January 30, 2014

haunted by the lamassu

One day last week I woke up with a song in my head. That happens quite a lot, waking up with a song knocking around my head, though strangely enough I never remember what I was dreaming about when that it happens. Anyway, this particular earworm was hard to shift, and it kept popping into my head for days.

Mesopotamia by the B52s

I didn’t think much about it, though (because earworms are just like that), until a couple of days ago, when I suddenly kept coming across images of the same mythical creature, popping up all over the internet for no reason at all. There it was on Pinterest, and there on Tumblr and there on some random blog I’d never looked at before… And where did these beasts originate from? From Mesopotamia (six or eight thousand years ago / they laid / down the law / Ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah haa)

Well, you know me. I like to pay attention to patterns. So on Tuesday, on something of a whim, I decided to go and visit those mythical creatures. Being in London I can do that, go and visit mythical creatures, because they live in the British Museum.

(Actually, you don’t need to go to the British Museum to visit mythical creatures, you can find places to visit them all over the world, and not just in museums.)

There are actually two types of lamassu on show at the British Museum, some with lions’ bodies and some with bulls’ bodies, but oddly none of the captions attached to the displays refer to them by their proper name — they’re just called “human-headed winged lions” (or bulls), which is a bit of a mouthful and rather boring, especially as the lamassu were considered important — they stood at the entrance to the most important temples and the gates of the city, that’s not a job you give to just any old creature.

This one is described as a “winged male sphinx” — although he obviously has the same characteristics as the other lamassu (but on a smaller scale):

According to the Mesopotamia website (which is actually run by the British Museum), lamassus “were there to frighten away the forces of chaos.”

I like the idea of a totem to frighten away chaos, not that I believe it would actually work (it didn’t work for the Mesopotamians against Alexander the Great!), but it’s a comforting idea. The world always feels chaotic, full of randomness, uncertainty, life in flux: the only true constant is change, as they say.

And yet, amazingly, these giant stone creatures are still here, hundreds, thousands of years later, solid and everlasting.

feet the size of my head

[Zeitgeisty side note: I found out while writing this that Lamassu is also the name used by a company that makes Bitcoin ATMs. I still don’t really understand how Bitcoin works, but it’s a fun coincidence.]

One of the information boards mentioned that originally they would have been painted bright colours, as would the buildings they were attached to. That must have been a sight to see. Actually, it makes me think — nowadays cities are a visual overload, with imagery all over the place in the form of advertising, architectural embellishment, landscaping, graffiti etc. but is that really such a new thing? Imagine living in a place where all the buildings were covered in brightly painted intricate carvings, you’d end up feeling the same visual overload, wouldn’t you. But imagine having some of these guys on buildings today.

This is an ugallu, a protective storm-bringer, he looks pretty bad-ass here, someone you’d want on your side:

This is The Queen of the Night, who could be Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, or it might be Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, or hey, maybe it was someone else entirely! They don’t really know. But it just goes to show, owls have always been trendy:

This is just the light switch in one of the rooms. I was amused by the notion that someone could plunge Khorsabad into darkness — just like one of the gods.

I had a look at quite a lot of other stuff in the museum, including a number of old favourites (I never get tired of the Enlightenment Gallery), but I was looking for one tiny little object I saw in the museum once, which I’ve never managed to find again since. I was beginning to think I’d dreamed it up, but I just found it online. It’s a teeny engraved gem from the Roman empire, picturing a grasshopper playing the flute for a butterfly. How magical is that? I wonder, was it from a now-forgotten myth? A folk tale? An in-joke or a visual pun? We’ll probably never know (so we can make up our own stories), but it reminds me of The Butterfly Ball.

Anyway, I’m going to leave you with the B52s again, here’s a camptastic live performance of Mesopotamia live in 1990. Gold trousers! Tiny silver dresses! Huge beehives! Shadow-dancing! I’m totally sure the lamassu would approve.

August 6, 2015

on the financial accessibility of culture

Well, there’s a mouthful of a subject-header. I was going to write a couple of short reviews of some exhibitions I’d seen recently, but I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while, and that’s what I ended up writing about, instead.


People always talk about how awesome the web is for democratising culture, and it is. It’s great that it’s so easy to gain access to the cultural resources available in places people may otherwise be unable to visit (e.g museums in other countries). It’s brilliant that you can find a free tutorial for practically anything you wish to know about, or easily start up your own creative business. But sometimes you want to be able to look at a piece of art directly in front you — inspect how the paint was applied, or how the sculptor followed the grain of wood. Sometimes you want a hands-on demonstration from a skilled expert who is standing right next to you to explain how to improve what you are doing. You want to be able to feel the weight of the technical materials that real professionals use, the equipment you can only find in dedicated spaces, not in your kitchen drawer.

But those things are becoming harder to do, if you’re not wealthy enough to afford them. Experiencing creative culture (aka The Arts) is starting to feel like the domain of only those who can afford it. (Although I’m writing this from a visual arts perspective, obviously it includes things like music, cinema, theatre, etc.) While there are still a lot of free museums in London, cultural funding keeps getting cut, with museums and galleries having to consider charging for entry. Some have already started, and many smaller museums (especially those run by local authorities) have been forced to downsize or close completely. Corporate sponsorship of exhibitions has shrunk, which means the prices have increased. If you want to see any of the major exhibitions this summer, you’re looking at putting down at least the better part of £15 before they let you in the door — and that’s often the concession rate for people on a low income. People like me.

Educational institutions are having their funding cut, too. The college where I take my classes has had so much funding cut that they can no longer offer concession rates for many classes, meaning classes are only available to those who can pay the full rates. But they’re daytime classes during the week, when most of the people who might have enough disposable income to afford paying £200 for a course will be at work. People who have the time to take a midweek daytime course are often the very people who can’t afford to do it unless it’s subsidised — the unemployed, OAPs, people like me with longterm health conditions. So the inevitable knock-on effect is that because people can’t afford to pay full price for a class, not enough people will sign up, and the college will have to cut it from the prospectus due to perceived lack of demand, leaving the teachers out of work. Meanwhile the few classes left that still have concession rates are likely to become oversubscribed due to high demand, because many of the people from the classes which had their concession rates cancelled will migrate to the classes that they can still afford.

I count myself lucky — the printmaking class I was taking was the only print class that didn’t have its concession rates cut, so I can still afford to do it, and I managed to get a place, despite worries that it would already be full of all the other students migrating from the classes that no longer offer concessions. I’d been hoping to do two printmaking classes a week but obviously I had to rethink my options once I discovered there were no more concession rates for other classes. But again, I count myself lucky, because I managed to find a course at a different college that still offers concession rates on courses, albeit for a bit more money than my usual college.

The reason I count myself lucky is because, while I was looking into an alternative place to study, I discovered that a number of other colleges (including ones I’ve studied at in the past) no longer offer concession rates at all, meaning that in those places education is now only for those who have enough disposable income to use them. Meaning wealthy people, which means the classes will be the domain of people who are socially very much alike. One of the great things about colleges being able to subsidise courses and offer concession rates is that the classes were a wonderful social mix as a result, full of people who otherwise would never have an opportunity to rub shoulders, which meant that people learned more than just the subject they were all there to study. And if you notice I’m talking about it in the past tense, it’s because it’s much less likely to happen if all the people attending a class are of the same basic demographic.

It makes me so, so sad that this is happening to this country, because we have such a long history of adult education in Britain, and of having a wide variety of interesting subjects that were always made affordable for everyone and not just rich people. (There’s a very brief but interesting article on this history of adult education here).

All of this has a knock-on effect to the cultural psyche of a country (yeah, I know that’s a pretentious way of describing it, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Institutions can (literally) no longer afford to take risks, whether it’s a museum planning the next exhibition or a college planning next year’s prospectus. The knock-on effect is that this country’s cultural output gets blander and blander (how else do you explain the ever-increasing popularity of photorealism, which is the visual equivalent of those professional session musicians who can play everything pitch-perfect every time, and are utterly soulless and banal as a result?)

