Tag Archives: Commentary

Writing on the Wall

The pages of my Lonely Planet guide to Berlin, now creased and frayed at the corners from heavy leafing, are helpfully demarcated by a spectrum of colour. Each district of the city has been allocated its own shade. This colour-coding proved invaluable for my recent trip to the city, as my boyfriend and I attempted to soak up every area (and, of course, multiple beer steins) within the confines of a long weekend.

Yet, however pragmatic Lonely Planet’s layout decisions may have been, presenting the city as a collection of colours, as a fragmented whole, seems to me entirely appropriate for a place that is so kaleidoscopic. As we enjoyed the famous Burgermeister burgers served from a disused toilet block under a railway bridge in Kreuzberg, it was as if we were in an entirely different city to that of humming Potsdamer Platz and KaDeWe’s glitter, which only that morning had put the best of the West on display.

Burgers from a toilet

Burgers from a toilet

Despite the fall of the Wall, Berlin remains a dynamic hodgepodge. Socialism meets neo-classicism, slick steel meets graffiti, sushi meets sausages. The city appears to sit snugly in a state of in-between, all physical barriers between East and West crumbled away, but the essential character of each still remarkably traceable to the flow of dwellers and tourists moving at liberty between the two. Total amalgamation cannot be felt, but this vibrant state of broken togetherness seems to be the desired condition. And nothing epitomises this more than the East Side Gallery.

Stretching 1.3km parallel to the Spree river, the East Side Gallery is the world’s largest open-air mural collection, with over 100 paintings decorating the last standing chunk of the Wall. From psychedelic faces to kissing politicians, dragons to the faces of Germany’s greatest intelligentsia, the Gallery showcases the translation of global optimism into art by a gathering of international artists. In the blinding midday sun, the Wall’s shade provided for us a space of retreat. Once a symbol of oppression, the last remaining bricks have been transmuted into a source of free thinking by a mere brush of paint.

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I was struck by the variety of images that we met. Some artists were able to correlate their artwork to what the original Wall had stood for, with murals offering clear political commentary or aphorisms hoping for a better mankind. One read ‘Es gilt viele Mauern abzubauen’, and through painted representatives of diverse nations, stressed the importance of dismantling barriers. Others were less straightforward to interpret: a grinning chimp, a herd of crawling babies. At first, these cryptic illustrations tempt the viewer to try to disentangle some hidden political aspect from beneath their colourful surfaces. But the further down the Wall I wandered, the more they seemed to reflect upon the problems of representation itself.

Germany's big thinkers

Germany’s big thinkers

 

The unprecedented politics of the Wall and its brutal, blank facade makes aesthetic responses to it particularly knotty. How is one to place it within a value system that can communicate to those beyond its confines what it really stood for, when there is nothing to which it can really be compared? The arbitrary cartoons scattered along the stretch demonstrate that using political structures to respond to Berlin’s past is not always satisfactory or appropriate. Indeed, perhaps interacting with the Wall through such language and insignia perpetuates its dark, historic identity, reminding us of division and tyranny. Arguably, however, the very existence of the East Side Gallery in the first place keeps that stony divide alive.

On closer view, the surfaces of the murals are etched with graffiti from passers-by. Restoration efforts in 2009 indicate that for some, these autographs and scribbles were regarded as acts of vandalism. And yet, as viewers and residents continue to leave their marks, the Wall is clearly still undergoing an important global interpretative process and is yet to be relegated to the pages of library books. As Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has argued, the self is produced by its own history. The moment we try to do without the past, we deny an important element of our identity. Berlin’s history is still very much a part of its present. As the dark bricks of the Wall were torn down in 1989, man’s relationship with it became one of freedom. It is the aestheticisation of the final remaining stretch by the Spree which indicates that this freedom continues. To interact with the Wall in this artistic way is to truly tear it down. Bulldozers and sledgehammers are obsolete now.

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Lost and Found

Not indigenous to London, I am one of those visitors who scrutinise the map pillars dotted along the capital’s street corners. I spend my time desperately looking ahead for that red and blue underground halo, so that I can escape to a subterranean network of smooth rail tracks that mechanically deliver me to my desired location.

