Monthly Archives: July 2012

On the fence

Olympic fencing semi-final

The excitement of London’s Olympic Games has been palpable, thanks in no small part to the awesome efforts of British athletes, which has made us third on the medal table (at time of writing), which is pretty unheard-of. While the pomp and circumstance of the event, like the eclectically epic Opening Ceremony, has contributed to the thrill of having the Olympics in our beloved city, I think it’s also about the accessibility of witnessing these superhuman feats. Some people (like my friends Colemans and Deej) have got to see a huge array of big-ticket events – either through epic ticket-balloting, or PR schmoozing – but others have got to see the more niche events, like Greco-Roman wrestling, and their excitement has been just as great.

I managed to score a last-minute ticket for the Fencing (Women’s Epee semi-final) last week, and the thrill of seeing these athletes IRL managed to shake off all my hard-won London cynicism. Getting to see such an extraordinary sport live was quite a learning experience, and also kind of terrifying. Although i love the fierce beauty of fencing that I’ve seen in the fillums, the actual sport is something else. Still beautiful to watch, but also kind of baffling and even brutal. The bouts are highly technical, not just in the way they are played, but in the outfits too – all of the points are scored electronically, with helmets and swords wired up like a server. The piste (field of play) and the fencer’s helmet light up when a point is scored, or an advantage won, which lends the arena a rather futuristic air.

But more extraordinary was the sounds emanating from the fencers themselves, who let out a primal scream (not a Seles-style grunt) when they score. It seems to be both an expression of triumph and a release of the incredible tension and concentration needed for each 3-minute bout, but it was also pretty unnerving too. As a result, the juxtaposition of primal and futuristic lent the Fencing arena a rather Thunderdome atmosphere (as you can see from my barely-Instagrammed picture above). It’s an experience I could never have got from the telly and will probably never forget. And for that, the rush and the expense and the thrill of the Olympics in our fair city is worth every penny.

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Greatest Show On Earth

The Olympics is fast approaching, and after an initial period of grouchery and dismissiveness, London seems to finally be getting into the games – myself included. It’s cutting it a bit fine, but there you go.  One of the most dubious parts of the games has been the accompanying Cultural Olympiad, with its vague goals and definitions, but in the last couple of months it’s been coming up trumps. Especially projects which showcase uniquely British talent, like the BBC’s incredible Hollow Crown season, or Frieze Projects East, which has asked artists to create site-specific installations in East London’s host boroughs.

Klaus Weber has created an elegant, but rather apocalyptic, sand fountain near Pudding Mill Lane near Stratford, while Gary Webb‘s sweetie-like playground offers a more chipper interaction in Charlton Park, Greenwich. By far my favourite, though, are Sarnath Banerjee’s posters (below). I first saw Banerjee’ s work at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow a few weeks ago, and we loved his funny and touching comic-style illustrations and offbeat stories. Now Banerjee takes a wry look at the achievements and failures of both the athletes and the crowds, on billboards spread across Hackney, Woolwich, Plumstead and Leytonstone (locations here).

So, ignore the decorated and customised and sponsored Wenlocks and Mandevilles that have popped up across prime postcodes (except maybe the pearly king one in Spitalfields – that’s pretty skills), and instead head out into the deep east to see original and uplifting art works by some of the UK’s most interesting talents – map here.

Also, completing the circle like a lovely Olympic ring, don’t forget about Martin Creed’s All The Bells project on Friday Morning (which was my very first post on this here blog). The Beeb’s getting right behind it, and Big Ben is getting stuck in, so I reckon there will be no escaping it. All the more reason to get clanging, no? I, for one, intend to ring-a-ding-ding, grinning like a chump…

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Secondary silver screen stars

Celeste Holm died this week, and I am sad. She may not have been a megastar, but as far as I’m concerned, she cast the mould for all wittier-than-bland-leading-lady best friends in modern romcoms (a mantle now taken up admirably by Judy Greer and her ilk). In all of her supporting parts, Holm had wit, charm and glamour in abundance (plus a really great name) so I guess you could call her a secondary silver screen star.

