Shortly after I met Anna, my wife to be, we travelled to Pimlico to attend the wedding of a mutual friend. Another friend, Phil, had agreed to put us up for a few days. During our stay, Phil revealed himself to be a closet Lonnie Donegan fan. I couldn’t see the appeal. The only Donegan song I knew, much to his disgust, was ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, and I only knew the first verse to that. True Donegan fans, I learned, don’t much care for that one. Too music hall, too pearly bloomin’ cockney-sparrow. But he played it anyway, showing what a true friend he was. My old man’s a dustman, he wears a dustman’s hat, he wears gorblimey trousers, and he lives in a council flat… Then we listened to some music.
Anna and I planned to combine our social duty with a visit to the nearby Tate Gallery, which was currently exhibiting a work I had always been curious to see. Anna was intrigued by the prospect too, but my curiosity had a long history. On every previous visit to the Tate the work had either been out on loan, in storage, having its hair done, or unwilling to appear in public for one of any number of reasons. Once I had missed it by just a few days. Now it was at home and receiving visitors. I couldn’t wait.
The work I speak of is Carl Andre’s ‘Equivalent VIII’. Released into the wild it would be nothing more than an inconveniently stacked pile of firebricks; in captivity it is a priceless work of art. It was created at the height of the silly sixties and purchased by the Tate for an outrageous sum a few years later, provoking the predictable howls and squeals from the popular press. Now I would know the truth. Would I join the art world in referring to it affectionately as ‘The Bricks’, or would I, albeit several decades too late, align myself with the press, for whom ‘waste of taxpayer’s money’ was about the kindest thing they had to say. I would soon find out.
Anna and I walked the length of the work. “It’s supposed to be like water,’ I said, reading the exhibit label. “Like walking through a sea of bricks.” We paced back to see if it would indeed become a sea of bricks. It didn’t. We stared at it to see if enlightenment would come. It didn’t. We viewed it from this angle and that, we squinted at it through chinks in our fingers, we tried to put ourselves into a trance, desperate for something, anything, to happen. It didn’t. “Perhaps it simply isn’t accessible,” said Anna at last. “Can you imagine the ecstasy a trained artist would experience, seeing these bricks? A million pounds worth of joy, adjusted for inflation and the current state of the art market. I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like.” “Yes,” I agreed sadly. “We are dull, unimaginative clods. We feel nothing. I suppose this sort of art is just not for the likes of us.” And it wasn’t.
But it could be.
On the train home I indulged in a daydream. I am driving Anna home from somewhere, a shopping trip perhaps, when suddenly she yells, “stop the car!” She points and I understand immediately. By the side of the road a new house is under construction. We dash towards it, waving and shouting to the bemused builders, who stop work to stare at us. “Is that a pair of Gorblimey trousers you’re wearing?” I ask the foreman breathlessly. “Made by Harold Gorblimey? In Stoke-on-Trent? In the fifties? Surely you haven’t got the dustman’s hat too?” “Forget the trousers,” says Anna. “Just look at the bricks!”
I look. I am speechless. Never has there been, never could there be, such a perfect pile of bricks. Carl Andre could toil for a dozen lifetimes, stacking bricks this way and that, and never would he achieve a pile so sublime. Anything that ever would or ever could be said about brick piles is shouted, whistled and sung by this brick pile. It is a sea, a forest, a mountain range. It is Baby Bear’s porridge, it is Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, it is an entire tea service of Holy Grails. Furthermore it’s the best damn pair of Gorblimey trousers I’ve ever seen. I must have it. Now.
“Step away from the bricks,” I say in my best TV-cop manner. I stand guard while Anna scoots off to find the owner and negotiate our purchase of the half-completed house. It costs us every penny we possess. We move in, nailing pond liners to the exposed roof trusses, filling empty window frames with sheets of polythene and boarding up any gaps we don’t need. We sleep on floorboards, cook on a camping stove, read by torchlight and carry water from our neighbour’s garden tap. We don’t care. Each morning we take a pair of chairs into the garden and gaze in profound joy at our perfect brick pile. Sometimes we spend the day looking at the North side, sometimes the South. Sometimes we climb high on the scaffolding and look at it through binoculars from above. Our one regret is that we can’t tunnel beneath it and admire it from below.
