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London Literature Festival, Southbank Centre


An evening at the Southbank Centre is always going to be enlightening and entertaining – this is never more true than during the London Literature Festival, which runs 5 – 16 October. This year, it featured events with Margaret Atwood, Louis Theroux, Richard Dawkins, Iraqi science fiction and a reading of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine with Christopher Eccleston, all focusing on the theme of ‘Living In Future Times’.

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine reading with Christopher Eccleston, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Emma Hamilton, 5 October

To mark the opening of The London Literature Festival there was a reading of H. G. Wells’ early science fiction classic, The Time Machine. Acclaimed actors Christopher Eccleston, Emma Hamilton and Nikki Amuka-Bird, were accompanied by internationally renowned organist James McVinnie, playing the famous Royal Festival Hall organ, to give a eerie and marvellously performed reading.

Time travel has long been one of the great tropes of science fiction, but it was this 1895 novella that lodged the concept firmly in the public imagination, popularising the idea that one might travel through time much as we travel through space.

H. G. Wells’ novel is a dystopian adventure and a political commentary of late Victorian England, offering a vision and indeed a warning of a troubled future. Nevertheless, the reading was thoroughly enjoyable, and brimming with an insight into how, in our own unsettled times, the power of storytelling can connect us all.

Nikki Amuka-Bird, Emma Hamilton, Christopher Eccleston will perform a live reading of The Time Machine, Wed 5 Oct in Royal Festival Hall to open Southbank Centre's 10th London Literature Festival. Credit Helen Maybanks
Photo by Helen Maybanks

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Short Story Competition 2016 judge, Erica Wagner, on her retelling of The Tempest, named Hag-Seed, 6 October

Also in attendance at the festival was the Booker prize-winning Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, who was in discussion with author, critic and our very own Short Story Competition 2016 judge Erica Wagner. The discussion was centred around Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed; a characteristically skewed re-imagining of The Tempest which is filled with surprises and wonders all of its own. She deftly shows how the tales of Shakespeare are universal even now and adds her own magic and twist of fun to this retelling. Atwood is an author that presents her work with warmth and humour; and that evening was no exception; her and Erica at one point were wholeheartedly rapping out a section of the book!

During the talk, Atwood also spoke of her participation in the project, Future Library. a project set up by Scottish perceptual artist Katie Paterson. Over the next 100 years, 99 more authors – one a year – will contribute a text to the library. In 2114, the 1,000 trees planted last summer in the Nordmarka will be cut down and all the texts made public. The preservation of the written word symbolises how must all, even in times of fear and darkness, preserve our souls. “I am sending a manuscript into time,” notes the author, in a short piece written for the event. “Will any human beings be waiting there to receive it? Will there be a ‘Norway’? Will there be a ‘forest’? Will there be a ‘library’? How strange it is to think of my own voice – silent by then for a long time – suddenly being awakened, after 100 years. What is the first thing that voice will say as a not-yet-embodied hand draws it out of its container and opens it to the first page? I picture this encounter – between my text and the so-far nonexistent reader – as being a little like the red-painted hand print I once saw on the wall of a Mexican cave that had been sealed for over three centuries. Who now can decipher its exact meaning? But its general meaning was universal: any human being could read it. It said: ‘Greetings. I was here.’”

While listening to Atwood speak, one was reminded how there is a strange comfort in consuming her dystopian stories. They are reminders, despite reflecting a dire present, that it’s never too late for us. This inherent hope at least allows people to imagine a better future- maybe they are a kind of litany for survival, that humanity will continue despite our best efforts to destroy ourselves.

Photo: Pete Woodhead
Photo by Pete Woodhead

Screening of Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’ and Q&A with Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton and John Dower, 10 October

Following this year’s London Literature Festival theme ‘Living In Future Times’, a screening of Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’, exploring the religion based on a science-fiction writer’s work, kicked off the second week of the festival. A relatively young audience filtered into the stalls, balcony and boxes of the Royal Festival Hall. A screen hangs; a poster of ‘My Scientology Movie’ by Louis Theroux is projected onto it, complimented by an instantly-recognisable illustration of Theroux.

