If anyone’s going to talk about taste, let it be Grayson Perry. For in Turner Prize winner Perry, we have a man whose finger is so firmly wedded to the pulse it’s almost grafted there.
Everyone’s favourite transvestite potter has been busy analysing the complex codes of British taste for an eponymous Channel 4 series which sees Le Perry triumph as the Nancy Mitford de nos jours.
“Is it all still U and Non-U then?” I ask, referring to Nancy Mitford’s classic oeuvre – an early analysis of our taste obsession that reinforced what most people knew anyway, namely that if you say “toilet” and “settee” you will be thought of as dreadfully common.
In an amusing and often moving series, Perry finds that taste is still very important to us. “The basic emotional structures are just the same as with Mitford, but the content is different,” he explains. Nowadays, it’s not so much about saying “settee”, but doing things like texting at the dinner table.
What Perry probes is how closely taste is bound up with class. “Class, more than anything, is the principal influence on taste,” he says. With Perry as our guide, we take a quick class tour of Britain. So, from a hot rod car meet in Sunderland, we go to a dinner party in Tunbridge Wells, and finally tackle polo in the Cotswolds.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Perry is pretty gentle in the class extremities. Girls with big hair, fake tans and Bodycon dresses out on the town in Sunderland are treated with affection. Grayson even wigs up to go on the razzle with them.
“The middle classes would like to think they are the keepers of good taste,” says Perry, his eyes twinkling mischievously. And indeed, in his hilarious gambol through the middle-class world, there is not a Cath Kidston bag, a Jamie Oliver pestle, nor a Penguin Classics paperback that is allowed to go unnoticed. In the company of Perry we visit antique fairs, farmer’s markets, cup-cake afternoons and, of course, that central ritual of the adult middle classes – the dinner party.
Is this series telling us anything we didn’t know already? Probably not, although I had no idea that the upper classes, with their threadbare jackets and leaky boilers, were so fundamentally on their uppers. Their once-grand Renaissance manors are now rented out by film companies and brides with tattoos. Perry depicts them as a tribe in terminal decline, whose only significant taste is for things in a state of decay.
“I met a girl who was making wedding hats, and she said the middle-class customer will want everything new and matching, from the bag to shoes to hat. But the upper-class one will stonk in with a bit of old ribbon or lace from Aunt’s trousseau and say ‘can you fix this in somehow?'”
The saddest portrait in the series reveals the habits of one aristocrat who is in charge of a particularly beautiful, but decrepit country house. He spends nights playing with mildewed Hornby trains, and days doing nothing, simply quaffing a tin of Red Bull for lunch.
One rung below is where the struggle to ascend is. Not from middle to upper, or even lower to middle; but within the wallpapered world of the chattering classes. (Which, by the way, is where most of us hang out).
“As you go up the middle class,” says Perry, “you have to pass through what we call the Miasmic Barrier, which is all about education. If you amass piles of books in the house, Ben Nicholson-style pictures on the walls, cultivate a regular theatre habit and have the confidence to bung an ornament from TK Maxx on your marble mantelpiece, you’ve arrived in the upper-mids.”
You must have a non-showy, quite dirty car outside. Vegetables must be organic, and dirty, but not wrapped up in a tabloid newspaper (better to use The Guardian). Coffee must be fresh, not instant. Your rug should be ethnic, preferably Afghan. Children’s toys can be left hanging around, but they should be the right ones, hopefully a selection that displays the correct dash of irony, aspiration and moral worth.
Once you have arrived in what Perry calls “the sunny uplands of the middle class”, you can do almost anything, as long as you are aware of the two variables: kitsch and irony. Oh, and as long as you don’t show off. Showing off is Bad Taste.
“Upper-middle-class people don’t put their money into flash extras. They just have a better version of what everyone else has. Plus you have to think you are unique. I interviewed one wonderful woman who said she got cross when something she had picked up in a junk shop turned up in the interiors magazine Living Etc. She set a lot by Living Etc – it was her Bible. It’s no surprise that most farmer’s markets take place on a Sunday morning. Faith in Taste has replaced Faith.”
Working-class born but grammar-school educated, Perry has made the journey himself. If he mentions he lives in Islington once, he mentions it a dozen times. Essentially, he lives the ‘upper-mid’ dream while analysing it beadily. “For example, my wife can’t bear it if I come down to the kitchen with trousers on but no shirt. She’d rather I came down nude. Nude is fine. Trousers without a shirt is bad.”
Does he think he’s going to get roasted by the general public for having the temerity to snigger at our social strata? “Well, I’m not cruel to anyone,” he says. “And we all laugh about taste, especially the Islington chattering classes, because we are possibly more aware of it and more anxious to get it right.”
I don’t think anyone will lambast Perry, to be honest. Firstly he defies attack because he is so intelligently unpompous. At one point I offer to criticise him. “Oh, do, do,” he says, eagerly. Secondly, it’s impossible to lay into a chap who has the nerve to walk through not only the centre of Sunderland, but also through Tunbridge Wells’ Pantiles in a frock.
Because Grayson Perry is an artist, he’s made an artwork to go alongside the series. Six giant tapestries, two for each programme (see a selection below). They are loosely based on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, and show the “progress” of Perry’s hero, Tim Rakewell, from the tattooed and football-crazed world of Sunderland through the be-Bodened society of Tunbridge Wells, and ending up alongside the tweedy lot in the Cotswolds.
The tapestries, each worth a cool £50,000, are on display in London. Before the show went out, he invited participants from each programme, to come and have a look. A few from Sunderland turned up, and a smattering from the Cotswolds. But by far the majority came from Tunbridge Wells. We in the middle classes simply love being analysed, you see.