It’s Halloween, and so I knew I wanted to choose a brand with some strong Halloween jewellery. After much deliberation, I’ve gone for:
La Vidriola is a brand from Valencia, Spain. The name means “the money box” in Spanish and “for us it represents the time to start, the moment which we broke the money box and invest savings in this project that is so exciting”.
You know you’re getting old when you start celebrating the ten-year anniversary of things. Ten years since you sat your GCSEs. A decade since you took your A Levels. Ten years since you started uni, since you graduated. And, for me, ten years since I got on a plane for the first time in my life and went to Russia to teach English.
It was during my last year at university that I started to panic about what I was going to do next. I should point out that this was before the recession, when graduate jobs weren’t quite as thin on the ground as they are now. Even so, I didn’t know what I wanted to do: I just knew I didn’t want to join one of the big firms that hoover up graduates and train them in management. Ever since I was little, my plans for the future had only ever covered full-time education: what I would do afterwards, I hadn’t a clue. Several of my friends were going on to further study, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford that, and anyway, what would I study? I didn’t regret – I never have regretted – studying history, but it isn’t exactly a path to an obvious career. I was no further to making a choice than I had been at eighteen, sixteen, eleven.
What I did have, at the back of my mind, was a desire to travel, and an interest in Russia, mainly through reading Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. I can’t remember where I first got the idea of teaching English abroad, but before I knew it the idea was firmly fixed in my head. I signed up for a TEFL course in St Petersburg, and spent the rest of my final year, when I wasn’t studying or trying to enjoy my last few months as a student, researching Russia, EFL teaching, and anything else I could find that was relevant.
When I graduated, I spent the summer living with my parents and working two jobs – one in a factory (which wasn’t actually that bad) and one in a bar (which I hated – although I did learn to pull a pint, so my time there wasn’t completely wasted). The summer crept by slowly, but at the beginning of October I got on the train at Newcastle to travel down to London. My parents said goodbye at the Metro station and my brother took me to the railway station and lifted my heavy case onto the train.
In London I stayed overnight with a friend. There were a few of us there and we went out and got completely pissed. This probably wasn’t the best idea. I would certainly have missed the plane if my friend Louise hadn’t woken up, called a taxi, and got me, still drunk, out of the house. When I got to the airport the hangover was beginning to hit. I sat on the plane, about to fly for the first time in my life, and wondered what the hell I was doing.
I was picked up at the airport by a bloke carrying a card with my name on it. He drove me to the flat in which I was staying. My Russian landlady was lovely, but didn’t speak any English. I tried to communicate in my halting Russian, but I don’t know what I would have done without my flatmate, a Russian student at Exeter University who was on her year abroad. She introduced me, explained I was a vegetarian (in Russia, people told me, to survive the cold you need to eat lots of meat or drink lots of vodka. The former method was obviously closed to me; henceforth I’d rely on the latter), and explained the house rules to me. I had my own room, with a corner desk and several bookshelves lined with books in Russian I couldn’t understand.
The TEFL course took a month. The school was opposite the Hermitage at the top of Nevsky Prospect. There were only two other students on the course: the previous cohort, in the summer, had apparently been quite full but those of us who’d waited to save a little money before heading abroad were and few and far between. My fellow trainees were an American and an Irishman, though the American left halfway through when his grandfather sadly died.
Surprisingly I quite enjoyed learning to teach, and didn’t perform too badly in the assessments. It was fascinating to see how non-native speakers of English approached the language. One of my students asked me to explain the phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” from Gone With the Wind: it got me to think about the language in ways I’d always taken for granted.
After passing the course I taught a few classes at the school, and I had two solo pupils too, whose homes I had to travel to. They lived in flats on the outskirts of St Petersburg and I had to take the Metro. One of my pupils was a very young child of about five. She had long blonde hair and an angelic face and was possibly the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. On the other hand, I found it very hard to teach her, owing to my lack of experience with children of any kind. Frankly I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I think she could sense my lack of confidence.
My other solo pupil was a bit older, about twelve or thirteen. She was easier to get on with and to teach, but I was still a bit nervous around her. I’ve never been particularly confident with teenagers, even when I was one. Back at the school I covered a class of thirteen-year-olds for another teacher who was off sick, and it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I found it baffling that they were actually doing what I told them to do. “Open your book at page 36. Fill in the missing words in exercise 1”. It was surreal. I kept expecting them to get up and walk out, or say no, why should we listen to you? But no, they followed the instructions I gave, with only the occasional whisper to suggest they saw how nervous I was. It was bizarre.
I definitely felt more comfortable around the adult students. Some of them were my age. A few were older, and one man was retired. I certainly can’t claim to have been the greatest teacher in the world, but I do think I was reasonably competent when it came to instructing these classes of adults.
When I wasn’t teaching, I was out exploring the city. It was beautiful, but dirty, with rickety old vehicles spilling out fumes. There was a grandeur about the city that had faded in places but was still visible here and there. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Hermitage, or Winter Palace, a vast and beautiful store of art. With my Russian student card, I got in for free, and I visited frequently: it took me about five visits to see everything. Incredible as it was, I actually preferred the Russian Museum, with its collections of unusual and, to me, previously unknown works by artists such as Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ilya Repin.
My favourite pastime was to explore the city’s literary past. I visited the former flats of Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Pushkin, and spent an entire Saturday afternoon wandering the woods on the outskirts of the city, trying to find the spot where Russia’s national poet was shot in a duel (the search was fruitless). I visited Dostoyevsky’s house, and spent another afternoon searching for the locations used in his novel Crime and Punishment. Apart from the muddy cars dotted here and there around the square, nothing much had changed since the nineteenth century.
As time went on I ventured further afield, risking buses to go out to the palaces. In the middle of winter the fountains weren’t running at Peterhof, but it was almost worth it to practically have the place to myself. At Catherine’s Palace the snow lay thick on the ground and I could imagine myself in the nineteenth century. It was cold, but rather to my disappointment, not overwhelmingly so. I’d had visions of regaling my family and friends back home with tales of unthinkable cold, a frozen Neva, snow everywhere, but it didn’t even snow on Christmas Day.
I was supposed to stay in Russia a year; I ended up leaving after three months. Why? Mainly because of money. Once I’d finished my course and started teaching, the school couldn’t offer me enough hours to make ends meet. Most EFL teachers supplemented their income by taking on extra students privately, but I certainly didn’t have the confidence or the wherewithal to go about doing that.
I missed home. I don’t know if I was homesick exactly, and much as I missed my family and friends, on a day to day basis it was Britain as a place that I missed: the pubs, the coffee shops, even the supermarkets, I missed television: in Russia programmes are dubbed, not subtitled, though we did once go and see the new James Bond and cheer when the Houses of Parliament appeared on the screen. I often hung out at the British Council, which had a library of English-language books that helped to assuage my homesickness. I remained fascinated by Russian culture, and tried to learn as much about it as I could, not to mention the language itself, but at the same time I clung to everything British that I could find.
I spent Christmas in St Petersburg, the first – and so far only – time I’ve spent it away from home. My housemate and closest friend had gone back to the UK for Christmas, but some of her friends had kindly invited me to have dinner with them. I had to teach in the morning (in Russia Christmas is celebrated in early January, and 25 December is just a normal day) and then I met them at their flat. I had a lovely day, but less than a week later I was back in the UK, celebrating New Year with a friend in London before heading back home to see my family and try and figure out what on earth I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
In many ways, I was glad to be back. While I would still love to travel I think it’s highly unlikely that I would ever live abroad again. Sometimes I regret not sticking it out, and wonder if leaving early makes me a worse person: weaker, less resilient.
At the same time, I don’t for a minute regret my experiences. Early in the hours of one autumn morning, after an all-night clubbing session with Russian pop music and cheap shots of vodka, I walked down Nevsky Prospect in the cold, ears ringing, exhausted, still slightly drunk, and realised that I was in Russia, in St Petersburg, somewhere I’d only read about in Dostoyevsky and Gogol. I was there, and I’d got there by myself, I’d decided that I wanted to go, and I’d gone.
That thought still sustains me, sometimes.
I haven’t been back to Russia in the past decade, but every autumn when the nights start to draw in, I get a sudden urge to get out my Russian phrasebooks; and when the frost begins and I smell the unexpectedly nostalgic scent of petrol in the cold, I am taken right back to that autumn of 2006.
