Don Quixote in Words Pictures and Film – British Library

2016 not only marks 400 years since the death of England’s national poet Shakespeare, but also 400 years since the death of Spain’s national writer Miguel de Cervantes. On April Fool’s Day I attended an event at the British Library exploring the impact of Cervantes’ Don Quixote across four centuries. Don Quixote in Words Pictures and Film featured broadcaster and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, Oxford University academic Edwin Williamson, and University of Birmingham academic Rob Stone (it was also supposed to feature graphic novelist Rob Davis, but he was ill).

Andrew Graham-Dixon spoke about the character of Don Quixote, remarking that he is one of the greatest comic characters in literature. He also talked about the character’s influence on later writers and artists, including Picasso, Dali and possibly Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey is a novel in which the protagonist is heavily influenced by a fictional fantasy world). Don Quixote is apparently the second most illustrated book in the world, after the Bible.

Edwin Williamson explored how the novel was created and its impact on literature. It has been regarded as the first modern novel, and has had a huge influence on subsequent fiction. As a Catholic in the Spain of the Inquisition, Cervantes was taking a risk writing the novel, but the madness and delusion of the central character helped him to get away with it.

Cervantes wrote the novel as a parody and a burlesque in order to criticise books of chivalry. His target was not the original books, which gained popularity during the medieval period, but later sixteenth century versions, which were extremely popular in Cervantes’ time and which were simplistic and poorly written. While the first book, in which Don Quixote goes in search of adventure after reading dozens of books of chivalry, was a superb achievement, the second, written several years later, was even better: as Don Quixote journeys on he meets several characters who have read the original book, an interesting twist which takes the story to another level.

Rob Stone discussed the films which have been made about Don Quixote, of which there have been around fifty: the book is a compelling and retellable story, and it is impressive how many different kinds of films have been made all over the world, including a Western version, Don Quickshot of the Rio Grande, a soft porn musical version, and a recent Chinese version with incredible special effects. I was intrigued by how many Russian films have been made, reshaping the Quixote tale into different aspects of Russian culture. The Russian equivalent of Spitting Image even portrayed Boris Yeltsin as an alcoholic Quixote. Some of the most fascinating Don Quixote films are the ones that never got made: we were shown the one surviving scene from the unfinished Orson Welles version, and heard about Terry Gilliam’s more recent failed version.

I really enjoyed the evening and it’s left me with the desire to read Don Quixote again: I originally read it over a decade ago, so I’d like to give it another go and see if I feel any differently about it.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song – British Library

I visited the British Library for a tour recently and while I was there I decided to visit the new exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. Running until 16 February next year, the exhibition looks at the history of the region’s 17 nations and their use of words: spoken, written and sung.

I’m afraid to say I knew very little about West African culture and history before I visited the exhibition, and I found it very enlightening. The exhibition began with an examination of the myth of the founding of ancient Mali and went on to explore the myths and legends of the various peoples of the area, the history of the various nations and the effects of colonialism. In the modern day, it looked at writers, artists and human rights activists.

The exhibition consisted of manuscripts, film and sound recordings, clothes and textiles, books and photographs. It was very different from the exhibitions I usually go and see but I really enjoyed it.

 

Maggie’s Culture Crawl 2013

I had such a good time on Maggie’s Culture Crawl a couple of weeks ago. Originally known as the London Night Hike, the crawl is a sponsored 15-mile night-time walk around London, with all proceeds going to Maggie’s Centres. These are located in hospital grounds across the country and are designed as places where those affected by cancer can rest, talk and get support – both sufferers themselves and their friends and family. It’s a fantastic cause, although I have to admit it was the walk itself that got me interested – the charity part was a bonus!

I’d received my T-shirt in the post beforehand, with instructions to ‘charge up’ the glow-in-the-dark pattern under a light beforehand. On the night itself, I headed to Victoria Embankment Gardens to register and warm up. There were bottles of water and snacks available, talks from various people and even a little warm up session with music!

Victoria Embankment Gardens
Victoria Embankment Gardens
Getting ready for the warm up
Getting ready for the warm up

We set off at eight o’clock, heading across the river to the first stop which was the London Eye. As part of the walk we were permitted to have a go. I’d not been on it since I was sixteen, and that was during the day, so I thought it would be rather exciting to go on at night I was not disappointed.

London Eye
London Eye
View from the London Eye
View from the London Eye
Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

After this bit of fun, it was time to walk to the next stop which was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Being in here felt like a huge privilege and the building was certainly beautiful. I also enjoyed the tea tasting, courtesy of Fortnum & Mason!

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The next stop, which was quite a way away, was the Roca London Gallery in Chelsea (near Imperial Wharf Overground station). I was rather bewildered by the inclusion of this stop as it seemed to specialise in toilets (well, bathrooms)! Still, it was decorated pretty well and the dancers performing for our entertainment were really talented.

