Culture vulture

Master of Kitsch shows an unexpectedly refined side

Elton John – pardon, Sir Elton John – is, for better or worse, a national treasure and global celebrity. We are used to seeing him on stage, sweating over his piano in the limelight, alternating between belting out soulful anthems or cooing sensitive ballads. We take part – no, look up to – his impossibly glamorous social life, epitomised by his annual charity ball. And we follow, sometimes with schadenfreude, the tabloid fodder that is his marriage to David Furnish and his adopted children. But we don’t usually think of Elton as an intellectual of true artistic discernment. And yet that is the side which is on display at an exhibition entitled Radical Eye, at Tate Modern until 7 May 2017.


It all started, as Elton explains in a video interview shown at the exhibition, when he got sober in 1990. In 1989, Elton has sold almost all his possessions, as if to make way for a new life. Within the year, he was paid a visit by art dealer David Fahey, who brought with him a selection of modernist photographs. Elton was immediately enchanted and bought six of them on the spot. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the genre, building a collection of such importance that it has been brought all the way from Sir Elton’s Atlanta home to the Switch House at Tate Modern.

Many of the photographs on display, such as Man Ray’s Tears, are iconic, and seeing them in the original is like meeting a celebrity up close. All of the photos shown convey the excitement of a technology in its infancy, an art form that was new and continuously evolving, as cameras and films offered new opportunities to make us see reality in different ways or – in some cases – see a reality that otherwise we could not have witnessed. We observe children playing in the streets of 1920s Harlem and visit impoverished tenant farmers of Alabama, wracked with bitter deprivation. Of all these socially aware images, I found Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother the most captivating of. It shows the face of a woman who is careworn and tired, and yet alert with apprehension. But what is  even more moving is how her children have turned their little faces away, either in shame or in fear, or both – burying them in their mother’s hair as if they could find protection and refuge there.


These pictures are works of art very much of their time, yet like all enduring art, they have something to tell us even now. They are able to move and excite an audience almost a century later, able to tell us something vivid, fresh and new despite their age. What is perhaps most striking about them is their economy: these photographs are simple, often tiny in size, and yet have an instant and powerful impact on the viewer.

We live in an age saturated by photography. What used to be the province of professional photographers – people able to afford a Leica – is now a medium of expression open to billions of people around the world. Social media, that content-hungry monster, continuously encourages us to snap and share our own lives, our experiences. But they are more than mere depictions of a moment: they’re stories. As Snapchat chief Evan Spiegel, explains: “People wonder why their daughter is taking 10,000 photos a day. What they don’t realize is that she isn’t preserving images. She’s talking.”And yet, how may of these stories stick? Apart from our friends and followers, who really cares about them? Do we do art a favour when we measure the quality of photograph by the number of likes it attracts on Insta?
The modernist photography on show makes us think again what a photography is for, and what a considered, well-thought out photograph can be. How far it can be pushed, defamiliarised, distorted, how it can be made more powerful: by consciously thinking about process and technique, framing, perspective, choice of subject and even processing and printing itself. There’s no reason why the same questions could not be applied to smartphone photography. To achieve this, however, takes time, and in a world where sharing is instant, the desire to be ever-present on social media becomes a distraction; the enemy of art.

A final thought the exhibition prompted in me was the connection between photography and writing. In my own writing, I almost always draw on my own life – so much so, that some of my stories are really just a form of reportage, a stylised journal. Sometimes I give myself a hard time that the world about which I write, with its people and places and things, aren’t invented; that I didn’t imagine them. Looking at great photography today gave me the comforting reassurance that an art form that takes reality as its subject need not be mundane: that in artfully reflecting that which already exists, we can create an expression that’s radically new.

Music, nightlife, On reflection

Another club bites the dust

London’s club scene is dying and all we can do is shrug a shoulder. Our city used to be one of the most liberal, exciting places in Europe, but it has long since lost that crown to Berlin, of all places. Wasn’t Germany supposed to be a place where people are square and uptight and anything fun is verboten? It should give us pause for thought that Germany now embodies so many of those virtues Britain used to claim as her own, such as freedom and tolerance.

A millennial only knows Britain, the police state. Anyone born in London after 1989 will have grown up with CCTV everywhere, bouncers with attitude, roped off pavements, smoking bans, countless petty rules about taking glasses outside, coming in through one door but having to enter through another, having to squeeze into the venue after ten, even having their pictures taken on entering, like criminals (hello, 93 Feet East). The act of drinking and letting your hair down has become one of the most heavily policed activities you could engage in in today’s Britain. It’s a misery and I feel sorry for the twenty-somethings of today, who never knew the freewheeling London of old. A city that used to take pride in its Swinging London label has been deadened by philistine councils, overbearing police, who instead of serving revellers, expose them to chicanery, and the never-sated monster that is gentrification.


Fabric, one of our most celebrated, iconic nightclubs is the latest casualty – 51st Parallel has already reported on the closure of Madame Jojo’s and The Joiners’ Arms. On this occasion, the crackdown is a reaction to a series of incidents. Over the last three years, eight people have collapsed at the venue, with four of these dying. The latest casualty is an 18-year-old girl who  bought what would seem contaminated MDMA at the venue. Threatened with the removal of its licence, the club has been forced to deploy seven sniffer dogs during operating hours. Not only will this probably discourage anyone from coming in the first place, the cost is also prohibitive. A Fabric DJ tells me that a sniffer dog hour comes at £300 – that’s £2,100 per hour and £21,000 for ten hours. You might as well shut the club down.

According to the Evening Standard, “in a police report submitted to the committee, Pc Steven Harrington said: ‘[Fabric] attracts clientele from all over Europe and it would seem that the immaturity or lifestyle of these patrons leads to them becoming actively involved in the taking of illegal drugs and this could account for the disproportionate and wholly unacceptable number of deaths and near death incidents at the venue.'”

Any drug-related death is an unacceptable tragedy. I cannot imagine the anguish of a victim’s friends and family on hearing that their loved one has been killed clubbing. The level of drug-taking in London today, the sordidness that comes with it and the addiction it can lead to all exact an enormous human cost. At the same time, it is part of human nature to get intoxicated. As long as it is legal to buy and consume alcohol, usually to excess, you can’t justify banning other substances such as MDMA, which are far less harmful than booze or nicotine. Neither should we act surprised that people pop pills and sniff all kinds of white powders in clubs – it’s what they’re there for. When, as a society, are we going to come out of denial and deal with the problem rationally? Introducing sniffer dogs in Farringdon won’t turn the tide any more than decades of prohibition have done. The way forward is legalisation. Let drugs be sold legally and openly while providing testing stations so consumers know what they’re taking. Why is this not possible? Because politicians from both parties deliberately ignore factual research and expert voices for purely electoral reasons. Young voters simply don’t matter. They have no electoral clout and little cash. We have slapped tuition fees on them, we have denied them job opportunities. And now we’re busy ruining their fun. If I were young, I’d be very angry at this betrayal.

Our politicians’ cowardice and contempt for the young, with their “immaturity” is not only killing London’s nightlife – it is directly responsible for any death caused by contaminated drugs. Still, as was the case with sexual mores, an unstoppable societal shift towards liberalisation is coming. But for Fabric and its followers, it may well come too late.

Support Fabric by signing the petition here

Culture vulture, Music, Theatre, Things to do now

Sunday poetry and jazz at Ronnie Scott’s

Pity poor Sunday night. Still suffering from the effects of the weekend and overshadowed by Monday’s approach, the fag end of the Sabbath is usually given over to slouching in front of the telly. Which is a shame, because once a month, Jumoké Fashola takes over the upstairs bar at Ronnie Scott’s with jazz and poetry, ending the weekend with a flourish.
There's no getting away from her

There’s no getting away from her

I like Jumoké. Like her sartorial rival, Camila Batmanghelidjh, she wears a trademark turban, a head-dress which is as regal as it is decorative. Who is the original, who the fake? My guess is that Batsie has the older rights. But Jumoké is a feisty challenger, and if I were Camila, I’d let Jumoké wrap herself up to her head’s content. In this season of goodwill, ladies everywhere, let our pacific motto be: no more burnin’ the turban.
Move over, Bats, there's a new turban in town

Move over, Bats, there’s a new turb in town

Ms Fashola has been impossible to avoid in recent weeks. Wherever I go, her turban follows. Standing tall and not a hair in sight, she fluffed us up for Fingersnap. Then she presented piano legend Abdullah Ibrahim at the London Jazz Festival. And when I walked into Jazz Verse Jukebox to see a friend, there she is again. It feels like the universe is drawing us together.
Aisling Fahey has unassuming power

Aisling Fahey: unassuming power

At Jazz Verse Jukeboz, Jumoké displays an unfailing knack for spotting up-and-coming talent. The last line-up featured Aisling Fahey, the New Young Poet Laureate for London. Her demeanour may be sweet and innocent, but her poetry is acutely observed and real. David Lee Morgan dazzled with an impassioned, epic poem on the atrocities of Congo’s colonial past. And Keith Jarrett delivered a performance that was both polished, stimulating and gripping. All this was complemented by jazz and a chance for new talent to shine in front of the open mic.
Keith Jarrett: Dazzling verse, masterfully delivered

Keith Jarrett: Dazzling verse, masterfully delivered

It was a memorable night which proved that you can still enjoy world class art at student prices right in the heart of London. So this Sunday, drag yourself away from the sofa and venture out to Ronnie’s Bar.
Jazz Verse Jukebox starts at 8pm; entry is £8.
2014 BBC Slam Poet David Morgan

2014 BBC Slam Poet David Morgan: passion and humanity

Culture vulture

John: A twisted life

Physical theatre group DV8 are back with their latest performance. Playing at the National Theatre“John” tells the story of a serial offender’s tragic life – a life that is marred by so much violence and grief that it resembles a never-ending train crash. It’s a verbatim piece in which John’s own words are the script: his recollections are declaimed by the actor-dancers as they contort themselves in a ballet of strange, expressive beauty, on a stage that is constantly revolving. At first, this story-telling mode seems confusing and affected. But once the story unfolds, the revolving stage becomes a metaphor for the unsteady, chaotic world John inhabits, and his awkward contortions a symbol of his insecure ducking and diving ways.


John hasn’t had an easy life: his father rapes two young girls in the family home and is sent to prison. Social services get involved, the mother drowns  her grief in alcohol until she finally takes her own life. John goes into a tailspin: from then on, his life consists of thieving, drug-taking, homelessness, endless convictions, and ultimately prison.

The time inside proves life-changing: John kicks the drugs, substitutes them with exercise and discovers his love for men. Cue the second half set in a gay sauna. Here, its two owners give us the behind-the-scenes lowdown on running a sex venue in all its filthy detail, laced with cutting insights on men hunting for sex. Drug-taking, barebacking, STD’s and overdoses – the scattered straights in he audience (a silver-haired lady sits nearby) are spared nothing. And yet with all the sexual action, the steam room of a gay sauna is an emotional Antarctica in which nobody dare break the code of silence. It is here, of all places, that John chooses to find a boyfriend. “I have so much love left in me to give”, he says rather tragically.

What’s the effect of this sad portrayal on the overwhelmingly gay audience? My boyfriend found it thought-provoking. To have what Vauxhall’s dirty little secrets aired by two bona-fide gays (and not a homophobic preacher) gives the criticism of the hedonistic gay lifestyle compelling weight, even if it is weakened by the consideration that the sauna, like so many  other gay businesses, profit from the behaviour they publicly condemn.

Joh the national theatre

John is looking for love in all the wrong places. But then, who is there to guide him? The sauna may well provide HIV-testing, condoms and safe-sex leaflets in their venues. But they still haven’t tackled that emotional frigidity in their sweatboxes by breaking that code of silence. Maybe businesses like these need to actively encourage social interaction. Maybe we need to see a play like John performed right there at Chariots Vauxhall. It would certainly get the dudes in towels talking.

In the meantime, John, like the rest of us, will continue to stumble along in his quest for love. As a typical gay man, he has no role models to encourage and guide him. Society has barely got used to the idea of same-sex marriage. But John is resilient. And like many of us, after many wearying trials and errors, he may yet find happiness.


And the soul lives on

Bobby Womack’s death marks the passing of another all-time greats in soul music, but he lives on in singer/songwriters David McAlmont and Guy Davies of Fingersnap.

The duo opened performed last night in the intimate setting of St James Theatre, where the audience can enjoy their glass of wine luxuriating in the comfort of their well-upholstered chairs. It was a fitting locale reminiscent of Las Vegas golden era – only the ashtrays, guys in tuxes and ladies in gowns were missing. The duo showed they meant business with a goose-bump inducing rendition of My Funny Valentine, kicking off a two hour tour-de-force of captivating and enrapturing soul music. Using his voice with the assurance and dazzling skill of a virtuoso playing a well-aged Stradivarius, McAlmont took us from almost inaudible whispers to glass-shattering falsetto passages, in a timbre so pure, strong and emotional that the audience were putty in his hands. All this was carried by Davies’ sure-footed accompaniment: dependable, yes, but also a joy in itself, at times sounding like chiming bells and at others making the audience tap their feet with his rolling riffs.