She had moxie, as the cigar-chomping Old Hollywood types might have said, and the characters she played often contrasted the ideals of the time. In All About Eve (one of my all time favourite films, BTW), she’s the opinionated and sardonic wife of a playwright with a wandering eye, and the best friend of Bette Davis. In High Society, she’s the hotshot photographer with a disdain for luxury and a take-it-or-leave-it approach to Frank Sinatra’s affections. And of course in the classic Three Men and a Baby, she’s the thanks-but-no-thanks grandmother who leaves the men to fend for themselves (hilarity ensues etc.). In short, a real classy dame – as you can see from the great number she does with Sinatra in the video above.

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Fifty shades of eh?

So, I succumbed and finally read Fifty Shades Of Grey on holiday: borrowed, well-thumbed copies from my friend Jenna. I don’t usually jump on book bandwagons like this (having studiously avoided previous literary fads like The Da Vinci Code, the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, or those awful misery memoirs), but when in Rome…

As many before me have said, including a recent discussion on Woman’s Hour, the plots are thin, characters one-dimensional and emotionally moronic, the sex scenes relentlessly repetitive, the dialogue mind-numbing, the editing negligent and the breadth of vocabulary no greater than a primary school spelling test – Mr Dictionary seems to have deserted the author. Though I kind of hated it, ultimately it served its purpose, replacing the Jackie Collins bonkbusters I used to read as a trashy teen around the pool in Tenerife or Magaluf, before literary fiction and other grown-up tomes entered my beachbag. It even made me feel nostalgic for the adventures of Lucky Santangelo

Although the books themselves are terrible (however, if they got the hatchet-job edit they need, the trilogy could be slimmed down to a single volume worthy of competing with Ms. Collins latest oeuvre), I think they serve an important purpose, which is helping to remove some of the shame around sex. I’ve seen many women happily reading the books on the tube or at the beach – indeed, on my recent trip to Kefalonia, literally half of the women on the beach were reading Fifty Shades (and that’s only the paperbacks I could count. Who knows about the numbers reading it on their Kindles). A fifty-something couple from Waltham Abbey even struck up a conversation about the books after glancing me reading it under my parasol. It was quite a revelation to talk openly about the book, its contents, its success and its meaning with a couple of a different generation.

While the books’ success has spurred much animated feminist discourse, I ultimately think its (limited) BDSM content is not doing any harm to feminism. Contrary to many reports, its success does not reveal that really all women want to be dominated. The sex scenes (largely “vanilla”, except for the odd spanking) are just as much part of the fantasy as Christian Grey’s ridiculous wealth is, and as such it’s pretty harmless. However, the willingness with which Anastasia Steele (what a ridiculous name), is willing to submit to Christian Grey’s petulant and possessive demands outside the bedroom, is much more worrying. Throughout the book, I was thinking: If one of my friends was in a relationship like this, where a man attempted to control her eating patterns, her time with friends, her way of dressing and even her career, you would tell her to get the hell out. I hope many other readers have the same response, rather than equating Grey’s manipulative behaviour with actual love, like the schmuck Anastasia does.

Anyway. Shocking as the writing is, with the last decade of beach reads limited to the coy and acquisitive chick lit genre, I consider this book something of a relief, covering lust and sexual variety in a far more mainstream way than any other blockbuster book has. The book’s success has spurred Mills & Boon to re-issue its erotica series, while sales of sex toys are going through the roof.  Perhaps the Great British Reserve is weakening? And quite right too. The whole success of the book may be a passing fad to heat up this grim British “summer”, but I hope that its effects will be more far-reaching. After all the research I did for that Future Of Desire piece , which suggested a normalisation of  sex as part of everyday life, rather than something shameful, we may be on the cusp of change…

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Tribal style

This is not about the tired fashion trope of “ethnic” or “tribal” prints, which I think have been pretty well shut down by Sara Bivigou here and Jezebel here. Instead, this is about the enduring pull of style tribes. When I was at London College of Fashion, we spent weeks examining and researching style tribes and their influence on popular culture – punks, New Romantics etc. But by the late 90s/early 00s, the idea of subculture had mainstreamed along with globalised retail, and we agreed that style tribes had lost their power. At the same time, the contemporary emphasis on “personal style” means few go gung-ho for the same look as Teds or Mods did.  But, thanks to the power of the internet to unite and publicise niche interests, plus the never-ending number of style blogs, there seems to be a renaissance in the visibility of style tribes, even if it’s tongue in cheek.

