Liggers & Dreamers by Josie Demuth
A review by Heathcote Williams
Cork Street in London is an eerie ship of fools where art racketeers set out their wares in galleries whose annual rent can run to a quarter of a million pounds. Small wonder then that despite its glitzy chic it has an air of quiet desperation.
Beautiful gallery assistants are urged by the gallery’s proprietors to beguile potential buyers who enter the premises and then regale them with vacuous blandishments about the compelling nature of the artist on display. Vamped in other words.
Thus the gallery owners hope to lure in bankers and CEOs and movie stars and property tycoons in order to persuade them that they absolutely must require incomprehensible and exorbitantly priced art objects in their hallways in order to impress or – more likely – confuse their friends.
It’s a lavish confidence trick, of course, but those who participate in the business are reluctant to admit that the Emperor has no clothes since art is one of the hardest currencies there is.
However, the art business does not escape scot free. It has spawned an army of lesser confidence tricksters to gobble up the crumbs from its table. These are the liggers, dressed fashionably to gain admission and armed with every manner of excuse to get past the ‘door whores’, as they contemptuously call gallery security. Once in, they descend in swarms upon the champagne and canapes provided by the flustered gallery owners of Cork Street.
These peripatetic party animals will also happily spread their wings to take in Park Lane, Bond Street, Knightsbridge, Hackney and Shoreditch … occasionally migrating further, to gate-crash international art events like the Venice Biennale.
In ‘Liggers and Dreamers’ these ‘natural born liggers’ are observed at close quarters. They eat the art racketeers’ salt whilst they ungratefully sneer at the inflatedly-priced, and often ludicrous, artifacts that are on display in art’s temples where its modern money-changers wheel and deal in art’s currency – as volatile as the stock exchange and as subject to the fluctuating whims of oligarchs and criminals…
Vainly the threatened gallery owners compile a ‘Liggers’ List’ complete with names and identifying photographs in order to exclude Josie Demuth’s colourful tribe of ne’er-do-wells from their plutocratic portals.
‘The List’ is widely circulated and hopes to banish them from every gallery and every cultural centre in the West End. But the liggers are not easily outwitted. They can gain admission anywhere: to the ‘Everests’ of the art world -celeb-infested parties at Christies and Sothebys, for example – through their resourceful acquisition of genuine art buyers’ business cards. Then will strip any location like locusts.
‘Liggers and Dreamers’ is surely karma in motion with its cast of picaresquely outrageous characters, whose life-skills are channeled into living on their wits and for the moment.
The roll-call of colourful characters in Josie Demuth’s novel (surely a roman a clef and all the better for that) includes a seventy year old female alcoholic who collapses on the Gallery’s drinks table at its rarefied Private Views “with a snore that’s off the Richter scale” and mad dandies in Siberian wolf fur-coats – indispensible for gaining admission to that exhibitionist world.
Demuth’s liggers turn idleness into an art form. In real life of course they’d be a running nightmare, but on the page they are fascinating and funny. Their gate-crashing strategies are sophisticated and a reader anxious for a free night out could find them (and the accompanying chutzpah that’s necessary to carry them off) helpful. To Cork Street, however, such liggers are all lepers.
Josie Demuth’s ‘Liggers & Dreamers’ are a gang to be savoured; a reincarnation of the proto-punks and pre-Goths who hung round Warhol’s factory in the sixties. Peripheral they may be, but they nonetheless contribute to the zeitgeist. They display the idler’s zest for living and add to the gaiety of nations.
When one of them is challenged at the entrance to a smart gallery and is told that he’s “not on the guest list” but is on ‘The List’ he retorts that the latter is “your stupid little index of human beings who come to fill your otherwise sterile space, and, on arrival, need to drown their sorrows over the downfall of British culture.”
This gang of idlers; these natural born liggers; these luftmensch, living on air, don’t limit themselves to London. They conquer Switzerland and then they conquer Venice. They free-load through Europe. Though they may be bit-part players and though they may attract the same sulky opprobrium from stuffed-shirts as do ‘benefit scroungers’ they seem much happier than the principal actors in the art world and they certainly have more fun.
As befits a portrait of an aesthetic dystopia ‘Liggers & Dreamers’ is beautifully written.