Love Note – Eurovision

This Saturday sees the return of the Eurovision Song Contest and I could not be more excited. This year, I have excellent friend and historical Eurovision-watching comrade Annie coming to visit from Manchester, I am drawing up a Eurovision bingo game, making cultural food plans (pierogi, baguettes and olives amongst other foodstuffs), organising an office sweepstake at work, and have my Spotify playlist of past-Eurovision favourites on repeat. I am raring to go for the Grand Final in a couple of days’ time.

I have always loved Eurovision. It is funny whilst both trying to be and trying not to be; it is colourful and vibrant; appeals to the ridiculousness in us all; and offers the perfect excuse to have a bit of a party. It curiously manages to hold a number of different positions: it suspends reality, through its gaudy spectacle and earnest hilarity that feels so far removed from the grim and turbulent political times that we are currently living through (and have always lived through, to an extent). However, it also embodies the inclusivity and positivity absolutely required to make the world a more joyful and tolerant place. Seeing Europe come together on the same night to mutually revel in Europop music, dry ice, random pyrotechnics, Graham Norton’s sarcastic critiques and, in some cases, yodelling, warms the cockles of this soppy Remainer heart. I have often thought that it takes a certain amount of self-awareness or self-deprecation to watch and enjoy Eurovision: it’s a bit like laughing at yourself. Someone so stuck-in-the-mud and obsessed with control, power and image and all that, like Putin for example, probably don’t watch Eurovision. But you can imagine the world would probably be a better place if he did.

There are certain things about the show that are quintessentially Eurovision, but that some people find hard to understand and accept. Here, I want to help break these things down and offer a shift in perspective, introducing naysayers and cynics to Eurovision Logic. Here are some examples:

Normal logic: The show and, in particular, the round-the-houses voting system are time-consuming and extremely long. The show does run from 20:00 – 23:40 (a running time of 3 hours and 40 minutes) and it takes up all the prime-time coverage on BBC One. It’s a bit overkill.

Eurovision Logic: With the round-the-houses system, we get an insight into the humour, style and sensibilities of our European neighbours. When there is a time-lag, things get deliciously awkward, especially when the announcers in each country end up manically grinning or saying something wonderfully clichéd or just plain weird. I would also recommend watching all the performances, if you are able to, and working out which is your favourite, or getting involved with an office sweepstake. Actually being invested in at least one country makes the voting much more exciting and interesting. Multiple drinks will also help.

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Normal logic: Australia is not in Europe. Why is it in Eurovision? It doesn’t make sense and is stupid.

Eurovision Logic: Newsflash: Israel and Azerbaijan are not in Europe and have competed in Eurovision for very many years (and have both won). Even Morocco competed in Eurovision in 1980. Australia joined in 2015, to celebrate the competition’s 60th anniversary and had such a good time that they’ve decided to come back every year. What is there not to love about that? Lighten up. I think it is also a good idea to let people dwell in paradox for a while: life is all about ambiguity and uncertainty, things are never clear-cut, and Australia in Eurovision is a perfect metaphor for that. On a very deep level, somewhere, it makes absolute sense that Australia participates in Eurovision. I would love them to win and see the absolute existential flap people will, inevitably, get into. Guys, it’s going to be OK.

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Normal logic: Eurovision songs are cheesy pap and are the dregs of music

Eurovision logic: Yes, there are certain levels of cheesiness and corniness to the Eurovision song repertoire. My first impulse is to just embrace it and laugh along with it. All those songs about being ‘heroes’ and ‘grabbing the moment’ (both things Bowie sang about) are absolutely harmless and catchy as heck. My second impulse is to point out that there have been some amazingly mature songs in the competition, especially in recent years. There was The Common Linnets’ song ‘Calm After The Storm’ that came second for The Netherlands in 2014, missing out to Conchita Wurst’s absolute belter ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’; Belgium’s Loïc Nottet’s ‘Rhythm Inside’ in 2015 sounded like Lorde had written it; and the gorgeous, inimitable ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ sung by Portugal’s Salvador Sobral  won in 2017 and still gives me warm fuzzies. All truly, excellent songs. My third impulse tends towards the sassy: in the enduring and poetic words of last year’s winner, Netta, I’d rather dance with my dolls to the mother-bucka beat, than get all sour about it.

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So here’s to Eurovision 2019! It is a bit bizarre, but when has the bizarre also not been life-affirming and a little bit good for us? When not drinking all the drinks, eating all the European food and jigging around to all the songs, I’ll see you all on Twitter for the hilarious commentaries. I’ve heard that the singers from Iceland are some kind of BDSM group… let the wonderful chaos unfold.

[1] I would like to add as a small footnote that I am aware that Israel holding the competition is obviously very contentious, and look forward to seeing if the competition is used to make any protests or points, particularly in light of military action in Gaza in the past few weeks.

Love Note – Mustang

Sisterhood truly is the most potent, inspiring and exasperating relationship: where grievous bodily harm can magically turn into profound silliness, which can turn into deceptive and mysterious thefts of anything from books and clothes to biscuits, which can turn into profound existential bonding conversations about love, life and the Real Housewives (substitute RH with your mutual sisterly trash). Jane Austen knew it with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; Louisa May Alcott knew it with Little Women; Phoebe Waller-Bridge knew it with Fleabag; and Deniz Gamze Ergüven absolutely knew it with Mustang. I re-watched Mustang a couple of weeks ago and it is still one of the most compelling and emotionally charged films about sisterhood I have come across.

The plot revolves around five sisters: Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale, and told largely through the point of view of Lale, the youngest. The sisters live with their ultra-conservative grandmother and uncle in a small village in northern Turkey. One day, after Lale tearfully says goodbye to her teacher who is moving to Istanbul, the sisters go to the beach with some male friends and play in the water. They are spotted and reported to their guardians, who effectively turn their house into a prison and arrange marriages for the girls. It is at times devastating, brilliantly funny and an incitement to free spiritedness in all teenage girls, especially when confronted with the deepest and darkest patriarchal forces.

And those patriarchal forces are well and truly horrifying. One of the scenes seared into my memory is at the wedding, where the girls’ uncle, Erol, who has proven himself to be aggressive and violent not only with the girls but with their grandmother (his mother), stands drunkenly and happily in the middle of the dancefloor, eyes closed, firing his gun into the air. Where the girls had at first been dancing, they cower around him, clamping their hands to their ears as he shoots and shoots. When I first watched the film, I thought to myself ‘Why on earth is he happy? Why is he celebrating?’ He cares nothing for the girls beyond keeping their virginity intact and, with hideous irony, it is heavily suggested that he sexually abuses two of them. Maybe he is just happy that they are no longer his responsibility and that he’d fulfilled some kind of patriarchal role in getting them married off? I think this is part of the way there: in this scene, ultimately, Erol is relishing his power. He is the one with his hand on the trigger, asserting and revelling in his dominance over the lives and fortunes of his nieces. It is sickening and infuriating to watch.

Additionally, watching Lale learn how to drive holds such urgency and pathos. Selma tells her that she was unable to escape because she couldn’t drive and Lale refuses for that to become her reality too. She tries and fails and tries again to learn how to drive, enlisting the help of truck driver Yassin, even though she is easily only 11 or 12 years old. Driving is a right we so take for granted in the UK, but is a fundamentally powerful means of power and control in religious and conservative countries. The importance of women being allowed to drive in countries like Saudi Arabia is all the more pertinent after watching a film like Mustang.

Amongst the hellish religious conservatism that the film actively exposes and challenges, we see the enduring and undimming power and pleasures of sisterhood, in all its multi-faceted manifestations. Indeed, the gentle intermingling of relatively light-hearted sisterly dramas with the devastating cultural power dynamics is what makes this film at once irreverent and tragic. We see the sisters defending one another from beatings; breaking out of the house to attend a women-only football match, then gossiping and messing around in their bedroom. One sister tells of how she radically subverts the injustice and intrusion of virginity tests by partaking in anal sex to prevent ‘losing her virginity’, before later on warning another sister that she’ll rip her head off if she steals her clothes again. As such, the film perfectly balances the magically mundane sisterly qualms and quarrels with the bigger, scarier patriarchal violence that determines their freedom and their happiness.

In this, I think the film goes a step further than Jeffrey Eugenides and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides: the Lisbon sisters are only ever a mystical figment of the young boys’ suburban imagination, never fully realised as ostensible young women with desires, quirks, tempers or interests, Lux being, perhaps, the exception. Mustang shows that coursing underneath all of the patriarchal violence, double standards and unfairness of being a young woman living under religious conservatism, is the understanding, camaraderie and mutual struggle of being a girl and having female siblings. It is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching and speaks to anyone who has had a sister who has driven them absolutely mad but who will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them through whatever chaos comes their way, patriarchal or otherwise.

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Wastelands

I originally wrote and gave this paper in 2014. After a weekend reading T.S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ for the first time, I decided to commit this paper to my blog. In the paper, I compare the fallout of conflict in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ form Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and Titania and Oberon’s quarrel in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (the featured image here is Vivien Leigh playing Titania in 1937).

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Under this conference’s umbrella theme of war and literature, I am specifically interested in investigating the aftermath of conflict, seeing what literature has to say about war when it is over. T.S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ is a seminal 20th century text, published four years after the 1918 Armistice and I would like to suggest that it is involved with a negotiation of the condition of modernity in the wake of the first terrible ‘Total War’. It is a text that in a number of ways bemoans war because of the death and decay it leaves behind it, but is simultaneously a violent and aggressive attack on preconceived notions of form and meaning, suggesting that it relies on war, indeed it is an act of war, to create something new and radical. I have restricted my close reading of ‘The Wasteland’ to the first part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

The title ‘The Burial of the Dead’ suggests a final action that commits dead bodies to the ground, keeping the spheres of the living and the dead completely separate and thereby allowing the living to continue with life. However, the poem opens with an image that suggests otherwise:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land

We are presented with living things, lilacs, rising out of a ground that belongs to death, but is not necessarily dead in itself because it is involved with growth, not stagnation and inertia. Thus a paradox emerges: whilst the ‘burial’ of the title suggests a movement of taking extinguished life down to the ground, the opening of ‘The Wasteland’ suggests a movement of death bringing something life-like back to the surface. The poem emphasises that this is a ‘cruel’ movement instigated by April, a month that traditionally has a cultural relationship to spring and new birth, but here becomes the site of death becoming an inescapable presence that infects life and the living. The snow of winter covers this ‘land’ which enables us to temporarily ‘forget’ its disturbingly deathly quality and, potentially, the conflict that made it this way, (Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow’) but April serves as a reminder that the earth is teeming with deathliness.

This is cemented by the speaker’s reference to lilacs, which are flowers with a mythological history: Syringa (the botanical name for lilac) was a nymph who hid from the amorous advances of the woodland god Pan by turning into a bush of flowers. Therefore, lilacs are involved with disguise and have a history that suggests that figuratively, there is more to them than what meets the eye. Within the context of ‘The Burial of the Dead’, the lilacs are masked harbingers of death, metaphors of bodies belonging to death that are hidden but nevertheless inherent to the post-war landscape. The use of the verb ‘breeding’ to describe the production of the lilacs complies with this, a word that is defined in the OED as ‘bringing to the birth’. It points to the bodily, inorganic quality of the lilacs that re-enter the sphere of the living hidden within the form of a flower. This image is echoed at the end of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ when the speaker calls out to Stetson:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

There has been a reversal in the terminology of growth and surfacing employed: whereas the lilacs are bred out of the ground like bodies, the corpse, it is proposed, will grow out of the ground like a flower, sprouting and blooming. This implies a commonality between the flowers and the corpse, suggesting that they are exchangeable and fluid.  The distinctions between them are done away with because they are both objects coming forth from death’s land, and we can see that the landscape inhabited by the living is at the mercy of a deathliness that seeps into it as a result of horrendous conflict, making the two states of life and death indistinguishable.

This can also be seen in the speaker’s description of London;

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

The repetition of ‘so many’ points to the extraordinary number of people that the war brought into contact with death in one way or another. The image suggests that in the aftermath of conflict, death controls and oversees existence, stripping life away from people left behind and reducing them to a deathly state whilst still alive. As a result of an existence defined by death blurring itself with life, the city and the people within it are ‘unreal’, occupying a liminal and disturbing position that they might not be able to properly identify themselves, hence the interchangeability of the lilacs with the corpse as previously mentioned. Death’s infection of life has become hegemonic, and is not challenged and questioned by the inhabitants of the city.

The image of the ‘brown fog of winter dawn’, a pervasive meteorological nuisance, helps to exacerbate the murky and indivisible landscape of deathly life, and also helps to develop the poem’s melancholic and depressive tone. It is at this point that I want to draw a comparison between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, a text produced 300 years earlier, where we are also presented with a traumatised landscape that has resulted from conflict. Eliot’s ‘fog’ recalls the image of the fog produced by Titania in her description:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs.

This is one of numerous images of the sickly landscape described by Titania that has resulted from her conflict with Oberon over an Indian boy. The personified seasons and elements have been neglected by the fairies, and avenge this abandonment by unleashing nature’s fury, causing chaos, sickness and ‘distemperature’ through floods, rotten harvests and ‘rheumatic diseases’. Most importantly, however, and in a way that links to Eliot’s wasteland, is that Titania shows how these have caused the seasons to change and merge with one another:

[…] the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evil comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.

Titania warns Oberon that the seasons have inadvertently undone themselves and have exchanged and adopted the appearance of each other, in the process throwing off what categorises them individually. The identities that contain and separate them from each other have collapsed so that now it is no longer obvious what time of the year it is supposed to be, causing confusion and bemusement amongst human beings. This motion is similar to what is at work in ‘The Wasteland’, where the boundaries separating death and life have disintegrated and death has blurred and intermingled with life, manifesting explicitly in the realm of the living, meaning that it is now difficult to successfully differentiate between the two states. However, there is a significant difference between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Titania delivers this speech during the middle of the conflict. Not only is there time for the situation between them to be resolved, which over the course of the play is achieved, she and Oberon have the power and the capability to reverse the deconstruction. As the fairy Queen and King, the parents of the seasons and the elements, they can restore the status quo through reconciliation and ending their conflict.

However, in ‘The Wasteland’, the conflict is already over and the speaker and humanity as a whole are left in a world that has not been restored to its previous state, but has seen the irreversible movement of death entering into the sphere of life and having an unwavering presence amongst the living. The speaker is not in a position, indeed no one is in a position to solve this, which is evident in the speaker’s assertion: ‘I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing’. Titania and Oberon know that if they reconcile and take up their parental responsibilities, the seasons will once again don the right appearance. However, the speaker in ‘The Wasteland’ is trapped between the states of life and death and has neither the power nor knowledge to resolve the conditions, and does not know how to continue existing within them. This is because death is the ultimate powerful force at work that has made itself an unquestionable presence that undoes people’s relationship with life, rendering them deathly whilst still alive. The poem suggests, therefore, that there is nothing more powerful and controlling than death in the post-war wasteland.

We have seen that the post-war environment that the speaker of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ presents is one that is mournful and aware of the presence of death that conflict has brought into the world. I would like to argue that this war has bred another war:  ‘The Wasteland’ as a poem that has been produced in a damaged and deathly world, has no choice but to carry on attacking, suggesting that the only way to exist is to perpetuate conflict. This it achieves through an attack of established poetic conventions, taking on the quality of the death it presents by rigorously undoing the standards we are familiar with. One of the last phrases of ‘The Burial of the Dead’s’ curious ending is ‘You! Hypocrite lecteur!’ which translates as: ‘You! Hypocrite reader!’ We can see that the speaker constructs a notion of readership through the use of ‘you’ that it immediately challenges by addressing the ‘you’ in French and by accusing ‘you’, this reader, of being a hypocrite, itself a curious insult that suggests that we are guilty of falsely professing some kind of virtuousness. I would argue that it points to the futility of people attempting to live life forgetting to acknowledge or pretending to not acknowledge that death is an almost tangible feature of the post-war landscape. Nevertheless, we can see that the poem aggressively sets up a concept that we might be familiar with, the position and audience point of a reader, but immediately undercuts it, throwing it into doubt and uncertainty through the use of a different language to the predominant one employed, and by using it imperatively to challenge and question. This is one of a number of ways in which the poem destabilises comfortable notions of poetic address, form and meaning, attacking conventions and norms in a threatening and war-like manner to create something new. Another example of this would be the endless references and inferences that are made in the body of the poem and for which Eliot provides notes at the end, which playfully lead to new references and inferences. It thus aims to send one on nothing short of a wild goose chase to uncover a meaning that the poem suggests, in doing so, does not exist.

Therefore, the poem, in this its first part, presents life post-war as not a unified thing, but is something pertaining to, undone and controlled by death. As a result of this, poetry itself is fragmentary, and can do nothing but arise from the ashes of one war to begin another, on the poetic form, and our conceptions of form and meaning. This, ‘The Wasteland’ suggests, is not wholly regrettable, and is an unmistakeable and undeniable condition of modernity post-1918.

Love Note – Buffalo Cauliflower Wraps

*New Harping On food obsession alert*

I’ve introduced this blog to the delights of Tofu Thursdays: now I have another culinary favourite to add to my repertoire. Monday night has become Buffalo Cauliflower Wraps Night (the catchiest name you will ever find).

First and foremost, thanks go initially to my lovely friend Dee who runs a blog called ‘Estrella’ (www.estrellablog.com) and who introduced me to this amazing meal. Dee is a Psychology graduate, currently training to be a life coach. Her writing revolves around personal development, conflict resolution and many other brilliant things. Head to her blog to find out more.

I have long been a proponent of the fajita and the falafel wrap (if you’re in Manchester, get down to ‘Falafil’ opposite Manchester Metropolitan University on Oxford Road, the best falafel wrap for the lowest price you will ever find). These wrap-revolving meals are tasty, quick and easy to make, and ensure that dinner time is as interactive and fun as possible. Buffalo Cauliflower Wraps are an excellent variation and addition to the wrap oeuvre, especially if you are vegan or are thinking of cutting down on the amount of meat you eat. I’ve added chickpeas to add a bit more protein and have developed a vegan ranch dressing using cashew nuts.

Ingredients

Group 1 -Bulk

Cauliflower

Tin of chickpeas

A healthy dose of Buffalo hot sauce (or Peri Peri sauce if you’re desperate)

2tbsp of olive oil (or other oil variation)

1 tsp. of chilli powder

1 tsp. of garlic powder

1 tsp. of paprika

1 tbsp. of golden syrup

2 avocados

Lettuce: I opt for either sweet gem lettuce or romaine lettuce

Wraps

 

Group 2 – Salsa

4/5 salad tomatoes

1/4 tsp. of chilli flakes

1 tsp. of basil

 

Group 3 – Vegan ranch dressing

Bag of cashew nuts from Aldi

Water

1 tbsp. white wine vinegar

1 tsp. garlic powder

1tsp. onion powder

1 tbsp. dry parsley

1tbsp. dry chives

½ tbsp. dry coriander

Optional: 2 tbsp. sesame oil and dash of soy milk

 

Method

 

  1. Preheat oven to 220 degrees Celsius
  2. Place cashew nuts into a Pyrex bowl
  3. Boil kettle, pour over cashew nuts and fill the bowl
  4. Place a plate over the top of the bowl and allow to soak. Apparently the longer you soak the cashews the better, but I always forget and this turns out just fine
  5. In a large bowl, combine hot sauce (enough to cover the cauliflower, add more if necessary), olive oil, chilli powder, garlic powder and paprika
  6. Wash and chop up the cauliflower into sizeable florets. Add to the bowl
  7. Open the chickpeas and stir in with the cauliflower and other ingredients
  8. Pour the mixture into a baking tray
  9. Drizzle the golden syrup over the cauliflower and chickpeas
  10. Put into the oven for twenty minutes (until slightly crisp around the edges)
  11. Cube the avocados and place into a bowl
  12. Roughly chop up the lettuce and put onto a plate
  13. Dice the tomatoes and place into a bowl. Add the chilli flakes and basil to make a cool salsa
  14. Drain the cashew nuts
  15. Put them into a NutriBullet, blender or food processor
  16. Add white wine vinegar, garlic powder, onion powder, parsley, chives, coriander, sesame oil and soy milk. Add water until you get to the maximum line of the cup
  17. Whizz up until creamy. It may appear a bit sludgey but it doesn’t matter
  18. Transfer into a jug and pop into the freezer to help speed up the cooling
  19. Remove the cauliflowers and chickpeas from the oven and transfer them back into the original mixing bowl
  20. Put the wraps onto a plate and warm them up in the microwave for 30 seconds
  21. Move all of your plates and bowls to the dining table area
  22. Remove the vegan ranch dressing from the freezer
  23. Get wrapping

Buffalo Cauliflowers again

Love Note – Watching Game of Thrones

WARNING: this Love Note contains spoilers for previous seasons of Game of Thrones

I am not the biggest Game of Thrones fan in the world: I am at least ten times more interested in Harry Potter and my love for The Lord of the Rings exceeds that boundlessly. Having said that, watching the show has been an absolute rollercoaster ride of enjoyable emotional chaos.

I am convinced that Game of Thrones is ultimately an allegory for climate change: a rallying call for human beings to transcend their materialistic squabbles and proud, vain, destructive tendencies to face the real, inescapable and devastating problem facing them and the world entire. It is the problem that has been gathering traction from the very first minutes of the first episode in the first season, with the first appearance of the White Walkers. Along with the climate change allegory, I have immensely enjoyed Game of Thrones’ numerous Greco-Roman mythical references: from the fact that Cersei Lannister is effectively named after one of the most famous manipulative witches in mythology (‘Circe’ in The Odyssey); to the story of Iphigenia, who was burnt at the stake as a sacrifice by her father Agamemnon to provide the necessary meteorological conditions to get his fleet moving (Shireen Baratheon, sound familiar? Bless her heart); to the stabbing of Jon Snow by a band of conspirators, very much in the manner of Julius Caesar. When I watched that scene unfold, shock and betrayal aside (Olly?!) I was convinced that he wasn’t going to stay dead for long: if Caesar came back as a ghost, there had to be some iteration of this in Snow’s character arc. Additionally, if Shireen’s death was going to follow a mythical/ancient framework, then I hoped this would too. Thankfully, I was proved right.

Game of Thrones has also provided the means for opening much-needed discussions about the representation of gender and race on screen, which at times in the series, has been shocking and problematic to say the least. I am still not OK with the way in which rape was used as background noise in many scenes where white men were conspiring amongst themselves, nor the way in which Daenerys Targaryen effectively became a white saviour figure for a lot of black and Middle Eastern people. Maintaining some critical thinking around these scenes and storylines is absolutely essential.

We have also been introduced to some truly incredible and memorable characters. Sansa has been a favourite of mine from very early on, and I adore Lyanna Mormont, Tormund, Olenna Tyrell and Tyrion Lannister. I didn’t think I’d hate anyone as much as Joffrey Baratheon, but then along came Ramsay Bolton who is perhaps one of my least favourite characters in anything I have ever read/watched/listened to.

The people and story of Game of Thrones aside, what I think I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years has been the weekly ritual of tuning into the show. In a world where we are effectively encouraged to binge-watch content (which I am absolutely guilty of, thanks Stranger Things) having a weekly show to tune into feels nostalgic, but oddly liberating. I have spent hours musing about the story and the characters, longing to get to the next chapter, much like reading a book. As such, I want to pay homage as much to the experience of watching Game Thrones, who I’ve watched it with and all the important food I’ve eaten whilst watching, as to the show itself.

Having said that, I was late to Game of Thrones and caught up with the first three seasons by binge-watching them in my bed. I was accompanied by chipsticks, sugar ring donuts and plates of rosti for hangover viewings. I was in the third year of my undergraduate degree, free from having handed in my Long Essay and finishing my exams, and Game of Thrones became an excellent and utterly addictive way to unwind.

I then spent season 4 watching Game of Thrones in Withington Flat #1, accompanied by good company, jelly babies and cans of Dr Pepper. This season was memorable for its slew of dramatic and gruesome deaths. It’s pretty much a cull from start to finish. This was the season that taught me that you shouldn’t start liking anyone in Game of Thrones too much because no one is safe. I acknowledge that this stage was set right at the beginning with Ned Stark’s execution, I should have known. But this season really crystallised that. Cue: lots of shrieking.

By far my favourite experiences watching Game of Thrones came with season 5. Whilst the previous four seasons had been brutal, things really took a turn with season 5. With two excellent friends on the world’s best sofa in Withington Flat #2, we saw the show turn from purely tit-for-tat murdering sessions, to deeper existential violence and chaos. It is still my favourite season of them all. Together, our little Game of Thrones club (that later turned into True Detective Season 2 club) witnessed Sansa being brutally tortured by Ramsay Bolton, collectively lost its shit at episode 8, sat gobsmacked at the sacrifice of a lovely little girl at the hands of her shit father, freaked out at the Sons of Harpy and watched in dismay as Cersei was forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing. Finally, we saw Jon Snow murdered à la Julius Caesar at the very end. So much incredulous, emotional yelling happened over the course of this season and it was amazing to share in the drama with my buddies. Accompanied by litres of peppermint tea, carrots, pitta bread and houmous, and an awful AWFUL lot of cake.

The intensity didn’t let up in season 6, as the viewing action moved to Manchester city centre and one of my favourite places to visit in the city. We ate gnocchi, homemade mushroom risotto, pizza and chilli (not all at once, but I wouldn’t have put it past us) and introduced ourselves to jalapeno grills. Jaw-dropping moments included HODOR, the claustrophobic and visceral ‘Battle of the Bastards’, one of the best battle scenes I have ever seen ever (Helm’s Deep being the ultimate, obviously), and the destruction and cull of the Sept of Baelor at the hands of, you guessed it, Cersei Lannister. God she is such an excellent character. Terrifying and horrible, but so very excellent. I drove to this flat every week in my beloved red Fiat Punto WMF and would spend the 15 minutes driving home down Princess Parkway back to West Didsbury mulling and stewing over all the action. Ditto for when we watched Pan’s Labyrinth together and The Shining after Game of Thrones finished. Really good times.

Season 7 was a more muted viewing affair for me, and I don’t actually think it was the best season I’d seen. I haven’t been a fan of Daenerys for a long time and the sight of her shacking up with Jon Snow was not at all sexy, and that’s in addition to the incest issue. I loved Grey Worm and Missandei getting together and lamented saying goodbye to Olenna, who executed her passing with typical sass and agency. I watched this series in my flat in West Didsbury, sometimes dragging my boyfriend into it (poor guy had no idea what was going on) but always savouring the ramping up of drama and tension. Sansa and Arya ganging up on Lord Baelish was delightful to watch: a word of warning folks, do not try and get between sisters. To accompany my viewing sessions, I ate vegan Mexican lasagne, Tex Mex potato salad and discovered the joys of avocado carbonara. Check it out.

Now, to coincide with the new season, I am in the middle of moving house and I am excited to create a new ritual for the last five episodes in my new place. As one adventure concludes, another one is beginning, and I am completely OK with how melodramatic that sounds. What I have found kind of curious is that I have managed to contain my impatience for the past two years waiting for the new season to start, but am now incapable of lasting the mere days between each new episode with grace. I am fully addicted. At this point, if Tormund and Brienne don’t make it through the war to have giant children together, I will be furious.

Dior: Designer of Dreams

On Friday 5th April, I trundled down to London to visit two very excellent friends. We have partaken in a number of cultural weekends in the capital over the past few years, with trips to see the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican, the Vogue 100 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, the West End production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell (where somehow we managed to get seats in a box, very jammy), amongst many other lovely, fun activities. This weekend was in every way just as lovely: in spite of a sketchy visit to a fancy restaurant off Regent’s Street where we were made to feel like actual scum, we shopped in Arket, visited the new Archlight cinema in Battersea, drank all the Taddy Lager at a Samuel Smith’s next to Liberty’s and spotted BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen at Denmark Hill station and started smirking at him by accident. He definitely thought we were insane. The highlight of the trip, however, amongst all the other loveliness, was our visit to the Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

My first academic introduction to Dior came through the documentary, Dior and I: a fly-on-the-wall film that followed Belgian designer Raf Simons as he took up the mantle of creative director in 2012. I had been aware of John Galliano’s tenure, largely thanks to Lily Cole who was a veritable goddess in his designs, but had little actual passion for the house of Dior beyond that. I have a penchant for the theatrical in fashion, but I was more into Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton at the time. Galliano was famously fired from Dior after an anti-Semitic rant outside a café in Paris, and this created a space at Dior for something new and different. The film introduced us to Raf Simons, with his refreshingly modern aesthetic and his endearing emotionality. Reading from Christian Dior’s autobiography and discussing art, it became clear that Dior was on the cusp of being reimagined for a new generation. I fell for the brand then and there.

Raf

I came to learn from Dior: Designer of Dreams that the fact that there is even a house of Dior is nigh-on miraculous. Christian Dior founded the label in 1947, creating the ‘New Look’: he divined an ultra-feminine silhouette, re-introducing women to sensuality after the austerity, deprivation and destruction that encompassed life during the Second World War. In no more than ten years, he built a booming, globally successful fashion house, placing his love for women at the very heart of his work. He introduced the H line, the Bar jacket and many other ingeniously crafted designs to emphasise curves, create drama and indelibly flatter. Tragically, he died in 1957; but in the short but very sweet time he had, he laid the foundations for one of the best-loved fashion houses of all time.

I believe the key to Dior’s success in his lifetime and beyond can be attributed to his commitment to women. Indeed, he seems to have dedicated his whole sartorial life to making women look and feel beautiful. He said:

‘Deep in every heart slumbers a dream, and the couturier knows it: every woman is a princess’.

It is one thing for men to say that they love and support women, but it is almost overwhelming how much Christian Dior repeatedly practiced and demonstrated that love through his creations. He knew how to make women feel special through the alchemical combination of silhouette, colour and craftsmanship. He in no way objectified women: instead, he placed womanhood and femininity on a pedestal to be absolutely adored. I used to be very sceptical of traditional notions of femininity: I’ve read my Judith Butler, I understand that gender is performance in many ways. However, where so much disrespect and abject hatred of women and their bodies has been witnessed and experienced throughout history, for a man to be so readily loving and devoted to women, is amazing. Similarly, I do not subscribe to monarchy or regal inequality in any way, but I think the reference to princess-hood can be read more archetypally. His work helps to bring women back to the sense of their own worthiness: that, yes, each one of us is unique and special, with dreams and ambitions, and a powerful capacity for conscientiousness, compassion, joy and love. All of these things make us inherently beautiful. I know a lot of women, including myself, have a hard time believing that, but Christian Dior is here to remind us, in a sartorial, fashionable way, that it is truly is the case.

Christian Dior’s legacy has been kept intact thanks to a line of wonderful designers who placed women and what women want at the core of their work. Everyone, from Yves Saint Laurent to Maria Grazia Chiuri, have adhered to his silhouettes and inspirations, but subtly and ingeniously regenerated and refreshed them for each generation of women that passed their way. The exhibition presented and reflected this fact beautifully, placing pieces from all of Dior’s eras next to one another: for example, these two dresses from 1953 and 2019:

Mexican Dior

Both of these dresses nod to Dior’s interest in Mexican art and sartorial sensibility, speaking to each other across the years.[1] Although the Dior logo splashed across the dress on the right is a dead giveaway that it is a 21st century piece, they could both feasibly have come from the same collection. Similarly, the 18th century-inspired collections exhibit both continuity within the house of Dior and their individual designer’s unique perspective and flair:

18th century Diors

On the far left we have Gianfranco Ferré’s imagining of an 18th century coat, followed by Raf Simon’s cornflower blue dress with drop-waist hip emphasis; then we have another Raf Simons creation, this time a two-piece of intricately embroidered top with combat trousers; and finally a theatrical John Galliano dress with a billowing top and voluminous pleated skirt. All of the pieces are intrinsically Dior and could have walked down the runway in exactly the same show. But, we are also introduced to the subtle modernity of Simons, somehow taking an archaic hip style and making it contemporary and cool; the free-spirited proportion-play of Gianfranco Ferré; and the drama and craftsmanship of Galliano. The accusation has been levelled (at Simons in particular) that these collections for Dior are archivist; however, we can see clearly how the directors have honoured the history and mystique of the house whilst also exploring their own creative interests and personal aesthetics. It makes the collections personal but also part of a fluid, historical whole.

I will always have the softest of soft spots for Raf Simons because his work is just so polished, interesting and fun; but this exhibition formally introduced me to the work of Maria Grazia Chiuri. Up until now, I have reservedly watched Chiuri’s tenure blossom with popularity from afar. I was not convinced that slapping ‘We should all be feminists’ and ‘Why have there been no great women artists’ onto T-shirts to be sold for hundreds of pounds was particularly intersectional. I am still absolutely sure that capitalising on a buoyant new wave of feminism for commercial gain whilst reinforcing exclusivity and hierarchy is not how I want my intersectional feminism to look. However, this exhibition taught me that this woman bloody well knows how to make fabulous clothing. We wandered around the exhibition, pointing to one exquisite dress after another, exclaiming ‘I want that. I want that. I want that’, most of them originating from her sketchbook. Chiuri’s silhouettes are not as avant-garde as a Galliano, nor are they as refined and modern as a Simons, but they are dreamy beyond belief. Deceptively simple forms make way for frothy, fairytale content: her dresses become canvases for beautiful entwining flowers, embroidered constellations, elegant tulle and third eyes.

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I have a newfound respect for what Chiuri is accomplishing at Dior. Namely, creating exceptionally designed clothing, luxurious without being fussy, whilst also, with those clean and elegant lines, very wearable. I would opt for any of these dresses in a heartbeat (please sartorial gods, please).

Without spoiling the exhibition too much for those who are still to visit, the final room was quite literally breathtaking. We audibly gasped and gaped at the twinkling ballroom setting we found ourselves in, debating whether or not we’d overreacted to the splendour on show. The gasps and squeals that came behind us as others entered the room confirmed not. The whole effect was magical: the glittering dresses, the rosy lighting, the cavernous space, everything. Time permitting, we could have sat in that room for ages just absorbing it all.

Dior: Designer of Dreams was another triumph for the Victoria and Albert museum. The layout and story of the exhibition is pitch perfect, demonstrating seamlessly the historical threads of the fashion house, as well as showcasing the individual contributions of the creative directors. The exhibition is a tribute to everyone who has been involved with the house: from Christian Dior himself and his creative directors, to the petit mains creating the designs at the atelier and the women chosen to represent the brand (it features dresses worn by Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o). It celebrates womanhood, femininity and the princess within each woman, and the paradox that is a success built upon a winning and delicate combination of history and modernity. Needless to say, if you can get to it, go.

 

[1] What was also brilliant was that the curators had taken great pains to stress the pitfalls and damage of cultural appropriation, highlighting the ways in which Grazia Chiuri in particular sought practical help and input from Mexican women in the production and presentation of her Mexican-inspired collection.

Love Note – Vincent Van Gogh

This is an anticipatory Love Note for when I get round to seeing a new film starring Willem Dafoe called At Eternity’s Gate. Dafoe stars as Vincent Van Gogh and charts the final years of his life in the South of France. I haven’t seen the film yet, so cannot possibly review or attest to how good the film is, but I am nevertheless excited to see one of my favourite painters depicted on screen. This is not the first time Van Gogh and his life has been depicted on screen: one of my favourite episodes of Dr Who brought Van Gogh to life through a very moving performance by Tom Curran.

vincent and the doctor

He was also represented in the visually stunning Loving Vincent, a truly extraordinary animated film that saw artists fluent in Van Gogh’s style paint frames telling the story of his final days. In both, Van Gogh was presented as tortured, immensely sensitive, almost living and breathing his wonderful art and terminally underappreciated and misunderstood.

loving vincent

I have loved Van Gogh for a very long time and I think what made him extraordinarily gifted was his capacity to paint both places and people. His style captures the nuance and intricacy of whatever it is he is looking at, and his paintings almost hum with vibrancy, no matter whether he’s painting a field scene or exploring the lines of a weathered and weary face. Additionally, he only ever painted or represented the world around him. He may have done this in an utterly original and inspired way, but it was always a reflection of what he could actually see. This put him at odds with his contemporary Paul Gaugin, who drew from his imagination to create people and figures in his paintings. Van Gogh, on the other hand, would never do this. This aesthetic and practical difference can be seen in Van Gogh’s Olive Grove and Gaugin’s Christ on the Mount of Olives:

Van Gogh Olive Groves

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This is not to say that Gaugin’s work is inferior in any way to Van Gogh’s (I actually think his Christ looks remarkably like Van Gogh in this painting, which is interesting), but it demonstrates a very interesting dynamic at work in Van Gogh’s art. His commitment to reflecting the world around him accurately, but with his own unique insight, makes his work at once highly personal and imaginative but always grounded in what is physical and real. It is endearing and almost egoless to bring such consciousness and attention to what he saw, rather than to emphasise the world by applying a story to it. Through Van Gogh’s art, we learn that the world itself is a story to tell, we don’t need to apply grand narratives of religion or myth to elevate it as such.

I have been fortunate enough to see Van Gogh’s paintings in the paint at both the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and from the Davies collection at the National Museum of Wales. What I learnt and what absolutely stood out to me, more than the tragic circumstances of his depression and his death, was that he was a masterful and learned technician. Whilst a lot of emphasis has been placed in popular culture on his naiveté and the impressionistic and emotional ecstasy of his paintings, what I learned was that he had an almost academic approach to art. Van Gogh developed his technique out of dedicated and meticulous study and practice. He took lessons from Anton Mauve in the Hague, studied colour theory through Charles Blanc’s colour wheel and through analysis of Eugène Delacroix’s paintings, explored pointillism and the un-mixing of colours through the work of Georges Sauret, experimented in a Japanese style through a study of Japanese woodcuts, and from his friendships with Toulouse Lautrec and Émile Bernard learnt about the versatility and vibrancy of pastels. Passionate and zealous as he famously was with his impressions and interpretations of the world around him, Van Gogh was a learned and masterful technician. I don’t think this should be overshadowed by the turbulence of his relationships or his volatile mental health. He may have found inspiration in his pain and darkness, but his expression of it came from hours, days and years of practice and development.

Here are some of my favourite pieces of Van Gogh’s work:

Van gogh the harvest

The Harvest, June 1888 – The warmth of the sun radiates in this painting, everything that summer should be.

van gogh self portrait

Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, c.1887 – I have this painting on a postcard hanging up in my flat and I think it is beautiful. The sun-scorched orange of his beard complements the bright blue of his clothes and background, and the green tinges around his eyes and brow convey his deeper emotional sensitivity.

Vincent-van-Gogh-Vissersboten-op-het-strand-van-Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer-V006

Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries, June 1888 – This is another painting on a postcard that I have hanging in my flat (courtesy of my boyfriend who loves this particular painting). It is reflective of Van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art.

van-gogh-rain-auvers-1890

Rain – Auvers, 1890 – I saw this painting at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and it brought tears to my eyes. There is a battle going on here between the sunny warmth of the land and the deep, dark despair of the rain. It reminds me that no matter how depressed, anxious and afraid we may feel, the land needs to be watered to flourish; goodness, light and clarity come from embracing and moving through the dark and difficult times.

Love Note – Fantasia

Last week there was a Saturday matinee viewing of Disney’s Fantasia at Broadway cinema in Nottingham and I missed it. This was slightly devastating because Fantasia is a film that I have loved for a very long time and the prospect of seeing it on a big screen was very, very exciting. It is a stunning love letter to both the art of animation and classical music, which I’m sure were both sweeping in their scale on the big screen. And I bloody missed it.

It was through Fantasia, and the ingenuity of the art and story-telling teams that helped to create it, that my interest in classical music was sparked. As a child, and even now as a (more or less) adult, classical music has sometimes felt kind of ‘beyond’ me. When I was younger, it reeked of ‘posh’, of older people driving around in Volvo estates or wearing suits and nodding along knowingly to some movement of this piece by that dead guy. The classical music I enjoyed when I was little was music that explicitly told a story, for example Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (even though, interestingly, the grandfather and wolf parts both scared me shitless) or that I could dance to. Fantasia captured my imagination and, subsequently, each of the pieces of music brought to animated life now has a special place in my heart.

Pastoral symphony

The combination of high musical art with the low brow familiarity of cartoon animation, rooted as it is in child-friendly bright colours, humour and anthropomorphic animals, is highly effective. Bringing both forms into conversation with one another undoubtedly broadens the way in which we think about both. The mass production and appeal of cartoon animation offers a friendlier introduction to the obscure and privileged world of classical music. Similarly the drama of classical music, and the requirement of animation to creatively and accurately interpret inflections, time signatures and important ideas within the pieces’ structures, elevates the artistry and production of animation.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor EDIT 1

It’s hard to narrow down which segment of the Fantasia programme I like the most: I have a very soft spot for The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (I really wanted to make friends with a pink unicorn or a flying horse, and my sister and I used to shelter all our cuddly toys under blankets during the storm).[1] As I’ve grown older, I have a renewed appreciation for Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in B Minor, which I initially thought was slightly boring but now find completely captivating.  However, I think it is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that has been the most enduringly important piece of music that Fantasia introduced to me.

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I remember listening to Deems Taylor’s introduction of the piece and referring to the music as originally written for a ballet, displaying ‘a simple series of tribal dances’. Listening and watching the unfolding animation had me begging desperately: How on earth could you do ballet to THIS?! My conception of ballet as a world of tutus, pointe shoes and graceful arabesques, incidentally seen elsewhere in Fantasia, was completely at odds with this frightening, stompy music. Music that helped to depict violent volcanic eruptions, a T-Rex fighting and killing a slow and considerably weaker stegosaurus, the eventual death march and extinction of all the dinosaurs, and an eerie eclipse hovering over this pockmarked, burnt out planet. The pained and wailing face of a diplodocus trapped in mud and burning in the heat is seared into my memory. No, this, whatever this was, was not conducive to ballet at all.

At the time, I had no idea that this type of music required an entirely different type of dancing, which I later explored at length in my Master’s dissertation. Indeed, I wouldn’t have written that dissertation at all if my interest hadn’t been piqued at such a young age. Fantasia rearranges the music of the original ballet quite significantly, but it is still an exceptional introduction to a truly staggering piece of music. I will no doubt bring The Rite of Spring to my blog at a later date, because it is such an important piece of music to me that has followed me around for many years. But for now, I want to appreciate just how wonderful Fantasia is and how grateful I am that, in spite of its limited commercial success in 1940, it has endured.

And I bloody missed it last week.

 

[1] I want to acknowledge here the problematic nature of Disney’s visualisation of The Pastoral Symphony in particular. This segment featured heavily racist stereotypes in the first production, which have since been edited out, and a beauty contest where the ‘pretty’ (read: not black) centaur women strut about and are picked one at a time by handsome centaur men to be their lovers. The racism and sexism is obviously unacceptable and makes for uncomfortable viewing.  

Death in fashion: Karl Lagerfeld

‘For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver’ – Walter Benjamin

Yesterday we heard the news that Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director at Chanel, Fendi and his own eponymous label, has died. Walter Benjamin would, perhaps, argue that Lagerfeld has been dabbling with death for his entire career (see this essay’s epigraph), but yesterday he passed away in Paris at the age of 85.  Fashion design was, undoubtedly, his entire life (apart from his love for his cat, Choupette), and such extraordinary dedication to his craft is what has made him legendary. Although he may not have openly exhibited the emotional naiveté of designers like Alexander McQueen or Raf Simons (two of my all-time favourite designers), by golly he was a figure of creative and commercial genius. Lagerfeld was able to fearlessly embrace both history and modernity, turn fashion shows into aspirational spectacles, and take his understanding of brand power to astronomical levels.[1] Those inter-locking Cs are immediately recognisable worldwide thanks to him. Although he claims that Coco Chanel would have hated his commercial transformation of the fashion house, he has adhered to her philosophy that fashion was dress-making: clothes are meant to be bought, sold and worn.[2] For Lagerfeld, as it was for Coco, fashion most definitely is not an art-form.

Karl has never been my favourite designer, even though his shows, clothes and perfume campaigns have made Chanel products ridiculously desirable (I wear Coco Mademoiselle because it smells divine and just because Keira Knightley). I am, however, not OK with the way in which he described Germany’s open-door refugee policy in 2017, which reeked of hateful Islamophobia.[3] I am not OK with the way that he has spoken about Adele, Michelle Obama or Pippa Middleton: I would find it very difficult to take if someone said that I should only show my back because my face isn’t pretty enough. It was undeniably a fucking mean thing to say.[4] For all of his designing excellence and great taste, he had a mean streak that was completely ungracious, unbecoming and offensive.

Nevertheless, his passing is deeply significant. It feels like the passing of one of modern culture’s greats, like the deaths of Seamus Heaney or Aretha Franklin. He is an icon of popular culture who has achieved the feat of having grown into a ripe old age, where so many creative lives have been cut short by illness or personal tragedy. He has traversed, witnessed and helped to create so much change over the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, evidenced in the fluctuations and ideas presented in his extraordinary backlog of visual work. His death leaves a large void in the cultural fabric of the 21st century, and it’s going to be interesting to witness the unfolding transition in the wake of his death both at Chanel and Fendi, and across fashion in general.

Fashion is a funny thing: I subscribe to Walter Benjamin’s conception of it as a dialectical social construct, encapsulating both commodity fetishism and the release of utopian desire and energy in a moment of historical awakening. It is both frivolous and fruitful. Whether you care about it or not, it shapes and literally dresses the world around us (please click on the picture below for the iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada for further reference and explanation). Lagerfeld’s passing is another one of the great transitions we witness in life: the dying of the old ways, the liminality of not knowing what is going to come next and, ultimately, the emergence of something else, something we don’t yet know or understand. Whatever and whoever comes next, life in fashion and beyond, is going to continue to fascinate.

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[1] Lagerfeld’s adeptness for creating and designing extraordinary fashion shows is particularly significant. Classic runway exhibitions have become increasingly outdated thanks to the industry’s demands for instant, immediate access to fashion, with collection turnarounds that beggar belief. (Again, it is important to emphasise here Lagerfeld’s enormous and unparalleled creative output: he worked tirelessly and wholeheartedly to produce collections for Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer, Resort, Cruise and couture for three labels, as well as an additional Metiers d’Art for Chanel). By creating fashion shows that turn a collection presentation into a show and a spectacle (Lagerfeld took us to an enchanted forest, a beach, a jungle, a cruise ship, a brasserie, a rocket launch, an iceberg, a data centre, Ancient Greece and a barn amongst others) he not only preserved the sanctity of the runway when it had all but become a stale, outdated method of introducing new collections, but, indeed, breathed new life into it. A ticket to a Karl Lagerfeld Chanel show was perhaps the most covetable of all the fashion month shows, never mind just Paris, and were as Instagrammable as they come. As a side note, I would LOVE to compare the shows and performances of Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld at some point.

[2] ‘What I do, Coco would have hated. The label has an image and it’s up to me to update it. I do what she never did’. https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/karl-lagerfeld-quotes-120855 [accessed 14:36, 20/02/2019].

[3] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/chanels-karl-lagerfeld-claims-muslim-migrants-are-affront-to-holocaust-victims-cm2tr9prt

[4] https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/karl-lagerfeld-controversial-quotes-intl/index.html

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019: I am a witness

Ever since my first foray into podcasts, I have become an avid listener of one channel in particular. Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul conversations are inspiring listens: she discusses life, love and death with a variety of spiritual leaders, academics, psychotherapists and artists in an attempt to connect us to ourselves, each other and the greater world around us. There is no specific religious angle that the podcast takes: it simply asks and provides perspectives on the biggest questions that confront us all: what happens when we die? What is love? What is reality and what space is there for the spiritual? I have enjoyed reading philosophy and cultural criticism for a very long time, but this realm of spirituality is one in which I feel quite out of my depth. In a world full of distractions, this podcast directly reacquaints us with perennial questions that it may be worth integrating into our lives on a more regular basis.

One of the episodes that touched me the most was the interview Winfrey conducted in 2012 with Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who passed away in 2016. There are so many amazing words of wisdom that Wiesel imparts over the course of the interview but one of the most important moments comes 27 minutes in:

‘All of us who went through that experience [the Holocaust] consider ourselves witnesses. When the last witness will be gone, I don’t want to be that one, too tragic. What will happen? So on one hand you can become pessimistic: with the last witness, all of the knowledge, all the experience, all the memories will be buried. Then what? So I came up with a theory, which I think is valid. To listen to a witness is to become one. To listen to a witness is to become a witness. Therefore, those who have listened to us, who read my books and other survivors’ memoirs… we have a lot of witnesses now. And they will protect not only our past but also their future’.

There is a profound message of solidarity and hope here that, I think, is very inspiring. Although the survivors of the Holocaust will not be alive forever, their memories will endure through the people who listen to them. I am a witness: from having read Anne Frank’s diary, Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and from having seen The Pianist, God on Trial and Schindler’s List. I have also listened to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors at The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark (also known as Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre) and from visiting the death camps when I was 16 years old as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’. For the latter, we were encouraged to disseminate what we had witnessed and learned about the Holocaust amongst our peer group, to improve understanding of the Nazi atrocities with the hopes that we can all prevent bigotry and hatred becoming a political killing machine once again. My friend and I planned an assembly about our experiences that sadly never came to fruition; therefore, for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019, I wanted to post about my experience with the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’, and in honour of Elie Wiesel, to openly declare myself a witness to genocide.

I first learned about the Holocaust from reading a Children’s Encyclopaedia when I was about 7. This photograph captured my attention perhaps more than any other in my book:

elie wiesel

Interestingly, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago, when I listened to Oprah’s conversation with Elie Wiesel and decided to write this essay about it, that I learnt that he is one of the men pictured in this photograph (he is lying on the second row up, seventh to the right). I remember looking at this photograph for the first time and thinking that something very, very wrong had happened to these men. They look so thin and ill, tightly packed in together and using pots as pillows. I didn’t think it was possible for people to look like this. Their expressions are extremely intense: they don’t look pleadingly, they don’t look hopeful, they don’t look relieved at having been liberated. Their expressions are gaunt, calm and unflinching. They are the stares of people who have witnessed and experienced abject horror and brutality. It is the least I can do now to write this essay to say that I saw and still see them, I will listen to their stories and I will do my best to live a life where such horror is not forgotten or delegitimised.

In 2009, at the age of 16, two History students in my year group were to be given the opportunity to represent our school in the East Midlands cohort of the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project. I applied and was successful, along with one of my best friends. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing: embarking on a deeply harrowing and moving trip was really made all the more bearable by having a close friend to share it with. The project began with an orientation seminar at the Albert Hall in Nottingham where ambassadors were split into groups to discuss what we were all doing there. We talked about the Holocaust, how it unfolded, why it should be remembered and, most importantly, how we remember it with the respect and dignity its victims and survivors deserve. We discussed the ethics of taking photographs at the death camps; we critiqued the difference between listening and reflecting on survivor testimony as part of the trip, as opposed to turning a visit to Auschwitz into a tourist box-ticking exercise.

