ross (Band). Acting contributions – for example Gareth Snook’s magbloodynificent Dora – are utterly matched, supported, made possible by the whorl of song or arc of a move.

It’s enormously human: there is tremendous fun, melancholy and there is sexual abuse. There is music hall and there is hilarious shagging. There is betrayal. There is the flawed love of a ‘family’ and the cruel arrogance of a jumped-up thesp. There are ‘men’. Winged, we flit through the generations – sometimes gleefully, sometimes we find them loaded with more or less repressed trauma.

Dora: We in Brighton already?

Perhaps above all, there is a generous intelligibility to all this. It’s so beautifully entertaining without ‘going over our heads’. Wise Children is, in the finest sense, an achievement through community, through simplicity: you don’t have to be a Proper Theatre-goer to receive this. Just let the magic do its work.

Flick through the programme and it figures. The company oozes talent (I know, they all do but bear with, bear with): this posse is bursting with musicians and dancers. It’s not incidental that Patrycja Kujawska studied violin or that Mirabelle Grimaud can ‘move a bit’, as well as sing so movingly. Or that the credits include so much in the way of circus, dance, fairytale.

I’m guessing that Rice found a refuge as well as an inspiration in the ‘simple joys’ of the fable (and its ‘high priestess’, Carter) after a challenging period in her career. Thank god she did. Thank god she renewed and rebooted and gathered in again. This production really is as wonderful as anything I’ve seen. So yes…

What a joy it is to dance and sing!

Wise Children is now a cause as well as a glorious production. (7% attend Private Schools, 42% of Bafta Winners in 2016 went to… you guessed it).

Rice and her team are doing their bit to a) tell stories/tell women’s stories b) oppose sexism and oppression c) demystify the arts, whilst enchanting us d) get Or’nary Kids into theatre and theatre roles.

They are training us. To experience. To be travelling players. Wow.

 

The Tide Whisperer – in Tenby.

The Tide Whisperer speaks of many things. It declaims them, from atop a scaffold, a harbour wall – or it signals them from the clifftop.

Mostly, it beams them in, in between those ears, through headphones offering both a private view and a rich, collective experience.

We’re in teams. We gather in the de Valence, in Tenby, on a coolish but viable September evening, passing racks of kit and rakes of guides or staff or stewards on the way in. I’m red.

In the hall, that scaffold supports an almost-anarchic electro-sculpture, alive with scenes around the town, the water, the world. There are presences – on the stage there’s a bloke who might be a fisherman, dragging for something. There’s a woman in shadow, or grief, or both. There’s a chair… and sand… and then a sitter.

Soon enough the screens will break through the chatter and the scaffold will host an entry, a monologue, a man opening the themes. Refuge; flux; the search for harbour. Then urgency, bombs, carnage: we’re driven out, in our teams, to the sea.

There’s a kind of prose-poem playing between those ears, an evocation of things remembered, things left. The ‘Tudor Streets’ walk with us, with the 30 or 40 reds as we carry that context with us to the beach. I wonder if we might have left our shoes and socks, as we traipse across that sand, past the golden cockle-women and the strewn chairs, to the waiting boat.

The sea, then. Central and essential to the piece. We join it for an hour, maybe, in transit or stalled, circling or encircled, at the mercy of – who knows? Pirates? Police? The evil whim of an indifferent or hostile world?

Two stories. That tragic woman – one of the Boat People – and a young, male Russian(?) who transgressed into loving another. Danger and escape, or not.

Sometimes we sit, ‘pointlessly’. Sometimes we ‘make good progress’ through the chop. Always the invitation – the compulsion – to listen and to feel the stories trawl through us. The headphones make us victims; there can be no distraction, no interaction; we can only immerse, not escape.

Ashore, that man from the scaffold is back, in the bandstand. He is Welsh, he is Corbyn-like, he is a refugee: he was Mayor!

We march on, down, again, inevitably, to the auditorium of the harbour, cobbles becoming sand once more. The three central characters and the swaying cockle-choir and the backdrop of the town await: a staging, a denouement between our ears. My friend Jane wept, almost uncontrollably.

