Monday, November 30, 2009

Some things matter

Visited White Cube Gallery at Hoxton Square and Mason’s Yard to see Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition – Nothing Matters.
The works focussed on crows and rather fetching skulls (see picture above). But before you get excited, there was no formaldehyde, diamonds and precious metals in the picture. In keeping with the recession, Hirst has scaled down his works to mere paint on canvas. (Though he couldn’t resist pasting real crow feathers on to the paintings).

Interestingly, the exhibition opened on Tuesday, November 24. The very next day BBC Four broadcasted an investigative documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble by art critic Ben Lewis. The documentary traced the unprecedented rise in the prices of contemporary art in the last decade, and particularly in 2007-08, examining how much of it was mere speculation. Hirst and his patron gallery White Cube figured rather prominently in Lewis’ firing line.

The documentary is worth viewing because it tries to examine the role of the artist-gallery-auction house nexus in raising and maintaining the prices of contemporary art works, and why the general public should care about it.

According to Lewis, money matters in the art world – it really matters, and don’t let Hirst tell you otherwise.

The documentary can be viewed for another five days on the BBC website. Hirst’s crows and skulls that don’t matter will be on view till January 24 at the White Cube gallery.

Scottish Saga

So Scotland wants its independence according to its First Minister Alex Salmond.

I will support their call for freedom on only one condition. That once free, it joins such great nations as Haiti, Nepal and Costa Rica in allowing tourism-minded Indians like me through its borders without a visa. I simply do not have the energy or patience to apply for yet another visa to visit Scotland.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beyond Borders

Yesterday, Sid and I happily went scavenging through the Borders book shop outlet in Angel. The chain bookstore went into liquidation last week, and we were hoping to capitalise on its bad luck.

No, Borders doesn’t have my sympathies. None at all! Borders would like you to believe that did this to it. But I wonder if it was Amazon that was responsible for its poorly informed staff, boring recommendations, and topsy-turvy book management system.

A few months ago, Sid walked into a Borders bookshop with a specific book in mind. It wasn’t just a vague idea, he didn’t just have the subject in mind – it was a specific book by a specific author that he was after. He couldn’t find it in the supposed designated area, so walked up to the staff. The staff took him back to the designated area, and started looking around in confusion – obviously, it wasn’t there. So he looked up the computer systems, stocks hadn’t run out. The book was there in store, just that the shop assistant had no idea where it could be. Sid left in disgust and bought the book on Amazon.

The problem is that Borders tried to attract buyers with coffee, toys, CDs and beautiful pictures. So it got coffee drinkers, toy buyers, CD hunters and picture gazers – it didn’t get in book lovers.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kapoor's Land of Wonder

Anish Kapoor's retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts on PhotoPeach

Visiting Anish Kapoor’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts yesterday was like experiencing the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus again – without the long boring story and characters to distract this time.

The artworks are difficult to describe precisely because they don’t resemble anything real that I have seen. They were all about material, form, size, shapes and beautiful, vivid colours. As we entered, there was an undulating rust-coloured metal cavern of gigantic proportion that filled up the whole hall. And then, there was a huge block of wax in rasberry sorbet colour that slowly made its way on rails between different rooms, its shape being cut out of the curved marble doorways it passed through. Or my favourite: a gigantic wall smoothly curving inwards in the prettiest shade of yellow. It reminded me of nature’s landscapes and Disney fantasies all at once.

And the material and colours somehow invited you to touch them, stare into their curving holes, pose in front of its shiny surfaces, hop over them, slide under them – and just fool around with them. The museum staff was having a tough time stopping people from doing just that, even though, I wonder if Kapoor would really mind. The works looked too solid to be easily harmed by anyone.

I also loved the disregard with which the hallowed, imperial halls of the Royal Academy were being treated. Like the giant paintball sending canons of red colour at fifty miles per hour on the white, white walls of the Academy. Or the coloured wax block cutting through the archways and dropping slimy wax all about the pristine marble floor. It seemed sacrilegious under the ornate ceilings and cold marble of the academy, and somehow gave you a guilty, but immensely satisfying, kick.

Fun is what his works were, and if the squeals of joy and surprise, the anticipation, the gaping mouths and wonder-filled eyes around me were any indication – they achieved their purpose.

(Images courtesy: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Window Dressing

As December 25 comes closer, the London shops are choking with Christmas spirit. Here's an early nomination for the most over the top window decoration in London.

Fortnum & Mason (scaring us with OTT windows since 1707), Picadilly, W1J 9.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

2012: The Scariest Moment

The chilliest moment for me while watching 2012 came 40 minutes into the film when the theatre screen suddenly went off and a mechanical voice called us to attention asking us to quietly make our way out. Everyone started looking around in confusion and not-just-a-little alarm. It was the as if all the while we had been watching the comic apocalypse in the film, unaware to us, it had been turning into terrifying reality outside.

It turned out to be a mere power cut at the Vue Cinema in Islington, where Sid and I were watching the film.

As it is, the unscheduled power cut also turned out to be the only unexpected moment of a film so utterly predictable that I found myself wishing that human race does get polished-off by the end of the film – just to give me that one moment of satisfying surprise.

PS: Did the industrious Jimmy Mistry take special lessons from Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on the Indian accent for 2012? I guess nobody told him that Apu is a cartoon character for a reason.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Solving Britain's unemployment problems

Here is my contribution to solving UK's rising unemployment which stands at 7.8 per cent of the population at the moment and is predicted to rise to 9.5 per cent in two years. Gordon Brown should make it illegal for service companies to use any kind of automated voice recordings. No company should ask its clients to speak to automated voice services to pay for bills, send details about addresses or changes in them, or any other inquiries.

We just moved out of our old place and I had to go through an immensely long and frustrating exercise to get my address changed and outstanding bills cleared off with government councils, gas, water and electric companies. All of them forced me to speak to automated voice services. None of these enlightening conversations eventually worked out because either the automated voice couldn't understand my accent or because I didn't read out the addres exactly as it had on its records or whatever. So I was passed on real operators eventually anyway. But not before I had already wasted much time and patience over delightful chats with machines.

It is poor service, it wastes my time - and most importantly, it is taking away some poor unemployed British sods job. Get rid of it!

Monday, November 23, 2009


Why do Marks & Spencer's price tags say "outstanding price" instead of just "price"? Is it that by merely looking at the price tag, I have already paid part of the price - and what I will come out of my debit card will be merely the left over installment?

London Independent: Cafe Moccha 2

Is it possible to develop a relationship with a café? I am not living in Angel at the moment. So why did I feel that I owed it to Café Moccha and to myself to drop in and have its excellent café latte and greasy omelette just because I was in the area? To not have done so would have somehow amounted to disloyalty.

Café Moccha 2: it stands on Essex Road and is owned by an Albanian with a monkey-cap haircut who harmlessly flirt with anything fetching that walks into his café. Most of the staff, dressed in non-descript black, are Albanians too who speak in a charming rounded-vowel accent, and lovingly eat up every sixth preposition in a sentence.

There is nothing distinguishing about it. It has granite-top tables and metal pipe chairs neatly arranged in rows; clean cream walls with no wall hangings or paintings; and two large televisions always playing an Italian music channel called My Music. (Why Italian? Six months of visiting it every day and I still don’t know). The paper card menu that stands on every table is basic – omelettes, paninis, ciabattas, sandwiches and pastas (most of it greasier than I prefer). The coffees are standard lattes and mochas – though always perfectly turned out.

So why is this place always full, when many others along the road are not? There are groups of mothers meeting for early morning group therapy chats, toddlers stumbling about, black suited men having business meetings, old couples having their daily meals, college students discussing work projects, and lots and lots of single souls tapping away on their laptops like me.

I doubt it is the the food, the coffees, the space, the décor. It is the fact that the café is always busy, but never enough to not have a table for you. The staff is busy but never so much that they don't greet you in recognition or remember what you usually like. You are somehow never underdressed or overdressed for it. And it is not a part of a chain, so you know that you are special to have found it. The experience is not available dime-a-dozen on every street. You feel welcome, wanted, special, accepted just as you are – and it comes with a free, great internet reception. Now, isn’t that all we look for in a relationship?

If I could marry again, I would marry my Café Moccha.


Cafe Moccha 2: 48 Essex Road, Islington, London N1 8LR. (phone: 07882892493)

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Here is how I know that the NYT columnist Gail Collins doesn't know much about the UK.

As she quotes in her latest column about the end of Oprah Winfrey's show: "The idea that anything popular should stay around until we turn green at the sight of it is not, of course, confined to our culture. The British have Tony Blair and The Spice Girls Reunion Tour."

Tony Blair and Spice Girls? Which British newspaper does she read, I wonder.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Free for all and all for free

A friend told me a horror story last summer. Sulakshana was spending her summer break in London doing an unpaid editorial internship at Time Out, where she met another unpaid editorial intern who had been living in London for a while. Apparently, over a course of more than a year, her new "also unpaid intern" friend had done over ten unpaid internships at all major newspapers in the city including several at Guardian, The Times, Daily Mail (and even the bloody Economist). But none of them transpired into a "paid job".

And then, both of us sat at Russell Square gardens gloomily contemplating about our future. After all, a year later we were hoping to find paid jobs as journalists in London.

I told her that perhaps her new friend was stupid. If so many internships later, you still can't convince someone to pay you then perhaps it is time for some introspection.

That said, it is also true that all these newspapers did get free work out of her. Isn't it ironical that the same newspapers who scream blue murder at readers wanting content for free are happy enough to accept free services coming their way?

They say charity begins at home. Shouldn't paying for services received too?


Sulakshana cut her losses and ran away to Sierra Leone to work for a human rights organisation that would pay. While there, she got a very much paid job with the BBC World Trust. She writes a blog Notes from Freetown about life and times in Sierra Leone.

As for me, I am about to apply for my first free internship with a London newspaper. If that's the way the cookie crumbles....

Chew the fat

My favourite scene from the movie Fight Club is when Brad Pitt takes Edward Norton scavenging through the rubbish bins of liposuction labs in search of human fat. Then, they make soap out of it and sell it to an upmarket cosmetic shop. As Brad Pitt explains - they use fat from rich women's ass to put it on their face.

The set-up was so outrageous that it was priceless. It was funny precisely because we couldn't bring ourselves to believe that anyone would be coarse enough to do that. After all, who would have a disgust-threshold high enough to survive that?

Apparently, these Peruvians do, who according to BBC were operating "an international network trafficking human fat". Only, they didn't bother with voluntary donations of fat. Since this is Peru, they simply abducted people of lonely roads, killed them, sucked off all that luscious human fat and sold it to European pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies for £9000 a litre. That is globalisation of human fat for you.

Somehow, the Fight Club anecdote doesn't seem so funny anymore.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Kafka Presidency

Every time I begin attempting to comprehend the EU and its activities, I feel like I am entering a Kafka novel – The Trial to be exact.

It all starts with Hewitt’s column on the BBC today on the upcoming appointment of EUs “face on the world stage” as he called it. However, he completely missed out mentioning what exact designation was up for grabs. How peculiar?

So I type in “EU” and “presidency” – and google away.

This must be it: I find myself reading about the “Presidency of the Council of the European Union (commonly referred to as presidency of the European Union)”. However, this six-month president’s primary responsibility is to organise and chair all meetings of the Council. This is it! Is this what Tony Blair was chasing so hard?

Of course, not. (Besides, this Presidency is already full till Dec 2010.)

I google again – this time adding the “EU Commission” to the list. Isn’t that the executive body of the EU? The presidency must have something to do with it.

The “President of the EU Commission” comes up, which is the described as the most powerful office in the EU. Yes! I have finally hit the nail on the head. But wait a minute. José Manuel Barroso of Portugal is sitting pretty on this seat till the next five years.

This couldn’t be it.

I google again, throwing in “Tony Blair” into the fray this time.

The President of the European Council comes up (with the helpful hint that he shouldn't be confused with the "President of the European Parliament"). But wait a minute! Haven’t I already read about him? No, no no, that was the President of the Council of European Union.

The president of the European Council, the president of the European parliament, the president of the European Union commission, president of the council of European Union, the president of the EU council of parliaments, the president of the council of European commissions, the president....

I am confused, suffocated, in a state of mild panic and switch to AbFAb videos on You Tube.

When Nick Griffin was elected to the EU parliament, a shiver had run through my spine. Was the UK turning racist? My fears were utterly misplaced. It was just the best way the British people could think of shutting him up – by sending him to Kafkaland. What better punishment than that?


Perhaps, Max Seddon can find another similie to his description of Korina's installation. If you are looking for a somewhat shapeless, many tentacled creature why not the EU?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Critical Findings

I have a lot of respect for art critics. They often find references, connections and ideas in the art works that leave me amazed. But there are also those times when I am left thinking - hmm... Is he kidding me?

This unnamed art installation by Irina Korina (I love the sing-song quality of her name) at Bloomberg SPACE has been described by art critic Max Seddon in the accompanying leaflet as resembling a "jellyfish, Kraken, spaceship or enchanted tree".


Jellyfish - ok, I hadn't thought of it, but now that Seddon mentions it, I see the resemblance.

Kraken - well, isn't that a kind of monster jellyfish anyway?

Enchanted tree - Why? Because there are dead leaves and branches scattered about?

Spaceship - Now, I must protest on behalf spaceship lovers. Spaceship it is not! I don't know what science fiction Seddon watches but spaceships do not and have never had Chinese lanterns on their heads.

A lamp on an abandoned gazebo in autumn is what it most reminded me of - but then again, that is exactly why I am not an art critic.

Visit and judge for yourself: Korina's work is displayed at the Bloomberg SPACE till November 28.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bloomberg Blooper

Someone must tell Bloomberg LP that it is bad corporate branding for a company whose essential business is packaging and disseminating information to do such a poor job of explaining the art exhibits displayed in its art gallery housed in the company’s London office.

First, despite the huge banners outside inviting you to Bloomberg SPACE, it is rather difficult to find the actual gallery, tucked as it is behind an angle in the tall concrete building with many entrances. I am shooed away by a Nepalese security guard in a black suit and Hollywood-style ear piece at one doorway, before I find the right one.

Inside, I discover myself in an empty lobby with an art installation made out of worker’s uniforms in the centre. I look around for clues to its origins. There are none. The abandoned reception has two pamphlets. Both relate to other exhibitions in London, none to the exhibit on display in front of me.

As I walk through the other room I find myself on a mezzanine floor with several paintings, seemingly unrelated to the installation I had just seen. In confusion, I look around and find two pamphlets hanging in the tiny corridor connecting the two spaces entitled "Vicky Wright Comma 14" and "Irina Korina Comma 13". Were those the two works on display - and which is which? To add to the confusion, on a far wall I can see several more pamphlets with artists’ names followed by Comma 1, 2… to 12.

The mystery is solved by another security guard – again Nepalese, again in black suit and ear piece – in the second room. Comma 1, 2.. to 12 were the previous exhibitions. Comma 13 and 14 were the current ones. The hanging uniforms were Irina Corina’s and the paintings on the mezzanine were Wright’s.

Shouldn't all this be self-explanatory?

The paintings do not have any titles, not even those that announce that the art work is “untitled”. There are no references to the media or materials used. This is particularly annoying in case of Wright’s work because with paint smudged straight on to the wooden canvas, media and material seems to be the most interesting aspect of her work.

The pamphlet to Wright’s work is not very friendly either. It only comes to Wright and her ideas after six long paragraphs of personal pontifications on the ways in which economy and art are connected. Which in any case, are explained again in the next six paragraphs with reference to Wright’s paintings. The author of this comment is merely described as “writer living in London” with no references to his credentials.

Thankfully, the author of the pamphlet to Irina’s installation sticks to the artist’s work and is described as “until recently the chief art critic of Moscow Times”.

I wanted to take pictures, but am told by yet another Nepalese security guard that I can only click Korina’s work. Room 2 was out of bounds.

I leave wondering why was this gallery so relentlessly determined to bury poor Wright’s work? And more importantly, when, where and why did this office get overrun by Nepalese security men?

*** Not mentioned: Internet informs me that Wright’s paintings are actually entitled The Guardians. The commentator of her work, Jonathan Griffin, is the assistant editor of Frieze magazine apparently. The exhibition is on till Nov 28.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not so high after all

The Indian government remains the Indian government, no matter which part of the world you approach it from.

The pages in my Indian passport, which is no where close to expiry, are over. The website of the High Commission of India in the UK says I must apply for a new passport.

So far so good.

But the form to fill gives me only three options to apply for a passport: if I am applying for the first time, if my passport has expired, or if I am applying for a duplicate passport. I fall into none of the categories.
So I look up the website for helpline numbers. There is a general enquiry number, a passport enquiries number, and impressively, an after-hours number. All carry the country code to India and turn out to be invalid. I figure that they must have by mistake skype addressed the numbers to India, when they meant to do it to the UK. So I call the general enquiry number using the UK country code. The pre recorded voice informs me that I have definitely reached the HCI but no one actually bothers to pick up the phone number on the first two tries. On my third try, someone picks up the phone and bangs it down loudly. I get the message.
So I try the passport enquiry number. Only to be told by a pre recorded message that I should look up the website for details. There is no "talk to a human being" option available on the inquiry line. So why is it an inquiry line at all?

In desperation, I call the after-hours number. There isn't even a pre recorded message this time confirming whether I've reached the HCI or outer Mongolia. The number rings four times and then I am told that as no one's picking up the number and no voice mail service is available, good luck and good night!
I am left with no option but to do just fill the form to the best of my knowledge, and then keep my fingers crossed when I jostle my way through the HCI tomorrow.

When I was at the High Commission of India office in London earlier, I met a girl who had been living in the UK with her Scottish husband for the last nine years. In a year, she would be eligible for a UK passport. In the meantime, her Indian passport had expired. But it had taken her three months to bother to apply for a new passport. "Who will deal with all this?", she had remarked distastefully looking around at the noisy, overcrowded HCI office at Aldwych. As a recent migrant to the UK, I had immediately felt defensive of India and its miseries, and had thought - Geez, what a snob?

But now, as I feel frustration mount up in me, I can almost sympathise with her. Really, who wants to deal with the HCI. Not me!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pitch perfect

Little-Miss-Me in London found herself at a “Pitching To Editors” workshop today. It was being conducted by Susan Grossman, a cuddly warm 50-something former journalist who has digressed into mentoring budding writers paddling wildly in London’s media ocean. The workshop was part-therapy for unsure writers and part hard facts on how to eke out a living as a freelancer: who pays what, for what kind of stories, how to find and approach them and – yummiest of all – how to get as much financial mileage as possible out of a single story idea.

Who else lost their way to the workshop? A former foreign correspondent for NYT, a current City AM editor, a cookbook writer, a fiction writer, a former Metro writer, a freelance sub-editor, a few working journalists, and a sweet Japanese lady who was bored of lunching at Harvey Nichols and wanted to do something constructive with her life. Ironically, she took away the prize for the best, funniest story idea of us all.

Moral of the story: If I play my cards correctly, I can make approximately £800 on one good story idea. That is more than a penny to my thoughts.
To find more on Susan Grossman’s workshops, visit her website.

Friday, November 13, 2009


History: If you dig deep enough, you can connect the most bizarre and seemingly unrelated bits of historical events together. For example, what connects the Russian military exploits of the 1860s, false rumours of walnut groves in Azerbaijan, oil fields in Baku and Barack Obama? The Nobel prize, of course.

Among the gazillion exhibitions going on in London is one at the Asia House near Regent’s Park titled “The Nobels and Baku Oil”. As it chronicles, while Alfred Nobel was quietly inventing dynamite in his laboratory in Stockholm, his other less-famous elder brothers, Ludwig and Robert, were busy manufacturing equally innocuous devices such as mines, torpedoes, artillery shells, and weapons in their factory in St. Petersburg to keep the Tzar's army happy. However, they needed – of all things – walnuts to make gunstocks and walnuts were expensive in St Petersburg. The brothers heard of rumours of walnut groves in Azerbaijan, and Robert was dispatched to investigate more. He never found the walnuts – what he did find was mouth watering oil fields around Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

What followed was the making of the Russian Rockfellers, as author Robert Tolf called the Nobel family, which monopolised the Russian oil production for the next fifty years. In the process, they invented the first oil tankers, and popularised the use of oil pipelines and liquid carrying trains. The fun came to an end with the Russian Revolution, when the Nobels fled Baku and their assets were nationalised. But not before, Alfred Nobel had made another fortune through the oil production company Branobel run by his brothers. Apparently, nearly 12 per cent of his endowment of 33, 200,000 Swedish Krona for the Nobel Prize came from his shares in Branobel.

The multimedia exhibition is a mix of personal histories of the Nobel brothers, the innovations made by them, and lots and lots of oil trivia (if that is what interests you). It has been put together by Azarbaijani historians Azada Huseynova, Naida Abbasova and Amina Malikova, and one can sense that by bringing the Nobel connection to light, they also hope to show the prominent role played by Baku in Europe of the nineteenth century. Many of the sepia photographs show Baku of the times, with wide tree-lined roads, horse carriages and imposing stone buildings. It wasn’t just some remote outpost in the back of the beyond – it was important, it was cosmopolitan, and it was where the action was, or so suggests the exhibition.

Hundred and thirty six years after Robert Nobel arrived in Baku with walnuts in his eyes, Azerbaijan wants these noble connections to be recognised.

"The Nobels & Baku Oil" ends tomorrow, and will move on to Berlin, Belgium, Sweden and Norway. But for similar thrilling exhibitions, contact Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1G 7LP. (+44 (0)20 7307 5454).
For more on Nobels and Baku Oil, read Brita Asbrink or Robert W. Tolf.

Sentenced to Death

In the process of ridiculing Ms Palin’s long meandering sentences, has The New York Times caught the bug itself?

An extract (the third paragraph) from an NYT report today on Ms Palin:

An official with the McCain campaign with knowledge of the matter referred questions to Mr. McCain’s general counsel, Trevor Potter, but, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that Ms. Palin’s claim about being stuck with a $50,000 legal bill for the vetting process was “completely false, not true.”

51 words, five commas and three characters jostling for space in the same sentence. Bad fengshui!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bible Babel

Being new to London and a Hindu, I am not exactly sure how to respond to the lovely old ladies who often come knocking on our door to tell me how "All Suffering Is Near Its End". They are Jehovah's Witnesses, apparently.

Sid says I should give them a big smile, thank them profusely, and before closing the door add brightly: "And May Allah With Be You!"

Vaginal Twist: Or how Eve Ensler got women wrong

A recent BBC report on the growing trend of women wanting designer vaginas had me thinking of the seminal play, The Vagina Monologues, by the American playwright and feminist Eve Ensler. The play written and performed by Ensler for the first time in 1996 in New York quickly catapulted to a feminist phenomenon. It inspired V-day, a global non-profit charity to oppose violence against women, which in 2009 alone has held over 4200 benefit events; a book entitled A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer comprising pieces by such famous personalities as Tariq Ali, Maya Angelou and Jane Fonda; and a television film on HBO by the same name. Besides, the play itself has been performed in 28 countries covering all habitable continents of the world except Australia.

I came across The Vagina Monologues when it was performed in Mumbai, India for the first time in 2003. The play – a set of monologues by women about their different vaginal experiences – was funny, tragic, empowering and incredibly graphic. At a superficial level, it was about sexual violence committed against women. But under that, it was a larger call for women to embrace their sexuality without any guilt or shame, and vocalise their experiences and desires. In particular, I remember one of the skits, Because He Liked to Look At It. It was about how we, women, often don’t even know what our vaginas look like, simply thinking them to be ugly and embarrassing. It had a woman sit in front of a mirror and look, properly look, at her vagina.

Well, it seems many British women have taken Ensler’s advice to heart and have sat in front of a mirror to look, properly look, at their vaginas. The result: they found it ugly and embarrassing, screamed in horror, and ran to the nearest plastic surgeon to demand a better, designer vagina. As Douglas McGeorge, the past president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, described the surgery: “this is just about removing a bit of loose flesh, leaving behind an elegant-looking labia with minimum scarring”.

Hmmm... what would Ensler think about this latest vaginal twist.

London nugget: Ensler performed The Vagina Monologues at the tiny pub-theatre, the King’s Head, on Upper Street, London in 1999. As Ensler fondly recalled on Timesoline: “Ah, the King's Head. I had to pee in a pot because there weren't any toilets.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cheapside High Fashion

Murdoch may have lost patience with the them-like-it-free turn of the Western print media (he has pulled the rug from under the free daily tabloid London Papers, and is threatening to charge all and sundry for using Newscorp-produced material) but others still have faith in the "and free shall show you the way" mantra.

Yesterday, I had the new free women's fashion weekly Stylist shoved at me as I walked into the Angel tubestation. It is produced by Shortlist Media, which also produces ShortList, a free men's weekly. The first issue of Stylist was launched in October 2009 with Angelina Jolie on the cover. However, by issue 6 that I was holding between my fingers Jolie had given way to a large, furry fuschia handbag of unknown antecedents with a cheesy Carrie-esque coverline: True Love is Bag-Shaped {Why Else Do We All Work So Hard?}.

Only Stylist isn't quite free. Both the readers and the advertisers pay the price in terms of grainy images, blurred text and bad design. Page 10 boasts the grainiest image of Gwenyth Paltrow I ever set my eyes on, and I doubt that the store Next will be too pleased with all that colour bleed on its inside cover full page ad. And did the art director really think cutting through the handbag straps to place the prices is a good design choice (pg 25-28)? And I wonder in which culture is Leon Tom (really) Yum Soup considered gourmet food (pg 19). The PDF version of the magazine is available online - so everyone can judge for themselves.

As Sid would say - high fashion and cheap, grainy magazine? Bad, bad fengshui!

Jenny Goes Smoking

I thought I had discovered something when I found my little cigarette box Conrad in an independent book shop on Rivington Street yesterday: a miniature novel by Conrad packed inside a cute black cigarette box cover, complete with a cellophane covering on top and silver foil paper inside. It was the perfect gift for friends who love books but don’t read. We all have so many of them.

Of course, I was just being Ms Jenny-Come-Lately to London…. again.

Apparently, the publishing company Tankbooks had the brainwave in 2007 when the smoking ban kicked into the UK. The series of cigarette-style classics by Hemingway, Conrad, Tolstoy and others were launched under the name Tales To Take Your Breath Away in the summer of 2007. Its launch was duly noted by the Design Museum, sales zoomed during Christmas, a cigarette company promptly sued it for design infringement, a facebook page popped up to save the series, and soon all was well and everyone forgot about them. The staff at the Waterstone's in Angel couldn't even recall what they were. The books have become a footnote-to-history on the Internet with the Rivington Street shop being one of the last few to still stock them.

What I find odd though is how none of the rave reviews (like this one) commented on one important missing detail: how can you come close to being an imitation cigarette packet without that inseparable whiff of tobacco that envelops the pack and foil? That warm tobacco aroma defines a cigarette packet for me, ciggies or no ciggies inside. It clings to everything: the package, the foil, your fingers.

Inhale all you want, but these cigarette classics will leave you disappointed with their M&S scrubbed cleanness.

For £6.99, me thinks they could have taken the pains.

For Jennies-Come-Lately to London like me who might want to buy these ciggie-classics, you can order them through the Tankbook website. For a closer look at the goods, visit Art Words Bookshop, 65a. Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3QQ (tring tring: 020-7729 2000).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Life's like that.

Just as I finish and send my master's thesis - I find the perfect academic website: Make Your Own Academic Sentence.
Choose academic jargons from four drop down boxes and the website gives you a perfectly formed meaningless academic pearl. Absolutely fabulous!

Sexscapes from Amsterdam

It is red red red in Amsterdam
On November 18, the venerable National Gallery will unveil its first contemporary art installation in 185 years of existence. This momentous installation will be "The Hoerengracht" or the Whore's Canal: a life-size recreation of Amsterdam's red light district by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Ed is dead, but Nancy is still living, making her the first living artist to see her work exhibited at the National Gallery. Having lived six summer months in Amsterdam, I can't wait to view it.

All tourists to Amsterdam religiously take a tour of its notorious red light district. And are dutifully awed by it. No matter how much you have read about it, how world weary you are, how primed you are for the experience: the reality of Amsterdam's canal-lined sex lanes will leave you overwhelmed. It is the shopping arcade of prostitution. Women of all ages, colours, sizes and catering to all kinds of festishes are casually displayed in windows like candies for your pick. Nothing is left to the imagination including the price of the experience: 50 euros for a mere hump, another 5 for moaning, another 10 for a caress, another 15 for her to kiss back, more for some oral... you get the picture. It is in-your-face, unashamed, unsentimental and utterly commercial. And it will leave you awed. I was awed.

But what is more amazing - and something you learn only if you live in Amsterdam - is how quickly, how unbelievably fast, you stop noticing the sex romp around you. It hit me two months into the city, as I was pedaling my way to the university early one morning. As I glanced around, I noticed a bored sex worker in dominatrix attire sitting in front of her window, perhaps waiting for a customer to walk in for a early morning quickie. Her window was in the basement of what looked like a respectable residential block, and was sandwiched between a bakery and a dress shop. The bakery had just opened and the smell of warm freshly baked bread was in the air. The dress shop had an hour to go before it opened. There was little excitement or sense of the forbidden anywhere - it was just another banal morning in Amsterdam with a sex worker, a baker and a university student (me) going about their lives in an everyday city street. And to me, it was priceless.

I wonder, if Kienholzes manage to capture the banality of Amsterdam's sexscapes!

BBC reports on Hoerengracht.

Monday, November 9, 2009

On the Edge

My quest for a magazine writing job started today in a tiny artsy magazine-and-book store in the Old Street neighbourhood of East London. Yes, the same Old Street where you meet slightly-built men walking around with dainty handbags and women carefully dressed-up to look like garbage bins. In other words, the "edgy" neighbourhood of Old Street.

The shelves inside the store were groaning with thick, thick magazines filled with endless glossy pages of edgy fashion. The shoots had girls looking like garbage bins -- with artfully-arranged messy hair, carefully-spread eye shadow, and meticulously tattered clothes against graffiti filled backgrounds. And, of course, slight men with faraway eyes, beautifully manicured hands and an occasional handbag tucked away in the background.

So here's the question: What happens to "edge" when being edgy becomes the norm? If everyone is trying to different from the norm, does being normal become edgy?

A magazine I actually liked: Under the Influence.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lost in Translation

Men Who Stare At Goats is an odd film: its plot has a definite beginning and middle but strangely, no climax. It begins in a special 1980s US military unit that is trying to harness the psychic powers of its men to change the dynamics of war. It was goofy as hell but it definitely worked, we are told. The film’s middle lies in the encounter of journalist McGregor and a former psychic warrior Clooney in Iraq sometime in early 2000s: Clooney is on a secret mission, and McGregor is hoping to find a story. Only there is no special mission, no story, and Clooney's psychic powers are never put to any real use.

At the end of the film, Sid and I were left wondering what the hell was it all about. Why did the director tell us so definitely that the psychic powers were for real: that the “Jedi warriors” may seem comic but they could indeed travel through time and space, and kill goats by staring at them? It left us feeling that something serious lurked behind all the jokes. But why were we made to care about the psychic powers, if they amounted to nothing in the larger plot? If they had left the reality of the psychic powers ambiguous, we could have accepted the film as simply absurdist, and enjoyed it for what it was.

The fault, I think, lies in the adaptation of the book to the film.

The author of the book on which the film was based, Jon Ronson, said in a Q&A that followed the screening of the film that his novel turned dark in the second half. The characters of Clooney and McGregor found psychic powers being used to torture prisoners in Iraq, and the plot surrounded their dismantling the programme. But the moviemakers felt that too many dark films had been made recently on the Iraq War, and they wanted to keep to the funny side of things, explained Ronson.

Obviously, in the process of filtering out the darkness from the second half of the plot, the filmmakers failed to examine if the plot still functioned as a whole. Their failure highlights how novels, films, poems, art constitute bodies of work, where each decision regarding language, style, tone, words, colour is meant to provide continuity and progression. You cannot tinker with one aspect and leave the rest unchanged.

In other words, you can make men stare at goats but you better make sure it means something as a whole.
Ron Johnson talked about his book and the film at Screen on the Green theatre in Islington on Nov 6, 2009.

* Watch the trailor (which by the way has the funniest bits of the film):
* Screen on the Green often holds Q&A with filmmakers. Next on its agenda is Q&A live via satellite with director Richard Linklater and stars Christian McKay, Claire Danes and Zac Efron of the film Me & Orson Welles.