Last time I visited London was no different. Except on this occasion, I was not looking for the obvious. I was not meandering in the perplexing hiatus between the Piccadilly underground station and Trafalgar Square to immerse myself in our national painting collection, nor pottering steadily along the Southbank, a path punctuated with its many artsy venues. This time, I was searching for somewhere a little bit more specialised. In a leafy corner of Brunswick Square, I finally found my spot. What I had been looking for all this time was The Foundling Museum, a place that celebrates the work of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity established in 1739. Built on the hospital’s original site, I was met with the view of a pleasant red-brick regency facade. Relieved that I was no longer lost, its appeal was all the greater.

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

What had drawn me to this special place was not simply an interest in learning more about the establishment as a humanitarian venture. Philanthropist Thomas Coram founded the charity as ‘a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, children who were struggling in London’s urban squalor.

Hogarth's Gin Lane, depicting London's ills

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, depicting London’s ills

Of course, this in itself is enough to captivate anyone, but what was particularly intriguing to me was the fundamental role of art in securing the success of Coram’s work. Instrumental to the start-up of the hospital was Coram’s collaboration with Hogarth and Handel. Hogarth donated his own work and persuaded his artist contemporaries to assist in gifts to the hospital in order to support it, and they were rewarded with governorships. Not only was this Britain’s first home for abandoned and destitute children, a hospital in the traditional sense of being a place of care, but it was also the first public art gallery in the UK. And Coram took things further. His alliance with Handel led to the donation of an organ to the chapel and beneficiary performances of his famous Messiah. For a blogger like myself who loves to explore the ways that the arts can better us and who believes that the arts should open doors for everyone, there is no better place than The Foundling Museum, triumphing what it terms the hospital’s ‘creative philanthropy’.

Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

William Hogarth

William Hogarth

As I was led up the original staircase from the boy’s wing, I enjoyed a fresco-like display of original pieces from Hogarth and friends and was shown the rococo Court Room with the original marble over-mantle by John Michael Rysbrack and William Wilton plasterwork. Small children ran past in white curly 18th century wigs, full of half-term glee at their trip back in time. As they frolicked, visually and aurally evocative of those young people for whom the hospital had originally been built, I was reminded of the museum’s first room, which comprised of real-life photographs, letters and stories of foundling children who had benefitted from the hospital’s kindness up to its closure in the 1950s. As well as the paintings, sculptures, clocks and furniture by the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Hudson, the museum also displays cabinets full of foundling children’s tokens, trinkets passed from parent to child to mark their farewell and promise the chance for reunion in a better future.

A touching reminder of familial ties

A touching reminder of familial ties

This works powerfully in tandem with grander spectacle elsewhere. A stunning Hogarth painting, Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746), adorns the Court Room, unveiled at a public dinner on 1 April 1747. Its messages are clear; Moses as a foundling child is given a new life, his pining mother a sorrowful presence in the background as a touching reminder of the sacrifices parents made to better their offspring.

Hogarth's Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter

Hogarth’s Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter

Having received criticism at the time for its anti-Christian encouragement of promiscuity, by offering sanctuary for illegitimate children, Coram and his associates were keen to stress the Christian legitimacy and benevolence of their mission through Biblical allegory with dazzling aesthetic effect. And that effect remains as we view the picture today. The founders of the original hospital and the curators of the museum collaborate in their efforts across time. They celebrate, then and now, the way that art heightens our sense of our own humanity and acts as a powerful social tool of beneficence.

As I walked through the rooms, the art and artefacts showcased around me of all shapes and sizes were not just a way for me to open a door on the past, but had once been a way for foundling children to open a door onto their own futures too. Although a glimpse of an opulent world that these children never would experience, the artwork that supported their hospital gave them an escape from the festering gutters of London, the chance for shelter, the chance to develop skills for a new start. The museum’s art collection acts, therefore, as an imaginative portal to another world for us in the present, and an actual portal to a new life for children in the past, and that is where its power lies.

On the top floor is the Handel room, where visitors can sit back in the so-called ‘Handel chairs’ against a backdrop of the composer’s greatest works. Close your eyes and you are in the audience of one of his beneficiary concerts; open them and you see the original copy of his will across the room leaving his assets to the hopsital. The past and present are perfectly bridged. Indeed, the Foundling Hospital lives on today in the children’s charity, Coram, named after the original figurehead himself. By visiting The Foundling Museum and engaging with its displays, we continue the imaginative and emotive connection with the plight of the foundling children that Coram, Handel and Hogarth put in place over 270 years ago in 1739. What moves me is not that it is art for art’s sake, but art for humanity’s sake.

