Flashback: Birmingham Library in the 1970s. Photo: Getty
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Why Gillian Wearing made a statue of two single mothers

Her sculpture depicts two sisters, Roma and Emma Jones (who, like Wearing, were born in Birmingham), and their sons. It has attracted local interest, as well as complaints from fathers and the far right.

In Centenary Square in Birmingham, opposite the new library, there are statues of three industrialists – Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch – who transformed this city into “the workshop of the world”. On 30 October they will be joined by a very different statue, when Gillian Wearing’s A Real Birmingham Family is unveiled across the road.

Her sculpture depicts two sisters, Roma and Emma Jones (who, like Wearing, were born in Birmingham), and their sons Kyan and Shane. It has attracted local interest, as well as complaints from disgruntled fathers and the far right.

It was commissioned by the Ikon Gallery, which has been a bastion of contemporary art in Birmingham throughout the past 50 years. Ikon held a public competition, open to any local family. All entrants had to do was submit a photo and a short statement about what family – and Birmingham – meant to them. The selection panel included Wearing, Jonathan Watkins, director of Ikon, the editor of the Birmingham Post, a sociology lecturer and Ian Taylor, a former Aston Villa footballer. There were 372 entrants. On a rainy Monday morning this month, I met the winners just before they saw their statue for the first time.

Roma heard about the contest when she took her son, Kyan, to the library. She asked her younger sister, Emma, if she’d like to enter, too. “We’ve always been our own little family,” Roma says, over coffee in Ikon’s cosy café. “We’re not just like sisters,” Emma agrees. “Our relationship’s a lot more than just that.”

When the statue was cast, Emma was visibly pregnant. She has since given birth to Isaac, who is here with her today. Her first son, Shane, is now five years old. Roma’s son, Kyan, is four.

Wearing has explored this kind of territory before. A Typical Trentino Family, which she made in 2008, was also a statue of “ordinary” people, but for that work she chose a family that reflected the local average. This time, in a more diverse city, she wanted to commemorate something less conventional.

“We always feel like we’re different, because we’re mixed-race and single parents,” Emma says. “That’s what the statue’s about. It’s about being from Birmingham.” It’s a very conventional statue but that is what gives it such authority. Stylistically, it’s no different from the statue of Edward VII down the road.

“We were so passionate about winning because we wanted to represent single parents,” Emma says. “When children hear stories, they hear about a mummy bear, daddy bear and baby bear. They don’t hear about a mummy bear and an auntie bear.” They believe their home town is more accepting than a lot of other places. “In Birmingham, you feel like you can be who you are,” says Roma. And they hope the statue will inspire other unconventional families to feel proud of themselves.

The local press has been very positive but the “below the line” stuff has upset the sisters. “Those comments really hurt me,” Emma says. “They weren’t saying things about us. They were saying things about single parents.” They are a little apprehensive about how people will react once the statue is standing outside the library – a Birmingham landmark, with a life and identity of its own.

“It’s weird that it’s going to be so public, because to us it’s really personal,” Emma says. And what do Kyan and Shane make of it? “The children don’t really understand that not everybody has a statue,” she says. “They don’t realise what an amazing thing it is.” 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder