Kingston upon Thames

Kingston upon Thames is a Surrey town that I can reach easily by bus, and it’s a nice place to while away a few hours. I’ve recently discovered the Rose Theatre, which I love as you can buy pit tickets (bring your own cushion) for as little as £5. On Saturday I had a matinee ticket to see A Life of Galileo and decided to get there early to explore Kingston a little.

The town has some lovely old buildings, like this Victorian police station:

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I also found this interesting sculpture, with red phone boxes lined up like dominoes. The official name is ‘Out of Order’ and it is by artist David Mach.

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Finally I popped into the Kingston Museum., which is free to enter and open Tues-Sat. Located on Wheatfield Way, the museum has permanent galleries which tell the story of Kingston from ancient times to the present day, as well as temporary exhibitions.

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SLOVO Festival: Shishkin Lectures

As part of Academia Rossica‘s fifth SLOVO Russian Literature Festival – named In Search of Lost Reality – a number of events took place in London. Among them were four lectures by the Russian émigré writer Mikhail Shishkin. I attended two of these lectures, which took place at the King’s College Strand campus.

Shishkin, who currently lives in Switzerland, has written several acclaimed novels including The Light and the Dark (which I have read and enjoyed) and Maidenhair. His lectures focused on Russian literature of the past centuries, as well as the modern political situation in Russia. I would have liked to see all four, but unfortunately I already had plans.

Of Living Noses and Dead Souls

Nikolai Gogol and his attempt to write “a new Bible”

“Gogol and his reception are Russian literature’s greatest misconception. Collectively, his works constitute the Russian Book of the Dead, and yet he’s been consigned to the humourists’ shelf.”

The 11 March lecture looked at Nikolai Gogol, one of the most famous and pivotal Russian writers who had a great deal of influence on the development of Russian literature (though, ironically, he was born in what is now Ukraine). I believe it was Dostoyevsky who said of Russian writers, “We all came out from under Gogol’s overcoat” (or something to that effect). The Overcoat (1842) is an absurd and surreal tale of a man whose social status and self-worth hinge upon the possession of a new overcoat; it is a deeply odd story with a tragic outcome. Shishkin, however, focused in his lecture on Gogol’s religious bent, in particular his bid to write “a new Bible” with his work Dead Souls (1842).

Shishkin began with a reference to the current war in Ukraine, Gogol’s birthplace; he argued, as he would argue again later, that culture is the only thing that can unite people and fight the brutality of war. He went on to talk about perceptions of Gogol’s work: short story The Nose (1835-36) was seen as “filthy, crude and trivial”, while Shostakovich – who would adapt the tale into an opera – viewed it as a horror story. The reading public took the author for a satirist, and the first volume of Dead Souls was seen as a satire, as was the play The Government Inspector (1836) which Shishkin argued was about fear. However, Gogol had a strong religious faith, thought God’s greatest gift was the Word, and believed that a ‘higher power’ was directing his writing. He later renounced his early work, believing it to be sacrilegious, and a reader of Dead Souls Volume 2 told him, “You want to write the second Bible”.

The first volume of Dead Souls is all we have; designed to loosely resemble Dante’s Divine Comedy, it was meant to be a trilogy, but the second part suffered setbacks and the third was never written at all. Gogol burned the second volume three times, in 1843, 1845 and finally in 1852, just before he died of a mystery illness. He thought his book was not progressing because he was unworthy of it, and seemed to have a fear of being buried alive: he wrote in his will that he should not be buried until decomposition became apparent.

Shishkin argued that literature before Gogol was a child, and that his work represents the awakening conscience of a nation. His interpretation of Gogol’s work is fascinating, and I should like to reread some of it with these ideas at the back of my mind.

 “Why the devil was I born in Russia, with brains and talent!” A.Pushkin
“Черт догадал меня родиться в России с душою и с талантом! Весело, нечего сказать.” А.С. Пушкин

Literature and politics in contemporary Russia

On 25 March I attended the final lecture, in which Shishkin talked about literature and politics and contemporary Russia. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this, as I’m not the world’s biggest fan of contemporary politics, but I actually found it really interesting, particularly the comparisons he drew between literature and politics now and literature and politics of a century and two hundred years ago.

Shishkin began by remarking that a century ago, Russia was the centre of world literature, as hundreds flocked to Yasnaya Polyana, home of Leo Tolstoy, in spite of the fact that the writer of Anna Karenina and War and Peace “didn’t consider power to be worth a brass farthing”. Where, he asks, did Russia’s powerful literature come from?

At the time of Shakespeare there were no Russian writers of significance. Russia was surrounded by enemies, and subservience to the Tsar gave subjects a sense of higher purpose, apparently. Peter the Great, founder of St Petersburg, wanted to ‘cut a window to Europe’ but many have argued that he actually ended up weakening the Russian Empire.

Poets did not properly appear until the eighteenth century. Alexander Pushkin was unique in challenging the established hierarchy of power, helping to create an alternative power pyramid with the poet on top, the power of a free artistic spirit. It has been suggested that his muse was a “terrorist muse”, as one of his poems was passed around by the revolutionary group the Decembrists. Interestingly, though, the Tsar did not execute Pushkin – he realised that he needed him. This sentiment was echoed by the Soviets in the 20th century, who suppressed Christianity but could not give up Pushkin – they needed him to give them spiritual legitimacy.

Shishkin suggested that in Russia, the choice has always been between “bloody chaos and ruthless authority”. The bloodless revolution of 1917 could not last, and during the Soviet era, authority was certainly ruthless. Literature was preserved underground, but many writers still followed the tradition of gravitating towards power.

One of the most interesting parts of the talk came when Shishkin talked about his own memories of the end of the Soviet period. He recalled the failed coup of 1991 and the Chechen wars of 1994, and how after initial optimism – he worked in a school, hoping to play a part in changing Russia – a period of disillusionment began to creep in. The struggle for power and money led to the division of natural resources and the rise of hugely wealthy oligarchs. In Russia, said Shishkin, the government is like the mafia, and is on the path to becoming a police state. He told us of how, as a child, he spoke to his grandmother on the phone, who, confusing her grandson with her late husband, asked where they were taking him (her husband had been arrested).

Nowadays, poets can no longer align themselves with power. Unlike Tsar Nicholas, who was a keen reader of Pushkin, and Stalin, who enjoyed the work of (of all people) Bulgakov, Putin doesn’t read or seem to have any appreciation of literature. Shishkin suggested that if you are “neither a fighter or a scoundrel”, and do not wish to become one or the other, you must emigrate and escape from Russia. This is what Shishkin himself has done – he now lives in Switzerland. Russia, he suggested, is stuck in the past.

And yet the lecture ended on a relatively positive note. Dictatorships come and go, said Shishkin, but literature remains. I liked the sound of this – and I loved the passion for literature that came through in this lecture and the one before.

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice – National Gallery

I admit I had never heard of Veronese before visiting this exhibition at the National Gallery, but I was impressed with what I saw. Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice looks at the work of Paolo Caliari (1528–1588) of Verona (hence ‘Veronese’), who was one of the most acclaimed artists in late sixteenth-century Venice.

Fifty works are present in this, the first monographic exhibition on the artist ever held in the UK. The works, some of which are huge, have taken over some rooms above the Sainsbury Wing, and are shown off to wonderful effect owing to the rich natural light.

As well as the usual pictures and portraits, Veronese painted several altarpieces and frescoes. These are hugely difficult to transport from their original setting and help to explain why his work is less well known over here. I’m glad the effort was made, however, as they really are magnificent. Veronese also painted portraits, and drew inspiration from allegory and mythology. The paintings are stunning, with strong use of colour, and narratives that make an impact.

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance – National Gallery

After a busy weekend with my friend, I saw her off at the station and then headed to the National Gallery. One of their current exhibitions, on display in the Sainsbury Wing, looks at German Renaissance paintings.

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance explores how artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder were viewed and portrayed in their time. For many decades the Italian Renaissance was held to be superior, and many German works were viewed as excessive or ugly. On a more positive note, they were often admired for their technical mastery, and their representation of a German national identity.

The exhibition has been criticised for not borrowing works of art from Germany, and instead focusing on works from the Gallery’s own collection. Reviewers have also described it as lacking excitement or anything new to say. These are all valid arguments, but as someone who is a complete amateur when it comes to art, I enjoyed this focus on the German Renaissance and it helped me to view these familiar works of art in a new way.

View from the Shard

I fear a lot of things – spiders, telephones, excessive social interaction – but one thing I do not fear is heights. This is just as well, since another thing that my friend and I did when she was staying with me was go up the Shard.

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Ground floor entrance to the View
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Wall of quotes celebrating London

You have to book in advance and yes, the price is extortionate (nearly £20) but the view from up there is incredible. In fairness the experience is planned really well: your ticket is timed, and you have half an hour from the stated start time on your ticket to go in. Once inside, you have to queue for a very short while in order to go through an airport-style security system. This isn’t as scary as it sounds: the staff are all cheerful and friendly. To reach the very top you have to go into two different lifts, both of which made my ears pop owing to the sheer speed of travel! I liked the moving images and videos on the ceiling of the lifts.

