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11th May, Hay Fever

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Press night for Hay Fever on a summer’s eve: the red carpet rolled out in front of the Duke of York theatre; expectant photographers at the ready.

I spot a few familiar faces: Jim Carter (the Butler Carson from Downton Abbey), Maurine Lipman, Lesley Joseph from Birds of a feather.

Seated in front of me was Alessandro Nivola the actor and producer who starred in American Hustle. But of course the woman we are all waiting for is Felicity Kendal – billed as the star of the show – and the luminous of stars she was.

Transferred from the Theatre Royal Bath to the Duke of York, Nöel Coward wrote the play in one weekend in his mother’s garden, originally calling it Oranges and Lemons.

The English comedy play centres on one manic weekend in a country house in Cookham belonging to the Bliss family, though we suspect every weekend is rather similarly chaotic once we meet the four melodramatic characters in the family. There is the semi-retired actress Judith Bliss (played by Kendal), her writer husband David Bliss (Simon Shepherd) and their beautiful, but intense children Sorel Bliss (Alice Orr-Ewing) and Simon Bliss (Edward Franklin).

The Bliss’s play host to an array of ‘guests’ – though that’s just it – they play, they act, teasing them, caring nothing for manners or etiquette of making their ‘guests’ feel right at home. Being around the bohemian Bliss family is like having the symptoms of hay fever: it’s afflicting, reactive, though for the audience it’s a pleasure, as we are at just the right distance away…

There are some superb moments of acting such as from the half-witted Jackie Coryton (played by Celeste Dodwell) who has perfected the comic mannerisms of even the way she goes up the stairs and down again, to the way she glides as lightly as her brain across the stage. There are also some wonderful visuals including the 1920s costume flapper dresses.

Coward once remarked ‘Hay Fever is far and away one of the most difficult plays to perform that I have ever encountered’ and whilst director Lindsay Posner has been successful, it is still easy to see that as a play Hay Fever lacks any real depth. Take Kendal out of the equation and would we be quite so interested? Still, we are happy to watch Judith Bliss be flippant and frivolous at the flouting of social norms as she flaps her flapper dress…

Until August 1st 2015, Duke of York Theatre

by Heather Wells

‘Just Books and Language’ – Interview with Abel Cutillas by Heather Wells

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‘Just Books and Language’ – Interview with Abel Cutillas, co-owner of Llibreria Calders, Sant Antoni, Barcelona by Heather Wells

Bernat Puigtobella walks me to the Calders bookshop in the trendy neighbourhood of Sant Antoni, Barcelona. On our way he tells me that this bookshop has a certain reputation among literary circles and it is increasingly becoming known by anyone in the literary world; rather it is much more than just a bookshop.

Outside the welcoming open doors of this bookshop is a line of bookstalls and bunches of roses in celebration of Barcelona’s literary festival St Jordi. The Lliberia Calders is heaving with people. Once I interviewed Abel, it was clear to see why:

I sit with Abel at the stools by a bar at the back of the shop and he turns his stool facing towards the shop floor and says to me: ‘I have to do this because I also need to watch the shop whilst you interview me in case any shoplifters try to steal the books…’

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Abel Cutillas, co-owner of the Lliberia Calders bookshop in Sant Antoni, Barcelona

How old is your bookshop and can you tell me a bit about its history?

We are one year old and we opened last April. This is the second St Jordi festival we have seen at our shop. We set up in Sant Antoni because it is a very trendy area, but also this is a neighbourhood for businesses so the location seems just right, plus it is not too far from the centre. The bookshop is names after Pere Calders, a very famous Catalan writer here.

How do you survive, when other bookshops are closing down?

We are using a new economical model. Other shops pay high rent, but here the rent is not so high. We have a lot of books, a wide-range. The rent may go up, but we are OK till now! Also, it is just two of us who run the bookshop (himself and Isabel Sucunza) so we don’t pay to employ anybody. We do all the work – it is just the two of us here all day 7 days a week.

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Wow, that’s a huge commitment to be here all the time and work 7 days a week.

Yes, because we have to do that otherwise it won’t be a success.

[As he says this, Abel has to run off during the interview as a customer is enquiring about a book]

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Your shop is multifaceted. What other events occur aside from the selling of books?

[Before he can answer, Abel apologies and says he has to answer the phone that is ringing]

We run presentations, recitals, cultural acts, we have literary figures coming here. [There is a piano at the back of the shop too]

I’ve been to hear the President Artur Mas speak about Independence. What is your view on it? And how do you see this relate to literature?

Of course I want independence. We are a state built on culture. It is our identity card. We don’t have any institutions; we have no army, just books and language.

 

I imagine that the Calders bookshop has a very different feel in the evening compared with its daytime feel. It is bookshops like this that make one pine for a paperback, and it is in the perfect setting to relish the escapism of literature.  

Lliberia Calders, Pere Calders 9, Sant Antoni, Barcelona

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Portraits of Artists and Friends – John Singer Sargent

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John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends, National Portrait Gallery
12 February – 25 May 2015

If you did not know this was a John Singer Sargent exhibition, you would think this a highly skilled collection of artist’s work that showcases a range of styles and techniques. But it isn’t, clearly, which makes this not just a remarkable display of well-executed paintings, but a celebration of Sargent’s achievement of such a prolific and impressive range of artwork.

The vast majority of works on display in this exhibition are portrait paintings of artists, friends, poets, singers, musicians, figureheads of the art world, all of whom Sargent seems to be well connected with. Notable names include Henry James, whose novels often feature front cover artwork by Sargent such as What Maisie Knew, the cover showing detail of a young girl from Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit. There are also portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose distinctive face makes for a very unusual portrait indeed. Others include Coventry Patmore, Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet, the actress Ellen Terry and a fascinating charcoal of William Butler Yeats.

The exhibition is accompanied with a pocket-size guide on all sixty-eight artworks, mostly giving biographical details on Sargent’s revered circle of friends. While this is fascinating to have such a record, it feels an overload of information that detracts from the paintings themselves. Ironically, it also makes one feel that they know less about Sargent than they did before entering the gallery; instead you could title the exhibition ‘A gallery of prominent cultural figures.’ This is to deflect from Sargent as an individual, showing the character of others instead, except perhaps to explore his own relationship with them. Intimate and informal portraits are here offered of friends, as Sargent would see them and not as formal portraiture.

Born in Florence and the son of American expatriates, Sargent’s paintings are displayed in rooms according to location: time spent in Paris, London, Boston and New York. He is a man well-travelled and paints with familiarity places far-reaching from rural Worcestershire to the Alps; this partly perhaps explains why he has universal appeal.

One cannot help but feel the scale of this rare exhibition bringing together such an important collection of work by one of the World’s greatest portrait painters.

For more information visit: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/sargent/home.php

Portraits of Artists and FriendsNational Portrait Gallery on until 25th May 2015

by Heather Wells

Rebecca the play

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We caught up with Emma Rice, Director of Kneehigh Productions on her latest piece: Rebecca the play. Adapting one of Britain’s most loved novels for a theatrical performance that is faithful to text whilst appealing to contemporary audiences is certainly a daunting task, but one that Emma executes with panache. Her version of Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece captures all the darkness of Maxim’s heart alongside intricate choreography, infectious energy and moments of hilarity. We thoroughly enjoyed this production and were delighted to speak to Emma about her creative direction, tips for emerging artists and not being scared when starting out in the Arts. Rebecca the play is touring now.

The London Magazine interview with Emma Rice

You’ve got a really impressive collection of awards for your directing and a range of successful productions, so thank you for speaking to us today. I was curious why Kneehigh productions have decided on Rebecca and why now? Were you influenced by the Cornwall origins of your production company and the connection that has to du Maurier?

Yes well I think it was long overdue and I’ve been thinking about Daphne du Maurier for a while now. I was investigating short stories which were pretty amazing. Then David Pugh the producer said “How about Rebecca?” And I just couldn’t turn it down. It’s fantastic it feels like it’s sort of a dream waiting to happen. So it feel into my lap really but as I say, Daphne du Maurier is a Cornish female legend and so I’ve been waiting to work with her for ages.

Did you feel pressure to stay truthful to the text or were you happy to shape the story in your own direction?

Well it’s impossible to stay true to the text because she wrote a fantastic great big novel and I need to get it into two hours of exciting theatre.  So I went into it feeling it’s a completely different art form. But I asked myself what is the actuality and what can I bring into it. People can read the book at any time and watch the Hitchcock film at any time, but I wanted to bring something fresh. What I’ve really done, I think, is I’ve given the second Mrs de Winter a big character role. There’s some surprises in what she becomes in my production which I think the book is lacking a little bit. And I’ve also really revamped the third act as I call it which is “the trial”, you know in the book it’s all so exciting isn’t it? Sort of gripping and then suddenly an anti-climax deciding what’s going to happen.  I thought forget that.  I’m going to make this more interesting. I don’t want to do any spoilers but everything in my production takes place either at Manderley or on the beach below Manderley so it’s very elemental and it’s very theatrical.

What would you say were the main practical challenges in bringing this story to the stage and were you influenced by the Hitchcock film of Rebecca?

I’m quite an action based physical director and yet mostly the novel is psychological.  So I think that has been a fantastic challenge for me; to build the tension with the characters and show the pressures that they are under. To really get that. I have been inspired by Hitchcock all my life really; the master of suspense, and so that’s the first time that I’ve been able to put that into practice with theatre. It is so interesting I mean it’s really not about what happens, it’s about what people feel and what people provoke in each other.

As Rebecca is such a dark and mysterious story would you say that this is the perfect combination for a theatrical and dramatic adaptation? Are these the perfect elements for a fantastic stage drama?

Yes. I’m biased obviously as I’m in love with it and working on it at the moment, but I would say the only thing I kind of miss is that it’s not very romantic. People have called it a romantic novel and I would say that there’s not a single bit of romance in the whole book and I wish there were a little bit more.  But actually that’s where the tension lies, this sort of desire for love and it not really being there.

It is strange how people have romanticised the plot so extensively. How would you say that the story of Rebecca interests you on a personal level? 

Well I think I’m always interested by the dynamics of personal relationships and this is very extreme. It’s also very feminist, you know Rebecca herself who obviously never appears. I’m jealous of Rebecca. Not only was she beautiful but she maintained her own boat and she rode horses.  She really was this exceptional creature and I subtitled it with what Daphne du Maurier described Rebeca as, a study in jealousy.  I think what’s amazing is to watch a very likable young women who had stepped into the shadow of an incredibly able woman.  And to look at what that man wants from her. Maxim is looking for a woman who isn’t going to challenge him in the way that Rebecca did and isn’t going to have personal freedom in the way that Rebecca did. I think I’ve given him a little bit more comeuppance than any other version has.

It’s amazing how Mrs De Winter can become such a huge character despite Rebecca’s presence pervading and enduring in the land and the house. Just like the moors are a powerful force in Wuthering Heights.

Well that’s a brilliant thing to say actually because Rebecca is as big as the moors and in this production she is the sea. I mean she lies in the bottom of the sea and the sea is what gives justice at the end so it’s a great analogy.

What advice would you give to young writers starting out looking at directing or textual adaptations?

Keep it simple! Don’t be frightened because what’s the worst that can happen? You make a show that isn’t that great? Ultimately choose something that you are passionate about and keep asking simple questions; like what’s exciting? What do I care about? The rest will work out itself. 

You can get tickets here http://www.rebeccatheplay.com/ and for more on Emma’s work see here http://www.kneehigh.co.uk/

By Tara Flynn

Shakespeare in Love

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Shakespeare in Love, Noel Coward Theatre

It is so rare to find a play that has perfected the balance between comedy, romance and tragedy – but look no further – for here it is.

This stage adaptation of the highly successful film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes (1998) is a re-telling of the imaginary romance between Will Shakespeare and his muse Viola de Lesseps, whilst Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.

The play is full of double entendre, wordplay, puns and witty references to all things Shakespeare. A substantial amount of the comic value is owed to the audience’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s work: we laugh when we recognise the literary quotes and references – mindful that this is a play within a play.

Each member of the cast is extremely well placed. Most notably, Eve Ponsonby as Viola de Lesseps and Orlando James as Will Shakespeare. The actors’ devotion and passion to their individual roles is apparent and this makes for a lively, exhilarating performance that sweeps a feeling of euphoria throughout the theatre, where almost everyone is smiling.

There is a mixture of light-hearted matter to more serious themes of death and love: the play covers a remarkable amount of subject matters. For example the boy who has a speech impediment and who stutters for an uncomfortable amount of time is meant to be funny, but we also feel bad for laughing.

Then there is the beautiful haunting singing played by the countertenor Charlie Tighe which acts as an interlude in the constant changing disposition of the play.

The set is fantastic, every nook and cranny of the stage is used. Sometimes we are looking at the stage, sometimes it is reverted and we are backstage. Players entering from back stage left right, up on the balconies. There is never a dull moment thanks to the choreography.

It really is a triumph to pull off these high-risk scenes – sword fighting, a dancing-singing chorus and of course the dog. This is to the credit of the creative team behind this superb play.

LAST CHANCE TO SEE. Runs until the 18th April 2015, visit:  http://shakespeareinlove.com/ 

by Heather Wells

Miss Saigon by Heather Wells

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Miss Saigon, Prince Edward Theatre, January 2015

Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Miss Saigon, currently on at the Prince Edward theatre, answers the public plea to bring back this tragic romance musical once again to the West End since its success in the eighties at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Miss Saigon is set during the Vietnam War and is a love story between an American GI Chris (Alistair Brammer) and a young passionate Vietnamese bar girl called Kim (Eva Noblezada). Eva Noblezada has a tremendous voice for such a petite person and John (Hugh Maynard), another GI and friend of Chris gives a fantastic vocal performance in the song ‘Bui Doi’ literally meaning ‘Dust of Life’. The song is for the Amerasian children left behind in the War. This emotive moment seems so out of place as one so wants to concentrate on the short video showing the orphaned children, but the song sung by John distracts the moment completely.

While the vocals are strong throughout, the songs themselves fail to hold the force you come to expect with musicals. The exception of course being the ‘American Dream’ sung by the slippery yet charming Engineer (Jon Jon Briones) as he gyrates on the bonnet of a Cadillac. After all, that’s what musicals are best at doing: leaving songs with you that you can’t get out of your head…

 

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

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Damon Galgut, the South African writer has proven he is a writer of quality with books such as The Good Doctor and In a Strange Room. But reading Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer is not like reading another brilliant piece of fiction; instead we are presented with a much more specific, fictional biography of E. M. Forster. The narration is so convincing that we temporarily forget that this is Galgut’s imagined and creative mind for Forster. Conducting extensive research and reading around the life and written descriptions of Forster, Galgut has brought together a story that goes some way to explain why it took E. M. Forster X years to complete his successful A Passage to India.

It’s a story that touches on many of the key aspects of the character that is Edward Morgan Forster: a white middle-class Englishman who is a repressed homosexual and what this entails during his travels in India and Alexandria. Two central romantic relationships: first with the nobleman Syed Ross Masood in India and secondly during the First World War with the tram-conductor Mohammed el-Adl in Egypt have a profound effect upon Forster’s sexual identity as well as his writing.

Forster in the novel is longing for genuine sexual intimacy with another man and whilst we may think it would be on a level footing, Galgut’s Forster fantasises about sexual violence and enjoys briefly (before feelings of self-disgust come in) the power he has over the local barber. Galgut makes the sexual political, to quote his Forster: he felt it with ‘all the force of the Empire.’

In Galgut’s colourful and rich portrayal of Forster, there are moments of touching sentiment and poignancy that make for an impressive imaginative account of the life of one of our most prominent writers, who despite his personal struggles, was always destined to be a writer. This makes Arctic Summer a rather self-reflexive novel showing there are just some books that write themselves.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut is published by Atlantic Books, 2014.

By Heather Wells

 

 

Interview with Senior Curator Daniel Robbins

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© Will Pryce

Heather Wells interviews Daniel Robbins, Senior Curator of the Leighton House Museum talking about the current exhibition, A Victorian Obsession. 

Thank you for letting us interview you Daniel, I’ve been to see A Victorian Obsession and I think it’s a wonderful exhibition, and so I’d like to ask you a few questions about the background of this show. This is a very special exhibition in that some of these paintings have never been shown in the UK, what does this mean to you personally and professionally as senior curator of the Leighton House Museum?

Well I think it’s the single most important exhibition we’ve hosted in my time and I think probably the most ambitious exhibition that the Museum’s ever held. There’s something particular about it that it couldn’t be a better match with what this house is about and the story that this house communicates because the pictures in the Perez collection date from 1860 to 1900 more or less, which is absolutely contemporaneous with the construction of the house and all its developments. Leighton died in 1896 so it is exactly the same period of time. There is also something special about the idea that these pictures are not just being displayed in a conventional gallery setting but have actually been set within the interiors of the house. Leighton knew all his artists and they knew him and they knew this house so there’s something that I think comes out of all of that makes it special, interesting and different.

Yes, absolutely it all works in great harmony together, doesn’t it? If you had to say a favourite, which of the paintings from the exhibition would spring to mind and for what reasons?

Well it’s an obvious answer but there is something extraordinary about seeing Laurence Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus because it’s been so seldom exhibited before and it’s become an iconic image of this period. It’s an extraordinary demonstration of his technical accomplishments, his fascination with ancient history and his almost scholarly interest in trying to assemble and integrate as much detail into that picture, which is actually founded in some sort of historical truth so that’s a sort of show stopper thing. Then, it’s very understated but I think quite a moving little drawing is the Simeon Solomon, the only work by him in the exhibition, a depiction of hypnosis the god of sleep which was a theme in his work he returned to when he wrote this poem on the subject of sleep and dreams and it was drawn when he was in this very fragile state towards the end of his career and there’s something very fragile about the drawing as well so that’s at the other end of the spectrum to the Roses of Heliogabalus.

Solomon Simeon, Hynos, The God of Sleep

So the main theme of the exhibition is the representation of female beauty in nineteenth-century art, and I’ve read a couple of criticism’s which people have made, not so much about the exhibition itself, but that these women are very inert and have very little relevance to women today, I don’t actually necessarily agree with that but I just wondered what you response was to the comments about women and how that fits in today in modern society?

Well yes, I’ve read those reviews too and I think the issue always is not to try and see these images outside of the context in which they were painted is one thing. So a number of them were inspired by literary sources but they’re illustrative of and true to the text that inspired them in the artist’s conception and it’s also true that these artists were interested in a kind of idealised type of female beauty that is characteristic of that time. I think the issue of whether or not it’s relevant to today is sort of not relevant(!) and particular, of course, the strand of it which is to do with classic inspired (by classical sculpture) that is sort of by definition itself to do with idealisation and so these artists are producing work which is true to that tradition. It’s not so much to do with them having a contemporary engagement with women, with that being said the women in the exhibition do in fact represent all kinds of tradition. So I mean there are the Waterhouse’s sorcerers, there’s a large picture on the staircase by Edwin Long or in fact Queen Esther which is a story that has been widely written about as a depiction of a strong woman who defies her husband so it’s not quite true anyway to say that these are all passive just dumb characterless individuals. I mean even if you go to the extreme of the Roses of Heliogabalus: he became emperor because his grandmother and his mother conspired to make that happen by outwitting while just basically being meaner than any other man around.

You’re right, rather than being damning it’s more of a celebration of female beauty, which is a good thing I believe and would have thought that perhaps those comments missed the point really. Which kind of leads me onto ask what your stance as a whole is on art in relation to this exhibition? We know that this is an aesthetic collection of art and so I wonder, do you think it should be didactic or can art merely be art for arts sake?

Well I think it can be all these things, meaning within this collection there is that aesthetic art for art’s sake strand, but there’s an enormous amounts of material within it which also relates to literary traditions and connections to art and music, art and literature and so the challenge always for us is how do you communicate that because all of these pictures, in fact have very interesting stories behind them and a huge amount of information which has been researched for the catalogue, so it’s as much as is trying to draw out all of these themes. But it’s true to say that one of the special things about it being here, or one, if you like, of the limitations is that there isn’t complete flexibility in which picture hangs where because it’s dictated by the size of the rooms, the size of the walls and so they impose a certain restriction on how it would be organized. So a kind of overriding thing is the aesthetic and how to present it in an aesthetically satisfying way because that has to override normal curatorial convention of trying to be very didactic and rigorous in the way things are grouped. Although the initial thing was to just make sure that everything would fit and find a home and of course there was a lot of thought too how to combine them so that there is a sort of coherence to it: to let classical works go up in the silk room which is a space to respond to them and more intimate things were placed in the bedroom and so there was more than just simply trying to get them to fit.

Well yes, of course there’s been clear planning and careful consideration which you would expect. This was my first visit to Leighton house when I saw the exhibition and so not only was I bowled over by the art but it was also magnificent to see the house and the Arab hall which I wasn’t quite expecting, I mean it really takes your breath away when you first see it. I know there has been restoration and refurbishment that’s happened, which started in 2008, can you tell us anymore about what this involved and what were the major changes?

The house started to be restored in about 1980 because it had been restored at different times before that but in no sense trying to recreate how it had been. It was just made into the most institutionalized – so walls were whitewashed and it was just made very bland – as far as it was possible, so the attempt to recreate the feel of it began in the 1980s and then we did this major project between 2008 and 2010 which was driven by the need to rewire it all, but that meant it was going to be so intrusive to do that it was going to be necessary to redecorate and look again at all the information. The great thing about this house is that Leighton lived here for thirty years, so he’s the only person ever to have lived here, over a relatively short time span and during the thirty years he lived here there were innumerable articles and interviews with him here, which described the house and its contents. It was illustrated a lot and photographed a lot, so there was a huge wealth of material and unlike a house that’s been lived in over hundreds of years, this is actually a very defined period, so we were able to identify the end of Leighton’s life in 1896 and say well the idea would be to put the house back decoratively to how it ended up being, not at any stage before that. And so the formula to do that would be to try and find the written description of what the room looked like, so for example the floors that had painted colours upstairs, the red floor and the blue floor in the drawing room and dining room, these written description said these floors were painted these colours and they had all been stripped at some point in the twentieth-century but knowing they had been that colour, it meant that the conservator could go in under the skirting and in the corners find traces of these original colours and then match the colours. That formula of using descriptions and then looking for the physical evidence that could form the conscription meant that each of them could be put back…

It seems like a huge task. 

It was a huge task but it was fascinating to do it and be part of it, again it’s the photographs, a whole set of pictures taken of the house just before Leighton died, or a year before he died, which are of extraordinary high quality so if you load them onto a computer you can zoom in and see all kinds of details and then it’s just a question of trying to recreate that detail. So the silk in the silk room was all based on doing that same process and in fact surprisingly little of what was done was guesswork I mean almost all of it had some documentary evidence.

So how much of what we’re seeing today is similar to how Leighton once lived in it, or is that too difficult to know?

Well the thing is, when people came and saw it, there were things that were done which were very distinctly different: so the dome of the Arab Hall had originally been gilded and then had been painted over at some point again in the twentieth-century. So gilded schemes were reinstated. But people who came afterwards, which I think is the way it should be, said that they could sort of feel the way it was all different but they couldn’t say what was different. But really what the difference was were two things: one was because almost everything was redecorated at the same so there was a greater coherence to the whole scheme altogether because previously bits had been done at different times, so that was one thing and the other was part of what we’re trying to do was also because after Leighton died all the original contents for his collections were all sold, which remains the great tragedy of the house. Even after it was an bit problematic because it was a house i.e. a domestic environment, but you had lost its contents to such a point that you couldn’t determine what even the function of each of the rooms were – empty rooms empty spaces – so the idea with the restoration in 2008-2010 was at least to furnish them and present them to a point where they’re basic function was a little more obvious and to try again by very carefully looking at the photographs and the Christie’s catalogue from when all of his collections were sold. Using and finding his original furniture is a very difficult thing to do but there are examples of furniture, which were identical to the furniture that he had already bought very cheaply really. So to gradually make it feel more like when somebody walks in they feel like it’s a house, it’s a home, more than its just a rather odd empty building with a few pictures in it.

Leighton House Arab Hall ©Will Pryce

But it’s still got something of the culture and the life within the walls that you can still feel. I mean when I first walked into the dining room and just to imagine that Rossetti was sat around that dining table, it is just incredible and the house must have been the real heart and culture of the arts world at the time.

It was and well you see, the thing always with Leighton and what makes the house so fascinating is the tension between him being this very public figure who certainly earlier in his career entertained a lot and then this private side to him and the house, such as the bedroom sets up this contrast between the private environment being been so modest and simple whereas the rest of it was really designed for entertainment and to create the idea of an artist.

I don’t know how much is known about Leighton actually, obviously there will be biographies and things but…

There are, but what the biographers says that he is a curiously difficult character and personality and there was certainly a sort of side to him that was quite remote and withdrawn which is how people even at the time said they found it difficult to feel they really knew him and that somehow he was always pretending that he was always keeping people at bay in a way.

So have you a favourite room in the house that you like either for the artwork or that way in which it’s set up or just the house itself?

Well I mean the bedroom is always very intriguing because it’s, in a way so unexpected and the fact that there is one-bedroom is what makes the house so very interesting…

And he died in that room as well didn’t he? Which makes the whole thing a very strange feeling when you’re in there.

Well yes and it’s also the way that all the rooms kind of do flow into each other and relate to each other is what makes it so fascinating.

Are there any well kept secrets that you can share about the house, such as when you wrote the Leighton museum guide book, did you discover any small secrets about the house? Things like a tiny painting of X in the corner or anything like that… or is everything quite as expected?

Well everything’s to be as expected but …well in doing that kind of book there really are two things that came of it: one was going through all the contents of Leighton’s collections, so it absolutely became clear that he didn’t build the house and then sort of go shopping for things to put in it. The house was definitely conceived and the decorative schemes and the forms the rooms took were all conceived because he already knew he had a collection that he wanted to display and so there is an aspect of the house that is really like a museum in the way it was conceived as a means of displaying different bits of his collection in different parts of the house. So it was almost like the whole thing was a total work of art. And the second is the odd things about a studio house so the way the model was given access into the house and the model had their own doorway and they use the back staircase into the studio so the models don’t use the front door and they don’t use the servants passage…

Yes, why would he do that, was that just to be discreet about it all?

Well all these artists houses which are around here, (Holland Park) they all do the same sort of thing and it’s about I think having a separate entrance. It’s about the status of the model so the idea is that, usually an unaccompanied young woman coming in and out of the back door is a way to try to signal that they’re a model and professionally modelling for the artists and trying to make that clear. I suppose I mean Leighton is an exception not having a wife and family here but in the other cases it meant that the model wouldn’t necessarily bump into Mrs X it was kind of kept separate really from the household and from the family of the artist. Other houses went into even greater length than here in having a staircase and an entrance where the model will come in and could only get into the studio and out again and there was no way that they could actually engage any other bit of that house. There was here this little back door into the studio behind the screen and then there was a little fireplace to warm-up, so all these considerations which were part of its original planning as to how an artist studio house would have to function. The reality was that there is a lot of speculation over Leighton’s relationship with Dorothy Dean and so many artists did end up having affairs one kind or another with models.

So how do you think this exhibition compares to other art exhibitions, obviously the fact that it’s in a house, a house museum itself is one big difference, but I mean I can’t imagine, all these beautiful pictures, if you put them in a grand hall, then you’d still be able to recognise the wonderful works of art but there is something so much more about it being here in this house, obviously with the connection you first talked about, but I think it’s possibly more than that.

Well obviously it is a private collection so almost by definition private collections have strong points and weaker points that some of which is to do simply with the art collectors taste, or the collectors budgets or whatever it is and actually the beauty of being able to show it here is in the same way that anybody hanging paintings within their house. There are spaces where you would put the most important pictures and there are secondary spaces where you would put lesser pictures and in a way I think that’s why it works very well here, is that the house sort of flattens out what might be in a gallery setting a certain unevenness as there are things which are more important and less important and we can use the spaces in the house to sort of, not disguise, but to sort of even out the collection. Even the lesser works look fine wherever they are whereas if it was just cheek by jowl in a conventional gallery those peaks and troughs would be much more obvious…

And was Pérez approached for this?

No so what happened is that he has this much bigger art collection and another aspect of it had been exhibited at the Jacquemart-André museum in Paris previously and so both sides were happy with how that had gone, and then the Jacquemart-André was talking to him about what other aspect of his collection could be turned into an exhibition and this idea of his Victorian pictures came about and it was quite a bold thing for the Jacquemart-André to do because French public remains pretty sceptical about Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian pictures so it was quite an bold idea of showing them, but it was enormously successful there and then it became the Jacquemart-André took on the negotiation of a European tour so they approached the venue in Rome and a venue in Madrid and then they wanted it to come to London and so they came and saw the house and immediately the only way it could be done would be for us to take down virtually all our collection to make way for it because there was no other way of accommodating it. They put it to Mr. Pérez Simón if he was happy for it to come here but we know he had been herein the past so did know the house and given there were these six Leighton pictures in the collection there seemed a so he was happy with it but really all the organisational side was with the Jacquemart-André in Paris rather than with him directly.

 

So they will obviously go back to Perez and we may never see them again!

Well that’s the thing I mean people have said you know is this a prelude to him selling them but there’s absolutely no indication that that is the case. They are going back to Mexico and they hang on the walls of, I think, various houses. Given that they’ve now had considerable airing it’s completely unknown as to whether he will lend them out again. It’s possible this may stimulate an American tour but it’s extremely possible that he will feel that he’s shown them in public and now he wants to enjoy them! And then who knows, nobody again is sure whether his intention is in the end to build and create a museum in which his entire collection will be put or whether after his death it’s dispersed. It’s an unknowable thing so that’s why what we do know is that they are here right now and that many people should see it if they can.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day there was a circulatory and one or two of the Leighton’s themselves came back…

Absolutely and there is the one, quite a very nice little pastel drawing by Albert Moore which actually did belong to Leighton and that would be very nice if that somehow found its way back into our collection, but one can only hope.

Is there anything you wanted to say about the exhibition or to people who are maybe wondering whether or not to go?

Well I think the thing is, that there has been a number of exhibitions of Victorian Pre-Raphaelite art at the Tate: the cult of beauty exhibition which covers the same period, but I think what nobody will see is this quality of picture which is so contemporary, that this has actually been seen in a setting that shares the same set of values as the pictures do. Within the display the shutters enclose the house to try and give it a sort of massive sense of really being for visitors, to really get into this environment and draw from the pictures.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888, oil on canvas, The Pérez Simón collection, Mexico
© Studio Sébert Photographes

For more information please visit: http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/LeightonHouseMuseum/AVictorianObsession.aspx 

A Victorian Obsession runs until the 29th March 2015.

 

By Heather Wells

London, The Information Capital by Heather Wells

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Questions about London?

Which borough of London is the happiest?

Which boroughs spend the most and the least amount of time online?

Where in London are you most likely to find young singles?

Which boroughs have been the most consistent in their political voting in the last three elections?

Which borough has the highest fertility rate?

Which underground line has had the most incidents?

Intrigued? I was too.

In a new book brought out by Particular Books, London is presented to us in stunning maps and graphs covering nearly every aspect of our lives: gathering data on our relationships, our spending, our commute, our tweets, our happiness and so much more, in relation to where we live in the capital.

The makers of the book: Dr. James Cheshire a geographer and Oliver Uberti a visual journalist and designer make data look enticing – to take one example – when you see the patterns and journeys of the London commute in all it’s glory, their artistic graph shows off the beauty of the chaotic order.

This is the type of book you can peruse in the dark wintry months over and over. You can only imagine and get a sense of how much research and data collection must have been behind this project. It is a fascinating dissection of London life as we know it, but it won’t be long before another book like this will be required.

London, The Information Capital by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti, 2014, published by Particular Books (Penguin) available to order here

 

 

Interview with Marlene Johnson, Head of Enid Blyton Estate by Heather Wells

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H: You/Hachette must have been very thrilled to acquire the rights to the Enid Blyton Estate (excluding Noddy) and that was in 2012. What does this personally mean to you as the MD of Hachette’s children’s books?

M: Well I have to say it was a commercial purchase but also for me it was an emotional one. When I heard that it was on the market, I immediately said to my boss, “We really must acquire it,” not only for Hachette, but also for Britain. I couldn’t bear the thought of another great British author or British invention falling into foreign hands, quite frankly. And so for me, that was as important as whether or not it was a good deal. I mean, the fact that it has been a good deal, obviously, is sort of the icing on the cake, but you know I think it’s very, very important that not everything is the same in Britain.

H: Yes, that’s a good point. I like the way you distinguish both sides of that. And obviously Neal Street Productions – fantastic film company – they’re taking it on, and I imagine it’s going to be quite a challenge. What kind of things do you see as being a real challenge with your knowledge of the books?

M: Well, I was listening, I don’t know if you’ve heard the interview on Radio Four the other morning…. CGI now overcomes most of the challenges that would have existed. So, I think because technology has moved forward, I think that the producers are going to have a field day actually. I think that they’re going to have a ball. And in fact the interest that actually arose immediately after the interviews is amazing, with people just saying, “oh you know I remember those books from my childhood, I couldn’t wait to read them to my own children.” No, we’re talking about directors and producers who’ve lived and breathed it themselves. I think we’re going to have something pretty amazing here, actually.

H: Absolutely, you’re right, the digital and advances are just going to be amazing.

M: It’s CGI, they can mix, they can actually mix live action, can’t they? And animation.

H: Exactly, and I’ll definitely check out the interview on Radio 4. How much involvement does the publisher have with the film itself?

M: With the film itself?

H: Yes. Do you have any meetings where you can input on behalf of the Enid Blyton Estate?

M: Well contractually. What they have to do is actually make it in keeping with the spirit of the books. We have other books that have been made in films, and filmmaking is a very collaborative process. They do tend to collaborate with publishers, but I would say more collaborative amongst themselves. They’ll bring in a team of people who will try and write the books, try and make something spark, keep them together for a few months, if it doesn’t work, they disband that group and create another one. So I don’t think we’ll have as much as we would probably like, but if Neal Street are anything like DreamWorks, which is the other film company we’ve got experience of, it’s actually about carrying you with them, and I can imagine that Neal Street will want to carry us with them.

H: Great. I’ve actually got a copy that my colleague has brought in – it’s the most beautiful copy of The Enchanted Wood, which she read when she was a child, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. And it’s in all its glory with all of these wonderful, wonderful illustrations. I must admit, I was more of a Famous Five girl when I was younger, but did you read this book when you were child, or, I don’t know if you have children yourself, do you read that to them?

M: It’s to my nephews and nieces actually, reading it to them. Because again, I was a Famous Five girl. And everyone, you know the whole thing with Enid Blyton, if you mention her name, then people will tell you who their favourite characters were or what their favourite series was.

H: Which brings me on – do you have a favourite character? From any of the Enid Blyton stories I guess.

M: Well, I just love, I love Saucepan Man. I think he’s very funny, he bumbles about, he’s always clattering, he can’t see things properly, he always misunderstands. He’s the perfect character for comic relief actually, I think he’s quite hilarious. And then I love Jane Washalot, the way she swishes the water.

H: I know, aren’t they just great characters with great names?!

M: I’m excited to see what happens with this film. I think we’ve all got it in our mind’s eye.

H: Enid Blyton has being criticized for various things, as being racist, as not being necessarily affectionate to children. Do you think that there are parts of this book, or anything that might be un-PC or anything that would obviously have to change for the film that couldn’t be represented?

M: Well actually, nothing that springs to mind actually. Because it is, I know lots of books are set in lands of make believe, but I think this actually can be followed quite faithfully. I think that books are written in their time, and I think we must all accept that. And when publishers edit them to make them more relevant, I think that should be accepted too. It’s about sensitively updating I think, rather than completely changing the flavour, but I think Blyton’s longevity is a testament to an absolutely wonderful storyteller. Par excellence. And thanks to the estate papers, it is very, very clear that she was a very cool businesswoman who knew precisely what she was doing. She would hire her illustrators, she knew exactly the person she wanted to go after. And she had publishers who published, they weren’t going to take her work and distort it in any way. I think she was probably the first visionary publisher actually, from what I can see.

H: I guess the bit that I find really, really interesting is the language updates that have happened to the Famous Five books. The example of, an obvious one, of changing ‘mother” and “father” to “mum” and “dad” for more modern day readers. Is that something that’s done for the parents because they might not buy books because they’re using old-fashioned language? Like “she must be jolly lonely all the time,” rather than “she must be lonely.” How important do you think these changes are to the language, and do you think that anything is lost in that?

M: We are very, very clear. We keep two versions in print. We have the original versions which happen to be updated, and then we have the more contemporary versions, which have. They’re updated so that children understand what they’re reading. We change references from things like “pullover” to “jumper.” And as you say, “mother and father” to “mum and dad.” It certainly doesn’t change the meaning of the story, it’s just little bits of dialogue. The story really does ring true, but for those wonderful Blyton enthusiasts, the original texts are also available. And she’ll remember that, so people can chose.

H: That pleases me to know that the original is there if people want to buy that, but also if they want to have the more updated version, then there’s that option. And I think that’s something that actually represents publishing today. That you do have to welcome these changes, and you do have to more forwards, and be looking towards the future, and children of our day and age but equally to respect, in many ways, the original. So I just wondering if you, working in children’s publishing, whether there was a children’s writer, other than Enid Blyton, that you think is of the same calibre or who has that wonderful imaginative world for children and for adults, as well really?

M: Well I think that sadly the only true challenger to Enid Blyton, with reputation and with self to match on the younger end, is Roald Dahl. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but his characters, Matilda, the Oompa Loompas…

H: And when you think about those films, they stay with you, don’t they? Matilda I’m thinking of, and that chocolate cake you see in that scene! You never really forget Mrs. Trunchball…

M: No you don’t, do you?! They’re just quite wonderful. I don’t know if there’s any current writers doing it. I’ll give a plug to another one of our authors, Cressida de Camel who has written How to Train Your Dragon. She has the most wonderful characters in her books. Stoic the Vast, the father, and Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who feels he will never stand up to or meet his expectations… Toothless, the alter ego, this little dragon… I think she’s a wonderful storyteller. I think it will be very, very interesting to see what she does afterward because she’s got a wonderful imagination. I think that more often than not though the characters are pretty real, aren’t they today? Not many imaginary writers going on.

H: Yes. That’s true as well.

M: Roald Dahl is the other one, isn’t he?

H: Yes, with those wonderful illustrations too!

H: Neal Street Productions –they’ve given us Call the Midwife and The Hollow Crown. I loved The Hollow Crown; I thought that was one of the best things I’ve seen on TV. This is truly a great opportunity and we can expect great things. Do you know any details or are you not allowed to give any? Such as the release date?

M: I’m afraid I actually don’t have any details. I’m sure that Neal Street in time will start revealing what they’re doing. At the moment, they quite rightly are keeping everything close to their chests. The reaction has been really quite wonderful. I mean Sam Mendes has got the stage production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory under his belt. He’s just done James Bond. Actually Neal Street is another wonderful example of real Britishness, and a great British production company doing films on a great British export. The films that are really making it at the moment, the top twenty films of all time, are actually family films. For example, Alice and Wonderland, Toy Story, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings – now they’re a mix of CGI live action, so I actually think they’re just going to do the most amazing job. I can’t wait actually, I have to say.

H: Me too, me too! It’s very exciting. It’ll be the perfect Christmas themed thing to watch, wouldn’t it really?

M: It will! So, I don’t have any details, but I am sure they’re going to do something amazing. They don’t do a lot of films, but what they do do are crème-de-la-crème.

H: Yes absolutely. We’ll keep our eyes peeled.

As The London Magazine, which has been going since 1732, everything for us is really built on our reputation and producing high quality writers and writing over and over again. That’s what we do, we work towards keeping that reputation and keeping that history going. I just thought that because of the prestige that Enid Blyton has, people are so well connected with what she does, and they don’t necessarily have to have read the books even, because it’s worked into our culture. So if they haven’t read the books, people would probably still go and see the film, just purely because of how good quality you could expect it to be. So what do you think this tells us about the importance of reputation and how this is affected over time?

M: Well, I think very, very few writers, either adults or children’s writers, stand the test of time. I think all the publishers who have published Enid Blyton over the years, she has been published now for some seventy years, the publishers themselves have great longevity, but they have an enormous sense of rite and understanding and ownership. When we brought the estate, I decided that again, we are custodians of the great British treasure, and whilst publishers who have license driven from us know about publishing, we would only give approval to covers and art stuff and all that sort of thing if we believed that they were in keeping with the voice and with the spirit of Enid Blyton does. I think in the past, before we took it over, people have experimented. There was something like the Famous Five on the Cake, which was a bit of a disaster, and people went off on a tangent. There is an ownership and a belief that she was a great storyteller, she spoke to children in a way that they understood and how they saw the world. And I think all of Blyton’s publishers, she got very big publishers in both France and Germany and Scandinavia and India. They all believed that the essence of Blyton’s work has to be retained. The illustrations haven’t ever been outlandish. We actually re-released the Famous Five with contemporary covers. Those authors, led by Quintin Blake and Emma Tutinson Clark and Chris Rezale, they were so proud because of course this was part of their British heritage. So I think it’s having an empathy with what the author is doing, and a pride in being able to work with it, but at all times retaining the essence of the story and magic that they branched off of. It’s about keeping true, keeping true to what it’s about. It’s actually about jolly good adventure. Laughs. I think Enid Blyton was also amazing, I know that Helena Bonham Carter film did not portray her in a good light, but she was a businesswoman you know, right from the very, very beginning. She would introduce characters, Moon-face made an appearance in a book in 1936, in the Yellow Fairy book and then she brought him in in The Big Wave, surtitle The Enchanted Wood. So she cross-fertilized, she introduced characters, she properly got feedback from the children because she was interviewing them once a week. She got so much feedback directly from the children, directly from the users of her book. So what did it say? It says that she was a true professional, and she published completely to her market, and what her publishers have done is honoured that passion and dedication and not wavered from it. They have not wavered from it.

H: I think we’re very, very lucky to have these treasures.

M: They are national treasures, aren’t they?

H: Yes absolutely. And to be a part of that as well, obviously from your side working at the publishers, it’s important and you’re doing what everybody wants, which is to keep that alive and to keep passing that on, because that’s essentially what these books deserve. They deserve to be passed on through to our generations, and it’s really exciting being a part of that. Obviously at TLM we don’t work with children’s literature, but we still strive to do something similar from our side.

M: Yes there are far too many books published, as we know, today. Sadly, most of them sink without trace. Again, what I think’s very interesting with a lot of these new publications, Enid Blyton may slightly have gone out of flavour from time to time, I think there was a time in the ‘70s where everyone was having a pop at her, but the public always loved her, it was teachers who thought she wasn’t PC. The books have never, ever gone out of print, you know.

H: Wow, that’s amazing, isn’t it?

M: That is amazing, because I think if books do go out of print then usually you’ve just completely lost your audience. I think John Williams did his Stoner, that’s quite something too

H: Oh that’s a wonderful book, isn’t it?

M: It is a wonderful book!

H: Once I read that, I just thought, “Gosh if he can write a book this good, I’ve got to read the other books,” and I’ve not actually done that yet, but that is a real find of a book. And it’s become popular again when it’s been out, when was it, the ‘60s, ‘70s it was published I think?

M: Yeah I think it was the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. Early ‘70s I think it was.

H: But now it’s coming right back in. It’s so funny how these waves happen with these books.

M: But that’s really unusual. I can’t think of many books that have done that. That have gone completely and then come back. I would recommend Butcher’s Crossing, you have to work a little bit to get through the first fifty pages, but once you’re through them, because you wonder what you’re reading. It’s a wonderful story of a boy coming of age, and how he does it by joining some buffalo hunters in the west.

H: It’s another book to add to the long list of books to read, isn’t it!

M: I know, I know. But the other thing with Blyton, they all said, “Oh one reason she went out of fashion is because it wasn’t good literature.” Actually, they’re stories, and it’s stories that prevail.

H: Absolutely. Well, that rounds things up very nicely, hearing some kind of story from you and your perspective on this. I think I’m going to go read another story now from my friend’s book!

Marlene Johnson

The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Trafalgar Studios II

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The Trials of Oscar Wilde is currently showing for its last week at Trafalgar Studios, formerly Whitehall Theatre. It is co-written by John O’Connor and Merlin Holland, the latter being the only Grandson of Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde’s downfall began with The Marquis of Queensbury (the father of Wilde’s younger lover Lord Alfred Douglas aka ‘Bosie’) when he left a visiting card at the Albemarle Club addressed to ‘Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite’ [sic]. This in turn led to Wilde’s rash and short-sighted decision to take Queensbury to court, which as we know worked against him and eventually resulted in his conviction of two years hard labour.

As soon as we – the audience members – take a seat in the small intimate studio, we become the jury on Wilde’s trial. Extracts from the original transcript in the libel case are used, which brings that period in 1895 into the present day, and it has since become one of the most high-profile court cases.

This is a three-man play with some superb acting from all three actors: John Gorick, Rupert Mason and William Kempsell. John Gorick plays Mr. Wilde throughout whereas the other two actors swap acting roles. John Gorick plays Wilde with such conviction it is as if Wilde stands before us in all his genius and wit. There are a great many quotes and passages spoken for literary or philosophical lovers.

For example, the sensual letters from Wilde to Bosie:

‘It is a marvel that those red-roseleaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing’ and ‘You are the divine thing I want, the thing of grace and beauty’

Reading material from Wilde’s works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, and ‘contributions’ to journals/magazines as ‘evidence’ (as it was in the trial) is an insight for us of course, but Oscar Wilde defends that he doesn’t write for moral purposes, that these are his thoughts about literature and art, not life. He makes a clear distinction between the experience of the artist, and anyone who is thereby not an artist. The justification comes from his art: ‘I think it is perfectly natural for any artist to admire intensely and love a young man. It is an incident in the life of almost every artist.’

The play portrays two very opposing sides: the creative, artistic mind of Wilde versus the cold, righteous and austere tone of the trial hearing. There’s a great fluctuating between sides, but one can’t help but feel that Wilde gets the better of the courts solely through his remarkable, subverting use of language. Rarely does he answer Mr. Carson, the defence attorney with a straight answer. That is of course until language fails him and as Wilde’s grandson says: ‘Wilde effectively talks himself into prison.’

At times, the play is humorous but of course the accusations are far from light-hearted. The success of this production lies in the rather neutral stance where one comes out of the play not really knowing how to judge Oscar Wilde, but to form our own opinions based on the evidence presented to us.

by Heather Wells

http://www.trafalgar-studios.co.uk/ on until 8th November 2014

 

 

 

Acciuga, 343 Kensington High Street

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Edward Lucie-Smith invited The London Magazine to Acciuga, the Italian restaurant in Kensington celebrating its one-year anniversary yesterday.

Acciuga means ‘anchovy’ in Italian and suddenly everywhere you notice the little fish logo on the menu and artwork on the wall.

Down the road from our HQ we arrive at the not too small, not too large restaurant owned by Guglielmo Arnulfo.

But the main artwork on the walls is the work of Italian pop-artist Andy Fumagalli who stands out a mile in his heavily patterned trouser suit.

Upon arrival trays of Bellini’s were to hand to the vast and cosmopolitan guests flowing in.

Edward introduced us to Jason Colchin-Carter, the founder of Isis Phoenix Arts. Then he introduced us to his friend Della Howard, benefactor of the Wallace collection, dressed in an embroidered floral long summer coat, which looked like it could have been from the V&A alongside accessorises to match. After an elaborate and fascinating conversation, it so happened that her brother-in-law is Sir Michael Howard, hailed as the greatest living historian in Britain.

Finally we met graduate art student, Anya Myagkikh, born in Moscow, but now living in London, a walking artwork with red hair, red lips and a black headband with pompoms. But it was her cotton embroidered book-clutch bag that fascinated us all: Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky – we all wanted one!

A short speech followed in which the owner made a great comparison between the creative similarities between both food and art and after the privilege of tasting their summer menu, this was very much agreed.

 

by Heather Wells

http://ghige89.wix.com/acciuga

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

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Sebastian Barry unfailingly gives us novels that display great craft and depth such as The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Annie Dunne, A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture. This is not to mention his array of remarkable plays including Hinterland, The Pride of Parnell Street, The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (shown in a wonderful production on at the Southwark Playhouse in 2012) to name a few, and which mark him as one of the best living Irish playwrights. His latest novel did not disappoint.

This is a novel rooted in story telling and place, or rather as is a common theme with Barry: the character’s struggle(s) to grasp a sense of place. The Irish protagonist Jack McNulty is Barry’s latest creation who serves in the British army during the Second World War. But Jack is a wanderer through and through who travels the world in all kinds of roles as well as being a soldier: he is a Jack-of-all-trades but a master of none – temporary in every sense of the word.

The dramatic opening chapter is set in Accra, Africa long after the war and far from Jack’s hometown Sligo, Ireland, and it is from here that Jack is writing his memoirs – a useful narrative technique. The scene is then set to recall a lifetime of events. Readers of Barry have come to expect that there will be always be a great sadness that permeates all of his novels and there is little the reader can do to shield themselves from this fact: Barry’s novels are tragic.

Back in Ireland before the war in 1922, Jack meets his sweetheart Mai Kirwan, who is described as a great beauty of Sligo. Their honeymoon in Dublin is short but a blissful moment in time; every afternoon they go to the pictures and ‘it was suddenly as if our marriage was a shell on the stormy sea from which she was going to step, Venus renewed, ready for her second life.’ Sadly their ‘second life’ is not quite what they expected. Even the bounty of their courting days is overshadowed by a bad omen with Mai’s father warning her off Jack. Barry too warns us early on.

Although much of the novel’s focus is on Jack and his actions, including his liability for the (un)happiness of his wife, Mai is the far more compelling character. Her deeply tragic portrayal in the novel is less about the effect Jack has on her, and more about the troubled person that Mai already is, even before she marries Jack. Take their wedding day as an example – one which is perhaps at once the most bleakly romantic and melancholy wedding day ever to be described in literature – the trail left as Mai flees the altar: her veil on the floor ‘like a spider’s web cleared out of God’s mansion’, the gold band and finally Mai, ‘a white ghost in the sheeting rain…her lovely wedding dress looked like white seaweed on her.’ She says to Jack ‘I took fright, I took fright.’

Having just lost her father and as Jack narrates: he ‘felt the furnace of grief in her’, Mai is both weakened and vulnerable. Jack describes her as ‘the absolute child’ and rather revealingly says that ‘I felt like a doctor’ around her during the immediate time when she loses her father. This happens before the wedding and it soon becomes clear that Mai is still very much a child and when Jack abandons her, frequently away from their home and their children, the impact that this has on her is deeply detrimental.

Jack is an alcoholic and this also dangerously influences Mai to drink. However, Mai is unstable from the beginning. What is most poignant about their relationship is that they don’t know how to help each other, but yet there’s no question about their love for each other. Mai never really reveals how she is feeling to her husband, but does so instead to her friend Queenie – which is not necessarily an uncommon problem in marriage – yet when Queenie informs Jack about Mai’s disturbing words, he dismisses his wife’s problems, ignoring them as if by doing so they would go away.

The other compelling relationship in the novel is between Jack and his servant Tom Quaye when they are overseas in Ghana, who like Jack also has an estranged wife. The shared comradeship is a refreshing part of the story every so often, from the domestic and oppressive story of his wife and children.

Looking at the novel as part of its wider family (Jack’s brother is Eneas in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and his other brother Tom is married to Roseanne who is the main character in The Secret Scripture) certainly adds another thread and I would recommended but it doesn’t mean that the book cannot be read exclusively.

 

by Heather Wells 

Nolia’s Gallery

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Upon kind invitation, Jessica Reid (Marketing Assistant) and Heather Wells (Production Manager) went along to a very welcoming gallery in Southwark, near Southbank, called Nolia’s Gallery. The place is run by a vibrant Malaysian female artist called Nolia, who also owns another gallery – we are told opposite Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant.

The downstairs gallery held the ‘Malaysian Eye’ exhibition displaying fine art by 38 Malaysian artists. Waiting for the event to commence, we had a look upstairs where Undergraduate work from the borough was displayed in the café/restaurant run by one of Nolia’s daughters.  We also stumbled across her venue where she typically hosts jazz nights.

Back downstairs Khairul from MATRADE (Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation) gave an introduction to the event, taking questions from the audience. In his talk he explained the history of Malaysian art and how one major aspect of trade is the promotion of artists.

© Stefan lubomirski de Vaux www.stefanlubo.com

Among us were people from all spheres of creativity including Brazilian multimedia artist Marcia Mar, photographer Stefan Lubomirski, British filmmaker John Park and we even had a face reader (!), called Carole Railton.

Nolia spoke about her diverse background in the arts, as well as music and told us her passion for encouraging and nurturing new and young talent, something that The London Magazine equally supports.

© Stefan lubomirski de Vaux www.stefanlubo.com

We were then taken by taxi to Tukdin restaurant, the best Malaysian restaurant as recommended by our new Malaysian friends! We were treated to chicken satay, sweet and sour fish, garlic chicken, fragrant rice and spicy beef. This was finished off with banana fritters and caramel icecream. It was at this point that Nolia told us that her daughter, Zoe Devlin was on this year’s X Factor.

A very pleasant afternoon with special thanks to Why Not? (PR), Nolia’s Gallery (and Nolia herself) and Khairul and Rose from MATRADE.

 

An Interview with Peter Stjernström

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The London Magazine interviews Peter Stjernström, the Swedish author of Enn Mann and The Big Newsmaker and now The Best Book in the World, to be published this September by Hesperus Press who gave us the best-selling book The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.  

Do you think that the best book in the world exists? Or is it purely subjective?

I my opinion there are no absolute truths about quality. What you experience depends on your own references, the cultural climate of our times and such things. So, it’s up to you to decide which book is the best in the world. You’re in charge!

Your character Eddie X has a multi-dimensional persona. What do you think is Eddie’s downfall or major flaw?

He has built his career on love, he is a master at describing it and promoting it. I have met a lot of his kind over the years and they’re almost always terrible at even practicing the most basic common sense. And they really don’t know anything about the reciprocity of love. Eddie’s problem is that he can no longer hide who he is. The stress from the book project cracks him open.

The book took a bit of a dark turn in the basement scene – for what reason(s) did you choose to do this?

Titus is an alcoholic. Sadly, they always seem to have to hit rock bottom before they can find themselves again. It’s not only a cliché. If you look at an addict with your emotions shut off he or she can almost look funny, right? But it’s not. It’s a matter of life or death. I wanted to spend time in that area, between sorrow and laughter. Between on and off.

Does a breathalyzer activating computer actually exist? And if not, do you think it should?

No, but hopefully we will see a lot of cars in the future with that kind of equipment.

Do you need as much discipline to write a book as Titus did in the book?

Hey, Titus is only a character in a book. (And yes – I look like him, I think like him and I work like him!)

Do you think Titus and Eddie would ever have been able to produce The Best Book in the World together?

I leave that question to the readers to decide.

Do you think that some things can be lost in a book that has been translated?

Generally speaking, I guess it might. But in this case, from my Swedish pidgin point of view I think the translator Rod Bradbury has done a tremendous job.

The book conveys a very close relationship between publisher and author, such as the one Astra has with both Eddie and Titus, do you think this is a true representation of modern day publishers in your experience?

I see a great variety. But overall I think the relationships are becoming more distant because of time shortage and increasing focus on economy.

The Bookseller has called your book ‘a quirky comedy’ but the book also appears to give quite a bit of moral instruction – was that intentional?

Every single word in the book is there for a reason. However, and this is the truth, I have absolutely no intention to point out any moral guidelines.

Finally, I find it interesting that you tired of your career in the financial industry and gave it up to write – was that always the plan, and is being a writer what you hoped it would be?

I never dared to think it or say it out loud. When I finally did my life changed drastically.

For more information please visit:

www.hesperuspress.com

The Best Book in the World is due to be published at the end of September 2013

The Hundred Year Old Man by Jonas Jonasson

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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rod Bradbury (Hesperus Press)

The Hundred-Year-Old Man is the story of Allan Karlsson who escapes from the drab nursing home on the day of his 100th birthday. Out the window he goes, still in his slippers and there the adventure begins. He travels all over the world, meets the most powerful figures of the twentieth-century and even plays a central part in the major historical events of the twentieth-century. The story is ludicrous. But from the first few pages I was drawn into this whirlwind tale of exhilarating scandal and crime.

Jonasson has created a very likeable character who I forgave very quickly for the appalling crimes he committed. Allan Karlsson is carefree and has a childlike quality about him, which perhaps explains why I find him blameless. This extraordinary centenarian makes us laugh, and yet Allan does not think of himself as a funny man, so we are perhaps laughing more at him than with him.

This Scandinavian dark comedy novel is an International bestseller and has already been made into a film to be released this year before it hits UK screens in 2014. If you haven’t read it already, then you should get ready to meet Allan and all his associates on their big adventure: it includes an elephant, guns, vodka and more vodka – and that is just the tip of the iceberg!

Who better to span the last century than a 100-year-old man called Allan Karlsson?

 

by Heather Wells

 

NW by Zadie Smith

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This very jazzy blue and red striped hardback is a rather fragmented read. The structure of the book is divided into four main sections for each of the four characters. Moreover, Smith is experimental with form: snapshot sentences, emboldened text, short sections, white space on the page; all of which add to the unconventional reading of the work. The point Smith makes is that there is no real story here, nor is she working along one single plot line. Instead we find ourselves reading a series of complex experiences, memories, recollections and character developments concerning the past, present and future, all at once. It is Smith’s triumph to pull that off coherently.

In case you haven’t worked it out yet the title NW is an abbreviation for the North West part of London. Being a ‘W’ Londoner myself, I was intrigued to read about pockets of London that I know very little about. Many of the reviews of this highly anticipated novel (Zadie Smith was nominated in Granta’s Best Young Novelists a second time this year) have already picked up on the fact that this is a novel deeply concerned with locality and place: Willesden and Kilburn mainly. Smith manages to mesh place with character so well that NW London bus routes, road names and council estates serve to validate the characters’ experiences, their progression (or lack of) but vitally – Indeed, their own existence.

There are four separate characters in the book; Leah, Natalie, Nathan and Felix but the London council estate where they all grew up, connects them all. This is a gritty urban novel and I admire Smith for her verisimilitude. I don’t want to read about the success stories or the high-risers; I want to read about the struggles, the all-too-real street culture, in which for some, the crushing inability to escape or move away from your estate is a reality.

by Heather Wells

David Bowie Is at the V&A

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The ‘David Bowie Is’, currently on at the V&A until mid-August. I went to the late show on a Friday after work, a stone’s throw away from TLM HQ with my press pass and donned the cushy V&A headphones. Thinking the exhibition would be a minor excursion on the way home was a mistake. I was there for about three hours and when I left I still felt I needed another visit. It is a phenomenal show. Go and allow the whole day.

‘Rude people are rude people, not because I’m rude’

One of the first quotes I read, was typically Bowie – gnomic, self assured, trickster talk.

It was soon clear that this is a thorough exhibition of the multi faceted man. So much so, that it becomes a show (yes a show) about Bowie’s role as a proginator, as an arbiter, as a provocative, clownish smith of popular culture. He visits art galleries all around the world, reads lots of books, sees lots of films, goes to theatre, engages with the avant-garde, talks to people, and all of this inspiration – every influence and experience gets put into one big stew.

The exhibition is interactive, in typical V and A fashion, and suitably fitting for one of the most eclectic figures of pop culture. There are peepholes in the walls showing other worlds, videos, all laced and Bowie music. You simply can’t do this exhibition without the headphones. You are plugged in to the exhibition. Plugged in to Bowie.

Other figures surface in the exhibition, from all different creative spheres – those who have influenced Bowie. These include Andy Warhol, Dali, Edie Sedgwick, Bob Dylan, J. G. Ballard (Crash), C. Isherwood, W. Burroughs, Brecht, Blake, Stanley Kubrick (notably A Clockwork Orange).

‘I wanted to be trendy, not a trend’

Most people probably know that Bowie has a permanently dilated pupil after being punched in the eye at school. The exhibition shows how literature, art and music are arrayed in the kaleidoscopic spectrum of Bowie’s skewed, magpie vision.

The most visually striking artefacts are the costumes, especially the quilted two-piece Starman suit, which Bowie described as ‘ultra-violence in Liberty fabrics!’

The exhibition is all about identity. It restates the fascination of Bowie as a cipher, a man who has adopted multiple personas. At the same time he inhabits them all from Ziggy Stardust to Hamlet. A mime video shows Bowie warning against the dangers of adopting another character. In the starburst of fame it is often impossible to take off the mask.

The exhibition space is immensely pleasing on the visual level. Books are suspended in mid-air. They are spread open like paper birds. Spotlights are angled to flood the floors and the ceilings. The headphones are triggered so that snatches of music flare as you move through different spaces. For a moment, as I sit down, everyone immediately looks more trendy in their headphones, as if they are yearning spaceman acolytes.

Bowie’s thoughts and ideas throng my head. At this moment I understand his quest for amplification. At this moment I see that all the cocaine and the sexual experimentation was a part of that. We are all bidden to dress up and express our sexual possibilities.

It is the spectator and not life, that art actually mirrors

Towards the end of the exhibition there is a freakishly real puppet which has a projection of Bowie’s face. We all get a kiss and a wink if we stand at the right angle. This is but the herald of a series of huge screens and mannequins. Bowie is all around you. You find yourself in a grand theatre show.

As Annie Lennox said:

‘Thank God for David Bowie who lifted us from the drabness of suburbia… thank you Darling’

by Heather Wells

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

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Julian Barnes has given us an extraordinary book, biography and memoir in one.

In part one of three, entitled ‘The Sin of Height’ we are immersed into the history of ballooning and man’s immorality for striving to reach such unnatural heights. As Barnes says, unlike the birds:

‘men and women had long legs and empty backs and God made them
like that for a reason.’

