A German Author in London: Barbara Honigmann at Senate House

Recently the Institute of Modern Languages Research, based at Senate House Library,  hosted an evening with one of Germany’s best contemporary women’s writers titled ‘A Conversation with Barbara Honigmann’.

Barbara Honigmann, 2014

To define Barbara Honigmann is a difficult task: she is, yes, a woman writer. She is also a German writer, and at the same time a Jewish writer. But rather than see her as a Woman German-Jewish writer, we should simply see her as a writer. Fitting into multiple ‘boxes’ means that to certain interested parties, she has several identities: but giving a voice to Jews, Germans or women, in whatever part she is required to be at the time, can leave her feeling that she has – rather than a rich and multifaceted identity -an utter lack of concrete identity.

Born in east Germany in 1949 to parents who spent many years exiled in London, Barbara Honigmann left the GDR for Strasbourg in 1983, where she still lives. Honigmann is best known for her largely autobiographical fiction, and is currently the writer in residence at Queen Mary University of London.

Senate House Library is a rather imposing looking building smack bang in between Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road. This 1920s-feel white brick structure may look bleak from the outside, but as the University of London library, and home to the School of Advanced Study, this is one knowledge-filled place; the perfect location, then for a discussion with one of Germany’s most prominent authors.

Despite her multiple identities, one March evening in the welcoming space of Senate House, it was Barbara Honigmann the writer who held the steadfast attention of the room. Facilitated by Robert Gillett, Honigmann discussed her life as well as her latest novel, Chronik meine Strasse to a gripped audience.

Interspersed throughout the talk of biography and language, the author read passages from her new book in German, followed by a translation read by Dr. Gillett. Essentially her latest book is, hence the title, the story of Barbara’s street. A novel dedicated to a single road has the potential to sound like a dull and overly simplistic affair, but in what we hear from Chronik meine Strasse, Honigmann’s street exists as a deep and detailed character.

Her street has a past, it has a personality, and it has people that each have their own stories living along it. Barbara’s atmospheric, and at times simplistic, writing creates an image of a street you eagerly want to explore, yet at the same time feel you already know. There are long, meandering sentences (that had to be split for the English version) amongst brisk statements and repeated sequences. Despite these instances of wanderings and explorations, the destination of the text is never far from sight.

We hear about the people she sees from her balcony. and how the street is changing. Neighbours and relationships, as well as the history of the road are discussed in detail: Barbara Honigmann’s street feels like a microcosm of today’s multicultural and varied cities. In fact, her text could have been transposed to right here in London, and the sights, feelings and people may not have been altogether that different.

For such an accomplished writer, Honigmann’s humble personality may have seemed at this event unequal to the lofty standards of her words. Her softness and approachability, however, meant Barbara could have gone beyond meine Strasse, further than meine Stadt and outside mein Land, and the audience would have still been hungry for more.  Barbara Honigmann’s discussion with Robert Gillett did not only instigate applause, but also those rare moments of silent thought; a sign, always, of a successful conversation

 

Behind the Scenes: A Look Inside London Artist Vanessa Jackson’s Studio

 

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Royal AcademyVanessa Jackson Credit: Vanessa Jackson

 

It’s a funny thing, stepping into an artist’s studio. Perhaps it’s like tiptoeing around someone’s bedroom, or opening up a private diary – there’s a feeling that you are entering a sacred space, one in which ideas are formed, decisions are made, creativity is initiated and yet one which also feels strangely out of bounds.

When, therefore, I was lucky enough to attend a studio tour of artist Vanessa Jackson’s creative space in Bermondsey, I felt a strange sense of intrusion. That, however, was quickly dissolved: over a glass of wine, a handful of people and the artist herself began to talk art and inspiration, teaching and techniques, and were all made to feel thoroughly welcome in this paint-splattered room.

Despite Jackson’s formal art education at the Royal College of Art, her pieces are anything but traditional. Geometric ideas crossed with modernist lines, all in vibrant hues and clashing colours, line the walls of her studio (you can also see them on display at the Royal Academy). Although intended to be independent pieces, a lot of Vanessa Jackson’s art works incredibly well in sequence and alongside each other.

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Credit: Royal Academy

 

Her personal sketchbook was not for our eyes, but bar that, Vanessa was open with how she created certain pieces, the fact that a lot of what she did she threw away, and her annoyance when critics brand her work as ‘cubist’.

