Friday, 29 May 2009

Harvey Nichols window displays revisited

As so many people have been kind enough to tell me how much they enjoyed both my post on the fabulous Harvey Nichols window displays, and also my photos from Barnes Pond, here is a little something for the photo-loving fashionistas amongst you. The windows of Harvey Nics currently hold (Ed: back in May 2009) displays whose theme I can only interpret as "Explosion in a 90s teen drama prop house".
The windows along Knightsbridge are crammed with plastic bulldogs, jauntily-attired skeletons, marshmallow-filled bathtubs, neon day-glo plastic in monumental quantities and hiding amongst it all, the odd mannequin being attacked by a bejeweled panther. My words alone cannot do these chaotic dioramas justice, so here are some photos for you to see them yourselves...
Exhibit A - the military look meets disco atop a large sparkly, err...strawberry? Pair of lips? This close its rather hard to tell. These days a cassette tape is something of a rarity but fortunately the window-dressers have found several vast versions. They seem to have disgorged their tapey innards all over this woman and her blow-up palms trees however; maybe they were going for a 'forest of music' concept. Who knows, but it's fabulous. Next...
I don't know what I find most alarming about this scene. It's either the throwback 70s mullet on the mannequin, the strange pale child riding the blow-up shark in the sky or the sheer tackiness of those enormous sunglasses. And what does the 'S' stand for? Sea? Sozzled flamingo? Scary shark? Scary sunglasses? Just plain Scary!
It's behind you! This golden beauty is so blinded by the strange blonde croissant on her head she has no idea a large blue eagle has burst from the fuchsia wardrobe behind her and is coming after her hair-patisserie. (The deep sea diver over her shoulder doesn't look like he'll be much use fighting off the feathered fiend. He's probably keeping his helmet on to avoid the silver talons.)
No pose screams "look at my truly fabulous outfit" than the casual lean against a couple of old milk crates covered in plastic animals. And is that a cake on top of the crates? Judging from the poor flamingo throwing up over the pale green tyres it was obviously past its best whatever it was.
And it's obviously all got too much for this poor dear - overcome with haute couture, she's drowned herself in a bath of marshmallows, such a sad way to go. The life-ring was clearly a total waste of time. But at least she still has her fabulous pink heels. And at the end of the day, in fashion, what else matters?

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Close encounters of the celebrity kind

As I wandered home from work the other day I saw a curious thing. Walking towards me through Soho came Hugh Laurie in disguise. Bearded, cycle-clad and clutching a motorbike helmet; Lt. George channelling Ewan McGregor on the Long Way Round. Surreal though this encounter was, living in London, it has not been my only celebrity encounter. A few weeks ago, again near my office, I was almost run over by a lorry in an attempt to avoid treading on Griff Rhys Jones. Kate Middleton (or rather her/Prince William's dog) once trod on me, rounding a corner of the Kings Road. Grace the covers of Tatler and Hello she may well do, but she did not say sorry!

When I first moved to London I stayed with a hugely kind relative in a flat above a fine Chelsea restaurant. "It's always full of famous people. You'll see loads of them" she assured me, "Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger, Christine Hamilton". (Christine Hamilton? Now on a par with Peter Andre and Christopher Biggins after her stint in the "I'm a Celebrity" jungle?!). Well I lived in that flat for nearly four and a half months. Care to hazard a guess how many celebs I saw in the restaurant below? None. Not one. Until the moment I came to move out into my current flat. A friend arrived to pick up my stuff and when I opened the door to her she bolted inside then squeaked at me for 30 seconds. "OhmygodIthinkthatsColinFirthhavingdinnernextdoorhesrightnexttothewindow" And yes it was. Colin Firth (Mr Darcy, for heavens sake!) watched as I shamingly trogged my belongs to and fro - he saw the endless pairs of shoes, the strange oddments left in my fridge, the family-sized bag of toilet roll, never-ending plastic, hence deeply un-Chelsea, bags. I could've died of mortification. (The only consolation was the fact he looked so shattered and scruffy, and very un-Darcy-like, we could almost pretend it wasn't him.)
Disgraced former Blue Peter presenters crossing Piccadilly Circus, non-disgraced former Blue Peter presenters buying shoes on Oxford Street, movie actors at either end of the Tottenham Court road. The streets of London are positively heaving with thespians of stage and screen, singers, writers and, today's latest infamous bunch, politicians.
Maybe we just see them more as the sheer number of people who now qualify as celebrities grows and grows. A story about seeing Colin Firth merits relaying to one's friends over a glass of wine, but shockingly so does an encounter with an actor from student-staple soap Hollyoaks or a glamour model who once appeared on Big Brother. Or now an MP who claimed thousands of pounds to re-do his bookshelves.

Surely one should not be surprised to find one shares the pavements of London (although rarely the public transport system) with people who we see more usually in the news media or television screens. London is not merely somewhere us mere mortal office-workers inhabit. For every office there is a recording studio. For every shop, a television channel headquarters. What is harder to reconcile oneself with is the thought that for those in "the entertainment industry", going to work is just the same as for us. Early mornings, late nights, being told what to do and often doing the same thing over and over again until it's perfect. Everyone works to make a living; to buy a house, to go grocery shopping, to be able to spend their weekends shopping and having picnics in the park.
Some of my friends who also live in London claim never to see anyone famous. Maybe they are just better adjusted at seeing celebrities as people whose lives function within the city as much as ours. Or maybe they just read less trashy magazines.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Accidental Visits: An evening at the Victoria & Albert Museum

If pushed to pick my top 10 attractions in London the task would require a great deal of deliberation, short-list production and agonising. So many things to love, so many things to hate. One feature of this city which would fly into my top three unquestioned however is the magnificent Victoria and Albert Museum. Last Friday, in honour of International Museums Day, the V&A kept its vast wooden doors open until midnight. In the high entry hall, Dale Chihuly's blue and green glass sculpture bounced Friday-night light around the pale stone walls far more subtly than any nightclub disco-ball. Beneath it a bar served wine (albeit in plastic picnic glasses) and jazz music played through a sound system, nestled between huge pillars. Visitors chatted on benches, sipping drinks, catching up with friends after work. Individuals wandered through the peaceful Asian art rooms examining antique kimonos, while much of London drunk post-work pints in overcrowded pubs. The fabulous gift-shop positively buzzed with late night commerce.

I was there with friends to finally visit "Hats: An Anthology" produced by milliner Stephen Jones, which alas closes at the end of this month. The exhibition sits within a dark purple topiary garden, entering which makes one feel a little like Alice after she's gone through the looking glass. Extraordinary, unwearable, futuristic and ridiculous headgear of all shapes and sizes was arranged in cases around the dark walls. A policeman's helmet sat next to a bejewelled trucker cap. Pink plastic bike helmets shared a case with a carved wooden creation which would make the wearer look like a walking acorn.
In the centre was reproduced a milliner's atelier, to allow the visitor a peek into the hand-maker's domain; seemingly torturous devices full of pins for measuring head shapes, satin ribbons and feather trimmings, wooden head moulds, chic Schiaparelli hat boxes. Despite the late hour the exhibition was full and visitors craned their heads over each others shoulders to examine Sarah Jessica Parker's butterfly-topped Philip Treacy creation, worn to the premiere of Sex and the City: The Movie. Carla Bruni's tiny grey air-hostess hat was easily overshadowed by a vast purple veiled number owned by the late Queen Mother.
People had time to sit and watch videos of hand-stitching linen roses to wide brims, and to compare their favourite fedoras to another's preferred pill-box. No one was rushing back to work or dashing to collect children/dry-cleaning/the shopping. It was a perfect way to spend a Friday night. A little culture, a lot of fashion and the bliss of being in one of the most wonderous buildings in the city late at night.

After leaving the hall of hats I wandered to the Cast Courts. For some reason I am unable to visit the V&A without paying my respects to this most individual of collections. Two rooms (one currently closed for restoration) full of full-size cast models of church altars, statues of fallen knights templar and, in two pieces due to its staggering height, Trajan's Column. I cannot say what it is within this place which pulls me in every time, yet I can say that at nighttime it is all the more magical. "Night at the Museum" (or its recent filmic sequel) it is not. No stuffed animals or dummies coming to life, roaming the halls. Just busy Londoners getting the chance to enjoy time in a place they may pass daily but rarely are able to visit. I hope that more museums and galleries follow the V&A's example. They would certainly spare me the odd hung-over Saturday morning!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

"Real' London? The London of reality television

Reality TV has a lot to answer for. Besides the obvious promotion of talentless nobodies who grace our screens for 10 minutes then spend the next 12 months falling drunk out of clubs in the misguided belief they're worth photographing, this genre of television creates icons of places as well as people. One of the first series which defined today's reality television show format was "Survivor" - a group of people are stranded in a wilderness and by completing various challenges gradually vote off fellow contestants to crown a lone "Sole Survivor". The wilderness was a beautiful (although presumably less so by the time a caravan of cameramen and sound operators had destroyed it) paradise of sea, tropical forest and sand. Who wouldn't want to live/holiday somewhere like that? Then came "Castaway" (which did wonders for creating a somewhat surprising tourist industry on the remote Outer Hebridean island of Taransay), and the student favourite "Shipwrecked" - battling tribes of gorgeous twenty-somethings building communities on opposing picturesque Fijian islands. Islands and tropical forests aside however, plenty of cities have received the reality TV glamour make-over and London is no exception.

Currently gracing our screens is the fifth series of UK version of "The Apprentice", following fifteen hopeful candidates embark upon a twelve week job interview, for the oft-quoted six figure salary and a position within Sir Alan Sugar's business empire. Sir Alan is far less suave and enigmatic than Donald Trump (The US version's counterpart tycoon). He is common and gruff, far less polished yet distinctly British, and very London. (He also has all his own hair, so much he even valiantly attempts a little badgery beard, unlike Mr. Trump.) The barrow-boy-done-good story of Alan Sugar is common, now almost tediously repeated, knowledge; how he clawed his way into business and Bentleys and made his millions with his company Amstrad. Each season of The Apprentice he picks a range of lawyers, marketing consultants, salespersons and generally arrogant individuals and pits them against each other in what is assuredly gripping televisual drama. Cat-fights, back-stabbing and bitching whittle down the hopefuls as they create advertising campaigns, brand new products and run events, all against a backdrop as exciting as the action.

The Apprentice's London is bold and impressive. During the daytime shots, the sun shines on a glittering Thames, glass covered offices sparkle and lush green parks are filled with smiling citizens. At night The City twinkles, alive with lights atop and within the Gherkin, the BT Tower and Canary Wharf. It rarely rains in The Apprentice, and on the rare occasion it does the city looks sexily mean and moody, rather than miserable and soggy.
So here Sir Alan, at the front so we're reminded he's the boss (but not how short he actually is; clever thing, perspective), with his minions on either side. But who is that in the background, playing a supporting, yet undeniably striking, role? Creeping in over the shoulders of the competitors, famous for a few months at best, are landmarks of our great city, which will outlive even Sir Alan and The Apprentice franchise. Proudly at the back are the Swiss Re building, more commonly known as The Gherkin, and Tower 42. No matter that the image is a Photoshop creation of various elements - boss, candidates, backdrop of skyline - they are all combined to give a sense of the programme; 15 people seek the approval of one man, in one city recognised worldwide by its iconic architecture.

Prince Charles may this week have delivered a scathing attack on the "carbuncles" of British architecture but this architecture brands our city, and gives those outside our limits a picture of London. Architecture, like art, relies heavily on personal taste yet in its very existence it provides an image, a story and a backdrop to something far larger than a single edifice. Millions of people live out their lives here, lives far less glamourous than the steel and glass constructions which portray London on television. Yet these buildings belong to them. The skyline and streets are theirs. And as a resident, I think London scrubs up pretty well. It does us proud.

