So here we are again. Another election with vitriol, scare mongering and yap yap yap from all sides. Another shocking, horrific and desperately sad terror attack. And more rain. This seems to be an unbreakable pattern. But it does explain how I came to be standing in an impossibly long queue, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, on election night, only days after the London Bridge/Borough Market attacks, in the rain. Waiting to get into the preview of the Grayson Perry show: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! Well if nothing else in the world seemed certain, that did! As we stood and stood and waited and waited. “But I am on the guest list,” I spluttered when I arrived on the dot of 7 to find myself at the end of something I couldn’t see the beginning of. “I think all of London is on this guest list,” the man in front explained. The already overwhelmed security men just shrugged and gestured for me to take my place behind the others. So I did. It began to rain. And strangers began chatting. Soon it was all rather jolly, especially when waiters with trays of wine and fistfuls of beers began to appear. The attacks were mentioned only obliquely, as in “so glad so many people came out” and the election in passing, “so glad it will be over,” (ha ha, wishful thinking, as it turns out). We inched along (the gallery was working on a one-out-one-in policy) we talked about the weather (of course) and books (never a dull subject) and Harry Potter (so much to discuss) and art. Then a frisson in the crowd. The great man himself was approaching. Wearing fabulous shiny shoes and an impossibly short pink frock, his cyclist legs on full display. We were giddy. Camera phones clicking. He stopped by my group and surveyed the length of the queue and the patience with which we were all waiting. “You have made all my dreams come true,” he told us before he breezing on. Grayson Perry. A National Treasure. But to call him that seems too trivial, too patronizing, like patting the hand of an elderly relative. Because I believe, at this moment, in this crazy world we live in, Grayson Perry is a voice of reason and sense. And the size of the crowd trying to get into the Serpentine Gallery proves I am not alone in this belief. He is known primarily as a ceramicist who likes to wear women’s clothes, whose work reflects the times we live in. Not a reinterpreted, through the lens of high culture, reflection, but the way it actually is. Which is why he is so popular, with the masses, if less so the elite. And he is funny, pointedly funny, with a fantastic laugh. In this new show he pokes fun at high brow culture with “luxury brands for social justice,” a large pot covered in drawings and pithy statements like: “I’m off to buy a serious piece of political art,” “I’ve read all the academic literature on empathy,” and my personal favourite “super expensive knick-knacks against fascism.” There were plenty of chuckles (and many winces) round that piece. His two pots on Brexit had been highly anticipated. Using suggestions via social media from people on either side of the debate as to what Britain means to them, he created a Leave pot and a Remain one. And the joke on us all is that it takes time to figure out which is which….to quote Jo Cox, the MP murdered last year, “far more unites us than divides us.” A concept we seem neither able to embrace nor reject, but instead turn it over and around and back again as we make our way through these times. Because, as Perry suggests, there is a gap between how we feel and how we think. And when faced with decisions, we often go with feeling over thought, no matter the evidence that should make us choose otherwise. Sometimes, for that reason, bad things happen. But sometimes not.
All of this was very much on my mind when I went, the following day, to see the impromptu post-it note memorial to the recent terror attacks. Borough Market was still closed, police positioned all along its perimeter. But that cement thing on the southeastern side of London Bridge was covered in messages, some small posters but mostly post it notes, on which people have written messages. Messages of hope, of love, of sorrow. From all over the world, as were the victims: France, Spain, Canada, Australia. From places that are all too familiar with horror: sympathy from Lebanese journalists, love from Ukraine, hope from Iran. And some messages that should never have to be written. “I miss you so much Sara love from Mum xxxxxx” People stood and read, took photos and cried, a few added their own messages. But mostly people just stood and read. In silence. The immediate area was eerily quiet. Somber and still. While the bustle that is London Bridge, station and streets carried on in the background. It was moving, overwhelming.
I crossed the bridge for a little emotional break. Admired the view down the river to the east: HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, Tower of London. Saw the new barriers between the road and the pavement. Police were everywhere. Two youngish men, who had obviously enjoyed a long and very liquid lunch, felt it necessary to overwhelm some officers with their affection. Shaking their hands, throwing their arms around them, declaring their respect and admiration. The police were very patient, simply disentangled themselves and encouraged the gentlemen to stagger along. Oh, some things never change. And that is what Londoners keep saying to themselves post-terror. That London won’t fear, won’t give in, won’t divide. At times I worry that this attitude isn’t defiance so much as a form of passivity, that in saying we carry on, we normalize the events, make them seem simply one more part of the urban fabric. Which is unacceptable. Because these attacks are unacceptable. And to treat them as anything but abhorrent is unacceptable. But the solutions are complicated. And in the meantime this is perhaps the best we can do. Feel more than think. Share thoughts on colourful squares of paper, stand in long queues to see art, have a laugh with strangers, let the politicians bray on and know that sometimes the wisest man out there is wearing a very short pink dress.