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

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The Choice is Yours

Reflecting on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, many of us may have indulged in a last-minute artsy pilgrimage to taste the final dregs of whisky and catch the rounds of applause as the sprawling carnival drew to a close. My sister was one of those pilgrims. With a brochure rivalling the Yellow Pages in its dimensions, a website smattered in alluring adverts for shows and a drop-down menu of 10 different performance genres, those planning a Scottish adventure might have found themselves overwhelmed. 2013 was a record year for the world’s largest arts festival, with 2,871 different shows in 273 venues involving 24,107 performers. Of course, we should celebrate that such diversity gives lots of different artists exposure. But all this choice can soon become over-exposure for the eager visitor wading through the gargantuan catalogue.

Choice was once a word that promised freedom. When the Pill was first marketed in the 1960s, it was all about that little word ‘choice’. Able to say no to pregnancy, women’s bodies were liberated, their personal aspirations prioritised. And that kind of choice was powerful. In a world where convenience is king, fast-moving consumer goods are becoming increasingly prominent in our daily lives. You’d be forgiven for thinking that when we thoughtfully select the spice level for our Nandos chicken, we are in a position of power. We might for a moment get a heady rush of authority as we optimise every chicken-eating experience.

The right to choose

The right to choose

Yet, when the American coffee chain Starbucks first crossed the Atlantic in 1998, we were bamboozled by a menu that required expert navigation. We dithered between coffee and crème blended frappucinos, macchiatos and ristrettos in three different Italian sizes and grappled with the dilemma of drinking in or out. Such a bewildering portfolio of beverages can only be expected from America, a nation whose individuals are known to make an average of 70 choices a day. Indeed, I remember all too well a moment from a childhood visit to Florida when my mother struggled in the heat to organise a picnic lunch for a young family of five. I remember her anguished journey through the bagel creating process- did she want onion/sesame/poppy/granary/multiseed/rye or walnut bagel? Lettuce/rocket/watercress/spinach/mixed salad? Jack cheese/pepper jack/blue jack/herb jack? Far from being liberated, she’d been robbed of right to re-fuel with what was supposed to be a meal on the move. And what was then, is now. I find myself having to do mental gymnastics just to work out what qualifies in the Boots ‘meal-deal’.

bagels

A multitude of sandwich experiences

Perhaps what is most interesting is that the vast choice that businesses lay on for us can drive consumers away rather than lure them in. The famous study conducted in 1995 by Sheena Iyengar, a Professor at Colombia Business School and author of ‘The Art of Choosing’ (2010) presented shoppers with two different sample booths of Wilkins and Sons jams. Whilst more passers-by were drawn to the glistening appeal of 24 different flavours to taste, the other stall secured more sales despite being decorated with a mere 6 jars. Faced with less choice, the busy shopper was much more likely to commit. Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz tells us, ‘no longer liberates, but deliberates. It can even be said to tyrannise’. There are 216 brands of facial wash in Superdrug. This is no good to the angsty teenager combing the crammed shelves for a discreet solution. In these moments, old-fashioned soap and water become all too tempting, suddenly transformed into a luxury simply because they are easy.

Brand overload

Brand overload

Choice is suppose to set us free, but instead it leaves us shackled at the counter. We find ourselves drawn in by ‘you want it, you got it’ promises and yet more and more frequently I’m losing sight of what I originally wanted, going along with anything just to move the process forward. ‘The choice is yours’. Or is it?

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Picture Perfect

Some day I will go to the Aarus

To see his peat-brown head,

The mild pods of his eye-lids,

His pointed skin cap.       (The Tollund Man, Seamus Heaney)

‘Can you all get in a row please? Quickly, before the sun goes in!’. These words shape my family holidays. My mother has always had the photography bug and passed it on to my sister. As technology has advanced, so have the number of my mother’s cameras, and with that, the number of family poses, the number of print envelopes and the number of weary smiles. Every snapshot moment is recorded in three, fragmented across digital, film and mobile phone mediums with the latter resulting in a picture message sent to my brother so that at his office desk he too can partake in the moment as the shutter clicks. She is almost weighed down by her apparatus as various cameras clink together around her neck like a couple of Gok Wan ‘statement’ necklaces from a more futuristic age.

