In the debate about our national identity, my vote goes to Grayson Perry and his glorious tapestry

What makes Britain unique is all our warts and weirdness

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The Independent Online

Last night I was at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, where Jake and Dinos Chapman had used crowd-funding to finance their latest exhibition, “In the Realm of the Unmentionable”.

This turned out to be a very apposite tag. Less than 30 miles away, in scenes reminiscent of the Chapmans’ Disasters of War, desperate young men and women were risking their lives, hurling themselves on to moving lorries, hiding in airless compartments and car boots, all in the hope of getting into Britain.

If Calais weren’t separated from the UK by water, perhaps we’d be more aware of the worsening situation, where police are firing rubber bullets to separate gangs of desperate refugees who have spent all their money and travelled thousands of miles to seek a better life.

These people have nothing but hope, and more arrive in Calais every day. The sight of what has become a battle zone by the cross-channel ferry is deeply troubling. It doesn’t matter what politicians say: the war on immigration, like the war on drugs, is already lost. We can put up second-hand fences, arm police with real bullets and send over customs officers, but it won’t make a blind bit of difference. Thousands will still come, seeking a better life.

It seems a timely moment for Grayson Perry – our modern Chaucer – to consider identity in modern Britain. His new Channel 4 series Who Are You?, which started this week, is riveting viewing. Grayson, never one to shirk a pithy putdown, met four very different individuals, and used his experiences to create artworks, which are on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

The most challenging sitter was the supremely self-confident Chris Huhne, former cabinet minister and ex-jailbird. Like the convicted rapist and footballer Ched Evans, Huhne doesn’t do remorse. He typifies Middle-Aged White Man, the British species which continues to run more or less everything in UK plc, in spite of sterling advances by ambitious women. Grayson turned Huhne into a pot, which he smashed and glued back together with gold, symbolising his impregnable nature.


Reality television star Rylan Clark, on the other hand, seemed weirdly likeable, almost vulnerable, talking about his public persona in the third person, referring to the real bloke as “Little Ross from Stepney Green”. Perry remarked that “‘Rylan’s depths were the least interesting thing about him”, noting that his carefully sculpted exterior resembled the glamorous Elizabethan Earl of Essex. Rylan is portrayed as an exquisite miniature in the style of Hilliard. Grayson’s other subjects – Kayleigh, a single mum from Ashford who’s converted to Islam, and Jazz, a young transsexual – make compelling viewing.

What makes Britain unique is all our warts and weirdness, the fact that most of us think we are a bit different from everyone else. Grayson is documenting how our culture adapts to reflect changing tastes in consumerism and religion.

So why do we fear new arrivals so much? Ukip’s tasteless calypso song, Ed Miliband’s new-found “tough” stance on immigration and David Cameron’s determination to take on the EU all seem to reflect the old order, where Middle-Aged White Man seeks to maintain the status quo.

As Grayson Perry’s intelligent series reveals, there’s no such thing as a typical Brit. We’re a rum but tolerant mix, and therein lies our strength.

Thornton Wilder’s lesson for Ed Balls’ mansion tax

I wonder if Ed Balls has been down the road to see Our Town at the Almeida, his local theatre in Islington, north London.

Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play is a hymn to life in a small community, where families have lived for generations and where there are few secrets. People marry young and tailor their ambitions. Wilder cleverly shows us the downside too – the lack of privacy, the compromises that have to be made.

Unfortunately, this production grates, largely because the actors speak in their normal accents, and the folksy pace seems slow at first. Nevertheless, this saga of life, marriage and death is moving, especially the final scenes set in a cemetery on a hill, where the departed watch over the living.

Islington, and neighbouring Stoke Newington and Dalston, are the areas of London which would be profoundly hit by Balls’s mansion tax. Working-class families still live there, in spite of gentrification – so where would they move if Ed gets his way and imposes an annual tax on homes worth more than £2m? The other night I talked to a former Labour minister who described the plan as “bonkers”– and I’ve spoken to three major Labour donors who think Balls is indulging in kamikaze tactics by continuing to press ahead with this plan.

Why can’t he simply target foreign property speculators buying for investment and not homeowners living in their primary residence? Last week, Balls wrote that “anyone owning a property worth over £2m will pay only £250 a month”. That sum will not save the NHS, but it will purge London neighbourhoods of any remaining sense of community. It’s ethnic cleansing by another name.

An operatic gem among  run-of-the-mill musicals

Two new musicals have just opened in the West End to excellent reviews – Memphis, starring Beverley Knight, and The Scottsboro Boys, which has transferred from the Young Vic. Both shows originated in New York, and are destined to be long-running successes.

Musical theatre has never been more popular, but many “new” productions are based on movies (Made in Dagenham) or compilations of hits (The Jersey Boys), designed not to take us out of our comfort zone, and to deliver maximum box-office returns.

How refreshing to go to the Coliseum and see a Puccini opera that hasn’t been staged for 50 years, and come out feeling uplifted and enchanted. At the English National Opera’s staging of Girl of the Golden West, the conducting is magnificent and the singing wonderful. Musically, it beats everything else hands down. The story is no more ridiculous than Chitty or Cats; the emotional impact hits the bullseye – and our heroine, a middle-aged virgin seduced by a bandit, is touching.

The opera brilliantly encapsulates an overwhelmingly male environment in a mining town, where men dance with each other and dream of their families thousands of miles away in Europe. There are only a few more performances, so don’t miss this rare delight.

There’s only one answer to trolling: get off Twitter 

A small footnote in the history of the BBC in the 21st century: after 24 years and 48 series, Have I Got News for You finally managed to book three women on the same show. Last night’s edition on BBC1 was hosted by the unflappable Victoria Coren Mitchell; comedian Katherine Ryan appeared with Ian Hislop and I partnered Paul Merton.

Even before transmission, Twitter was pulsating with the usual twaddle – typically, “Thank God we’ve got Lewis on ITV”. As for trolls, nothing will compare with the abuse I received after daring to appear on QI.

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has said we need new laws to jail Twitter trolls for two years, four times the current sentence. This macho posturing doesn’t fool me and will have no effect. We already have laws dealing with harassment and stalking, but we don’t have enough police or the technology to track offenders – and our jails are full to bursting. If you can’t handle poison on Twitter, turn it off.

The head of the National Crime Agency has said that 50,000 people are accessing child pornography in Britain and downloading illegal images, so how on earth can the police prosecute paedophiles and protect children if they are responding to Mr Grayling’s latest headline-grabbing initiative and sorting through offensive tweets?

Twitter: @The_Real_JSP