One morning, just as we are finishing breakfast on the South viewing platform, a car skids to an untidy halt in the lane outside. The occupants come rushing towards us in a state of great agitation. “Is that a pair of Gorblimey trousers you’re wearing?” the man inquires breathlessly. “Surely you haven’t got the dustman’s hat too?” “Forget the trousers,” says the woman. “Just look at the bricks!” He does, and we know exactly what he is going through. “I am curator of the Extremely Important Art Gallery,” he says at last. “I would love to exhibit your bricks. I can offer you a truly obscene sum of money for them, and pretty well guarantee that the press will never give you a moment’s peace.” Anna and I look at each other. “I’m afraid they are not for sale,” I say, speaking for both of us, “but you are welcome to sit and admire them with us. We have plenty of lumber. I can nail you up a couple of chairs in a jiffy.”
As time goes on we are obliged to install permanent seating around our bricks. We hint to all visitors that a small, voluntary contribution will be very welcome, or there might not be room for viewers of their particular shape and size next time. That way we are not only able to finish our house, but at last make some longed-for improvements to our viewing arrangements. A tethered helium balloon transports our visitors eighty feet into the air for a breathtaking overhead view. We carefully slide a huge sheet of strengthened glass beneath the pile and build our coveted cellar gallery under it for a perfect bottom perspective. Sometimes, late in the evening, we turn off the newly installed lighting and admire the bricks by moonlight, candlelight or bonfire light. We toy with the idea of persuading the military to set off a thermonuclear device nearby, close enough for us to benefit from the flash but not so close as to fry us. The practical difficulties seem insurmountable, and the army unbribeable, so we are forced to abandon that one for the time being.
Soon our once obscure little property is the spiritual centre of the art world. By this time we have built a bigger house and converted our original dwelling to display a highly selective collection of art. One room houses my collection of Gorblimey trousers, another Anna’s murals of meticulously arranged rat droppings. We receive visits from all the greats. One donates half an animal, another an item of domestic furniture, yet another an electric light that goes both on and off, although not at the same time. They are poor things in comparison to our brick pile. For my birthday this year Anna gives me a rare and fragile dustman’s hat, the certificate of provenance authenticated by the thumbprint of the dustman himself. I am touched. Not by the obvious expense, we can easily afford it now, but by the fact that she has taken the trouble to trace an item that has eluded me for so long. In a rare moment without visitors we make love on our beloved bricks.
I still recall my fist impression of the brick pile: the best pair of Gorblimey trousers I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I fantasise about transferring it to my trouser collection. I’ll never do it, of course. How could I betray Anna like that? But what if, just once… It’s not a new idea, it has been growing for years. In the early days I could suppress my desire by taking long walks with our short dog. Sometimes a cold shower was required, occasionally I would even stand under it. Sometimes I would count my blessings. Eight blessings. Maybe nine. None of this works any more. I am feverish. I can’t concentrate. I can’t rest. Something has to be done.
Tonight, while Anna sleeps, I get out of bed and make my way silently to the viewing arena. I touch the bricks. I am trembling. I close my eyes, I don’t want any witnesses to what I am about to do. I grasp the brick pile firmly and … I put it on. It fits perfectly. I am clutching my dustman’s hat, Anna’s gift. I smooth it out and place it on my head to complete the outfit. At this moment I am utterly fulfilled. But Anna is running towards me. Concerned for my welfare she has followed me, and I am undone. “You’re wearing our bricks!” she gasps in disbelief. “How could you?” She grasps my shoulders and shakes me and shakes me and Anna was shaking me and shaking me and the train was drawing in to our station and I said, “I’m so sorry,” and Anna laughed and said, “for what? Falling asleep? Did you have a bad dream?” and we walked home hand in hand.