So *things I liked*. The whole, the experience, the physical elements – from walkabout to water, to the inescapable word. (Different groups did different things: I’m glad we were mostly on that sea, in our coats, inside our headphones). Impossible not to be affected – subtly or profoundly – by the leaving, the returning, the rise and fall.

Personally though, I am left with a sense that maybe I/we might have been challenged more. Despite the scope of the piece – and the budget – this was traditional community theatre. (I know, I know – community theatre can be wonderful and revelatory, stay with me!)

The stack of tellys was okay but hardly original. I didn’t need the Guernica reference. I felt the character Pearl didn’t need that name. My comfort, in the face of these atrocities, remained relatively un-shredded. This could, of course be my own inadequacy but there’s an argument Tide Whisperer might have screamed or torn at us some more.

Levels of Hurt.

Bale’s two interventions. Ramos. Karius. Salah. Wow.  The word is probably ‘dramatic’.

Dramatic but cruel? Dramatic and relatively just? Depends where you’re at. As a neutral, the result felt a tad generous to the slightly haughty Spain-based gentlemen but they were (in some sense) classier and more comfortable on the night. Predictably.

Modric was absurdly unhurried as usual; Marcello – without engaging annoyingly flamboyant mode – was cool. The Liverpool midfield were not; most of the Red Men, were not.

For much of the game, Milner and Wijnaldum and Henderson fluffed things or threaded passes straight to the opposition. Both the Englishmen did that thing where they make the case against themselves, as top international players. They looked bloody ordinary – and one-paced.

Wijnaldum was mostly worse than that, for the first hour plus,  but almost looked to have settled, arguably unhelpfully, by about the eightieth minute.

The passing out from defence was similarly twitching between the poles of freneticism and wastefulness. Klopp seemed generally impassive on the sidelines but the disappointment at the level of sheer nervousness and consequent lack of fluency and fire must have hurt him. Not much worse than not turning up for a massive, massive game.

By my reckoning only Mane and Robertson did themselves justice – certainly in terms of forward, or forward-thinking play.

Sure we can credit Modric (mainly) for the suppression of the Liverpool Way, but I can’t be the only one who (whilst acknowledging Real’s impressive ease) also feels they might really have been vulnerable to the kind of exhilirating rampage Klopp’s team have been serving up all year.

Instead Ramos and Morcello and co went relatively untested.

Of course it’s easy to be critical after the event but I did wonder during the game why the Liverpool coaches were not more animated and maybe proactive. (Presumably Klopp tried to light a bonfire at halftime, rather than counselling calm and measured improvement?)

If Klopp was content to concede possession and look to counter-attack – that’s maybe only to be expected, right? – then okaaaay, except that conceding possession against the most successful team in European Cup/Champions League history will surely invite trouble in the end? Plus – in my view critically – Liverpool have thrived via a pacy, open matrix rather than an italianate(?) deliberately staccato slow-then-alarmingly-quick approach.

Firmino wants to flick things and move; Mane wants to run, Salah wants to turn and race. Much of this starts from halfway and/or springs from periods of pressure,  from within the energy and context of an athletic, confident, free-running team. In my view that kind of team might be more of a threat to Ramos’s relative lack of legs, Morcello’s arrogance etc etc.

In short I think Klopp missed a trick – or his players were too awestruck to express their natural way. That’s a tad frustrating.

The genuinely sad and inevitably damaging removal of Salah was of course a factor – though already Liverpool’s performance seemed both muted and on balance likely to stay that way. The dancing Egyptian might plainly have unzipped the Madrid backline at any moment and the watching world was robbed of much of that frisson.

In terms of Match-winning Moments, let’s concentrate on Bale’s extraordinary overhead. Throw in the fact that it was *more possible* for a left-footer to do what he did than a right… and we are still left with something impossible. Impossible and magnificent and staggeringly, wonderfully worthy. And how hilarious that all of us thought immediately of Ronaldo’s ego flinching at the sight?

The other Madrid goals were clangers off-the-scale: mortifying to watch. Paul Hayward has rightly led the calls for understanding of the possible dangers around these freakish and traumatic moments. Let’s just add that maybe we all have a kind of duty of care to Karius and then move on, hoping that he can, with help and support,  gather himself and respond.

