The editors' blog

  • THE STASI INFORMANT AND ME

    ~ Posted by Matthew Engel, November 14th 2014

    It was nearly 25 years ago, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell and just before the failed state of East Germany officially died of shame. A contact took me to visit a small flat on the far side of the fast-disappearing wall. Someone, I was told, wanted to meet me. It all sounded excitingly cold war-ish.

    read more » BerlinCold WarGermanyMatthew EngelMemoir
  • AN ENIGMA BECOMES A BANALITY

    ~ Posted by Nicholas Barber, November 13th 2014

    Early on in “The Imitation Game”, a new drama about Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers, Turing tells his superior officer, Commander Denniston, that he has a plan to outsmart the Germans’ Enigma machine. However, he adds, it’s too technical for a layman to understand. When Denniston (Charles Dance) presses him, Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) explains that a person can’t beat Enigma: it will take a machine to defeat the machine. “That doesn’t sound very technical,” bristles Denniston. And he’s quite right. It doesn’t. Despite being a film about a clever, complicated man doing clever, complicated things, “The Imitation Game” is simplified to the point of banality, as if its producers were terrified of confusing the audience for a single moment.

    read more » FilmHISTORYNicholas Barbertechnology
  • FROM THE OPIUM TRADE TO GAY LONDON

    ~ Posted by Simon Garfield, November 12th 2014

    As an author, there’s always one interview question you can never answer well enough. For me, after writing a book about the history of maps two years ago, the question was always a variation on, “What have you got against Google Maps?” The correct answer was, “Nothing, I use them all the time,” but I tried to offer fuller explanations of the beauty and romance of paper maps, and the ability to find one’s way home when the mobile runs out of charge. I always wished I could show rather than tell.

    read more » BooksCartographygeographyHISTORYmapsSimon Garfield
  • REREADING ROBERT BROWNING

    ~ Posted by Anthony Gardner, November 10th 2014

    Standing outside a Baroque church in Rome recently, I realised with a shock that I had spent two days in the city without giving a thought to its religious monuments. Instead, my mind had been full of expatriate English poets.

    I’d come for a meeting of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, which cares for the house beside the Spanish Steps where Keats died. It’s now a museum of the younger Romantic poets, and as I approached it I remembered my first visit on an InterRailing trip in my student days. The sight of the plaque to the young English poet—“mente meravigliosa quanto precoce mori in questa casa” (“a mind as fine as it was precocious died in this house”)—had moved me to tears. It can still do so in middle age.

    read more » BooksItalyPoetryrereading
  • PAUL STRAND AND THE LITTLE MAN

    ~ Posted by George Pendle, November 11th 2014

    It is perhaps the quintessential image of Wall Street. The five shadowy hollows of the J.P. Morgan building stand like solid monoliths. Beneath them scurry tiny, indistinct figures fuzzed to a light blur by motion, their own shadows spooling behind them in a thin smear of humanity—an insubstantial imprint next to the heft of the darkness above them. The photograph is the perfect play of light and shade, of the transient and the solid, of the little man and the giant forces that are lined up to crush him.

    “Wall Street” (1915, above) is just one of many images in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Paul Strand retrospective that depict both Strand's immense ambition and the way he always kept one eye on the little man. Consisting of nearly 250 images arranged in chronological order, the exhibition showcases Strand's restless pursuit of new ways to utilise the camera, not only for artistic aims but for social reform. Born in 1890, he started out in photography by aping the prevailing school of pictorialism, a movement of softly focused images and high artificiality. This changed when, as a student, he visited Alfred Stieglitz’s New York art gallery, 291. Stieglitz, the bewhiskered lodestone of American photography, exposed the young Strand not only to cutting-edge photographers but also to the paintings of the European avant-garde, particularly the cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Strand was besotted and turned photography to the creed, ditching pictorialism’s hazy forms and instead emphasising sharp shapes and geometric patterns.

    read more » AmericaArtExhibitionsgeorge pendlePhotography
  • BERLIN'S WALL OF LIGHT

    ~ Posted by Andreas Kluth, November 10th 2014

    What a beautiful concept: to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th with a temporary recreation of that wall, in the form of 8,000 lit helium balloons where it once stood. This “light border” went up last Friday, before the Sunday climax of the celebrations. All through the weekend, day and night, it drew Berliners and tourists. Many needed reminding where exactly the hated wall once stood, as it snaked improbably through streets, along the walls of buildings and over bridges. Now the balloons were like a promenade guiding young and old on a memory tour, aided in many places by video footage of the old wall’s horrors.

