Potty training

Grayson Perry: portrait of the artist as a young girl

Wendy Jones

<em>Chatto & Windus, 198pp, £1

Grayson Perry confounds expectations at every turn, which is why both his work and his life story are so compelling. This is the man who made pottery - pottery, for god's sake - into a subversive art form. The man who dresses as a little girl but loves tool sheds and motorbikes and always knew he fancied women. The son of a troubled, uncultured family who went on to win the Turner Prize.

This enjoyable book shows, in a natural and unpretentious way, how the disparate elements of his personality hang together. Perry grew up in what should have been an average Essex household, but his childhood was shattered when his mother actually did what suburban housewives are supposed to do, and ran off with the milkman. Perry's real father - a quiet, practical man who had introduced his son to the delights of mending and making - simply disappeared.

Unfortunately, this particular milkman was also an amateur wrestler and a violent, non-communicative bully who "struggled to fill in the children's crossword in the Sun". A real man's man. For Perry, he represented masculinity in its most negative form, with his "stodgy, sausagy, scarred, knuckled fingers, jabby fingers on a jabbing hand, making assertive, thrusting gestures". He certainly could not have been more different from his sensitive, top-of-the-class stepson. In 15 years of living together, the two never had a conversation.

Perry was saved by what he calls his "rich interior life". He invented a whole world ruled by Alan Measles, his teddy bear, in which he played out all the conflicting emotions he was unable to express at home. Alan Measles was a dashing James Bond-like character who became the custodian of all the powerful, masculine qualities Perry suppressed in order to pass underneath his stepfather's radar. This imaginary world was like a "comfy sleeping bag" into which he could retreat at any time.

As he grew older, Alan Measles was left behind and Perry's fantasies began to take a different form. He discovered tastes for sexual humiliation, restrictive clothing and dressing up. This book is particularly interesting for those who have always found such things a bit baffling. A fetish, says Perry, is like a metaphor for normal human relations: "Instead of loving the woman, you love her high-heeled shoes." If you don't get enough hugs from your mum, you wrap your body up tightly in the bedsheets. It is an inventive way of coping with unfulfilled emotional needs.

This talent for "turning feeling into meta-phor" is what links Perry's art with his sexuality and his family history. He transformed his turbulent childhood into Alan Measles's world, and his adolescent angst into elaborate fetishes and costumes. His art is also metaphor for his feelings, a means of resolving and releasing them. He has no qualms about describing art as a form of therapy, or "self-psychiatric medication". In the most poignant line of the book, he admits: "I haven't thanked the art world enough for what it has done for me."

The book is narrated by Perry, but is in fact based on hours of taped interviews with Wendy Jones, a writer he met at a therapy group in the late 1990s. The influence of therapy is evident throughout, not only in the attention to intimate detail - it's all here, from Perry's unconventional potty training to his preference for erotic asphyxiation - but also in the insistence that there is some underlying logic to even the strangest, and most frowned-upon, kinds of human behaviour.

That's what makes this book not only enjoyable but also enlightening. It isn't just about the extraordinary life of Grayson Perry. It's about why someone chooses to live outside social and sexual norms. And about why they, and the rest of us, are better off for it. By the end you almost feel like rushing out to buy your own baby-doll dress.

Alice O'Keeffe will shortly be starting as the New Statesman's arts editor