Happy Tuesday! I would have posted last week, but I’ve been re-watching The Vampire Diaries because I’m still a vampire-obsessed teenager at heart. Let’s pretend I didn’t say that and I’ll begin.
On Sunday afternoon I walked for about five minutes away from my home and pretended to be a tourist for a bit. The Great Tapestry of Scotland (GTOS) building is built on the historic site of a grotty old Pound Stretcher in the centre of Galashiels. There are still a few locals who, sharing photos from a few years ago, still think it’s a Monstrosity, and a Waste of Money and complain as if it’ll make someone realise and order the re-instatement of the sad, probably damp building that preceded it.
I myself, walking along the high street that afternoon, turned the corner and saw the big geometric, modern building with its smooth stone cladding and big glass windows in the sunshine, thought, I’m so lucky to live so close to something so new, so culturally important and so full of promise. This high street, while suffering as all town high streets seem to, is fighting back against the empty shops and, grotty Pound Stretchers (I know, I’m a snob). Just take a look at the newly-established market and my favourite wool shop.
The tapestry centre reminds me of all the other state-of-the-art museums I’ve visited. Like the centre at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, everything is on-brand, with stitches named and illustrated in the all-gender WC cubicles and printed on the tables too. Even in the tiled flooring I can see a pattern of herringbone stitches.
I spent £5 to get into the exhibition of Grayson Perry’s The Essex House Tapestries: the Life of Julie Cope, and £5 on a slice of nutty granola traybake stuff and a pot of chai tea. It’s nice chai tea, I might get myself a box for home. They gave me a pot of hot water so I can sit and write notes for my blog as I take up the sunniest table at a lunchtime.
Essex, somewhere I’m pretty sure I’ve never been, and almost as far as you can get within the UK from Galashiels, feels quite settled here, through Julie’s story which I’ll get to and the obvious curation of two tapestries (true woven tapestries, unlike the GTOS tapestry, which is embroidered, like the Bayeux tapestry) in the tapestry building. I can see Julie growing up in Gala today, maybe moving from a flooded Hawick, living and growing and learning and moving outwards.
I started by reading the panels of text, but stopped and tuned into Grayson’s voice pretty soon into my visit so I could start to decode the two square tapestries at the same time as hearing the story. I completely missed the interpretation panel thingy until I went to leave, because it was on the same wall as the door when you enter, and the panels immediately grab you before you inevitably gravitate to the tapestries. The recording repeats on a loop, and Julie is born in a storm just as soon as her funeral is over and begins again.
Two iPads on slightly wobbly stands have a tiny interactive version of the tapestries, with little explanations of all the details. These are a mix of helpful, and non-sensical and repetitive. I’m very glad I looked at the tapestries first because I felt like this iPad thought I was an idiot. It was helpful that the details about the locations were included, so I shouldn’t whinge too much. I think I’m still just annoyed because of the stand wobbling.
Julie’s life is split in two on the square panels of woven wool and cotton tapestry. Each is a portrait of Julie and her husband – two different husbands (not at the same time).
In the first, she’s surrounded by scenes of her birth, childhood, youth and early marriage, bright and allegorical, full of symbols with meaning. Most of the clues are obvious, spelled out in the story. Some are subtle, some I guess would only be obvious to someone from the places Julie lived in. Julie’s face is pale and worried, clashing with the bright printed dress she’s wearing.
Through her journey of young life in Essex, I came across a strikingly similar feel to how a life in the Borders can be now. Close to Edinburgh and Newcastle and Carlisle but not like any of those places, and still often forgotten by them and looked at as a backwater. A suburb to retire to with our sheep and castles and stunning views.
Perry’s Basildon, of gorgeously patterned woven buildings and public art of hope and enterprise of the 1950s reminds me of Gala, the GTOS building and the (still pretty new) railway line and bus station. The description in Perry’s essay-poem-story of “All architects dreams and improving lines” and the disconnect that we feel culturally, (especially when the fringe is on in Edinburgh) is right there in “The Summer of love is meaner in Essex, Dope is weaker and men still boast and leer” Julie’s story rings so true with here too, time travelling me to our towns that do, actually, have an adequate night life, music scene, culturally active places and goings on, but it still feels seen as not as good as what’s in Edinburgh, or Newcastle, or London. Of course, men still leer everywhere, but it’s not hard to feel we’re still a bit behind here too sometimes, especially when it’s coming around to Common Riding season.
In the second, the ghosts of (I’d already guessed correctly before I read the iPad, hah!) Julie’s parents perch. Heads bowed on a rooftop edge, they survey the scene of where Julie seems to discover herself, as a mother, colourful, plump and light, as a worker, and as a partner in a new, loving marriage. Concentric circles radiate through the world, making a sunset of deep sky and stars, strong cirro-cumulus clouds, flying birds and a rainbow. She’s in the centre, lovely and grown with Rob, looking, almost finally her own self, until the eye is drawn to the corpse in the corner, and the moped delivery driver who ran into her.
I think I spent most of the afternoon in Julie’s world, or was it Grayson’s? Absorbed and obsessed, finding new details as I re-read the essay and the woven fabrics, the digitally drawn lines translated into pixelled, textured cloth. I’ve still got questions, still need to find out the next thing about, not quite what happened to Julie, but, something more, in the depths of that essay and in the weave of the fabric.
The exhibition is open in Galashiels until the 14th of August, go see it! I’ve also heard there’s this big Scottish tapestry thingy there too, which I should probably go see at some point…
Aaaand as always, please consider buying me a coffee (Just £3!) via the links at the top and bottom of the page if you enjoyed (or even if you didn’t :p ) reading today.
Find details on the exhibition here
Read an interesting article about Essex in the guardian here
And a more recent, shorter one here
Find out more about A House For Essex, the next step in the story here