Psycho-sexual self help with a side order of violence

Grayson Perry’s graphic novel is introspection at its most terrifyingly candid.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Think back, for a moment, to something you wrote 20 years ago. Perhaps you were a wee young thing scribbling esoteric tales of dragons on the back of some left-over Christmas wrapping paper. Perhaps you were a precocious university student handing in a dissertation. Perhaps you were a novelist, or a journalist, or an avid letter-writer. Perhaps you merely kept diary. Whatever it is, look hard at the page. Capture it in your mind. At best you’re pleased, even tickled by the feather of nostalgia. At worst you wince with embarrassment. The piece of writing has become a time capsule. You are peering down a microscope at your former self. Do you like what you see?

Twenty years ago, Grayson Perry wrote A Cycle of Violence, a graphic novella set in 2023 that has since acquired semi-cult status and which tells the story of a champion cyclist’s decent into moral depravity. The protagonist, Bradley Gaines, is a kind-hearted, multi-Tour de France winning celebrity who succumbs to his “inner demons”, repressed childhood memories that return to haunt him at the height of his success. These demons take the physical shape of Bradley’s abusive mother, who hovers above him like a sadistic ghost tormenting him with insults. “You will not be rid of me through your anger,” she screeches. “I feed on your anger, because I am part of you.”

Bradley’s no match for unaddressed mummy-issues and soon falls victim to the darker side of his nature, giving up cycling and hurtling head-first into a rampage of sexually-motivated violence. He takes to picking up chicks in his mega-fly human-powered hot rod before taking them home, tying them up and macerating them with his manhood. Such liaisons often end, unsurprisingly, in tragedy.

Originally privately published in a batch of only 300, the 2012 re-issue is the first trade edition of the book. But why go back to it now? Why invite the scrutiny? Many artists might prefer to keep work produced in an experimental, pre-success era locked away in the closet of history – but not Perry. I suppose we shouldn’t be that surprised. This is, after all, the artist fondly known as “the cross-dressing potter”, who has publicly confessed his sexual fantasies (which include transvestitism and humiliation), who has a tendency of naming his ceramic vases things like “Saint Claire 37 wanks across Northern Spain”.

Re-reading, and indeed re-publishing, a piece of work certainly makes for fascinating introspection. The Turner Prize-winning artist professes that at the time of writing things in his life were tough. “In 1992 I had just become a father and was coping with the stresses of caring for a newborn," he writes in the introduction. "I had left art college a decade before and my career had not yet taken off. I was horribly insecure and, maybe, a touch bitter. I was certainly less self reflective, I expressed myself with little impulse control.”

He adds:

The physicality of parenting relationships reignites very primal somatic memories. Looking after a child cannot help but take us back to our own childhood. Again and again I feel I am, like many artists, lashed to a wheel that forces me to constantly recycle my biography, each version coloured a little differently.

It’s very easy to read the novella as exactly that – a fantastical rehashing of the artist's own history. Born and raised in Essex, Perry’s childhood was marred by his mother’s affair with the milkman and his father’s subsequent abandonment of the family. The milkman, who eventually became Perry’s stepfather, was often violent. As a teenager he went to live with his real father. He also began compulsively cross-dressing. Upon his stepmother’s discovery of this “addiction”, Grayson was sent back to live with his mother and chaotic stepfather.

Armed with this knowledge, the childhood of Bradley Gaines becomes a funhouse mirror – distorting Perry’s own reality to theatrical heights. Bradley’s mother is a “vain woman” who gives birth to Bradley in a pair of stilettos and is fond of referring to him as a “mistake”. Bradley’s father is a gentle, woolly jumper-wearing  car mechanic fond of “wholesome snacks”. One day his mother meets Gary, a high-octane motor head with great hair, and soon Mother files for divorce from Father on the grounds he is “bloody boring” and “a complete fucking wimp.”

Young Bradley is thrust into a parallel childhood universe from hell that revolves around watching his mother and stepfather wanking each other off, getting slapped for throwing up in Gary’s awesome car, and being called a “pathetic pouf” whenever he cries. Mother even puts him in a dress as punishment for acting like such a “girl” about life. As readers, we soon come to realise that at the root of Bradley’s future “psycho-sexual” transgressions is a childhood spent deploring all things feminine - from his own mother to the girlishness inside him that he is forced to condemn. As a full-grown “real man”, Bradley’s cock becomes the singular proof that he is not a woman. It also becomes his weapon for attacking the feminine aura he finds so alluring, and ultimately so unacceptable.

