Sunday, 26 September 2010


Yangtze, The Long River

Saturday's Guardian Weekend magazine featured Nadav Kander's latest work following the Yangtze river in China.

Yangtze, The Long River documents the people and landscape along the banks of the river, and captures the changes that are happening in China at the moment: the large scale development, the tearing down and building up, migration, the way that history and progression is seen.

In Kander's own words:
After several trips to different parts of the river, it became clear that what I was responding to and how I felt whilst being in china was permeating into my pictures; a formalness and unease, a country that feels both at the beginning of a new era and at odds with itself. China is a nation that appears to be severing its roots by destroying its past in the wake of the sheer force of its moving “forward” at such an astounding and unnatural pace. A people scarring their country and a country scarring its people.
Although it was never my intention to make documentary pictures, the sociological context of this project is very important and ever-present. Do we have to destroy to develop? The scale of development in China has left most places unrecognisable. Many Chinese will never be able to visit the places where they grew up, because they no longer exist. China is progressing rapidly, and the landscape—both economically and physically—is changing daily. These are the photographs that can never be taken again.”
Many, many more pictures can be found on his website, and they are well worth a look.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


A blast from the past:

Oh, his back.

Friday, 17 September 2010


The person sitting next to me on the train this morning smelt exactly like him; the drawback of perfumes. God, it made my head spin.

Things that are good:
  • I watched a man hoovering the road outside my office. Why? How? No one knows.
  • I saw a man standing on a station platform holding one of those spools of wire that look like huge cotton reels. It made him look like he was actually really tiny, a Borrower, and this pleased me.
  • I went to a farmers' market yesterday and bought lots of english apples and plums. Even better, my boss has a plum tree and is bringing me in bagfuls of surplus plums. I am going to make a crumble tonight, I think.
  • I made the tastiest butternut squash and sage soup; I love autumn food. For anyone interested, the recipe is here.
  • I'm suddenly responsible for updating the news section of UK Feminista. It is a good responsibility but I'm worried I'm going to post up something controversial or wrong. Eep.

I am stuck in a music rut. I keep listening the the music I love most, and whilst I am definitely not bored of it, it would be nice to love something new. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Sunday, 12 September 2010


I love Yelena Bryksenkova's sketchbooks.

yes, yes I do.

Friday, 10 September 2010


"I think I just like seeing the best in humanity. If you believe in the inherent dignity of people, in justice and human rights, then feminism is for you. It says that rape isn't natural for men, that men aren't inherently violent, and that women aren't just naturally insecure about their bodies and other issues. The best of us is to be found in feminism. I find that hugely inspiring."
The wonderful and inspiring Kat Banyard, on what drives her activism. From The Guardian.


The Royal Observatory is currently showcasing the winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2010.

A Perfect Circle by Dhruv Arvind Paranjpye

Paranjpye's photograph shows an annular eclipse, which occurs when the moon is too far from the earth to completely cover the sun (as happens in a total eclipse).

This is such an amazing image. I love how the wispy, formless clouds - lit like they were painted by Turner - obscure the bright, hard circle of the sun.

Like many of the other astronomical photographs, I find this simultaneously compelling and unsettling. I can hardly believe that that pale ring is our sun - and then, that something so bizarre as the sun actually exists. I like being encouraged to see something to which I had grown (too) accustomed - the sun, space, stars and planets - as novel and weird and amazing again.

It is easy for the world to become a habit.

I am also reminded of a particular Rodchenko painting, Composition no. 61:

Rodchenko was inspired by images from old science books, and this one certainly has the feel of the moon and the sun, of eclipses.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


For over a decade, leading cellist Beatrice Harrison dueted with nightingales.

In 1922, she had moved to the Surrey countryside, to an isolated house surrounded by woodland. Practising in the garden one afternoon, she was amazed when a bird joined in with her song: it followed her own trills, staying in tune with the cello.

She persuaded Lord Reith, the director of the BBC, to send a crew to her garden to record this duet. It was to be the very first live outdoor broadcast and Reith - despite his objections of cost - could not resist.

A million people listened to this first recording, and Harrison was almost smothered with fan mail; the duet became an annual event, carrying on for twelve years until Harrison moved house. After that, the broadcasts featured the nightingales alone. The pieces are lovely and ethereal, marrying human music and bird song in a strange partnership.