I had lots of Art Nouveau posters on my wall in my student days, and my love of this art form has persisted for several years. Since childhood, even, as my parents had a mirror featuring the Alphonse Mucha design La Dame aux Camélias on their wall. Mucha is one of the most significant proponents of this art form, so I was interested to go along to this day-long event at the V&A discussing the relationship between Mucha and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
‘I predict fame for you’: meetings and inventions – Dr Justine Hopkins
The first talk, delivered by Dr Justine Hopkins, explored the relationship between these two figures. Sarah Bernhardt was born Rosina Bernard, but took the name Sarah to celebrate her Jewish heritage and added letters to her surname. She was brought up in a convent, but pursued an acting career.
In the mid-1870s Bernhardt was told that she had been overdoing it and must not act for six months. With time on her hands, she decided to take up art, creating sculptures including ‘After the Tempest’ (1876), ‘The Fool & Death’ (1877) and ‘Fantastic Inkwell’, a self portrait as a sphinx (1880). She also wrote at least one novel, and penned an account of a trip over Paris in a balloon.
Mucha, who was sixteen years younger than Bernhardt, grew up in a tiny village in what is now the Czech Republic. He had a choir scholarship, so spent much time in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Brno, built in 1738-48. Determined to become an artist, when he was turned away by art school in Prague he moved to Vienna and worked as a theatre designer. He began to paint portraits and moved to Paris in 1887, when he was 27.
The pair met when Mucha turned to illustration and designed the poster for Gismonda, in which Bernhardt was starring. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship, in which Mucha designed many more posters for Bernhardt and also designed jewellery for her.
Sarah Bernhardt and Alphonse Mucha were seen as “kindred spirits”: photos and paintings exist of both working in their respective studios. Both understood that art nouveau challenged what fine art could be; both believed that art had the ability and duty to communicate; and both knew what would sell, but raised art above the merely commercial.
Posters for Posterity: Alphonse Mucha and the V&A Collections – Margaret Timmers
Mucha helped to establish the reputation of French poster artists. He initially took up posters for financial reasons, but became glad of this later on as the art form began to be appreciated. He designed for many clients after Sarah Bernhardt, and created several designs for drinks manufacturers.
The Victoria & Albert Museum has been collecting posters since the late nineteenth century, with the collection formed to represent style, method and design. An 1894 exhibition of posters was held at the Royal Aquarium, while the museum received one of the Gismonda posters in March 1895, very soon after publication.
In 1963, a Mucha poster exhibition helped to renew the popularity of the art nouveau style in the public consciousness. The style was huge in the fashion and art of the time and helped to create the pop art style.
Bernhardt in Performance
After a break for lunch, we came back to something very exciting: video and audio clips of Sarah Bernhardt. A 1900 clip of the star as Hamlet, showing the duet with Laertes, was fascinating. Bernhardt was the first major stage actress to appear in a motion picture: in Daniel, in 1921, when she was nearly eighty.
‘My two hands in yours my dear friend’: continuations and developments – Dr Justine Hopkins
The second talk by Dr Justine Hopkins focused on the later years of Bernhardt and Mucha. Bernhardt visited America in 1880 and made several visits in later years, including several “farewell tours” of America. Mucha also became involved with the US: in the New York Daily News in 1904 he was described as “the greatest decorative artist alive in the world”. He produced a poster for the St Louis World’s Fair that same year. A good teacher, he wanted to encourage US students to find their own American art.
Closer to home, he became more involved in patriotic projects from 1910, and wanted to produce an epic relating to the Moravian people. He produced a poster in 1912 for a gymnastics festival which was really a political rally where the people plotted revolution. He also produced a poster for the Lottery of National Unity, which donated fees to teach children Czech, as well as a bank note in 1923. From 1912 onwards he mostly worked on his ‘Slav Epic’.
Sarah Bernhardt died in March 1923. Alphonse Mucha died in 1939, 16 years later: called in by the Gestapo in Prague, he was released after two days but caught pneumonia.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day at the V&A, and I learned a great deal.
Organised by the Society of Naval Research, the talk was delivered by Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History, King’s College London, who has published a book on Franklin (Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (Faber London, 2010)). He argued that the main purpose of Franklin’s expedition was not to find the North-West Passage, as searches for this elusive route over Canada had been taking place since the sixteenth century and by 1845 when the exhibition set sail, it was generally accepted that even if the passage did exist, it was impractical; in addition, the settlement of the Alaska border meant there was no obvious reason to go looking for the passage.
