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

 

Berlin Walls: Street Art in the German Capital

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You no longer have to be in a gallery to see incredible art, neither know about everything from the Renaissance to Pop Art to be deemed an art critic. The great thing about street art is that there is no arrow pointing to where you should look, or a piece of card explaining the artist, name of the work and the materials that were used. You have to look and find these things yourself; an art treasure hunt, if you will.

London is well-known for its street art and graffiti; it’s clear you’ve entered the hipster hub of Shoreditch when you start to see quirky drawings on the side of buildings, and provocative words sprayed onto breeze-block walls.

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Berlin, however, takes the whole street art phenomenon to new levels. The sheer quantity of stunning designs on every street corner is obvious as soon as you get off the train at the main station. It somehow makes the city seem instantly more laid back, and gives you the sense that the graffiti police are not so fussed about stray spray cans in Germany.

Like a lot of outdoor ‘art’, a fair amount of Berlin’s arguable vandalism is just that – I’m not pretending that every wall is adorned with next year’s Banksy – but there is an awful lot of impressive stuff out there.

For the ultimate experience of wall art, the East Side Gallery is a no-brainer. This is a remaining part of the Berlin Wall which is still standing, a harsh reminder of the former divided city. However, in contrast to its previous life as a grey, stark symbol of the partition between East and West Berlin, the wall here is now a giant canvas. This is the biggest, most impressive, varied mural you have seen.

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Interspersed with messages about climate change and thought-provoking statements are reactions to the fall of the wall, and the union of the country. Pictures evoking the persecution of the prior years alongside the promise of newfound freedom distil the 1989 Berlin Wall collapse into hard-hitting realities.

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For incredible art as well as an education about what divided Berlin meant for society, forget the traditional galleries and museums. This art experience is completely free: it is street art as you’ve never seen it before.

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http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/east-side-gallery

 

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)

 

You say you want a Revolution: a Cycle Spectacular at the Design Museum

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Call me a wimp, call me wise, but I have yet to cycle in the big bad city. Not a Boris Bike jaunt, nor a scenic riverside ride have I ever completed, which, admittedly is slightly embarrassing.

…Or sensible? The amount of cycle-related injuries and accidents is scarily high in London, although the new Cycle Super Highways that are being built around the city promise a safer way to ride around the capital.

This current obsession with bikes can’t be ignored – we’ve all been annoyed by those commuters who insist on travelling with a fold-up bike, or been narrowly missed by a speeding Santander. But the rise in popularity of the (not so) humble bicycle is clearly for a reason: a bike is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to use, and doubles up as a form of exercise. This is killing three birds with one stone. After the success of cycling in the London Olympics and the enthusiasm for the recent Tour de France, it seems apt that 2015 should be the year championing the Great Bicycle. Luckily, the Design Museum have got it covered.

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Cycle Revolution is a brand new exhibition at the Design Museum in Bermondsey celebrating the nations’ favourite two wheeled contraption. Bikes of all shapes and sizes are on display; from Bradley Wiggins’ super fast racer to a 1970s vintage Raleigh, this exhibition shows there really is a bike for everyone. The exhibition focuses on four subcultures of biking ‘tribes’; the High Performers, the Thrill Seekers, the Urban Riders and the Cargo Bikers, proving the diversity and variety in the jobs the bike can do.

Track the evolution of the bicycle throughout time, contrasting the 1888 Rover safety bicycle to the foldable Brompton bicycles now so familiar on the morning commute. Apparently the future of cycling could be the wooden bike, but there was also a huge number of modern collapsible contraptions that screamed innovation. . Biking attire and helmets (accessories are obviously important here) are featured, the most bizarre probably an inflatable helmet. I was pretty impressed with the cargo bikes which are rising in popularity; companies using them for deliveries or mums for the school run. Genius, I say – stick the kids in the bike.

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Admittedly, I entered Cycle Revolution with an overriding impression that a bike is a bike is a bike. How wrong I was. The Design Museum’s Cycle Revolution opened my eyes to the fact that bikes are stepping up a gear. Having never really considered the design and craftsmanship of the trusty bicyle, I now feel enlightened as to the capabilities of our two-wheeled friend, and despite not being an avid bike enthusiast, can now fully the complete variety and innovative craftsmanship of the bicycle. The Design Museum has triumphed again, as far as im concerned, and even though I still took the tube on the way home, I was wheely considering picking up a Boris Bike (pun completely intended).

Covent Garden and Christmas in November

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‘Christmas’ and all that comes with it, the songs, the madness, the big brands and the adverts, seems to be creeping earlier each year.

As soon as November rolled along, Oxford Street and Regent Street went into Christmas mode – entirely prematurely if you ask me. By mid-December, the novelty and excitement of all things Christmas will have worn off, and no doubt the tune of Mariah’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’ will be a grating sound on tired ears.

But seeing as we, the little Londoners who are powerless in the face of the capital’s decision on when Christmas should start, can’t do anything about it, we may as well try and enjoy the (way too early) festivities.

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Last night I wandered down to Covent Garden’s piazza, for the switching on of the famous lights. Not a length of tinsel in sight, these decorations are tasteful and magical; moving projections of snowflakes and giant mistletoe make for a cracking display. I must admit, the giant reindeer, the old fashioned lanterns and the glitzy disco balls alongside a comforting waft of mulled wine gave me that warm and fuzzy feeling.

