30 December 2009

A multitude of reflections

I was walking along Piccadilly the other day on the way back to the Tube at Green Park when I noticed the recently installed artwork by Anish Kapoor in the courtyard of the splendid Royal Academy of Arts.  Entitled Tall Tree and the Eye, the 76 shiny spheres show off a multitude of reflections of the lovely courtyard of Burlington House, the home of the RA since 1867.  According to Kapoor,

This work is, in a way, a kind of eye which is reflecting images endlessly […] There is nothing heavy or imposing about it, but there is something quite improbable. You cannot tell how it has been put up and that is part of its mystery and dignity.

Viewing this 15 metre-high sculpture should definitely be on your agenda if you’re passing through the area.



26 December 2009

Modern art

A few days before Christmas I decided to go to the Tate Modern to kill some time. Modern art's generally not my bag, but I do like the big installations they put in the massive former turbine hall (8 storeys high and maybe 200 metres long for those who've not seen it). At the moment they've got an installation called How It Is by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka. And I loved it.

An entire end of the turbine hall is almost completely filled by a mammoth - and I mean gargantuan - metal box. It looks like a shipping container raised on stilts, but a shipping container that's 30 metres long and about 10 metres wide and high. You have to walk the length of the hall to get to the end, where you see that it's actually hollow; a ramp leads you up into the box itself.

And it's completely pitch black inside. You can't see anything at all - just an endless nothingness. But everyone else is coming out again and they don't looked maimed or traumatised, so you press on into the blackness. Presumably there's nothing inside that will actually trip you up or bump into you - I mean, think of the lawsuits. (Although I heard a rumour that an elderly gentleman did bump into something and break his nose on the first day it opened).

As I shuffled forward in the darkness, avoiding the sounds of other people on their way back to the light, I began to notice a dim glow. Up ahead it looked like someone was holding a torch in the darkness. In this massive (3900 cubic metres!) black space, which must have cost a fortune to build and install, a museum attendant in dark clothes is pointing the torch at something on the floor.

I edged closer, wondering what it could be...

It's a yellow hazard cone:

'Beware slippery floor''

Next to it, someone has been sick - a wet, messy splat.

And do you know why this is the coolest thing ever...?

Because I have absolutely no idea if that was part of the exhibit or if someone had just taken ill in the dark and thrown up there.

And I don't want to know either. It's perfect just the way it is.

21 December 2009

The Aviatrix

When I visited the National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC in 2007 I was particularly pleased to see Amelia Earhart’s bright red Lockheed Vega amongst the many other historic aircraft on display.  The Irish farmer who saw it rolling up to his farmhouse must’ve got quite a shock!  In addition to the trans-Atlantic flight mentioned above, in August 1932 Earhart also used the Vega to make the first non-stop solo flight by a woman across the United States. 


Hilary Swank’s new movie Amelia, released in October, tells the story of the pioneering female aviator and her determined quest to break into and excel in the then new, exciting and entirely male-dominated realm of flight.  Earhart, a role model to generations of young women both in the field of aviation and in the broader sense of female empowerment through success in traditionally male professions, attained lasting fame not only because of her exciting achievements.  She is also still remembered in the 21st century because of the lingering resonance of her mysterious disappearance and death whilst flying across the Pacific in 1937, thwarting what would have been a career-capping triumph.

AESwank presumably lent her showbiz heft to get the project underway; she has an executive producer credit and US$40 million films with female leads but no major doses of sex and/or violence tend not to get made in Hollywood these days.  Swank’s Hollywood aura still retains the glimmer of her Oscar-winning performances in Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004), and recent modest successes in trifling fare like Freedom Writers and P.S. I Love You (both 2007) may well indicate to studio backers that there’s still both box-office and award-winning potential in her acting ability.  Amelia was more expensive to make than either of the latter two films, and would not have been an easy film to shoot, either; anything involving vintage aircraft flying in multiple countries (the African shots were filmed in South Africa) is bound to drive up production costs, and the services of its main cast members - Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor - aren’t exactly inexpensive.   

Swank’s performance in the title role is perfectly agreeable.  Emphasising her slightly angular features, she inhabits the body of this determined and rather gauche woman from Kansas who just wants to fly despite all the obstacles placed in her way.  However, in the quest for a box-office cash injection Earhart’s romantic foil, her publisher and husband George Putnam, is played by Richard Gere, who is a full 25 years older than Swank (although Putnam was admittedly 10 years older than Earhart).  Gere’s facial features have seemingly been stunned into botox rigor mortis for many years, rendering his performances unconvincing.  Ewan McGregor also appears as aviation industry innovator and Earhart-romancing Gene Vidal, presumably in an attempt to jazz up the cast listing.  His performance is passable, but he is given little to work with. 

(Incidentally, Gene Vidal’s son Gore is given a couple of scenes with Earhart and it took me a few minutes longer than I’d like to admit to work out that this was included in the script because he later became a renowned author.  I’m a bit slow on the uptake sometimes).  


The broad scope of critical reception has not been particularly kind to Amelia, which is a pity considering the potential for great story-telling in Earhart’s real-life exploits.  Variety’s Justin Chang argues:

…the character's passion hasn't been sufficiently dramatized (this Amelia likes to fly planes because the script says so), and every effort to transform Swank -- the close-cropped blonde hair, the '30s costumes designed by Kasia Walicka Maimone, the actress' wobbly Kansas accent -- ends up feeling like one fussy affectation on top of another.

Similarly, Nair, who has made fine films that stayed close to her Indian roots, seems completely beholden to biopic formulas here. Slathered in banal voiceover narration and Gabriel Yared's hyperactive score, the pic gets a lot of mileage out of Stuart Dryburgh's f/x-enhanced aerial lensing (largely captured over South Africa). But the footage is postcard-pretty without being psychologically revealing; Imax documentaries and theme-park attractions offer comparable pleasures at a fraction of the length. Intermittent black-and-white newsreel footage of Earhart adds some interest but also feels like a nervous bid for authenticity.

He’s certainly right about the newsreel footage: the headlines are awkward and feel anachronistic.  The New Yorker’s David Denby also pointed out that ‘the accumulated personal and social detail in the middle of the movie lacks any great interest, and Nair’s direction is rhythmless and placid’. 

Director Mira Nair had previously created the lively, exuberant confection of Monsoon Wedding (2001) and had gone on to be entrusted with the Reese Witherspoon-starring screen adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (2004).  Just as in Vanity Fair, Amelia presented Nair with the opportunity to portray a strong female lead of iconic proportions, but real instead of fictitious.  The responsibility of bringing such an important character to the screen must have been daunting.


There can have been relatively little clamour for an Earhart biopic given the innate conservatism of the Hollywood system.  The last big-budget attempt to tap into the golden age of flight was Leonardo diCaprio’s venture into Howard Hughes’ tortured psyche in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which benefitted from a striking performance by Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, but despite winning five Oscars (four for production and one for Blanchett) it ultimately failed to achieve blockbuster status.      

Amelia is a serviceable telling of the Earhart tale, but serviceable is insufficient when $40 million has been stumped up for its production.  There are plenty of problems visible onscreen.  Chief among these is the film’s failure to convey a consistent sense of excitement and drama at the world-changing exploits of Earhart from the time of her June 1928 flight across the Atlantic (the first trans-Atlantic flight by a woman – albeit as a passenger) until her disappearance in July 1937.  Despite the dangers of aviation at the time and the numerous brushes with death experienced by Earhart, Amelia never sets the pulse jumping. 

There are also a few moments that seem to indicate a poorly thought-out film.  Early on, when Earhart meets Vidal for the first time, there’s a noticeably ungainly exchange on a staircase involving repeated back-and-forth headshots cobbled together in the editing suite.  The young aspiring pilot Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikoswka) is injected into a couple of scenes with little purpose other than to illustrate Putnam’s dedication to Earhart by surreptitiously (and unbeknownst to Earhart) ensuring that Smith is unable to compete.  But the scenes are so sketchy that there is little scope for the young actress. 

A later scene with Earhart and Vidal sees Earhart almost dreamily admiring the shapely legs of a couple of dames in a cocktail bar.  Vidal enthuses that it’s grand to be with a gal who feels comfortable sharing such thoughts, but the film-maker’s unsubtle hint of lesbian tendencies is not sufficiently undercut with the more mundane explanation that Earhart in real life was deeply embarrassed about her gangly legs.  (Along with the practical requirements of cockpit mobility, this explains all those trousers she wore).  Sure, Vidal mentions her self-doubt, but modern audiences may well leap to what it presumably the wrong conclusion.  Or at least a conclusion that cannot be substantiated; Judith Thurman of the New Yorker sets out what we know of her image and portrayal:

As far as one knows, Earhart’s secret erotic life was heterosexual. Gender, however, is a bell curve, and on that curve she is an epicene, at least in the grammatical sense of the word: that of a noun that has one form to denote either sex (“doctor” or “friend,” as opposed to “heroine” or “aviatrix”). Unlike the cross-dressing sexual rebels of the Belle Époque, whose intention was to be outrageous, Earhart—whose intention was to stay aloft both as a pilot and as a celebrity—projected a confusing mixture of traits with such an aura of virtue and assurance that she disarmed received ideas about femininity, even those of conservatives.

