Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Lynn Barber - 'A Curious Career'

If you loved the book and/or film of Lynn Barber’s previous memoir An Education, then you definitely need to read her frank and funny memoir A Curious Career, recounting many of the high profile interviewees she has encountered in her relentless career for the broadsheets.

In An Education, we encountered teenage Lynn being seduced by a conman whose dominance threatened to ruin her life. But we also encountered a fiercely intelligent and feisty young woman who walked away from that situation determined never to be taken advantage of again.

A Curious Career doesn’t quite pick up where An Education left off, but it does join Lynn in the late 1960s when she starts working for Penthouse magazine and lands a plum gig interviewing Salvador Dali at his home. Discovering she has quite the talent for putting celebrities at their ease, and playing up to her own inherent nosiness, Lynn rapidly progresses to interviewing for the big titles in the UK, ultimately ending up in the rare position of being able to pick and choose her subjects. An almost unheard of luxury for a journalist these days.

What Lynn really does well in A Curious Career is spill the beans on who was naughty (Marianne Faithfull, Martin Clunes) and who was nice (Shane McGowan stands out in a league of his own). As well as discovering how hideous sportspeople are to interview – I can thankfully say in that in 15+ years of being a journalist, I have managed to avoid ever having to interview a sportsperson: and can’t imagine a more boring subject!

As you’d expect from the woman dubbed The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Lynn doesn’t hold back on the gossip and the facts about those she met who were despicable people, and that makes A Curious Career all the more delicious to read. Coupled with the fact you also get the impression Lynn is giving a pretty fair impression of them and their behaviour, you feel as if you’re reading the notes of a woman who really doesn’t give a toss if their lawyers complain.

And what a fantastic position to be in that is.

Lynn Barber is in Bristol on Thursday, May 15, talking about A Curious Career at the Festival of Ideas. Please click here for more information.

Running the Bristol 10km, 2014

It’s true, I’ve become a running bore. I subscribe to Women’s Running magazine, I scour race websites looking for new challenges, and I spend time considering which socks are most suitable for running in. But I don’t much care that I’m a running bore, because I’ve been truly bitten by the running bug and discovered just how addictive it is sweating it out around a marked out course and being presented with a tin medal at the end.

Until seven years ago, I was super fit. For years, I went to the gym four times a week, and saw a personal trainer for at least one of those weekly sessions. I was slim, toned and knew how to build up or slim down different areas of my body. But then I developed a long-term illness… and exercise fell by the wayside, until I realised many years had passed since I’d last done anything resembling real exercise. In that time, I’d put on a few extra stone and hated what I saw in the mirror. Urgh.

So last July I decided to do something about it, after seeing one photo too many of myself that made me want to cry. No longer in a position to join a gym or pay a personal trainer, I found a free option – I downloaded the NHS Couch to 5km podcasts and started running around my local park in Bristol. It look me a little longer than the suggested nine weeks, but by Christmas I’d finally completed the programme and was surprised to discover I quite enjoyed running. Who’d have thought?

Ever the competitive one, on January 1 I signed up for the Bristol 10km race, which is held in May – having never run 10km in my life. So to warm up for it, I also signed up to a few local 5km races beforehand. The first 5km race was on a sunny March morning at Ashton Court… and I made it round in 32:35, which didn’t feel too shabby considering I’d turned up late and was flustered. The second 5km race was on an equally sunny May morning at Arnos Vale, and having turned up in good time I managed to race back in 28:41, despite two big hills. Triumph!

And then it was the big one, the Bristol 10km, the race I’d set my sights on as the one in which I would really prove a point to myself. So last Sunday morning, on a day in which the wind was an estimated 18mph and the rain was infuriatingly persistent, I lined up with 11,000 other eager beavers and set off to run around the magnificent Harbourside area of Bristol.

I was a bag of nerves when I woke up, having really psyched myself up for a challenge – and having only run about 8km on my longest practice runs (although I was clocking up two to three practice runs each week). I knew the Bristol 10km was going to be as much a mental challenge as a physical one, because even though I knew my body was physically capable of running 10km, my mind has a frustrating habit of persistently telling me what a worthless lump I am.

I was in the middle of the final wave to cross the starting line, which felt a little anticlimactic because the big starting gun only goes off for the elite super runners… who had set off so much earlier than us that by the time we were walking towards the starting posts, we saw the winner Scott Overall race past us on the home stretch having just sped around the course in 30:20. We hadn’t even started yet and he’d already won!

The first few minutes went by in a blur as I was so caught up with the experience of being part of such an enormous race, and of being just one body in a crowd of 11,000. The novelty of running along roads I’d only previously driven down was a mild distraction, as was the weird feeling of being watched like a performing zoo animal by the spectators lined up on the bridges and roadsides.

When I first read the race rulebook, I was devastated to discover that iPods were banned. And ‘devastated’ is no overstatement. In my mind, I can only run with music playing. I need 1980s’ power ballads to motivate me, distract me and spur me on. But they are banned in the Bristol 10km (although I noticed a few people wore them anyway). However, it genuinely didn’t matter in the end and I barely noticed I had no music on. I was so caught up with listening to the chatter of other runners, the shouts from the crowds, and the general buzz of the event.

Perhaps the hardest stretch was the four or five kilometres that are straight up the Portway under the Suspension Bridge, and then looping back down again, simply because I find it really boring running in a straight line as there is no distraction in the way of new scenery. Although that’s a little trite, considering that the views across the Avon Gorge are stunning and you also get to race past the SS Great Britain.

By the 6km marker, I realised I hadn’t yet slowed to a walk at any point, and this is when my wicked subconscious started playing tricks with me. The devil on my shoulder started telling me how tired I was, how weak I was, and how I definitely couldn’t do the whole 10km without walking just a bit of it because I’m useless and incapable. So I caved in and walked for two minutes after hitting the 6km mark, and was annoyed to be overtaken by runners who I’d already enjoyed overtaking myself.

Back running again, the road curved along past the Louisiana and down some residential streets… although it was hard to keep track. Just as nothing looks the same under heavy snow, familiar streets suddenly seem like alien landscapes when freed of cars and filled with thousands of runners. Someone shouted my name in the crowd, and I was thrilled to see a friend who’d spotted me, and with 2km left to go this spurred me on for the final push more than I could ever have imagined. And we sped on over the Prince Street swing bridge (the geek in me loves running over bridges, I can’t explain why!) and up towards the centre… the final 800km.

This is where the crowds really appeared in bulk, filling the centre of Bristol, lined up behind railings and shouting, cheering and waving banners. Even though it was getting near the end of the race, I felt like I had plenty of energy left in me and managed to speed up a bit, especially going past the Hippodrome and seeing ‘600m’ spray painted on the road. The end was almost in sight and glancing at my watch I knew I was so close to coming in just under 60 minutes (my goal had been to come in under 70 minutes). In the end, I crossed the finish line, arms up, grinning, in 60 minutes and 24 seconds… just 25 agonising seconds shy of a sub-60 target. But even so, I was on cloud nine. I had the runner’s high.

Tired, hot, sweaty… I bumped into two other runners I knew who also happened to have finished at the same time, and we collected our medals and t-shirts and went round to Millennium Square to reflect on how brilliant it had been – all three of us having just run our first ever 10km race. One of us dressed as a bear.

I’m now well and truly bitten by the running bug, and have several more 10km races (and a few cheeky 5kms) lined up sporadically through the rest of this year… starting with a 10km in Cardiff in two weeks. Does racing in Wales make me an international runner?!

Good news – Spurred on by the Bristol 10km, I have signed up to do the Bath Half Marathon in March 2015.

Bad news – I’ve discovered that as a 36-year-old woman, I technically qualify as a veteran runner. Yes, a VETERAN runner. The indecency of it!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

'Death & Treason, Rhyme & Reason' at Bristol Old Vic

A few years ago, Bristol Old Vic hosted a family show called Hey Diddle Diddle in which the characters from beloved nursery rhymes are set free. Well, in Death & Treason, Rhyme & Reason the same company (Twisted Theatre) takes those same characters one step further in what can best be described as the very opposite of a family friendly show.

Many people know that the Ring A Ring O’ Roses rhyme was inspired by the millions of grisly deaths at the hands of the plague, but did you also know that Mary, Mary Quite Contrary was about the troubled reign of Mary Queen of Scots and her inability to produce an heir? Or that Pop Goes The Weasel is apparently about the deaths of the working classes from poverty-induced hunger?

In Death & Treason you revisit these well-known characters from your childhood, but they’re not looking quite so rosy cheeked or blooming as they did when you sang their stories in nursery school. The origins of nursery rhymes are in dispute and there are no definite answers, but the Twisted Theatre group brings to life some of the suggestions and sets them to a brand new score of heyday nightclub music (with a backing band of violin, viola, cello and many types of percussion).

Led by enigmatic Australian Nuala Honan, the group engages in a playfulness and interaction that, while clearly very scripted and rehearsed, is reminiscent of the abandoned glee of the nursery school… with an added delightful darkness. The recurring refrain of “dead eyes see for seven seconds” has the brilliant coda of Nuala’s eyes maniacally spinning around her sockets like a demented Victorian doll.

The Brizzle version of the Jack and Jill rhyme is a highlight… recounting Jack’s cider-induced seduction of Jill in the apple orchard via the medium of spoken text messages and SMS slang. The death of Jack in the original rhyme bears a more poignant meaning in the Twisted Theatre version… with calamitous repercussions for poor Jill. And while on face value the Brizzle tones could be thought to play to the Bristol Old Vic audience, one version of the origins of the story refer to it being inspired by the 1697 events in a Somerset village when a local spinster becomes pregnant after her amour falls down a hill and dies after smashing his head on a rock… and her own subsequent death in childbirth. It’s all a lot less jolly than you thought it was, eh?

It’s fun trying to work out which original nursery rhymes the Twisted Theatre versions are playing to, and in some cases I couldn’t figure it out. So it would have been good to have a signpost in the narrative to help locate the new songs in memory and time. Because of this confusion, it felt like we were at times presented with a formless collection of enjoyable sleazy music and performances, but one that was somewhat dislocated due to not having the context in which to put them.

But ultimately? Death & Treason is silly, but it’s fun.

Death & Treason, Rhyme & Reason is performed at the Bristol Old Vic until 10 May. For more info, please click here. The show is also touring around the South West in September and October. For more info, please click here.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Sarah Records - "We were opposed to the sexism of the music industry"

Outside the Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014 
There was so much interest in the Sarah Records retrospective in Bristol last weekend that it sold out far in advance, leaving fans clamouring for tickets. The afternoon talk with label founders Matt and Clare was moved to a bigger events space to accommodate the growing demand until the auditorium was packed out. And all this enthusiasm for a label dismissed as twee at the time. Incorrectly so considering Sarah’s political leanings, feminist inception and anti-capitalist philosophy.

Sarah Records ran in Bristol from 1987-1995 and thrived in a society that was celebrating the emergence of the ‘lad culture’ of bands like Oasis, the grunge guitars of Nirvana, where women were treated like decorations and feminism was as unfashionable as it’s ever been. Which makes it all the more fantastic that Matt and Clare of Sarah stood their ground and did things exactly as they wanted to.

Back then, the music press tended to ignore anything that didn’t happen in London, meaning the best way to find out about exciting new bands from the rest of the country was to read fanzines (an early form of social networking), which were sold by their writers at gigs and posted out across the country and wider world. Many of those fanzine writers then formed lasting friendships, united by a shared love of music.

Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes at Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

Matt and Clare started out as fanzine writers, who met after Clare tried to sell Matt her fanzine at a Primal Scream gig in the Bierkeller. Before long, even though she was still at university, the pair had launched Sarah Records as a two fingered salute to the money-grabbing major labels that just wanted to rip fans off rather than celebrate great pop music.

Matt says, with his tongue in his cheek: “The label was in opposition to the capitalism of multi format releases on the major labels. We were an anti-capitalist business, changing the world through the power of the 7” single. CDs in 1987 were £15, and major labels wanted everyone to re-buy their record collections. While 7”s were £1.50, so they were accessible and affordable.”

It was so affordable that in the mid-1980s you could put out a fanzine with a two-track flexi disc on the cover priced at 50p and still break even. “It was part of the post punk DIY ethos,” says Matt simply. And even now, in an era of illegal downloads and online marketing, Matt still thinks there’s no need for bands to sign to the majors: “I don’t see why any band now needs a record label, unless they’re going to invest millions in you. You can do it all yourself.” Although Clare adds that a website doesn’t have the same personal touch that Sarah offered with their hand-folded sleeves, personally written letters to purchasers and the postcards inserted into the records.

Sarah posters inside Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

And the pair really did do everything themselves – famously they ran the label initially from their basement bedsit in Bristol’s Clifton, where they didn’t even have a telephone. And later from a house on Windmill Hill overlooking Bedminster train station. To start with, they didn’t even have a car! “We used to pick up 7”s from the distributor Revolver in a taxi,” remembers Matt, “then bring them home, put them in wraparound sleeves, add in the posters and postcards, and take them back to Revolver in a taxi.” 

