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.

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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue