Hail Britannia: Runnymede

“You have to really menace me with those swords,” I reminded my friends. “Don’t hold back.” They rolled their eyes at me, but obliged by brandishing their sticks more threateningly. The woman taking our photo looked bemused. Welcome to traveling with me–there’s probably going to be some ridiculous posing, and it might well involve liberal interpretations of what a historical moment might have looked like. In this case, the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede.

Runnymede

“Okay, okay, I’ll sign it! You can have your property rights!”

Runnymede

The Magna Carta Memorial

The Magna Carta is held up as a sort of proto-democratic document, the fledgling beginnings of constitutional rights. And it was the first document in Western society of its kind, even if it was an agreement reached between a weak king and his disgruntled barons, dealing in large part with the property rights of those barons. But never mind, it’s got a lot of symbolic power. It was used throughout the centuries as the basis for laws granting liberties in England, and the Founding Fathers looked to it when they were drawing up the United States Constitution.

Runnymede

The walk to Runnymede

Runnymede

It was really, really, really muddy

Runnymede

The green of spring

Runnymede

King John signed the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, which means that when I visited last year, it was nearly the 800th anniversary of the signing. There were probably some ceremonies in June last year to commemorate the anniversary, but on that overcast April day, the site was pretty empty. We met only a few people on our walk from the start of the National Trust trail, through the woods and fields, to the monument itself.

Runnymede

Set up by the ABA

Runnymede

Sure, why not

Once at the monument, we saw that the American Bar Association had put it up and maintained it. There was also a monument to John F Kennedy, and a tree planted to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States–that last seems a bit cheeky on English soil. So pretty much everything there was put up by the Americans. My mom said it was typical of both countries: the English took it for granted that this major historical site was just there, and the Americans needed to mark it ostentatiously. Sounds about right.

Runnymede

Action shot along the Thames

Runnymede

Runnymede

Wouldn’t have minded a ride back to town on that boat

When I mentioned to my mom that I’d gone to Runnymede, she asked how I’d got on the island. What island, I wanted to know. She’d been taught at school that the Magna Carta was signed on an island in the Thames. I didn’t even see an island when I was there. I did see the ruins of a priory across the river, unreachable from where we were, and an old yew tree near it, which the Internet tells me is likely the actual spot the document was signed. So the memorial isn’t quite in the right spot. We can only fetishize historical places so much, because it’s all an approximation. I suppose, as usual, it’s what we’ve done with that historical moment that matters.

Runnymede

You can spot the ruins of the priory across the river there

Runnymede

Two stone plinths stood on either side of the two-lane highway that buzzed right through the medes. One of the plinths had this grand inscription.

Runnymede

Ah yes, the tearoom of the major historical and political document. Two scones, please.

Runnymede

Lovely day out with Liz and Michal

 

Unlofty Thoughts on the Lofty Art at the Staedel Museum

staedel

Sandro Botticelli, Idealized Portrait of a Lady

Idealized or not, I want to try that hairstyle.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Luca Giordano, Youth Tempted by the Vices

I like how one of the tempters in this temptation scene is cockblocking the lady in blue, who is so desperately trying to get her temptation through to the temptee lad in red that she is squirting breast milk at him. Which, to be fair, it looks like he wants some of that.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Simon George of Cornwall

Oh hey, it’s my new bae. So hot, so stylish, with a particularly suggestive broach (it’s Leda and the Swan). Yeah, okay, so he’s bringing me a carnation as a symbol of his love, but that’s just the flower of choice from his time, okay? He doesn’t know how unfashionable they are now.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Rhenish Master, Altenberg Altarpiece

I just like that Mary and Elizabeth get a panel to themselves. They get to have a breath here and exclaim over the news they’ve just received before it’s all about angels and holy sons again.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Aert de Gelder, Self-Portrait as Zeuxis Portraying an Ugly Old Woman

THIS dickweed. Here we have a self-portrait of the artist painting a middle-aged, ‘ugly’ lady so that she appears younger and more conventionally attractive. The smirk on his face says it all: ‘Delusional bitches, huh? But ya gotta pay the rent.’

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes

I really admire the way she’s working hard to keep blood splatter off their dresses.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, Allegory of the Arts

Architecture and Music in the background all, ‘No it’s fine, we like it back here in the dark, we prefer it actually, we’re pretty sensitive to light, we know you didn’t mean to imply that we’re unimportant or anything, yeah we understand, it’s just for the layout of the painting, sure, sure.’

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Middle Rhenish master, Crucifixion Altarpiece allegedly from St Peter’s in Frankfurt

Poor woman, she’s clinging to the crucifix and mourning the death of Jesus, and then along comes this horse that clearly wants a piece of her.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Strasbourg master, The Preparation of the Cross

Wardrobe & makeup doing some fix-up work on Jesus between takes on set.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Adriaen Brouwer, The Bitter Potion

Ordered ale. Got lager.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Northern Netherlandish master, Triptych with the Crucifixion, Saints and Donors

‘We’re definitely in the wrong triptych.’
‘I told you we went to the wrong one.’
‘I know, I’m sorry! I just got nervous and jumped in. What are we going to do now?’
‘Smile. Look like you’re praying. Maybe they won’t notice.’

The Staedel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany is a wonderful place. I spent three hours on the Old Masters’ floor alone. Many beautiful pieces to discover–if you’re ever in Frankfurt, be sure to visit!

Lumiere London 2016

It’s cliched but true: living in a city means you always have dozens of cool things to do on any given day. In the last few weeks alone, I’ve gone to an art/design exhibit, a couple comedy shows, and a city-wide art show consisting of light installation pieces. Lumiere London was a free event around the West End and Kings Cross over four chilly days in mid-January. Fortified by a few beers at the pub, I walked around with friends and saw probably two-thirds of the entire show. There were some less-than-inspired pieces (including a few illuminated birdhouses in a sterile garden, so dull I didn’t even take photos of them), but many more lovely and weird ones. No surprise that I especially enjoyed the pieces that incorporated sound into the light show.  I would’ve liked to see the whole thing, but time and cold both got in the way.

I made a short video, a pretty choppy affair due to multiple fights with Movie Maker–sorry about that. Still, it gives a pretty good sense of what I saw last week. Keep your eyes peeled for the elephant butt and the larger-than-life lily-of-the-valley.

 

RIP David Bowie

Ten years to the day before I was born, the album Aladdin Sane was released; David Bowie’s lightning bolt was burned into my soul from the very beginning. When I heard on Monday that Bowie had died, I couldn’t really comprehend what that meant. I’d never even considered the possibility that he might be anything other than immortal.

The shrine at the Bowie mural in Brixton

The shrine at the Bowie mural in Brixton

I went to an impromptu dance party/singalong/wake on Monday night. Bowie was born in Brixton, the London neighborhood I live in, and a few years ago someone painted a mural of Bowie’s face on an alley wall near the Tube. After the news of his death, people turned it into a shrine, leaving flowers, notes, mementos. By the time I arrived at 10pm, the offerings were piled high, and the crowd was large and boisterous. I came across one woman in tears, who asked if she could hug a kindred spirit. I hugged her and told it her it was all right, the Starman had just ascended, which made her smile.

RIP David Bowie

The Ritzy, Brixton's cinema

The Ritzy, Brixton’s cinema

Because of course Bowie was an alien, he told us so himself. He was a starman, an oddity from outer space. He dressed in outlandish costumes and sang of strange worlds. He relished his position as outsider and invited everyone to join him in these new worlds of glam rock, Berlin electro-pop, and all the others.

Granted, after Ziggy Stardust he was wildly popular, hardly an outsider in terms of who was listening to him and how much money he was making. Bowie knew that, and never for a moment was he unaware of his PR or his image. You have to be calculating to be a real star. But as much as he wanted to make money and become known through his image (and what artist wants to remain unknown?), Bowie was also just interested in image creation in its own right. He was hugely into fashion, and how his look and his sound went together. He studied mime, read up on kabuki, hired cutting-edge fashion designers, watched avant garde theater, envisaged elaborate stage shows for his tours. He enjoyed so many aesthetics, and played endlessly with new looks, taking a bit from here, a bit from there, seeing what fit him in certain moods, how he felt like presenting himself at any given time.

Iman's makeup line was in the shop window next to the mural--obviously visitors decided to add the ad to the celebration

Iman’s makeup line was in the shop window next to the mural–obviously visitors decided to add the ad to the celebration

The next day

The next day

For me, when I was growing up as a fat girl in the American Midwest, I tried to say that appearances didn’t matter, that the only thing worth seeing about a person is what’s on the inside. I wanted to forget all about how I looked, what I wore, how I presented myself, because I felt ungainly and undesirable. The more I saw of Bowie’s photos and videos, the more I came to understand that you shouldn’t care what others think of your appearance, but that your appearance should matter to you, for your own enjoyment.

Dress how you feel, wear whatever makes you feel alive. If you feel like a starman, put on that glitter jumpsuit. If you feel like a lounge lizard, bust out the fedora. The idea that you could have fun with what you wore and how you presented to the world excited me, even if it took me a long time after my teenage years to try it out myself.

Goblin King, 2009

Goblin King, 2009

I often bore people at parties by listing the different Bowie personas I’ve taken on for Halloween: Ziggy Stardust, Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth (complete with an entourage of Sarah and Hoggle), elder statesman of rock with my boyfriend in drag as Iman. Taking on those personas, which are after all personas that Bowie himself put on, is layering my admiration of him with my desire to mess with gender. It’s also another way for me to perform, and be loud, which I enjoy. When I’m dressed as Bowie, I have a lot of wonderful conversations with people who are also fans. Any time I’m in a Bowie getup, everyone is very friendly; people respond to that joyful expression.

Ziggy Stardust (with original tour makeup!), 2008

Ziggy Stardust (with makeup as it was done on the original tour!), 2008

Even better is that I look pretty much nothing like him (I’m always joking that some year I’ll dress all in white and go as the Thin White Duke, just to watch people squirm when they ask who I am). I’m not sure what Bowie would think about my very homemade, very large costumes when he was always so immaculately turned out. I’d like to think he’d say something like, ‘Go on with yer fat self, babe.’

In 2013, the Bowie-authorized David Bowie Is… exhibit opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. My parents immediately bought me a ticket as a birthday present. It was a fascinating exhibit, an integration of sound and vision, as you wore headphones that picked up on Bluetooth signals around the room, so when you were in this area reading about the surprise hit that was “Space Oddity,” you were hearing that, and when you walked over here to read about his influences, John Coltrane’s sax wailed in your ears.

At the David Bowie Is... exhibit

At the David Bowie Is… exhibit

Ah this photographer did not get what I was going for, oh well

Ah this photographer did not get what I was going for, oh well

It’s no secret that Bowie’s influences are varied and wide, including German philosophers, Japanese designers, American musicians, British authors, French artists, and many more. He was a voracious learner, and he enjoyed sharing what he’d learned with others. This wide-ranging interest applied to fellow artists as well. He was always seeking out new sounds, and he generously boosted the profile of musicians he enjoyed. He did this throughout his career, at least as recently as singing with Arcade Fire when they were just breaking big.

That’s another aspect to him that some see, that he would just pick at the parts of other artists’ work that he enjoyed and suit it to his own needs. But unlike some artists who cannibalize what they claim to love, I can’t think of any instance of Bowie diminishing what he borrowed from. He approached art and expression with real enthusiasm but also an almost detached air, like an engineer who wants to put things together in various combinations until he finds the one that best does what he wants to do. Bowie took elements of soul, jazz, rock, and pop, and played with those combinations over the course of his 50-year career.

I love that he was so interested in other artists. I know too many musicians and writers who don’t do much listening or reading to others, which means they’re drawing from a very small pool of their own experiences and ideas when they create. Bowie drew from an entire ocean of artists, which is surely one of the reasons we love him so much: his sound is fuller, more complex and interesting, than artists who don’t paddle out of their comfort zone.

Brixton sidewalk

Brixton sidewalk

Bowie’s songs are all about isolation, loneliness, fear, trying to understand what we’re doing here and trying to connect with others (as he himself has said). Because after all, Bowie wasn’t an alien, he was very human, singing in his sweet, thin tenor about our human hopes and woes. He created art as a way to be in this world, and as a response to it. He wrote, sang, played instruments, danced, acted, choreographed, drew, painted, directed–there was always something to create, a new way to re-order the information in the world, a different key to express himself in.

I have always loved Bowie for the major creative force he was. He approached the world with curiosity, a healthy amount of cynicism, and most beautifully, with joy and love. His songs are all about reaching out to others, and the nearly unbridgeable gap between yourself and any other person in the world, but I never quite got the sense that he considered the task impossible. Even in an absurd and often terrible world, there’s music to be made. So I think that’s what we must do. We must name our fears, we must put them into songs and poems and films, we must share them with one another. If we’re lucky, we’ll find some of that same wonder and tenderness that David Bowie showed us.

Oh no love, you’re not alone
No matter what or who you’ve been
No matter when or where you’ve seen
All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain
You’re not alone…
Gimme your hands, ‘cos you’re wonderful

Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year, dearest fellow travelers! I hope you had a nice holiday period of stuffing your faces and taking many naps. I had a lovely, quiet time with family and friends during the last week of 2015. Now that we’re fully into the new year, let’s jot down some New Year’s Celebrations. I enjoyed a lot of my celebrations from last year (I’ve really come ’round on real ale, for example). But although I had a lot of fun last year and saw a lot of new things, I still didn’t get out as much as I’d thought I would/hoped to. So for 2016 I’m hoping to:

  • Go somewhere new to me in London a couple of times a month (museum, landmark, park, etc.)
  • Get out of London and see another part of the UK once a month
  • Every 2-3 months, take advantage of my proximity to Europe and visit somewhere on the Continent
  • Also, as I look forward to every year, spend at least one entire day reading

Last year, I made good use of my English Heritage membership, and since I’ve had it renewed for Christmas, I can do more of that in 2016. Bring on the stately homes and drafty cathedrals! (I promise I’m 32, not 82.)

I saw a lot more than I managed to write about last year, but as ever, I’m playing catch-up. I have more to tell you about South America, for example, and I left there in 2014, but no matter. If I were in the mood to make real resolutions, this year mine would be to give you a written post a week, in addition to your Where in the World Wednesdays. I’ll do my best.

How about you, any New Year’s Celebrations you’re looking forward to?

Happy New Year! Here I'm decked out in red for Chinese New Year 2013 in Singapore.

Happy New Year!
Here I’m decked out in red for Chinese New Year 2013 in Singapore.