Whatever the accuracy of its depiction of Earhart’s sexual orientation, Amelia seems likely to be remembered as a vanity project or an ultimately failed attempt to produce an Oscar-worthy biographical drama.  Unfortunately it had considerably less commercial success than The Aviator, only taking US$14 million in America.  Even if international revenue, rental and DVD sales boost this total, it has to be regarded as a major commercial setback for its backers.  


This is a pity, of course, because Amelia Earhart’s legacy still endures, both as one of the pre-eminent pioneer aviators of the inter-war years, and as a bona fide celebrity.  Her public appearances and commercial endorsements helped to sell her books and raise funds for further flying exploits during the Great Depression’s economic hardship.  Here’s case in point from 1932, just after her groundbreaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland in a bright red Lockheed Vega 5b monoplane.  The clip is a brief, stilted interview for English audiences, yet it provides a glimpse of the real Amelia for posterity.

Further reading

Disappearance: What happened to Amelia Earhart?

USCGC Itasca: The US Coast Guard cutter on station when Earhart disappeared in 1937

Correspondence: Amelia’s unsent ‘popping off’ letter to her mother (written in case her trans-Atlantic flight ended in her death, 20 May 1928)

Earhart archives: Putnam Collection at Purdue University

17 December 2009

Treasures of Mercia

It had been eight months since I’d visited the British Museum, and the skies of London produced an impressive treat as I walked from the Tottenham Court Road tube – a heavy sprinkling of snow.  The temperature was hovering around zero but I had plenty of thermals on to protect me from the elements.  There was time to snap a couple of photos before I entered:



Once inside, I found the display I’d wanted to track down ever since I read about it in September.  In that month, metal detector enthusiast Terry Herbert was searching a farm field somewhere in Staffordshire and discovered what archaeologists are calling ‘one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of our time’:

The Staffordshire hoard contains about 5kg of gold and 2.5kg of silver, making it far bigger than the Sutton Hoo discovery in 1939 when 1.5kg of Anglo-Saxon gold was found near Woodbridge in Suffolk.

Leslie Webster, former keeper at the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe, said: "This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries.

"(It is) absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells."

More than 40,000 visited an exhibition of items from the Staffordshire Hoard in Birmingham, and now the artefacts are in the care of the British Museum while they are individually valued and a permanent home for them is discussed.  As the hoard has been afforded the legal status of Treasure under the Treasure Act 1996, Herbert and the landowner will each get a half share of the final sale price; the initial valuation has been set at £3.285 million

Two small cases display a small sample of the hoard, but the few items on display are remarkable for their beauty.  (There’s a link to the image galleries of the collection at the bottom of this article).  The high-status craftwork represents the pinnacle of portable wealth in the pre-English kingdom of Mercia

Current estimates for the date at which the hoard was buried range from the seventh century to the early eighth century.  These were troubles times: a patchwork of fractious kingdoms ruled England, slowly succumbing to Christian conversion.  In the seventh century Mercia suffered years of chaos stemming from the death of its King, Penda, in the Battle of Winwaed (655), Glastonbury Abbey was re-founded in the south (688) and the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels (now in the British Library) started in Northumbria (c. 698).

At some point in these years the hoard was deposited in a field and forgotten about for 13 centuries.  It appears to be a warlord’s trove, because many of the pieces are military in nature: highly decorated sword hilts and pommels abound, and ornately engraved helmet cheek-pieces tantalise the imagination. 

But there are a few non-military items in the collection.  A thin strip of gold bears a biblical inscription from the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers: ‘Surge domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua’ (‘Rise up, o Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face’).  And the largest of two or possibly three gold crosses, perhaps for a church altar or procession, still retains its beauty despite some rough handling when it was buried.  In order to fit it in the hole dug for the hoard, the thin gold arms of the cross were crudely bent over, causing the glass fittings to dislodge (see photos below). 

Was the hoard buried in haste, to avoid its (re-) capture by enemy forces?  We might never be certain.  But once the British Museum has completed its painstaking cataloguing of the more than 1500 items that were discovered by Mr Herbert, and once a final home for the items has been decided upon, the Staffordshire Hoard will take up its place as one of the most important historical discoveries of the past several centuries.



