Cutting edge, brand new, large-scale: Deaf and disabled-led art has never been so good. LOCOG and Southbank Centre present 29 brand new commissions from Deaf and disabled artists to coincide with the Paralympics.
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Cutting edge, brand new, large-scale: Deaf and disabled-led art has never been so good. LOCOG and Southbank Centre present 29 brand new commissions from Deaf and disabled artists to coincide with the Paralympics.
The organic garden on the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall boasts some of the best views in London. Here you can get a sun tan and pick up top gardening tips from the knowledgeable volunteer gardeners, who are turning their lives around by learning new skills and growing some weird and wonderful global vegetables to celebrate Festival of the World.
Stella has been volunteering at the garden since last year and says that gardening has dramatically changed her life for the better. She says: ‘I was going to a woman’s centre and one of the workers there was from Ground Ecotherapy. I discovered this garden and starting helping out – and I never left! Now I come up here four times a week.
‘It’s turned my life around’
‘This project keeps me out of trouble – I haven’t been arrested, I’ve come off drugs, I don’t touch alcohol – it’s turned my life around, really. You wake up wanting to be in this garden and when you get here you don’t want to leave.
‘It’s nice to be respected by the public for what you do. A lot of us volunteers come from backgrounds where you think you’re nothing, you don’t think anyone’s going to look up to you. Something like this shows that you can do things with your life. Now I’ve just got a £500 grant to help women at my hostel grow their own vegetables.’
Southbank Centre’s Gemma Hooper says ‘The gardeners are all volunteers. The main group of gardeners we have is from Grounded Ecotherapy and they all have experience of homelessness and alcohol or drug addiction. They are now channelling their energy into the garden, and some of them have gone on to get jobs after working here. There are currently 15 volunteers who all play a key part and we’re trying to develop the project and get more members of the public to volunteer in the garden and join in with what’s happening here.’
Basil: top tips
Stella and Paul, the head gardener, have grown 13 types of basil in the garden from seed. We asked Paul for his top tips on growing your own.
‘Basil is very delicate’, says Paul. ‘It’s a tropical plant and if you over-water it you can kill it. It doesn’t like going to bed with wet feet is what my Dad taught me. Water it in the morning so that the basil can take up the water during the day and then when it goes to sleep, the soil isn’t waterlogged.’
‘Basil doesn’t like going to bed with wet feet’
Stella describes how they ‘train’ the basil in the roof garden to get used to being outdoors, putting it out during the day and then popping it back in the greenhouse over night. ‘When it gets older, it can then live outdoors permanently,’ she says.
If you’re desperate for herb-growing tips, advice on growing veggies or just want to meet new people and spend time outdoors, then do come along to the free, drop-in gardening sessions on Tuesdays from 11am until 1pm. The sessions are mainly aimed at adults but lots of families have been joining in, too. You can just turn up – you don’t have to book and everyone’s welcome.
Southbank Centre’s Gemma Hooper says ‘In these sessions we’ve been doing lots of seed sowing and learning all the proper processes for that. We’ve also been doing dead-heading, removing old leaves and flower heads, and generally what we call ‘Chelsea-fying’ the garden. Lots of our gardeners are involved in the Chelsea flower show and we try to keep the garden up to that standard so we need lots of help to do that.’
It is the middle of the 1930s and the artistic world is in crisis. Promising abstract artist John Piper has just released his latest piece, a collage made from coloured paper and paint. There is uproar amongst his contemporaries and the arts graduate is branded a traitor. The unthinkable has happened.
The picture is a landscape. And not just any old landscape. It’s a landscape of a British seaside.
John Piper is the hero of Alexandra Harris’ recent book, Romantic Heroes. She spoke at Southbank Centre as part of the 2011 London Literary Festival, to talk about her work which looks into the confused state of English culture during the interwar period.
At a time when the continent was in awe of people like Picasso, England was undergoing it’s own revolution. Artists such as Piper and John Nash were keen to break free from the ties of being labelled as either traditionalists or modernists. Both men set about mixing the artistic forms together, looking at the quaintness of the traditional English landscape through the eyes of a modernist. For many from all quarters of the art world, this was beyond a step too far.
Yet we learn that this distortion of identity was not being limited to art. Harris covers an incredible range of English society – from literature and photography, to gardening and even cookery – finding evidence of people from all areas of life discovering new ways to look at old England.
She introduces figures like Ralf Handcock, a prominent gardener who liked to build traditional English gardens out of the finest English materials. Except he liked to place them in rather modern places, such as upon the top of the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan, New York. During it’s creation, Handcock insisted only English materials were used, hence rocks were imported by ship from the Lake District and traditional English trees had to be hoisted by crane on to the roof.
Then there are writers of the period like Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom clearly have had a huge impact on Harris. Through books such as The Lighthouse and Brideshead Revisited the authors centred on traditional England, “full of landscape and weather”, but wrote about it in a new and different way.
Even the guidebooks of the time were keen to promote an exciting bold and playful country, providing a new outlook for well-known popular destinations.
Alexandra Harris’ talk is a fascinating insight into a hidden section of English society. She clearly has an incredible passion for the period, getting visibly excited at the mention of characters such as Bill Brandt and Edith Olivier. She has an enormous breadth of knowledge about the time period too, dipping into topics as wide as fascism in farming to books on traditional pie making.
At a time when Southbank Centre is itself looking back at the 1951 Festival of Britain, it seems particularly apt for Harris to be telling us about a similar thing happening in England’s past.
Filed under: London Literature Festival 2011 | Tagged: Alexandra Harris, Literature and Spoken Word, London Literature Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Romantic Moderns, Southbank Centre | Leave a Comment »
“It was all hell!” For author Alan Hollinghurst, writing the follow-up to his Booker-prize winning novel The Line Of Beauty was clearly not some easy stroll in the park.
The award-winning novelist’s appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as part of the 2011 London Literary Festival, follows the release of his new book A Stranger’s Child. The novel, Hollinghurst’s first for seven years, takes the reader on an enthralling journey covering nearly a century of history, following a large cast of characters as their lives intertwine, fading in and out during the proceedings of the book.
Indeed, the large period of time covered by the novel means no single character from the book’s beginning is alive by the time it ends. This means an enormous number of characters appear during the work, each of them bringing their own intriguing story as the events unfold. The Stranger’s Child manages to achieve this incredibly well and as such it is a joy to hear the writer discuss how he forms such an interesting group of people.
From the talk’s outset, it is clear Alan Hollinghurst is not particularly fond of the majority of figures in his book. “I’ve always enjoyed killing people off,” he declares, adding that it was part of the joy of “the novelist’s power”, (probably just to clarify to anyone watching that he only meant death in the most literate of sense).
For Hollinghurst, the people he enjoys writing about most are those he personally likes the least. Dudley, he says, is one character he especially enjoyed creating. Furthermore, he likes to give each person he writes significant flaws, leaving the reader uncertain about their feelings and sympathies towards every character they come across. The novelist is very careful not to give any of his characters – or even the reader – an easy ride.
This method for forming his characters is one Hollinghurst has stuck too throughout his career. When asked about who his favourite was out of all the figures he had created, the author simply states, “I don’t really like any of them much.” Creating disagreeable people is the charm of writing about them, he asserts. Had any of the figures throughout his career actually existed it appears unlikely they would be included on his Christmas card list.
It therefore comes as a surprise when Hollinghurst admits that most of the figures he creates have similar interests to him. The author stresses the importance of immersing himself in the world of the character, and allowing “everything [to] follow from that”. For The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst highlights the character Paul Bryant, someone he describes as “the most difficult character I have ever tried to write,” because he has completely different interests to those of the author.
For some characters in the book, Hollinghurst found inspiration from real-life figures of the twentieth century. He talks about the character Cecil, someone he based loosely on the English poet Rupert Brooke. Still, he stresses the importance of building these people from imagination rather than sticking too close to reality.
For Hollinghurst, a large number of historical novels of recent times have been spoiled through too much research, meaning the imagination of the writer is replaced by well-written information. The novelist therefore trusts his own mind when giving a voice to his characters from the different time periods. For example, for Cecil he had to create a large amount of ‘pastiche’ poetry, in a style which could have been written at the start of the twentieth century. This was something he thoroughly enjoyed doing, stating, “I can write bad poetry endlessly!”
Throughout his career, Alan Hollinghurst has created a diverse range of enthralling and intriguing characters. The Stranger’s Child is a book that substantially adds to these. It is now up to the reader to add their own imagination to the people that appear in the story.
Filed under: London Literature Festival 2011 | Tagged: Alan Hollinghurst, Literature and Spoken Word, London Literature Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, The Stranger's Child | 1 Comment »
It is the second night of the London Literary Festival and the artists Gilbert & George are on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Next door in the Purcell Room, the first ever theatrical performance of ‘Sexing The Cherry’ is going on. It does appear the festival is having one of its less literary days.
Yet this is much to the credit of the festival organisers. The event brings an incredibly diverse group of talented people into the area and it is inspirational to hear about their work. An evening with Gilbert & George in particular delivers one full of surprises, even for the most ardent of fans.
For anyone sitting in the hall with no knowledge of the work of Gilbert & George, it would appear that little out of the ordinary is occurring. Just two smartly dressed gentleman in similar brown suits discussing their life’s work. It could quite easily be a pair of sixty-year-old relatives sitting around at a family gathering talking about their years gone past (albeit a family gathering in a very large hall which requires a ticket for entry). Except you don’t generally hear sixty-year-old relatives get quite so excited when they talk about the time they were branded “beasts and sexual perverts”. George in particular seems to relish the chance to say something a little naughty.