The charmingly titled Fucking Schweffes showcases the very particular style (and excessive drinking habits) of Schweffes, the insanely posh, rural-born, privately educated, entitled eejits who will soon be our overlords, if Gideon and Govey have anything to do with it.

At the other end of the scale, Far Left Fashion takes an altogether warmer look at the idiosyncratic dress of UK socialists. Styles range from the hammer & sickle or red-star motifs of Communist homelands like the USSR and China, to the more homespun rainbow-hued and far-flung market finds that any earnest Lefty needs in their wardrobe. Plus a lot of keffiyeh scarves.

Every event has its own look too, at the TEDx Observer event I went to in March, the look was serious eyewear and artfully draped scarves – accessories of the intelligentsia, you see. Meanwhile, The Womens Room have done great round-ups of the style of Peter Jones Ladies and Vintage fans, and Ari Seth Cohen applied his Advanced Style lens to Glyndebourne types. Even fashion weeks, with their armies of quirky style bloggers (read: fashion students) and experienced erudite dressers (read: overluxed editors), everyone still looks kinda the same:

It all shows that as much as everyone tries to express their beautiful unicorn individuality, there’s no getting away from communities of style. After all, they’re not just united by a similar look, but a shared purpose or philosophy (even if the Schweffes’ purpose is jut getting expensively hammered). There’s something kind of comforting about it, I think. Although these niche style tribes no longer hang around outside milk bars like the mods and rockers did back in the day, they are still influencing each others’ looks through the little snapshots of their daily lives on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The Teds may be dead, but the influence of style tribes lives on…

Top photo by Hans Eijkelboom

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The Scottish Play

Last weekend,  I had the pleasure of going to Glasgow to visit some lovely newly-migrated friends, and to see Alan Cumming in a one-man production of Macbeth. When we booked the tickets, I admit it was mainly from curiosity – I’ve long loved Alan Cumming, as far back as trashy early performances in Bernard & The Genie, or even further back , The High Life, co-written by Cumming himself (I defy you to get that theme tune out of your head). He was brilliant in the 90s revival of Cabaret, as a suitably sleazy Emcee, and made some surprise appearances in Bond and X-Men Movies. I understand he’s brilliant in The Good Wife too, but in general it looks like a really annoying programme, so I’ve never bothered with it…

In spite of all that, I completely underestimated him as an actor, so the idea of Cumming taking on a one-man Shakespeare seemed somewhat ridiculous. But no, it was increds. I’m no theatre reviewer, but I can say that it was an extraordinary thing to watch, and quite rightly deserved the standing ovation it got. Set in a mental asylum, Cumming plays a man mentally tortured by the actions and inactions of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, MacDuff et al,  acted out with a series of voices and props to denote each character.  In the bleak and deserted ward setting, the isolation of the one-person format neatly showed the many facets of a broken and confused man.

Although the run at the Tramshed in Glasgow has now finished (we were lucky to go on the final night), the production has now transferred to New York. If you can’t make it to New York, and want to feel really disturbed, you can now buy the audioplay on Amazon. But brilliant though the show is, I think listening to a madman doing a bunch of different voices in your ear is a sure-fire way to go mad yourself. So, maybe don’t buy it after all.

However, if you’re drawn to the multifarious Cumming, tune in to his new series Urban Secrets, on Sky Atlantic from tonight, which should be a great companion piece to the BBC’s utterly fascinating The Secret History Of Our Streets. If you haven’t seen this series, part of the BBC’s London strand, I recommend iPlayering it immediately.

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