To glimpse the ‘behind the scenes’ activity and space was enlightening, not least to get the artist’s perspective on her own work, but also to talk frankly about the art world in general. I don’t quite know if I expected a beret-wearing, overalled individual painting at an easel, but my insight into the world of an artist was one which inspired, fascinated and excited me.

What the experience confirmed is that everyone works in a completely different way, whatever they are doing, and that however we decide to be creative, none of it is wrong.

 

London’s Woodland-Themed Christmas Lights: Fab or Fail?

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Hands up if anyone has ever seen a rabbit hopping about in Covent Garden. Or how about a fox making its way from Trafalgar Square? Perhaps you may have come across a squirrel in Seven Dials? No I have not gone completely mad – but Covent Garden may have. This year, Seven Dials have gone with a woodland theme for their festive displays. Original, yes. But does it work?

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Last night signalled a step nearer to the big day, as the Christmas lights in Seven Dials were officially switched on. It was a whole evening of festivities, with mulled wine and Christmas cocktails, money off and music – myself, along with a fair few other savvy Londoners, took this opportunity to get 20% off most shops and collect our complimentary drinks: we have to make the most of these things after all.

With free grilled cheese, more mince pies than is possible to eat, and the chance to toast your own marshmallows at the fire-pit S’more station, this was more than just shopping. Wreath-making workshops were even on the agenda, for the people that were feeling particularly productive on a Thursday night.

At 6pm was the big switch on. Crowds gathered around the centre of Seven Dials, where all seven streets converge to a central point, where what looks like the Monument’s rather puny cousin, stands proudly. This was not just a case of pressing a button – there was a build-up to a) get people very excited and b) to try and explain the reason why Seven Dials was full of cardboard cut-outs of various woodland animals.

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This build-up consisted of a Lumiere-like light projection on the surrounding buildings, while a voice read out a rhyming story to narrate the projections. I listened avidly, but still didn’t manage to make head nor tail of why the woodland creatures ended up in the middle of London. Admittedly, the light display of foxes and rabbits on Covent Garden’s buildings were pretty cute, but when the poem tried to find multiple rhymes for ‘Seven Dials’, you just knew it wasn’t going to end well.

Finally, a countdown ensued, and on 1, the streets of Seven Dials suddenly lit up. It cannot be denied that this was a thoroughly festive affair, especially when acclaimed band Dirty Old Brasstards began to play ‘So here it is, Merry Christmas’.

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Looking around I did indeed feel very Christmassy. The lights, even if they are in the shape of a badger, or surrounding a bemused bunny, may be slightly odd, but they are fairly cute, and very twinkly.

I may not be following in Seven Dials’ footsteps, and decorating my tree with deer decorations and bunny baubles: but the Covent Garden area is definitely branching out with their forest theme, daring to be different, and making London even more full of lights, which, let’s face it, can’t be a bad thing.

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Wilton’s Music Hall: Head East for Entertainment

Looking for an evening’s entertainment or a quirky cocktail? Look no further.Tucked away between Tower Hill and Aldgate Stations is a hidden gem of an establishment: introducing Wilton’s Music Hall.

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If you think that all of the city’s best theatres and show venues are in the West End, think again. Despite the majority of musicals centring around Soho and Covent Garden, and perhaps the more ‘serious’ plays taking place at the National or the Globe, there are plenty more hidden away, off-West End performances that are equally, if not more, mind-blowing. If you look hard enough, a short walk from the Tower of London will show you one such place: Wilton’s.

For a spectacular venue that, yes, may lack the light up signs and the overpriced merchandise that is synonymous with London shows these days, the unique Wilton’s Music Hall is definitely worth a visit. Having started out in 1839, this Grade 2 Star listed building is still going strong today after some recent renovation, and as one of the oldest grand music halls in the world, hosts a variety of top-class acts and entertainment.

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On first glance (when you have finally located the place having walked down several side streets), Wilton’s may not strike you as a fabulous night out. But step inside, and you could be mistaken to think you have been transported back to the era of music halls and gin dens. Low lighting, subdued hues and cosy décor meets a thoroughly relaxed vibes to create one of London’s best-kept secrets.

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The Mahogany Bar and upstairs Cocktail Bar serve up some exceptional and inventive cocktails amongst the usual beers, wines and softies for the drivers. Hearty pre-show food, courtesy of The Gatherer’s, is available, with local Brick Lane Beigels and the likes of chicken scratchings on the menu.

Recently, I was lucky enough to see one of the stunning performances that Wilton’s hosts – this one was a play cum cabaret cum musical and was gripping from start to finish. Titled ‘City Stories’, the show told four individual love stories set at different points in time, but all based in our beloved London. Exceptional music accompanied the drama thanks to one (very talented) woman and her piano, who also happened to have written the score.

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This, alas was only a two-night affair, but the constantly changing  programme of events is just why Wilton’s is so fantastic. From jazz bands to plays, cabarets to comedy, the variety in entertainment coupled with its one-of-a-kind atmosphere makes Wilton’s Music Hall the ultimate fusion of venue, entertainment, drinks and history.

Overwhelmed at Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the V&A

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Slip petticoat, designer unknown, 1955-1964. Photograph: V&A

The V&A’s latest offering in the realm of impressive and quirky exhibitions is one which covers issues that are usually, well, covered up. After the success of previous retrospectives including the David Bowie Is exhibition, Hollywood Costume, and the Alexander McQueen tribute, the V&A has been firmly put on the map where exciting, and often fashion-focused, spectaculars are concerned. Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is no exception.

Undressed focuses on the evolution of underwear throughout history; the developments in style, shape and material, as well as the social implications and variations, of what we all wear under wraps. Both men and women are covered, or shall we say, exposed, in this comprehensive history, and a wander round Undressed is far more exciting and informative than your average trip to M+S’s lingerie section.

Whoever had the bright idea of opening the doors on an essential, yet often ignored part of our daily lives is a genius, I say. After all, underwear is our uniting staple, forming the foundation of anything we wear. It only seems right, then, to dedicate a whole exhibition to the development of what we put on underneath our clothes.

Looking at the changing styles and materials of underwear from the 18th century to the present day is more than just about lingerie. The exhibition brings up the unavoidable issue of women’s body shape, and the evolution of the ‘ideal’ silhouette. From the rigid steel-cage crinoline from 1856, to the bottom-enhancing horse-hair bustle, it is clear that wide hips and a generous behind were hugely desirable back in the day. Not only did these items, which enlarged and accentuated elements that today’s females generally want to minimise, seem costume-like and ridiculous, they make going to the loo look like an ordeal to say the least. Corsets from the 1890’s that shrunk the waist to a tiny 45cm seemed shocking in comparison to today’s 71cm average. The obvious health complications and damage to internal organs were not brushed over, and frankly made the whalebone corset seem even more undesirable.

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Corset made from whalebone and cotton c1890. Photograph: V&A

From the ideal of the voluptuous lower-half which populated the 18th and 19th centuries, the 1930’s saw a change to a slim and feminine physique. The curvy Marilyn Monroe-esque figure became fashionable in the 50s, whereas going without a bra was a political statement undertaken by many women during the 60s. This evidently changed when the conical bra clad Madonna, and later the Kate Moss waif-look were en vogue: consider this your figure-timeline.

What was noticeable, amongst other things, was the fact that a great deal of the underwear looked wholly uncomfortable. In fact, I looked at a lot of it and thought ‘give me an M+S soft-touch T-shirt bra any day’. However, as items of art, as objects of beauty and intricate design, much of what was on display was unbelievably beautiful. Hand stitched garters, detailed embroidered corsets, lace-edged robes – some of these items looked almost too pretty to wear, and certainly hours’ worth of painstaking work. On the flipside, there was no forgetting the perhaps boring-looking but utterly useful items. The functional ‘Bridget-Jones’ shape-wear, lycra sports bras and padded boxers for men that wanted, um, more to show, were more about what these bits of underwear did for what was on top. Clearly, we need a mix of pretty, but painful, and plain but practical.