As we walked through the Terra Nostra botanical gardens on our family holiday on the island of San Miguel in the Azores last week, cameras were predictably clicking all around me, but the ways in which my sister and mother recorded each moment were startlingly different. As the latter arranged us in cereal-box, sunny, family poses in the tree ferns, my sister hurriedly frolicked from plant to plant. She was only interested in snapping forensically detailed pictures of moss, beetles and bark and crouching in the shrubbery with a high zoom to capture the skin of a strawberry.

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To me, both of these photographic tributes to the garden seemed to fragment its reality somewhat, either by glazing it with a layer of artificial neatness through my mother’s lens, or physically anatomising the garden into its composite pieces via my sister’s camera. The moment was no longer a whole, but remembered in parts. A photograph can never encapsulate the essence of a place or person in its entirety, but just a glimpse of an expression, the fall of light, the flick of a branch in the breeze, a put-on smile. In this way, can it ever truly immortalise an occasion? Does it just break apart the truth and emboss memories with a sense of something staged, printing one tiny moment onto fragile paper so that it is vulnerable to fade, to crinkle and to tear? Or are these papery traces of the past a fitting reminder of the way that time decays us? Just as material fragments dug up at archaeological sites become valuable jigsaw pieces to understand the past, perhaps photographs, even though they are constructs, can put back together a moment that time has decomposed.

On May 8th 1950 on the bogs near Silkeborg, Denmark, a peat digging family came upon the body of a man. Unearthed from under 2.5 metres of peat,  his dark, leathery frame was almost perfectly preserved, with the whites of his fingernails still visible, his chin still grizzled by stubble and his forehead creased and lined as if squashed up against a pillow in slumber. This remarkable find became known as the Tollund Man, a conserved relic of Iron Age life and practices that has fascinated not only archaeologists, but artists, writers and poets, inspiring Seamus Heaney’s words above for example. Snapped from every angle, we imaginatively and emotionally engage with his foetal fragility and lifelike expression, but in the same instance we cannot help but recoil. Around his delicate neck, a muddy noose is wound, and it severs us both temporally and culturally from him just as it severed his life.  The majority of photographs of the Tollund Man skim over this problem, instead working hard to emphasise his humanity and similarity to us, with the zoom angled towards his furrowed brow, his soft lip, the curve of his clenched fist and minute detail of his hand. Aestheticism and emotion shape the photographers’ purposes, as they soften the focus at any suggestions of trauma and torture, sacrifice or murder. Even Heaney’s poem, less dramatic in many respects than a raw photograph, processes the Tollund Man’s body in a series of fragments. Heaney breaks his face and frame into pieces to make it more manageable, emphasising the tiny human details rather than the alien and unnerving whole.

Tollund Man

The lifelike face of the Tollund Man man is remarkably preserved

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A very human detail

A very human detail

Does the eye’s desire to view this body in parts bring a sense of subtlety and delicacy to our curiosity, as we tentatively and respectfully approach a figure fossilised by mud in his dying moments? Or does it romanticise, creating an artificial image that inadequately represents the Tollund Man’s whole and skims over the darker potential of his death?  Karin Sanders’ book ‘Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination’ explores some of the ethics of photographing archaeological finds and convincingly argues that photographing specific body parts from various angles does create something falsely emotive, but still sets up a reverent distance in seeming to photograph the Tollund Man twice, regarding his whole face before shifting the focus to his lip, eye or leather cap. For her, just as the ‘age-old dark room of the bog’ has preserved him, so can our photographs. Now as I remember my groans and jaded smiles in the Botanical Gardens, I feel a little foolish. As the Tollund Man’s example has shown me, even if images are only pieces and parts of a greater whole, they can carry a past moment into the present. We are not simply trying to work against time’s passing in photography, but work with that passing, reflecting upon its powers of fragmentation and decay in the mere flickers and hints of moments that we manage to capture on film.

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‘Gatsby? What Gatsby?’

A new film is upon us from the man who visualised Shakespeare’s Mercutio cross-dressed and gyrating on the sweeping Capulet staircase to ‘Young Hearts, Run Free’ in a white diamante bra and choker. Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has burst onto our screens with much the same panache and beat as his 1996 ‘Romeo and Juliet’. As Luhrmann revealed in an interview for Sky Movies, he first envisaged creating a film out of Fitzgerald’s classic as he travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway after filming ‘The Moulin Rouge’, enjoying the novel in audio book format as he dozed off with a glass of red wine. Just like the fantastical ‘blue gardens’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ of Fitzgerald’s imagined world, Luhrmann has conjured up a vision of ‘The Great Gatsby’ that cavorts as if it is haunted by the cancan dancers and clownish entertainers of that infamous Parisian nightclub, born out of train journey slumbers and wine-fed dreaming.

