A memoir is a curious thing. Every one is written for a slightly different reason; to cash in on passing fame, to airbrush history, sometimes as a cathartic experience. For the reader, this means they can be a bit of a minefield. Some of my favourite reads have been memoirs; Alec Guinness, Alan Bennett and Alexei Sayle being delights in recent years. But some have been just awful, so I am careful in selecting them. Am I interested in the subject? Have they actually achieved anything worth writing about? Why have they written the book?
Grayson Perry is an interesting subject; an artist whose public profile – both as Grayson and as Claire, his alter ego – is probably better known than his art. A profile that challenges people’s perceptions of both the artist and the man. Whether that’s what he set out to achieve is another matter, but he seems comfortable with himself. So I wondered how open he would be in recounting parts of his life.
The book is written by Wendy Jones, based on many interviews and discussions with Perry, but written in his voice. In the wrong hands, this is a recipe for disaster, but it works beautifully here. The emotions of a young man struggling with his life, his loves, his art and his transvestism all come through strongly; often poetically. His early life was somewhat difficult; family affairs, difficult divorces; step-parents. Stability was lacking, and he developed a vivid imagination to give him comfort and security. At the centre was Alan Measles; a teddy bear, who became the focus of this realm. He used what he had to hand to build everything needed to populate his world, and lost himself in it. His description of these times is touching; of the hopes and fears of childhood; of learning about friendship and family; of burgeoning sensual feelings, with little or no understanding of what they meant.
His interest in female clothing, and his understanding of what lies behind it for him develop as he grows up, and it is a fascinating read. It is a gradual process, broken up by his own fears and doubts, and also by the intervention of others when he is discovered. He explains his own motivations and rewards; his relief at the acceptance of others. And gives those of us with little knowledge a few lessons in the etiquette of cross-dressing.
The story of his artistic development is fascinating too. Now known to the public primarily as a potter, he was a late developer in this area. Always interested in making things, he went through various stages, first as a creative child, then at art college, and although he had had pottery lessons from an early age, it was only as an adult that he found a teacher who inspired his love for traditional potting and ceramic techniques which he uses today. His stories about his college years will be familiar to most students; particularly those of around his generation. The stories of ventures into performance art, and a brief period of drug use are poignant and sometimes very funny.
He is able to look back now and explain his development in both areas, whilst readily admitting that he didn’t understand them at all at the time. He wryly subjects his younger self to some severe criticism, acknowledging that he lost his way several times. But it is these meanderings which produced the artist he is now. Artists don’t emerge fully formed; at least, not very often. They need to form, develop, grow. Move from the derivative to the original. And I really got that from this book. He shows us his early need to please; parents; teachers; contemporaries. And then his acceptance of himself; to do what he wants to do, and to be what he wants to be.
The book is one of the best descriptions of what it means to be an artist I’ve read. In many ways, it’s not anything magical; talent yes, but dedication, experimentation and perseverance are just as important. He’s not afraid to analyse his talent and creativity; to acknowledge his weaknesses as well as his strengths. The different facets of his character work together to make him the artist and man we see today, and very likeable he is. The story tails off a bit towards the end, with less detail as it approached the present day (it was written in 2007), but this doesn’t diminish it. It’s definitely worth a read.
This is a review of the Vintage 2007 Kindle edition.