Further reading

Staffordshire Hoard: images, catalogue and summary

Timeline: Wikipedia, 7th century in England

The Venerable Bede: History of England Book III (633-65), Book IV (664-98)

Sutton Hoo: Discoveries (5 pages)

11 December 2009

An opening question

BJ Watling (Mark Taylor, Waikato Times)The New Zealand versus Pakistan test series is about to move into its final chapter as the teams descend on Napier with the tally tied at one win apiece.  It has been a series of wobbly and uncertain batting, which has made for an intriguing battle between two well-matched teams. 

As is usual for a New Zealand test series, there have been some personnel changes along the way to keep things interesting.  After the stirring first test victory in Dunedin, New Zealand lost the services of the much-injured fast bowler Shane Bond, and now as the third test looms the failures of the New Zealand top six has brought about the dropping of the middle-order batsman Peter Fulton.

Fulton’s dropping is no great surprise – he was in the team for this series due to the absence of the hard-hitting Jesse Ryder, and in his four innings in the series Fulton managed two starts and two ducks, with scores of only 29, 0, 0 and 13.  In ten tests and 16 innings over three and a bit years he has only managed one test half-century, a score of 75 against the West Indies in Wellington back in 2006.  At nearly 31, he is no longer a young prospect in a team that often rewards youth and enthusiasm over experience. 

To replace Fulton the New Zealand batting line-up is being re-shuffled once more, with captain Daniel Vettori moving up to number six, presumably acting with the in form Ross Taylor at number four as bookends to Daniel Flynn, moved from three to five.  Martin Guptill moves from opening with Tim McIntosh to first drop, and McIntosh gets a new debutant opening partner: the South African-born BJ Watling.  Selected off the back of two strong innings in the domestic Plunket Shield four-day competition (90 against Wellington and 136 against Auckland), the 24 year-old Northern Districts batsman, who moved to New Zealand when he was ten, has been given a golden opportunity to achieve in a crucial match. 

If Watling rises to the challenge perhaps it will help to settle the notoriously difficult problem New Zealand test teams have faced when trying to select opening batsmen since Mark Richardson (average 44.8) retired in 2004.  Cricinfo reported that the selectors were keen for him to repay their faith in his ability:

The selector Mark Greatbatch said Watling showed outstanding potential as a developing batsman.

"He's a quality young player with good technique," Greatbatch said. "With the series at one-all we need to regroup and we believe Watling can add strength at the top.

"There was a lot of discussion about the batting line-up, but this was not a time for wholesale change. We are aiming to give guys the opportunity to succeed."

Watling’s selection after two good innings has irked more experienced domestic players, with former test opener Craig Cumming (11 tests from 2005 to 2008, 441 runs at 25.9) complaining to the media that batting form in the domestic competition is not being rewarded.  He told the Otago Daily Times that the selectors must think that at age 34, he’s over the hill:

Cumming said he received a courtesy call from Greatbatch prior to the team's being named and was told he was passed over for Watling.

"They went with BJ Watling because they see him as more of a player for the future, which means that I'm obviously not," Cumming said.

"I asked them three weeks ago if my age comes into consideration when they have a selection meeting and was told, `No.' Now it appears it does, because they don't see me as a player for the future."

However, Cumming did not feel it was an employment issue or that he was being discriminated against because of his age.

"It is no different from how teams have been selected in the past. Saying you are not a player for the future is just a new reason not to be selected.

Cumming has some justification.  Naturally, he’d have a better case if he was the same age as Watling, with a long career ahead of him.  But test batsmen are perfectly capable of maintaining international standards into their late 30s.  And when examining domestic form and experience, Watling is merely a promising beginner by comparison with Cumming.  Furthermore, several other young batsmen have equally strong claims to strong domestic form in the opening role. 

Comparing Cumming to Watling, it’s clear that the selectors are rewarding youth over experience, with Cumming’s record clearly the stronger of the two:




Age 24 34
Matches 40 121
Innings 73 216
Runs 2155 7154
High score 153 187
Average 30.35 36.13
100/50 5/9 16/33


Across the Plunket Shield, which is admittedly only four rounds old at this point in the cricket season, Watling is not a leading contender for best batsman in the competition.  His highly commendable three innings have totalled 242 runs at an average of 80.7, but this only places him as the fourth highest run-scorer in first-class opening slot so far this season.  Here’s the top six domestic openers as of today – the ones who have scored more than 200 runs so far this season:

Player (team) Runs Average
JM Brodie (W) 390 55.7
RA Jones (A) 363 51.9
CD Cumming (O) 285 71.3
BJ Watling (ND) 242 80.7
P Ingram (CD) 226 37.7
J How (CD) 215 35.8


Of those six, only Wellington’s Josh Brodie and Central Districts’ Peter Ingram have yet to play for New Zealand.  Auckland’s Richard Jones was given a few chances in 2003, batting for New Zealand in one test and five ODIs; the aforementioned Cumming has 11 tests and 13 ODIs to his name; and CD’s captain Jamie How batted for New Zealand as recently as March 2009, and has a total of 55 international appearances to his credit.