“We never do anything that has a point” – Gilbert & George
It is fascinating to hear the pair discuss their work and lives in the East End of London, the area where they have both lived since beginning art courses at St Martins School of Art in the 1960s.
As artists, Gilbert & George are adamant about where they stand. Quite simply, away from everybody else. They are not anti-establishment. They are not rebelling against anything. They are just independent. As George puts it, “the key is to be normal and weird at the same time”. It sounds a rather tricky balance to achieve, especially in a world that is constantly changing.
Yet in a career which has spanned nearly fifty years, the pair do not believe their art has ever changed. It is only everything around them that has. Whilst they have been happy to incorporate new technology in the creation of their work, the subject matter does not alter. Gilbert & George will always be their art.
For example, when asked whether they were happy to use computers to create their work instead of the older photographic methods they started with, George simply state’s “the only thing we miss is the rubber gloves!”
It is clear how important the East End is to the pair both in life and work, and their fondness for the people in the area. At one point, George recalls a story about a newspaper seller in Liverpool Street who they walked past everyday for several decades and would always give them a friendly greeting whenever they saw him. Over the years, age took it’s toll on the newspaper seller and at one point it became clear the man was gravely ill, yet he would always still say hello. Then one day he stopped the pair and told them he wanted to recite a poem that had been passed down through his family. After that, they never saw the newspaper seller again and had to assume he had died.
Reading the poem, George talked about the extraordinary gift this dying man had given them. An example of the diverse range of people who live in the East End and the unexpected things that occur there everyday. The fact that it was a particularly cheeky and rather rude limerick probably helped make it’s mark on the artists too.
This was an evening which featured everything from Gilbert & George’s average day (each day being very regimented and beginning at 5.30am, starting with an hour spent “reading dirty stories”), to the revelation of a new body of work, and even a rendition of their first major piece ‘The Singing Sculptures’. In many ways this was more than just a talk about the artists’ career, but every much as fascinating a performance as the one going on in the room next door.
This year’s London Literary Festival began with a talk from the author Philip Pullman at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. During a fascinating evening, a transfixed audience were taken through the life and works of the Norwich-born writer, everything from the comic book-loving youngster to the much-loved author of today.
A particular theme of note was Pullman’s description of how the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy came about. One of the most amazing children’s books of recent times was created – rather modestly – as a result of a lunch with the author’s publisher, which consisted of some “particularly excellent sausages and mash”. When asked by his publisher what he would like to write next, even much to his own surprise, Pullman declared he was keen to create a new version of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. With both men possibly over-enthused by what were some particularly good sausages and mash, the pair excitedly bounced thoughts and ideas off each other for several hours and ‘His Dark Materials’ was born.
This rather unplanned and spontaneous approach to the trilogy seemingly continued as the work began to take shape. Key themes in the book seemed to appear at random and developed fluidly over time. The author spoke about how the all-important element of the daemon occurred, an idea which only formed as he struggled with what was “the fifteenth draft of the first chapter”. This integral theme which featured so strongly in the trilogy only came about as a highly frustrated Pullman decided he needed to take drastic methods and “adopt the Raymond Chandler approach” (when in doubt, have a man enter the room with a gun) i.e. when in trouble as an author, simply surprise yourself.
“Time spent telling a great story is never time wasted” - Philip Pullman
It was incredible to hear how Pullman worked as a writer. Whilst his methods appear systematic, bordering on superstitious (he always writes using the same pen, upon the same type of paper, within the same room), his ideas seem to appear from rather more ambiguous beginnings.
It would be interesting to hear how other books of his were developed, and similarly those of other authors too. To think of the number of books which have been created out of just a random thought or conversation. How important have the specific circumstances of motive and method been to creating some of the great literary works throughout history? For example, a person I know (who shall remain nameless) once wrote and got published a chapter of a book simply because they needed to buy a new hall carpet. What would have happened if the rest of the house had needed re-decorating too? Would the chapter in question have changed or been added to? Could it have become a book or even a trilogy?
Similarly, think of the number of great stories which have been lost because of the wrong circumstances. Would ‘His Dark Materials’ have ever materialised if it had not been for that conversation and those particularly excellent sausages and mash?
In my opinion, we are greatly indebted to that particular lunch.
On Saturday in the scorching heat, the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall became the stage for a witty and powerful performance of Dante’s Inferno. Siobhan Dunne, the director, kindly gave me 10 minutes of her time to tell us a bit about street theatre, modern-day hell and the company’s trip to Poland
If you could just describe who you and the performers are?
I’m the director and these are 13 of my students, predominantly first year, doing a foundation degree in Performing Arts at Barnet College, three second-years and four professional performers who also teach the students. So it’s nice to combine something of student work and professional work.