Madrid are champions and they deserve it. They may be fortunate though, that the real Liverpool did not show up; that Liverpool might have hurt them.

Arrest that man.

Radiohead are maybe too bright, too cool, too thoughtful to do triumph. Certainly when I see them in Ippodromo delle Cascinee, Firenze that’s one of the thoughts I’m left with.

This not to say they were in any way a disappointment – quite the reverse. I’m psyching myself up here to make the argument that Radiohead (as Pil allegedly once did, with music) went right past triumph.

The venue, immediately west of the spectacular cultural honey-pot that is Duomo City/Uffizi City/Michelangelo’s David City was impressively good-natured, given the enormity of the gig. 55,000 (with all due respects) just for Radiohead. Some booze, some dope, some annoying pushers-towards-the-front but mainly an energy-flow entirely appropriate to the parkland, Arno-side setting.

Yes, the intelligentsia. And yes a mixed, international crowd. Mainly Italians – obviously – mainly disinterested in support James Blake.

I would have felt sorrier for JB but for the very personal feeling that he was dull: that if you’re ploughing the singery-songwritery soulful geezer with pleasantly diverting things to say furrow then you really better have some searingly beautiful or excitingly challenging things to say. Maybe especially if you actually sound a bit like you’re in love with the main act.

Folks around me passed the time in chatter, or by gently exercising limbs they knew would later be either active or aching or both; legs, feet.

James Blake was fine but I can’t imagine why anybody would want to see him/them live. Not outdoors, at a festival – not unless they wanted to sleep, or snooze, in the sun, before gathering for the pardee some time later. I repeat that I barely do mellowness and move on.

After one of those waits overflowing with incongruously malicious references to guitar roadies – surely for fuck’s sakes he’s tuned that seven times! – Radiohead. In Florence, in a balmy park.

Going to swerve the set-list (which I imagine will see them through Glasto and beyond?) because… why spoil things? Will, however, say that things open with two recent numbers, from the MoodMusicacious Moon-shaped Pool. The first challenge.

It’s low-key – or relatively – it’s quietly, authoritatively bold. They know and we know they could have Tuscany frothing if they’d opened with Creep! Radiohead choose their way differently.

It’s melodic and beautifully executed. Yorke is absurdly note-perfect, given the fact that the songs are simply bloody tough to sing – near impossible for us blokey mortals. Crucially (for me) there is nothing masturbatory-placatory or obvious about any of this. As the gig shimmers and gathers and places its prisms beneath our feet, we are not experiencing the soporific.

Instead we get a firework display. No – we get an expressive lightshow and a run of commanding, explosive anti-songs. We get proper Radiohead.

I expected this but somehow this is the principle expectation they exceed. They know that at any moment they can launch the event somewhere different, somewhere Rockier, more Triumphant. They eschew this option, magnificently.

Ok, we could argue that Radiohead don’t do hits; that their ‘anthems’ are hardly Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. This is true. But the running order of this gig – plus the reinvention of certain numbers, plus the commitment to the fiercely angular – marked out an extraordinary level of faith in what they do.

Radiohead do challenge. They annihilate the idea that music is ear-candy. They write intelligent noises but noises you’re gonna have to work at (listener). In Firenze they were soo-perlatively right on mission.

The players in the band – whom I’ve heard are so crazy into-it they’re almost completely barking – fabulously execute. The show is stunning, the racket intense, almost defiantly monotone at the mid-point, with spangly, ripped-up riffs and twiddles and demonic, headshaking vocals.

The crowd love it… but not in that normal, easy-ecstatic way. The response is muted, is subtler than yer average blowout. And then they (the band) stop.

There are (minor spoiler alert) two encores. Firstly a bunch of wonderful ‘songs’ then a break and then two or three(?) more.

Tonight there’s a stand-out, wonderful singalong moment but don’t expect too many fag-lighters (or iphones) illuminating the dumb adulation. There is no dumb adulation. There’s more a coming together as the band recognise that most of the audience get it, get off on that… and us punters give something back. Just not crazy whoops and fistpumps.