The transmission from 1942, however, is more chilling: the live broadcast was pulled when duty engineer realised he could hear the hum of approaching aircraft - not what the BBC wanted to be broadcasting in wartime.

And that distant burring of engines records the British airforce on their way to raid Mannheim, part of the 'Thousand Bomber' policy that would see German towns - most notably Cologne - devastated.

Some of the recordings, including the one made in 1942, can be heard here.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


Apples I Have Eaten, by Jonathan Gerken
Jonathan Gerken chronicles 47 different varieties of apple gathered one autumn in California. Each apple was locally sourced, photographed and then eaten by Gerken - and he made an effort to find those apples not readily available in shops, like the Goldrush, Prarie Spry and Hidden Rose (good names).

This reminds me that it's nearly apple season. I cannot wait.

Monday, 6 September 2010


New (totally beautiful) glasses!

It feels so good to be able to see clearly again; I had forgotten that the world is not made of fuzzy edges and blurred pink ovals for faces.

I do worry that come the apocalypse I will be utterly useless: my glasses will break and I'll get eaten by a radioactive rat or something. I would probably have been equally useless living at any other point in history - tripping over people in a pleasure garden, messing up my needlework, misplaying the piano, accidently snubbing prospective suitors as I blundered past them in the street, half-blind... (for some reason I can only think of eighteenth century situations. The supervisors who taught me medieval history would be ashamed).

The earliest written record of using magnification to aid reading dates to the first century AD (Seneca the Younger writes, 'Letter, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe or glass filled with water'), my weak-eyeling ancestors had to wait a few hundred years for wearable glasses. A portrait of Cardinal Hugh de Provence, painted in 1352 by Tommaso da Modena, is the first pictorial evidence for eyeglasses:

Hey medieval dude, nice hat and specs. (And that is the cutting historical analysis that got me my degree in history.)

Friday, 3 September 2010


Yesterday my manager and I carried out a risk assement of our conference venue.

Our venue is attached to a church. Just outside the main hall, a tall, arched doorway opens onto stoneclad aisles and rows of pews, and framed icons decorate the walls.

There are three floors, serviced by a small, shaky-looking lift; standing inside it, my manager remarked that she pitied anyone stuck in this particular lift.

When I asked why, she pointed at a hatch. Every lift has one: a square door in the wall, with the red outline of a telephone drawn on it. A pretty important feature, you would think. I know I would like to be able to call for help if trapped in a lift.

She opened the hatch with a raised eyebrow. There was no emergency phone.

There was, however, a small icon of the Virgin Mary where the phone should have been.

I guess the venue owners have a different idea of who you can rely on for help in emergency situations.

Thursday, 2 September 2010


danse macabre

From the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle

Now waggles the leg, and now wriggles the thigh,

As the troop with strange gestures advance,

And a rattle and clatter anon rises high,

As of one beating time to the dance. - Goethe, Totentanz

My brain has been in my bones of late - maybe it is because it is already getting colder at night, and a chill has crept in past my flesh and settled in them. I've been drawn to all things skeletal, these lovely intricate illustrations in particular: they depict the dance of death, a popular motif in medieval Europe that reminded people of their mortality and the folly of human ambition; humans may construct social hierarchies, but we are all equal in death.

Book of Hours, Paris, c.1507

Dance of Death, Paris, 1486

Also, I love woodcuts. I wish books still had them.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010


I found The Voice Project site when a search for live footage of Joanna Newsom led to the above video. I love cover versions, love hearing songs sung in different ways (anyone have any favourites to recommend?) and so couldn't resist clicking through to the website.

The Voice Project is a nonprofit company, set up to support the work of women in Uganda pushing for peace.

For decades, children have been abducted by Joseph Kony's LRA and either forced into soldierhood or used by the group's fighters for sex. Those who escape may fear returning home, fearful of being punished for atrocities they were forced to commit.

Women in Northern Uganda have been banding together to create support groups and networks. And doing this, they sing. The songs travel by radio and word of mouth, with lyrics letting the former soldiers know they are forgiven and should come home.

Aiming to spread the word and support programmes on the ground, The Voice Project ask musicians to cover a song, which they record and place on their website. Money from donations, sponsors and advertisers goes to projects on the ground.

Singing seems basic and universal; as a species, we probably sang before we learned to speak. It can be such a powerful way to communicate. I hope these songs keep being sung.

Monday, 30 August 2010


Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Frank O'Hara

Sunday, 29 August 2010


There are no words left for us now. Everything I want to tell you - there is so much I want to tell you - is untranslatable, unpalatable: my mouth is incapable of shaping thoughts into words, of pushing them into the air between us.

Where do I go from here? I have been scouring poems, songs, trying to find the one that will let me explain what I am feeling. None work on their own, I want to stitch them together quiltlike - but I think that would render them meaningless. Change them to a hissing stream.

I want to be neat, surgical. I want to be clean as a cut from a sharp knife. I want to lay out my feelings out for you, categorised and labelled, like a cabinet of curiousity.

I am not. I tumble out of myself, the wrong words like slippery organs coughed up.
How does anyone ever speak about important things? How did they learn to craft words from emotion?

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


I could easily stop speaking and just play Joanna Newsom songs whenever I wanted to express my feelings.


Last Wednesday I took a day off work to go and look at art. Nearly everyone in the office was away on a summer break, and I was feeling jealous. I took my holiday in June, and it feels very distant.

I went to see Pyschopomps, by the taxidermist Polly Morgan. A pyschopomp is a 'guide of souls' - the deities, spirits or angels responsible for leading souls to the afterlife. They appear in numerous cultures: Charon, Horus, Woden, the Grim Reaper; pyschopomps all. Nowadays, there is Oscar the cat, who lives in a nursing home and curls up with those about to die. His predictions have been so accurate that staff will now alert a patient's family when Oscar appears on a bed. What else could he be, but a pyschopomp?

Anyone who has visited a natural history museum will be aware of taxidermy, which recreates an image of life using the skin of a dead animal. Those museum exhibitions, with animals frozen still as if in photographs, posed on backgrounds meant to resemble their natural habitat, are oppositional to Morgan's work: she does not aim to create a fiction of natural life, as if to pretend the animal had not been deconstructed and treated and tanned and manipulated by human hands.

I love this piece. Looking at it gave me an intense feeling of motion sickness. It was not a mass of wings, but one bird circling and swooping; it felt like the bird itself was always moving just out of line of my vision, and all that was left was a flurry of wing. I'm very drawn to static objects that nonetheless seem full of potential and movement; it is so impressive, to be able to make something so energetic despite its physical stillness.

This feeling, of movement without movement itself, was also present in this piece.

The little finches are akin to Eadward Muybridge's work: both he and Morgan capture a series of single moments of movement, and compose them in a way that suggests motion.

I read a review that spoke of escape and transcendence with regard to the second piece: the birds are outside their cage, lifting it beyond this world to another. But they didn't seem free to me. They are not inside the cage, but its metal still reaches up and holds them. They wear it. It put me in mind of how we incorporate animals into our service: we place real birds in cages to lift our spirits with song; we create bird deities to lift our spirits from life to the land of the dead.

Sunday, 22 August 2010


Some things that are on my body today:

Some sounds that are on my speakers (with an eerie hypnotic homemade video, i love you tube):


We are having (yet another) book-throwing-out session in my house (it never seems to make any difference), so I have been sorting through piles of books, trying to decide what I can make room for on my bookshelf.

I spent this morning flicking through a poetry anthology called 'Favourite Verse', which spans the 16th - 19th centuries (with a couple of 20th century poems dotted about). I haven't read much from the earlier periods, so it will be interesting to learn more about that.

That said, some of my favourite poems were written by John Donne, who died in 1631. He had slipped my mind, and it was nice to stumble across him again.

The Flea

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou sincePurpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

Donne is funny, playful, clever and kinda irreverent; I imagine straight-laced christians being a tad offended by the references to marriage and the trinity ('three lives in one') in a poem about the narrator trying to persuade his girlfriend to have sex. And making the flea - a parasite, whose bites could resemble the marks of syphilis - holy, a temple? Hah.

An excerpt from the poem. Donne took full advantage of Renaissance typography, using the famous long S to make visual puns (see line three).

I also like the refusal of the woman to be taken in with the narrator's logic: she rebuffs him, squashing the flea with her fingernail - although, the narrator, wiley and desperate as he is, quickly turns this action into another reason for her to agree to sex.

The Flea Catcher, Georges de la Tour

I want to know more about fleas and their erotic associations now. A cursory search of the internet suggested that the flea made numerous appearances in renaissance literature, connected to sex and intimacy - because fleas have freedom to crawl all over our bodies, can bite and suck the flesh those renaissance men cannot touch. A clown in Marlowe's Faustus states, 'if you turn me into anything, let it be in the likeness of a little pretty frisking flea, that I may be here and there and everywhere. O, I'll tickle the pretty wenches' plackets'.

The possibilities the tiny flea held for sexual and romantic expression were not limited to the European Renaissance; I came across this 12th century Chinese folk poem here:

Suchow mattress has nine springs.
Quilt and canopy
cover the mandarin ducks.
The embroidered quilt
wraps him and me.
The flea biting him
bites me, too.

Thursday, 19 August 2010


A couple of weeks ago I went to a fancy dress party; it was country-themed, with every guest trying to embody a different place. I chose Holland, mainly because it gave me an excuse to dress up as Van Gogh. Well, it was that, a windmill or a tulip (if only i had the resources and artistic talent). I settled for a wearing a windmill charm necklace.

Dressing up as a country is very difficult; there were lots of national football shirts worn that evening. Thinking up a way to represent a whole teeming nation in one nifty outfit is challenging, especially if you'd prefer to not spend your time in the centre of a circle of confused gazes.

So, we settle for well established visual markers. We choose the stories we all know about these foreign places, the facts that have travelled with tourists and imperialists and adventurers over the years.

I know almost nothing of Holland, save a smattering of history and art (and, because we had to bring food to this party, the fact that pea soup is a popular dish). I didn't think about it much before this party, and continued to not think too much about it afterward.

Which didn't strike me as that much of a problem, until I substitute Holland for other countries. What if someone came to the party as Japan, dressed as a geisha? Or if someone had come as Benin, dressed in their best Topshop 'tribal' trousers (yes, Topshop sell 'tribal print' trousers) and holding a spear? If Topshop's too pricey, how about visiting a fancy dress shop, as they have a variety of national or 'ethnic' costumes to chose from; how about Samoan dancing girl? Desert Arab?

Suddenly there's something quite unsettling about the whole thing. Britain's modern history pivots on empire - whether it celebrates it (hallo, Niall Ferguson, you douche) or tries to hide it - and the violent domination of lots of people all over the world. Hierarchies of power were developed by telling stories (and I include science as a method of story telling) about other races that diminished the worth, complexity and plurality of non-European people and cultures. Added to that, Europeans plundered culture as well as natural resources, taking bits and pieces to adorn themselves, their homes and their museums.

Caricatures twist and shape the way in which actual people are treated, and they resonate for years. Stereotypes, usually crafted over long periods of time, can reduce power and status, and be used to perpetuate - or even justify - social inequalities. The act of deciding what story gets told about a group of people, and what images get seen and remembered, comes from a place a privilege.

So what does it mean when we engage with foreign places through stereotypes and famous people? Does it matter, if it's only an evening, only a party? So what, you wear a feather headdress and moccasins for a few hours one evening - does it really have a significant impact?

Of course it does.

And when non-western national and racial stereotypes get sold to white westerners as a great idea for a party costume (or a 'sexy' party costume, if you are female), and no one bats an eyelid - more than that, people buy and wear these items and it's GREAT FUN - then it hugely fucking matters.

And of course, I didn't bring any of this up; I was at a party. It's a stark reminder that I have the privilege not to think about representations of nationality - and linked to this, race and culture - when I would rather not.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


how can you properly forgive someone for betraying you? answers on a postcard, please.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


so, you have to find her, and you know that it will be the death of you.

she is famous - the stuff of myth - and you can't not look for her; you need to know for yourself if the rumours are true. it's the major flaw of growing up in such an empirical culture: seeing is believing. word-of-mouth counts for nothing now. still, the stories have been told and told again, words of darkness, and ice, and a look so monstrous that life cannot escape it. men become more solid - permanent - and make dull ornaments for the frostbitten caves that are her home. there, death sounds like a whisper, her whisper behind you, coaxing you to turn.

medusa does not solicit attention. she does not want the droves of brave adventurers coming to her with their violence and overblown confidence, believing they will be the one - the only one, the lone victor - who will not succumb to her glare. men cannot resist the urge to prove themselves unique.

they all come to the same end.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


Collar Bones by North Highlands

Collar Bones by North Highlands from Big Ugly Yellow Couch on Vimeo.

'i often worry if i let you go, one of us would die

and i often worry if i held my breath one of us would die

and i often worry if i let you go, one of us would die

and i realised, that's what love is supposed to feel like.'

this lady's voice, oh, i could listen to it for days on end; in fact, i have been. this song makes me feel wrapped up and safe and sad and hopeful. it makes me think of summer and days that haven't happened yet (and might not but could).

yesterday i confessed to my sister that the thought of getting close to someone else scared me - that i sometimes wanted to fall back into my old lover, for safety and comfort and ease. she reminded me of how breathtaking it is to discover a tiny piece of something about someone for the first time; something that is not big or significant, but is newly yours in that moment, like breaking open a stone to find the ridged swirls of an ammonite.

this song reminds me of that. it feels full of possibilities.

Saturday, 17 July 2010


Elif Shafak is amazing:

"literature has to take us beyond. if it cannot take us there, it is not good literature... the sufis say, knowledge that takes you not beyond yourself is worse than ignorance. the problem with today's cultural ghettoes is not lack of knowledge. we know a lot about each other - or so we think - but knowledge that takes us not beyond ourself, it makes us elitist, distant, disconnected."

From the TED conference in Oxford, which I would love to be at.

Sunday, 11 July 2010


All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There's nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.

John Clare

walking over the hill yesterday morning was like being in a van gogh painting (my phone camera does no justice to the scene, unfortunately).

the grass was beautiful, whip-long and full of thrumming grasshoppers. there's not much real green space in the london suburbs, but our pockets are lovely.

i bought some new shoes, as i realised that all my footwear was black (and foot-baking in the sunshine), and i was been wearing them nonstop; they dye my feet red sometimes, but it is a small price to pay.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


of all the trite, overused sayings that i hate to hear, 'life imitates art' is high up on my list.

(it's not that i disagree with the sentiment, and i think wilde probably had a lot more to say on the subject than those three words. it's just one of those phrases that people casually throw around, hoping it reflects their good taste and superior brain - and it becomes almost meaningless with its ubiquity.

it's a bit like when a song you like reaches the top of the charts and is then played in every shop that wants to be 'hip' for the next year until you've forgotten the time when you did not know this song. Indeed, you have forgotten that the song isn't in fact a natural part of all human existence, so imprinted is it on your mental wallpaper, written into you like 'Brighton' is written all through a stick of rock, the lyrics ('The dog days are over, The dog days are doooonnnne, The horses are coming, So you'd better run") incorporated into you (admittedly nonsensical) life philosophy).

but hey! did you know, life sure imitates art!

i say this because my recent experiences have been taken right out of the Camera Obscura songbook of life; if you know the band at all: yes, there is exactly as much half-tearful sighing as you would expect.

Camera Obscura were already pretty much my perfect band; they understand that misery is crucial to good pop, and traceyanne's lyrics cut right to her heart, without any fussy description or overwrought language. i have yet to find an emotion they do not match: i can listen to them anywhere on the scale from cheerful (upbeat piano or warm horn sections) to morose (sparse guitar and verge-of-tears-vocals), though often the songs actually deal with a whole bundle of conflicting emotions at once. Saying that, they are brightest when dealing with the sad little aches of love gone wrong.

so it's not much of a surprise that i have been listening to them on repeat recently. it's comforting to hear my own feelings sung back to me over (really rubbish ipod) headphones, and i'm continually surprised by the way in which their lyrics and melodies exactly express that which i find i cannot.

i do wonder in part if this is because over the past few years i have spent an unhealthy amount of time listening to them. have i just tagged my feelings onto a familiar, similar resource to help me articulate them to myself - or even, have my feelings been shaped by my exposure to traceyanne's particular kind of melancholy? if i was a fan of grindmetal (is that a genre?) would my feelings be significantly different - would i approach them and recognise them in a totally different way?

in any case, i'm glad to have you, Camera Obscura.

reappearing is a tricky act to get right.

i loved someone, and we are over. words seem to have no substance - little flutters of love said and retracted in nearly one breath have left every letter hollow. words become noise when unbound from action, and my head is filled with the hum of promises never fully intended to be realised.

of all i have lost this is the most unbearable.

so i come back here, to learn to trust words again, and to use them until they have meaning.