Saturday, February 10, 2007
It is traditional when meeting Gilbert and George to compare them to Morecambe and Wise, with George (English, glasses, Jackanory accent) being Eric, and Gilbert (Italian, the quieter of the two) being Little Ern. Pop fans may also observe how much the Pet Shop Boys have stolen from the couple who characterise themselves as “living sculptures”. Indeed, Chris (Lowe) and Neil (Tennant) once knocked on the door of their house in Fournier Street to ask if they would design an album cover. (Politely – because they are always polite – the artists declined.)
Trying to detect where reality ends, and the act of Gilbert and George begins, is fun, but it is also a mistake. Living sculptures are never offstage. Everything is part of the act, and the act is normality.
But there is a third party in this marriage: London, the city which has informed and shaped their art. When their Dirty Words pictures from 1977 were shown at the Serpentine in 2002, it was clear that they reflected the hedonistic enthusiasms of Gilbert and George’s misspent nights at the capital’s punk clubs. They were regulars at the Roxy and the Blitz, and met Johnny Rotten at the Regency. “It was a very dirty club up a set of steps in Monmouth Street,” recalls George, “where you could meet some Scottish boy just off the train from Edinburgh with a newspaper stuffed in his pocket. Or the archbishop of Canterbury.
“It was a devil of a job to get a taxi back. You’d say ‘Fournier Street, off Commercial Street,’ and they’d say ‘What do you want to go there for, guv? What’s the trick?”
“Yes,” says Gilbert wistfully. “We are not uptown girls anymore. Now we never go West. Don’t need to.”
Fournier Street is now seen as a masterpiece of early Georgian architecture, and Gilbert and George are hailed as pioneers of the East End art scene. “George used to teach in Hoxton in 1967,” says Gilbert. “In the evening when we came back, my God.”
“All the businesses were totally shuttered,” says George. “Totally deserted – scary. You could either have sex with a stranger or get beaten up. Those were the only two choices. And that was only Hoxton Square!”
When they moved into Fournier Street, it was because the monthly rent was £16, and the landlords didn’t mind whether you slept in the building or used it as a studio. The area was run down, but, says Gilbert, “totally magic, romantic”.
Fournier Street was occupied by button-makers, furriers, and hat-makers, and the area was Jewish. “The front doors were open all day,” says George. “All the windows were open, so people would speak to each other from one side of the street to the other. Extraordinary antique behaviour.
“This area has been everything. It’s been a Roman cemetery, it’s been part of the hospital for the returning Crusaders. It’s been a manufacturing base for guns which curiously, was staffed entirely by Germans. In between the Jewish and the Bangladeshis, it was briefly Maltese, then Somali. It was extraordinary when it was Maltese because they all had Alsatian dogs, they kept ferrets, they played cards all day.
“It’s extraordinary to think that within walking distance you can find the tomb of John Wesley, the founder of the second biggest group of Christians – the tomb of George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, of Daniel Defoe, author of one of the few books in the world which is never out of print, John Bunyan, and William Blake. And only one has a jam-jar of flowers – William Blake.”
“We rather like John Bunyan,” says Gilbert, “because we feel that’s what we did – Pilgrim’s Progress. Every year we have to fight all the moral dilemmas in ourselves.”
To explore this further, Gilbert and George take me on a tour of their locale. The first stop is the mosque on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane. “That was the synagogue when we were students,” says George. “The posh synagogue at that.”
“It was a French church,” says Gilbert.” A Huguenot church. They tried to convert Jewish people to Christianity. It didn’t work.”
Facing the end of the street is the BanglaCity cash and carry, where we pause to admire some tumblers. “This section of the design is like a hand grenade,” says George. “And this is like the butt of a revolver. Somehow or other it’s found its way into glassware. We wondered where these were from, and we looked underneath – Saudi Arabia.”
Gilbert and George never cook, so their sense of geography is invariably informed by restaurants. For years, they breakfasted at the Market Café, at the other end of Fournier Street. “Clyde, the cook, was the most extraordinary person we ever met,” says Gilbert.
“Even if you go to Simpsons in the Strand, it’s not as delicious as Clyde’s,” says George. “He did stews and pies and tongue and breast of lamb.”
“Oxtail,” says Gilbert. “He was a crazy cook. He started every night at 12 o’clock, until two in the afternoon. Six in the morning, you could have the best breakfast. Ham, or even roast beef.”