Given that the New Zealand selectors are looking to secure an opener with a long career ahead of him, it’s understandable that batsmen like Cumming (aged 34) and Richard Jones (36) are not welcomed back into the fold, despite their strong current domestic form.  But if youth and good form are to be rewarded with selection, Wellington’s Josh Brodie has a strong case too.  The 22-year-old is only in his second season of first-class cricket, but in that time he has accumulated 758 runs in 20 innings at an average of 37.9.  Brodie’s average in this season is even higher and his form has been consistent, with only two failures in seven innings to date (66, 2, 103, 69, 4, 76, 70).  

Perhaps the key difference between Watling and Brodie is that Watling has had more chances to impress the national selectors, and on more than one stage.  While Brodie has only played for Wellington and an Emerging Players selection against England in February 2009, Watling has played age-grade cricket for New Zealand in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh in 2004, where he scored 268 runs at 44.7, and has also played two T20 internationals against Pakistan in Dubai a month ago.  He is obviously a man in the selectors’ eye, and perhaps they have identified something in him that mere numbers cannot define.  

[Image credit: BJ Watling photographed by Mark Taylor, Waikato Times]

05 December 2009

From the gardens of kings and merchant princes


Sculpture: The Rape of Prosperino by Vincenzo de Rossi, c.1565.

It took me a while, but I’m back in London.  After a year mostly occupied with bureaucratic wrangling with the benighted UKBA, I’ve now been back in the capital for nearly two weeks.  A work permit is lodged firmly in my ageing passport, and now I’m searching for a place to live and a job to keep me busy. 

In the meantime, while those endeavours do occupy the majority of my time, I’ve also been able to delve back into some of the fondly-remembered habits of London life.  Perhaps my diet will suffer somewhat from the reintroduction of the evil but very tasty Greggs’ cheese and onion pasties and the woefully anti-nutritious but highly addictive raspberry-iced doughnuts from Tesco, which bear a strong but no doubt not legally actionable similarity to the one in the logo for The Simpsons Movie.  And while there’s been a spot of bother for book chain-stores, with Borders and their subsidiary Books Etc closing down recently, I was glad to see that music retailers HMV and Fopp are still going strong.

Another major drawcard of London life is the fantastic range of museums and galleries on offer, and naturally I’ve touched on that subject before.  One opportunity that came to my attention this week was the reopening of the medieval and Renaissance galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington: a ‘£31.7m suite of 10 new galleries occupying an entire wing’ with ‘more than 1,800 ravishing objects’, according to the Guardian.  Perhaps too many literal interpretations of Monty Python and the Holy Grail have convinced the world that the Middle Ages were uniformly drowned in waist-deep mud, so the V&A was keen to rebrand the period as a time that boasted lavish ornamentation and luxurious artworks, albeit only for the wealthy and privileged minority.       

In keeping with an expensive project that took seven years to complete, the end results achieve the same sort of quality as can be seen in the groundbreaking Great Court redevelopment of the British Museum.  And the treasures on display are, predictably, rather stunning - a fitting contribution to commemorate the artistic endeavours of a misremembered age.



L & R: Sculpture gallery


L: “Mine’s a lager!” - The Angel Gabriel from the Annunciation, c.1415-50; R: The Brixen Altarpiece, Rupert Potsch & Philipp Diemer, c.1500-10



Notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, c.1490-3



L: Bust of Giovanni Chellini by Antonio Rossellino, 1456; R: Two Angels by Tilman Riemenschneider, c.1505



L: ‘The Burghley Nef’ salt cellar (silver-gilded nautilus shell), c.1527-8; R: Bust of Niccolo Sirigatti, 1576



L: Virgin & child, by Carlo Crivelli, c.1480; R: 19th century cast of a Renaissance sculpture, in front of the facade of Sir Paul Pindar’s London house, c.1600

Stitched Panorama


Further reading:

V&A - New medieval and Renaissance galleries