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Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London by Judith Flanders

Dickens, the quintessential Victorian whose writings have shaped our views of Victorian London was, as Flanders points out early on, not just a Victorian. He was in his 30s by the time Victoria came to the throne, and died far before the end of her reign. This is therefore, a book not just about London during the reign of Victoria, but about the time Dickens lived and worked there, the title being something of a misnomer.  

With an enthusiasm that shines out from every page, Flanders takes you on a journey through the streets of nineteenth century London, revealing a busy, enterprising age. She has obviously read widely and gives you the 'facts' from primary sources with a critical edge. Everything is covered from birth to death, and a whole lot of toil in between. This is an easy to read, informative book with an author who clearly has great enthusiasm for her subject. She picks out details from the minutiae of life that reveal a much more complex world than you get fed in many a period drama. I was struck by just how hard working the Victorians were - the modern world seems slovenly and lazy by comparison. This is a world so starkly different from out own, yet one in which much familiarity can be found. 

Dickens is the starting point, and the heart of the book - references to his novels abound with explanations of how accurate his portrayals were (as well as pointing out when he may have exaggerated or transplanted events to an earlier date). I closed this book with a great respect for Dickens (and London's nineteenth century inhabitants as a whole), and a desire to read more of his work. Even if you are not particularly interested in the novelist there is still a lot to be gained in reading this. 

Flanders' enthusiasm is infectious, and the London of the nineteenth century comes alive in her capable hands. You can happily read the book cover to cover but each chapters could be read independently and still be perfectly comprehensible. A great addition to any Dickens of Victorian enthusiast's bookshelf.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm – Tate Britain

I went to this exhibition not really knowing what to expect. I don’t claim any great knowledge of British iconoclasm, and the only thing I’d heard about it was that the different sections were interesting, but quite disparate. I was intrigued by the subject matter, but did wonder how they would manage to cover such a broad period while keeping it fluid and relevant to the exhibition as a whole.

The first section was the one I was expecting to be most at home in – iconoclasm due to Henry VIII’s break with Rome, beautiful religious objects defaced, I knew where I stood with this. The lighting and layout created a serene feeling in these rooms, and it was a treat to see the objects up close and personal. It was interesting to see the different levels of destruction – some obviously felt far more passionately about it, others were merely following the law. Either way, it was sad to see so many items ruined. I liked the progression to art that was far less visual with the 16th and 17th century Protestants having a far less elaborate form of religious art.

The next section led to the politics aspect of the exhibition. There was no great time leap, and it all seemed very fitting. What better footing to lead in to it than Civil War destruction? I found this section probably the most thought provoking – the destruction of statues of high profile figures (something which is still common today), and probably my favourite objects – defaced coins. The suffragette attacks on art really got me thinking about if it’s ever OK to damage art. At least this was destruction with a cause rather than merely for the sake of repression. It also brought home the importance of art, that throughout history it’s been under attack precisely because it is so important (a fact that is actually very heartening, even if the destruction of it is deeply unsettling). I also feel it would be wrong to talk about this section without taking a moment to acknowledge the incredible conservation work done to some of the damaged portraits – you wouldn’t know they had been attacked to look at them!

The final section based around aesthetics was not one I was planning on spending that long in. I have nothing against modern art but I had thought I would be least interested in this section. I was wrong. The progression to iconoclasm as art was enthralling, and I became completely entranced by some of the pieces. I was particularly interested in the final portraits, a series entitled One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved by Jake and Dinos Chapman where they take historic portraits of unknown people and change them, showing decay. Although the archivist in my baulks at the idea of this, I really did like them a lot, and, if they hadn’t breathed new life in to them, chances are they would have remained forgotten.

Overall, this is a fantastic, thought provoking exhibition. It’s clearly been well thought out, and leads you through the history of British iconoclasm, showing the different forms it can take. I’d only ever thought of iconoclasm as destructive, but the exhibition made me see that iconoclasm can in itself create art. There’s some really great pieces on show, and with such a variety of subjects and mediums, there’s bound to be something that everybody will enjoy. It’s only on until 5th January, so if you haven’t been yet, you haven’t got long. Go, you won’t regret it.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Rambert Moves events – 4th and 6th December 2013


As Rambert Dance Company settles in to its new home on London’s Southbank it opened its doors to the public for a taste of what they do.

First up was a performance of The Rite of Spring by the students of the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. It’s incredible how some great choreography, well thought-out lighting, and talented dancers can completely entrance you. I thoroughly enjoyed his somewhat unsettling, ritualistic piece that showcased some dancers who will clearly be ones to watch in the coming years.

Next up was a panel discussion with Mark Baldwin (Rambert’s Artistic Director), Amanda Britton (Rambert School), Sara Matthews (Central School of Ballet), Mikaela Polley (Rambert), Janet Smith (Northern School of Contemporary Dance), and Jessica Ward (Elmhurst School) looking at preparing the next generation of dancers for the professional world of dance. Starting with a discussion of what companies and schools look for, and then on to the types of training the schools provide it’s clear that a lot is expected of the dancers, but that every member of the panel was genuinely passionate about helping talented dancers develop, and preparing them for careers to span beyond the short time they’ll be at their physical peak. What became apparent is that the dance world has changed, that it’s no longer a case of training, joining a company, and retraining at the end of that part of the dancer’s career for the next stage. The emphasis seems very much on exploring the dancers’ interests, developing relationships with choreographers, and understanding all the different roles that go in to producing dance shows. This enables them to create opportunities for themselves and develop their careers in a way that is right for them. There was also a discussion of what can be learned from the way sport psychology has been used to increase performance, and how dance psychology can be used to similar effect.

I was also lucky enough to sit in on a company class and rehearsal. Having only ever watched and taken part in classical ballet classes it was interesting to see something a bit different, and even in class the individual styles of the dancers were apparent. During the rehearsal it was interesting to see the dancers working together to try and get to grips with the timing of a piece. In every session I left with a real sense of how much they love what they do, and the importance of collaboration and teamwork.

The final event of the week was the highlight for me. Unpacking choreography with Mark Baldwin was a chance to see choreography in action, and what a privilege it was.  He spoke to the audience at the beginning and end about his choreographic techniques, where inspiration comes from, and the importance of collaboration. He had seven dancers with him who he got to choreograph short solos based on a snippet of music and movements that he demonstrated. The results were quite remarkable, and he showed how much difference positioning and tempo can make, as well as combining solos to make a group piece. It became clear what a delicate art choreography is, and how important it is to work with the dancers and musicians until you get something that feels right.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Orange and cranberry cookies


Makes approx. 15

Ingredients:

  • 112g/4oz unsalted butter, softened
  • 70g/ 2 1/2oz caster sugar
  • 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
  • finely grated zest of 1 orange
  • 140g/5oz plain flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 75g/ 2 2/2oz dried cranberries
Method:
  • Beat the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy.
  • Beat in the egg yolk and zest.
  • Sift the flour and salt in to the mixture and stir until beginning to come together. 
  • Add the cranberries and continue to mix until just combined.
  • Lightly knead the dough to bring it together, wrap it in cling film and chill for 30 - 60 mins.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5 and line a large baking sheet with baking paper.
  • Unwrap the dough and roll out on a lightly floured surface until about 5mm thick. 
  • Cut out rounds with a 6cm cookie cutter and place on the prepared baking sheet, allowing space for them to spread.
  • Bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes until golden brown. 
  • Leave to cool on the baking sheet for 5-10 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. 

Saturday, 23 November 2013

'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt

The Secret History  has a powerful opening - you know which character is going to die before you know anything about any of them, and you know the narrator was involved in the murder. This affects the way the reader sees the characters - throwing a sense of apprehension and anticipation over the rest of the action, and making you wonder what happened to the group of friends to make them kill one of their own.

Our narrator, Richard Papen, has just arrived at Hampden, a small college in Vermont, at the start of the novel. He soon joins the small and incredibly select set of Classics students. Already a sense of isolation begins to seep in - this small cluster of students are very much separate from the other students and teachers. They form something of a cult around their teacher, Julian Morrow, who they hold on a pedestal. This sense of isolation is increased greatly when Richard stays in Vermont over winter, almost killing himself with exposure to the cold. When everything starts to go wrong there is nobody to turn to, and yet it's not until quite late in the novel that he seems to realise quite how cut off from the rest of the college they are, and begins to question his somewhat rash decision to join the Classics class.

There's a real sense of innocence when he first joins Hampden - as you'd expect, he wants to be accepted by his fellow students. Many young readers will sympathise with his worries about friends moving away and getting married after college - acts he considers 'treacherous' (why can't life stay exactly as it is?). It is sad to see the innocence stripped away as he despairs later at the thought of being stuck with them forever, their terrible secret providing an everlasting bond.

I got slightly fed up half way through - their nonchalance at the first murder seemed unrealistic and made the characters feel one dimensional. None of them are particularly likeable, meaning their impending doom didn't come with much of an emotional punch. However, their gradual disintegration in the latter part of the novel is very well written, and you do feel sorry for Richard as he is drawn in to their dangerous game, and manipulated in to a precarious position.

Well written and intelligent, albeit perhaps a little unnecessarily long, this is certainly an impressive debut, but not, for me, life changing.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Cheapside Hoard: London's Lost Jewels

Image from Museum of London website
In 1912 a glimmer in the ground was seen while work was being carried out in Cheapside, London. Further digging revealed a hoard of jewels that had been sitting, unclaimed, in the London soil for centuries. Thankfully, the workmen were honest and the hoard ended up in the care of the Museum of London. 

This is the first time that the entire hoard has been on display since its discovery, and the level of security around the exhibition certainly emphasises just how important a collection it is. There are glittering jewels everywhere you look, and they are stunningly beautiful. The skill of the craftsmen who made the jewellery is apparent from the intricate work on show. It's not all Elizabethan and Jacobean treasures, some of the loot originated much further back in history.

The inclusion of examples of dress and portraiture are a wonderful way of gaining some understanding of how the jewels would have been worn. They look lovely glittering away in the cabinets, but it's great to have a bit of context. So eager to show off their wealth that often extra items would be tied to clothing - something I'd never noticed in portraits before.

An opportunity to see the entire hoard on display is not one to be missed (and if it's another hundred years before it goes on display again this is a once in a lifetime opportunity). The mystery remains as to whose hoard it is and why they never came back for it. In such a turbulent age there is no shortage of possibilities, and it's unlikely we'll ever know for sure.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

'Levels of Life' by Julian Barnes

Ballooning, photography, love, and grief. Not an obvious combination of topics for a book. Split in to three sections, the first on ballooning and photography, the second a fiction about love, and the third about grief; it deals with big ideas and very real emotions.

I found the first section interesting, the second quite forgettable, and the third incredibly moving. The start of each section begins with an idea of putting two people/things together that haven't been put together before, and the consequences of this. This is pretty much the extent of the connectedness between each section, beyond a few mentions of characters throughout, and a couple of ideas that spring up in all of them.

The third, and longest, section focussing on life after the death of the author's wife is the most engaging and feels like the main purpose of the book. I almost decided against picking up this book because of some negative reviews saying Barnes comes across as bitter and self-centred, as though his pain is worse than that felt by others. I'm glad I ignored them and gave it a chance. It's a very honest portrayal of a deep grief, and one I think useful for those in a similar situation, or those wishing to understand what it's like to lose your partner. Although, as he says, grief is unique, and one grief can't explain another, there is a lot in here that will no doubt be familiar to others. One idea that I think will stick with me for a long while is that 'it hurts as much as it is worth'.

I'm not sure the book really works as a whole, but it is well written throughout and thought provoking. His portrayal of his grief over the death of his wife is honest and brave. Definitely one I'll come back to again and again.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

'Before I Die Again' by Chad Varah

I admit I picked this up because I wanted to learn about the founding of the Samaritans, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the whole book interesting and well written. Chad Varah certainly had an interesting (and incredibly busy!) life. From the start it is obvious he is very clear on what he believes and isn't going to make any apologies for that.

As a clergyman some of his views may come as a surprise to many readers. I think he had it spot on in his interpretation of Christianity though - focussed entirely on love, and not following prejudices and discriminations that have sadly been present for many believers throughout history. His acceptance of homosexuality, and openness in talking about sexual issues may not seem such a big deal today, but when the Samaritans was founded there was far less understanding and discussion of such issues. He writes about how the kinds of problems people contact the Samaritans about have changed as society's attitude has changed over time. 

Once the Samaritans began to grow it seems his life was pretty much non-stop. He lived a remarkable life and travelled the world (several times over!) but there's a humility obvious, and a real appreciation of the hard work and commitment of all the volunteers. This really is a brilliant read. Surprising, funny, moving, and, above all, inspirational.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

'Hurt' by Tabitha Suzuma

It's difficult to write a review of this without giving away the story. Mathéo is a talented diver training for the Olympics, is popular, wealthy, and has a beautiful girlfriend. It seems like he has it pretty good, and then, one weekend, everything changes. He comes back from a diving competition knowing he's done something terrible but with no recollection of what. All he knows is that it has changed him forever.