I love the guitar-playing in Radiohead. The way it bolts and flashes and twinkles but rarely simply grooves. Tonight this was (almost shockingly) only one of the stunning slabs building the noise.

Two drumkits, loopy, monumental bass and the dancetronic divertogizmos. All weaving and throbbing and denying the banal. Either winkling something out or blasting a hole or laying some magic, be-jewelled carpet.

Probably we have to acknowledge Yorke’s magnificent singing – though it doesn’t feel right to offer this absolute primacy.

Our Thom is looking slightly worryingly artsy – flamenco student? French poet? – what with that naff sub-pony barnet but… the boy comes through, bigtime. It can only be from him that the yearning and caring and hurt and political charge truly springs. And it does, powerfully, for hours.

Enough. Radiohead sound immaculate but they also have soul. We walk out through the park fired up and clear that a) music matters b) things can be rich and deep, and magical, without conciliating.

 

In which I *make judgements*…

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States is many things – feels like many things. Firstly it’s a disaster, in philosophical/symbolic/moral terms as well as with regard to what passes for American Policy, both within and outside the country.

There, that’s my colours nailed; my duff liberalism exposed.  Maybe you know the rest, in the way I know I’m right – we’re right – to make our case against.  Maybe it’s not wise to rub my certainties up against yours or his, or hers?  But given I’m too shocked and angry to waste energy on fencing around, here – with no apologies – is my case against.

The Trump campaign was a shameless appeal to the dumb machismo at the core of America (and, frighteningly, possibly everywhere else) which made it okay to holler prejudice as opposed to make arguments about policy.  Racism and misogyny in particular have been validated – made sound, acceptable and poison-free – through both a shockingly calculated Republican narrative and via Trump’s refreshingly non-groomed mouthings-off.  *Coughs, strikingly*.

They won by glorifying in the stupidity and prejudice of a whole lot of people; not (please note) just the allegedly dumb and downtrodden working or non-working classes, who a) blame immigrants for everything b) hate politicians.  In the same way that Farage in the UK tapped into something despite being a patently inadequate human, Trump – surely part dangerous clown, part ardent lap-dancing club regular? – won out by smearing innuendo and worse across anything that felt like an issue.  In doing so, he lurched all of us, everywhere further away from civilisation.

Yes, civilisation.  A word I think we should maybe look to claim back from pro-Western morons and well-meaning anthropologists alike.

(We know that the idea of that c-word has been hi-jacked and traduced too often but maybe we need it as a weapon against the tyranny of cynicism and xenophobia; and maybe if we can find a way to use it in the absolutely non-geographically or culturally specific sense then we can get past the problem?  Because we need to defend ideals and it should be possible to describe aspirations which are plainly good and true and common whatever your – or their, origins, yes?)  But we digress; let’s get to the bulletpoint; Trump is not a good man.

We don’t even need to have clarity on the various charges against him: Trump is not a good man because he doesn’t so much court trashy-but-serious enmities as wallow in them.  Everything is about the other – who can’t be trusted or tolerated.  This and the idea that government is necessarily bad.

We can point to ‘difficult times’ as a factor in this evil.  Economies stretched, jobs threatened.  Perfectly natural for people to be protectionist, right?  Wrong.  It is wrong to be hostile, or ungenerous – not natural.  We are no longer tribal beasts.  For all the evidence to the contrary it is incumbent upon us to be better than that, to oppose (in this case) the pornography that is Trumpdom and elsewhere the pornography that is religious zealotry or fanaticism.

Sure the Democrats might have picked a less divisive candidate and certainly one less steeped in the baggage of the Political Class.  Hilary Clinton – brilliant and committed though she may be – was arguably a softish target for those disaffected and disconnected by that link between money and family, politics and power.  Who knows where a more ordinary candidate might have gotten to?

This whole question infers a kind of intelligence and appreciation from the Great American Public that simply may not be there.  The Yanks have voted by instinct, with their guts.  There’s been a vacuum where the political debate might have been.  Hilary was beaten partly, no doubt, by personal dislike and sexism against her but mainly by rottenness – fear and loathing for The Other.  A different Democrat may have been subsumed beneath the same, amoral shitstorm.

