A glimpse of Grayson Perry's House for Essex. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Grayson Perry’s new house is a dollop of architectural fun

Cult figure Grayson Perry has won over the locals with his eccentric House for Essex.

At the end of Black Boy Lane, a farm track sneaking out of the northern Essex village of Wrabness (population: 400), two bouncers wearing black suits and wrap-around sunglasses are guarding a gate. The muscle, seemingly imported from the fleshpot nightclubs of Basildon or Romford, isn’t there to protect a local pop star or footie player but a celebrity of another kind – the artist Grayson Perry.

Behind the two men, Perry, in male artist mode rather than female partygoer attire, is holding forth about his latest jeu d’esprit, a small, intricately tiled building – part gingerbread house, part wayside chapel – sitting at the edge of a field that slopes gently down to the River Stour, with Suffolk resting on the opposite bank. A House for Essex, or “Julie’s house”, is a collaboration between the potter/tapestry-maker and the FAT architectural practice – a part of the Living Architecture scheme, dreamt up by Alain de Botton so that people can rent out holiday homes designed by “world-class” practitioners. People, in this instance, will need to stump up £1,800 for a three-night stay.

What they get for their money is a trim, two-bedroom property constructed from four boxes of descending scale, something akin to an architectural Russian doll. The roof is covered with a shiny copper alloy and decorated with sculptural finials. The walls are clad with 1,925 ceramic tiles, each cast with Perry-style fetish symbols: a nappy pin, a cassette tape, a heart and a scooter wheel.

Inside, there hangs a series of tapestries, above which looms a life-size statue of a woman of substantial girth. It’s a bit Game of Thrones meets The Hobbit, or, to mangle the metaphors further, a “Taj Mahal upon the Stour”, as Perry puts it.

To justify the building’s appearance and explain the iconography, Perry invented the story of Julie Cope – a fictional Essex Everywoman whose story takes us from her birth (on Canvey Island in 1953) to her death (in 2014, after she was hit by a curry delivery scooter), stopping on the way for two marriages, children, a career as a social worker and homes that filter her away from the conurbations of estuary Essex and up into the county’s rural hinterland (Julie’s gravestone stands in the back garden of the house). Her social mobility, reckons Perry – an Essex man – is archetypal and Julie’s house doubles as a pilgrimage shrine to a woman who represents innumerable unsung heroines.

The backstory is an elaborate justification for a dollop of architectural fun. As Perry notes, “Minimalism is the new kitsch.” Who knows how much the artist believes in Julie’s story, or in his claim that the house is “a three-dimensional musing on religion, local history, feminism, happiness and death” (let alone the architect’s supposed influences, ranging from the arts and crafts movement to the English baroque)?

The house has won over local people. A presentation by Perry at the nearby community centre, during which he pointed out that he didn’t intend “to socially engineer Wrabness”, was the turning point.

What is certain is that the pilgrims who make the journey to this distant corner of Essex are unlikely to be devotees of the martyred Julie, but rather of the bouncer-protected cult of Grayson Perry. 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era