People talk about the Tory government and their return to Victorian values, but at least during the Victorian era there were philanthropists building institutions for the edification and education of the masses of people who would otherwise not be able to afford to see or create beautiful and inspiring works of art. All that we get these days are more cuts, and more closed doors. Yes, of course, there was always creative work happening in the past before the philanthropists stuck their oars in (so to speak), and lots of people were creating things at home, but craft skills were handed down throughout families (the very skills we now scour the internet for tutorials on, because they’re no longer passed on by family members), and those works were rarely displayed outside the home. Now we have the opportunity to display work on the internet, and find a like-minded community and that’s brilliant, but it’s not like seeing the texture of the paint, or feeling the weight of the press, for yourself.

The internet is great, but sometimes it’s not enough. Having to rely on it for your cultural education and experience is probably a scary thought for a lot of people, but it’s starting to feel as though it soon might be the only option some of us have.

June 21, 2015

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

Just a quick post today — it’s the end of a weird week, and I don’t feel like writing about it tonight, I just want to climb into a hot bath with a good book. So I’ll leave you with some cheery collage pieces from my sketchbook.

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

sketchbook Sunday: collage edition

June 14, 2015

sketchbook Sunday: landscape edition

sketchbook Sunday

I never used to keep a sketchbook. I kept notebooks, which occasionally had sketches in them, but I was really too self-conscious and too self-critical to draw very much, let alone in public.

This year I’ve been getting over that. I’m still a bit self-conscious, but nobody’s tried to peer over my shoulder while I was working, so I’ve been learning not to be. And I’m still quite self-critical, but not so much in a way that stops me trying anymore, usually because I can see how to improve what I’ve done. My drawing class (which I wrote about here) has helped with this, but I think I would have got there on my own, anyway, because I don’t always agree with my art teacher. He’s always trying to get me to draw straighter lines, but I’ve realised that I like my wonky lines, they’re a part of what makes a drawing look like my work, and not an imitation of someone else. (I sometimes find that the way my teacher wants us to approach a drawing is completely counter-intuitive to the way I would do it on my own, and I have to flip his explanation around until I can get it from my own perspective. Even if we were drawing the same subject we’d start at different places on the page, and it’s not that I think he’s wrong and I’m right, it’s just that we have our own approaches to things; and that’s OK.)

I realised after doing a couple of these landscape sketches that I’d like my next sketchbook to be a little bit wider, because I have a tendency to scrunch my lines down to fit the page, and it messes up the proportions. It’s been interesting to compare the sketches with the landscape in these photos; I hadn’t looked at them all together and they really illustrate where my eye is drawn to — some parts are bigger in my drawings than they are in the skyline, because that’s what I focussed on. I’m sure there’s a scientific study in that, somewhere.

Anyway, here are some observational landscapes I’ve done in my sketchbook this year.

{sketchbook Sunday} a roof in the Dutch Garden, Holland Park
In the Dutch Garden in Holland Park. You can read earlier posts on Holland Park here.

{sketchbook Sunday} view across the playing field in Holland Park
The view across the playing field in Holland Park, towards what used to be the Commonwealth Institute but is currently being renovated to rehouse the Design Museum. My proportions were way off, but that building next to it was surprisingly complicated to draw, it’s full of angles that go in and stick out in odd places.

{sketchbook Sunday} Parliament Hill bandstand, Hampstead Heath
Parliament Hill bandstand on Hampstead Heath, with Euston Tower and the BT Tower on the skyline. Still getting the proportions wrong, because I was focussing on the detail… Three chocolate labradors with different owners came by as I was sketching, hence the punny note.

{sketchbook Sunday} Kensal Green cemetery
View from in front of the chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery. I blogged about my visit here.

{sketchbook Sunday} the Hill Garden, Hampstead Heath
At the Hill Garden — I blogged about this visit here. It got too windy and chilly to finish this sketch off at the time. At least what I did manage to draw was to scale, wonky balustrade columns notwithstanding.

{sketchbook Sunday} Primrose Hill
Sat in the sun on my favourite bench on Primrose Hill, before heading off to see the roses in Regent’s Park. There’s the BT Tower again; it’s fun to draw. I drew the London Eye too big, though, you can barely see it in the photo. See what I mean about focus?