    read more » Andreas KluthBerlinGermany
  • THE POWERFUL ANTI-THEATRE OF 2071

    ~ Posted by Robert Butler, November 7th 2014

    I’ve heard the climate scientist Chris Rapley speak many times. Seven years ago I interviewed him for this magazine (when he told me Sherlock Holmes would have quickly grasped the evidence) and, since then, I've heard him at conferences, in lecture halls, on panels and at dinners. Last night he appeared on the Royal Court stage, delivering a 75-minute monologue entitled “2071”—the year his eldest grandchild will be the same age, 67, as he is now. Here was a Rapley I’d never seen.

    A professor of climate science at UCL, the former head of the British Antarctic Survey and the former director of London's Science Museum, the Rapley I know is a busy, bustling figure, who appears at the lectern with smiling flourishes and an air of importance, and then turns frequently from the laptop on the lectern to the large screen behind as he works his way through a PowerPoint presentation. On the way in last night, I’d readied myself for the graphs where lines run along the bottom axis for most of the page and then suddenly shoot up at an exponential rate at the right-hand edge; maps of the world where the parts getting hotter now appear in lurid red and orange; and those pairs of black-and-white photos of the Antarctic which show how much ice there was only a few years ago and how much less there is now.

    read more » climate changeRobert ButlerSCIENCETheatre
  • BEN FROST'S SONIC ARCHITECTURE

    ~ Posted by Charlie McCann, November 6th 2014

    When the Australian composer and producer Ben Frost released his fifth album, “A U R O R A”, earlier this year the reviews were rapturous. Rolling Stone called it “unrelentingly menacing”, Drowned in Sound said it was a piece of “aural suffocation” (in a good way), and both picked it as “Best Album of the Year So Far”. Frost, though, is more low-key. His albums, he has said, are “over-glorified business cards”—adverts which get him well-paid commissions (he has written music for ballet, opera and film) and bring audiences to his live shows. He has been touring “A U R O R A” since April, and is playing six nights in Britain next week. It's only live that you hear the album’s terrifying architecture. Listening to it on headphones is like reading a book about brutalism: it doesn’t do justice to its scale and weight.

    read more » Charlie McCannDanceMusic
  • A MUSICAL LIKE A FORD CORTINA

    ~ Posted by Isabel Lloyd, November 6th 2014

    Two musicals currently playing in the West End both finish with an unspeaking female character alone on the stage, standing for something important. One is the middle-aged black woman who hovers mutely on the fringes of much of the action in “The Scottsboro Boys”, a witness to the decades-long persecution of nine black teenagers in Alabama. At the end, in a moment of gut-punching power, we see her refuse to give up her seat to a man on a bus and the civil rights movement find its touchpaper. The other is a young white cleaner in a headscarf and pinny, who quietly pours tea and helps with scene changes during “Made in Dagenham”, a brash, upbeat new musical about the 1968 Ford machinists’ strike that opened at the Adelphi last night (above). Her sign-off is a solo, rather self-consciously silly dance, celebrating—well, what exactly?

    read more » Isabel LloydMusicalsTheatre
  • BOB DYLAN'S 6KG OF LYRICS

    ~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, November 5th 2014

    It's a good week for Bob Dylan completists. On Tuesday, volume 11 of the bootleg series was released, comprising a six-disc collection of the so-called "Basement Tapes", recorded during Dylan's 1967 sessions with The Band in upstate New York. This Friday, a hardback collection called “The Lyrics” is published. For the princely sum of £125, collectors can get hold of one of only 3,000 copies of this 6kg, gold-embossed treasure, which has been compiled by Sir Christopher Ricks, a former professor of poetry at Oxford whose 2003 book "Dylan's Visions of Sin" examined the lyrics with the same critical eye he's applied to Keats and T.S. Eliot. The publishers, Simon & Schuster, were not sending out review copies, so I had to go and visit the book at their office. One of the publishers told me they thought the 500 copies that will make it across the Atlantic to Britain might be gone on presales alone.

    read more » BooksHazel SheffieldMusicPoetry

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