So do we capitulate to this?  Do we mither about the role of Social Media in the criminal dumbness of things but then accept that t’internet, rather than facilitating an explosion in knowledge, has merely handed things on a plate to those who can bawl or troll loudest?  Do we wonder how the hell this election can happen when kids are taught about good citizenship and World Wars and what adherents to the great religions of the world actually study?  Do we, at any level, accept that sexism, racism and homophobia are acceptable – never mind legitimate levers towards the destiny of civilised nations?  NO WE DON’T.

We need to think a bit, for sure, longer-term about how people can be so uneducated that Trumpdom’s choices become attractive… when they are repulsive.  We need to be smarter and more engaged at a political level – here I mean everything from discussing things with friends and family to making minor stands or major stands on local or national issues.  In short, those of us who fall under the banner of humanist(?) progressives(?) need to stand up – be counted.

Donald Trump is indecent and malicious and creepy.  He is President.  His list of campaign promises (some of which I accept are likely to melt away in the reality of responsibility) reads like some weird fascist agenda.  Really.  (He will build a wall; he will kick foreigners out; he will make the nation great again.)   This is beyond divisive, beyond inflammatory.  This is beyond the pale.

If the presence of the North Atlantic Ocean comforts us Brits, or anything about this extraordinary and concerning American Dream makes us Brits feel in any way superior then we better look out.  There’s nowhere to hide from this.  The Global Village is real – even when played out in cyberspace.

Not only do we rely on the U.S. to patrol the planet militarily, but on philosophical/symbolic/cultural matters, we have shared arteries.  We have our own politics but they are mediated around western possibilities.

Traditionally, this has meant relative freedom, relative tolerance.  America has raced ahead in the negative re-calibration of all that; meaning it’s just a little easier, a little more do-able, for some noisy or dangerously insular or aggressive or nationalistic hoodlum (or billionaire) to jump up on a tank or a pedestal and shoot his mouth off… and get hollers of support.

He might do this and claim to be fighting back against the Political Class – for you, the Forgotten Ones.  He probably will tell you he’s out to save your job, keep those others off/out/away.  He might look like a bloke you could share a pint with. Just be careful.

Playing to the Gallery (the book!) – Grayson Perry.

As I write that mixture of shock, anger and frankly depressive disquiet prevails. In an extraordinary week for world affairs – I’m thinking Paris and Nigeria here – my own daft orbit has swung wildly between healthy titillation and Appalled of Pembs.

Before the irreligious scumbags from Boko Haram and (who knows? Al Qhaeda?) did their work in Africa and North West Europe, I’d been enjoying that simple pleasure of reading something upful. Despite being conflicted about that book’s place or relevance in a) my head and b) the Universe right now, I intend to go on abard it anyway. Because whilst this book is not remotely about the means by which we oppose radical Islam, it does contain truths about making meaning which I believe powerfully relevant – always – and maybe particularly when homo sapiens lurches back towards the swamp.

Please listen while I say this: there are rich and beautiful things (that I am happy to call invincible) which can represent us humans with a kind of defiant grace. We need these things – let’s use these things.

The book is Grayson Perry – Playing to the Gallery.

MAKING MEANING.
Grayson Perry is a funny old bloke. Maybe that’s not an appropriate start – not for a kosher look at yer average book on Art Theory. Except that this book, unsurprisingly, is like him, Grayson, an engaging mixture of colourful parries and friendly fends around what’s real or profound or material in life and in contemporary art. It’s an antidote to cynicism, full of good-natured one-liners aimed at the various intellectual stratospheres we space-hop through together. It’s therefore not (al-ley-luyah!) any of the following; arid, dull or impenetrably dense. In fact there’s a kind of juvenile (and I think I do mean that in a good way) zeal running through; playful, yes, but defiant about the integrity of most contemporary artists and the nobility of that calling.

So the essence of ‘Playing to the Gallery’ is lightly campaigning, de-mystifying, educational veering-to-populist rather than cerebral. The cover spiel makes plain that this baby is certainly not
sucking up to an Academic Elite.