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Luhrmann’s inspiration is apt, as the novel really is all about dreaming. Nick’s dream of Gatsby, Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, Gatsby’s dream of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream of  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream, or perhaps nightmare, of America. Hemingway claimed that Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda used to encourage her husband to drink whilst writing. Perhaps, much like the stumbling narrator Nick , who sits ‘within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’, Fitzgerald wrote his novel through a haze of ethanol, in a state of wakeful dreaming. He shaped the black ink on the page with a mind blurred and fluid at the edges, at liberty to fantasise, to fashion the synaesthetic party scenes in which the senses queasily intermingle. Even after all the bloodshed, the smashing up, the loss, there is a small place within Fitzgerald’s imagination still enchanted by a faith in dreaming that he has shown to be futile. He is in part charmed by the ‘orgastic future’ that we ‘stretch out our arms farther’ to reach, despite its eluding us ‘year by year’. It is Fitzgerald’s ambivalence that defines Gatsby’s ‘greatness’. Like the sublime, he is a figure who unnerves as much as he attracts, just as his dream is as romantic as it is dangerous.

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann's flamboyant touch

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann’s flamboyant touch

It is this instability that Luhrmann fails to capture. He dreams with the carelessness of the party- goers and the wild romanticism of Gatsby himself, and doing so, the caution and nuance of the author’s craft is lost. The word author is etymologically related to authority, seen in the close relationship between the medieval words ‘auctor’ and ‘auctoritee’. The hold of an author over their work has always been problematic from literature’s foundations, with writers such as Chaucer struggling to establish clear power. He prefaced his works with vocalisations of modesty which instructed readers didactically as much as they apologised for any shortcomings and shook off culpability for dangerous misinterpretation. With the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, private manuscripts became available for public readership. Popular anthologies such as Tottel’s Miscellany encouraged a collaborative authorship, with readers actively taking to the page with quills and amending sonnets, circulating new versions and subverting the original poet’s power. Clearly the authority of authorship has always been contentious, but it is difficult to lose ourselves in the film’s contrived and off-piste opening, as a washed-up, bearded and morose Nick talks softly to a psychiatrist as snowflakes dust around the sanatorium. Luhrmann’s portrayal of the story’s narrator provides a painfully unsubtle metatextual experience, as Nick’s words clunkily etch themselves across the screen in typewriter font. Suddenly, the famously unreliable voice careers off with such autonomy that even as Fitzgerald’s powerful cadence draws the film to a close, Nick must wrap it all up in a ring binder and in a moment of casual afterthought asterix ‘the great’ onto the title of his manuscript, ‘Gatsby’. Giving such deliberate power to a narrator who oscillates so infamously between repulsion and attraction in the novel, Luhrmann re-shapes Fitzgerald’s tale with a carthartic neatness, a ‘once upon a time’ frame that counters its original sense of emptiness, negating the force of the ‘foul dust’ and ash that swirls through its pages and drains away any prospect of redemption.

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

Of course, it is important to recognise that a film is a work of art in its own right. But for dedicated Fitzgerald fans, Luhrmann’s emphasis seems to usurp the ultimate dreamer, the author. The novel’s greatest moment of loss is given a sense of rose-tinted fatefulness in the film. Gatsby’s death is romanticised by his desperate belief that Daisy is the one at the end of the trilling receiver, a point in the plot that Fitzgerald fashions with devastating sparseness. Nick can only imagine that Gatsby looks up at the ‘unfamiliar sky’, detached from the ‘new world, material without being real’, a man who had ‘paid a high price for living too long with a single dream’. Lying not far away is Wilson’s body and ‘the holocaust was complete’.

Nick is a man who is glad to compliment Gatsby before he dies as better than the ‘rotten crowd’ he associates with. But in all the glitz and glamour, we must not forget that he is also a man who freely admits in the same sentence that ‘I disapproved of him from beginning to end’. Dreams are not always beautiful, but they are always enigmatic. This is what Gatsby is, how Fitzgerald writes, how Nick observes. It doesn’t seem to be how Luhrmann directs.

