If you find yourself sitting next to a stranger at some function, and the conversation is less than sparkling, try saying this: “Tell me about your collection.” The results can be surprising. An unlucky hit can result in 25 minutes on the joys of offering a secure and loving home to abandoned golf balls. But more often you strike lucky, as I did not long ago at a dinner at Sketch, in Mayfair, where the response to my random question was a treasure trove of enviably domestic-scale modern art (collectors these days usually have the whole lot on their iPhones, much easier). We were there, with a hundred or so other odds and bods, at the launch of artist Martin Creed’s redesign of the dining room in riotously coloured jumble-sale-chic: every chair, table, glass, plate and knife artfully mismatched, against walls each differently criss-crossed with fat rollerstrokes of colour. It’s a sort of site-specific pop-up: the first of an annual makeover, an eat-in-an-artwork experience.
At first glance the room looks like the work of some demented car-boot-sale addict; second and subsequent glances confirm that it is actually a meticulously curated collation of the apparently random. I loved it. What I did not love were: (1) the course that featured a cold poached egg (the artist is a vegan so perhaps he had conspired with the chef to make a point, but I don’t think so); and (2) the noise level. Decibels are the curse of contemporary restaurants, with their passion for hard surfaces; we’re all too familiar with those craning distorted faces mouthing, “What??” at their dinner companions. Surely science can find a way: padding the undersides of chairs and tables with something spongey and sound-absorbent, perhaps?
I bet the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, and the director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Mark Walport, could solve the noisy restaurant problem. As could the Dutch carpet manufacturer who has devised a way of making his products 100 per cent recyclable, by means of renewable energy, so that you can make carpet after carpet after carpet, one from another, presumably into the millions of years of a well-carpeted future that only Martin Rees can envisage. These three, with a host of other invitees, were assembled last weekend in Portmeirion, in north Wales, for a talkathon created by Editorial Intelligence, a media consultancy. Entitled Names not Numbers (a reference to the 1960s television series The Prisoner, filmed partly in Portmeirion – one of those things labelled “cult” because an awful lot of people haven’t seen it), the talks centred around issues of individuality, freedoms and their lack, sustainability and the future. Ordinary little things like that.
If the architect of Portmeirion, Clough Williams-Ellis, had returned from the beyond to sit next to me at dinner, I would not have needed to ask him the collection question – we were sitting in it. He created the elaborately Italianate village from 1925 until 1975 out of bits of homeless buildings – a sphere of collecting not open to many of us, since we are not talking about the odd pot or urn but about (for instance) an entire domed Jacobean ceiling depicting the legends of Hercules. The village is on a steep hillside running down to a gorgeous tidal estuary, and clearly Williams-Ellis had dreams of Portofino when he painted walls cerulean, ochre and cerise, when he made a cobbled “piazza” and a squirty little fountain, curved windows and medievally-inspired entrance arches giving quaint views, a life-size Lord Nelson by the ornamental watchtower next to the marooned “wreck”.
Do I love this place or loathe it? Is it inspired, original, delightfully quirky and full of satisfying surprises? Or is it whimsical, cutesy, ersatz and plain bloody irritating? On Friday evening Simon Jenkins took to the pulpit to extol its virtues (which include giving two fingers to modernism, always a thoroughly good thing for Jenkins), and no one could quibble with the wonder of the gardens – but I still couldn’t decide whether any brightly coloured wall has got to be a good thing for Wales, or whether that turquoise just looks pathetic in the Welsh gloom. Whereas at Sketch Martin Creed assembled junk into coherence, in his “home for fallen buildings”, at Portmeirion Williams-Ellis took fine objects and made them look just a bit tawdry.
So the jury is still out – or rather, still talking. My word, could these people at Names not Numbers talk. They talked throughout the endless coach journey, through every organised session and informal coffee break, through every meal. They went for walks and kept on talking. The assembled company encompassed quite a range: some businessy types, a few media predictables, but also more surprising and spicy inclusions, such as the man who works as an independent diplomat, providing foreign policy for new states, or the illustrator who did a tap-dance and showed pictures of the graphic novel she’d made after the death of her child, the stand-up comic with a first in Russian and the aforementioned Dutch carpet-maker (absolutely five-star answer to the collection question there, by the way).
David Davis MP went hard and fast (and entertainingly) into the contemporary conundrums of privacy, of surveillance by Google and identity loss to Facebook, and the rest. He had sent tester emails – for instance about a (fake) recent death in the family, which produced instant advertisements for funeral parlours and headstones – to confirm that here, on the set of The Prisoner, we were facing the very threat to individuality that the series had foretold as future fantasy.
All weekend my head echoed with thoughts of Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer, dissident and politician who died last year, because I’d just been to a memorial evening for him in London. If The Prisoner grabbed the western imagination in the 1960s, it was partly because at the same moment in other regimes there were real prisoners of conscience battling real totalitarianism, Havel among them. Often referred to as a great writer, he wasn’t that, in my view; he was a great spirit who used writing to great ends. After the coming of democracy, he became a politician: one piece of archive film during the evening showed him going to Moscow to inform Gorbachev that Czechoslovakia was now an independent democracy. Gorbachev, said Havel, deadpan to the camera, “seemed surprised”.
And last week came news of another literary death: the demise of “Citizen Poet”, a satirical Russian multimedia art project created by writer Dmitry Bykov, actor Mikhail Yefremov and producer Andrei Vasiliev. For a couple of years now the trio has been continuing the tradition of which Havel was a shining example, using words as weapons against political giants. Today’s samizdat is digital, naturally, and each week Citizen Poet had been regaling its internet disciples with a new poem ridiculing Vladimir Putin – pretty much their one-man target. The Russian premier’s preposterous popularity-courting activities (milking a cow, jumping out of a plane, diving into the sea and emerging with an ancient amphora he just happened to have come across) have been a gift to satirists; the merciless barrage of jokes continued in live performances to crowds of eager well-heeled Muscovites.
But Putin is not known for his sweet tolerance towards opponents, and the hilarity has been a dangerous game. Times had already been tough for satirists, in a way that puts the liberal talk in Portmeirion into different perspective. Last year, in March, Dozhd, the internet television station that had hosted Citizen Poet, got the jitters, and at that point the trio started posting directly online. Now they have responded to Putin’s “landslide victory” earlier this month by staging Citizen Poet’s funeral with typical aplomb. It was that, I suppose, or a one-way ticket to the gulag at Magadan.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor