Friday, April 27, 2007

Brontë portraits

I went to a really interesting artists talk by Cornelia Parker at the National Portrait Gallery last night. She did a series of new work about the Brontës, partly in response to the challenge that when authors are so famous for their writing, it's easy to slip into cliched ways of representing them. The talk was about the work in her exhibition last year, at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire.

To research the work, she explored the Museum's collection, viewing original Brontë manuscripts in the British Library, and worked with the University of Bradford to analyse samples of Brontë hair, using electron microscope imaging technology.

The exhibition included a series of images of Brontë artefacts, including samples of hair produced using this method such as the one (above) of Anne Brontë's hair. A series of new portraits of the 3 sisters represented them with separate microscopic images of locks of their hair, rather than their faces, as in traditional portraiture. The images reflected different aspects of each woman's character or life, in the individual textures and appearance of the fragments of hair, which was interesting... I wish I'd taken more notes, but it's quite difficult to look, listen and write at the same time.

I liked the series of images of Charlotte Brontë's handwriting, focusing on words deleted from her final draft of 'Jane Eyre', along with their replacement words. Handwriting is interesting anyway, it's so personal and you seem to do it less now, with so much text produced by computer, rather than pen or pencil. The photographs Cornelia Parker took of the deleted words were interesting, because it showed how Charlotte Brontë's mind must have been working while she was putting the finishing touches to her manuscript... why did she replace 'blighted' with 'puny'... it made me want to compare my old paperback version with the Parker images, to see the chunk of text those words came from. Word-processing doesn't give a comparable trace of the thought processes that went before, in any piece of written work.

Cornelia Parker's work makes you think about objects from a different perspective, so it's quite refreshing to see different approaches when you're stuck in an academic rut, as I have been for a few days. Her 'Embryo Firearms' from about 10 years ago fits in with the stuff I've been writing recently, and I like a couple of Brontë books anyway (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights) along with their numerous film adaptations. I was really tired after being at work all day, but I'm really glad I went to that talk.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Pale slimy alien thing replaces brain

Can't write at the moment - absolutely great, with a big PhD deadline looming. Tomorrow. My brain feels like that pale slimy thing Doctor Who's poking in the picture... though I bet there's more intellectual thoughts in that thing than in my head today.

Should have got up, switched on the computer and started typing when I woke up in the night thinking about this flipping chapter, but decided it was a bit of a sad b*stard thing to do and went back to sleep. Aah well, that's one little fleeting nugget of genius I'll never remember I had... (I wish!!).

Friday, April 20, 2007

Ghostly ships

I like the current news item about the 'ghostly yacht' found off the coast of Australia (BBC online).

Mysterious... found with its engine running, a table laid for dinner and a laptop set up for working, but no people to be seen... a bit spooky, but maybe there will be a logical explanation after it's been investigated.

Until then, it's a bit 'Twilight Zone'. Oh goodness, now that theme tune's playing in my head...

Actually, it reminded me of the film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, with Ava Gardner and James Mason (1951). That was based loosely around the myth of a ghostly ship too, doomed to sail the seas for all eternity, unless the Flying Dutchman found a woman who loved him enough to die for him and save his troubled soul. Which Ava did, of course, but after her various besotted admirers had met their untimely deaths, as it was a 1950s Hollywood melodrama... not a happy ending (sorry, chaps and chapesses). Possibly elements of the gothic romance about it, with death, doomed love and superstition, but done in a lurid Technicolour way rather than the archetypal period costume drama. Also, lovely women's outfits and quite a few very surreal sets, as the director was apparently heavily influenced by the Surrealists and Max Ernst in particular. I wish it would be released on DVD over here, haven't seen it for years but really like it.... Ava Gardner's played some very interesting roles.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Hogarth and human nature

Finally went to see the Hogarth exhibition at the Tate, just before it ends. I didn't really know anything about him before, apart from the Reward of Cruelty engraving that often crops up in visual histories of dissection.

I was surprised at how contemporary his themes still are... self-serving politicians with dodgy habits and a whiff of corruption; pretentious social behaviour; groups of drunken people hanging around central London; a lurid public interest in crime and execution. He lobbied Parliament for the first artist's copyright Act in 1735, after having his work ripped off by others... it's still a problem, nearly 300 years later, as technology and artist's ways of working change. I suppose I liked the crime stuff best... I was interested to see examples of people wanting keepsakes and souvenir portraits of criminals, particularly those due to be executed. A thriving market for slightly macabre mementoes seems very much the same today.

It was curious to see how human behaviour seems so similar, several hundred years on. It did make me wonder about the 'nature versus nurture' debate... are some traits part of 'human nature', or how much of our behaviour is shaped by the culture we live in. No doubt that debate will continue for as long as people exist, but I wonder what Hogarth would think of London today, if he could travel forwards in time for a quick look. (A trip in the Tardis in Dr Who could sort that out!). It's not supposed to be the sort of thing you say after seeing an art exhibition, as it's not really about the work, but he does sound a really interesting man.

And it was really lovely being by the Thames as the weather was so summery today... 26 degrees centigrade, apparently. I think my nose will be pink tomorrow, but everything just seems nicer and more leisurely when the weather starts improving...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Every stain tells a story

We had our weekly Team Meeting the other day at work in our seminar room, seated on the matching chairs rescued from a skip in the car-park last summer. Couldn't help noticing (as you do) the fascinating variety of misshapen stains on the pale yellow fabric seat covers. Then a colleague pointed out that every stain tells a story!* and we all recoiled in disgust, uttering loud uuurgghhs and yeeuuchhs! Probably just food and drink, and not stains of the bodily fluid variety (that would be a bit unsavoury to dwell on, but then you never know...). Disgust aside, it's very true - each stain does tell a story, of human behaviour and activity (and possibly being a little bit messy).

It reminded me of something a member of staff from Art did a few years back**, looking at the relationship between human activity and the environment, and the way people inadvertently leave physical traces of where they've been and what they've done. Over a weekend when no-one was around, he had painted all the blobs of old chewing gum squashed flat on the stretch of pavement outside the main college building, in a variety of colours. It was interesting turning up for work on the Monday morning, to be confronted with loads (hundreds?) of coloured blobs all over the pavement. The original stains (or blobs) had been there for ages, almost a semi-permanent part of busy London streets... I'd just never noticed them. After that, I started seeing chewing gum blobs everywhere I went. What messy slobs people seem to be, or maybe just human, leaving traces wherever we go (and not just in the CSI forensic science way either). I was quite disappointed when the colours gradually wore off the chewing gum, as I really liked that installation.

* We are intending to get the chairs professionally cleaned soon and they're not as bad as you might think... there's nothing actually wrong with them and we're not wallowing in filth either! They were just too good not to recycle and rescue from the skip.

** I think it might have been done by Uriel Orlow, but I may be wrong.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mob attack funeral of allegedly gay cross-dressers

An angry mob reportedly armed with machetes, knives, bottles and stones attacked a group of allegedly homosexual cross-dressers at a funeral service in Mandeville, Jamaica, according to local gay rights activists, Radio Jamaica reports. The Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All Sexuals and Gays (JFLAG) is expressing outrage about this latest demonstration of anti-gay violence, which reportedly occurred on Sunday at the funeral of businessman Kirk Wayne Lester. (Funeralwire)

As Jamaica has been labelled 'the most homophobic place on earth' by human rights activists, I guess an attack on a funeral service shouldn't seem surprising. Disgusting and horrifying, but sadly, not surprising... as that poisonous 'religious' cult in Kansas, USA has also discovered, mourners are a particularly vulnerable target.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


I've been writing too many mini-essays recently, so this is just a few snippets of news that have caught my eye in the past day or so. Should probably develop them, but can't for some reason at the moment... nothing to do with the nice sunny weather and the urge to be somewhere else, including shopping for summer clothes, of course...

Shrine's 'got to go'.

The shrine set up by supporters of Jean Charles de Menezes, accidentally shot dead by police after the July '05 London bombings, looks like it's finally had it's day and will be dismantled soon, according to an ITN news report (6/4/07). The shrine, as with many other roadside memorials created spontaneously at the scene of a sudden death, appeared at Stockwell Tube station after his death. Rather unusually, this one has taken on a semi-permanent life of its own, by growing to the size of a shop widow and having its own postal address. His supporters want to keep it going, in their quest to 'keep the issue alive', while others see it as a 'memorial to paranoia' (Spiked). Take your pick...

Plague of human locusts descend on shop in Oxford Street.
Newsnight's description actually, covering the riot at the opening of the new Primark store, by shoppers intent on being first through the doors and getting their hands on its fashionable, amazingly cheap clothing. They broke the door down and needed a police presence to maintain order. Scary, this mad quest for a bargain. Still queueing round the block at the end of the day, kept in line by crush barriers and police. An interesting sight. Me? I'll check it out when the school holidays are over.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Humperdinck, Hendrix and Green Parakeets

I'm a bit stuck with writing a chapter, due for a meeting several weeks off... an important meeting actually and not long now, so I probably shouldn't be looking out of the window so much... I wish a flock of green parakeets would fly past and sit in the tree outside...

There's supposed to be about 30,000 wild ones in London now. Apparently people get them in their gardens and on birdfeeders, but I've never seen any... maybe one day. Typical English reaction - now the birds are a problem to be culled (ie shoot them in large numbers) because they're annoying a suburban rugby club. How could you shoot one of those funny little green birds?

According to the news report the other day, the legend goes... the whole lot are descendants of a pair of green parakeets that Jimi Hendrix let loose while he was in London in the 1960s, to let a bit of colour into the grey English landscape. Blimey, it's not that grim here, but lovely to have a swarm of wild exotic birds now. Nice legacy, on top of his music.

And did you know (while I'm procrastinating...) Hendrix appeared on Engelbert Humperdinck's TV show once? Yep, sounds unlikely, but as it came from the lips of Engelbert himself, it's obviously true. Purple Haze and Release Me... strange song combination. Actually, I like both songs, and The Last Waltz too. Apparently Engelbert did a song called Lesbian Seagull once... what, the King of Romance? Hhmm, sounds odd, but hell, you live and learn, don't you. So many things to think about when you've got work to do...

Immigrants in Underworld

I'm so predictable sometimes... I watched The Verdict on Coronation Street last night, one of the top UK soap dramas, along with 12.6 million other viewers. 'Murdering minx' 'Toxic' Tracy Barlow was found guilty of killing her boyfriend with an ornament and sent to prison. Then the National Grid spiked with an electricity surge of 1,600 megawatts - equivalent to 650,000 kettles being boiled at the same time, as everyone made a nice cup of tea when the episode ended.

A soap habit is a funny old thing, but not harmful, except in the amount of time it could potentially consume. Sometimes they do tackle interesting issues though. The currently developing storyline in Corrie about Polish immigrants in Underworld, the local underwear factory, could be good if it's done properly. Almost daring!

In case you don't watch it (which is quite likely...) it's about the tensions felt by indigenous machinists, as Polish workers are gradually employed in the same job, but on lower wages, creating anxiety about job security amongst the existing workers, and leading to clashes in behaviour. Probably sounds a bit boring from that, but it's better than you think... gobby Janice Battersby stirs the sh*t. It's an area of employment (in real life) with traditionally little job security, poor employee rights and pay, and lack of unionisation. Almost a textile sweat-shop.

Immigration has been a hot political topic in the UK on and off for absolutely years, and more so with the recent expansion of the EU and people seeking political asylum. I may be wildly wrong, but if a fictional soap like Coronation Street (or Corrie, as we affectionately know it...) gets its story right, it could be about the only time many of its viewers get to see both sides of a complex issue (in a simplified format, of course). It's probably true to suggest that most people already have a view on this, which is reinforced by whoever they discuss it with in conversation, and their choice of newspaper.

However, if the immigrant storyline in Corrie is well written, it could present both sides of the issues to its captive audience, in a dramatised human scenario instead of impersonal statistics (real or 'enhanced'). The viewpoint of normal working class people with real anxieties about jobs, housing and public services could be dismissed as racist fantasies by well-meaning liberals, but these views should still be considered, as they are frequently based on their day-to-day experiences (on both sides). The story from the immigrant's point of view, showing what can happen when seeking legitimate employment in the UK, and along with the related problems of cultural integration, could be humanised, rather than being an impersonal, scaremongering 'rivers of blood' type of story in the news, or a reason to vote BNP.

At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, all political issues are about individuals and are rarely straightforward. Maybe I'm being overly optimistic here, but British soaps are well-written and have a huge viewer base. People identify with and care about the characters, even though they're fictional. They're entertainment, but story-lines are discussed and picked apart because they relate to real life. It's not a bad way to make people think about things they had taken for granted, or to question - ever so slightly- their pre-existing views on a variety of topics.

And I haven't written this to try to justify my viewing habits either, I'm definitely no cultural snob... now where's that TV schedule...

Sunday, April 01, 2007

RIP Old Tom

Changing the subject a bit here, but it really upset me... it's nothing to do with clothes or being stabbed, unless you include being mauled to death by the razor-sharp teeth of a slobbering dog...

My mum's elderly, one-eyed tom cat got killed by someone's 'pet' pit bull terrier yesterday. The revoltingly ugly, piggy-eyed, slavering-jowelled dog rushed into her back garden and ripped the poor old cat to shreds while he was sitting in the sun. Blood everywhere. What is it with south London men and their vicious dogs??? No-one takes any notice until the dogs actually injure or kill someone, and then it's too late. There are alternative dogs that don't kill other people's pets, you know, but I suppose they're not 'manly' enough for the 'image', which is rather sad, if that's the case.

RIP Old Tom.