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22 August 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 6:15am

Grayson Perry’s Rites of Passage tackles the British unease about mourning

Perry is kind, without ever tipping into sentimentality, generous without pretending to be closer than he really is to those he meets. 

By Rachel Cooke

Much of what I know about bereavement I learned just before and just after my father died in 2004. In those long weeks, sometimes joyful but more often gruesome and exhausting, what I felt most often was loneliness. So many people, I was slightly amazed to discover, still find grief highly embarrassing. No one wanted to hear my tales from the sickbed, unless darkly funny; I was expected to do my crying in private. Where, I kept wondering, were the old, comforting rituals? My grandmother and her neighbours used to keep their curtains drawn on the morning of a funeral, but when I said I wanted those sending off my dad to wear clothes as black as my mood, I was made to seem ridiculous: like Prince Charles out on a Scottish moor in a black armband after the death of the Queen Mother at the age of 101.

Grayson Perry’s new series, Rites of Passage (10pm, 23 August) tunes in to precisely this kind of feeling. First, he coughs up a somewhat badly digested slice of anthropology: in the first programme, whose theme was death, he travelled to Indonesia, where the Toraja people keep the bodies of their loved ones with them for 12 months, the better to come to terms with their loss (and no, the bodies don’t smell, thanks to their skills with flowers and palm wine).

Then, back in Blighty, he sets about creating some new rituals for people, ones that might better suit the secular age. The result is a little uneven. In the case of Roch Maher, a Hounslow husband and father who was dying of motor neurone disease, Perry got it just right, devising a farewell ceremony Roch could attend himself, the centre piece of which was a “living funeral urn” into which his friends and family placed physical representations of their memories of him (his wife chose the blue garter she wore on their wedding day). But the bleak 18th birthday procession for Jordan Seddon, a Middlesborough boy killed by a drink driver at the age of 17, seemed only to make his parents all the sadder; as Perry handed over the Russian-style icon he’d made for them – Jordan’s smiling face set in a lozenge of gold – I imagined the moments after the TV crew and the eccentric celebrity were gone, when this would be just another photograph among the many his stepmother, Alison, has pinned to her wall.

Still, I cherish Perry in this role. His great gift is that he can connect with pretty much anyone. I love the fact that he is so straightforward about art, talking of his impulse to make it so unashamedly to those who ordinarily might have little or no room for such a thing in their lives. He is kind, without ever tipping into sentimentality, generous without pretending to be closer than he really is to those he meets. His relative (for Television Land) restraint enables him to be wholly genuine – and that in itself seems to me to be a form of respect for those unwitting souls who offer up their lives for his and our inspection.

On BBC Four: a 90-minute-long documentary about landfill (9pm, 23 August) presented by the entomologist Dr George McGavin and Dr Zoe Laughlin, a material scientist who has a neat way with soap suds and a blow torch (as she instructs, don’t try this at home). At first, it was mightily depressing, each statistic worse than the last; at one site in Dunbar, Scotland, Billy has been sculpting a hillside out of trash with his huge digger for the past 20 years (“You put the [layers of] waste on like an onion skin,” he said, almost blithely). Then, suddenly, there was hope: old landfill sites may soon be mined for metals; deep underground, it seems, unclassified new forms of life are evolving that may even break down plastics.

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Of course, it’s still terrifying that all the stuff we junked, say, in the Eighties – polyester frocks, cans of Harmony Hairspray, children’s dummies – is perfectly intact 30 years on. But we’re learning. As Laughlin put it, it’s possible to source virtually the entire periodic table in some landfill sites, and though that means toxins, it also signifies, somewhere along the line, profit – at which point our long-buried mountains of rubbish may finally start to shrink.

Grayson Perry: Rites of Passage (Channel 4)

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The Secret Life of Landfill: A Rubbish History (BBC Four)

This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?