Everything that could be done themselves, was done themselves, even if it took five times as long, because it was the only way to keep costs down. But as Matt adds, things changed quickly in the eight years of Sarah: “When we started in 1987, you’d take the record to the distributor on the Thursday and it’d be in the shops on the Monday. By the time we ended in 1995, there was a three month lead in for each release.”

Sarah 58 (aka The Hit Parade) at Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

Matt and Clare insist they never intended to cause provocation by calling the label Sarah, and they chose the name with pretty much no discussion. “I’d just been reading Emma by Jane Austen,” says Clare, “and thought that if you could call a book Emma, you could call a record label Sarah. And Matt just agreed.”

But they really did rankle the mainstream music press, who hurled abuse and venom at the label with delight. Although perhaps this was less aimed at the music press’ dislike of the music, than their distaste for the labels’ founders who made it quite clear that they disliked the music papers! Clare says now: “You like to hope that some of the journalists might now be a bit embarrassed about some of the things they wrote about us. We never thought calling a label Sarah was a provocative thing to do. But we got a lot of patronising comments for doing it.”

One thing that fascinated me, was learning that when they launched the label in 1987, Matt signed on to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme where the government dished out £40 per week to help new businesses. This interested me because in 2013, I signed on to the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme… where my new business received £65 per week (that’s a rise of 62.5% in 26 years – which sounds a lot, but not when you consider that inflation overall has risen by more than 140% in that time). Anyway, I digress.

Amelia, Rob and Pete (formerly of Heavenly) at Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

The feminism of Sarah Records was lost on many people, yet it was one of the inciting reasons for founding the label. At the time, Sarah was one of very few labels to have a woman as its co-owner. And even now, 25 years later, there are still hardly any record labels run by women.

Clare says: “We were opposed to the sexism of the music industry, we were a feminist record label. It got more important to us when we realised what we were up against. It feels like feminism is at the fore at the moment, which is great, but nothing has really changed. I feel like I’ve been whining about the same things for 20 years!”

But it was about more than just having a woman at the helm. At the time, fanzines and indie bands had a tradition of – when in doubt – dredging up an old cute photo of a 1960s’ girl in a miniskirt and putting this on their covers. Women were nothing more than decorations (which is still, of course, a big issue today).

As Matt says: “We came from an era when the girl in the band tended to be the boy in the band’s girlfriend. We avoided that at Sarah.” Clare adds: “My pet hate is women singing men’s lyrics, so we also avoided that as much as we could.”

But one recurring problem was with photographs. If a band had, say, five members and one of those five was a woman, the photographer would either want to put the woman in the middle of the picture, of foreground her while fading out the men in the background. Matt and Clare would repeatedly try to steer photographers way from this, which baffled them.

Both Matt and Clare make it clear that when they killed Sarah after 100 releases in 1995, that was it – they weren’t doing any encores. So there will be no deluxe box sets, no re-releases… nothing to make you spend money on what you already have. As Matt says: “A lot of the bands want their material available and it would be wrong of us to stop that happening, but we wanted the 100 records to be the end. So there will be no more Sarah records ever. But a lot of the stuff we released is available for download and that’s fine with us. It’s not important to have the 7”single 25 years later… it’s about the music not the product.”

The Orchids at Arnolfini, Bristol - May 3, 2014

Sunday, 4 May 2014

'Into The Whirlwind' by Eugenia Ginzburg

Emily Watson played Ginzburg in the 2009 film, Within The Whirlwind

Take a deep breath before you get started on the first of two autobiographies by Eugenia Ginzburg (1904-1977). Originally published in English 1967, it was 1990 before Into The Whirlwind was published in Russian – Ginzburg’s native language, and the country in which the horrific accounts she details are set. The book has recently been republished by Persephone, who are as committed to reprinting books about important women of the past century as they are to reprinting neglected but much-loved old novels.

While working as a history teacher in Russia, Ginzburg – who goes by the name ‘Jenny’ in this book – and her husband Pavel Aksyonov were also active members of the Communist Party. However, in 1937 she was expelled from the party and sent to the Gulag in the Russian Far East. This was part of the awful Great Purge of 1937, in which Joseph Stalin ordered a large-scale purge of the Communist Party and government officials in order to strengthen his own authority over the state. Around 680,000 people were killed as a result of the purge, many after years of being locked up and tortured in barbaric prisons.

Ginzburg herself was sentenced to 10 years in solitary confinement for her alleged part in the Communist Party – and she continued to profess her innocence throughout, which only strengthened her punishment. Into The Whirlwind minutely details the horrors she experienced while being moved from one gruesome prison to another, the hunger and depravation she endured, the airless conditions she was kept in, the torture she was put through, and so much more. Ginzburg also never saw her mother, husband or her eldest son again after her arrest in 1937 (she was finally released in 1949, and ‘rehabilitated’ in 1955).

Having already worked as a journalist and teacher, Ginzburg had an existing love for language and writing, and she trained herself to remember every detail of what she endured during those hideous decades, and she recounts it all painfully carefully in Into The Whirlwind. From the awful conditions in her tiny cell once the window was closed (causing her to become severely ill due to the damp and mould in her cell); to the horrors of the ‘standing cell’ (literally big enough for a person to stand upright, but not big enough for them to crouch or move their arms… and in which they would be kept for days at a time, with their excrement collecting at their feet); to the nightmare of being kept in a blackened cell for five days solid. To much more. The book is an important catalogue of injustices meted out under Stalin’s regime.

Ginzburg’s strength of character is extraordinary, especially when she is faced by so much death and abuse on a daily basis. She remains determined to live and remains resolute that she will ultimately be freed, because she desperately wants to see her children again. Sadly, she was only reunited with one of her two children (her eldest son died in the siege of Leningrad).  

Into The Whirlwind is a book for which you need to brace yourself, but it is a very important book to read. It’s a part of history about which I knew almost nothing, but being less than 100 years past, this is still relatively recent history. That people could have been treated so inhumanely so recently is appalling, and terrifying that this was allowed to happen.

'Bailey's Stardust' at the National Portrait Gallery

With more than 250 portraits, the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition of David Bailey photographs is the largest ever show of his pictures. And with whole rooms dedicated just to his work with the Rolling Stones, Catherine Bailey and more, there is something to fascinate everyone here.

Bailey himself has curated Bailey's Stardust, which also includes some rarely seen images from his travels to Australia, Delhi and the Naga Hills. The exhibition is thematically structured with iconic images of people such as David Bowie and Kate Moss rubbing shoulders with lesser-known individuals such as the people who volunteered to come to Bailey’s studio to be photographed naked for a series.

Highlights of Bailey’s Stardust include images of David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve from 1982 looking like beautiful bleached blond aliens, and a ‘selfie’ of Bailey with Andy Warhol back in 1972. But you do start to wonder if there is anyone who Bailey hasn’t photographed! Because absolutely everyone is covered here from every industry – Seal, Desmond Tutu, Johnny Depp, Mia Farrow, The Krays, Beyonce… they’re all here. Although the pictures aren’t in this exhibition, Bailey was even commissioned to take the photographs at Reggie Kray’s wedding to Frances Shea in 1965, such was the trust the notorious gangsters had for him.

More discomforting, however, is an enormous colour photo of an eye at the end of one wall, with the eye being stretched open by medical instruments. A grotesque image, it also makes you keep turning round to look at it again such is the magnitude of it… in every possible sense.

With a whole room devoted to his wife Catherine Bailey, it’s clear the impact she has had on the photographer’s work. In a quote on the wall, Catherine says she has never felt exploited or used by her husband, but when you see so many naked images of her, or while giving birth, it’s hard to imagine how happy she feels with some of these pictures.

The series from the exhibition that left the strongest impression on me, however, was not one of celebrities, but of East End characters from 1968. They are fascinating snapshots of a London life that is now long lost, and in many cases not only due to the changing of fashion but also under the weight of the wrecking ball. Bailey’s images of old East End shops and streets are just as effective and mesmerising as his images of the people who lived and worked in the areas.

Bailey’s Stardust is exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 1 June. Click here for more information.

'Hegarty On Creativity - There Are No Rules'

John Hegarty is one of the world’s most famous advertising creatives. He’s spent more than 40 years working on some of the biggest and most successful advertising campaigns out there – such as the Levi’s ‘launderette’ ads and the Audi ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ campaign. So why wouldn’t you want a few tips from him?

In his new book, Hegarty on Creativity: There Are No Rules (Thames & Hudson), Hegarty offers 50 insights into how to effectively communicate your ideas in the most creative ways possible. With pages titled everything from ‘Zag’ to ‘Hubris’, these are quick snapshots into the best ways to kick start your own work in the right direction.

The book itself is also a lovely little product. A pocket-sized hardback, it’s illustrated by Hegarty himself, and laid out in a sensibly simple format.

John Hegarty is in Bristol this coming Wednesday (7 May) with the Festival of Ideas. While the event is sold out, contact the venue (Watershed) for returns. Click here formore information.