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The 2013 Vintage

‘Definitely something you could wear on a winter’s day at the races’.

These were the words my boyfriend said to me as I pirouetted in front of the speckled mirror of a vintage shop last weekend, balancing a felt trilby poked with a pheasant feather upon my head. I dismissed his enthusiasm with some comment about frivolity and expense as I ran my hands over and through the whirligig of silk scarves near the counter. The shop had that very vintage feel, brown carpets, brown clutter, brown counters, an array of brown leather bags and tortoiseshell aviators. The shopkeeper had done very well to make it say ‘old’. The only thing that was missing was some schmaltzy jazz crackling on a gramophone and perhaps I would have been endeared to purchase my trilby and step boldly from the door, ready to turn heads.

A typical vintage array

A typical vintage array

‘Vintage’ is a term that we have adopted to cover a loose range of essentially bric-a-brac concepts. Clothing, quaint tea rooms, Bakelite kitchen appliances, cars, cake stands, jewellery, notelets, cosmetics. The Victorian chemist in Haworth, Yorkshire is one particular example. Beautiful and frou-frouey as it is, lit with soft light and staffed by ladies in crisp white petticoats, it is difficult to imagine Emily Brontë popping her head round the door at the peak of her consumption for a scoopful of lavender bath salts. ‘Vintage’, like any other word, is drained of signification when overused, a process not too distant from economic hyperinflation. As its value has been manipulated, it is increasingly becoming an equivalent term for ‘shabby-chic’, ‘pre-loved’ or simply, ‘second hand’. ‘Vintage’ in the sense of something being an old model or style, particularly of a vehicle, was first coined in 1920s. Surely then its proper application as a term should be to art deco items and beyond. And yet we seem to appropriate it to a much greater timeline.

Writing my dissertation this last term on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’, an elegiac sequence written to commemorate his wife, my thoughts have been deeply preoccupied by how we process memory, time and time’s passing. It is interesting how much a moment in the past can mutate with each day. In retrospect, memories seem to change, to become resurfaced with a gloss, with a strange new emphasis. For Hardy, this emphasis is disturbing, awakening feelings of guilt and remorse, a failure to value and understand the then present when his wife was living. In a vintage shop however, the effects of looking back only seem positive. As we hold a pair of 70s sunglasses we are flooded with feelings of nostalgia. Putting a felt trilby on your head gives a rose tinted reflection in the mirror. Drinking tea from an ornate teacup as you sit in your lounge done up with chintz seems to transform the little ordinary details of our lives into something romantic, golden, perfected. Or does it? Originally coined for a year’s crop of wine, one of ‘good or outstanding quality’, ‘vintage’ is meant to label the very best of the best. But we have absorbed it as the buzzword to talk about anything pre 2000, be it sparkling or shabby.

The real vintage?

The real vintage?

I attended a talk recently at Pembroke College by Martin Rowson, a political Cartoonist for The Guardian and The Independent. As an English alumnus, he had ploughed his way through my syllabus, digesting the greatest works of literature week by week. It is what he did with all that he had read later however, that I found most intriguing. As well as his work on newspaper cartoons, he has spent considerable time transforming Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Eliot’s The Wasteland into graphic form, dredging up the famous narratives of the past and sketching them with the same thick black lines of a modern day political satire cartoon. As a satirist, Rowson said his job was to break things up into smaller particles in order for us to process them more easily. The awful was in this way made more bearable. What was remarkable was how well the graphic form suited Sterne’s rambling and boisterous tale. Perhaps the people of the past that we look back at with dewy eyes didn’t think very differently to us. Sterne and Rowson certainly seem to have the same sense of humour. Through Rowson’s adaptation, a satirist of the present and a novelist of the past work in symbiosis to create something utterly novel. It seems that the past should not endlessly impose itself upon the present in the form of dress shops stuffed with fur, pearls, beads and Bakelite and old fashioned tea rooms decorated like a scene from a home front documentary. Instead, we should work to see how the present can enter and redefine the world of the past, be it through modern film adaptation, theatre or graphic novels.

