Red is for Luck

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Lucky Red (Photo M. Germana)

Lucky Red (Photo M. Germana)

Italian and Chinese people may have many cultural differences – not least the argument over who invented spaghetti/noodles. But they do share their preference for red to welcome the new year under good auspices: Italians have red underwear on to attract good luck, as they toast in the New Year’s Eve; the Chinese also wear red for good luck during their New Year’s Celebrations.

Red Lanterns (Photo M. Germana)

Red Lanterns (Photo M. Germana)

Bright red objects – toys, ornaments, and lanterns, of course – decorate the streets of Chinatown in the two weeks leading up to the beginning of the New Lunar Year. This year, it fell on 31 January, though the main events in London happened on Sunday 2 February.

This is the Year of the Horse. According to Feng Shui specialist Raymond Lo, this is the year when people will tend to stick more to their principles. Good news? Well, it depends, of course, entirely, on your principles!

'Chinatown Gate' (Photo M. Germana)

‘Chinatown Gate’ (Photo M. Germana)

For me, it was an opportunity to apply one of my (Western) New Year’s resolutions: get the camera out more and write more! So here we are.

London’s Chinatown is always a cornucopia of colour and scent. On the first Sunday in February it exceeded itself. The smell of sweet and sour sauces oozed out the restaurants, luring more people to queue for a table at one of the many eateries on Gerrard, Rupert and Wardour Street. We didn’t want to waste any time eating, so just grabbed a couple of sweet buns from a bakery. The streets were very crowded, and, being a small person, it was sometimes difficult for me to see what was going on. I took advantage on my travelling companion’s sturdy shoulders a couple of times to take some of the shots of the Lion Dance.

Lion Dancer (Photo M. Germana)

Lion Dancer (Photo M. Germana)

A particular variation of this performance, the cai-qing (“plucking the greens”) involving dancers or – more specifically on New Year’s Day – martial art performers – takes place on the streets of Chinatown on the day of the celebrations. Two performers under an elaborate costume danced around the streets, bouncing, jumping, and shaking their booties. The lion gets particularly frisky at the sight of green lettuce hanging from shop entrances.

Hanging Lettuce (Photo M. Germana)

Hanging Lettuce (Photo M. Germana)

It’s good luck for the business if the lion successfully plucks it. It’s good luck for the lion, too, as attached to the leafy bunch of greens is also a red envelope containing more precious kinds of leaves for the performers.

Red envelopes containing “lucky money” are also, apparently, handed out by friends and family to children, who will find them under their pillows, and single people, to wish them good luck with their romantic lives in the new year. Well, may the year of the horse be a year full of love, then, and, a little money, which never does any harm!

What I like about Chinese New Year is the way that all things Chinese seem to spread well beyond the boundaries marked by the Gates of Chinatown.

Chinese Trafalgar Square (Photo M. Germana)

Chinese Trafalgar Square (Photo M. Germana)

The major performances, in fact, took place in Trafalgar Square, where large crowds converged, throughout the day, to watch circus acrobats and traditional Chinese dances. One wonders what Lord Nelson would have made of all this; he certainly had a good vantage point to watch the festivities from.

It was a good day out and, whatever people may think of the failures of multiculturalism in Britain, it did feel like the whole world had turned up to this party.

Multicultural Chinese new Year (Photo M. Germana)

Multicultural Chinese New Year (Photo M. Germana)

Gothic London: Phantom Railings

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Warning

Warning (M. Germana)

Ever walked home late at night and become conscious of somebody else’s footsteps behind you?

I was taking a short walk on Malet Street when I was startled by a strange sound that seemed to echo my footsteps. 

When I walked faster, the beat of this uncanny tune became quicker, too. When I stopped, it all became quiet again. I was puzzled and curious.

As I walked on, I reached the gate to the Malet Street Gardens and the mystery was revealed to me at once.

Malet Gardens Gate

Malet Gardens Gate (M. Germana)

The sound I could hear was produced by technological devices, which on detecting the sound of footsteps replicates the rhythm with a metallic sound, as if a stick were running along the iron railings.

These ‘Phantom Railings’ have been here for about a year, and I’m glad I stumbled across them. It’s the work of  ‘Public Interventions’, an artistic collective dedicated to developing innovative ways of engaging the public within the urban environment of London.  They are particularly interested in using technology to establish new lines of communication and aesthetic response: in this case, they successfully manage to draw your attention to the strange absence of iron railings.

Malet Street Gardens is one of few places where the iron bars taken off during the Second World War were never replaced: the residual trace of the past punctuates the wall with dark metal stumps. The historical dimension of the installation also made me think of another evocative use of sound: Menashe Kadishman’s Shalechet (‘Fallen Leaves’) in Berlin’s Jewish Museum: this uses 10,000 metal ‘faces’ carved in metal discs, and placed in an area of the museum that visitors are invited to walk on.

P1010197

Ghostly (M. Germana)

‘Phantom Railings’ speaks of a past that once was but also of the meaning of fences, barriers, and other kinds of lines demarcating private spaces. Such borderlines are expressions of power, status, ownership. They are reminders that the city has fewer and fewer public spaces. At times, the railings become, themselves, contested spaces. Like proper frontiers, they are the site of urban conflict: the number of signs urging cyclists not to attach their wheels to railings is on the increase.

P1010203

Untitled (M. Germana)

 

These kinds of warnings – and the transgressions associated with them – make me think of a poem I read when I was studying English at school: Jenny Joseph‘s Warning.

Here the poet, who was only 29 at the time, longs for the little subversions she will be indulging in later in life, breaking all the rules and regulations she is abiding to as a young person:

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

When was the last time you broke a rule? And how did it make you feel?

Isn’t she lovely?

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London Winter Scene (Photo M. Germana)

London Winter Scene (Photo M. Germana)

London in a wedding dress. Icy confetti fell all over her, the winter bride, at the week-end.

Too poetic? Perhaps. But isn’t it incredible how a few inches of white frost can give the city a radical make-over?

Finsbury Park (Photo M. Germana)

Finsbury Park (Photo M. Germana)

Proper seasonal changes give you the impression of travel; you may have not moved, but overnight the change of scenery will give you the impression you have been transported elsewhere. That’s what I call ‘weather-travel’.

Perhaps I speak just for myself, but I was getting tired of this mild, grey, non-descript climate. I am convinced November lasted three months this year.

Winter Colours (Photo M. Germana)

Winter Colours (Photo M. Germana)

It’s a different story, however, when the temperature drops and we get to wear the Christmas jumpers we couldn’t really justify taking out of the closet in December. On Thursday the sudden burst of winter sunshine caught us by surprise, and we all smiled again, relieved to see the blue sky piercing through the mist and clouds that have been oppressing the city of late.

Then came the snow.

And it was as if the city is a different place. With fewer cars around, the streets looked prettier and smelt fresher. Snow is like a layer of light foundation make-up; it hides blemishes, enhances colouring and features. And besides the crazy travel disruption – if you are not affected by train cancellations – there seems to be no better weather to enjoy London in the winter.

Branches (Photo M. Germana)

Branches (Photo M. Germana)

As the city slows down, everybody seems to find their inner child… on Friday night I was caught up in a snow-ball fight as I walked to an empty restaurant in Covent Garden. Closing early, because of the weather, of course. Snowmen popped up on pavements, bus stops and park benches.

Snowman (Photo M. Germana)

Snowman (Photo M. Germana)

Who needs a ski-break in the Alps, when you can slide down kite hill on Hampstead Heath?

Seasonal changes are the best answer to reduced travel budgets; if you can’t afford to go to the slopes, let the slopes come to your door-step!

On Saturday the Heath was heaving with improvised winter sports enthusiasts. Armed with plastic trays, traditional wooden sledges, rubbish liners and other, imaginative sliding solutions, Londoners of all ages enjoyed risking breaking their necks (would your winter sports insurance cover your slide down the icy paths of North London?) until dusk. As the sun set, and the city lights began to sparkle to outline the familiar skyline, the view from the top of the hill was stunning.

Frozen Buds (Photo M. Germana)

Frozen Buds (Photo M. Germana)

Like any traditional English bride, London didn’t forget to throw her bouquet for good luck. We went looking for it in Regent’s Park on Sunday.

We saw what remained of the wedding feast: covered in a thick coat of white icing sugar, benches, tree-branches, sculptures looked like they had been stolen from the display of a posh patisserie.

And then we found it. In the Queen’s rose garden, of course.

The precocious buds, blushing mutely through the snow, defiant of sub-zero temperatures; there it was, London’s understated bridal bouquet.

Red Gems (Photo M. Germana)

Red Gems (Photo M. Germana)

She may be old-fashioned, but London likes a good party, too. Before we know it, she is getting thrashed already.

So don’t waste anytime, go out for a walk, before the slushy hangover settles in!

Does size matter?

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The Shard I (Photo M. Germana)

The latest addition to London’s skyline, The Shard, officially opened a few weeks ago. The launch involved a laser display, which, I was lucky enough to watch from the comfortable surroundings of a rooftop terrace near St. Paul’s Cathedral. I was in the company of some Chinese visitors who kindly threw an impromptu party to watch the christening of the new iconic building from the vantage point of their roof terrace.

The thing about The Shard is its size. At 309.6m in height, it is by far the tallest building in London, dwarfing the previous record-holder, Canary Wharf, by about 75m. As Richard Godwin observed in The Evening Standard, The Shard may be the stuff of science fiction:

You have to turn to fiction to convey its true majesty, and George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth from 1984 does the job better than any marketing bumf. The building is “an enormous pyramidal structure …soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air”. Admittedly, The Shard does not have slogans such as “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” and “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” written on its gleaming carapace. However, at 309 metres, it is almost exactly the same height. It too is visible from almost everywhere in the city.

London Tallest Buildings

The new addition to the capital’s cityscape is in fact the tallest building in Europe. Impressed? Think again: when you take a less Eurocentric look at the world’s tallest buildings, our new glass tower is only the 59th tallest building in the world, almost one third shorter than the tallest, the Burj Khalifa, which stands 828 metres high in the heart of Dubai.

The Shard and the others

Contemporary urban design is still obsessed by the same ambition that drove medieval engineers and architects to defy the limits of their human world and elevate their churches as high as possible. In an act of worship that revealed also the desire to play god, the imposing designs of Gothic churches would force any worshipper to reflect on their smallness, not only in relation to the Almighty, but also, perhaps, in relation to the architect and, most importantly, the Church who funded the project.

St. Paul’s Dome (Photo M. Germana)

In the 21st Century it is banks that acquire the most majestic structures and the symbolism in relation to the power that capitalism holds over our lives doesn’t really need further analysis.

Still, I’m not convinced that size is the be all and end all of contemporary urban architecture. There is certainly something spectacularly breath-taking about height and perhaps nobody summarised this better than the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who drew attention to the strange influence of pain, fear and even horror on our ability to experience pleasure:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

In the arts the sublime is frequently associated with dramatic scenery, Alpine peaks, glaciers, waterfalls. But the concept transfers well to the man-made heights of modern cityscapes. Indeed Burke focuses on the complexity of the human mind, which is moved much more strongly by an object designed to raise pain and pleasure simultaneously:

It seems, then, necessary towards moving the passions of people advanced in life to any considerable degree, that the objects designed for that purpose, besides their being in some measure new, should be capable of exciting pain or pleasure from other causes.

Perhaps we like big buildings because they remind us that, despite our relative smallness in relation to the universe’s infinity, we are able to defy our own limits and reach, higher and higher. Or perhaps it is not about size after all. Maybe we enjoy being surprised, or shocked even, by a design that challenges our expectations of what a building should look like.

What I particularly like about the City of London is the seamless continuity that characterises its architecture. More so than in other European cities, avant-garde designs rub shoulders with some of the oldest buildings in London. The proximity of the church of St. Andrew Undershaft to 30 St Mary Axe (aka ‘The Gherkin’) is a classic example.

The Gherkin and St Andrew Undershaft (Photo M. Germana)

Interestingly, the name of the church makes a reference to its diminutive size compared to a may pole structure that would have towered over it:

Like many of the City’s churches, there is the business of the strange name. The shaft that the church was under was, in medieval times, an adjacent may pole, which by all accounts was huge, possibly taller than the church tower.

(Mike Paterson, London Historians’ Blog)

Maybe size does matter after all. I remember a witty anecdote from the guide who led my very first ‘Duck Tour‘ through London a few years ago. Apparently,

Sir Norman Foster had his first inspiration for his Bishopsgate tower whilst in the bath.

Fnar fnar.  Though considerably smaller than Sir Foster’s jewel, this small church has withstood  more than any recent piece of architecture in the City; Like St. Paul’s, it remained standing after the Blitz (1940-41). But unlike the Cathedral, St. Andrew Undershaft predates the Great Fire of London (1666) and, more recently, suffered an IRA bomb attack (1992).

Do you like The Shard?

Do you have another favourite building in London? Europe? The rest of the world?

Post any comments and links to images below!

Th Shard II (Photo M. Germana)

Seeing Red

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Friday the 13th

In hindsight it seemed ironic travelling to Pimlico and visiting Tate Britain to catch a glimpse of John Martin’s exhibition on Friday the 13th. Nevertheless, I did, and thoroughly enjoyed the vibrancy of the infernal palette Martin used to depict his spectacular representations of  religious apocalypses and natural disasters. The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1821) was one of my favourite paintings. The history of the canvas is quite interesting, too, as I read on the explanatory panel:

In the early hours of 7 January 1928, the Tate Gallery experienced a disastrous flood. The Thames embankment ruptured, and waters surged into the basement and lower galleries, submerging significant portions of the library, archive and art collections. John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum was one of the pictures badly damaged. The artist’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, and the work was dismissed as ‘completely ruined’.