Once up, there are two levels: one which is fully indoors, and another, the highest, which is slightly open to the elements. Luckily the day we’d chosen was a good one, with little wind and not too many clouds, so we got a clear view over London while suffering only mild chills. The space was busy, but not too crowded, as it surely would have been if tickets weren’t timed.

And what a view it is. I’ve been on the London Eye and I’ve been to the top of the ‘Gerkhin’, but the Shard is something else entirely. My friend and I stayed up there for ages, pointing out landmarks and trying to identify random buildings. This is definitely an experience where pictures say much more than words ever could.

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The ‘Gerkhin’, the ‘Walkie Talkie’… and I don’t know the names of the other buildings!
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Looking approximately west towards the Thames
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Blackfriars Bridge, the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge
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The London Eye, which looks tiny from here
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St Paul’s Cathedral
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The Tower of London
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Battersea Power Station
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The BT Tower, with Wembley in the background

Jack the Ripper Tour

It’s great when my friend Elisa comes to stay, as we get to do loads of fun touristy things that I wouldn’t normally think of doing. This time, one of them was a Jack the Ripper tour. If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t heard of Jack the Ripper, he’s a killer who murdered several prostitutes in Victorian London, and despite many theories and conjectures about who he was, his identity has never been confirmed.

We met outside Aldgate East station (apologies for the terrible quality of these photos: my camera’s never been great at taking pictures at night).

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Our guide outside Aldgate East

Our costumed guide led us down alleys, up little hidden paths and beside old history-ridden buildings overshadowed by the shiny new modern office blocks that have popped up in the last few years. We stopped beside several workhouses, factories and landmarks made significant because they were the places where the bodies were found, or where the women had been last seen before their bodies were discovered.

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Start of the tour

Our guide made pretty good use of projections to show us images of the victims, as well as pictures of the areas we were at as they would have looked back in the nineteenth century. This was really interesting and helped us compare and contrast. Seeing the faces of the murdered women helped to bring home the fact that they were actually real people. This tour is for entertainment but it also has a serious side.

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One of JR’s victims

One of the places we passed was the Ten Bells pub, rumoured to be the place where one of the victims drank. We were also treated to a bit of theatre, as an actor playing the drunk partner of one of the women wandered past!

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The Ten Bells

On a lighter note, one of the alleys we walked through was pointed out as being Knockturn Alley from the Harry Potter films.

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Knockturn Alley

I probably wouldn’t have thought of going on something like this, so I’m glad my friend got me along. Definitely something a bit different for a Friday night!

‘This bewitching poison’: Alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians

There’s an interesting exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians at the moment. ‘This bewitching poison’: Alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians is on display at the RCP headquarters near Regent’s Park, and is open until 27 June. I booked for a lecture evening to coincide with the exhibition, and headed there after work last night.

The RCP is the oldest medical college in England, founded by royal charter of Henry VIII in 1518. The current building was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun and opened in 1964. The on-site museum contains many interesting items, including 300 oil and sculptural portraits, the Symons collection of medical instruments in the Treasures Room, the RCP silver collection and the Victor Hoffbrand collection of apothecary jars. The College was given the personal library of William Harvey (1578-1657), who discovered the circulation of the blood, although most of his tomes were lost during the Great Fire of London. The College is also in possession of six rare anatomical tables from Padua, dating from the 1650s, as well as archives containing near-complete records of RCP over the last 500 years. The lectures were held in the Dorchester Library, which contains many volumes of note including some which suffered shrapnel damage during World War II, pointed out to me as I walked in. The College has a long history of reporting and advising on public health, including the recent alcohol minimum pricing debate, making the current exhibition highly relevant.

‘This bewitching poison’: Alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians

When I arrived at the College, I registered, collected my glass of wine and proceeded to investigate the exhibition. It was very interesting, looking at “300 years of drinking history through the work of artists, doctors and satirists”. Alcohol has long been a part of life for people in Britain, and has been seen in both positive and negative lights.

Historically, Britain was a beer-drinking nation, but the arrival of the Romans introduced wine. One result was that wine drinking was associated with high social class, which it still is to a certain extent. Most native Britons drank ale, which from around 1400 often had hops added to produce the stronger drink of beer. For many years, beer was seen as healthy, being drunk on a daily basis as an alternative to water which was not safe to drink for much of Britain’s history. Physicians such as George Cheyne advocated wine in moderation as a tonic – even now, it is uncertain whether a small glass of red wine might prevent against heart disease – and alcohol was often used as a medicine: for instance, the juniper in gin was thought to help prevent the plague.

