Britains finest transvestite potter is hard at work exploring the nature of masculinity. Over a game platter near his London home, he discusses motorbikes, body image and more
For a while, perhaps all his life, Grayson Perry has been making a study of what it means to be a man. So, what do two blokes nursing a beer in the corner of a pub talk about of a Tuesday lunchtime? The topics of conversation with Britains greatest ever transvestite potter-cum-tapestry-maker kick off as follows: what do net curtains really signify (he was working on a theory on his way here); the difficulty of taking corners at speed on a 9ft-long pink motorbike (he is having a more wieldy model custom made in Sussex); books as the last talisman of taste (they are the knick-knacks of thought, arent they?); and the distinction, if any, between bohemians and hipsters (as soon as something becomes a phenomenon its already died).
We are in the Drapers Arms in Islington, north London, a place in which we both feel something of a proprietorial interest. I lived in a flat across the road 20-odd years ago, when this place was more a villains pub than gastropub. Perrys association goes back further. He moved into his wife Philippas house near here in the mid-1980s, and watched the area become a byword for gentrification. Hes more normally found in an unreconstructed caff on nearby Upper Street, he insists, but the Drapers is a good option if he is going posh. One way of looking at his career, he suggests, is that he has spent half a lifetime working and saving enough money to move his studio from Walthamstow to within a five-minute bike ride of his home. He calculates that the relocation of space cost him 220,000 a mile (seven in all).
We are alone in the pub at noon, save for a guy who has just finished painting the far wall. Perry, now 57, is in civvies T-shirt and zip-up jacket and jeans and straggly hair. The previous time I saw him he was full Bo-Peep and platform clogs at the opening of an exhibition of The Vulgar at the Barbican (Given the theme I had to make an effort, he says). The fact that he looks equally at ease in both incarnations suggests that he has long since got his own version of manhood definitively cracked.
He is less certain of what to order. His wifes away on holiday and hes not that much of a cook, so he wants to make sure he has a decent feed. I often get ordering wrong and then I hate myself, he says, gruffly. Im a fan of the restaurant where they only have one thing and maybe a vegetarian option. You get what you are given.
The Drapers offers a full nose-to-tail choice for the red-blooded male, though it seems a bit early in the day for ox heart. Im looking at my tactics here, Perry says. Do I want fish for main or fish for starter? Suet crust lamb and carrot pie: I like the sound of that, and theres a donation to Action against Hunger. He rules out the Arbroath smokie. Im loath to eat anything in a restaurant that involves toast. I can get that at home. Im struggling. Im overwhelmed
Given that we are ostensibly here to talk about manliness we opt to bond over a shared plate of game: partridge and teal. Perry sips at a pint of lager. Hes got another do tonight so hes got to go careful on the booze, he says. He finds it harder these days to get drunk twice in a day. Starting out as an artist he would pitch up with Francis Bacon at the Colony Rooms in Soho at lunchtime and drink through to when the pubs opened in the evening, and then carry on. Times change.
Of late, he has been touring the country with his show Typical Man in a Dress, and chatting with different groups of men for some documentary raw material. He has a book-length manifesto, The Descent of Man, that dismantles the default male, that construction that still dominates boardrooms and bar rooms. He makes the case for vulnerability and playfulness. These men have a fear of colour. Its because theyre frightened of making a mistake maybe. They all wear what I call cowards black. I glance down at my nondescript dark navy attire, and dig into my starter, the ox heart.
Does he ever get heckled on stage?
He doesnt hear much from conventional loudmouths, he says, with some regret, more from alpha creative men in big glasses I can feel them bristling, because they dont like the idea of me, a non-academic, getting to do the Reith Lectures in a frock.
He is constantly amused by the way that in any given group of men, petty hierarchies immediately emerge. I was with a group of trans people the other week. I heard one say behind someones back, Yeah, but hes a just a cross-dresser. No surgery: a lightweight. So, its like, you cant win.
He is not immune to any of that himself, but amused and sometimes angry about it. Hes grown up through therapy, as well as art. As a teenager in Essex with an absent father and violent stepfather he not only tried on womens clothes for size, but also was obsessed with war games, planes and motorbikes. He would remove gaskets in his front garden, and roar around the lanes.
Now he looks for that abandon on his mountain bike in Epping Forest. He cycles with a mate. They cycled to Madrid once, though he wouldnt recommend cycling across northern Spain in the summer. You come across these amazing hilltop towns, but the bit in between is truly horrific, hot, dry, and on an A-road. Still, they proved that they could.
Our game platter arrives, two roasted birds, side by side. Perry carves them up, has a mouthful of teal: Its good, he says, but its a bit of a fiddle. Teal will stay in my lexicon as a colour rather than dinner. I use quite a lot of teal orange in my pottery.
Hes in his studio most days. He loves the making side of what he does more fun than stripping motorbikes, though it appeals to a similar sense. Because he works on quite a small scale, he needs an awful lot of ideas to fill a show. Its not like I come in with a memory stick and say blow it up to fill the wall.He has a big one-man exhibition coming up at the Serpentine in the summer, so hes hard at it. Trump and Brexit have been a bit of godsend in this respect, giving an edge to his examination of the destructive male ego. These things act as smelling salts, he says. As an artist I find it exciting. No doubt it will be a disaster, but also any chance to stick it to my fellow Islington liberals is great.