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A Harrods Christmas pop-up shop has even opened next to the Royal Opera House; ridiculously Christmassy to walk around, despite the fact that even the chocolate coins are more than a student budget can stretch, and could easily get you a pint in Wetherspoons. For the next few days, Covent Garden is hosting their first Mulled Wine Festival, which is worth checking out if you fancy a hot cup of Glogg or a spiced cider. They even have micro-pigs to pet – insanely cute and a real crowd-drawer. Not sure how related to Mulled Wine these little things are, though. Unless someone tries to keep them warm and wraps the pigs in blankets (warning: keep away from any ovens).

For a slightly early Christmassy feeling, a shopping trip less daunting than the infamous Oxford Street, and an excuse to check out the many cafes, pubs and bars around one of London’s prettiest areas, I would put the lights in Covent Garden on your ‘To Do’ list asap.

DISCLAIMER: London’s My Lobster does not take responsibility for any over-consumption of mulled wine, or any overspending on super-cute Christmas baubles.

Brunch at The Black Penny, Covent Garden

Black Penny

Brunch is one of those fabulous concepts that makes you feel somewhat sophisticated without the need for dressing up, parting with huge amounts of cash, or forfeiting an early night. Perhaps that is why the popularity of the breakfast-lunch convergence has increased significantly over the past couple of years: Instagram is now awash with Prosecco selfies and pancake snaps destined to make anyone munching on a solitary bowl of cornflakes green with envy.

A visit from friends, not so au fait with the ways of the big city, seemed like the perfect opportunity to get on the brunch bandwagon. Having had a lovely coffee date in The Black Penny a few weeks back, I decided to revisit this gem of a spot to see what mid-morning offerings they provided. So on Sunday morning, we trekked the onerous 5 minutes to Great Queen Street, where the fairly covert café is situated.

Only 5 minutes from Holborn station, past the gaudy fronts of various chains, The Black Penny revels in its subtlety. In fact, many people, as I did at first, walk past it without batting an eyelid; the few tables outside, black frontage, and small sign reading ‘The Black Penny’ could easily go unnoticed by a passer-by headed for the lights of Covent Garden. But the hidden vibe, the feeling that you’ve come across a city secret, is part of this café’s charm.

Rustic décor, and an immediately inviting counter of freshly baked goods means that on entry, the café feels homely yet cool, quirky but comfortable. Those wise ones who have realised this are already sitting down enjoying a fry up and a latte or a croissant and a cappuccino. What also has drawn a good few punters in is the ridiculously good offer of Prosecco: have brunch at this café and a glass of bubbly is only 1p. Yes, you read that right – ONE WHOLE PENNY. Clearly playing on the namesake, and that is no bad thing.

The coffee, I have to say is second to none. Smooth and almost chocolatey, this is a million miles from a bitter filter or your more usual Sunday morning Nescafe. It really is noticeable when you have a Proper Coffee like this; you start to doubt the authenticity of a Starbucks latte and realise this is what the real stuff is meant to be like.

Sweet-toothed Friend opted for French toast with caramelised apples and ricotta, whilst Savoury Friend chose the chorizo baked beans with goat’s cheese and an egg. One for a classic, poached eggs on sourdough was my brunch of choice, and a fabulous one at that – simple, yet so easy to get wrong. Here, however, it was so right. We agreed that The Black Penny was perfection on all three fronts. Price-wise, this is as good as you’ll get for a stunning brunch, fabulous coffee and a quirky independent café in central. Expect to pay £10-12 for a delicious mid-morning fuelling that will last you till late afternoon.

Despite not making the most of the Prosecco offer, brunch here is available until 4pm at the weekends, and a post-midday glass of bubbles may indeed feature in the coming months. Service is fantastic – utterly efficient, ridiculously friendly and that manner which makes you feel not only like a customer, but a valued friend. The Black Penny is made all the more appealing by the fact it is on my doorstep: it’s basically my local, and I will indeed be frequenting this coffee haven a lot more for my caffeine hit. Whether you make a special trip of a weekend for brunch here (definitely worth it) or are in need of a sit down and a cuppa when negotiating the streets of Covent Garden, (step away from the Pret), The Black Penny should be firmly penned in your Black Book.

http://theblackpenny.co.uk/

The Cross Keys, Covent Garden – A Proper Pub

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This man, this white-shirted individual making his way into The Cross Keys, has the right idea. He’s after a pint in a Proper Pub, and that’s what he is bloomin’ well going to get… Follow his lead, people.

When I stumbled across it on one of my walks through the awesomeness that is Covent Garden, its clear to see why ‘The Secret Garden’ came to mind when I saw  The Cross Keys. The flowers and plants on the pub front immediately caught my eye – in the city centre, a bit of greenery is always welcome – and the fact that it is slightly withdrawn from the crazy tourist part of Covent Garden, made me want to try out this boozer.

If you’re after a pub that’s a little off the beaten track, and usually a fair bit quieter than the ones on the main drag or right by the market, The Cross Keys is indeed a winner. The inside feels a little like a fairy glen: eclectic objects hang from the ceiling and fairy lights are draped throughout. The drinks on offer are pretty varied and at a reasonable price, especially for this part of London (expect two drinks to set you back around £8). This is a real find (not to blow my own trumpet) and I would put this little gem on your ‘To Do Booze’ list asap.

The Cross Keys, 31 Endell Street, London WC2H 9BA, http://www.crosskeyscoventgarden.com/