The lights dim and Adam Buxton walks on-stage to introduce the evening. The film starts, opening with a tweet by Louis Theroux:

‘Open call to any #Scientologists out there. I would love to speak to you for a documentary I am working on. About Scientology.’

The film continues with this borderline sarcastic tone, a tone very true to Theroux’s entertaining and lighthearted documentaries in the early days of ‘Weird Weekends’. Later, in the Q&A, director John Dower explains this was one of their main aims: to give the documentary that ‘early Louis’ feel.

One of the main reasons Dower and Theroux decided to make the documentary rather humorous was because another film on scientology, Alex Gibney’s ‘Going Clear’, came out whilst they were filming. Gibney’s documentary was highly informative and serious, so they decided ‘My Scientology Movie’ had to contrast this.

This is something they certainly achieved. The documentary is structured around actors who play Tom Cruise, David Miscavige and other members of scientology. Marty Rathbun (former Senior Executive of the Church of Scientology) directs a mix of scientology-based workshops, improvisations and the re-enactment of real-life footage, allowing him to visually express what he experienced during his time at the church, both to Theroux and the viewers.

As a whole, the evening was informative, daring, but was also scattered with entertaining moments which bring a classic ‘Louis’ humanity to a very serious subject.

Photo: Pete Woodhead
Photo by Pete Woodhead

#LLF’s 10th Birthday Event, 10 October

Up in the Weston Roof Pavilion, poets and literature lovers alike met to celebrate Southbank Centre London Literature Festival’s 10th anniversary. The event was attended by John Agard amongst others. and was centred around speeches by Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson and Artistic Director Jude Kelly. They spoke about the futuristic, science fiction theme of this year’s festival, reviewed some of the events which had taken place so far and thanked the staff for their hard work. Behind the backdrop of the London Eye, the OXO tower and the other glistening lights of the southbank’s skyline, Southbank Centre staff and LLF guests cheered, celebrating the fine production of one of London’s most important events.

To read more on this year’s London Literature Festival, read our interview with Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson.

Photo: Abi Lofthouse
Photos by Abi Lofthouse


By Lucy Binnersley and Abi Lofthouse

Artwork by Harriet Cheney, Southbank Centre

‘Living in Future Times’
Southbank Centre
5 – 16 October 2016

Five years on – why Natasha Walter’s ‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ is still one of the most prevalent feminist writings of the 21st Century

Photograph: Sarah Lee

So there’s a glamour model contest. All women can enter. To decide on a winner, the women must strip, pose sexually and suggestively on a bed. The men (and some women) in the audience show their preference in women by cheering or booing. A male DJ decides which woman has received the biggest cheers.

Surprisingly, this scene comes from in a club named ‘Mayhem’ in Southend-on-Sea in the spring of 2007.

This is how Natasha Walter starts ‘Babes’, the first chapter in her gripping, well-written exploration of how women are affected by a new wave of sexism – riddled with pornography, sexualisation and gender stereotyping. Through personal accounts and thorough research, Walter throws us into the perspective of young girls and their experiences of hypersexualisation. She explains how vastly her opinions have changed since her first book, The New Feminism, which encourages the rebellious woman, labelled as being ‘sexually liberated’. In this book Walter realises ‘liberating’ acts such as dancing at a strip club is actually exploitative and shouldn’t be embraced.

Walter writes about the conditioning of young girls to become living dolls: from a young age, girls are influenced to look after wriggling, crying, even excreting toy babies, to collect Bratz dolls, Barbie dolls and to take an interest in makeup and beauty. Walter explains that this conditioning from an early age encourages girls to dress a certain way and to criticise their own appearance, with the inevitable goal of finding a man and being a mother to another baby you can dress up. This is not a new concept – it echoes Simone de Beauvoir’s writing. But, it is still worth writing about because nothing is changing – girl’s toys are becoming more glittery, more pink, and are turning more little girls into sparkling, fuchsia, passive princesses.

There is a chapter entitled ‘Pornography’, in which Walter explores eroticism’s affect on both men and women. She writes about one young man who has an inability to have close relationships with women, due to his obsession with erotic materials. She explains the dangers which pornography exposes young men to. She also examines its affect on women’s lives – how pornography has ruined sexual relationships and caused men to treat women like sexual objects rather than intimate partners.

