16 January 2008

Creatures and curiosities

Last week I ventured up to Holloway in north London after work with Felix and Gavin to a small low-ceilinged theatre for a Radio 4 recording of a new series called The Museum of Curiosity. It was hosted by the gently whimsical John Lloyd – producer of the legendary Blackadder series and the current Stephen Fry panel show, QI – and the quizzical bearded multi-media phenomenon that is comedian-musician Bill Bailey. The premise of the show is that the presenters are curators of a notional radio-based museum devoted to odd and interesting ideas, and each week they invite intriguing guests with big brains along to spin some ideas and propose appealing new curiosities to add to the museum’s exhibits.

The guests in our recording, the first of the series, were lecturers drawn from the sciences: a chemist, a mathematician and a physician. All three were excellent story-tellers and inspiring thinkers, but of the three it was a particular treat to see Dr Jonathan Miller, who is an eminent medical doctor, but who also attained renown in a sideline as a comedian with the groundbreaking Beyond The Fringe comedy troupe in the late 50s and early 60s – the same troupe that spawned the huge comedy careers of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (and Alan Bennett too). Miller’s nominated exhibit for the museum was a set of 14th century alabaster sculptures, which he described in glowing tones as a pinnacle of religious artwork, purified and amplified in a way by the slow decay and disappearance of their original painted decorations, and now a pristine angelic white. The chemist (who was also a physicist in his spare time) nominated the 18th century hypothetical substance known as ‘phlogiston’, which scientists of the day believed was the all-pervasive substance responsible for combustion, until the theory of oxygen replaced it. And the mathematician came up with ‘the monster’, a grandiloquently named conceptual mega-dimensional structure with several hundred thousand dimensions (as opposed to our usual three). This latter proposition enabled Bill Bailey to wax lyrical on the topic of 25-dimensional greengrocers, which is probably a first for Radio 4.

On Saturday I took the train into town (taking a slight detour via Wimbledon to avail myself of a traditional weekend Cornish pasty repast) to meet up with Richard, Sam and Otene in Soho for an authentic New Zealand cafĂ© experience at Sacred in Ganton Street. While I’m not really a coffee devotee, places like Sacred and its East Soho cousin, Flat White in Berwick Street, cater for the fussy Antipodeans who abhor London’s mass-production coffee barns. And it was nice to have a Lemon & Paeroa alongside my coffee too. We did a bit of catching up and later perused the shops in Carnaby Street while the winter sun lit up the clear blue skies.

The next morning I was due to meet up with Felix and Gavin again at South Kensington for a visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. I left home in plenty of time, but then my District Line train was mysteriously switched from the city line to the Edgware Road branch, and in order to reach the museum in time for the entry time printed on the tickets I had to throw caution to the wind and jump in a black cab to whisk me from High Street Kensington to the museum. It got me there in time but ended up costing as much as the exhibition ticket! The photos themselves were excellent, displayed on individual lightboxes to highlight the remarkable colours and the clarity of the images.

The most dramatic image was a Russian photographer’s shot at water level in a remote Kamchatka stream:

“I’d been so busy taking pictures of the salmon in the Ozernaya River in southern Kamchatka, east Russia, that I didn’t notice the bear until it was a metre away. It was a terrible shock. I kept calm enough to take the picture, and only later did I realise how serious the situation was” – Sergey Gorshkov

The photo is of the half-submerged adult brown bear staring down imperiously into the puny photographer’s lens, his jowl dripping with rivulets of river water. A truly remarkable picture. There was plenty more of that quality too:

• An Italian songbird was pictured perched atop a bending flower stem adorned with a dew-covered spiderweb, its beak open in early morning song, and above its little head the condensation from its breath formed perfect tiny smoke-rings in the air.
• An adult and baby meerkat in the Kalahari Reserve in South Africa are transfixed by the prospect of breakfast, as a hornet crosses between them.
• An aerial shot of a dozen male grey narwhals feeding in a hole in the sea ice near Baffin Island, displaying their huge unicorn-like tusks.

But my favourite was probably Ari Tervo's picture from snowy Finland, in which a pure white stoat was snapped trying to lug away a small slice of bread left by the patient photographer. The stoat’s determination to make off with its prize is palpable, but the winning touch to the photograph is the two dagger-sharp incisors peeking over the top of the slice: “this is my lunch and I’m not letting go!”

This excellent photography exhibition is just the sort of thing that sends you scurrying into the camera shops in your lunchbreak to look at expensive cameras and lovely lenses…
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