I first met Jamie McCartney at what was supposed to be the first meeting I’d ever have with my editor, a delightfully shambolic affair conducted in the presence of three shrunken heads in the basement of a curiosity museum in Bethnal Green (I’m not even kidding). Jamie came along to dinner afterwards and the subject of his latest artistic project came up: The Great Wall of Vagina. I suddenly realised I’d seen him (and it) on telly. In fact I’d seen him (and it) several times because that’s the kind of thing I Google right before clearing my history. I immediately hit him with a barrage of childish questions. As he expertly batted them away I detected notes of weariness and undertones of ugh. “Do you have a favourite?” I’m distinctly unproud of it as I type this. I am however extremely chuffed by the fact I was able to deploy my favourite Roger’s Profranisaurus entry at what was probably the only time in history it would have been appropriate at dinner:
Attenborough’s Passport: fanny like, sim. Descriptive of a lady’s bodily treasure which is distinctly dog-eared and well-thumbed in the style, one would imagine, of the erstwhile globe-hopping naturalist’s travel documents. ‘Christ almighty, I knew she’d been round the block a few times, but when I got down there she had a fanny like Attenborough’s passport.’
Some months later I saw his urgent cry for help on Facebook. Having counted his vulvas (before they hatched, boom-TISH!) he found himself to be five short. He desperately needed able and willing women to get their kit off and he needed them by this weekend. I was able. I was not so much willing as blinkered-curious. And besides, I kind of felt like a twat for asking idiotic questions over the mezze that night. “What’s the worst fanny you’ve ever seen?” I cringe. I’m sorry. Here, have my hoo-haa.
I turn up at his studio in a tiny lane off Ship Street in Brighton. There’s an arty middle-aged couple in there quizzing him over various artworks; the breasts, the hands, the child’s face. The (artist’s own) bell-end doorknobs, the Shuttle Cocks. The Arma-Dildo, the Pussy-Cat; Sexidermy. She’s waxing lyrical on the nature of aging and freezing time, the silent husband twiddles his moustache, nonplussed. I doubt she’ll be getting her snatch cast. But I will. I’m signing the minge-release form while she’s plotting her own sculpted Dorian Gray.
The studio can be seen from the street by pedestrians as if looking into a fishbowl. Jamie shuts the door and the world away to preserve at least a shred of honour, or dignity, or whatever it is those girls have who don’t wave their flaps in the wind. From then on it’s me and a big room of isolated body parts. I’m told there used to be a changeroom but all that’s been done away with to expand the gallery section of the shop in time for the Brighton Festival. I kick my boots off and stuff my tights and pants inside ‘em: no nonsense, like. If I’d known Jamie for even one more dinner than I already did I’d probably be far more coy. Easier to perform to a room full of strangers, as they say. While he busies himself readying materials and whatnot I prod nosily at things in the studio. He’s ferrying stuff in and out of the room, answering my (admittedly no less childish) questions as he goes.
“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever cast?”
“A couple fucking!”
“Is this a box of bell-ends?”
“They’re mine. I made a bell-end icetray. Thought it would be funny at dinner parties but now it’s just a receptacle for spare plaster. Hence the, uh, hundreds of bell-ends.”
“JESUS! Who owns THAT willy?”
“Oh that ain’t real. They don’t come that big.” Yes of course I asked.
“Haven’t you gone off vagina entirely? I always wonder why gynos aren’t uniformly gay men.”
“Nope! I still love ‘em.”
“Who’s this dead guy?”
“That’s my dad.”
Jamie brings the death mask down off the top shelf and places it on the casting couch. The features are sunken, the jaw slack and downturned. The plaster is the same off-white colour as everything else in this room but somehow it seems greyer. He’d cast his dead father’s face a year and a half earlier and it affected him so much that now all post-mortem work is done by his assistant. Do they wheel the gurney down the tiny lane, the cold stiff bouncing as the wheels spin and buckle, or do they go to the morgue? They go to the morgue. Campbell, pick your questions more wisely.
Up on the table I’m told it’s just like going to the doctor. I remember the last time I went to the gynecologist he stood up to introduce himself and shake my hand at which point his gold watch flew off and skittered across the linoleum floor. Bodes well, I thought. I’m enormous on his table, my gangly legs splayed and white. Jamie dons the gloves and slops blue porridge on my bits. It’s cold. It probably feels like sitting on a cake just out of the fridge.
Ten minutes later it’s done. The blue rubber nappy is peeled off and I’m face to face with myself in negative.
Jamie asks me if it’s out of character for me to do what I’d just done. I think at the time I gave him a rambling answer, probably mumbled into my chest as I attempted a haphazard Baby Wipe clean-up job on my now immortalised nethers. But I think the gist of it was this: Sometimes I do exactly the opposite of what I would usually do just to see what happens. It’s in character for me to be infrequently and dramatically out of character. I grew up on a diet of Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs, I’ll always watch a Louis Theroux documentary if it’s On Demand in-flight. I over-think things, I talk myself out of far too much, I regret things I don’t do but occasionally I’m hit with a gonzo spirit of “Fuck it, why not?” and I dive in to see what it’s like first hand. I reason it will make an interesting story down the pub. But it’s probably more than that.
Jamie’s idea behind the Great Wall of Vagina is a simple one: women can see that even if they think their bits are weird there are 360 others on the wall and no two of them are alike. You can deploy all the clichés you like – fingerprint, snowflake – but you don’t actually believe it or know the extent of it until you’re standing in a room looking at a sea of white plaster vaginas. They are all so different, so totally unlike each other that it’s gobsmacking. But why does it matter? Porn culture has skewed our perception of what women actually look like and that in turn is screwing with the minds of the young and painfully shy who have naff all else to go on. It may not matter all that much to someone who doesn’t have a vagina but everyone who’s got one has at some point wondered. It’s a noble idea that can’t be done any other way than this – a great big fucking confrontational wall of snatch. Hats off to Jamie. Pants off too.