29 July 2012

One of four girls

In 1961, the American photographer Eve Arnold contributed to a project for Magnum Photos: a series of photographs of people who placed notices in The Times. Three young women posted the following notice in the personal column:

'This little girl goes to America. We three stay at home. Which little girl will come and share our Knightsbridge flat?'

Eve Arnold came to London and took this beautiful photograph. I could look into the steam of it all day. Eve moved to London in 1961.

One of four girls sharing an apartment

26 July 2012

Much Ado

Photo taken by a Shakespeare-loving South African outside the Globe
Once again the British Museum Reading Rooms have been re-jigged. They no longer house books and books and desks and books as they did when I first arrived in London, and how the likes of Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf experienced the space beneath that wonderful domed roof.

'Written up are the names of great men; and we all cower like mice nibbling crumbs in our most official discreet, impersonal mood beneath. I like this dusty bookish atmosphere. Most of the readers seemed to have rubbed their noses off and written their eyes out. Yet they have a life they like - believe in the necessity of making books I suppose: verify, collate, make up other books forever' Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf.

However, though shelved books may no longer line the perimeter of this museum centre-point, it is still very much home to WORDS. Well, it is right now at any rate. Some of the very best words written in Britain. The current exhibition is Shakespeare: Staging the World.

Obviously it's all tied in with the London 2012 thing (because EVERYTHING seems to be) but, y'know, maybe good stuff can come out of the whole Olympics business... Entering through a corridor while the sounds of theatre crowds surround visitors is a pretty excellent opening to the exhibition and I certainly learnt some interesting bits and bobs while wending my way round.

Shakespeare came up with the theatre term 'groundling' to describe the audience members closest to the stage; a groundling is a fish that lies on the bottom of rivers and gazes up at the surface with mouths open.

I was also unaware that the bard was accused of assault outside the Swan Theatre (a fact I learnt when looking at rapiers and daggers, reading about London's knife crime), as well as being a keen gardener in Stratford upon Avon (learnt while looking at contemporary gardening tools in 'The Forest of Arden' section, where music fitting for a melancholy lover was streamed on a loop).

There is a board or two all about bear fighting: bears, like actors, could become celebrities. Displayed behind glass is a skull of a bear which was excavated on the site of the Bear Garden in the 1980s. Its teeth were ground down so that she couldn't crush a dog's skull in a bite. I guess that would mean that the show would be over too quickly.

A portrait of Elizabeth I hangs on the wall, with the pale Queen carrying water in a sieve. This, of course, proves her virginity. Just like the Roman Priestess Tuccia, the Vestal Virgin. Obviously.

Also displayed are really beautiful and rather quirky livery badges in the shape of bears, harts and swans. And tiny cameos of the suicide of Cleopatra, complete with asp at her breast. If only these were sold in the exhibition gift shop.

Less beautiful, but just as interesting, are the calf's heart stuck with pins and the witch's cursing bone. The cry of 'Where hast thou been, sister?' echoes shrilly in this wing of the exhibition, with the bloodthirsty and bonkers 'Killing swine' returning the call. The witches voices sing and hiss and cackle on repeat. James I's treatise on witchcraft, Daemonologie, is open in a cabinet; he was paranoid about this particular subject. He blamed witches for the storms that could have killed him.

There are 16th century artists impressions of 'others', such as the Picts of Scotland. A portrait of a naked and 'wild' man, in a pose often attributed to gentility, is entitled 'The True Picture of One Pict'. Hmm, yes, 'true'.

Two huge globes sit next to each other. They are called the Molyneux Globes and were the first globes to be made by an Englishman. One is terrestrial, the other celestial. The clestial globe depicts the constellations as elaborate illustrations; Leo is a luxurious lion, Ursa Major a glossy-coated wild bear, and so on.

The most memorable and amazing object, however, is Sonny Venkatrathnam's 'Robben Island Bible'. This is a copy of Shakespeare's Complete Works which was disguised as Hindu scripture (it is covered in bright  Diwali cards) and kept by apartheid-era ANC prisoners in the 1970s on Robben Island, a prison off Cape Town. The inmates secretly passed the book around, and Venkatrathnam asked them to mark and sign their favourite passages. There are notes scribbled in the margins. Mandela chose lines from Julius Caeser, II, ii.

"Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once."

I think that all who ever used the Reading Rooms would probably feel it's acceptable for Shakespeare to take them over for a time. Him and his words.