Pure soul: Fingersnap

Pure soul: Fingersnap

Seasoning their set with whimsical reminiscences and tales, Fingersnap sang crowd-pleasing favourites (was that Amy Winehouse joining in the chorus of Tears Dry On Their Own from her cloud?) and their own topical material. Hey Gene was a tender ballad dedicated to Bishop Gene Robinson, while a song about the superficiality of social media had the audience t(w)itter in sheepish recognition.

At other times, Fingersnap evoked the golden age of the blues, with Bessie Smith’s saucy Kitchen Man transporting us to the decadence of the roaring twenties. Even more astonishing in its depth of feeling and technical accomplishment was Arlen and Mercer’s American Songbook Classic Blues in the Night, with McAlmont’s powerful blues slide once again making the audience’s hair stand on end. When the show ended after an encore – including Fingersnap’s latest ballad, Blackbird, it was hard to believe that well over two hours had passed. The spine-tingling performance will stay with us for a very long time.

McAlmont and Davies are thoughtful, accomplished, funny and original – and they care deeply about their loyal audience. Last night during standing ovations, it was clear the audience loved them back with just as much passion – the music had fused performers and spectators into one body. Bobby Womack would have been proud.


Fingersnap play next at London’s Le Caprice.

If you’d like to see more of David, check out this moving ballad from his collaboration with Michael Nyman, The Glare.

At the pictures, On reflection

At the pictures: Chef

Imagine ordering a lovely bit of fish. The cod is succulent and the batter crisp, the chips chunky and golden. But as you chew on your third bite, you become aware of another taste. Wait a minute… isn’t that…. heroin? Yep, the food is drenched in finely powdered Afghan smack.

So it is with Jon Favreau’s latest offering, the feel-good comedy “Chef”.  The scent of an all-star cast lures you in: Dustin Hoffman gets an airing, Scarlett Johannson’s lips pout beguilingly, Robert Downey Jr. and the positively irresistible Joh Leguizamo provide some added cool. Like fish and chips, he plot is simple and tasty (and just as imaginative). Carl Casper (Favreau) cooked his way up into the kitchen of a swish LA restaurant, but he’s creatively stifled by his boss (Hoffman). Having to choose between his well-paid job and his integrity, he walks out and re-discovers his cooking roots, while bonding with his young son and his estranged wife, the rather delicious Latina vixen Sofia Vergara.


Skip this Twitter commercial unless....

Skip this Twitter commercial unless….

So far, so good. The film is appetisingly shot and features a set accomplished performances, with Leguizamo – the undoubted star, at least for this reviewer – nailing his character with an enticing mix of sincerity, sexiness and good, old-fashioned simple-mindedness. (Was is Sacha Baron Cohen who coined the phrase “blow job lips”? He must have been thinking of JL).

It could all have ended so well if it weren’t for the film being saturated with product placements. Soon into the flick, it becomes apparent that we’re watching a 90 minute commercial by Twitter and Apple. The digital native pre-pubescent son teaches his retard dad how to use Twitter to his advantage – from then on, the plot is moved along by 140 character messages and every event, notable or not, involves an iPhone or an iPad. There are phone calls, text messages, tweets, selfies, Vines and one-minute-videos. It’s all rather like a tutorial in Social Media in an Apple store. In one scene, we’re even forced to endure a scripted put-down of a rival smartphone (“Is that a flat screen TV?”). Is Apple feeling the chill of Samsung’s popularity? just can't get enough of ogling John Leguizamo (left)

…you just can’t get enough of ogling John Leguizamo (left)

It’s all entirely unnecessary. Yes, social media is a big part of life and has its place in the movies. But when this is blatantly sponsored by only two corporations and becomes central to the plot – even though the story could happen quite easily without any tweet being fired into cyberspace – the viewer feels abused.

So, what could have been quite a noteworthy film is irredeemably cheapened by the greed of its makers. And when then audience notices that something’s off, it’s already too late. We’re halfway through and there’s no turning back.

Companies will care little. Time and time again, product placement has proved a potent elixir for sales figures. Absent a ban on the practice – or regulation – the only tool viewers have is to boycott a film they don’t need to see.

“Chef” was one of those – until that scrumptious sous-chef in the hat came along and saved it.


Watch the trailer here.