Thursday, March 29, 2007

In my end is my beginning

I've been reading a lot of farewell notes on blogs lately, but I'm determined not to swell the ranks of dormant, festering old blogs. So, this is not goodbye, merely a come-with-me.

I'm happy to announce I'm now blogging at and I'd love to see you there.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Requiem for all

If you've seen Darren Aronofsky's intense, brilliant and horrific Requiem for a Dream, you'll be familiar with the soundtrack, terrifying violins heralding nothing good, performed by the Kronos Quartet.

Chances are, tho', even if you haven't seen it, you'll know the music. One of Clint Mansell's pieces from Requiem, called 'Lux Aeterna', has been remixed and redoubled and reused in any number of trailers and films. I noticed it this evening in a trailer for Sunshine, and it was also in The Da Vinci Code and Zathura.

It's a wonderful piece of music, thoroughly worthy of being reheard often, tho' its regular appearance in other films does seem rather lazy, a way of summoning the fear of Requiem without any of Aronofsky's skill.

It's haunting when just performed by Kronos, but works well with the full orchestra and chorus added for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Here is the original, used in a fan's recut trailer:

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Forthcoming attractions

>>> I've just booked to see Angels in America - one of the greatest things written in the twentieth century - in its first British revival. Admittedly, this is very forthcoming since it's at the end of July, but you're on notice: it will be epic.

>>> German flick The Lives of Others about the terror and comedy of life in East Germany.

>>> And the British Museum's mini-exhibition The Fabric of a Nation: Textiles and Identity in Modern Ghana, which is really a lot more fascinating that it sounds.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The British Library, briefly

If you've ever wondered what people mean by Britain's "cultural heritage", one answer is close at hand: just pop into the British Library (motto: "If it's printed, we've got it. Yes, even porn") in King's Cross.

The BL, in its St. Pancras building which resembles nothing so much as a garden centre (you almost expect to bump into rose bushes and terracotta pots in the foyer), has a permanent exhibition of some of its masterpieces. Turn left after the entrance and head for the extremely dark Sir John Ritblat Gallery.

Even a quick list should convey just what a trove this is: Shakespeare's First Folio, the Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, manuscripts of Chaucer, Dickens and Joyce, the Beatles' handwritten lyrics... That's just some of the British stuff: there are also Leonardo's notebooks, Mozart's scores, early versions of the New Testament, the Torah, the Qur'an.

I like the idea of displaying cultural and historical milestones, since it reifies rather abstract ideas or situations: the King promising to heed the barons or the process of writing shown via marked-up manuscripts.

But I do have a slight difficulty with this approach. This is history according to its great moments, the sort of history which loves dynamic personalities and dramatic actions but which finds it hard to assimilate the dreary, the daily, the stuff which constitutes most of human existence. I love these treasures as much as the next history-obsessed cultural devotee, but I'm also well aware of all those cultural artefacts which arrive and depart with less fanfare.

The true value of the British Library is not just in the glamorous display of its crown jewels but in its horde of everything else: these are the items which give us a fuller picture of British history in its more mundane but equally real aspects. As much as I like these items, they are not our entirety - that's what we have the rest of the British Library for.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Maple syrup's Mexican cousin

I'm not one for a food fad - when Delia decreed, I demurred - but the Independent knew just how to get me yesterday.

Maple syrup is one of the greatest things ever to come from a tree. Screw apples! Forget crisp autumnal leaves in russet and golden shades fluttering gracefully to the ground! So when I read that there was a new, healthier cousin of maple syrup on the market, well, I had to drive straight off to Waitrose.

This miracle sauce is called Agave Nectar and is extracted by squeezing the Blue Weber agave cactus (right), commonly found in Mexico. It's better than maple syrup, apparently, because its sugar is fructose and this gives it a low Glycaemic Index (get me, all health-aware).

All I know is that it tastes heavenly. It has a cherry tang and leaves no aftertaste, and is nowhere near as thick or artificial as golden syrup. I have the rich, darker version, but for those who are not seasoned syrup-heads and are not willing to go in at the deep end, there is a mild version.

So until the USA can come up with something better, I'll be over-leaping it from Canada to Mexico.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Balls Brothers bypass

If the late 90s gave us a mixed blessing, it was the gastropub. Out went cheese-and-pickle sandwiches which had lain in a fridge for weeks before being flopped onto a plate beside a wrinkled slice of tomato. In came fried whitebait with onion marmalade and mixed leaves picked by virgins from the Bahamas on a rainy May Tuesday.

This is all rather positive, in fact; the only real downsides to gastropubs were vaulting ambition which failed - which is hardly to be criticised - and pretension, ambition's nasty sister.

But as with all artistic and cultural movements, there comes a saturation point, after which everything tends to parody. With Balls Brothers on Tooley St, near London Bridge, we have Punch & Judy style parody of gastropub food: it's loud, it's unsubtle, and you're always looking around for a crocodile.

That's not to say it's unenjoyable, but it's certainly predictable and pretentious. Sea salt and herb roast potatoes? Twice baked Welsh goats cheese soufflé? Elaborate rice pudding? Please! It's like Delia Smith exploded in the River Café, c.1999.

My slow roast pork belly (yawn) with wild mushroom, apple and tarragon risotto was competent if entirely unoriginal. It could have done with more pork, but the crispy, juicy fat went some way to compensating for this. I love risotto, but damn its adaptability: just because you can put anything in it doesn't mean you have to.

These ingredients had no obvious point other than being chosen for their seeming randomness. (Next week: banana, chilli and Frosties.) They couldn't even all be tasted, making it even more pointless.

Balls Brother, being wine merchants, claim alcohol as their trump card. My 2004 Cabernet-Merlot was nicely berried, if a little dry for my taste. The cocktails, however, were variously delicious or disastrous.

A Belvedere Berry Blush was sweet and cold (you know who you are), if rather too much like Vauxhall favourite vodka and Ribena. The Pomegranate Royale was best left in its bottles: the idea behind fruit-champagne combos (my favourite is the Bellini) is that the sweet fruit hits the dry fizz. To mix in sour pomegranate juice made it all too bitter. My minted ginger mule was all mint, no mule.

My rice pudding with raisins and cinnamon was lovely - comforting, sweet and tasty. This should have been an example for the rest of the menu: you don't have to overcomplicate the food to make it good; the pork would have been much improved with a simple risotto.

This stood in stark contrast to the mint and strawberry crème brûlée. Why, [proverbial] god, why? This isn't reinventing food, à la Heston Blumenthal, just adding in more ingredients for the sake of it, and not even adding them cleverly: make the custard with infusions of mint and strawberry - don't suspend it over a strawberry coulis. All that happens is the custard falls into and gets soggy. I repeast: why, god, why?

All in all, a profoundly dispiriting meal, although polite service and a low-key atmosphere redeemed it somewhat. Perhaps it's just time to retire gastropubs and wait for the next fad.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Citizens and Kings (but no citizens)

Am I wrong in saying you go to an exhibition not because it has a pretty title but because it has pretty pictures? You're there for the art, not the signage.

So what does it matter if a show's name amounts to the grossest case of mal-titling since Midnight Express turned out not be about trains? The pictures are no worse, the curating is as precise, the catalogue as expensive.

This is exercising me because the Royal Academy has staked a lot on a title and lost.

Its latest easel-busting show is called Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830. The problem is that it lacks citizens.

Does it matter? In this case, yes, since the title reflects the exhibition's thesis: that the royalty and aristocracy who consumed so many gallons of paint in early Enlightenment portraiture were replaced by the lower classes - you and me, buddy.

The truth is, however, that the exhibition's title is an oxymoron: portraiture by its very nature at this time excluded average citizens, the sans culottes in the streets and the musket-wielders on the battlefields. Who really had the time or the money to appear in portraits? Not the workers, for sure.

The only citizens who feature in this show are the upper bourgeoisie, and that is not enough to justify the title's revolutionary implications. The title argues that portraitists started capturing new, lower ranks of life, but the art contradicts this.

The pivot on which the show is meant to turn from king to commoner is David's Death of Marat (1793) (right). Jean-Paul Marat, a radical, violent, anti-royalist Jacobin, is shown as a Christ-like martyr to the Revolution after his assassination by royalist Charlotte Corday. (His pose evokes Christ coming off the cross.) The shocking use of dark space, fully covering half the canvas, sets off the corpse, as does the almost heavenly light shining on it.

The portrait achieved rapid replication and was distributed among the Parisian crowds, the equivalent of Anna Nicole Smith's corpse shots appearing on the web, although Marat inspired revolution, not revulsion.

But Marat was hardly the average citizen, the man on la rue who would benefit from liberté, égalité, fraternité. His career had been as eminent scientist and doctor to the aristocracy, making him more like a powerful faction-leader than a brother to the masses, as the portrait tries to show.

What follows afterwards is no better: apart from some rich merchants and upper-middle-class families, any real citizen is conspicuous by his absence.

I won't even attempt to judge this show on the quality of its paintings and sculptures: they are beyond reproach. Ingres, David, Goya, Lawrence, Reynolds (his Mrs Siddon as the Tragic Muse is above) are the period's painterly superstars and all feature heavily here.

Ingres' Napoleon I on the Imperial Throne (1806) (left) and Callet's haughty Louis XVI (1789) are epic examples of how to suck up to your patron as well as master-classes in portraiture. Ingres has a vivid, dominant Napoleon command the scene, underlining this with the V of the sceptre and spear framing the Emperor and focusing your eyes.

There are other gems, such as the Hogarthian scene of the RA's own academicians congregating and carousing, and Angelica Kauffman's Countess Skavronska, which plays with gender roles and has a joke at the same time. The Countess has a sword and helmet, which would be unusual for a woman - except we are now under Catherine the Great - but she is also the niece and lover of Potemkin, Catherine's military chief. Is Kauffman making a saucy allusion to her romance, a comment on women's power, or both?

There is rather a lot of - well, dross is too harsh a word, so let's say filler. After being beaten over the head by nine rooms of portraits, you're ready for a revolt yourself. It's obviously impossible to sustain the power of the first few rooms - dynamic kings, aristos, intellectuals - forever, but by the eighth family scene and the fifteenth Classical allegory, it is hard not to wish for a tighter show. Then again, tight is not a word applicable to the RA and NG's shows of late.

If I seem overly critical, it is not because of the art. I could happily walk round these paintings all day. The problem is that when you try and assemble an argument out of them which they just don't support, the entire show rather collapses and it may as well just be a stunning permanent collection.

There is so much to say about these pictures, but by framing it as citizens and kings, the RA goes for the simple and misses.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

This review is not yet rated

When you have to look through garbage to find out who censors films in your democracy, it's time to stop watching and start worrying.

What Kirby Dick uncovers in This Film Is Not Yet Rated is that America's censorial board has more secrecy and hoop-jumping than Opus Dei and the NBA combined. The American cutting-room floor is one giant mystery, so in an entirely justifiable act of stalking, he tracks down the members of the Motion Picture Association of America ("protecting the public from art for 50 years" - or something like that) and tries to expose their motives, means and prejudices.

Dick starts out by hiring some private dicks to follow the MPAA's members out to lunch and to their houses, intercutting this with natty graphic and video clips which illustrate the biases of the MPAA (straight sex good, gay sex bad, et al) and the twisted limbs of its membership.

If you question the legitimacy of the stalking (you have to call a stalk a stalk here), just consider that the MPAA doesn't give out its members' names, makes them sign non-disclosure contracts and refuses to let any of them talk to Dick. Their lawyer (admittedly in a vocal reconstruction) comes off like Cerberus, tho' lord knows what he's guarding...

These are the people deciding what you can see. You are not trusted to choose what you should and shouldn't watch. Worst of all, any kind of public scrutiny or accountability is entirely absent: how fair does that sound?

Dick manages to establish some of the 'rules' which underlie the MPAA's decisions in very realistic ways. By split-screening scenes of gay sex and straight sex, he illustrates the level of detail and action which is acceptable, and it unfailingly turns out that a man and a woman together can do practically anything filthy you can imagine (stop imagining), but gay people, well it's just not what American wants to see now, is it?

Violence also gets an easier ride than sex. Bloods, brains, bullets - all fine. A little kink in your life? Nope. I guess if you're trying to desensitise an entire nation to a bloody war it's now fighting, this is probably the best way.

It also emerges that there are certain qualifications for membership of the MPAA, principally that one has to have children under the age of 17. Of course, almost none of them do. What they do have are dozens of ties to the movie industry, stroking the hand that feeds it.

The film rather folds in on itself when Dick sends the first half to be rated, but being moderns we can cope with this sort of concept. This does in fact work quite well, since we get to the process he has established exists in the first half in action, even if it's not as thrilling as seeing him pore through trash to find MPAA members' addresses.

Unlike the MPAA, This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a public service.

All the fun of the fair

Let me be candid with you: the artists were angry. Quietly, artistically angry, but angry nonetheless. Their slightly reluctant complaints bounced off the white partitions of their stands and echoed around the mostly-empty Islington Contemporary Art and Design Fair, which was the problem in the first place: how do you have an art fair without ravenous art-buyers?

The story was of woe. Saturday afternoon at the Candid Arts Gallery on Torrens Street in Angel and the foot-traffic was minimal. Nevertheless, the valiant artists battled on in search of elusive sales, enticing those who strayed near their stands with their aesthetic wares.

Considering the attractions of this type of affordable art fair - I saw nothing today above £500 - it’s hard to see why there weren’t people snapping up the prints. If something catches your eye and you just have to have it, you won’t spend too much and you’ll get pleasure from it.

Contrarily, if you’re business-savvy and know that art now fetches stratospheric prices at auction, laying out a few hundred quid on what could be the next Damien Hirst seems like a worthwhile punt.

Still, the quiet gave plenty of opportunities to talk to the artists, so without further ado, I bring you the Warhols and Testinos of the future.


Who? Clare graduated from Central St Martin’s with an MA in Fine Art, but is originally from Seattle.
What’s her work like? Small black line drawings on a nature theme, a little like Snow White in the woods, with a comedic/tragic riff according to the beholder. Clare says her work is inspired by Seattle for a reason: “I think art is about trying to comfort myself in the face of homesickness.”
On audience reaction to her work: “Some people look at them and giggle, which is great because I love when art makes people happy. Some people see them as very sad and lonely because of the remoteness of the places.”


Who? Anthony was a commercial photojournalist before a cancer scare convinced him to follow a personal artistic path: “I’m showing my work the way I want to: it’s a huge relief.”
What’s his work like? On display is a series of moody, grey-green-black photos of haunted places in London, taken with a fisheye lens so the shot warps and wraps around itself.
On why he’s exhibiting: “A lot of people have said very nice things about my work. It’s very good for the morale. It’s never easy – I’ve freelanced all my life so I’ve always been putting myself up for rejection. It’s almost like an affirmation of my work at a show like this.”


Who? Ellen (right in pic) and Rebekah met while working at a special effects company and after visiting some exhibitions together decided to collaborate as artists.
What’s their work like? Photos of childhood sweets in dulled neon colours: lurid toffee apples and love-hearts in rows. Says Rebekah: “It has a vibrant contemporary feel of fun, something that jumps off the wall.”
On being a two-man team: “We separately take the images, but audiences see the work as one person. We wanted to put all of our creative energy sources together. Two heads are better than one when solving a problem.”


Who? Mark is local to the fair, a Holloway native, and is a corporate photographer in his other life, spending his time shooting men in suits.
What’s his work like? “Irreverent,” says Mark. His prints are heavily influenced by Pop Art, especially Andy Warhol’s emphasis on what can be mass-produced, so you get liquorice allsorts against richly coloured backgrounds.
On his methods: “I like screen-printing because you get your hands dirty and it’s all very low tech. Corporate photography is good but this is obviously more personal, with brighter colours.”


Who? Vicki is an art student reaching the end of the academic track and finding that the only way up is to exhibit.
What’s her work like? Black and white photos of flowers, like Robert Mapplethorpe without the sexual edge. Very beautiful and delicate, but unreal too.
On being old-fashioned: “Everybody is going digital and [traditional photography] is becoming less and less there, so hopefully one day I’ll become one of the few people doing this. I’ve got to be true to myself.”


Candid Arts Gallery, Torrens St, Angel (walk through Angel Square)
020 7837 4237
Friday 2pm-7pm, Saturday and Sunday 12pm-6pm
2nd-4th March: painting, sculpture, time-based media
9th-11th March: photography, illustration, graphics, print-making
16th-18th March: fashion, textiles, jewellery
23rd-25th March: design products, ceramics, glass, furniture

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Take a note, Kazakhstan: fact and fiction don't mix

Borat has left me feeling confused and slightly dirty.

Well, very dirty, as anyone who has seen the infamous scene where Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen), a Kazakh reporter making a documentary about America for his home audience, wrestles his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian). Did I mention they're naked? And that Davitian has bigger breasts than Pamela Anderson? Not a pretty sight.

But I can deal with this feeling, two bars of soap and some plum-flavoured exfoliant later.

It's the confusion I can't shake. Did Baron Cohen want to convince his audience that America is full of rodeo racists, frat boys and etiquette freaks? Did he want to make a parody of this kind of argument, the Louis Theroux-esque disingenuous travelogue? Did he want to make an amusing movie or a credible one?

I laughed quite a bit during Borat. Some of it was from shock, like when Borat says that George Bush should drink the blood of Iraqis and the rodeo crowd he's addressing shouts its affirmation. At other times, well, it was still from shock. There were very few things we would recognise as jokes - the laughter inevitably followed something outrageous.

But what happens when you no longer believe that the outrage is genuine?

Take the ending, where Borat tries to kidnap Pamela Anderson. There is no way this could not have been staged: Anderson puts up a fight but isn't a good enough actress to feign surprise or terror; the cameraman neatly tracks Borat's pursuit of Anderson; and Borat isn't even arrested.

It isn't just this incident: the scene where the anti-Semitic reporter finds himself at a Jewish couple's B&B rings as false as those candy knuckledusters I used to suck on as a schoolboy. It's overdone, and the cockroach infestation is too pat.

This fiction amongst the apparent reality weakens the latter: you can't laugh because you're wondering if it's all just a set-up, in which case the shock is dulled and unhilarious. If the dupes are in on it, how can you be outraged? Fake shock is no shock, and it's certainly no joke.

The line between reality and the script gets so muddied that I ended up doubting my own reactions. While this may have worked for a psychological drama, in a comedy you want to be carried away, not distracted, and unfortunately what starts out as incredibly funny just ends up incredible.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Sweet tooth

Restaurant reviewers will often visit a new venue twice or three times to get a fuller sense of the menu. It's only responsible to return and try different dishes, to get a fuller flavour of the place.

According to this logic, visiting somewhere eight times is not mania or compulsion but thorough research. Which is good, since that makes my bi-weekly trips to pastry paradise Sweet in Exmouth Market almost scholarly, and certainly not morbidly gluttonous. (My cardiologist differs.)

By now, I have had a fair sample of their range so feel rather qualified to tell you that you need to go there. Now. Stop reading (at the end of this post), pull on some trousers and run down to Exmouth.

On Thursday I had the éclair I had been promising myself for a week. Its dark chocolate wig was as glossy as the front cover of Vogue (you could see your face in it); in fact, the choux pastry was as airy as most of Vogue and the chocolate cream filling was almost as unctuous as... Tatler.

Today was the rhubarb tart, which had a crumbling crust and plentiful chunks of the bitter 'barb against the sweet custard, while last week's second visit was the bread and butter pudding, which comes in its own tiny tin, the sultana-spotted body gently warmed to caress your mouth.

The meringue of a fortnight ago was the most pleasant surprise. Instead of being so sugary you fear your teeth will drop out as you bite into the snowy crevasses of its Alpine form - and who can find NHS dentist-sherpas at short notice? - it is delightful. The centre is chewy, not hard, and the meringue is large enough to make you wonder why you ever went with that tarty pavlova, you know, the one you see in Soho flaunting her strawberries. Virginal meringue, I'm yours.

If Sweet can cause a tacit critic (yeah, right) to turn into a prolix evangelist for what is really no more than egg white and sugar, imagine how they are with more ingredients. It's like a juggler who gets more impressive every time they add a ball, only here we have lemons for tarte au citron or strawberries for the impressively-piled treat that I plan on devouring next week.

I fear I must curtail this review soonish - thinking about all these desserts is sending me into a hyperglycaemic coma. For the sort of culinary wizardry J.K. Rowling couldn't have invented, it's Sweet all the way. Now if you'll pardon me, I must go brush my teeth.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Scarcity getting scarcer

To the review pages for a brief thought about Norbit, the new comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Eddie Murphy (two for the value of none). I can't comment on how funny the movie is, tho' the notices aren't promising, but it does seem rather to accentuate one of the arts world's greatest problems.

In case you're unfamiliar with the premise of Norbit, Eddie Murphy plays a hen-pecked husband, although given his wife's comical obesity, rhino-pecked is more apt. Murphy also plays the fat, violent, all-round foul wife, quite possibly wearing three fat-suits at once. So far, so-so.

I understand the limitless (limited?) humorous possibilities of Eddie Murphy not only as a woman but as a fat woman. The hilarity is in the unlikeliness.

But isn't this a prime opportunity to give a role to a black woman? There are so few as it is - Dreamgirls being a notable exception - that giving the part of a black woman to someone other than a black woman seems almost perverse. It's not even like giving it to a man undermines the unfortunate stereotype of the overwhelming black woman.

Dreamgirls may not actually be an honourable exception: no-one but black women could play the leads. What we really need is non-gender-specific roles going to some of the talented black women out there. I would never advocate positive discrimination - give the role to the best actor - but surely the best actors include more black people than star at the moment?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Faust, frightening

To Wapping for Punchdrunk's site-specific production of Faust, and if you can find a more frightening and intense evening of performance about, I'd be too scared to go.

This is less of a review, more of a colour piece - atmosphere and mood, not 'what fabulous lighting' and 'the acting was more wooden than a Louis Quatorze bureau' - and was written for my secret, non-blogging, real-world life.

I will just say - to tantalise you, lacking a full review - that it was one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre I've ever experienced and that next time Punchdrunk puts on a show, don't book, because I don't want tickets to sell out before I can get one.

Here goes...


I’m on my way to hell, and it’s nothing like they tell you. It’s cold, so cold that I can hear the chattering teeth of the woman next to me. I can’t see her because I’m nearly blind behind a mask, but then so is she, so luckily she can’t see my hands shaking.

And we’re going upwards. Who knew you went up to hell? The industrial elevator shudders its path upwards and all I can think is, This is how it ends, with a shuddering of wheel against cable and a chattering of teeth.

How has it come to this? The elevator is full of willing victims, a play’s audience more like cold cattle on the way to the abattoir. Hell is what we paid the ticket price for, and hell is what we are getting.

This hell is part of a production of Goethe’s Faust by the site-specific theatre company, Punchdrunk. They take over a space – now an abandoned warehouse in east London – and turn it into a new, unfamiliar world, where the play’s action moves from one carefully created location to another and the audience is masked for anonymity. Punchdrunk want the audience to recapture excitement and anticipation, not the accustomed passivity of regular theatre. Anticipation has edged its way into terror.

So I can see little behind my mask, and although it submits to an adjustment, this makes the fear worse. We are pushed out of the elevator in dribs, several deposited on each freezing floor, and now I can see out of my mask, I can only see darkness and my breath rising before me. Most of the warehouse is near pitch, sometimes only relieved by a corridor lined with church candles or a red neon crucifix.

A woman ahead of me whispers to her partner and they head into a burgundy parlour. I follow, and we stumble on Mephistopheles making his deal with the Angel, the first stage of the play, which leads to Faust’s deal with the devil for immortality. But Punchdrunk have not even made this easy: words are gone, replaced by actions. There is complete quiet as the terrified voyeurs watch the transaction, then – Christ! – Mephistopheles grabs me as he walks out and beckons me to follow him.

He pounds through the corridors and hits a stairwell, pounds up there and pounds along another darkened corridor. I follow behind, my heart pounding and my mind confused. Now I’m running to follow him. We arrive in what looks like Faust’s study, and there is more voiceless action.

After this scene, I lose Mephistopheles and Faust and have to wander the silent building alone, coming across dozens of others doing the same, their bewilderment and panic hidden behind their masks. This is part of Punchdrunk’s plan. I only catch snatches of other scenes, so diffusely are they performed. But I catch the final scene, Faust’s descent into hell.

Mephistopheles teases him, beats him, all silent except for the Latin Mass screaming at us from nowhere. Faust is dragged off backwards into the darkness as a light bulb swings, giving scant illumination but lighting his terrified face, and the audience thinks, we know how you feel.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Hummus. Hmmmm

To Hummus Bros on Wardour Street, Soho, the UK's first hummus bar (according to their sign). Hummus soup, hummus pasta, hummus ice cream - all floated past my mind but mercifully none appeared on the menu.

The thought of a hummus bar a few years ago would have resulted in me gagging, clutching my stomach and running screaming into the night. That was in my salad days (uch, salad with hummus - another bad thought) but now I'm wiser and know the salty, lemony joy of hummus.

Hummus Bros aims at no-frills and hits it squarely: the only main dish on the menu is hummus tarted up with toppings. I had beef stew, my friend had chicken; both came with pitta and we ordered a Greek salad.

The hummus was the revelation. We are so used to that savoury hummus of delis and supermarkets, bitter with citrusy infusions or perverted with peppers and other bastardising vegetables. This was the complete opposite - nutty, sweet, a whole host of flavours underpinning the creamy surface. I confess, at first I was bewildered, upset even - what is this original and delicious impostor? I got used to it very quickly and pushed old hummus out of my heart. How soon love dies!

Admittedly, the beef stew didn't exactly go with the hummus - its savouriness was at odds with it - but it was very filling. The Greek salad was crisp and feta-ful too, so no problem there.

It's not best practice to move your diners halfway through the meal, but the waiter (the owner's brother) was sweet about it and bribed us with free dessert. Who could resist? The service is in fact a high point - they're very solicitous, whereas elsewhere on Wardour St you can be burning and the staff won't look at you.

It was a good idea for us to move: dessert was delicious. There was a chocolate brownie verging on a cake-like consistency, warm, moist and beautifully sweet, and malabi, which is a milk pudding similar to creme caramel. This came with tar-like date honey, whose density contrasted well with the light milk pudding.

Deserving of mention is Hummus Bros' carbon neutral commitment, which a large poster announces in the dining room. If true, it's admirable.

Anyone who's dipped a toe in the water of hummus (oh lord, what a metaphor) should venture down to Wardour St. It's hardly Gordon Ramsey at Hummus Bros, but it's a simple idea carried out with gusto and flavour.

£20 for two.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Finnish what you started

To the Barbican for Alvar Aalto: through the eyes of Shigeru Ban (stick with me, it's worth it). The premise - Japanese architect you've never heard of curates major retrospective of Finnish architect you've never heard of - sounds almost too dry for words, but there is plenty to chew over here.

For one thing, you've probably come into direct contact with Aalto's work: as well as constructing buildings, he furnished them too, in the process designing pieces that are now in world-wide production. If you say you never had the stools to the right at school, I won't believe you.