Analyse that

One of the most interesting things about Grayson Perry is his long-professed love of therapy. Throughout the years he’s extolled the virtue of the practice, citing his six years of treatment as the “flowering” of his artistic practice, even jokily remarking that it may have been what won him the Turner prize in 2003. He’s married to a psychotherapist, Philippa, and has called therapy “a clear eyed way of the looking at the world”, and often discusses his work with respect to a pre/post therapy division. “In my art pre-therapy, I was leaking madly about my issues,” he told the Guardian last March. “Now I do it with awareness.” A Cycle of Violence, as noted in the introduction, is a typically pre-therapy piece:

I gave this little book to my therapist in the first few weeks of our work together. Maybe I thought it would be a helpful window into my mind.

It might be easy, then, to dismiss this book as a sexed up exercise in self-reflection. Indeed, in many ways it is so ludicrous that it almost loses credibility. Even the author struggles with some of the more brutal pages: “It is the sadomasochistic content of cycle of violence that leaves me feeling uncomfortable today,” he writes. “Re-reading the work I feel now like a boring social worker visiting a family problem.”

But to dismiss it as entirely Freudian drivel would be a mistake. From the sticky recesses of these lurid pages, something authentic emerges as Perry’s little book begins to tackle genuine issues of sexual identity. Beneath all the blood and bicycles and nipple clamps, there is substance here.

The most important question the book asks is: Where does our sexual identity come from? Sex is everywhere in Bradley’s world. His own derangement is played out in a brilliantly witty visual landscape. From phallic shaped bicycles seats to aprons adored with vulvas, Bradley’s sexual mania is a claustrophobic reality that closes tighter and tighter like a kinky fist. Sexuality is an exaggerated, ominous force. Bradley’s penis is an over-sized truncheon. Similarly, the vagina is an angry orifice, drawn as a yawning chasm of despair waiting to gnaw at pleasure like a set of rabid molars. Sex is no safety net but rather a brutal game of gender politics. Love scenes take on the appearance of a duel, two exaggerated genitalia battling for dominance.

Cycle of Violence can be read as an examination of sexual archetypes. Women come in two varieties: big busted and nurturing, or lusty and manipulative. Men are either weak victims or well-hung winners. Within the pre-established fantasy world of the novel we can dismiss Perry’s characters as absurd. But in the real world, such archetypes haunt us in much more subtle forms. I doubt there are many who do not feel the tension between “masculine energy” and “feminine energy” raging inside them. Is it any wonder that Bradley ends up so imbalanced? Is it any wonder we’re all so confused? For a more nuanced exploration of these ideas, you could read Jung’s didactic of the anima and the animus (in which he describes the "fundamentally unconscious" gender counterpart that exists within each of us). But Perry’s rather un-nuanced investigation of the sexual dialogue is, in a way, equally compelling. It uncovers the truth we'd find peering into our own mind if all the self-censoring were removed.

In the end, it's therapeutic intervention that comes to Bradley's rescue. With the help of an experimental unit for the psycho-sexually disturbed and a nudist healer named Rufus, our hero faces up to his “many painful and deeply scaring memories” and accepts his inherent male-female duality. “You mean I can be a cry baby sissy?” Bradley asks tearfully during an around-the-campfire feelings sharing session. “Hell yes,” replies Rufus. “But remember you’re a man whose crying Brad, so that makes crying manly.”

A Cycle of Violence is disturbing, offensive, poignant, wholly original and very, very weird. But ultimately, it is unashamedly honest, and this makes it very brave. Not often do we see sexual identity discussed in all its messy, confused, candid glory – even less often do we see it dredged from the past in a public way by an artist at the very height of his career. If I were Grayson Perry, I’d look back on this one proudly. And maybe wince a little, too.

A Cycle of Violence by Grayson Perry is released by Atlas Press.

 

Bradley's repressive mother comes back to haunt him in Grayson Perry's "A Cycle of Violence"

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon