The British Museum is something of a place of pilgrimage for me so I suppose it is fitting that, this time, my visit there was to see the exhibition ‘Living with Gods’, an exploration of how religious artefacts have helped mankind make sense of the spiritual.
As always with high profile exhibitions, the people turn out so a route around the treasures on show involves high levels of patience. This is made more important by the fact that so many of the artefacts were quite small and laid out on table top arrangements. There was an element of waiting before I could get close enough to read and see.
Yet, it was worth it. The curating of exhibitions is a skill denied me but I am always grateful to the experts who seem to know what to include, how to lay it out and in what order. Here the story of different societies and how they behave in terms of religion is set out. What is striking is that there is little time spent on what people believe; the exhibition concentrates instead on the items related to religious practice. Why worry what the motivation is, what do they do?
The British Museum is able to call upon its own collection for most of these treasures and they come from across the ages and across the world. My list of favourites includes the juggernaut from India, acquired in the eighteenth century. It is from south India where a tradition of taking deities for an outing allowed people to see them. The scale model of a real juggernaut is in the museum. I was also taken with the Tibetan Thangka, an illustration of the wheel of life used as both a teaching and a devotional tool. The Lion Man from the ice age suggests that belief is universal and a human condition. To people of faith, though, the central point must be WHAT you believe.
In London, so I went to see the Leighton House Museum in the Holland Park area. I have long been an admirer of the work of Frederic, Lord Leighton and wanted to see the oriental influences in the decoration of the house he lived, worked and died in. I arrived just as the museum opened so had the place to myself (apart from the people who worked there, of course) for the first hour of my visit. Other visitors started arriving as I finished.
Frederic Leighton commissioned George Aitchison to build him a house that could be both home and studio. Additional parts were added in later years but the central feature was the Arab Hall with tiled walls, a dome and running water into a pool in the floor. Since I was on my own I kept stepping both ways through a doorway in and out of the drawing room since it was a contrast of East and West. Crossing between them seemed to be a good way of capturing the spirit of the British artist inspired by the East. A Millais painting hangs in the drawing room and Islamic inspired tiles decorate the Arab Hall; the combination is a good evocation of the man.
Queen Victoria visited the man and his house but she probably had lots of retainers with her. I was on my own! The works on show here are interesting but his best known paintings and sculptures are elsewhere in the big national galleries. Interestingly, there is a colour study for the painting ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence’, a painting in the National Gallery that I have to visit every time I am passing that way!
An interesting fact I picked up on this visit was that he did not have his peerage for very long. He was made Baron Leighton in the 1896 New Year Honours List, making him the first artist to be honoured in this way, only to die the next day!
In London with time on my hands so I went to Holland Park to pass by one of my favourite sculptures, ‘Boy with Bear Cubs’, and to explore the parts of the park I had not previously seen. I wanted to see the ‘Kyoto Garden’ and was pleased to find that I was the only visitor. The steady drizzle of February rain in London probably helped keep other visitors away!
The garden has been here since the early 90s. It boasts a rock waterfall and a pool with Koi carp in it. This little piece of Japan in the capital is here to celebrate the Japan festival held in 1992. As an extension to the garden, a further area called the Fukushima Memorial Garden was opened in 2012 in gratitude of the Japanese people for British support following disasters in Japan in 2011.
The area was silent when I visited so the sense of peace I was looking for was easy to achieve.
David Olusoga’s book has the sub-title ‘A Forgotten History’ so his work is timely since it sets the record straight in terms of the multi-cultural nature of British society. Since Roman times there has been a black presence on these islands and, as he shows in chapters that proceed chronologically, there has been a black participation in the life of the country ever since.
Some of the participants were not voluntary members of society, of course, since they were here as slaves. One of the sad trends related here is the fashion for young enslaved black boys or girls to attend the rich in their houses only to be cast out when they have grown older and less appealing.
The noble history of the campaign to end the slave trade is given a lot of space but so also is the less well known accommodations given to the merchants who built their fortunes on slavery. Compensation was paid! The role of Thomas Clarkson was given prominence even though the sons of Wilberforce tried to play down his contribution at the same time as promoting the part played by their father.
The chapter on the second world war was informative in terms of the racism debate and the extent to which British attitudes were shaped by the insistence that the American colour (color) bar was maintained over here. It is pleasing to think that the British were less prejudiced but the subsequent history, including the reluctance of the Attlee government to import black labour in the post war period, suggests that it was not an exclusively American attitude.
This was an excellent ‘opening up’ of an important part of British history and I was glad to have read it.
The BFI player is a wonderful resource and I was able to watch a programme I first saw in the late 70s. London Weekend Television used to produce some impressive dramas and this one, about a children’s home, was broadcast on a Friday night. Called ‘Kids’ the series had linked dramas with each story apparently based on real life stories. The central cast of actors who played the professionals stayed the same each week but the children and teenagers changed from story to story.
James Hazeldine played the benevolent manager of the centre who did his best in an uncaring system. The episode here was remarkable for me because it portrayed a gay character. This was still a rarity in the 70s and even in this episode, written by William Corlett, the gay character is viewed with suspicion.
Liam is the camp, gay boy who has no friends and who refuses to tone down his behaviour to suit other people. Advice given to him is that if he changed his mannerisms and ‘hid’ his gayness, he might get on better with other people. Such were the times that the problems were all seen as his. When Michael arrives at the home after a suicide attempt he becomes the only one who befriends Liam. They get on but there is a switch in their friendship towards the end of the episode that shows the prevailing attitudes of the time.
It is an interesting period piece now and the production values of television were, then, behind those of cinema but as a reminder of how gay people were portrayed, if they were seen at all, it is worth watching.
Kamila Shamsie is an amazing writer. I was blown away by ‘Burnt Shadows’ so was keen to read this novel, published this year. All the reviews refer to the story as a re-telling of Antigone and so it is but the contemporary setting works well and explores many of the dilemmas of young Muslims who seem to be judged in a way other sectors of our society are not. The unspoken expectation is that Muslims have to prove their loyalty on an almost daily basis. Step forward the newly promoted Muslim Home Secretary whose expedient pronouncements on how others should show their loyalty to the state serve his political ambitions more than they address the current tensions.
There are two families involved in this story: the Home Secretary and his privileged son; and the three children of a suspected terrorist, killed in action in some foreign land leaving them in London to move on and out of his shadow. The eldest child, Isma, is the sensible one, the studious one who has had to care for her twin siblings following the death of their mother and grandmother. The story starts with her and we start to piece together a story of brother and sisters from the Wembley area whose normality is striking.
In America where she is studying, Isma meets Eamonn (and deliberately not Ayman) the son of the Home Secretary. Drifting rather than working, he strikes up a friendship with her and through an offer to deliver a package ends up meeting the younger sister, Aneeka, back in London.
Aneeka is the most forceful of the characters and she sees in Eamonn an opportunity. Love gets in the way but the two develop a relationship that could make or break them.
Parvaiz is the brother who took a different path. His route to radicalisation is detailed in the chapters dedicated to his story but it is the impact he has on others that acts as the anchor of the book. All the other characters are ready to judge him for his actions but Aneeka, our Antigone figure, is the one who puts her views aside to do what she thinks is right.
This is a novel by a wonderful writer. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I read a review of this book which stated that it was about ‘nothing and everything’ and I thought that was a profound insight into why this book works so well. It washes over you, chapter by chapter, rolling out the rhythms of the lives of the people of one community. The passing of time is best seen through the younger people who start the novel in secondary school and end it post-university.
There is an event. It is significant and it starts the novel but the event is not solved. The book is not about this event: something happened to a young woman called Rebecca, Becky or Bex and she is missing. She remains missing for the length of the novel but her absence is also her presence in the lives of many of the people in this village.
It is a sign of strength that I both wanted to know what had happened and did not want any of the characters to be the ones involved in wrong doing. Not that all characters were equally likeable but all became part of the fabric of the novel and a revelation would have affected the balance of what had been created.
I was reminded of the painting by Brueghel, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’. The single, central event that seems so dramatic to some is peripheral for the rest of the world. So it is with this novel: life goes on!
‘Reservoir 13’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?