Sunday, 22 May 2016

Mommy, what's a FONCadelic?

Man, I love the Nunhead Cemetery Open Day. What a great idea. A day out in a cemetery with live music, ice cream vans, and a bit of a history thrown in. Cemeteries aren't morbid. Well, literally they are. But in common parlance they're not. They're a shining example of humanity's altruism. What could be more altruistic than caring for a dead person? You know you can't get anything back. Good on you, people. You're alright.

Nunhead Cemetery itself is a short walk from my house. It's one of the 'magnificent seven'. The others are West Norwood, Tower Hamlets, Brompton, Abney Park, Kensal Green, and the most famous Highgate. They were built in Victorian times to alleviate overcrowding in the City of London.

The architect of Highgate was the fabulously named James Bunstone Bunning. His work proved so popular he was employed at Nunhead too. He did a good job. So much so that every year in May the FONC (Friends Of Nunhead Cemetery - who seem to enjoy a friendly rivalry with their Highgate brethren) put on one of these open days. If I can get down there I do.

The history lesson starts at the cemetery gates. There you'll see an upturned torch. The flame extinguished to represent a life cut short. The Victorians were big on this sort of symbolism and there's a stall inside the cemetery itself that explains it all for you.

I, fortuitously, arrived just in time for the tour. Led by a prominent member of FONC we strolled down avenues of buddleia, walnut, and beech. We saw damaged graves. Not damaged by vandalism but by World War II bombs. The Nazis weren't bombing graveyards. They were evil, not stupid. The destruction was caused either by missing the target, which would've been the nearby dockyards, or offloading unused bombs on their return.

Holding firm with the military theme we were shown a plot for 289 dead servicemen. FONC had pressured Southwark countil to provide this and had been successful. It was instructive, in these divisive times, to learn that all ranks were buried together. No hierarchy in the after-life, apparently.

Far more funding had gone in to the Commonwealth war graves. It seems our allies respect their war dead better than us. Most of the graves were those of Canadians but also represented were New Zealanders (including one Maori, see below), South Africans, and a sole Australian.

Next to this stands a monument to the boy scouts who died in the Leysdown tragedy. A group were taken from the inner city on a boat trip down the Thames but perished in a violent storm off the coast of Sheppey. Giles Gilbert Scott, more famous for Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station, and the iconic red telephone box, provided a monument for them. The cemetery fell into disrepair. The memorial more so. Eventually FONC stumped up for a new one. Have a look at it below and note the first child. An ancestor of a very famous footballer indeed. I think you can probably work out who.

We then visited the plots of a few Nunhead notables. Bryan Donkin found his fortune inventing a system for canning food so sailors wouldn't have to survive on dog biscuits. He was a friend of both Babbage and Brunel and one of several engineers buried here.

The two graves you see below belong to Vincent Figgins (foreground) and John Allan (background). Figgins was a typefacer from Peckham Rye. Typefacing was hard work in the old days. You didn't just click on a mouse but spent hours, days, sweating over it. He's buried with his son who died in Nice when Nice was still in Italy. John Allan's is the biggest grave in the entire cemetery. The show off was a ship owner from Whitby who moved to St.John's in Lewisham. It's modelled on the Payava tomb in Xanthos. Whatever that is.

Our guide, Ron, got most animated when waxing lyrical about the artistry behind the shaking hands engraved on the Mullins family monument. It's debatable if they represent a goodbye or a reunion. It's not in question that they're rather touching. Ron and the FONC have, so far unfruitfully, been canvassing heritage societies to get this grave listed.

Nearby stands another notable plot. A romanesque terracotta mausoleum to the Doulton family of Lambeth who later moved to Stoke-on-Trent and found even more notoriety in the pottery business. You may even own one of their plates.

The tour finished and I wandered down past the amazing views of St.Paul's. I saw woodcraft demonstrations, bug hunts, log stacks, and beetle loggeries. I resisted the temptation to have my photo taken with either an owl or a hawk. The falcon was not available for snaps. Camera shy?

There was a campaign to save Peckham's multi-storey car park and, by extension, Frank's Campari bar. Surely one of the best, if not the best, spot in London to enjoy a sundowner. I hope they succeed.

Too early for Campari I took a milky, to the point of anaemic, tea and a strawberry jam scone. It was Alan Bennett enough as it was but if I hadn't been beaten to the last slice of sponge cake I'd probably be writing this in the voice of Thora Hird.

Ambling up to the Anglican chapel I passed stalls for Greenpeace, Family Search, Friends of Nunhead reservoir, Global Justice Now, Surrey badger protection society, the Salvation Army, Honor Oak Women's Institute, Camberwell Gardens Guild, and various other London cemeteries friends group.

All very worthy - in the best sense of the word. I barely had time to vote for The Lavender Hill Mob as the film to be shown on Peckham Rye this summer (good friends of mine lived on Lavender Hill, I'm biased) before joining a tree ID walk. A tree ID walk. Fucking hell. All my birthdays had come at once.

It didn't disappoint. The young studious guy running it was a font of arboreal knowledge. I wanted him to be my friend. I might even stalk him. He's bound to appreciate that tree based joke.

He's part of a group who focus on maintaining what's left of the Great North Wood. It used to spread from New Cross down to Croydon but now only parts of it are left. For reasons which, even if you've never been to London, are pretty obvious. I signed up to their mailing list so, hopefully, I'll be bending your ears about further London woodland adventures. Few people move to London for a sense of community but if you want it it's there.

The first tree we 'identified' was a lime. The leaves are hairless and heart-shaped. They're good for bees who, as we all know, have had a tough time of it lately. Apparently you can make 'calming' tea from the leaves. It was very popular during the war. Not popular enough.

The London plane was a nobbly old bastard. A hybrid, like the lime, it was imported from Spain in the sixteenth century. The popularity in London is due to its resistance to pollution. It not only remains disaffected by it but also sucks it up and saves other trees in the bargain. Taking one for the team there.

I found out many things I didn't know before but best of all was that some trees are gendered. Holly trees can be sexually identified as easily as a horny dog. The females produce the red berries and the males the prickly leaves and the pollen. Which is tree spunk basically. The way they grow is good for both birds and moths. That's because they're one of a handful of native evergreens and provide cover for the little woodland wallies.

Spotted laurel is more problematic (well, we've all had problems with that). It shades out the ground flora and, worse still, you can't make tea from it because it's got cyanide in its leaves.Very much the bad guy of the whole tree scene!

Whilst on leaves, ashes are damned confusing. Their leaves consist of what look like several leaves. Individually they're known as leaflets. They're in the same family as olives and their wood was used to make spears. Possibly because the Latin name, Fraxinus excelsior, is so blimmin' cool.

We rushed past maples, plums (or damsels, your choice), cow parsley (loads of it, compound leafed like aforementioned ash), and snowberry. We stopped for a while at the turkey oak. Its lobes more sawtoothed than its English brother. It was originally imported from central Europe and debate rages amongst tree huggers as to whether or not it would've reached here under its own steam anyway.

The trees were coming thick and fast now. Hello hawthorn. Chin up cherry laurel. Nice to meet you Norway maple. High five to the hollyoak. Let's ponder, briefly, the elder though. The sambucus nigra. Used, as its Latin name suggests, to make sambuca. I had to get the fuck out of that place but not before learning it's also used to make wine and to stiff up Harry Potter's wand. Dirty little wizard. Folklorically, you can burn elder to either summon the devil or protect you from him. I just get Daniel Radcliffe to stand on my balcony and shake his wand. Seems to work. Not had a devil round in the last two years.

Our guide, who wasn't making anywhere near as many smutty jokes as I am, showed us a veteran oak. Oaks and hornbeams (with their sinewy barks) made up the bulk of the Great North Wood. Caterpillars feed on them and then tits feed on the caterpillars (or moths, same thing).

The last tree was the humble horse chestnut. I never knew they'd been introduced from the Balkans.

My conkers were well and truly marinated so, pausing to take a photo of the tempting tome below, I eschewed ubiquitous ukuleles in the rainy chapel and popped to the pub. Crystal Palace were in their first cup final for 26 years and I wasn't missing that.

I'll be back in Nunhead Cemetery one day. Maybe permanently.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Don't smile, you're in an art gallery.

Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut to a Palestinian family in 1952. Whilst on a visit to Britain in 1975 civil war broke out in Lebanon. So she stayed here. Since then she's moved steadily from the fringes to a point near the centre of the conceptual art scene. Now she's got a 35 year career spanning retrospective at the Tate Modern so if she hadn't 'made it' before she certainly has now.

The press release, for which Hatoum herself, it is to be assumed, is not responsible, is peppered with zeitgeisty cliches like 'challenging', 'important', 'intense', 'radical', 'dangerous', and 'mesmerising'. What we can ascribe to her is her claim to be looking for a 'strong formal presence' and to 'activate a psychological and emotional response'.

Well, we'll see about that. If anything these haughty claims serve to alienate, patronize, and generally piss off the viewer. We don't need to be told to have an emotional response. You need to make art good enough to give us one. With this in mind the first few rooms were endured rather than enjoyed.

I witnessed the minimalist and surreal influences but failed to see what had actually been done with them. Instead of being laid out chronologically the curators had gone for a series of 'juxtapositions' demonstrating how she challenged our (but not her own as well?) assumptions of the world. This was a good way of doing it if nowhere near as pioneering as was insinuated.

There's a re-imagining of a Piero Manzoni work (a metal cube covered in iron filings that look a bit hairy), there's a room you stand in and watch film of a probe inside someone's body (which apparently has something to say about surveillance), and there's a video documenting an early performance, Don't smile, you're on camera! (1980) which mixes images of audience members with those of naked bodies and x-rays.

So far, so much 'cold mechanical, conceptual bullshit'. I don't want to come across all Kim Howells but the guy had a point. It's not just the concept of the conceptual that grates (more grating later) but the fact the supposed originality isn't that at all. It just makes you shrug or roll your eyes.

Even the best stuff borrows heavily. Present Tense, one of the finest works here, re-purposes Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII (the pile of bricks) as a political statement and, on the whole, it works. Made of 2,200 blocks of olive oil soap, a traditional Palestinian product from Nablus, a town north of Jerusalem. Drawn on the soap blocks, in tiny red beads, is a map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authorities. The beads delineate the territories to be handed back to the Palestinians. It'd be interesting to know if this happened. It'd be interesting to get some political background on this. At the very least it lifted my cynicism and I was able to enjoy the rest of the exhibition much more.

Great Divide (below) and Daybed also demonstrated Hatoum's occasional propensity for appropriation. Taking Claes Oldenburg's pop style of enlarging quotidian artefacts exponentially and giving it a horror twist. Imagine scraping your Cathedral City on this monster:-

For me she works best this way. When she raises the everyday into the extraordinary, the mundane into the marvellous. Finding weirdness and wonder in the workaday. The well meaning political installations can be too dry. Plain dull in places. Developing ideas on race and gender is all well and good, important too, but unless it catches your attention it's a dead end.

There are photographs and text corresponding to performance art staged in the early 80s. Some of it was 7 hours long! Who's got the time for that sort of shit?

Maybe I'm an example of shortened attention spans and the quick fix/easy gratification culture that has had such a corroding effect on our present times (though, writing this blog I'd counter I'm probably not) but I prefered the neon globe (Hot Spot, 2013) and the room full of lockers with a swinging lightbulb (Light Sentence, 1992) to the worthier work. I even had a little chuckle at Jardin Public. A  classic French garden chair sporting a triangle of pubes. A nod to both Magritte and a 12 year old schoolboy. It was silly but I like silly - and no-one expects you to look at it for seven hours.

Time won't be a concern if you come to this though as looking at hair, cheese graters, iron filings, and, for some reason, a photograph of a ram's dismembered bollock hanging up in a Jerusalem butcher shop won't detain you for long.

You can spend as much time as you want watching the strangely spellbinding +and (1994-2004), a kinetic work that uses a rotating motor-driven arm to sweep slowly over the surface of a large sandpit, simultaneously creating and flattening a circle in the sand. Me and my friend Shep once spent a little too long watching detritus bounce around at the bottom of a small waterfall on the Miljacka river in Sarajevo. It was strangely transfixing and utterly pointless. As was this.

Equally pretty, and thankfully lacking in high concept, was Turbulence (black) from 2014. Thousands of marbles amassed in a circle with the light bouncing off them. I wanted to touch them but the security guards don't let you do that.

So those last two works were mesmerising but what of the other adjectives we spoke of earlier? Possibly some of the political stuff was important (if a bit boring). None of it was intense or particularly radical. It certainly wasn't dangerous. It's art for fuck's sake. Not tightrope walking or black ops. As for challenging? That's the thorny one. Initially it only challenged my patience and my resolve not to get drunk after. Later it challenged another of my resolves. The resolve to be positive when writing up my experiences.

I don't think that's the kind of 'challenging' they were aiming for though. So it failed to do what the press release promised but I won't go hating on Hatoum for that - not least for reasons outlined earlier. I had a nice evening and, despite earlier caveats, more than 50%, but not much more, of the art worked for me.

It's just frustrating that it could've, should've, been so much better. That, I guess, is a 'challenge' for the future.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Fifteen (x4) minutes of fame.

It's a bit weird to leave a gig when it's still light outside but the Barbican's Exposed:Songs for Unseen Warhol Films concentrated much more on the quality than the quantity.

Needs must. There were fifteen of Warhol's shorts showing. All shot in the sixties. All lasting roughly four minutes. That's not much more than an hour whichever way you slice it. I suppose the participating acts could've come back on at the end and thrown some greatest hits shaped bones out to the audience. But they didn't. Less value for money, perhaps, but clinging firm to the ethos of the event. Swings and roundabouts.

I was happy with the way they did it. It was certainly lovingly put together. Former Galaxie 500 man Dean Wareham has previous when it comes to collaborating with Warhol from beyond the grave. Him and his wife, and Luna co-member, Britta Phillips scored 13 Most Beautiful Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests which was performed at this venue back in 2008.

He spoke quietly, yet enthusiastically, about Warhol, the performers, and the overall concept of the show both at the start and in the short gaps between acts. He certainly wasn't as quiet as Tom Verlaine though. The former Television man didn't so much kick off proceedings as gently roll the ball into touch. His sparse, minimalist guitar work was at times barely there. Later on, when the cast took a well earned bow, he was gone completely.

This spectral approach may've seemed an odd fit for footage of Warhol's boyfriend, John Giorno, washing the dishes in the nude. But it worked. Even if a whole evening of it might've been a bit much.

Martin Rev showed there's more than one way to open a soup can. The contrast with fellow 70s NYC punk icon Verlaine couldn't have been stronger. Even down to the dress sense. Verlaine soberly attired in sensible clothes and Rev decked out in fluorescent shades, ripped sleeveless t-shirt, and PVC keks.The 68 year old Suicide man clearly not one to grow old gracefully.

His music was even more abrasive. At times literally punching the keyboards as a punishing din emanated from his retro looking stack of gear. After a fashion some semblance of a rhythm came through. Even hints of a tune. There was, hidden in there somewhere, some long buried memory of a disco banger. Rev certainly thought so, shaking his leg whilst keeping his rock'n'roll sneer in place at all times. Truth be told it sounded fucking ace and the homoerotic film of a built like a car beefcake slurping down a cool Coke worked a treat with the synth mangling.

Eleanor Friedberger continued the musical theme. That of there being no musical theme. Her 70s hairstyle looking like something that once belonged on Linda Ronstadt's head. Her voice, too, a lovely reminder of simpler times past. This was the first time the band got on stage. The aforementioned Britta Phillips on bass, Noah Hecht on drums, and Jason Quever (from Papercuts who I once wrote a very favourable review of) on guitar.

Friedberger got to score the footage of UK visitor Donovan. His still features made him, cruelly, look a little simple. She also told the story, and sang about the film of, Marisol Escobar. A French sculptor of Venezuelan heritage who found herself, as many did, in Warhol's circle. She lived until fairly recently in the TriBeCa area of New York City and, in fact, only died, aged 85 at the end of last month. This show acting, for me, both as a tribute and an introduction to her.

The band stayed on for host Dean Wareham's appearance. He has the look, and the sound, of a young(er) Lou Reed with a splash of Spaceman 3 on the side. He gave himself some of the plum footage to work with. Nico eating a banana. A dapper Marcel Duchamp in his dotage enjoying a cigar and the company of an Italian model. A leather boot being licked (well, of course) and French-Madagascan protest singer and sailor Antoine. If you've ever enjoyed the dream pop of Galaxie 500 and Luna then you'd have been very comfortable here.

Due to a family bereavement Deerhunter's Bradford Cox was unable to perform. They still had his music though. Rather than it being performed live they played a pre-recording. Cox's work was probably the most soundtracky (yep, that's a word) of the lot. Highly atmospheric glitch infused electronica closed the evening accompanying a couple of films that must've been a perfect storm for Warhol. Homosexuality, cross-dressing, American iconography, fast food, Edie Sedgwick (below) and experimental cinema.

All in all a fitting tribute to one of the last century's most iconic figures. Though it seems unlikely he got home before it was dark very often.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Concrete jungle boogie.

In London's Bloomsbury stands Bedford Square. A garden square festooned with blue plaques and one of the finest examples of preserved Georgian architecture in the capital.

On the east side of the square sits The Architectural Association School of Architecture. Established in the late Victorian era it runs a programme of lectures and symposia relating to themes considered pertinet to its remit. But I visited specifically to see Modern Forms:A Subjective Atlas of Twentieth-Century Architecture.

A collection of photographs by Nicolas Grospierre covering structures built between 1920 and 1989. The locations are worldwide but the architectural styles he focuses on are skewed very heavily, almost uniquely, on the brutal, concrete end of modern.

The photographs are arranged by form, as opposed to function, which gives this psychogeographical survey the feel of one of Bernd and Hilla Becher's artworks (for which you can read more on my blog about the Barbican photography exhibition, Strange and Familiar)

There are few 'names' present. Those that are include Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer who is best known for his buildings in the planned Brazilian, and capital, city Brasilia. Below we see his Palace of Justice from 1957.

Other big hitters include Charles and Ray Eames (for more on that refer to my previous blog about yet another Barbican show. Eameses) and the Finnish-American Eero Sarinen who, in 1947, designed St Louis's Gateway Arch, below. He died in '61 and the arch wasn't completed until '67. At 192m high it is the tallest arch in the world and its summit is accessed by two flights of stairs or, and this hardly seems plausible, by trams located in the arch's legs.

Elsewhere we're introduced to such weird and wonderful things as Lebanese heliports, Latvian kindergartens, Sri Lankan houses, Russian bus stops, Iranian theatres, Lithuanian ice cream parlours, Texan chapels, and Estonian cinemas. Polish churches keep cropping up. In a section of the show that highlights buildings with triangular features we're shown Wrzosowa's Church of the Body of Christ designed by Stanislaw Kwasniewicz in 1978. It's something of a crucifix heaven.

The triangular trail also takes us, via several other Polish churches, past Chicagoan Googie architecture, a Californian motel, another one of Niemeyer's Brasilia beauties, and reaches its logical conclusion with Henryk Buszko and Aleksander Franta's Rosomak Sanatorium. A scalene surprise in the Polish town of Ustron-Zawodzie built in 1972. Ustron-Zawodzie is a health resort designed to host Silesian miners and actually contains 17 pyramid shaped hotels all built by Buszko and Franta.

This marks a neat leap in the narrative of the exhibition. Fitting in, as it does, with the triangular, pyramidal edifices but also introducing a section on tower blocks. Or skyscrapers if you'd prefer. Unsurprisingly the US starts to feature more here but there's also housing estates in Kaliningrad, the Cite Administrative in Lille, Bratislava's Trade Union House, and the below Residential Tower of St Petersburg. It was nicknamed House on Chicken Legs. Designed by Lenniiproiekt in the mid-80s it was finally completed in 1993. It would've been interesting to hear some testimony from residents about what it's like to actually live there but, like so much in the world of culture and academia, their voices are silenced in favour of dry theory. Shame.

Having said that I did enjoy it. I do like looking at architectural pictures and, as it's unlikely I'll ever get to travel to Madliena or Sventoji, I'll lap this up for now. Triangles led to rectangles led to arches and, inevitably, to spherical constructions. Kiev (a city I have visited) boasts 1971's Institute of Scientific Research and Development, pictured below. The brains behind it, L Novikov and F Nuriyev, seemed to have watched a few UFO movies. How this informs their flying saucer pushes, nicely, against the concept of function over form at all times.

A cute trick the curators have pulled off is that when you reach the end of the show it, curatorially speaking, links up with the start again creating, potentially, an infinite loop. An infinite loop of concrete and brutalism. We end (or don't end, up to you) with some of the harshest of all edifices. The ones that don't seem to have windows but simply blank walls staring us down, asking us to dare to blink.

For some the reason is obvious. It's practical that a nuclear power plant or a cinema shouldn't be letting light in from the outside. It's less obvious why Vanda Baulina's Daugavkrasti Hotel in Jekabpils, Latvia should resemble so strongly a penitentiary building.

Ticking so many boxes is our old friend Stanislaw Kwasniewicz's Silesian Institute (1974). Both ruin porn and brutalism have been fetishised in untold volumes and tomes in recent years and this Le Corbusier inspired 'monstrosity' in Katowice, Poland ticks both boxes. I'll leave you with it. Sweet dreams.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

I ran.

For years I'd told people, with nothing whatsoever to back it up, that I was quite good at running. I'd challenge people to running races and, as they never took me up on it, I was never tested to prove it.

Then in 2004 I had one of those complimentary health checks at work. Turned out my cholesterol levels were high. In retrospect not dangerously so but it gave me quite a fright at the time so I decided to start eating (a bit) healthier and to do some exercise. It was time to put this running business to the test.

On my first run I didn't go much further than round a few blocks. Second time I added another block. Third time one more. And so on and so on. I'd sometimes have to stop for a rest but I'd make sure that I never walked. I ran all the way. It wasn't far though - probably about 3-4k maximum - and it wasn't fast.

I had my cholesterol checked again. It had gone down to a much more respectable level. I went on holiday to Mexico. I drank Corona. I ate chimichangas. That was fair enough. It was a holiday. But when I came back I carried on in pretty much the same fashion.

For about five more years. Turning forty I was starting to feel my age and I wanted to get fit again. So I ran again. First time round the block. Second time adding in another block. Third time another. Same pattern as last time. You can see how it works.

This time I stuck at it. I'd joined the gym at work, also, and was putting in some time on the treadmill so this time I didn't stop at 4k but kept building it up, eventually to over 21k.

In October 2010 I put in for my first 5k race in Crystal Palace Park. I wasn't bothered about times or positions. I just wanted to finish it, say I'd done one. On the day I was pretty nervous and a little excited too. I had no idea how these things worked but I figured if I turned up it'd all become apparent.

Which it did. Us runners headed off into the park and I was surprised to find I was in front of quite a lot of people. As we ran past a boy in the park he counted us. I was in 19th place out of a few hundred. I overtook one more person but then one person overtook me. So I finished 19th. In my first ever race. I was made up. I was buzzing. I was updating my Facebook status for sure.

The next step was a 10k. So I booked one up for Wilton Hall, near Salisbury, in March 2011. Some friends signed up too. I headed down to Salisbury, alone, the night before and stayed in a B&B. It was weird to be on holiday without alcohol playing a part. After a look round the town and some food I spent Saturday night in my room watching Harry Hill on tv.

Some might call me a loser at this point but I didn't feel too much of one and I was good for the race. I completed it in just over 50 minutes and, somehow, managed to finish in front of my friends. The pub lunch afterwards was well earned. An element of the Sunday morning run that's become almost obligatory now.

I did a few more 10k runs and managed to get my time down to just over 42 minutes. I've never dipped below that but I aspire to. Age may have other ideas. One regular feature is the Oxford Town & Gown 10k which I'll be running with, as ever, my friend Rob, this Sunday. It's a beautiful flat run that takes in the sights and architecture of Oxford and, we've been lucky, the weather's normally good for it.

From 10k runs I progressed to a ten miler and, eventually, to a half-marathon. I've done four of them and my times have always been between 100 & 120 minutes. Again, I'd like to improve but, at the moment, I don't think I have a half-marathon in me.

Let alone a marathon. The idea of reaching the end of a half-marathon and someone telling you to run back to the start doesn't appeal. I'd like one day to do the full distance but, again, age isn't on my side anymore.

On completion of a run I usually post some details on Facebook and I have observed an interesting response. A lot of female friends (and some male ones) tend to be pretty positive. A selection of male friends tend to be sarcastic. These are all friends about the same age as me who drink too much like me. Probably the ones who'd most benefit from a bit of exercise!

So just to clear up I've heard all the jokes. What are you running away from me? You could get there faster on a bus? I don't need to see the link to an old Daily Mash story because I've seen it before. If you can think of some new jokes though fire away. I'm all up for some #epicbantz! Lol!

I prefer the nice stuff though and without wanting to get too X-Factory about it all it's been quite a journey. One where, admittedly, my physical destination is the same place as the starting line but where, psychologically and mentally, I think I'm in a better place than I would be if I didn't go out pounding the streets on a regular basis. I sleep better. I drink less (most of the time - well, it's all relative) and if I catch a glance of my body in the mirror these days I'm not horrified.

So thanks to Rob, Cheryl, Rebecca, Alex, Darren, Tony, Sanda, and Naomi for joining me in my running races. Thanks also to Michelle, Tori, Adam, Simon, Alexandra, and Daniel (the only family member to run with me - so far) for joining me in running non-races. Every bit of motivation, every friend turning up to support, helps.

So, I'm afraid, those of you who get riled by Facebook running updates, I'm not planning on stopping them any time soon.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Fleapit revisited:Johnny Guitar

Most of us probably imagine the movies of the 1950s to be more sexist, more ageist, than the, admittedly far from perfect, films we enjoy now. So it's interesting to note that in 1954, the year Johnny Guitar was made, Joan Crawford celebrated her 50th birthday whilst those competing for her romantic attention in this film were either twelve years younger than her (Sterling Hayden in the titular role) or born more than two full decades later (Scott Brady as The Dancin' Kid). Instructive also that this is not once considered worth mentioning.

Admirable though this proto-feminist casting is it's merely one of many things to admire about Johnny Guitar. Not least Crawford's performance. She plays Vienna who runs a curiously empty saloon in a windswept Arizona frontier town. The only liquor she seems to stock seems to be unlabelled whiskey bottles and the roulette tables often spin but nobody ever seems to play them.

She's ostensibly waiting for the railroad to come through town, biding her time before she can hit paydirt serving travellers and those moving out West. The threat of new people, strangers, from the East, moving into town - and changing it - isn't going down well at all with some of the locals. Not least Mercedes McCambridge's Emma Small, all gimlet eyes, repressed passions, and petty vengeances.

The most reliable customers at Vienna's are a motley, if well drawn, crowd of ne'er-do-wells whose source of income is dubious to say they least. The gang leader goes by the name of The Dancin' Kid and handsome though he is it's never exactly clear why he's leading these outlaws.They claim to work in an unspecified silver mine. Emma and the town elders suspect they rob stagecoaches. Emma also suspects, through motives of her own, that Vienna is in league with them.

Sterling Hayden, on occasion, runs the risk of being acted off the screen by his horse. This doesn't matter as much as it should. An advantage, perhaps, of playing the strong silent type. His Johnny Guitar has been called to the saloon by Vienna to act as protection and it soon becomes clear that they were, a lustrum back, romantically involved.

The Dancin' Kid and Johnny Guitar have an uneasy relationship. Both looking to win Vienna's heart. Both sharpshooters with itchy trigger fingers and fully aware that the emotionally mature Vienna won't be impressed by such macho shenanigans.

So, despite the horses, gunfights, bank jobs, and Monument Valleyesque backdrops, it's essentially a love story. A love story dressed up in its finest Western wear and cowboy boots and finished off with some pretty fierce looking spurs.

What it also is is a damned fine caper. The chases are gripping and because the foundations of the character development have been laid so incrementally and delicately you find yourself rooting for different people at different times. It's been called a psychological Western and that doesn't seem an unfair description.

Crawford's Vienna's tough exterior hints at a back story of pain and rejection. The toughened up independent woman she has become, however, is still humane enough to see the best in people. She can even understand that Emma's vindictiveness arises from barely understood passions bubbling up inside her. Not least when The Dancin' Kid is about.

The Kid's gang are a wonderfully disparate bunch. From young Turkey (Ben Cooper), a boy playing a man's game with no idea just how severe the consequences could be, to loyal sidekick Corey (Royal Dano), and loose cannon Bart (Ernest Borgnine) who doesn't trust women, other men, or even horses it would appear.

Sometimes the film has its bean chowder and eats it. Whilst, in many ways, refusing to pander to easy signifiers of good and evil, the director Nicholas Ray (perhaps most famous for Rebel Without A Cause) uses the plot device of a funeral to kit out an outraged posse in black clothes. When they burst into Vienna's she is, of course, clad in a pure white outfit that makes her look like a model for an early Whistler painting.

There are a couple of wonderful set pieces but the tension grips you from start to finish, aided and abetted by Victor Young's brooding score. I left the BFI keen to learn more about this curious genre they called the psychological Western. I left the BFI wondering, when they dig up such long forgotten treats as that, why I don't go more often. I left happy.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Purgatory, paradise, and pens.

Somerset House on a warm late spring day is an absolute delight. As kids frolicked in the water fountains and sun seekers soaked up the rays I enjoyed a Crunchie ice cream. With popping candy too. Living the dream.

After paradise in the mouth it was time to give my eyes, mind, and critical senses a workout so I ascended the spiral staircase of Courtaulds to check out their exhibition 'Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection'.

In 1882 the director of Berlin's Prints & Drawings Museum, despite protestations from John Ruskin and Queen Victoria's daughter, managed to acquire eighty-four of Sandro Botticelli's illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy (1308-1320). They'd previously been in the possession of the Duke of Hamilton but his profligate lifestyle had seen him short of monies and forced the sale.

The drawings are believed to have been made between 1480 and 1495 for Lorenzo di Medici, de facto ruler of the Florentine republic. A plan to colour them in was soon abandoned and they remain pen and inks. Rather feint ones too as you'll see from the representations below.

It's spread out over two rooms and whilst the vast majority of works are by Botticelli himself there are bibles, psalters, manuscripts, and the like from contemporaries of his. All lavishly illustrated, of course, and replete with references to lyric poet Horace and humanist Petrarch. Of most interest to a heathen such as I was the story of Cecco d'Ascoli, the encyclopaedist and physician, who was condemned as a heretic and burnt at the stake in 1327. He condemned Dante's work as mythical story telling. Which it was. As we'll see. Cold blooded old times indeed.

In the first room we encounter Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, being rowed across the Styx by the monstrous ferryman Phlegyas, visiting the burning tombs of Dis, and meeting the monster Geryon who, not content with the infamy his dragon's body and scorpion's tail brought him, chose to lower his appeal further by hanging out with money lenders.

So far, so ghastly. It goes on. Corrupt popes, damned souls, infernal henchmen (they're the worst!), and spear carrying devils with names like Barbariccia (curly beard), Graffiacane (dog scratcher), and Malacoda (evil tail). Those nicknames have gotta hurt.

The troubadour Bertran de Born carried his own severed head as a punishment for sowing discord in Henry II of England's family. That'll learn him.

In Cocytus, the lowermost zone of Hell, traitors are trapped in ice and frozen for eternity. Ugolino della Gheradesca, who starved to death in prison, gnaws on the head of his nemesis Archbishop Ruggieri.

In the deepest depths of Hell Dante and Virgil encounter Lucifer himself. His three mouths crunching on the souls of more tasty traitors. His central mouth bites Judas Iscariot's head off whilst the flanking gobs feast on Caesar's betrayers, Brutus and Cassius. He must've been super hungry.

After passing through purgatory Dante and Virgil enter paradise. Us visitors simply enter another room. So we win this one. Upon entering paradise Dante swiftly dispenses of Virgil's services, well he was a pagan so fuck him, and takes the 'radiant' Beatrice as his guide. Always on the pull, these Italians.

Unlike the overpopulated Hell the realms of Heaven are spacious and Botticelli used his consummate skill to show the visionary, abstract nature of Dante's text.

After queueing up to get in Heaven (hold on, is this the nightclub Heaven or something?) they may've been disappointed to meet first with a bunch of German & central European dignitaries. Rudolf I of Habsburg's there. As is Ottokar II, King of Bohemia. You wouldn't be surprised if Dr Oetker, the pizza guy, rocked up.

Niceties and introductions dealt with our protagonists contemplate the falls of both Lucifer and Troy and take a moment out to consider Nimrod at the foot of the Tower of Babel.

Heaven's not sounding much fun at this point but the art, at least, found great favour. The historian, and Civilisation guy, Kenneth Clark judged the below drawing to be 'unequalled in Western art'. As with the rest it's lightly drawn in metalpoint (and shoddily photographed for this blog) so it may be hard to make out but, not wishing to naysay such an eminent critic, I shall let you decide for yourself.

Paradise is represented by a series of concentric circles with Earth, Tera, at the centre. It's populated by the souls of those who broke their vows through no fault of their own. For example the nun Piccarda Donati, victim of a forced marriage.

At the foot of Jacob's Ladder Dante watches shimmering souls fly upwards. Beatrice's severe expression reflects the 'fact' that she cannot smile when Dante looks directly at her as he would be reduced to ashes by her beauty. Bloody hell, she sounds high maintenance. Sack it off and get on Tinder, mate.

As paradise gets more, er, paradisier (that's definitely a word) they start bumping into the big beasts. Adam. Jacob. St Peter. John the Evangelist. Those guys. They're in the VIP section now. Behind the velvet rope and enjoying a higher standard of canape. At the absolute top table of all, you've guessed it, sit Mary, the archangel Gabriel and the risen Christ himself.

As Dante and Beatrice disembark into the final celestial sphere and journey towards the Empyrean river of light I too make my way from the gallery and towards the more temporal Thames. Heaven can wait. They probably don't even have Crunchie ice creams there.