Sunday, March 16, 2014

What can happen at the RCA Secret

I love this story by a contributor who would prefer to stay anonymous.

The year was 2010. I’d been on many nights out in London and was getting bored of the monotony of going to Camden and just drinking on a Friday night whilst recovering from a hangover on a Saturday, trying to focus some bleary vision on Jeff Stelling and the football scores. I’d decided that, after living in the city for 5 years, I’d do something cultural for the weekend.

So I picked up the Guardian in the week and found a small notice for an interesting event involving postcards. I googled it and was drawn to the little pieces of art and the chance to own a Grayson Perry or a Tracy Emin artwork. For £45, it seemed worth it and I settled that, on this Saturday, I’d make the effort and head there. There’d be no drinking of alcohol, no Friday night out. Just a nice early Saturday morning wake up and then off to Kensington way to queue for some postcards. It couldn’t be that big an event and it’d be nice to do.

I’d picked about 11 cards online that looked nice and wrote down their numbers. My boss also got in on the act, asking me to pick up a few for her. She handed me a list of about 100 postcards. I couldn’t believe how excessive she’d been with her number of choices.

Friday came and inevitably my house mates managed to disrupt my plans and took me out for a drink. But I was steady about it. I had postcards to buy. Much to their amusement at 5 o’clock I was still up and turning bleary eyed. Decision time. Should I go?

When I looked in my wardrobe there wasn’t much in the way of clean warm clothes. I settled on an old pair of flared jeans, a red hoody and a battered old coat that looked like it had once been Inspector Gadget’s but after his messages had exploded. But I was going to queue for a postcard for a couple of hours, it wouldn’t matter. Off I went.

The early morning tube was deserted. Then I arrived. The queue was tiny. Had I got the right event? Was it the right time? Would it be busier later in the day? I joined the queue anyway, only for an incredibly nice bouncer (for 6:30am) to tell me that these were the raffle winners. My queue was the one to the left. The one that had people in tents waiting. The one that snaked round the block. The one that incredibly twisted out of sight round smart London streets. I’d presumed that queue had been for some event at the Royal Albert Hall. Drunken thoughts are not always to be trusted.

At this point the alcohol inside me was thinking that, instead of standing at the end of the unending queue on this cold autumnal morning, I could return home, get into bed, wake at 2 to some autumnal sunshine. My head had to fight it. Surely it’d be worth checking how long the queue was?

So I went and had a look. It went on and on and on and on. When it finally did end, people joining had the same confused expression I did. Until we each realised that by dithering we’d potentially lose our little masterpiece to the person in front of us. So we then rushed to be there.

It’s been said that it’s a very British thing to queue. This queue confirmed that. The range of characters was quite weird, quaint, tragic and wonderful. There were apparent queue professionals, a man who queued for some Elton John memorabilia or any Apple event, the wide boys who seemed to have come for a slight jolly and the studious women who were comparing pictures of the tiny thumbnails they’d printed at home against art books they had in their hands, hoping to get the Tracy Emin. At the best of times I’d struggle to make conversation with these strangers and, although I gave it a go, it felt like I’d be stood there for hours listening to the dwindling iPhone in my pocket.

Then one of the women piped up saying she’d go to Starbucks for everyone if we kept her queue place. She was very keen on some type of macchiato. On this cold morning, many people were taken with the offer. Not being a coffee fan, I didn’t need her help. She must have collected about 7 people’s orders and about £60 in total. Then she left. For hours. London has a Starbucks about every 5 minutes (or so it feels like) and the group began to worry. How well could you trust this queue person? She hadn’t expressed an interest in any Tracy Emin, was she just a well-dressed thief? Should we send a search party to find her? Does anyone really remember what she looked like? This one woman generated about 2 hours’ worth of conversation. Lady Starbucks– great thief or hopeless coffee finder?

