Preview: NS Interview with Tracey Emin

On Melvyn Bragg, her <em>NS</em> cover and voting Tory.

Tracey Emin had just woken up when I interviewed her over the telephone for Melvyn Bragg's guest edit of the New Statesman. She spoke from her house in the south of France, where she spends much of her time, enjoying its relative peace: "I haven't got any friends here; I can't speak French."

The work she produces there is different from the art she makes in London, she said, describing the nature that surrounds her as a mirror.

Her cover for the NS (which she agreed to do because "if Melvyn asked me to go to the moon and back for him I would") is, however, a political statement:

It's that art and culture are dead -- it's the state that Britain is in financially after 30 years of ill-considered government. The tragedy is that it's the arts that have kept Britain afloat during this fucking drought. And it's the arts which are the first things to get slashed.

Emin remained characteristically frank as she accused the Labour government of having been "appallingly shit" towards the arts, and Andy Burnham of being like a "philistine". Her loyalty in the 2010 election lay elsewhere:

I voted for the Conservatives. I live in a democracy; it's up to me who I vote for. And what I was voting for was a swing in politics. We've got the best government at the moment that we've ever had.

Emin also professed her admiration for Tory ministers: "This sounds really snobby, but within the Tory party -- Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey -- they really know about art."

The interview also covered her work, the controversy she provokes, her celebrity and legacy (she has established a trust that will turn her east London studio into a museum on her death).

Emin seemed preoccupied by her longevity as an artist -- the importance of the work being remembered and looked after. But, as in her work, her vulnerability came across most strongly of all.

When I asked her what she would most like to forget (a question we put to all our NS interviewees), she said, after cigarettes, "I'd like to forget sometimes who I am." And when I asked why, she responded: "It's a lot to take on, isn't it?"

Read the interview in the magazine out now. A longer version will be published online on Monday.

ghjghghj

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Gallery Stock
Show Hide image

Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

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 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496