He becomes withdrawn and moody, and even violent on occasions, confusing those closest to him. I've never found an author who writes emotion as well as Suzuma, she draws you in to the thoughts and the feelings of the characters so that you feel it with them. Mathéo's growing sense of isolation and frustration is wonderfully constructed. There's also the juxtaposition of his relationship with his family, one where he rarely spends time with his parents, and the times where the family get together are tense and stressful, and that of his girlfriend Lola's with her father, a loving, comfortable relationship. And that's not to mention the chemistry between Mathéo and Lola. Even though it becomes strained and confusing due to his terrible secret, the love is palpable.

There are two big reveals in this book, the second certainly took me completely by surprise. Suzuma keeps you guessing for most of the book, and it hits hard when all finally becomes clear. Her books should come with a warning - likely to break your heart. She yet again had me in tears (so maybe not one to read in public). I urge everyone to read her books; they draw you in and play with your emotions, and if you haven't discovered her yet, you're missing out. In saying that, I don't think Hurt is her strongest book (but that's no great criticism as some of her others rank amongst my all-time favourites). Some of the descriptions and metaphors are repeated a bit too often, and because you don't know what's going on with Mathéo for most of the novel there's a slight block to the reader's connection with him. It's still definitely worth a read; Suzuma deals with issues that don't often come up in YA fiction in an honest, considered manner, and although Hurt has a slightly different style and structure to her other novels, it's brilliant and moving, and oh so very emotive.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber at Hampton Court Palace


The first room you walk in to is covered in mattresses, a film projected on the ceiling. After tentatively shuffling in to the room it’s clear you really are meant to lie down. A rather fun, novel start to an exhibition, and actually very effective. Lying there watching the film I felt the outside world fade away as I gazed up at the ceiling, being drawn in to the world of the exhibition I was about the enter.

First you are introduced to the royal bedchamber with items that belonged to Charles II, the idea that royal bedchambers were far from just places to sleep. There were some famous portraits on show, and some intricate pieces of silverware, as well as some quirky and unusual objects. The rest of the exhibition takes you through several monarchs, bed by bed. My favourite was probably Queen Charlotte’s for the embroidery alone – it was stunning! It was interesting to learn how important the royal bedchamber was, and how many controversies centred around it (and to see the beds where they took place!).

As always, Historic Royal Palaces put on an interesting, visually impressive exhibition. One room contained mannequins in paper(?) dresses that, although not historic, were incredibly impressive. One of the things I love about their exhibitions is the innovative way they present history, and the aesthetics of their displays, a treat in themselves. There were so many displays I wanted to take photos of but alas, it was not allowed.

The final item, a beautifully intricate key, serves as a reminder that to have access to the royal bedchamber would have been a great privilege, and that what we’ve just seen is something quite special.

The exhibitions runs until 3rd November, and it’s definitely worth a visit. For more details see here.

Friday, 11 October 2013

'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern


Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. A black and white circus which appears with no warning, opens only at night, and where you can feast your eyes on many a wonder.

We meet Celia and Marco as children. Celia, the daughter of a famous magician, and Marco an orphan taken in by a mysterious man in a grey suit. Their lives are entwined from a young age when they are entered in to a mysterious, seemingly somewhat sinister challenge by their guardians. We see them grow in their very different, albeit both oppressive bordering on cruel, upbringings as they are trained for the challenge they know so little about. They meet years later at Le Cirque des Rêves, which will become the venue for their challenge. As they struggle to comprehend the rules of the challenge the reader realizes they are hurtling toward tragedy – made all the more devastating by the characters’ obliviousness to their future.

The circus itself attracts many followers, and the reader is drawn in to the lavish, magical world it holds. Although there are complications and danger within, I defy anyone to read this book without falling in love with it.

I’d heard only great things about this book and so my expectations were high. I wasn’t too sure to start with – it was good, but some of the dialogue felt a little awkward, and I didn’t feel completely immersed in the world. And then it got me, and I was gripped to the very end – navigating my way through a host of intriguing characters whose lives were intrinsically linked with the fate of the circus, mystery, revelation, magic, and descriptions that transported me to another world.

It felt like a long time since I’d found a book that completely drew me in, kept me up at night, and stayed with me after the last page. The Night Circus did all these things. It was with a sense of sadness that I, as the reader, was led out of the circus, but with characters so well drawn they are still vividly alive in my head.