No. It ain’t. ‘Playing to the Gallery’ is anti-pomp and anti cobblers. It’s full of friendly exclamation marks (marked down, I know, by the intelligentsia) and arguments deflowered where possible of their museum-speak to welcome in – indeed to really encourage in – the or’nary human.

Some facts. This book is lifted from or sculpted out of the Reith Lectures that Perry gave in 2013. If you listen to the first of them on the BBC Radio Four website then once you’ve have cringed your way through Sue Lawley’s prolonged itemisation of his clobber, you will be immediately immersed in a whole lot of love for the man. There are cheers and gales of laughter. He rips it up as well as reveals, or proffers insights. It’s a hoot.

The book isn’t a word-for-word re-run of those gorgeously garrulous lectures but that’s absolutely where it’s centred. Containing chapters named for the four performances at the lectern, ideas fleshed out a little or trimmed of the live banter. The book could be either a souvenir for those who loved the lectures or a touchstone (perhaps) independently.

Perry immediately (in a prelude called How much?!) de-Ivory Towers the scene by relating the epiphanic tale of how The Archers revealed to him the profound integration of contemporary art into general life. But, typically, this is the springboard for a declaration of faith –
If there’s one message I want you to take away it’s that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts – even me! For even I – an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art world mafia.

Sure, he’s saying, the art world may seem to want to exclude us normal folks, to sieve us out via the intimidating glamour or bewildering language or obscure purpose of its protagonists but it’s possible – and indeed necessary and nourishing – to get the fuck in there(!)

Democracy Has Bad Taste concerns that thorny-delicious debate over judgements on quality –
what are the criteria… and who tells us it’s good?

I suspect elite level academics may disagree but it is my contention that Perry is no mug. He appreciates well here, the conditioning and the self-consciousness of the novice viewer and the uppity, sometimes excluding brilliance of the Art Circle.

(Nowadays) To judge a work on its aesthetic merit is to buy into some discredited, fusty, hierarchy tainted with sexism, racism, colonialism and class privilege. It’s loaded, this idea of beauty, because where does our idea of beauty come from?

We are thus rallied towards rather profound questions on validity and – dare we say it? – truth.

In Beating the Bounds, Marcel’s Duchamp’s position at the very birthplace of much of our angst is considered. The magnificent subversion-of-all-things that was Duchamp’s urinal – his declaration that anything was art that an artist chose to be so – is revisited repeatedly to ask questions about where modern(ist?) notions of legitimacy have come to us from… and where they have travelled. Ultimately, Perry’s wonderfully circular story of how Duchamp’s urinal was effectively lost (and its significance almost wasted) before a potter was commissioned to re-make one from grainy photographs is one of the highlights of the book.

In this second chapter our quirky pal Grayson cracks the whip – and I do mean that – so we have a bitoffalarf as we are bundled round the problems or undiscovered joys of the parish. Perry offers further ways in to the arguments around where art is at… and how we might recognise it.

Refreshingly, there are few conclusions anywhere in this mini-tome; the artist does suggest, however – in Nice Rebellion, Welcome In! (Chapter Three) – that

I don’t believe there is an avant-garde anymore…
He goes on

But if we are at the final state of art then I’d like to end on a positive note and quote the philosopher of art Arthur C Danto. He said ‘If the age of manifestos had a political parallel in ethnic cleansing, then in the age of pluralism we have a model of tolerant multi-culturalism.’

Whoa. The Age of Pluralism – multi-culturalism. I can see in the art world this may be or this may seem how things are moving. Wow.

This may be an appropriate moment for me to close the book and gaze wistfully into the middle distance. Then say something unwisely woolly and positive. So, being positive, I will.

I believe in Grayson Perry, the Essex trannie/good bloke/artist. I rate his work more now than before – because I am understanding better. I have always shared his conviction – expressed in these lectures – that we the audience might have to put a little work into appreciating art. That there is value in that effort, in part because what is revealed includes the life-affirming notion that most artists are genuine, committed people looking to share meanings with us and, who knows maybe offer leadership, sustenance or hope in a mad, mad world.

I for one hold up my fist, my torch, my pencil for that aspiration against the horrors of un-love, of intolerance and extreme bigotry.