The thread throughout the book is that when ‘you put together two things that have not been put together before … the world is changed.’ In the first instance this is ballooning and photography, which as the opening chapter explains, requires a certain kind of mastery. Today we think nothing of photographs taken from extreme heights, but the first images must have been spectacular, I imagine like when colour television first began.

Barnes notes that we live on a level, but that as humans we aspire; ‘some soar in art, others with religion, most with love’. Inevitably then, there has to be a crash landing. The balloon works as a metaphor for life. Barnes is an uxorious man (a word he likes to use a lot) and devotes the book to his wife, Pat who he soared with for thirty years of marriage. Her death has caused Barnes to plummet from the balloon.

Barnes bravely unbears his feelings of grief, abandonment, longing and mourning, but he refrains from sharing the secrets of their lives, such as his wife’s last words and rightly so. I agree with Barnes that grief and the experience of death is something you can only understand if you go through it yourself.

He reveals his contempt at the insensitive and lack of understanding remarks from his friends, who have not grasped the desolate crater that is filled only with the ‘inconsolable longing.’

It is extremely poignant when Barnes quotes a passage from one of his early fictions when he imagines for the sake of one of his characters what the death of a loved one feels like. It is spot on, but of course now it is reality and far from fiction.

Left only with his ‘caverns of memory’ and even those don’t always serve him well, Barnes says that he still talks to her as though she were there – after all she was the fabric of his life and they still continue to soar together …

 

By Heather Wells

PAGES, by Heather Wells, Production Manager

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… is a newly-launched online book retailer that encourages and inspires independent thought.

They offer a very selective choice of books by independent and self-publishers, not just literary but books on architecture and cookery too, so as to offer you a wide range of brilliantly written and illustrated books that you may not necessarily find at the big book retailer.

With less choice than a large retail store, more focus is on the selection they offer and I notice a nicely illustrated book, re-issued by Slightly Foxed paperbacks called My Grandmothers and I written by Diana Holman-Hunt (and yes she is related to the Pre-Raphaelite artist, William Holman-Hunt who was her Grandfather). This is just one of many delights you can find at PAGES.

As well as sell books, PAGES also has an ongoing blog that aims to be a vibrant and interactive online community that drives real conversation about books from fiction to fashion to politics. With a strong social media and blog presence, PAGES aims to be the online meeting place for those who love books. I’m assuming if you’re reading this … that you do!

Visit:

http://www.the-pages.co.uk

 

 

Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition Preview and Ceremony by Heather Wells, Production Manager

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I arrive at Somerset House in the blistering sunshine, passing the Courtauld Gallery currently exhibiting Picasso’s early paintings and arrive at the West Wing Galleries to the right of the courtyard where I have been invited to the preview of the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition.

I am greeted by the event organisers and a lot of other people with swanky, high-tech cameras. Photos are being taken before we have even got into the exhibition. I feel on display.

As one tour finishes, another one starts. Michael Benson, from Candlestar Ltd and curator of the Exhibition gives a short introduction and points out three shortlisted photographers who will be joining us on the tour, and so we embark.

In the intimate exhibition space of the West Wing Galleries – formerly a tax office – the white light rooms couldn’t have a more diverse display of international photography. The rooms are divided into categories including professional and open competition entries. Photographs everywhere ‘familiar yet strange.’

The photographs that stood out were Jens Juul’s ‘Six Degrees of Copenhagen’, a series of black and white photos worked on the basis that the individual he snaps on camera will then suggest someone in their circle of family or friends who can then be photographed by him and so on. The result is a striking connection between figures that you wouldn’t necessary expect to be associated with each other.

The concept behind Alice Pavesi Fiori’s photographs intrigued me; the way that we all have expectations for our lives, whether that be to have a baby, get married, be promoted or even for something less life-changing, and the misty haze in these melancholic shots capture the waiting that we do everyday all the time for those expectations to be met. Ernest Goh’s photographs of chickens also provided for amusing viewing!

Alice Pavesi, Italy, 2013 Sony World Photography Awards

The walls in one room are entirely dedicated to William Eggleston, winner of the Outstanding contribution to photography. The all-American photos look eerily still. Through a rather speedy tour, I knew I would need to revisit each of the rooms.

The tour had ended and we were left to disperse ourselves, where I stumbled across Lin Chun Chung’s photo and literally gasped. My brain was going: How is this image made possible?! The image shows a bull-runner who is practically doing the splits as they try to reign in two running bulls – which are going in opposite directions –grasping the bull’s by their tails. It turns out the Taiwan photographer won first place for it in the National Award category. A woman had noticed my astounded reaction for she came up to me and asked me if I like the picture? I said ‘yes, it was really the only photograph that has forced me to draw breath.’ She then replied ‘Well, this is his image’ whilst pointing at a man I had not noticed behind me. I was so excited by this coincidence that I continued to voice my feelings to him of how impressed I was. It was then that I realised he didn’t speak English and the woman then translated my words of praise. When I asked how he managed to capture the image, the woman replied that Lin Chun Chung travelled in the sweltering heat to witness this annual, cultural festival held in a village in Indonesia and waited most part of the day to capture it. From my perspective, and no doubt from his and many others, it was well worth the, in hindsight, rather short wait.

As the clock fast-forwards to 7pm, I am now changed into a peplum dress ready for the official awards ceremony announcing all the winners of the Sony World Photography Exhibition Awards. Strolling down a red carpet outside the Hilton hotel in Park Lane, this is a glitzy and glam event.

All of the photographers are here to receive their trophy and have been shipped in from all over the world. A staggering 10,000 (approx) entries this year has made the Sony awards one of the largest and most well-recognised photography awards in the world and competition is fierce.

It was Andrea Gjestvang from Norway who won the prestigious L’Iris d’Or Award for her series of photographs depicting the young survivors of the Utoeya massacre in July 2011.

There are too many to mention, but one thing is for sure; photographs, like art have the capacity to give us a new perspective from a world that is our own, so that it appears ‘familiar but strange.’

Ernest-Goh, Singapore, 2013 Sony World Photography Awards

 

Cityread London by Heather Wells, Production Manager

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Cityread London is a campaign working closely with libraries to spread a love of books and reading to the widest possible audience throughout our capital.

This year, Cityread have chosen Sebastian Faulk’s novel A Week in December (recently reviewed by our Editor – Steven O’Brien on the TLM Book Club), which follows the lives of seven main characters across seven days in London amidst  the financial crash of 2007. The book explores themes including terrorism, reality TV and drug addiction. These themes in the novel are the starting point for Cityread’s events taking place during the April month. They want as many people, from the most far-reaching and unexpected corners to engage with literature: united by one book.

Bringing stories to life, Cityread has organised guided walks through the city such as the financial area – St Paul’s, The Bank of England, Millennium Bridge and the Stock Exchange, which can be booked in advance on the Cityread website:

http://www.cityreadlondon.org.uk/calendar.html

There are events taking place in most Boroughs, so be sure to take a look what’s happening in your area. Learn about the London Underground or join the Open Reading Group.

Visit:

http://www.cityreadlondon.org.uk/index.html

Sebastian Faulks will be in conversation tonight at The British Library as part of Cityread, but the tickets have now all been sold out.

Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition by Heather Wells

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The Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition is your chance to see some of the world’s best International and contemporary photography.
On from the 26 April – 12 May 2013 at Somerset House in London, you will be able to view a visual representation of the world in 2012 through the eyes of the successful photographers. There are 25 categories including fashion, wildlife, travel, landscape, portraits as well as current affairs, so there is something for everyone.
The Sony World Photography Award is recognised as one of the leading world photography competitions, celebrating the art of photography for the newest, most talented of photographers.
The exhibition is open on Friday 26th April, after the winners have been announced the day before at an awards ceremony in London.
The opening weekend will also coincide with World Photo London, one the UK’s most dynamic celebrations of photography.

Running from 26-28 April 2013, experts from across the photographic industry will give insights into the world of photography through a series of six PhotoTALKS covering street photography, photojournalism, fine art and much more.

The exhibition will also feature the winning and commended titles of the Kraszna-Krausz Book Awards for photography and moving image publications.

Fore furthur details visit:

www.worldphoto.org

North London Literary Festival by Heather Wells

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Several prize-winning authors and publishers will be in Hendon on the 26th and 27th March to attend a free two-day literary festival held at Middlesex University. The festival is hoping to engage lovers of literature in the local community with authors such as Andrew Simms and Lucy Caldwell with Faber in attendance. James Herbert OBE was due to appear at the festival, but having suddenly passed away, Middlesex University is to pay tribute to his life and work on the evening of Wednesday 27th.

Faber will give a talk on ‘how to get published’ with invaluable advise on the best way of doing this in todays market. There will also be a discussion entitled the ‘Small Publishing Forum’, ever-needed when trying to find your place in the fast changing world of print.

As well as this there will be a vibrant poetry slam – described as ‘a verbal battle between poets’. All this and more is on offer at this years North London Literary Festival.

The event is organised by students of the University and will be situated on the campus at  Middlesex University, The Burroughs, Hendon, NW4 4BT.

To find out more information, please visit their website:

http://northlondonlitfest.com

 

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