Do admit - it's rather fine. Even if not always beautiful (sorry, Prince Charles) London can certainly bring the drama.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Music venues in London

Why is it that London's current music artists, following in the footsteps of legends like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Clash, are doing the city so little justice today on the global stage? Many Brit popstars move Stateside to promote their careers or make the fateful transition into acting, never to be heard of again. Others racket around the world, drunk and disorderly, bounced from one visa desk to another. Look at the phenomenally talented Amy Winehouse, currently cavorting around St Lucia, in and out of hospital as she collapses once more from too many illegal substances and not enough food. Lily Allen, previously unable to obtain a visa to enter the USA as Homeland Security had seen enough of her press cuttings to know she might be trouble. Worse almost than these tabloid-filling horrors are the endlessly dull. Let us not forget Coldplay - the blandest of the bland - hail from London. Whilst they hurtle off to tour the globe, however, we in London are fortunate to be visited by many wonderful artists from America, Australia, Europe and Africa in return; a sort of popstars exchange programme, rather like those for GCSE French students. I think we're getting a great deal!

Living in London I have been to several fabulous concerts by a range of extraordinary musicians. Spectacular shows before a background of fireworks and scale models of the Moulin Rouge, 40,000 people bouncing up and down in Hyde Park screaming along with Eddie Grant to "Gimme Hope Jo'ana" at the top of their voices, vocal performances which played second fiddle to numerous costume changes, and performances so intimate you might as well have been sat at home in the artist's living room. Remove the t-shirts with ironic slogans, switch off the dazzling light displays, send home the burlesque dancers and man that plays the marimba. The venue is the thing. And here in London are some of the finest popular music venues in the world.

You want small and intimate? I've seen an excellent lunchtime gig in the Camden Lock Tavern, whilst people munched fish and chips with work colleagues; it certainly beats a sandwich at one's desk in front of a computer. Fireworks and flashing lights more your thing? The disastrous Millennium Dome has risen anew as the O2 Arena, a vast 20,000 person venue with the space for huge screens, banks of speakers and a nice high ceiling from which to drop glitter and dangle the odd over-the-top popstar. A-list artists such as Britney Spears and Michael Jackson (still A-list? really?) even sign up to play "mini-residencies" here. The only drawback to the place is fighting your way back in to central London with the other 19,999 concert-attendees after the gig.

My favourite memories of gigs though have been in the smaller venues. You can get nearer the artists (if you're happy to be slightly trampled on in the process, and do not mind the odd pint being sloshed down you shoulder from time to time). You do not have to watch the action on a large screen whilst the show looks as if it is being performed by tiny ants miles away. The bass thuds through your chest and the speakers assault your ears. But you are really there, and have really "seen" Faithless/Jason Mraz/U2/Razorlight. The various Carling venues, the Brixton Aacademy, the Shepherds Bush Empire and the Hammersmith Apollo, are all rather splendid in a sticky-carpetted, hot and sweaty kind of way.
After a fabulous gig by The Fray on Wednesday at The Roundhouse in Camden, I have a new favourite though. Standing in The Roundhouse, watching it slowly fill, felt like being in a smaller Globe Theatre; a round brick drum of a building, with a wooden roof rising upwards through wrought metal columns. Though it may feel like a theatre, or a purpose built entertainment venue, this beautiful building was once an engine shed for repairing steam trains, yet despite its grimey heritage The Roundhouse is cleaner and neater than any gig venue I've ever seen. This is a place where music is taken seriously, given a respectful stage; it is once again art rather than a profit-making exercise.

Old theatres and playhouses, retrofitted with concert-worthy acoustics and lighting rigs, serve a new purpose in the age of television. People may not spend as many evenings at the theatre as they once did, but the rise of MTV and the music video has encouraged more people into live music venues. And with the recycling of the theatres into stages for bands and musicians, popular entertainment has come full circle. Here in London, we are lucky enough to benefit hugely from this change, now all we need are decent London artists to truly own these venues.
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