On a more negative note, the health problems caused or exacerbated by alcohol have been recognised since ancient times. Cirrhosis of the liver was recognised by the Ancient Greeks, while gin was blamed for drunkenness, vice and poverty in the eighteenth century. Temperance campaigners during the nineteenth century encouraged people to sign the pledge and become teetotal. As we move forwards, many campaigners argue that the government needs to take some responsibility for alcohol advertising by the drinks industry, and do more to help combat the negative effects of alcohol.

‘This bewitching poison’: from gin palace to temperance hall

There were two lectures; the first, Dutch courage & mothers’ ruin: The London gin craze, was delivered by Dr Richard Barnett, lecturer at the Universities of Cambridge and London, and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow. He has written several books on the subject including The Dedalus Book of Gin, which I have on my bookshelf (as yet unread)!

18th-century London was awash with cheap, fiery gin. William Hogarth railed against it, politicians legislated against it, and doctors blamed it for destroying the health of the nation. Dr Richard Barnett explores the cultural and political realities behind this notorious epidemic of alcohol-fuelled social breakdown.
From the RCP website

I learned a lot in this lecture, including how the increase in gin consumption (which peaked in 1743) frightened those in authority and highlighted the problems with excessive consumption of spirits. In fact Jessica Warner has suggested that there were actually two gin crazes – one of the ‘public’, and one of the ‘pulpit’, decrying the sin of drunkenness. The phenomenon was largely confined to London, particularly the poorer parts such as Soho and Covent Garden. Gin was seen as socially subversive, and inspired Hogarth’s 1751 picture Gin Lane, a vivid and unforgettable picture of degradation and moral degeneration resulting from the consumption of gin. The authorities took action – the first Gin Act in 1729 doubled duty on spirits. It has been suggested that drunkenness “became less Falstaffian, and more Hogarthian” – less convivial and jovial, and more immoral and sinful.

One interesting aspect of the gin craze, I thought, was the case of the man in 1720 who was accused of killing his mother: there was a suggestion that gin contributed although this was probably not true. This link between alcohol and crime made me think of the absinthe craze in 1900s Paris; from what I recall, it inspired similar worries about drunkenness and morality, and I believe there was a similar case where someone was accused of murder, supposedly under the influence of alcohol.

The second lecture, An imperious impulse: medicine, morality and drink in Victorian Britain, was delivered by Dr James Nicholls, research manager at Alcohol Research UK and honorary senior lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In the late 19th Century, alcohol was a fiercely contested political issue. While debates centred on crime and the threat to social progress, medical concerns became increasingly important. From defining inebriety to questions over the effect of alcohol on the unborn child, medicine became embroiled in a range of thorny questions with very real political implications. James Nicholls looks at these problems and asks how far they have been resolved today.
From the RCP website

This lecture explored the history of organised campaigns against alcohol, led in the nineteenth century by the temperance movement (c. 1829) and social reformers in general, who argued that it was the duty of the state to intervene. By the period 1880-1910 alcohol had become a big political issue, and behind it was the important question, is alcohol a beneficial substance with the potential to cause harm, or a harmful substance with some benefits?

The concept of addiction has also developed over the years, with the archaic To addict yourself to giving way to the 20th century To become addicted, which has in turn morphed into To become an addict. This illustrates the medicalisation of addiction and the shift in thinking about alcoholism: from being seen as a sin, it has become recognised as a disease.

I really enjoyed these lectures: they gave me a lot to think about, and the accompanying exhibition was really fascinating. The exhibition is free – do check it out if you get a chance.

The Photographers’ Gallery

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The Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographers’ Gallery is not somewhere I’d ever thought of visiting, but I had some spare time one Sunday afternoon so decided to pay it a visit. The Gallery is centrally located, just off Oxford Street, and entry is only £2.50 for National Art Pass holders (£4 full price). It has a camera obscura, a studio floor, a shop and café, and has a rotating programme of exhibitions. When I visited, the Gallery was host to exhibitions by Andy Warhol, David Lynch and William S. Burroughs.

David Lynch: The Factory Photographs

I started at the top of the building, so David Lynch’s photographs were the first I saw. These were definitely my favourites: I loved the cinematic, almost noir-like quality of the images. Of course Lynch is a well-known filmmaker: although I have to admit I have never seen any of his films, there was a clear cinematic influence on these images. They were largely pictures of factories and abandoned industrial sites, and had a brooding and bleak atmosphere, almost Romantic in the impression they gave of decay and a bygone era.