As we progressed on at the pace of a Royal Mail delivered postcard (terrible analogy, forgive me) I suddenly felt something weird. That feeling of when you’re being watched. But who’d want to look at little old me, in red hoody, flair jeans and rag and bone man coat. I turned around. Was Postcard Paranoia a thing? Like Stockholm Syndrome? Then I noticed her. A woman in more layers than are humanly possible to put on, hidden under a cream bobble hat, every so often peeking up from her book and then swiftly back down again. I thought nothing of it. Queue nutter perhaps. The queue moved on. Lady Starbucks still hadn’t returned and people were getting the onset of caffeine withdrawal. Conversation had slowed. Yet still I was being watched by this bobble hatted book peeker. I tried to muster a smile, but quickly she darted back behind the book. Then, with everyone’s obvious onset of coffee rage, bobble hat piped up. She had a canister of coffee. People were saved. Though I insist (and she’ll deny) that she offered me the first coffee. Some kind of “can I buy you a drink” move. Foolishly I declined. I don’t like coffee. I then stood for 17 minutes berating myself that a woman may have shown some interest in me and I’d declined the chance to talk to her because I didn’t like coffee. And now I was standing in silence. I bit the bullet. “I will have some of that coffee.”

For the next few hours we talked and laughed about many things. We both discovered that we had a wishlist totalling about 13 cards, when others had hundreds, we both debated where Lady Starbucks had gone (I think we agreed on fled the country to rent Ronnie Biggs’s place in Brazil), we ate the beautiful cakes her sister had made and we waited for ages for the queue to get anywhere near the door. She’d even suggested we have a drink after, an offer I’m told I was luke warm on at the time.

We were about twelve feet away from the door, excitement was building. Both bobble hat and I were excited. Finally we’d get one of the 13 cards we wanted. And Lady Starbucks arrived with everyone’s drink. Hoorah.

Going in was a weird experience. Another long queue that looked like it snaked round an Escher painting. We waited on stairs, we ate more cake, we talked more about how she definitely would get a Grayson Perry and debated more about the potential lives of our queue mates. Some we deduced were pirates, some were spies and others were rebelling against the machine in an orderly fashion. (Sleep deprivation may have taken hold).

Then, as with everyone’s first time at the Secret, our hearts sank. A plasma TV was killing the dreams of every queuer; showing how their postcards had already been sold. My eleven had been bought. I think her 2 had also gone. Quickly I needed a back up. So I stood by the plasma, slowly shuffling the queue along, determining what would be my new card. I had a few numbers quickly jotted down. Then we were at the tills paying for our new works of art.

Perhaps foolishly, I hadn’t been to the exhibition beforehand, so coming away from the tills and heading to the gallery area was a real treat. It involved going upstairs and there was something, I don’t know, eye opening about entering this miniature gallery from below. All these cards, many replaced with blue bits of paper, all these works were quite joyful really.

Bobble hat and I found a lady who went and got our cards. Unveiling time. I got a mini master piece by Jan Roe. I didn’t have a clue who Jan Roe was. To be honest I wouldn’t have had a clue who Richard Long was. Bobble hat also got someone who she didn’t know of, but hers were meant as gifts. Then she offered up that drink again. Why not. We went to a pub in Kensington. By now it was 1pm, yet for us this felt like 9pm. We sat in the bar and used our phones (in the days before 3G!) to google our artists. We chatted and drank and talked some more and even managed some conversations that weren’t about postcards. (Luckily she liked football). We even found the attention of another couple sat opposite us: she was a bubbly talker, he a military looking - evil stare eyes type who spoke very little. Then we realised that the Eroticism convention was happening at Earls Court. 

These swingers were trying to recruit us. To their disappointment we declined.

We stayed out until 1 am, and went our separate way but agreed to keep in touch and probably next see each other next year at the Secret.

3 years later and we still do go to the Secret and add to our collections. Though this year we’ll be taking our daughter with us for the first time, hoping to add to the Jan Roe on our wall at home.


Chris Jones said...

Love, love, love it.
RCA Secret works on so many levels!!

Lisa said...

This is such a sweet story. I love that RCA Secret (or the queue at least) brings people together.

pezlow said...

Totally agree. True love at RCA secret!