“Steamed syrup pudding,” says George, “spotted dick!”
On Sundays, they breakfast at one of the few remaining Italian cafes, Frank’s.
“Frank came over in 1961,” says Gilbert.
“We were chatting the other Sunday,” says George. “He was telling us the whole history. They come from a small village near Naples. They are very proud because it is the birthplace of Sophia Loren. The mother and father and two fantastic looking sons run the place.”
“They look exactly like they saw the films of Pasolini,” says Gilbert. “Beautiful faces.”
“Sundays are very nice,” says George, “because you see all the Riney road men. We know them all from digging up the street. They used to eat in the Market Café.”
As we progress along Brick Lane, Gilbert notes that in 1968, there were only two Indian restaurants. In those days, they patronised the Clifton. “At the time there were only Indian people, and us, and policemen going there,” says Gilbert.
“The policemen got a free table,” says George. “I agonised over whether I should report them or not.”
We turn down Hanbury Street, which houses one of their current favourites, the Meraz. “It’s extremely good food,” notes George. “Unlike standard curry. Totally different. The teenage waiters, if you miss a week, they stop you in the street and say, with complete seriousness, ‘Why don’t you eat with us anymore?’”
“It’s very good,” says Gilbert, “because George gets the Muslim hug, three times.”
“It’s an honour,” says George.
“All the fathers remember us,” says Gilbert.
“They came alone, the Bangladeshis,” says George. “They were all in little bedsits, so they had to eat out. That was the generation you could have sex with. The next generation you couldn’t.”
On the other side of the street is Gale Furs, where Gilbert is having a new hat fashioned to his own design. It is a cold morning, and he is wearing his old one, which makes him look like a drowsy beaver. As we walk past, the furrier appears with a pelt.
“He used to work in number 8, from a boy of 15,” Gilbert tells me when he has gone. “It was the last furrier in Fournier Street.” Gilbert and George bought the house 10 years ago, for £260,000.
Living by Brick Lane has ensured that graffiti often occur in Gilbert and George’s pictures. They have over 10,000 photographs of graffiti tags, going back 15 years. “Every sect has its sign, the star of David or the candle stick, or the cross, and every tagger has his own tag like that,” says George. “But they do stop after a while. There are no adult taggers.”
“I think it’s like being a supermodel, don’t you?” says Gilbert. “On drugs. They want the signature to be famous.”
George says that graffiti artist Banksy once photographed Gilbert and George in Brick Lane. “But then he must have realised that it didn’t serve his purpose so well to do sprays of other artists. London, especially the East End, is extraordinary now. They say there’s upwards of 20,000 artists. The biggest concentration in the world. We’re stopped all the time by people saying could we direct them to this gallery or that gallery. We don’t even know where they are. There are dozens of galleries in every backstreet.”
“In some way tagging is degrading the street,” says Gilbert, “and that’s why it’s becoming famous. We don’t want a clean city.”
“Tagging is very important,” says George. “Every newspaper and every politician says ‘We don’t like taggers’. That’s absurd.”
“At least we supported the hoodies before David Cameron,” says Gilbert.
“It was called a pixie hood when I was a child,” says George. “Little waterproof ones with two strings. It goes back to the crusades and the earliest monks.”
In Taj stores, Gilbert gapes at the exotic vegetables, while George pauses to fondle an implement used in the dissection of coconuts. “Aren’t they thrilling?” he purrs. “Best to keep it out of the bedroom.”
We return to the house, and they reminisce a little. When they first came to Spitalfields, the city gents had a rolled umbrella, a bowler hat and fresh carnation. “They had a very worn pinstripe suit that would have to last years. Shiny elbows. They’d have half a pint of bitter then on to the train and back for dinner to some distant suburb. It was quite miserable. We used to watch them coming out of the underground in the morning to go to the offices. They all looked very stressed. Worried and tired. Now they’re all springing up the elevator, with a bag to go to the gym first, or to go to the gents and have a joint. They’re such a cheerful lot.”
“We always said if you put all the suits that ever existed into a computer a normal suit will come out – that’s ours,” says Gilbert. “The super-average one.”
They still think of themselves as outsiders, but Gilbert and George have never been more fashionable. Super-average is another way of saying their favourite word: extraordinary.