Taking Shots: William S. Burroughs

Burroughs was an influential 20th century American writer, but much less well known as a photographer. This year marks the centenary of his birth, and the Gallery is therefore hosting an exhibition of his work. They were interesting images, varied and vivid, which told stories of Burroughs’ journeys.

Andy Warhol: Photographs 1976-1987

Warhol is famous as an artist, but his photographs are less well known. I recognised his distinctive artistic style in many of the images, which incorporated brands and celebrities. I particularly liked the ‘stitched’ photographs, combining the easily reproduced photograph and the unique nature of the stitching.

What all three photographers had in common was that photography was not their primary field. I thought that this made their photographs more interesting in many ways, as their other interests influenced their photographic work.

These exhibitions have now finished, but the Gallery has an interesting programme of events coming up, so do check it out.

FACTS

Address: 16-18 Ramillies Street, Soho, London, W1F 7LW

Website: thephotographersgallery.org.uk

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm Mon-Sat, 11am-6pm Sun, late opening Thursdays during exhibitions

Prices: Vary depending on exhibition(s)

Visit to Cardiff

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Daffodils in Wales

Having never been to Wales, I decided to rectify this late last year, and planned a trip one weekend in March. My plans were somewhat scuppered when I went to book a hotel for the Saturday night and found nothing for less than £400. I promptly changed my theatre ticket from an evening to a matinee, and planned a day trip instead.

When I arrived in Cardiff, tired after a super-early train from Paddington, I realised why all the cheap hotel rooms had gone – I’d unconsciously timed my trip to coincide with the rugby final. Note: never do this. Cardiff was full of people wearing daffodil necklaces and dragon hats (the Wales supporters) and kilts and blue and white outfits (the Scotland supporters).

I stayed out of the way, and headed off to find some culture to pass the time until the theatre. I began at the Tourist Information Centre, based in the beautiful Old Library building, which has a gorgeous ornate tiled corridor. I didn’t go to the information part, instead I had a look round the Cardiff Story exhibition which had lots of interesting information about the history of the city.

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The Old Library building, now the Tourist Information Centre and location of The Cardiff Story
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Tiled corridor inside the Old Library
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Close-up of some of the detail in the tiled corridor

Next I headed to the National Museum of Wales. This is a beautiful building and I found the contents really interesting. There were some temporary exhibitions: to celebrate Dylan Thomas’ centenary an exhibition called Dylan and Friends showed several portraits of the poet, his wife Caitlin, and friends. Peter Blake’s illustrations of Thomas’ Under Milk Wood were displayed in another exhibition. Inspired by a visit to Wales made by the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Wales Visitation: Poetry, Romanticism and Myth in Art incorporated numerous artworks based on the Welsh landscape.

The museum also has an extensive collection of art in the permanent collection, including historic and applied art, Impressionist art and contemporary art. I spent a long time in these galleries as there was so much to see. I didn’t get a chance to look around the natural history galleries – something to do another time!

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National Museum of Wales
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Inside the Museum

After this it was time to head to the New Theatre to see a performance of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. Thomas is one of my favourite writers and I’d been looking forward to this performance for ages. I loved it – it was really well staged and acted by all involved.

When I got out of the theatre I went for a walk to explore Cardiff. I passed the Millennium Stadium – now empty – and found an interesting signpost on one of the roads near the Castle.

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Millennium Stadium
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Signpost

Unfortunately I then got caught up in the mass exodus from Cardiff. I had to wait in line outside the station in order to get my connection to Bristol. In fairness, the whole thing was very well organised, with appropriate lines for every destination, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. I was glad when I finally got on my train, however!

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Queue outside Cardiff station after the rugby

I really enjoyed my trip to Cardiff, despite the problems I had leaving it. I would definitely go again, as there is so much to see and do – but I will make sure there are no sporting events going on before booking anything!

Portals to the Past: A Crossrail Exhibition

The Crossrail Visitor Centre at Tottenham Court Road is soon to close, but before it does there’s a chance to see some of the archaeological finds uncovered during the ongoing construction works. Portals to the Past: A Crossrail Exhibition showcases assorted finds including Roman skulls and a cremation pot (which contained remains when it was discovered), flint, and bones from a plague burial pit. There is also an iron chain recovered from a dock, and a horse skull from a market.

It was fascinating to see these artefacts, although I find it a huge shame that historic buildings such as the Astoria have been demolished to make way for Crossrail. I was fascinated, though, by the process of construction and references to previous Crossrail finds such as skeletons from the old Bedlam burial ground near Liverpool Street.

The Crossrail website has more information about archaeological discoveries uncovered during the works and a number of lectures have been put up on the topic – they look fascinating.