Blog

Blood & Revolution

The Last Tsar; Blood and Revolution is the name of an interesting and FREE exhibition currently to be found at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road SW7.  We visited on Monday.

The exhibition looks at the demise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Using artefacts, photographs and written records it illustrates the highly privileged life and subsequent death of the autocratic Tsars, a family touched by the tragedy of the ‘Royal Disease’ who became reliant not just on medicine but mystics and faith healers, most notoriously, Grigori Rasputin.

The kernel of the exhibition is, as befits  the Science Museum, a medical detective story, or rather several medical detective stories. The first is to identify the ‘Royal Disease’ and how it proliferated, the second is the finding and identification, using DNA sequencing techniques,  of the bodies of the murdered Romanovs and the subsequent quashing of the spurious claims of impostors to be surviving members of the immediate Romanov family.

The exhibition is good on the prevailing system of medicine and medical provision, especially in regard to mental instability or illness ( a condition often diagnosed in women who behaved ‘unsuitably’ or ‘hysterically’ ).  It shows how the ruling family kept the illness of the Tsaravitch, Alexei, hidden from all but an immediate circle of trusted intimates and medical men, thereby fuelling discontent among the aristocracy over the perceived remoteness of the Romanov family and influence of ‘advisers’ like Rasputin.   An autocratic and fundamentally unjust system could not survive without an involved and supportive aristocracy and the myth of a benign and progressive monarchy couldn’t be sustained by a monarch invisible to his people. Not so long after the outbreak of WWI a system of government which was creaking finally broke and the Tsar abdicated.

This is good, general historical context, but what is new in this exhibition is its concentration on the investigation into the death of the family, who were held under house arrest in the Ipatiev House in Bolshevik-held Ekaterinberg.  The initial investigation was headed by Nikolai, Sokolov, a Russian investigating magistrate, when that city fell out of Bolshevik control, and its findings were, for a long while, the only real evidence-informed information about their deaths. Later, after the Soviet state admitted executing the family and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, scientists were able to piece together those earlier findings with later discoveries made during the 1970s but not made public at the time, to find skeletons which could then be tested using the latest techniques.

The identification, which involved taking DNA from living relatives of the Tsarina, resulted in confirmation that the skeletons were indeed those of the Russian ruling family. In 2007 the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters were discovered and also tested.  Facial reconstruction and modelling techniques were then used to recreate the faces from the skulls, resulting in sculptures which closely resembled the photographs of the individuals taken while they were alive. So all eleven victims were identified and the fate of the Romanovs finally resolved.

In 2009 the ‘Royal Disease’ was finally confirmed to be haemophilia B, the rarer form of the condition, which is, largely, suffered by men but can be carried by women.  It features strongly in the ancestral tree of various European ruling houses ( somewhat startlingly ).

I can thoroughly recommend this exhibition which runs until 24th March it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in London.

The Wider Earth

In this case that part of it found in SW7.  Specifically, the Flett Theatre (formerly the Jerwood Gallery) in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, to see David Morton’s new play about the young Charles Darwin, The Wider Earth.

It is a charming piece, showing a Darwin in his early twenties, concentrating on beetles not lectures at Cambridge before a Summer hunting fossils in Wales and thence, with a little help from Uncle Josiah, the social reformer and abolitionist, Josiah Wedgewood, to the Beagle.  This is where the play really takes flight, quite literally with the puppet butterflies, birds and fishes.

The staging is ingenious, a single set on the central revolve stands in for Cambridge, Shrewsbury, Wales, various Pacific Islands, including the Galapagos, Australia and large chunks of south America.  It becomes the deck and cabins of the ship – not boat, as Captain Fitzroy corrects the young naturalist, who, at first sight, he rejects as unsuitable, only to relent later.

The mainly young cast double as puppeteers, bringing to life the exotic creatures Darwin is entranced by. Working with Handspring, the South African puppetry company which brought War Horse to such vivid life, the company has created some excellent animals. I loved the armadillo and iguana and the giant tortoises are wonderful.  Even an adult audience gasped at the near perfect rendition of animal behaviour, so I imagine children would be utterly beguiled – there are a lot of matinee performances.

This Darwin too is somewhat child-like, Emma Wedgewood, later Emma Darwin, tells him the voyage might help him grow up and the central performance has something of the young Micheal Crawford about it, lots of wide-eyed innocence and worthiness. There is little hint of the tough scientist beneath.  The character more subtly explored is Fitzroy, an interesting scientist in his own right, though that isn’t really mentioned here – evolution is the main event, not meteorology (though Herschel and photography feature briefly). Fitzroy suffered from near suicidal depression and that is touched on, as is his volatile character.

The drama catches the intellectual climate of the time, with Lyell’s geological theories already challenging Christian orthodoxy. Debate rages aboard the Beagle, stimulated by the presence of a clergyman, travelling to Tierra del Fuego to take God to the natives, as well as a native Fuegan, Jeremy Button, taken by Fitzroy from the south Atlantic to be ‘educated’ in Britain.  It shows the experiences – of volcanic eruption, of earthquakes and mountain making, of the differences in species from the various Galapagos islands – which inform Darwin’s thinking.

The play is educative in nature and it tackles its complex subject well, capturing Darwin’s youthful curiosity and exuberance. Emma, the solitary female, is given a mind, and a cause, of her own, in abolitionism and there is no suggestion that, within societal norms of the time, their alliance will be anything other than equal.  I must own up here – the character of Emma was played by an Anderson relative, Melissa Vaughn.

The Wider Earth runs until 24th February and tickets cost between £19.50 and £79.  It’s worth a visit, but don’t go next Tuesday, when royalty is visiting.  The photographs accompanying this post are my own and by Mark Douet.  For a first rate novel about the voyage of the Beagle I recommend This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson (Tinder Press, 2006)

Doreen Fletcher, A Retrospective

Doreen Fletcher painted the streets of East London until she gave up painting in 2004, discouraged by the lack of interest and recognition. In 2015 a chance encounter with The Gentle Author – writer, blogger and publisher – of Spitalfields Life, resulted in her paintings being brought to a new public, largely via social media.  I first saw some of her work in the exhibition Henry Silk and the East End Vernacular at Abbott & Holder in 2018. A few of her paintings, not for sale, hung in the second ‘Other artists’ room and I blogged about them, admiring their Edward Hopper like quality, their similarity to the American in subject matter, in vibrant colours, unusual viewpoints and the rendering of people, small and anonymous, but never insignificant, within the built environment.

Last night saw the launch of Doreen Fletcher, A Retrospective at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Road and we went along. We arrived at six when the doors opened, but by a quarter to seven it was impossible to move. The show had featured in BBC Online and The Guardian and was ‘exhibition of the week’ in The New Statesman so a lot of interest had been generated. Tremendous for the artist, who is finally getting the recognition she deserves, but less so for the viewer. Nonetheless I was able to catch a quick word with The Gentle Author, though not with Doreen herself.

The Nunnery Gallery is housed in a nineteenth century former convent and has two viewing rooms and a bar and the paintings were in all of them, though it grew increasingly difficult to move from one to another and we finally gave up.  We will go back, because the paintings deserve greater concentration and contemplation than we were able to give them yesterday.

The art is representational, a faithful depiction of place. She says ‘My concern as an artist is with the pockets of life we ignore’ and she is a painter of the ‘almost gone’. So this exhibition is, amongst other things, a social document of a lost place and time and way of life.

The scenes are often flat, a shop  or cafe front, head on to the viewer with strong horizontals ( I never realised just how many East End streets had pavement railings until seeing Fletcher’s paintings ). She shows the pattern and colour within these flat frontages – Pubali Cafe, Limehouse (1996) with its pinks and blues and Pepsi signs; VIP Garage, Commercial Road (2001) with that green which is rarely found in nature but is often a feature of urban, painted environments; the Launderette, Ben Jonson Road (2003) with its grid of metal shutters and metallic signs.  These are depictions of real places and are perfectly realised paintings.

I particularly like the paintings which have interesting perspectives, the corner of roads, like The Lino Shop, Poplar (2003), Ragged School Museum, Stepney (2017) and Fried Chicken Shop, Silvertown (2017).  Salmon Road in the Rain (1987) is a favourite of mine, with its blue sky after rain and the reflections in a road still wet.  Bartlett Park, Poplar (1990) is a depiction of a road junction and subject matter doesn’t get more quotidian than that, as the road leads the viewer off to the block of maisonettes passed the one brick building and its bill-boards and smoking chimney.

Fletcher is also interested in light, so many pictures are set at dusk or night time and with unusual viewpoints, from under a railway or canal bridge, rather like some of the viewpoints used by the Impressionists when they painted the urban environment. The good news is that she is painting again and some of her later works are included in this show.

I can thoroughly recommend this exhibition. Go, it’s free, runs until 24th March  and the Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday and, because I always like to end with a book, how about Doreen Fletcher, Paintings (2018, Spitalfields Life Books ).  Some of the images in this blog are taken therefrom and do not do justice to either the paintings or the quality of their printed reproductions.

For more articles about art and exhibitions on The Story Bazaar see   Art on the Underground         Walking Burne Jones            Frida Kahlo

Cheating

To cheat (verb trans)  To deceive by trickery; swindle: to mislead; fool: to elude. To act dishonestly; practice fraud;tviolate rules deliberately.

I, like many, am gripped by the drama that is unfolding at Westminster .  As someone who watches the Parliamentary Channel every so often, it’s good to know that I am no longer alone, others are tuning in too. Yet I suspect that many more are not, they just want it over.

One of the problems for me with watching events like this is the anger which attends it.  I find myself waking up at night, furious.  This was something a friend said to me a year or more ago and I sympathised, but didn’t quite understand. Now I do.  So where does that anger come from?

Is it, as Brexit supporters would have it, because I am unused to losing and being powerless?  Or because I cannot accept what living in a democracy means if ‘my side’ doesn’t win?

Having lived through the Thatcher years, when decisions which were bad for the country but good for Tory party elect-ability were taken again and again (encouraging people to buy their council houses at knock-down prices without building replacements, the selling off of prime utilities ) I don’t think that’s the case.  I remember powerlessness, when a split opposition allowed ten years and more of Thatcher or Thatcherite rule and the huge bonuses from North Sea oil were squandered in tax cuts and benefits payments.  And I was angry, but it didn’t invade my life like it does now.

Is it because I have immediate ‘skin in the game’ a horrible phrase?  As someone who has to operate in Euros as well as sterling, Brexit has already hit my pocket in a way it hasn’t yet for many ( though it will ).

No, that might make me a little angry, but it doesn’t account for this deep fury, a dissonance at my core. I think that is where the answer lies .  I am having trouble accepting what is happening because it runs counter to everything I have been brought up to believe.

That cheating is wrong.

That winning by cheating isn’t winning and that the rules won’t let it stand.

Ben Johnson may have won the Olympic hundred metres while doping, but he didn’t get to  keep the medal.  Lance Armstrong may have ruled the Tour de France (and ruined the careers of those who wouldn’t dope or support doping) but eventually he was found our and disgraced. Shirley Porter jerry-mandered a local election* but had to flee to Israel before making reparation.

Now, I am not the young child who cries ‘But it isn’t fair!’  I know that life isn’t fair. Nor am I the food bank user, or the woman juggling two zero hours jobs with childcare. There are many who are much worse off than me and who could, rightly, consider that they, personally, had been treated unfairly (the claimants of disability allowance who are denied because the operatives of the privatised system are told they must discourage claims, for instance, or the Universal Credit claimant told she has to wait six weeks for payment of money due to her, so she cannot feed her children).

But I also believe that people, generally, believe in fairness and justice.  If we lose that belief it will leave everyone the poorer and the UK a mean and bitter place. In another conversation, with a leaver friend, I was asked, but if there was so much law breaking and wrong doing why hasn’t something been done about it?  For her – someone who has the same value system as me –  the lack of accountability demonstrated that there wasn’t really anything major wrong.

I guess the sad truth is that people who might do something about this stand to gain more by not applying basic laws and rules than by applying them ( and I include disaster socialists here as well as disaster capitalists ).  The Referendum was advisory, so its result is not binding.  Electoral law was broken (a 10% overspend and funding from unknown sources), which would, were this a properly binding election, mean that the result would be set aside.  People like Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham try, but the powerful continue regardless.

This is why I am angry.

I still believe that eventually those in charge, as well as the cheats, charlatans and liars, will be brought to account.  But by then the damage may well have been done.

*The now infamous ‘homes for votes’ scandal.

Hello and welcome

Thanks for visiting my web-site.

I’ll be blogging here occasionally about things which interest me.  Places of interest, topical subjects ( and rants ), reviews of plays, books and exhibitions in London and elsewhere.

There will be articles about the Clapham Book Festival and Clapham Writers, which also appear on the relevant web-sites http://www.claphambookfestival.com and http://www.claphamwriters.wordpress.com.

I’ll also be writing about the Festival de Jerez an annual festival in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, the home of flamenco. sherry and lots of other good things besides.

There will also be links here to older articles, formerly found on The Story Bazaar web-site.  You can still access those blogs by typing the title and Story Bazaar into your search engine.

If you enjoy reading my articles please follow my blog to receive alerts when a new article is posted. You can do so by clicking on the  ‘Follow’ button.  Alternatively, follow me on Twitter @jjstorybazaar  or Facebook.