Ironic that a painting seeking to capture the frightful force of the volcanic eruption that swallowed up the two Roman cities in AD 79 would, in turn, be destroyed by the elemental fury of water. As in a strange ‘rock-paper-scissors’ game, in 1928, when Martin’s fame had already suffered a considerable decline, the Thames got one over Vesuvius! The restorers of the painting, which was one of the highlights of this exhibition, however, had a slightly easier task than one would have expected: a smaller replica of the canvas, painted by Martin himself, survived, providing the perfect model for the latest reconstruction. The paintings hang side by side, with the replica coming first, allowing the viewer to appreciate the sheer scale of the original work.

John Martin's The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as restored by Sarah Maisey. Photograph: David Clarke/Tate Photography.

As in much of Martin’s work, the landscape follows the conventions of the sublime, the kind of aesthetic approach seeking to combine beauty and horror. Sharp alpine peaks, icy glaciers and deep, barren valleys would typically be associated with this appreciation of nature as the simultaneous source of wonder and destruction. Far from static, whatever the setting, the sublime landscape is designed to enhance dramatic tension. Even in an age where our eyes are over-exposed to the graphic imagery of catastrophic disasters on a daily basis, the sublime still grabs us with a stronger hold than the ‘real’ images of news reports. In Martin’s work, the force of the natural elements seems to exceed the boundaries of the frame and, simultaneously, draw us into the heat of the volcano’s incendiary embrace. The thick cloud of pink smoke, the bright shoots of lava jutting out of the crater and the darkness of the wave -surge all display the kind of elemental wrath against which human spectators can do nothing but acknowledge their insignificance.

What’s most effective is the imminent sense of the incumbent catastrophe. We are witnessing the end as it is happening. Sailing boats are about to capsize, wrecked by the tsunami caused by the eruption. Awaiting their fate, the diminutive human figures at the forefront of Martin’s painting are mementos of our vulnerability. Yet, in spite of their powerless condition, we recognise the powerful traces of human narratives in the fragments of life about to be wiped out by the eruption. On the right hand side, we spot a pregnant woman, bare breasted and supported by two Roman centurions. In the middle is a couple, exchanging one last kiss, bidding farewell to their life together. Even in the face of nature’s uncontrollable wrath, Martin’s attention for the minute details of the human actors (victims?) of  his vision brings us a strange sense of relief dictated by the inevitable acceptance of our fragile condition.

The intensity of Martin’s red hues worked well, for me, to counterbalance the greyness of the month after Christmas. The exhibition is on until tomorrow, 15 January. Catch it if you can… the end is nigh!

(and if you did see the exhibition, do share your views…)

First Things First

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It’s time to bid 2011 farewell, and formulate those good resolutions. Even if they rarely make it past the end of January…

'Fireworks 2011' (Photo M. Germana)

I plan to keep on writing, travelling, and writing about travelling… and I can’t wait to start filming my bike journeys with my new camera (Santa was far too generous with me this year)!

But today it’s all about the cusp, the space between the tail end of the old year and the undistinguished features of the unborn 2012.

Time slips fast through our fingers and the gap gets narrower and narrower as we get ready in our party frocks for fireworks and candle-lit dinners to welcome the new kid on the block.

It’s the Olympic year; in millions they will travel to London to watch the games and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a leap year. An extra day of work. An extra night’s sleep. An extra night out. An unexpected (!) marriage proposal, perhaps.

Whatever our dreams may be for 2012, let’s work on them, and make this baby a happy one.

This is the last post of the year. If there is anything to learn from the memorable events of 2011, it’s the power of sharing that this medium has given us.

So, to mark the beginning of the new year I would like to invite everyone to contribute to ‘My Notebook’. Over the next 24 hours, wherever you are, leave a comment, sharing, if you like, the first scene you saw in 2012. It could be the bubbles in your champagne flute, or the hand of your own watch making 2012 happen. A street party. Your back garden. Whatever it is, share it in your words!

Happy New Year.

The (London) Cyclist’s Ten Commandments

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'The Penny Farthing Crash' (The Old Bicycle Showroom)

Not being very fond of rules, generally cyclists hold more than their fair share of anarchic tendencies… when it comes to self-preservation, however, some basic rules are worth sticking to…

1. Shortcuts are not always safe (remember Little Red Riding Hood?)

2. Speaking of Red: Don’t jump red lights.

3. More on colour: Fluorescent is the new black. Wear it and be cool.

4. Ditto with helmets.

5. Do not pass (lorries) on the inside. They will not see you.

6. Don’t drink (too much) and cycle.

7. Indicate, indicate, indicate.

8. Use your bell to alert, not to annoy!

9. Count to ten before swearing (if you must). It’s good karma.

10. Take your time to reach your destination. Life is already too short… no need to make it shorter!

'The Bicycle Suit', Punch Magazine (1895)

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