18 July 2012

Moveable Feasts

So, I'm eating meat again. I hadn't eaten it since my sixteenth birthday. Eight years without meat. Interestingly, when I was twenty-two, I wrote a great deal about food. I had to plumb all depths to create a number of poems in a short space of time. I could write about food forever.

I wrote about cooking a goose at Christmas. I wrote: I am a vegetarian./I dream of eating meat.//Bloodthirsty dreams of medieval feasts,/glazed game, veins clogged with dripping./But the butchery is over,/I wake and hunt for raspberries instead.

I wrote about my father and I discovering an Italian restaurant that actually serves Zabaglione, his favourite, the rare dish that can still tempt his wavering sweet tooth. I wrote: ...they finish dessert,/folding napkins into boats.//She watches him fix his old tooth back into its hole,/all gum clumsy,/while her folds of flesh birth her own sweet tooth.

I wrote about inheriting hollow legs, which I tried so hard to fill. I wrote: ...she sweats over molten sucrose,/pours it down into ankles, mixes in pectin,/boils it up to make a viscous blood jam./Overripe fig flesh, bruised parma-violet,/clings to the marrow-sucked bones.

Etc etc. Bla bla. Lots of poetic overindulgence, enough to make you sick.

These writings are now old. They are about past cannibalisms and developing tastes. And were written when I was on the cusp of saying yes to everything. Eating meat is saying yes. It's stopping restrictions. I won't buy or cook it myself most likely, but I will take the opportunity to say yes to flesh when it presents itself, when it acts as lubricant or superglue in lovely social situations. (Didn't mean for that to sound sexual, more metaphorical...)

A friend of mine said yes big-time. He said yes to leaving the country, teaching in Mexico City for a five week spell, then cycling across South America for seven months. He will also have to say yes to meat - steak and rich red wine will fuel him. Though in Mexico, tequila is only 20p a shot. Shout yes to that!

From www.iwishyouwerehereproject.com

He is very much a traveller, seeing and living all that he can. I came across a project called I Wish You Were Here. The project is all about postcards and a woman named Marianne. Marianne loves to travel and has done widely throughout her life. She now has terminal lung cancer. I don't want to dwell on this heart-wrenching illness (my mother has just taken part in a 'fun run' to raise funds for 'cancer victims' - a term I struggle with as the word 'victim' can never have positive connotations - and she will regale you with a very pink tale of horror and hilarity and a perma-tanned Zumba-dancing motivational monster named Bunny if you so wish to hear it), but it does mean that Marianne can no longer travel. So her daughter has asked the world to send Marianne postcards from wherever they hail from, with three things the sender loves about the place they live in scribbled on the back. This is an excellent idea. The daughter scans each and every postcard, front and back, so they can be seen on the website. If Marianne can't take herself out into the world, the world can jolly well come through her letter box.

From www.iwishyouwerehereproject.com
She lives in Hackney Wick, only a couple of streets away from where I previously lived. The flat where I wrote a great deal about food in fact. And though she lives in the same city as I do, and only a stone's throw from my old home, I will write her a postcard. The three things I love about living here are overhearing conversations between every kind of person you could ever imagine on the top deck of London buses, being able to get cans of ice cold Tyskie and Red Stripe for a £1 each from local corner shops at all hours, and how I can walk across the Heath and visit Keats's house in snow in winter. Of course there are a million other things, and I would say yes to all of them and more.

4 July 2012

Read Sea

In the late seventies Michael stayed in a wooden hut by the hot and salty Red Sea for a spell. He shared the hut with a chap named Ivan. Ivan was (and I presume still is) half Venezuelan, half Russian. He was going to study at Harvard, but wanted to travel first. He took two bags with him. One bag was very small and held clothes and vital supplies. The other was very large and held books. The books were mostly Russian classics in translation. His first language was Spanish, his second Russian, but he read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev et al in English. Once he had read a book he gave it away. Michael's eyes lit up. He had run out of reading matter, so Ivan saved him with Russian literature. Neither Ivan nor Michael cried while reading the tragedy-spattered novels, as there was more than enough salt water surrounding them. The book bag emptied and Ivan travelled lighter, though his head was heavier with yarns of suicidal heroes and heroines and unsuccessful love affairs and soul-struck suffering.

I like to think that he then left Michael in a hut full of novels, walked out into the heat, and strolled through the parted Red Sea carrying just one small bag. I'm pleased that Kindles didn't exist in the seventies, as this little tale wouldn't have existed either.