So it was all a dream? Of course it was, I told you so. I have no secrets. On the other hand…
Time passed. The Tate Gallery was re-named Tate Britain and tutelary of The Bricks passed to the new Tate Modern, they make sure it doesn’t stay out late, come home drunk or get the Hepworths into trouble. Anna and I, with some relief, abandoned unsatisfactory careers and enrolled in art college, feeling that if there really was anything to the art experience we owed it to ourselves to find out what it was. We lived in contented student squalor, we both remembered how to do it from the first time. Our respective parents were bemused, but both sets loaned us money when we were threatened with eviction or starvation. At some stage Anna and I married, although it made little difference to our domestic arrangements. And at some point I told Anna about my dream.
Anna was sceptical. For one thing, she pointed out, Martin Creed didn’t win the Turner Prize until 2001, so I wouldn’t have known about his on-and-off light at the time. “Perhaps it was a predictive dream,” I suggested. The truth is, I have had the same dream many times. Each time, in the dream, we are visited by a different set of artists, and each time they present us with a new batch of succès de scandale works. I can’t honestly remember who turned up the first time. But it’s my dream and I tell it the way I like it.
Sometimes I even relate my dream to my students, an illustration, albeit exaggerated, of mistaken expectations about the nature of art. I no longer teach full-time, my career has long since moved on, but I am still loosely attached to the Slade and give the occasional lecture. “What is art?” I ask rhetorically. The students yawn and look smug. They wouldn’t be at the Slade if they didn’t know what art was. One wants to decapitate live hens and let the blood spray over prepared canvases. Voodoo art. The college won’t hear of it. Art is anything the college won’t let you do, in her opinion.
“Is the art in the bricks?” I persevere. Of course it isn’t. For twenty quid and a couple of hours’ work anybody could make a perfect replica of The Bricks. Neither Carl Andre nor the Tate’s artistic staff could tell them apart without inspecting the security markings. They certainly couldn’t divine the difference by the medium of arty thrill. You need the bricks, but they are no good on their own. You also need the art gallery. Inside the gallery, it’s a work of art; outside, a pile of building materials. And you need the artist. Given the choice of two doors, one to a gallery showing Andre’s bricks and one to a gallery showing mine, which do you choose? Yet again, you need the press. On the day they start howling that their child, nay, their pet hamster, could do better, gallery staff begin revising the anticipated visitor figures upwards. These and a dozen other factors combine to create a work of art. Take away any one of them and the exhibit becomes less exciting. As Anna says, it isn’t in the bricks, it’s in the trousers. I can’t think of a better way to put it.
One day Phil, old friend and Lonnie Donegan fan, phoned to say that he had some spare tickets to the first public performance of a new orchestral work, and invited Anna and me to attend with him. The young composer was a veritable WMD of the music world, by Phil’s account. I Googled the name, my pinpoint guidance system placed it somewhere in Eastern Europe, but Google wasn’t having any. I dare say I got the spelling wrong.
When we entered the auditorium and saw a monstrous collection of junk on stage, my heart sank. It was going to be one of those pieces where the score had instructions to thrash the insides of a grand piano with a bicycle chain or squeeze a monkey’s testicles until ultrasound is breached. I thought all that belonged to simpler and sillier times, but apparently I was wrong. During the performance I looked around to see whether anybody was actually enjoying it. Once I caught the eye of someone else doing the same. We grinned sheepishly at each other and looked quickly away.
Afterwards we discussed the piece in the bar. “Perhaps it simply isn’t accessible,” said Anna. “Just think of the ecstasy a trained musician must feel, hearing an oil drum beaten with a spanner. I can barely imagine what that would be like.” We laughed, remembering our first encounter with The Bricks. We still visit it occasionally, and feel quite affectionate towards it, but most of the time it’s enough just to know it’s there. “Yes,” I agreed mock-sadly. “We are dull, unimaginative clods. We feel nothing. I suppose this sort of music is just not for the likes of us.”
This time we let it stay that way.