Memory Maps: Grayson Perry's autobiography by Wendy Jones
Grayson Perry, the potter, was born and grew up in Essex - in Bicken Acre, Great Bardfield and Chelmsford. He won the Turner Prize in 2002 and is also famous for being a transvestite. He has recently started making documentaries. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.
Wendy Jones met Grayson in 1999 at a therapy group. They became friends and she suggested she write his biography. It was published seven years later when he was well-known and successful.
In the extract below Grayson is a teenager moving back to Great Bardfield to live with his mother and stepfather. He is just beginning to experiment with dressing in women's clothing in an unaccepting environment.
My mother drove me back that August afternoon and we drove to the caravans in the field on the outskirts of Great Bardfield in North Essex. My mother and stepfather were living in the caravan with the kitchen and we were in the other one. It was snug in our caravan because it had a coal fire. My sister slept at one end and my brothers and I slept in three beds in a row so it was very cosy and warm but with four children and an open fire it was a death trap. We rubbed along together, whether we knew it or not we were all under the tyranny of my stepfather, certainly we were all aware we had to tread carefully around the sleeping dragon.
On that first morning back I had the longest conversation I ever had with my stepfather – he was not an articulate man and I was so tense in his company. My stepfather took me on my own in his van to do the paper round because he wanted to talk to me about my cross-dressing. ‘We don’t want anymore of that cross-dressing thing,’ he grunted. I squeaked, ‘Oh no! Oh no! I’ve given that up, ha ha ha!’ and maybe I thought I had, that I could. I had scant knowledge of what transvestism was. Although by then I’d read a lot about it in Chelmsford library, I had an outdated, theoretical understanding taken from antiquated psychology textbooks written in the fifties which included only very few first-hand accounts – which I devoured because they were a human insight into what being a transvestite was like.
My stepfather immediately allocated me a paper round. My round was the entire village and, as there was no longer a newsagent's, everyone had to have their papers delivered. On Friday night and Saturday morning I trudged round the village collecting the paper money so I learned where everyone lived, what work they did, how many children they had, and what they read – which was telling in itself. Most villagers had a tabloid or The Telegraph: it was a resolutely Conservative area with a few Guardian readers sprinkled in. My sister’s boyfriend’s father lived opposite the Town Hall and on polling day he decorated his whole house with Labour posters as an affront to the local people. Ernie Hockley had huge hollyhocks growing in his garden and I used to say, ‘There’s Ernie Hockley’s hollyhocks.’ Two hippies bought The Lamb, the beautiful but derelict pub: I had to weave around rusting Morris Minors in the pub courtyard to push The Observer through a slot in the brickwork. In the middle of the village, there was the doctor’s surgery. Both the doctors committed suicide, first the husband, then the wife. There were quirky, possibly inbred, slightly bonkers country folk. A lovely, old cowman with no roof to his mouth bicycled through Bardfield every morning on his way to milk the cows, a very friendly character who always had a daily paper. I got to know all the housewives and had fantasies about the prettier ones inviting me in for sex, there were a couple opportunities but I was too young to take advantage of them. Within a few months, I could say hello to everyone in the village and at Christmas, I received a lot of tips, the equivalent of a week’s wages. I was known as the newsagent’s son. My name, then, was Grayson Cousins. My mother was eager for me to adopt my stepfather’s surname because she didn’t want anyone to know that this was her second marriage. She told everyone I was in the army, which was why I hadn’t been there for nine months and then suddenly appeared, though I made no effort to keep up her charade. I wasn’t Grayson Cousins at school or with my friends.
My stepfather paid me thirty-five pence an hour, which was eight pounds for a twenty-four hour week. Perhaps he reasoned he paid for my keep, and I was willing to trade on that. I wasn’t in a bargaining position. If the newspapers were printed they had to be distributed so I worked seven days a week, three hundred and sixty two days a year, getting up at half-past five to deliver papers for two hours, but I survived it. I did it. I was very thin, very fit, I was an energetic boy and I was motivated because I was frightened. I learned the round easily, I remembered how much people owed, I could calculate the money in my head, I could handle the cash and I was honest.
I never did my homework because I didn’t have the energy. I always fell asleep on the two-hour bus journey to and from school. I fell asleep at school in lessons but never in art lessons – I loved art lessons and did extra art in the lunchtimes. I did an intricate pen drawing of a giant woman in Victorian dress towering over a row of houses, which Mr Shash, the art teacher, liked. He said, ‘I’ll put that up on parent’s night, Grayson.’ Afterwards he remarked, ‘A lot of parents made comments about your drawing.’
When Mr Shash asked me in my Lower Sixth year, ‘Have you thought of going to Art College? I think you’d really like it. You’d do very well,’ a switch was thrown, clunk! And a light bulb popped. I replied, ‘Sounds like a good idea. How do you go about that then?’ I had no conception that there was a formal, academic training to become an artist. In that moment I made my decision, wrote it on a piece of paper in my mind, put it under a mental mattress, slept on it and never needed to look at it again: ‘I’m going to be an artist. I’m going to spend my life drawing for a living.’ It seemed like a fantastic idea because I loved drawing. I went home that day and announced, ‘I’m going to go to Art College.’ I think my mum was disappointed because art wasn’t thought of as a proper career, and until that moment I was still intending to go to Sandhurst.
The academic requirement to get into Art College was five O levels, which I already had, so I let my Geography and English A levels slide although I worked hard for Art A level. I scraped through Geography and failed English. In English A level we studied stolid classics: Shakespeare, Chaucer and Jane Austen, very hard work for a testosterone-loaded seventeen-year-old. We read 'Emma' but I was the wrong sex and I was an emotional illiterate. It was the most boring, trivial of books with no action happening at all. We studied 'David Copperfield', I enjoyed that, but not 'Emma'. When we did 'King Lear' I can remember thinking, ‘There’s a bit of something going on here.’
The building on the new house was soon finished and so we moved out of the caravans and into Pant Ken. It was substantial, five-bed roomed and hideously ugly, without architectural merit, like a clumpy, Barrett home. The lounge had an elongated, York stone fireplace, ranch-style; surrounded by beige, shag-pile carpet so long you could loose a cat in it. The carpet needed raking rather than hovering. The house was called Pant Ken because The River Pant flowed along the bottom of the field and Ken was my stepfather’s middle name.
The old man had a routine in Pant Ken. He drove to Braintree to collect the papers from the train, came home at half-past five, we sorted the papers out, then he did his round at Wethersfield American Air Force Base where my aunty had been chopped up. He’d come back at lunchtime, flop on the settee, wake up in the early evening, watch telly – sprawled – late into the night until he fell asleep again, then get up at four. I can remember all the sofas we had because they were the old man’s thrones of power. The first sofa was a mammoth thing covered in grey velour. It weighed a ton, but at least it meant that it wasn’t hurled around the sitting room. In the new house there was a vinyl sofa in cracked, cream vinyl studded with five, fat buttons. He would watch TV reclined on that sofa, wearing baggy tracksuits trousers. My mother moaned at him for not washing. He didn’t eat meals in the dining room with us, instead he ate lying down on the sofa, so one of us would be dispatched to take his food into his lair. My mother would fetch his dirty dinner plate, come back out, hold up the knife and exclaim to us, ‘Look! Clean! The knife’s still clean!’
The old man had foraged through my bedroom, falling upon a couple of leftover porn mags that I’d borrowed, and he exploded, haranguing me for taking these magazines. He was standing at the top of the stairs and had me pinioned against the wall. The stairs were open-tread, polished mahogany and very slippy. These shiny stairs were stretching away behind him and I thought, ‘Yeah, one push, one good push.’ I glanced over his shoulder and I braced. He must have caught my intention because he uttered, ‘I’ll kill you …’
He owned a shotgun by this point. He walked around Pant Ken and the fourteen-acre field in a Barber jacket, flat cap and Wellington boots. All I can remember him shooting was a seagull. He bought two horses for my mother and him to ride; they were huge, black Shire horses. We had four horses, a couple of cats, a pair of Springer spaniels and a beautiful shaggy dog called Maeve with hair the same colour as mine. We had ducks, chickens, a rabbit and a goat, a bloody goat that was the most trouble. I built it a wooden hut with a curtain across the door because goats hate the rain. It was a sturdy box that I could roll round the field but it was weighty enough so that when I chained the goat to the box, it wouldn’t topple over. The box stayed in the same place for a few days while the goat ate a circle of grass around it then I would roll the box across the field and the would eat another circle. I couldn’t let the goat off the chain because it was a big, powerful beast and it would climb everything. The next-door neighbour was a little old lady who had taken her driving tests eleven times but still hadn’t passed it. She was pulling out of the drive with her driving instructor when the goat leapt over the fence, jumped onto the bonnet of her car utterly horrifying her. He was called Nuts because we had to have him de-nutted. I remember wrestling with the thing, holding it down when it was having its toenails cut. It strangled itself in the end on the chain, unfortunately. It was my mother’s sentimental streak, she had seen an advert in the local paper: ‘Baby goat for free. Otherwise it will be destroyed.’ So my mother bought a kid, cooing, ‘Oh! Isn’t it cute!’ not quite realising that a male kid grows into a great beast that can drag me across the field if it has the intention. It was a handful, this goat, with its mad, keyhole eyes.
Up the road from Pant Ken was an empty Victorian mansion with its own grounds within a walled garden where I used to walk the dogs. I stowed a bag of ladies’ clothes I’d siphoned from the youth club jumble sale in this Victorian house and every so often I would go there on a quiet summer’s afternoon to try on the woman’s clothes then traipse through the gardens of this derelict villa, feeling excited. I once found a gardener’s mackintosh made from rubber and put that on too. Sometimes I would go there in the evening, dress up and amble in the moonlight. The grass was damp and dewy and I was very aroused. They were raw moments.
I was tottering around the mansion one Sunday afternoon in this ensemble of women’s clothes when I heard two voices. I slinked into an overgrown summerhouse, crouched down and hid behind a pile of wood. Suddenly their dog bounced into the summerhouse and began sniffing me. I was whispering, ‘fack off! fack off!’ to the Labrador because I was thinking any minute now they are going to come in here searching for their dog and find this seventeen-year-old boy dressed in an awful nylon dress and too-small stilettos. Eventually the dog wandered off, but I nearly pooped, not my pants, but somebody else’s!
Getting up early every morning I’d see a lot of wildlife, foxes, owls and deer in the dawn. I’d come home from school at six and take the dogs for a walk in the dark across the fields. I was never afraid of the dark. I saw a moonbow once. A moonbow is a rainbow cast, not by the sun, but by a very bright full moon. Because there was very low light at night my eyes couldn’t separate the colour into its parts, so I only saw a white rainbow: a moonbow. I caught sight of it walking the dogs across a stubble field and I wondered, ‘What’s that? That’s amazing!’
In the extract below Grayson has become a punk in rural Essex; a frustrating as well as an exciting experience.
One Sunday morning I was delivering the newspapers when I was the front cover of a supplement with a photography of punks at a Sex Pistols concert. I was amazed. I though, 'Fucking Hell! This is good!' I decided then and there I wanted to be a punk rocker. There were a lot of other boys at school who wanted to be punk rockers as well, one of whom became our hero because he was on the cover of The Sunday Times Magazine in a ripped school blazer. The headmaster was infuriated – a boy from King Edward the Sixth, in the school uniform, with safety pins!
The glorious amateurishness of punk meant that I could make my own outfit. I ripped the sleeves off a grey school shirt then stencilled ‘HATE’ all over it with a homemade stencil. I bought plastic sandals, wore the school blazer covered in badges and put Vaseline in my hair. My piece de resistance was from a bag of horse tack in the loft that had been used to hobble carthorses to stop them running away. It was a huge horse collar with whopping, great, brass studs, very brutal-looking which I wore that round my neck, extremely proudly. It was massive. The downside was that it had three, great, big, metal chain-links attached to it so when I pogo-ed they used to smack me in the teeth.
Chelmsford was quite a hot bed of punk. It had a lot of gigs to which my mum gave me a lift. I never drank or took drugs at gigs, I didn’t have enough money, instead I put my heart and soul into being a pogo-er, I used to go bonkers, getting extremely sweaty and adrenalised leaping up and down. When The Boomtown Rats played in Chelmsford, I was the best pogo-er, so Bob Geldof hauled me on the stage to dance, which was a proud moment for me. The Vibrators dragged me on stage because I was so mental it looked like I was having a seizure. That summer, a three-chord-wonder band called The Boys, played the Social Club at Chelmsford Football Ground and when the moshpit became a sweatbox, I pushed through the fire exit, sprinted out onto Chelmsford football pitch, in the centre of which was a colossal lawn sprayer, and raced round and round and round following the lawn sprayer until I cooled off.
Chelmsford had a very healthy punk scene so a misguided person organised an all-day festival of punk at Chelmsford Football Club. I was excited, especially as The Damned were headlining and I put on my homemade punk outfit and the horse collar. I can remember the name of two bands that played and they were both atrocious. Bethnal were Prog-Rock but had realised punk was the future so punked themselves up and The Fruit-Eating Bears consisted of two guitarists with their legs as far apart as possible playing a single chord. Any group that wasn’t hardcore punk, like reggae, was booed off. It was badly attended with a few people milling about at the front. And it was atmosphere-free; it became apparent half way through that it was a big flop. When the scaffolding contractor who had built the stage realised he wasn’t going to get paid, he shimmied to the top of the stage in the middle of one of the acts – and they were awful, awful acts – and started dismantling it, dropping heavy pieces of scaffolding into the well at the front while the band was playing. Then the police came on stage and arrested him in the middle of the set and the band kept thrashing, ‘DRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!’ The most punk thing of the whole day was that.
Punk was amazingly refreshing and gloriously amateur. I loved the home-made-ness, the aesthetic of the record covers and the fanzines, and that combination of daftness and scariness. Before punk, I’d never seen anyone with a Mohican, or blue hair, and pierced ears seemed exotic to me. Early punks looked like I looked: a Sixth Former in their school blazer with a few badges, a school tie at half mast and slightly messy hair, even early Joy Division look like Sixth Formers.
I listened to punk rock and heavy metal on Radio Caroline, a pirate radio station off the East Coast, and went a couple of times to The Radio Caroline Road Show in Braintree. The entertainment consisted of DJs playing air-guitar on stage – or air organ when the organ solos came on – along with the audience. Every so often they would put a ghastly chart hit on a chopping block then hack the record up in front of the baying crowd. It was funny and it was a chance to get sweaty and do youth culture.
Despite being a punk rocker once a month I went to the Friday night youth club disco where boys and girls, all with a Coco-Cola and Kit-Kat, huddled at opposite ends of the hall. It rapidly became the most exciting thing in my life because I enjoyed dancing and it was the height of disco. The disco in the town hall played chart hits, with a couple of smooch numbers to establish relationships, some Rock and Roll, a Heavy Metal record, back to disco and smooch numbers at the end. During ‘Once, Twice, Three Times a Lady,’ I went for Hilary and we snogged – she had braces on her teeth. I fancied her so we used to go to the local playground and canoodle, until we started doing a lot of babysitting together which was an opportunity for a free settee to spoon on as well as earn a bit of money at the same time. We used to spend many hours snogging and fondling – nothing more – to Roy Orbison on a velour sofa. One night one of the kids came downstairs while we were lying there in the nude. Years later I found out from the parents, ‘Yes, he remembered that.'
During the skateboarding craze, I found being a rural skateboarder was very frustrating as there was no smooth concrete in the village. The first time I saw a skateboard, my friend was riding one around the village, I asked him what it was, he told me and said, ‘I bought it off a bloke at the American Air force base.’ I immediately went to Chelmsford and bought the cheapest possible plastic skateboard and became obsessed then, a few months later, when I had saved enough money from my paper round tips, I made a special trip to London to buy a cool skateboard. The most thrilling experience was skating down a very steep hill into the centre of Bardfield. At night gangs of us gathered at the top of that hill before bolting down it like a shot, straight across the T-junction and, when we were going fast enough, up and over the hump-backed bridge. Then we dared each other to go down the hill again, this time, backwards, lying down or holding hands. Once I’d passed running speed, I couldn’t jump off because I would fall over but in those days if I fell over, I just bounced.
There was the rural frustration of lolling around the village bus stop egging one other to jump on the car roof of the gay couple that lived in the village to taunt them or daring each other to drive around the village green on a moped in the nude, or in underpants, because naked would be going just too far. We grabbed the smallest boy and hung him over the edge of the church tower so he could put the village clock back an hour. We were bored. I remember consciously thinking about the lads I was fraternising with, ‘Fucking hell, these are thick people! God! I’m bored!’ but they were the local company so I hung out for the first time with ordinary lads which I would not want dallying outside my house now. I look at the boys lingering in the square in front of my house and remember, ‘I was there once and I was bored shitless.’ One night someone had the idea of holding a steeplechase down the back gardens of a row of houses, leaping over the hedges. We must have been tipsy. One of the hedges was a thorn bush; I was still picking thorns out of my knee two years later. We’d be lolloping down the lane to youth club when a car would come along so we’d all pretend to be having a terrible punch up, so it looked like they were driving past a horrible fight then, when the car pulled to a halt, we would scoff, ‘Yeah …?’ I was out at night and feeling mischievous because I’d had half a lager. We all went to the pub at fifteen because the pub was happy for our custom. I was once in the pub when the barman asked me, ‘How old are you, then?’ and I said, ‘I’m sixteen!’
The last bus out of the village was at six o’clock in the evening so the boys in the village were obsessed with motorbikes because they were a ticket out of Bardfield. They all rode Yamaha Fizzy mopeds. We used to career from one rural pub to another and sip half a larger in each one. The only topic of conversation in the pub was who saw sparks fly when they scraped their footrest going round the corner and who definitely saw eighty miles an hour on their speedometer. At the end of that summer, when I was eighteen, I announced to my mum, ‘I’ve got two hundred and fifty quid saved up from my job, I’m going to buy a motorbike today.’ She answered, ’You can’t just go and buy a motorbike, it’s not like buying a packet of fags or something.’ I said, ‘Yes you can.’ I looked in the small ads, found a suitable one, a Suzuki GT 125, my mum drove me to Chelmsford and a very nice gentleman showed me his bike: I didn’t know anything about bikes but it seemed alright so I bought it. He asked, ‘Have you ever ridden a motorbike before?’ He let me have a go around his back garden and I drove it into a rosebush. And ploughed up his flowerbed. He queried, ‘you’re not driving that home, are you?
I wanted a full-face crash helmet but my mother insisted, ‘You don’t want to spend all that money on a crash helmet!’ so I got the cheapest one I could buy, an open-faced polycarbonate helmet, which was fourteen pounds. I didn’t have proper bike kit or a leather jacket either because I couldn’t afford it, instead I borrowed a sheepskin coat from my mother. I was so paranoid about appearing to wear a woman’s jacket that I spent a whole day swapping the buttonholes round from the left to the right hand side. I ruined the jacket, sheepskin was the most impossible material to try to sew and the jacket gapped and leaked ever more. But nevertheless I got on my little 125 and zipped into Braintree to the Foundation course.
Excerpts and images reproduced with kind permission of Wendy Jones and Grayson Perry from:
'Grayson Perry Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl'
(London: Chatto & Windus, 2006) Copyright © Wendy Jones and Grayson Perry