Archive for March, 2009

Being British, Stephen Lawrence Gallery

March 22, 2009

 

Scream Queen, by Hew Locke. Photograph: Courtesy of the Stephen Lawrence Gallery

Scream Queen, by Hew Locke. Photograph: Courtesy of the Stephen Lawrence Gallery

This small but powerful survey of British art brings together work created over the past six years by nine artists based in the UK who all have at least one parent born outside Britain. Creating a perfect discourse between work and surroundings, the show explores British multiculturalism amid the buildings of Greenwich’s Old Naval College, with their long heritage of maritime and monarchy.

Beneath Wren’s dome in the imposing King William courtyard hang two of Chris Ofili’s Union Black flags, reimagined in red, green and black to represent black skin and African blood spilt over green land. Small yet defiant, they make a powerful political statement in a part of London steeped in slavery and black history.

In the only remaining part of the palace where Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary I of Scotland were born, Seamus Harahan’s video splices footage of train journeys between Dublin and Belfast to question the notion of borders and a split Irish identity torn apart by religion.

Appearing throughout the work, the union flag provides a common link, with much of the work standing as an angry reaction against it and the British establishment. There is a Tracey Emin neon, Red, White and Fucking Blue, and two of Hew Locke’s menacing, acid-hued watercolours of the Queen’s head. Cai Yuan and Xi Juan Jun, the two artists who in 1999 famously jumped into Emin’s unmade bed, now exhibit alongside her, their photographic diptych proposing that the only way to be accepted as a citizen is to die fighting for Britain.

The mood is sombre, evoking the powerlessness of the oppressed against the might of British rule and rules. Unsurprisingly, there is little consensus to be had here about the multicultural British experience, nor is a new unified British identity proposed. Yet in challenging what it is to be British, these artists make the template less rigid for us all.

Being British, The Stephen Lawrence Gallery, London SE10

Starts 18 March Until 17 April Details: 020-8331 8260

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review

Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

March 22, 2009

 

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When she died at the age of 77 in 1982, Irmgard Keun left behind no memoirs. What she did leave, alongside a clutch of brilliant novels, was this delightful, harrowing account of her life between 1936 and 1940, in exile as an “immoral, anti-German” writer.

Keun’s masterstroke is to tell her story from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl. A headstrong, defiant child, Kully might not attend school, but she knows all about visas and passports and has an ever-expanding repertoire of languages.

While her father, the alcoholic and unreliable writer Peter (widely regarded as a portrait of Keun’s sometimes lover, the Austrian-Jewish novelist Joseph Roth) bluffs advances from publishers, pawns their belongings and begs from the rich, Kully and her sad, put-upon mother Annie camp out in hotel rooms, running up bills and hiding from the staff.

The trio are on an enforced grand tour of Europe rendered nightmarish by near-starvation, constantly expiring visas and the shadow of war. But in order to keep the credit coming, they must perpetuate the illusion of wealth by staying in the best hotels, eating in the finest restaurants and only ever travelling first class.

Keun captures Kully with such clarity that her words skip off the page. “It annoys me when people don’t hand over their money when we need it”, she says. “Money isn’t something that becomes unhappy or starts crying if you leave it.”

Written during Keun’s own exile, this is at once a historical record of prewar Europe and a glimpse into the chaotic life of an alcoholic. But the novel’s real power comes in capturing the freefalling anxiety of the displaced person, who cannot be homesick because home no longer exists.

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review

Interview with Dr Leo Mellor

March 15, 2009

leomellorDr Mellor is the Roma Gill fellow in English at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge; he specialises in modernism and Second World War literature. He teaches for several papers across the BA course and supervises dissertations on 19th- and 20th-century topics.

7am Wake up to the Today programme. Go to the gym, followed by breakfast with my girlfriend, a theatre director and translator.

8.45am Walk to college, which takes about 45 minutes.

10am Give a 50-minute lecture. I do about two a week, at the moment it’s literature and the Second World War.

11am Have an hour-long “supervision”, a one-to-one (or two) tutorial with students about their essays. I do about 12 a week.

1.15pm Eat with the 60 other fellows of the college at high table. It’s a really good way to bond as a unit.

2.30pm Give a weekly seminar, on modernism and the short story.

4pm More supervisions and endless emailing, mostly with the 30 English students I’m responsible for, but also arranging library visits, organising symposiums and contacting the editor of a book I am writing on London’s bomb sites and the literature of wartime London. I also set entrance exams and interview prospective students in December and January.

5pm Work on my book – it’s my first. I try to clear one full day a week, but the reality is that the three eight-week terms pass in an intense, exciting blur, and holidays are for research and writing, preparing reading lists, lectures and seminars.

7pm Sometimes I eat in college, work late in my office and then catch last orders in the pub and debate with friends. If not, I walk home listening to my Welsh-language podcasts practising my vocab. My mother is Welsh but I grew up in Brighton, so I only speak a little.

8pm Prepare for tomorrow’s supervisions, reading all the essays I will be discussing. Practise lectures on my cat Tolly.

8.30pm Cook dinner. I enjoy cooking as a way of relaxing.

9.30pm More preparation. Then I’ll read in bed until I fall asleep at about midnight. I have countless books on the go at once. I like to read articles and journals around my subject, but also completely off-topic as well. As a child, I just wanted to read books and I’ve fallen into a career where I get paid to do that. Some days, I can’t quite believe it. 

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review

D M Stith: Heavy Ghost

March 8, 2009

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Like his celebrated label boss, Sufjan Stevens, David Stith is very much a man in thrall to God. The product of a musical, Christian family, along with the biblical imagery – all rising up, ghosts and devils, David and Isaac – there is something undeniably religious about his sound. Stith plays his fragile voice like an instrument – pouring forth praise or gospel-like narration to an orchestra of claps, drips, twangs, ghostly wails and celestial piano. Notes clash and jar, rhythms hammer and crash off kilter, but somehow it all creates an uplifting, beautifully addictive cacophony like nothing you’ve heard before.

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.