The large-scale rescue mission to find Franklin found that the crews of both ships had marched south, leaving a pile of equipment behind. There was evidence of cannibalism, which was hastily suppressed. Both wrecks were found further south from where they were originally abandoned in 1848. No logbooks or reports or medical records were found on either ship: the only written evidence is a 263-page note. However, a non-magnetic cannon and a broken sextant were found on Erebus, further evidence of the real purpose of the expedition.
Lambert argued that the real purpose of the exhibition was to explore the new science of magnetism: looking for evidence of the earth’s magnetic field. The search for the passage was inspired by big science, but in order to get funding, going to the high Arctic needed a purpose. It was thought that magnetism could help with navigation: Sir Edward Sabine’s work gave Britain a leading role in big international scientific project and Franklin became a magnetic scientist, building a magnetic station during his time as Governor of Tasmania. He was a scientist, not an explorer: he was 59 and in poor health, he would not have been sent to the Arctic as an adventurer. Fourteen officers were all trained in magnetic science; the aim was to collect magnetic data on or near the magnetic pole, something that explorer James Clark Ross understood as his search for Franklin took him close to the magnetic north, and in fact the Erebus and Terror made it closer to the magnetic north than any ship until Amundsen’s.
The expedition did not go well. Three men died from tuberculosis during the first winter on Beechey Island; in early 1846 an opening was found into Peel Sound, formerly ignored and blocked, but the ships later became locked in the ice. In 1847 and 1848 the weather conditions grew worse: by 1848 the men had decided to try marching over 1000 miles to the nearest Hudson Bay post. Several were abandoned on the way as they grew weaker and died; the last man is believed to have perished at the appropriately-named Starvation Bay.
During the search for the lost expedition, the state and Lady Jane Franklin – who was instrumental in organising rescue missions and preserving her husband’s reputation and memory – created a narrative about the North-West Passage that has endured to this day. His statue stands at Waterloo Place, a reminder of the place he still holds in the history of Arctic exploration.
The V&A‘s latest long-running exhibition is Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. As the name suggests, it follows the evolution of underwear design from the eighteenth century onwards. It features examples of underwear worn by both men and women, examining how underwear influenced, and was influenced by, ideas of gender, sex and morality, and how it affected outerwear.
I was interested to see the older underwear in particular, such as the examples of nineteenth-century corsets and their earlier counterparts ‘stays’, as well as early bras. The more modern cutting-edge styles were fascinating too. The exhibition runs until 12 March, costing £12, and is well worth seeing.
When my friend came down to London to visit me we decided to do something a bit different. I’d found out about the Beefeater Distillery Tour not long before and my friend was keen on the idea, even though she’s not the world’s biggest fan of gin. Personally I love the stuff, so I was well up for the tour.
We booked online and turned up at the venue, in Kennington in South London, with plenty of time. The first part of the tour was actually a self-guided wander around the on-site museum, which was well put together and very interesting. It covered the history of gin and the gin craze of the eighteenth century, with a large image of Hogarth’s famous “Gin Lane” picture to illustrate the drink’s reputation. I thought the exhibition did well in putting the growth of gin distilleries in its historical context, although implying that Beefeater’s founder James Burrough was on a par with the great scientists, inventors, artists and writers of the Victorian age was stretching things just a little.
I liked the exploration of gin’s role in the cocktail craze, too, with visual demonstrations of the different drinks it can be used in. There was also a wall of old Beefeater bottles and adverts. Obviously the whole thing is a massive promo for Beefeater, but it was genuinely fascinating too.
In the second part we were told all about how to make gin, and introduced to the different ingredients that make up this spirit.
During this time we could see the stills through the plates of glass: the inner workings of the distillery. Unlike my trip to Sipsmiths, it was disappointing not to be able to get up close to the machinery, but in fairness I imagine it’s a much trickier prospect in a big place like this.
The tour concluded with a G&T which was very tasty. I was good and didn’t buy any bottles of gin (it might have looked a bit suspicious trying to get one into the theatre later that evening when we went to see Aladdin) but I’m very tempted to go back for their distillery-exclusive blend.