Now the brochure describes the classic stories series as ‘breathing new life into great literature’. How are you placing ‘Inferno’ in contemporary culture, and what were the origins of these ideas?
Firstly the origins of the performance is that the festival we’re going to in Poland has a theme of ‘fire’ this year, and I thought okay great, I’ve always wanted to look at Dante’s Inferno as a performance piece. Then later they said that another theme was ‘the city’. Now I’d already started setting the performance in London 2010 so it was perfect, we didn’t need to change anything. We’re looking at 2007, the idea of the Lehman Brothers, and the whole stock exchange crash. We have Dante working in the London Stock Exchange.
This piece of theatre is for the International Festival of Street Theatre in Krakow, Poland. How did you and your students come to be part of that?
The festival is every year and we got into that because I took a group of students there 6 years ago to look at Polish theatre. The Poles do physical theatre like no one else, and they’re fantastic at it. Street theatre is very popular there and it’s not here, it’s not part of our culture and we don’t quite get it. We’re quite fearful of things that happen in the street and walk away thinking they’re exhibitionists or beggars. So this is our 5th year. Last year we did a totally new piece, the year before it was the Bible, the year before that- Don Quixote. So the themes are always changing but it just fitted in perfectly with the Literature Festival.
For your students, as young people, is being involved in an international festival a big thing for them?
They’re all aged 19-20 with a couple of mature students so it’s a big deal, they have to audition and show the ability to use their bodies in a certain way because it’s performance without words so they’re having to try a whole new technique and style.
It must be exciting to do theatre that practices without the barrier of language.
Yes, it has to be an international piece, and the Poles are very well read. When we did Don Quixote there, people were coming up to us and saying ‘Oh you did this bit and that bit’ and I was thinking, if we’d done it here to an English audience would we have had that same level of understanding? I don’t know.
As a director of street theatre, the importance of the environment must make it extremely different to traditional theatre. Do you have a preference?
I don’t think that it’s a case of preference but it’s very different. I would encourage anyone who is non-traditional performance based, any artist, to think ‘what can I do with this?’ Mostly spaces lend themselves to dance but it’s harder to get theatre in there or performance based installation without making the audience anxious or nervous, thinking ‘what are they going to do?’.
So being part of a wider festival such as the London Literature Festival perhaps makes street theatre such as Inferno 2010 more accessible to an audience who aren’t used to this type of performance. Do you think that street theatre will eventually become more popular as part of modern theatre?
Ironically it might be a bonus that’s come out of global warming! We’ve got these hotter seasons that are less wet. There’s also the fact that our indigenous population is changing, and so cultural benefits come out of that.
Absolutely, the arts are becoming much more experimental. So to finish, what does it mean for you and your students to be part of Southbank’s London Literature Festival?
It’s a huge treat. The students initially thought the term Literature was not for them, as whilst they read a lot of texts and plays they don’t necessarily read a lot of novels. But I think what’s really good is that they’re thrown in at the deep end and it’s a different context for us. It’s very exciting and we’re very pleased that Tamsin asked us.
I must admit, I didn’t know what to expect from Benjamin Zephaniah’s performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall, so I attended with an open mind.
Before Zephaniah took to the stage, he was introduced by Leman Sissay. Eager to introduce Zephaniah, Sissay came onto the stage before his cue, much to the amusement of the audience. Sissay gave the most enthusiastic introduction I had ever encountered, grinning from ear to ear as he sang Zephaniah’s praises.
Then Benjamin Zephaniah took to the stage. Visually, Benjamin Zephaniah doesn’t strike you as a star… well not the type that adorns the pages of Heat magazine every week. He introduced himself using his full name – Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah. He joked that his name gets him ‘stopped at every airport.’ This was one of a few jokes Zephaniah used to not only introduce himself, but also to warm the audience up.
His first poem, ‘This is Me’ sent a shiver down the spine as he repeated ‘this is me’ like a chorus, which echoed as it bounced off the walls. Throughout his performances of his different poems, his inflection leaps between West Indian and his native Birmingham. Sometimes it was hard to comprehend what he was saying; as he was speaking so fast the brain struggled to keep up as his words ran into one another.
One thing that was not lacking from his performance was passion. This was shown through his animated performance. Whether he was poking fun at race relations in ‘The Men from Jamaica are Settling Down’ (based on the style of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech), or commenting on some men’s flawed view of masculinity in ‘Man to Man’, Zephaniah’s every move and facial expression helps him to convey his point to the audience.
Speaking of the audience, for some reason I had the idea that I would be the youngest person there. This thought was destroyed as I had a look around in the auditorium. There was a nice mix of people, all ages (some quite a bit younger than myself), all enjoying the show.
An evening of ‘cultural intercourse’ indeed. (His words, not mine.)