Martin Rowson's book cover

Martin Rowson’s book cover

On my coffee table sits a chunky graphic edition of Vanity Fair, a Christmas gift that I am yet to fully peruse. But as I flick through the pages, the story is punctuated with punchy black and white illustrations drawn in the style of a superhero comic. Personally, I feel this manner of delivery suits the novel’s intrigue perfectly without marring, changing or romanticising the original story. In this way, unlike the somewhat synthetic concept of ‘vintage’, past and present can collaborate so that re-visioning the past works as a ‘seeing again’ but not a ‘seeing again’ that manipulates what was ordinary and everyday then into a false ideal now.

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The Mozart Effect

When my Aunt was pregnant with my cousin, she was every bit the conscientious first-time mother, equipped with a state of the art pram and a seemingly unending wodge of dribble cloths in a range of gender-neutral tones. However, what particularly interested me were her reports that she had been listening to classical music in an attempt to make my growing cousin more intelligent. This rather pleasantly arty hypothesis has become an internet phenomenon, guiding tentative expectant mothers to indulge in some cultural bonding with their imminent bundle.

The idea that listening to classical music can somehow increase the intelligence of a developing child is an extension of what has been simply named ‘The Mozart Effect’, a term first coined in 1991 by Alfred A. Tomatis, who claimed that Mozart’s music had the capacity to heal and encourage brain development. Later in 1993, psychologists claimed that it had been shown to improve spatial-temporal reasoning. And with the Austrian composer’s oeuvres stirring the concert-goer and the scientist in equal measure, it came as no surprise that websites were set up for eager parents to download Mozart tracks to nurture the neurones of their developing offspring. Indeed, according to the website www.babycentre.com, a Governor of Georgia, no doubt inspired by the laboratory hype, mandated that a CD of Mozart’s piano sonatas should be given to all new babies on their leaving hospital.

‘The Mozart Effect’ has since been dismissed, with mother-baby websites instead promoting Mozart’s work as merely mood music, as a means to soothe the fretful baby and introduce it to the classical canon from a young age. Nevertheless, whilst it may not manifestly increase a child’s intelligence, the intriguing scientific and psychological potential in music suggests it may have something to teach us about human nature.

This prompted me to think about the way that we listen to music today. Whilst in the past our desire for music would have been satisfied by a maiden at a harpsichord or a trip to a velvety concert hall, we can indulge our ears today with whatever tones we yearn for, whenever we yearn for them. You Tube and Spotify have opened up vast empires for auditory exploration, conquerable by a few taps on a keyboard. And this is a privilege that we must cultivate. Just in writing this blog, I have listened to a miscellany of melodies that I have accessed with minimal effort, filling my head with sounds that invariably syncopate the steady metronome of my typing. At this late hour, I find myself believing that music can stimulate the brain’s creative capabilities.

However, with such a diverse portfolio of music available to us, perhaps we are all too ready to choose music moulded to our mood, rather than letting ourselves be moulded by music’s own powers. Indeed, I recently came across the website www.stereomood.com, a site that allows you to enter your mood into a search bar and have melodies matched to your current temperament. Mood categories ranged from ‘dish washing’ to music to ‘snuggle’ to. Whilst Buddhist chanting might be requisite for yoga, the notion of mood music can surely become too dictatorial. Music is, after all, an art form and the way that we react to aestheticism is always driven by subjective impulses. Classical music of the Romantic Period was written to emote. And emotions are unpredictable, personal and private. It is our individual response to music that makes listening to it in a group or community so valuable and interesting, and is certainly a way to support public performances.

Perhaps we have something to learn from the premise of ‘The Mozart Effect’. There is some value in listening to music neutrally and experimenting with its effects, allowing people to enter the imaginative world of a piece and read it, as one would a book or poem. My ongoing study of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac poetry sequence of 1912-1913 for my dissertation drew my attention strongly to the fundamental link between music and poetry. As a keen musician himself, Hardy frequently employed ballad and hymnal forms to structure his work. Responding to the tones and textures of a piece of music is like reacting to the details of language in a poem.

I am organising an event in my College of Jazz and Blues music to brighten up the notorious work slump that is ‘Week 5 blues’ in the Cambridge term. Some of us might associate such instrumentals with chill-out hour, others with the glamour of Gatsby’s parties. Frank Zappa once said that ‘Music, in performance, is a kind of sculpture. The air is sculpted into something’. It is the diverse ways that we respond personally to music as an art form that makes it such an interesting canvas on which to learn about humanity, whether in the whitewash of the laboratory or the plush comfort of the theatre row.

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