Roca London Gallery
Roca London Gallery
Inside the Gallery
Inside the Gallery

Maggie’s West London Centre in the grounds of Charing Cross Hospital was another stop. I enjoyed the opportunity to relax in a deckchair, nibble on a cupcake and take a look around the centre, which seems like a really warm, inviting place. Following this, the Royal Geographical Society building near the Royal Albert Hall was another stop – as well as a tea room, this stop had, rather bizarrely, a silent disco! Some people were actually dancing – personally I was glad of the opportunity to have a rest!

Royal Geographical Society
Royal Geographical Society
Inside the RGS
Inside the RGS
Silent disco
Silent disco

After this, there was an incredibly long stretch of walking. The route took us past Hyde Park Corner and parallel to Oxford Street (it was around 2 am at this point and seeing all the drunk people stumbling out of the clubs was an eye-opener). I was exhausted by this point (I’d totally underestimated how far 15 miles was) but I soldiered on and was hugely pleased to reach the next stop – Bart’s Hospital, the oldest hospital in London and site for a forthcoming Maggie’s Centre.

Bart
Bart’s Hospital

Bart

Bart

Bart

There wasn’t much of the route to go by this point – I struggled on past the Royal Exchange:

The Royal Exchange
The Royal Exchange

…until I could finally see the end in sight!

30 St Mary Axe - a.k.a.
30 St Mary Axe – a.k.a. ‘The Gherkin’

I was sooo happy when I finally reached the finish. Food chain Leon had kindly provided breakfast, but alas, the veggie option was yogurt – not so great when the meat-eaters got a bacon sandwich. Oh well, I suppose you can’t complain about free food!

At the finish
At the finish

Inside the Gherkin (official name: 30 St Mary Axe) I signed in and was proud to receive my medal. I saw several participants heading home at this point (it was around 4 am after all), but I decided to make the most of the opportunity I had and head up to the top of the building.

The top of the Gerkhin
The top of the Gerkhin

The space set aside for us, right at the top, was oddly calming. Lights were kept low, and cushions had been spread across the floor for us to collapse on to (several people were already asleep). I put my name down for a free massage, and settled down to wait.

Inside the Gerkhin
Inside the Gerkhin

Inside the Gerkhin

A big advantage of hanging around up here was that I got brilliant views over London, and was able to watch the sun rise.

Looking south towards the Shard
Looking south towards the Shard
Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge
Looking west towards St Paul
Looking west towards St Paul’s
The sun rising
The sun rising

After my massage, it was late enough for the tube to have reopened, so I left – not before admiring these guys:

Dinosaurs!
Dinosaurs!
Dinosaurs!
Raarr!
The Gerkhin in all its glory
The Gerkhin in all its glory

My sponsorship page is still open, so if you fancy donating, I would be really grateful!

The Women’s Library

I am a librarian by profession and a few weeks ago I attended a talk about The Women’s Library in east London, which I wrote about on my librarianship blog. I found the talk really interesting so decided to pay a visit to the Library on Old Castle Street. The Library has been going through something of a crisis recently: it is currently supported by London Metropolitan University but in the last year or so the University stated that they were withdrawing support and the last few months have seen an urgent hunt for a new custodian. Recently it was announced that the London School of Economics would be taking on this role, so the collection will hopefully remain accessible though not in it’s current location.

With this in mind, I decided to visit the exhibition currently on display in the Library, called The Long March to Equality: Treasures of The Women’s Library. The exhibition explores the history of the development of women’s rights and displays many of the Library’s most precious artefacts. Arranged in roughly chronological order, the exhibition begins with a display of early printed books that were primarily by, about or for women, going on to examine the women’s rights movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the different groups which fought for increased rights, changes in the law and votes for women. One of the most intriguing items in the collection is activist Emily Davison’s return ticket to the Epsom Derby, which raises the question of whether her death under the King’s horse was suicide or a tragic accident. Why buy a return ticket unless you intend to come back?

The exhibition goes on to explore the feminist movement of the seventies and the political, social and literary aspects of this. It covers the eighties and nineties, and I was amazed to discover that some important equality laws were not put in place until after I was born in the mid eighties. The exhibition ends with the present day, exploring the role of feminism in the twenty-first century and what has been achieved, as well as how far we still have to go.

I found this free exhibition to be very interesting, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history or women’s studies. It is open Tues-Fri from 9.30 until 5.30, and until 8pm on Thursdays.

*The information below was updated in 2015, reflecting the collection’s new location*

FACTS

Address: Houghton Street, London, WC2A 2AE

Website: WomensLibraryLSE

Opening Hours: Exhibition Space open 9am-7pm Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm Sat-Sun. Collections accessible by appointment.

Prices: Free

Hollywood Costume – V&A

Another Friday night, another exhibition after work. This time I went to see the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington. I’d booked my ticket in advance, which was just as well as my chosen date was sold out well before the day itself.