(As an aside, it still horrifies me that 10 years after my experience on the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project that some stag do packages for Krakow still list a trip to Auschwitz as a suitable activity, alongside Kalashnikov shooting, strip clubs and water parks. The hideously named ‘Last Night of Freedom’ site is the worst, see below).

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last night of freedom 2

 

The orientation seminar was an excellent way to prepare us for the trip because it established a context about Holocaust remembrance, but also prepared us for our reactions to the Holocaust trip. In short, there is no correct way to emotionally respond to the death camps once you are there: we were told that fear, sadness, anger and numbness were all feelings that might arise. To feel one, any or none of these was fine. There was plenty of support available, from our fellow ambassadors, volunteer teachers who were to accompany us, and the Holocaust Educational Trust course Educators themselves.

On 29th March 2009, we caught an early flight from East Midlands airport to Krakow. My cohort was accompanied by Andy Reed, who was the MP for Loughborough at the time, as well as photographers and journalists from the Loughborough Echo and Leicester Mercury newspapers.[1] The first location we visited after landing in Poland was the small town of Oświęcim, more renowned for its German name of ‘Auschwitz’. Here, we were taken to a Jewish cemetery. This was such an important part of the trip because it helped us to understand that prior to the Second World War, Jewish culture and communities in continental Europe had been thriving: indeed, in 1933, Europe had been home to 9.5 million Jews. Oświęcim itself had been home to 5000 Jews, 20 synagogues (including the Great Synagogue that was burnt down by the Nazis in 1939) and a bustling Jewish neighbourhood. Upon the Nazi occupation of Poland, the town’s Jewish population were all deported. Whilst some returned to the town after the liberation of the death camps, there are now no Jews living in the town today: the final member of the pre-war community who returned to Oświęcim was a man called Shimshon Klueger who died in 2000.[2] In total, 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, including 1.5 million children. The cemetery at Oświęcim formed the resting place for only a few Jewish men and women: but standing in front of these graves, knowing that the death of just one person is such a loss, such a great loss to the world and to loved ones left behind, the figure of 6 million became immediately and horrifyingly vast.

We were then taken to Auschwitz I, which houses the museum. We saw mountains of shoes, suitcases, glasses, prosthetic limbs and human hair, all forcibly taken from prisoners at the camp. The attempt to dehumanise the prisoners, to strip them of their dignity and their very identities was plain to see. We saw dingy corners of the camp where prisoners were hung or shot; and the cramped living quarters where prisoners were forced together like animals.

We were then taken to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the bigger, more spaced out camp with its infamous railway tracks and watch tower. We were taken to the different barracks, including the Family Camp where a frieze of Disney’s Snow White was painted on the wall, into the watch tower itself and to the crematoria. At each stage of our tour, we paused to reflect, to listen to a piece of survivor testimony or to a poem, helping us to personalise the experience. The barracks, toilets and train tracks weren’t just shells or husks of the past, they were brought back to hideous and heartbreaking life through the words of the people who were forced to live and die there. We learnt that the toilets became one of the most desirable places to work for the prisoners because in spite of the smell and the mess, it afforded prisoners the chance to work inside and out of the cold. And believe me, it was cold. We visited Auschwitz in March, so not the height of winter but still cold enough for snowfall. We were wrapped up as tightly as possible in layers of hats, scarves, gloves and big coats; we were keenly aware that the prisoners would have been in painfully thin prison uniforms without any of our protections against the absolute freezing cold.

Going into the watchtower was one of the most gut-wrenching moments for me because from such a high vantage, you could see every corner of the camp. I truly began to appreciate how big Auschwitz was, how big the Nazi desire was to kill people. The Nazis really had gone to such a lot of effort to kill people, and the scale of their hatred was reflected in the enormity of this camp. Auschwitz involved killing on an industrial scale, approximately 1.2 million people were murdered here. To see it all laid out, coldly and clinically organised, with barbed wire encasing rows and rows and rows of barracks, was terrifying and sickening to behold. From the watchtower, we saw groups of Israeli students, walking down the tracks waving a Star of David flag. It was defiant, it was funereal, it was a celebration: the Nazis had tried so hard to destroy the Jewish race, and here we were 64 years later, witnessing Jews coming to Auschwitz alive, healthy and full of pride, to mourn the colossal attack on their people and the whole of humanity.

The visited concluded with an emotional memorial service led by Rabbi Barry Marcus, who sang a prayer in Hebrew for all victims of the Holocaust. He named Dachau, Sobibor, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and many of the other camps where Jews were transported and murdered: whilst Auschwitz is the most famous death camp, there were many others spread around Poland, Germany and even Austria. It began to get dark and we lit candles, which we laid on the tracks.

andyjreed - flickr group

Copyright: AndyJReed, Flickr

The whole day, with the enormity of what we had witnessed as well as the flights to and from Poland, felt like a bit of a whirlwind. Once we had returned home, we attended a follow-up seminar which, looking back, was absolutely essential. It enabled us to process and ground ourselves with everything we had seen and learnt. We discussed what we had experienced, what our reflections were and, most importantly, what we were going to do to increase Holocaust education and awareness. Ten years on, I still reflect on the trip I took to Auschwitz. What I have learnt is that the primary aim of this whole experience was to help ensure that with enough understanding of the past and with enough hope for the future, something like the Holocaust will never happen again. In the Super Soul podcast, Elie Wiesel was adamant that the biggest challenge in the present moment and in future was fighting indifference:

‘I’ve dedicated my life to not only fighting evil, too difficult, but to fighting indifference […] the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference […] indifference enables everything that is bad in life. And, therefore, fight indifference’.

Raising awareness and talking about the Holocaust lifts people out of the mundanity of day-to-day life and confronts us with what humanity is capable of. It is not comfortable, it is not pleasant but it is absolutely essential. Although hatred and bigotry act as sparks for crimes against humanity, it is indifference in everyday life that fans the flames of hatred. It is indifference, apathy and the belief that something that does not impact you personally isn’t your business that is the slippery slope towards unimaginable bigotry and violence. At the root of hatred and bigotry, I believe, is a profound fear of difference. If we were to explore this fear, crack open stereotypes and confront the inherited confusion and anger that fear might entail, we might bring about some positive change in the world. Indifference is a state of ignorant detachment. Indifference prevents you from truly feeling and experiencing life. It is a self-interested, privileged indulgence. I agree with Elie Wiesel that indifference is as great a threat to human life as hatred.

With anti-Semitism once again rising in the UK and across Europe, and worshippers recently being shot at a synagogue in Pennsylvania, it is imperative that the horror of the past is not forgotten. Genocide should have stopped after the Holocaust; however, there have been many instances of genocide since the Holocaust. Indeed, genocide is taking place right now in Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To me, the fact that human beings should wantonly forget or underplay horror on such a scale in the 1930s and 1940s is unfathomable. I defy anyone to go to Auschwitz and not come out knowing that human beings can and must do so much better for one another. I think the most fitting way to conclude this essay is with the man who inspired it, Elie Wiesel: a man who suffered so much cruelty but who was able to cultivate indelible light and hope out of the darkness of hate. He is still an inspiration to us all:

‘[I am] part of a generation that has felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind and yet I believe we must not give up on either. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children; between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves for not. I know I speak from experience that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man’.

 

[1] I learnt only recently that Andy Reed had signed an early day motion in 2008 in support of government subsidies for the ‘Lessons From Auschwitz’ project, which can be accessed here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/35229/holocaust-educational-trust-auschwitz-trips

[2] ‘Your Visit: Lessons From Auschwitz Project’, The Holocaust Educational Trust, p.15.