Do you keep a sketchbook? I’m thinking of making this an (irregular) feature on my blog and I’d love to include the work of others as well!

June 13, 2015

roses in Regent’s Park

roses in Regent's Park

On a sunny afternoon in June, what better way to spend your time than strolling around a rose garden, then settling down on a bench with a book?

roses in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

roses in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

roses in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

roses in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

roses in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

roses in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

roses in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

My reading was slightly disrupted by some over-amorous pigeons in the euphorbia, but they were quite entertaining.

pigeons in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

pigeons in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

Although Queen Mary’s Gardens is famous for its huge rose beds, there are plenty of other pretty plants to enjoy as well.

flowers in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

plants in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

plants in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

flowers in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

flowers in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

The gardens can sometimes get a bit too crowded with people, but they’re not too bad on a weekday afternoon during term-time, and I was delighted to discover the flowerbeds were crowded with lots of bees, instead.

bees in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

bees in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

bees in Queen Mary's Gardens, Regent's Park

You can’t beat a sunny June day in a pretty flower-filled park, can you?

[photos taken with the Hipstamatic app, using the Buckhorst H1 lens, Blanko film and Jolly Rainbo flash]

June 12, 2015

return to the Hill Garden

return to the Hill Garden

I took these photos a month ago, on a sunny but breezy afternoon when I walked up to the top of Hampstead to see the wisteria at the Hill Garden.

wisteria at the Hill Garden

It was fairly empty when I arrived, but I soon noticed there was a crowd of what seemed to be art students wandering around with rolls of chicken wire and tape, and opted to steer myself away from them so that I could enjoy the romance of the place the way I like it best: in solitude.

the pergola at the Hill Garden

the pergola at the Hill Garden

at the Hill Garden

the pergola at the Hill Garden

at the Hill Garden

the pergola at the Hill Garden

at the Hill Garden

wisteria at the Hill Garden

at the Hill Garden

at the Hill Garden

at the Hill Garden

under the pergola at the Hill Garden

[photos taken with the Hipstamatic app, using the Susie Lens, Ina’s 1935 film and Jolly Rainbo flash]

There are earlier posts about the Hill Garden here and here.

June 4, 2015

Obscura Day in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Obscura Day in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

I’ve mentioned my love of graveyards several times on this blog, so you can imagine my interest when I learned about a guided tour of the one Magnificent Seven cemetery I hadn’t been to yet. The tour was part of this year’s Obscura Day, an annual event organised by Atlas Obscura to encourage people to celebrate and explore the world’s interesting places.

Welcome to Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Like the other Magnificent Seven cemeteries, Tower Hamlets Cemetery was originally created to alleviate overcrowding in London’s smaller cemeteries, but unlike the others, it no longer has any of the original cemetery buildings (it was bombed several times during WW2), and much of the site has been transformed into woodland.

A glorious sight currently greets you as you come in via the main gate, with masses of pretty pink flowers dotted around the graves. I was rather charmed by the frame-style gravestones that provide windows through which to see the rest of the cemetery beyond.

a mass of pink flowers in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

peace and pink flowers on a pretty grave in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Fred's Savill's horse grave in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

As well as pointing out some of the interesting people buried in the cemetery, our guide also told us about some of the edible or otherwise useful plants that grow there — more than I’d have realised or recognised on my own (I need to up my foraging game!).

wildflowers in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

gravestones amongst greenery in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

wonky gravestones in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

headless in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

pint size penny graves in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Walking down the paths lined by lovely trees full of birdsong it was easy to forget we were in the middle of Zone 2, just around the corner from all the traffic on Mile End Road, surrounded by housing estates. Many of the graves are half-hidden by encroaching plantlife, but the site is well-managed to ensure the graves are not completely engulfed, although in some cases, nature sometimes seems to be winning.

pathway in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

half-submerged gravestone in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

gravestones amongst greenery in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

cleavers on a gravestone in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

tree eats gravestone in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

[photos taken with the Hipstamatic app using the Bettie XL lens, Kodot XGrizzled film and Jolly Rainbo flash]

You can read other posts about the Magnificent Seven here, and there’s a post about an earlier Obscura Day event here.