Hollywood Costume brings together iconic, special and unusual costumes from the history of cinema, exploring the important role costume plays in storytelling. The exhibition was divided into three sections. The first explored the role of costume in film, using examples to demonstrate the importance of what the actors wear. I found this really interesting, giving a context to the exhibition rather than just displaying lots of pretty costumes. Among those costumes exhibited was the iconic outfit of Indiana Jones, with a detailed exploration of each item. The ‘curtain dress’ worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was also on show. Outfits from The Adams Family were also displayed, and there was a whole section on costume drama, highlights of which were dresses worn by a number of actresses, including Judi Dench, playing Elizabeth I.

In this section I learned that it is actually more difficult to clothe actors in modern films, as audiences are much more familiar with modern styles of dress. The idea is that you don’t really notice the clothes, yet each item is chosen with thought and care. Though I’m not a particular fan of the film Ocean’s Eleven, I enjoyed the display of mannequins around a table each dressed in a different character’s outfit. The display showed how each outfit reflected the individual’s personality. On a similar note, the outfits worn by Jake Gyllenhal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain appeared fairly similar on the surface, but contained subtle differences which reflected the history of each character.

The exhibition showed how Matt Damon’s outfit as the spy Matthew Bourne was designed to blend into the background. I was less impressed with the displays relating to Fight Club, a film I haven’t seen, as the plot was basically given away. I don’t really think this was necessary: they could at least have given a spoiler warning!

Something I liked about this section was the clips of ordinary people talking about their clothes and accessories. This was interesting and made the point that even the simplest outfits have a history of their own, and this needs to be reflected in film, with characters needing a believable existence outside the movie.

The second section also divided the costumes up into themes. The first part examined collaborations between directors and designers. Edith Head, possibly the most famous costume designer of all time, designed for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films including The Birds; one of Tippi Hedren’s outfits – a green skirt suit – is displayed here. The designer on Sweeney Todd worked closely with director Tim Burton, and the suit worn by Johnny Depp as the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ is displayed.

Another section compared outfits worn by the same character in different films, such as two costumes for Cleopatra worn by Elizabeth Taylor and another actress whose name I can’t remember. The difference between clothes designed for black and white films and for colour was also explored: in black and white films colour didn’t show so it was necessary to make outfits stand out in other ways. This part also looked at clothes designed for animated characters such as Jessica Rabbit and Shrek, and displayed a motion capture suit such as the one worn by Andy Serkis who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the forthcoming Hobbit films. The original Darth Vader costume was here too, looking particularly imposing as it loomed over the spectators.

This part ended with a look at some particular actors and their relationship with their character’s clothes. Acclaimed actress Meryl Streep has portrayed a number of different characters, such as the title character in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and former British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, and her outfits have helped her to get into and stay in character. The Victorian-style grey cloak and smart blue suit are very different! Robert De Niro is another actor who has portrayed wildly varying characters, and a number of his costumes are here, such as his outfit from Taxi Driver, which he reportedly wore before filming to get into character.

The final part of the exhibition dispensed with theories and themes and simply displayed iconic costumes from the history of cinema. There was a veritable wealth of costumes, many of which I recognised instantly. Among my favourites were the corseted, feathered outfit in which Nicole Kidman makes her entrance in Moulin Rouge, Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the outfits in which we are introduced to Jack and Rose’s characters in Titanic, and two dresses worn by Keira Knightley: the flowing green dress she wore in Atonement and the stunning nineteenth-century style deep red gown she had on in Anna Karenina. Superheroes were not forgotten: Batman and Spiderman were both represented, not to mention schoolboy wizard Harry Potter, and anti-heroes were present too: I was delighted to see Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow costume from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Right at the end of the exhibition there were two iconic dresses: one the white frock famously worn by Marilyn Monroe, the other the gingham pinafore worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. The pinafore – which naturally enough looks rather faded now – is distinctly recognisable and is displayed with a pair of reproduction ruby slippers made to the original pattern, sparkling as brightly as the originals would have done when they were first made.

This brings me to the final exhibit: the highlight of the whole thing as far as I am concerned. In a glass case, on loan from the Museum of American History in the USA for the first time, until the 19th of November only, are the original ruby slippers. One of the pairs at least: five pairs have survived of the several made, though one of them was stolen in 2005. They have faded over the years, but the sequins are still in place and the shoes are still in one piece. They look to be about size 5 or 6. Possibly the most iconic piece of cinema merchandise in history, they came about because red was thought to offer the strongest contrast against the yellow of the brick road. In L Frank Baum’s original story, the shoes were silver. I admit I got quite emotional when I saw these slippers – The Wizard of Oz is my favourite film of all time and I felt so privileged to be able to see first-hand this piece of history.

This is a fantastic exhibition that contains a veritable wealth of costumes and artefacts. It has been thoughtfully put together and I feel as though I learned something about the nature of costume in cinema. I strongly recommend this exhibition, and would urge everyone to see it in the next couple of weeks before the ruby slippers are sent back to America!