26/05/14 - Jonathan Yeo at the Lowry

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If you've been reading my blog for a little while, you'll know that I occasionally dip my toes into the art world.  I just love the experience of wandering between paintings, trying to convince myself and those around me that I actually know what I'm talking about...it's something that I wish I did more of because every time I do, I come away feeling invigorated and inspired.  Last Thursday evening was no different.  My friend Jenny and I attended the opening of an exhibition of Jonathan Yeo's portraits at the Lowry in Salford.  For anyone who doesn't know, Jonathon Yeo is one of Britain's leading portrait artists and is best known for his renderings of very familiar faces which include actors and politicians.  This particular exhibition, which is on tour from the National Portrait Gallery, features some of his most famous subjects - from Kevin Spacey in the role of Richard III to Tony Blair, with a new portrait of the incredible actress Maxine Peake.

After a stroll around the exhibition and actually managing to intelligently discuss the contrasting styles in the portraits, we gathered to hear Jonathan Yeo discussing his work with Tim Marlow and special guest, actor Charlie Condou.  The moment they started speaking, I instantly regretted not bringing a notebook - I normally carry one everywhere but we went to the exhibition straight from work and everything was just that bit too hectic for me to remember something so basic.  In the hour long conversation, they covered so much ground including the experience of painting versus being the subject of a portrait, the nature of 'celebrity', a fascinating exploration of Yeo's political artwork, and how the development of technology and the rise of the selfie has changed the way we view portraiture.  It was so inspiring to watch these three incredibly articulate men giving a real insight into the artistic process as well as discussing its connection to our wider society, and there were numerous brilliants comments that I wish I'd had the common sense to write down verbatim so that I could put them in here. 

After the talk, we were lucky enough to grab a moment with Charlie Condou for a brief chat.  If it hadn't been for his Twitter, we wouldn't have known the event was even happening and it would have been such a shame to miss out on such a fantastic evening.  Charlie was utterly lovely, so friendly and accommodating, and even agreed to a quick photo before he had to dash off.  Unfortunately, Jonathan Yeo was also in a hurry so we weren't able to speak to him at all which was a shame as I would've loved an opportunity to pick his brain a little further!

Excuse the slightly low quality image...good old phone cameras!
Thanks to Jenny for using her phone to take this photo,
as mine would've turned out much worse.
Jenny and I had an incredible evening, and were particularly amazed by the fact that we were actually able to coherently discuss the art in front of us with some level of confidence.  We both admitted that occasionally we feel like we don't 'get' art and are therefore nowhere near qualified to formulate opinions on it, which I think is a real shame.  I particularly came away with my mind filled with questions about what sitting for a portrait might bring out in me.  There was a section of the discussion where the process of portrait painting was discussed and what really struck me was the element of exploration, stripping away the front that people naturally present to the world and digging down into the deeper layers of humanity that we - intentionally or otherwise - hide.  I'd be absolutely fascinated to see what layers of myself would be stripped back in that process and whether a portrait of me would look anything like how I like to imagine myself.  One of the most notable things about the development of recent technology is that we all have instantaneous access to images of ourselves and the ability to pick the most flattering few to share with everyone else.  I cringe to think of the number of selfies I take on my phone before I have one that I deem acceptable for public consumption.  The idea of a portrait seems so much more permanent and that alone instills it with some kind of importance that has been otherwise detracted from the process of viewing images of ourselves.  On top of that, I personally find any kind of art incredibly impressive because it's something I just have absolutely zero skill in!  

If you're in the Manchester area or are willing to travel to see some incredible art, I highly recommend that you do so.  The exhibition is open until 29th June and you can find more information about it here.  The Lowry is a fantastic facility, so it's worth a visit anyway!

Do you feel that you understand art enough to appreciate it fully?  And does that affect the way that you view it?  Let me know in the comments!

14/05/14 - A Blast from the Past with McBUSTED

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If you're in the UK or have access to the Internet at all, you're probably aware of the phenomenon which is McBusted.  My Facebook feed has been full of people posting overexcited selfies wearing their tour T-shirts and raving about how amazing they are.  For anyone who was somehow missed out on this, McBusted are an amalgamation of the entirety of the band McFly and two thirds of the band Busted.  They're billed as the 'ultimate supergroup' and certainly the following that this hybrid has gained is incredibly impressive.

And although I've been trying to write dispassionately rather than outright raving from the start of this post, I can't deny that when I saw them perform on the televised Children In Need event last year I immediately went online and booked tickets.  Like, immediately.  Any long time readers of this blog may have noticed that I'm not really one for going to concerts - or should that be 'gigs'?  Which is the cooler one to say?  This shows how little I go to them.  I tend to favour the theatre over live music as a good 70% of my iPod consists of musical theatre soundtracks.  However, there are a select few that I make an exception for and this was always going to be one of them.

When I was a mere eleven-year-old whippersnapper, Busted were my absolute favourite band.  It would never have occurred to little Hannah that seeing them live was an option, and then they split up.  My chance was gone...or so I thought.  As soon as this tour was announced, I knew that I owed it to the little girl inside me to go.  I was never a huge McFly fan - not as much as I was a Busted fan anyway - but I own their first album and like a lot of their music.

Clearly more into the Busted than the Mc...
Unfortunately my photos of the evening are few and far between.  I brought along my camera but it turns out that if you buy a packet of 16 batteries from Poundland, there's a very slim chance of them actually working...so I was left with my phone camera which turned out to be a little less helpful than I'd hoped.  Despite that, I documented the evening the best that I could with the limited means available to me.

The whole experience was more magical than I could possibly have imagined.  All six are utter showmen and the entire performance had a non-stop level of energy that would have damn near killed me.  Just watching them sprint and leap around the stage was a little tiring, let alone factoring in the singing and instrument-playing they did at the same time.  It was clear that they were all just utterly loving what they were doing and the crowd couldn't help but be totally swept along with their enthusiasm.  If I had to describe the performance in a single word, I would undoubtedly choose 'fun'.  It seems simplistic and probably not strong enough to convey my true feelings but from the second they they exploded onto the stage, every single person in that arena was just having fun.  The staging was extraordinary, with quite a few impressive surprises.  It turns out I know the lyrics to every single song on the setlist which I was unreasonably proud of.  While I will admit that the show was probably a little heavier on the Busted than McFly (which is fine by me), there was a great mixture of songs including some covers which resulted in a fabulously varied show.  

Shockingly, the song that brought me the closest to being overwhelmed by nostalgia (and for 'nostalgia', also read 'emotion') was What I Go To School For.  Admittedly it's not exactly your typical tearjerker, but watching it performed live took me right back to being a slightly chubby child, endlessly watching the music channels in the hopes of catching the video - these were the days before on-demand television and YouTube - and doing those infamous Busted jumps around the living room.  After a decade of waiting, it just seemed a little too good to be true that I was actually seeing the song performed live.

I screamed and sang myself hoarse, even to the point where I got a little lightheaded at one point...but that wasn't going to stop me dancing and jumping until my legs ached.  It was also totally worth the dreadful cold I seem to have developed in the midst of all the excitement.  My evening wasn't even dampened by having a few issues getting home which led to me spending forty minutes sat in a 24-hour McDonalds, drafting this blog post on a napkin.  

Definitely how the pros do it.
I enjoyed the evening so much that I was this close to buying a ticket for their final performance in Liverpool two nights later.  However, I couldn't really afford it and as I mentioned earlier, I'm now suffering after enjoying myself so much.  If it had been feasible, I definitely would have gone again...once really doesn't feel like enough.  I've got my fingers firmly crossed for another tour or an album or just something to continue on this beautiful combination of musicians.

Are you one of the many people who saw McBusted?  Did you love it?  Let me know in the comments!

08/05/14 - 'The Secret History' by Donna Tartt

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It's been a while since I've done a proper book review on here and that's not for a lack of worthy reading material.  As anyone who has been following my progress on Goodreads will know, I am blazing my way through my '60 Books in 2014' challenge.  All the time spent waiting for or on trains has contributed to a huge increase in the amount of reading I get done.  Embarrassingly, the three years of my English degree were properly the years of my life that I read the least so this is proving to be a refreshing change and a lovely bonus of being a graduate.  The reason I haven't been consistently blogging about all the books I'm devouring is twofold: a) a lack of time in which to do so, and b) every book doesn't warrant a whole post of its own.  I'm currently toying with the idea of maybe doing a regular monthly feature, listing everything I've read while still reviewing particularly outstanding books on their own.  If that's something you think you might be interested in, please let me know in the comments!  Now, onto the matter in hand...

Every now and then, a book comes along which is such a revelation that it's nigh on impossible to stop thinking about it once you've put it down and you can't help but want to talk about it to anyone who will listen.  Well, dear readers, you are now going to be subject to the gushing my friends and family have endured as The Secret History well and truly falls into this category.  I got it a few Christmases ago as the best book my mum had read that year and since then, I'd made several attempts to read it but found myself only really able to commit to the over six hundred pages in the knowledge that my daily train journeys would be ample time to plough through them.  I'm so glad that I made the effort because once I got into the plot, it was an absolute page-turner with an almost ridiculous number of twists and turns.  Every time you think you've just about got a handle on a character or a situation, something will happen to pull the carpet out from under your feet and the whole thing becomes even more mysterious than it was to start with.

It's a bit of a tough book to describe, but I'll give it my best shot.  It's a murder mystery without the whodunnit element - the first page tells us the who, the rest of the book is finding out the why.  It's unashamedly intellectual (which is something I personally adore) and more than a little dark as the story wears on.  The plot follows a select and unusual group of undergraduate Classics students at a small Vermont university, all of whom turn out to have hidden depths and dark secrets.  Our narrator, Richard, is a new student who is - reluctantly at first - admitted to the Greek-speaking inner circle.  This consists of four boys and one girl, all of whom hold themselves aloof from the rest of the student body and are taught exclusively by one professor.  Even though Richard and his new friends aren't exactly the most likeable group of characters, there's something about the deep flaws in their personalities and the way that damage holds them together as a group which is somehow...if not endearing, then at least alluring.  Despite knowing what awful people they are, there's something of the pseudo-intellectual in me that craves company like them.  They lead increasingly decadent lives, constantly in search of beauty and a sort of primitive freedom that they believe only the most civilised and educated of people can achieve.  They drift around the dreary and distinctly unromantic New England 1980s campus in a way which gives even the most sordid elements of their tale a slightly ethereal and hypnotic quality.  Tartt's writing is beautifully crisp and considered.  The detail of her descriptions is wonderfully evocative and has an odd beauty that is often in a stark contrast to the reality of what is being described.

Tumblr summed it up pretty well.
It's difficult to judge the morals of this book.  While a lot of the acts detailed are utterly reprehensible and often taboo in modern society, there is a certain level of detachment in the narration which leads the reader to merely observe rather than judging and condemning.  In some ways, it's reminiscent of Nabokov's Lolita, another book in which morally corrupt actions seem to be judged less harshly by readers than one might expect. The group seem to feel this same detachment from their own actions, almost as though they are merely characters in one of the Greek epics they spend so much time studying.  It's a fascinating journey into what humans might do when pushed to what they believe is the limit, although I won't pretend that the ways in which the characters react to certain situations are entirely realistic.

For some reason, The Secret History reminded me a little of Alan Bennett's The History Boys and, the film that I think of as its (inferior) American equivalent, Dead Poet's Society.  If you're not familiar with either of these, you can probably skip this paragraph as it won't mean much to you.  Take this time to make a note to go and watch them both, particularly The History Boys.  Seriously, do it.  The similarities are fairly sparse; both revolve around a small intellectual group who are led by an enigmatic maverick of a teacher who works outside the typical constraints of traditional education.  However, I found Tartt's creation of Julian Morrow to be a little less inspiring than the teachers in the other two.  We see much less of Julian and are instead left only with Richard's word for how brilliant he is, which leaves me wondering why exactly the students are quite so loyal to him.  Possibly a reread will help make this clearer, but for now I'm uncertain as to whether Julian is deliberately more enigmatic or whether this is an oversight of Tartt's.

I apologise for how wordy this post got at points...for some reason, I felt a little like I was plunging back into the world of academic essay writing rather than casual book blogging.  Perhaps reading about scholars has that effect on me!  If you're not intimidated by a fairly chunky novel and you fancy being drawn into the heart of a twisting and turning tale of murder and mythology, then you should certainly give this a go.  I accept that it won't be for everybody and it's received fairly mixed reviews since it was published in 1992, but the fact that people are still discovering it for the first time so many years later speaks very highly of it.

If you've read The Secret History or think that you might be interested, let me know in the comments!