I sulked childishly when a mix-up of dates made it look like I’d have to miss the RCA Secret sale this year, and who can blame me? After all, what could possibly compare with the joys of spending a night on the streets of Kensington in the midst of a bitterly cold November, then queuing for hours to buy four postcards?
But, thanks to a very understanding friend, who adopted my daughter for twenty-four hours whilst somehow restraining herself from questioning my sanity, 9pm on Friday 19th November, 2010, found me settling in on Prince Consort Road, SW7, behind a queue of people, some of whom had been there for days.
The “Secret” is that all cards are displayed anonymously. So, unless you’re a serious art buff, able to identify a specific artist’s work and either have the time and desire to queue for days – it’s first come, first served – or are lucky enough to have your raffle ticket drawn to be one of the first fifty allowed in, you won’t know who made your cards until you’ve bought them.
Last year, I viewed the cards the day before the sale – they’re exhibited for the week beforehand – made a short scribbled list of the numbers of the postcards I liked, got up at around 4am on Saturday morning, cycled down and stood in the rain for about five hours to buy three cards. I was hooked. Bizarrely, the joy of the thing was as much in the queuing as in the buying. So this year, I resolved to queue longer and better.
Once I knew I was free to go, I embarked on a short, cut-price shopping trip. I bought a £7 tent, some thermal underwear made for 13-year-olds, the world’s warmest pair of socks, a cheap trekking mat and – best of all – something called a “shmangle” blanket. This also cost £7 and (unlike everything else which came from sportsdirect.com: I “heart” sportsdirect.com) was heavily reduced in John Lewis. My “shmangle” blanket – can’t resist saying it again: “shmangle” blanket – is a huge rainbow-coloured fleecy oblong, backed with bright pink waterproof plasticky stuff and, get this, IT HAS A HOOD.
In other words, it’s a thing designed for people who routinely shop in John Lewis to go for nice drizzly autumnal countryside walks in. It comes in a handy pink bag. NB: Not recommended for people called Joseph who live in biblical times and have lots of jealous brothers.
But one thing troubled me. How would I manage without, erm, facilities? There aren’t that many places to “go” in the middle of the night when you’re camping in Kensington. So I wondered (on Twitter naturally) if I should buy a fold-up camping loo. I’d never used one but, essentially, it’s a folding chair with a toilet seat and a biodegradable bag.
Someone tweeted back, mentioning a rumour that the RCA were installing portaloos. Great, I replied, I’ll ask when I visit the exhibition.
The next day I bussed down to the RCA, bought a few raffle tickets and asked the young woman selling them about the loos. She didn’t know, so went to find out. A few minutes later – once I’d started noting down details of my favourite cards – a deputation arrived and I was hauled off for interrogation.
Well, almost. Wilhelmina Bunn – the twinkly exhibition curator, for whom the whole Secret business is evidently a massive labour of love – wanted to know who was asking about toilets. She grilled me for a few minutes, but didn’t ask what I suspect she was trying to find out: If I knew about the toilets, had I also uncovered some of the more profound RCA Secrets? By the end of our discussion, she’d figured out that I a) knew nothing, b) am mostly harmless and c) am not entirely in control of my own mouth.
I reached home with a list of over 100 postcards any four of which I knew I’d be happy to live with and, just as important, confirmation of the availability of overnight toilet facilities. Over the next couple of days I refined my list of favourites and carefully copied and pasted images of my top 36 off the RCA Secret website – so that this year I’d know which ones I was trying to buy.
Then, on Friday evening, dressed in warm clothes and thermal undies, I pitched my tent in the queue, hoping the weather would hold. Call me old-fashioned, but I didn’t trust my tent’s claim to be waterproof up to 1000mm of rain. To be honest, I didn’t trust my tent to keep out 1mm of rain. It cost £7, for god’s sake and its label described it as a “TWO PERSON ADVENTURE GARDEN PLAY TENT”. There was no way it was going to protect me from anything wetter than talcum powder.
I rolled out my mat and sleeping bag and donned my shmangle blanket.
Queuing in front of me was Toni, a medical secretary who spent the night out in her work clothes, with no tent, no sleeping bag, a copy of Metro to sit on and pop socks and pumps. She refused all offers of hats, warm clothes blankets (even my beloved shmangle) from other punters and the world’s friendliest security guards, who patrolled up and down the queue good-humouredly all night.
In front of Toni were a young couple so loved up they didn’t interact with anyone else until 7:30 am the next morning when they realised they couldn’t get their tent back in its bag and had to ask for help. Behind me was a young graphic designer from New Zealand, behind him a couple – Chris and Fiona – from Luton.
Over the hours we nattered, slept, shared snacks, discussed the cards we liked and watched each others’ stuff during comfort breaks. From time to time people from the front of the queue wandered back to chat with us. Just before 11pm, a posse of roller-skaters, accompanied by a thudding sound system on a recumbent bike zoomed past.
Every now and then passing tourists and drunks would stop to ask us what on earth we thought we were doing.
Early the next morning we packed away our tents – except for the loved-up couple who dragged theirs along the street until the very last minute – and got on with the business of standing in line. There was more chatter. Our little group was joined by Toby, who works for a charity and Henry, a plumber. I found out that Toni is learning British Sign Language and Chris and Fiona – he’s an IT expert, she manages events for a local authority – are learning to figure skate.
That’s the best thing about RCA Secret. While the press coverage trumpets the chance you have of buying something worth thousands for forty-five quid, it gets on quietly with being one of the most egalitarian visual art events happening anytime, anywhere. There are all kinds of people in the queue from all kinds of backgrounds. Most of us aren’t there to make our fortunes. We’re there to buy original artwork we like and for the sheer fun of it.
It’s also possibly the only genuinely gender-blind arts event. Earlier this year UK Feminista released depressing figures about the representation of women in the arts. 70% of the artists nominated for the Turner prize have been men and 83% of the work showing in Tate Modern is by male artists.
But with RCA Secret you don’t know whether what you’re buying is by a man or a woman.
And what did I come away with?
These three cards. The white birds out of the blue background are by Basil Alkazzi. The island is by Welsh artist Emrys Williams, the two men on a spoon by RCA post grad student Stephanie Theobald and a landscape (not shown) by west country artist, Eric Thorn.
Find More about The RCA Secret here.