The ‘underwear as outerwear’ trend was homed in on, much of which was fairly risqué and revealing, yet being from high-end designers such as Dolce and Gabbana and John Galliano, absurdly expensive. Personally, I’m not sure I would feel entirely comfortable donning a negligée down the red carpet, but then again, if I had the chance to walk down a red carpet, it would probably be an alternative universe, and I may have drastically different opinions in that world. But, going to back to this world, to the world where I have apparently spent over an hour looking at a variety of bras and knickers, I have come to the realisation that underwear should not be ignored. It should not be an embarrassing topic, a bottom-drawer you are ashamed of; it should not be disregarded as something that no-one sees.. Underwear should be embraced, celebrated and marvelled at. And we should all be grateful we are not laced up daily in a whale-boned corset, whilst simultaneously wearing a metal framed skirt, working out just how to go about negotiating the toilet. Amen to that.

 

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is on at the V&A until 12th March 2017.

ENO’s Madam Butterfly: a feast for the eyes and ears

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Take several Japanese screens, a fair few Kimonos, countless lanterns and fans, and an incredibly moving score, and you have all the ingredients for ENO’s latest offering, Madam Butterfly.

Puccini once again hits the London scene, and the mix of orchestral masterpiece with stunning minimalist Japanese theatre is a feast for the eyes and ears. American soprano Rena Harms takes the title role, and is a beautifully sincere Madam Butterfly.

Yesterday’s opening night performance at the Coliseum was a success on all fronts; the talented orchestra transporting the London audience to the The opera is a classic tale of unrequited love, and of one woman’s faith that her American husband will one day return to Japan to her. This lady is one patient individual, but her three years of waiting flies by in ENO’s production. Innovative use of lights and silks as well as effective instances of puppetry ensure that not only is the audience gripped by the stunning melodies and impressive vocals, but also the visual cinematic masterpiece that is the stage. Costumes and set were equally colourful, and utilisation of shadow was simple, yet stylish.

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The characters of Suzuki (Stephanie Windsor-Lewis), Madam Butterfly’s maid, and her absent husband Pinkerton (David Butt Philip) matched up to Harms’ near-perfect performance. One of the most effective characters, I have to say, was that of Madam Butterfly’s baby son – a puppet so lifelike and so ingeniously controlled that after being on-stage for a matter of minutes, I was completely sure that it was a real person. Forget CGI, this is special effects at its finest.

Being an opera, and a Puccini one at that, the ending is an emotional culmination of three years of patience and love. A visually stunning, and musically enchanting oriental performance, Madam Butterfly at the ENO is one that may require a pack of tissues.

 

images courtesy of ENO (www.eno.org)

 

Fashion Utopias at Somerset House: where meets style meets fantasy

Utopia (noun): ‘an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect’ (Oxford English Dictionary). But what happens when these utopian ideas are applied to the world of fashion?

Fashion Utopias at Somerset House is the result of this combination; a showcase celebrating emerging designers’ visions of their imagined worlds. Coinciding with London Fashion Week and the Thomas More Utopia exhibition, which celebrates the 500th year anniversary of its publication, this exhibition is where art, fashion and (pure) imagination collide.

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Divided into separate rooms which each represent a country, Fashion Utopias navigates you not only across continents, but through dreamlike worlds and fantasy places. From the Czech Republic, where clothes and accessories are suspended from trees, to Guatemala, in which giant 3D clouds evoke a dream-like aura, each room creates a different and diverse utopian vision. Portugal’s ‘BLOOM’ concept used eco-friendly cork to raise the question of sustainable fashion, in contrast to the Philippines’ dresses which were made out of leather and real bullets. The Egyptian designers, meanwhile, inspired by the Tree of Life and the Lotus flower, made use of hundreds of origami lotus flowers hung from the ceiling, taking paper-crafts up a level (or two).

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Leather and bullet dress

Admittedly, some of the pieces on display were the fashion world’s equivalent of a TATE Modern offering – aka – huh? That said, the majority of clothes, accessories, bags and especially the innovative installation and displaying of them, was pretty stunning. Technology and digital design was put to good use, the highlight being a giant moving, video-style magazine which changed display when you turned a page, thanks to high-tech code reading projectors.

The essence of Fashion Utopias was to project an imagined world of fashion, and it most definitely succeeded. The huge variety of colours, shapes, concepts and styles on offer throughout the 14 different rooms provided constant stimulation, and following the exhibition I was even more aware of the fact that fashion is essentially just another form of art. This art, however, just happens to be based on what we wear: are we all, then, living, walking masterpieces?