If his brand of Modernism looks peculiarly IKEA-ish, you're not far off, except it's the wrong way round: Aalto's clean, functional, cheap chairs are so important that you almost can't imagine the Swedish megastore without him. He believed in designing for the people, which meant mass production but without compromising on style or construction.

Aalto's reputation has certainly been secured for the 21st century by this gargantuan exhibition: there are examples of all his major furniture pieces and comprehensive plans, photos and models of his greatest buildings. However, this is where it comes screeching to an abrupt halt: while we've assimilated Functionalism in furniture into our lives, his buildings have rather lost their lustre.

There is no doubt that these, liberally scattered across Finland and the rest of Scandinavia, are masterpieces of Modernism, combining the essential emphasis on function with a softer attitude towards aesthetics. If Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, his major Modernist contemporaries, could be cold, Aalto strove not to be.

For instance, in his design for the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1929-33) in Finland, Aalto tried to ensure the peace necessary for recuperation with plenty of natural light flooding into rooms and non-splash sinks to avoid noise. With the Villa Mairea, Noormarkku (1937-9), left, he combined not just Modernism but Japanese design and local Finnish forms, to reach a hybrid Modernism which you would actually want to live in.

The big problem with Aalto's Modernism - and Modernism as a genre - was neatly expressed by a man standing next to me in the gallery by the Mairea room, who said that the comfortable sun-loungers in the garden were a warm contrast with the coldness of the rest of the design.

This is interesting because the gallery's note claims that the Mairea is in fact warm and welcoming. I think this is a case of meaning lost in translation and Modernism's bad reputation: we are so used to thinking of all the white walls, common materials (they *loved* the brick), clean lines and lack of clutter as 'cold' that we forget these buildings were intended to be 'warm'. No-one goes to IKEA and thinks, Oh, how welcoming! You go straight to function and form, not character. The same is - sadly - true of Aalto.

So the question is, Is it just impossible for us now to conceive of Modernism as a warm style, or is it a weakness in Aalto's work that gives this perceived coldness?

Part of the cause is our distance from the conception and cultural ideas which shaped Modernism. We tend not to pay attention to the thought behind the building, just seeing as stereotypically 'Scandinavian' this coldness (despite its presence over the whole world). We see soft furnishings and clutter as comfortable since they give a lived-in feel, not the pristine museum quality we sense in Aalto.

But I think the fault lies in our Modernist star, not in ourselves. Compare another great Modernist, who has of late rather been chocolate-boxed to death: Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He too designed exteriors and interiors, used a lot of white and black, loved natural light, had a heavy Japanese influence.

However, he had a much more varied palette: his furnishings were spattered with blues, greens and pinks, and flowerful designs were everywhere (right). No, he did not design to be mass-produced like Aalto, which meant he could indulge his creativity, but his designs still stand comparison. Perhaps if we could step inside his buildings we might reassess, but the exhibition gives us so many cold shells.

I have no doubt that we can be criticised for looking for the wrong things: we should shift our minds into Aalto's gear, so we see his intentions. But as any good Modernist knows, the artist's intentions cannot live forever and we end up judging by our own standards.

Certainly, from Shigeru Ban's careful but wide-ranging curation, we see that Aalto's reputation as a major architect is deserved. However, the public perception of Modernism did not appear to be shifting as I walked round the gallery: the thaw has a long way to go.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Forthcoming attractions

}}} A trip round Soho Square: bizarre, I know, but the Square has some pretty interesting residents - 20th Century Fox opposite the French church, anyone? The philosophical contradictions of London's buildings laid bare.

}}} This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a doc about the unofficial but omnipotent Motion Picture Association of America, the secretive censors of the film industry. They make Stalin's cultural department look reasonable.

}}} Punchdrunk's Faust, a site-specific production of Goethe's satanic drama. It frightened the bejeesus out of me, but then again so did Harry Potter 3 (an unfortunate incident with a rat which looked like a snake...).