Opinion

John Bird: Can I be frank? Probably not – it’s so easy to offend

"Beware how you tread – else you’ll be marked"

Sarson’s has been making vinegar since five years after the French Revolution. The little dark red plastic Sarson’s bottle sits on the table by the HP sauce as I reflect on how difficult it is to comment on controversial issues these days. Beware how you tread – else you’ll be marked.

It happened to me at the beginning of this year when I suggested that we volunteer for the NHS by staying healthy. That pissed off so many people – yet I was simply passing on the message I had received on countless occasions from doctors and nurses that fewer ill people would mean that they could concentrate on those already ill.

The Sarson’s bottle, unlike the HP sauce bottle is a great shape. It’s like a little pot-bellied thing that could fit well on the shelf as a Roman relic, if it were not for its plastic material. I can see Grayson Perry getting excited by its potteric shape, if such a word exists. Blown up, scaled up, it could be a fine vase.

Perry is all over the vast exhibition areas, bringing humour where once there was greyness and seriousnessPerry is all over the vast exhibition areas, bringing humour where once there was greyness and seriousness

I have just finished my beans and Cornish pasty, hence the condiments before me. And me thinking about all the big shit that’s going down about Brexit and gender and racism and where do you put your toes in this water without annoying some of the players. (By the way, Warren Buffett, one of the world’s wealthiest people owns HP sauce. At the moment, Big Ben – whose picture graces the sauce bottle – is currently wrapped up in a large condom-like sheath. Yet, Buffet does not seem to have come forward to stump up the bill for its repair).

If Sarson’s think that 226 years is a long time to be about in the modern world try 250 years for the Royal Academy. Yes, this august body has kept its art of painting longer than Sarson’s has dedicated itself to the art of vinegar-making. Alas, I cannot immediately think of another condiment or product that covers that stretch of time.

Impressively, the Royal Academy has chosen Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing potter, who may like me see qualities in the Sarson’s bottle shape, to orchestrate their summer exhibition. Perry is all over the vast exhibition areas, bringing humour where once there was greyness and seriousness.

I went with a sense of joy. It was a hot and busy day and my 13-year-old son had a lot to be amused by. He spotted dozens of reasons to smirk and giggle and I suppose that is possibly how you get people into art.

As a young man I went a different route; via the ear-removing Van Gogh, who, yes, cut his ear off and sent it to a girl. I wanted his kind of madness, which inspired him to paint sun-drenched colour.

Having finished my ruminations at the cafe over a vinegar bottle and a sauce bottle I walked out in the blessed rain. The relief after the heat was intense, although the political debate around racism still seemed heat-making. I felt bruised that I could not get an angle on a number of current debates without self-harming. I am submerged in fights around poverty and I need to keep that foremost.

Last week the heat was so intense that I jumped in my local river and lost my wedding ring. It coincided with the 45th anniversary of my mother’s death. My ring now probably lies in the company of a few Roman coins and Saxon brooches which will be discovered in 1,000 years.

What a hot and horrible summer it has been. Isn’t there ever going to be the space again to talk openly without feeling shut down?

My mother carried her worn-thin-by-labour wedding ring for 32 years of marriage, going in and out of pawn shops over a dozen times. But it was redeemed before death because my father wore it on his little finger until he himself, was no more.

What a hot and horrible summer it has been. Isn’t there ever going to be the space again to talk openly without feeling shut down? A new correctness befalls us. But the heat cannot all be blamed on the summer.

And as for that Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, I couldn’t get out of it quick enough. It seemed so right-on, so full of laughs that it made your face crease smiling. While humour can work well, too much is like too much chocolate. Bring back the dirty coloured corners, the greys and mud greens and the sense of groping for art in the dark. Of finding your way not in order to take the urine.

Sorry Grayson – I had to let something out this summer. I couldn’t remain pent-up like a Coke bottle sitting in the hot sun. Awaiting an explosion.

In the meanwhile, I painted some large oil paintings that flood my living room and spill out into the hall. I love them. How good they are I don’t know. But I’m going to get them and stand them in a large garden and charge a fiver for people to look at them – and all the money will go into trying to create a space where you don’t get shat on for disagreeing.

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