Walter also explores the gender stereotyping of children from a young age; girls are seen as passive whilst boys are seen as the active, aggressive gender. Walter explores real-life examples of parents calling out their young girls for behaving aggressively, but simply saying ‘boys will be boys’ when boys do similar things.

This personal focus on how over-sexualisation and new waves of sexism affect women is often criticised, but in Walter’s case, it works. Whether you call yourself a feminist or you believe sexism isn’t even an issue anymore, this carefully researched book will remind you why feminism still exists.

By Abi Lofthouse

‘Savage Beauty’ – Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A


From 14th March – 2nd August, the V&A is graced by the biggest Alexander McQueen exhibition in Europe. Since McQueen committed suicide in 2010, his legendary work has been shipped to and from museums and galleries worldwide, and has been visited by many admirers of McQueen’s work. Now, McQueen’s designs are visiting his hometown, London.

The ‘badboy of high fashion’ is well-known for his grotesque, theatrical designs and his flamboyant attitude. Throughout his life he worked with various designers, brands and fashion icons, designing David Bowie’s tour wardrobe in 1996-7. The exhibition itself, five years after his passing, has drawn thousands to London to see his work.

“Fashion is a bubble, sometimes I feel like popping it.”

Upon entering the pitch-black exhibition, I’m greeted with a giant projection of McQueen’s face. Recordings of his voice boom through speakers – he talks about his life, fashion and work, throwing you into McQueen’s world. The exhibition’s dim lighting seemed to reflect McQueen’s grave sadness towards the end of his life. This mood seems to linger in each room, making the exhibition highly emotive. The viewers of the exhibition, however, seem to contrast this mood. Smiling, laughing, discussing McQueens fabrics and shapes – the bustling crowd seem at home when they are surrounded by high fashion garments.

Each room has a separate theme – from ‘Exotic Romanticism’ to ‘Plato’s Atlantis’, the exhibition takes you on a tour through the years of McQueen’s designs. The clothing reflects his own opinion on his art, which he describes as ‘traditional styles with rule-breaking aspects’: trousers with ripped crotches, horse hair skirts, armadillo boots, even a blazer lined with red silk laced with human hair. I was hypnotised by every dress, coat, bodice and accessory – the complexity of the designs, the bold patterns all were truly mesmerising.

“I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”

There were several parts of the exhibition that stood out to me. One of which was the ‘Romantic Nationalism’ section which focused on McQueen’s Scottish heritage. The designs indulged in exaggerated silhouettes, lace, crimson reds and traditional tartan patterns which McQueen renamed ‘MacQueen Tartan’.

Another outstanding room was one of a ‘sci-fi’ influence, with mannequins with horns and cave-like brown walls encrusted with plastic bones and skulls. One dress in this room had a skirt made out of horsehair. Another outfit – a leather bodice – had two small crocodile heads in the place of shoulder pads, their tiny mouths stretched open aggressively.

One room had a ‘futuristic’ theme which replayed videos of catwalk shows. These were interesting as they showed you McQueen’s designs as he envisioned them. One hunched-over model wore a metal square attached to her arms and legs: the disturbing accessories and the model’s insect-like actions reminded me of the beetle protagonist in Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’.

“I find beauty in the grotesque.”

This exhibition contrasts highly with the V&A’s more traditional ceramics and sculpture galleries – it is daring, modern and racy. The well-designed exhibition space suits McQueen’s style and helps give an insight into his work and life. Thanks to visual supports, sound effects and telling quotes scattered around the exhibition, you’ll not only be seeing McQueen’s designs, you’ll be hearing them, feeling them, even living them.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, in partnership with Swarovski, supported by American Express, with thanks to M∙A∙C Cosmetics, technology partner Samsung and made possible with the co-operation of Alexander McQueen, runs from 14th March – 2nd August 2015. Tickets from £17.60. Photo courtesy of V&A. www.vam.ac.uk/savagebeauty

By Abi Lofthouse

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