October 2012 archive

Shoreditch Literary Salon 4th Anniversary: Craig Taylor, Taiye Selasi, Thomas Keneally and A.M. Homes.

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Tuesday night at the Shoreditch Literary Salon I watched Craig Taylor read an extract, centred on the word laconic, from his new book. He’d written it that afternoon.

Then we enjoyed Taiye Selasi’s beautiful kimono, some delicious stories about Toni Morrison, and a reading from her novel, Ghana Must Go (named after the plastic red and white striped bags Ghanaians often use at airports, and what was shouted at the Ghanaians as they were hounded from Nigeria).

Next up was Thomas Keneally, launching his new book, The Daughters of Mars (which tells the stories of Australian sisters who become frontline nurses during World War I). You know Thomas Keneally? Australian, won the booker in 1982 for Schindler’s Ark… THAT Thomas Keneally. 77 years old, with a robust sense of humour, Keneally read heartrending extracts and revealed he’d been inspired to write in a female voice by the final guest, A.M. Homes.

Homes premiered her new novel, May We Be Forgiven. Her reading was dark and humorous, and punctuated with her own stand up comedy routine tangents. Though she was keen to impress the book is a hefty 203,000 words, I shouldn’t let it put you off.

I love the Shoreditch Literary Salon. It’s a free event, where you can get a free cocktail, and a slice of pizza (if you’re lucky, have sharp elbows and nerves of steel. That pizza is good). You only need to be a member to attend – of the Facebook group, not the club. I know, how cool is that?!

The erudite Damian Barr conducts proceedings with a Manhattan and a healthy dollop of wit. Tuesday night he and the rest of us celebrated the salon’s 4th anniversary. There was cake. It was marvellous. As per usual the room was packed to the rafters, a heady mix of body heat and books. You can’t beat it.

Many authors, including Thomas Keneally, comment on the audience. They use words such as: young, hip, fashionable, and beautiful. And whilst all of those things are true of the crowd (does L’Oreal style hair flick) what they’re really commenting on is how unusual that is. Your traditional book-loving crowd are like the Tamara Drew stereotypes: earnest, older and wearing some form of knitted brown clothing. I don’t wish to be rude or disparaging, but if you’ve attended a number of literary events up and down the country, as I have, you will recognise the ‘type’. Huzzah to the cardigan brigade who embraces the written word and salivates over a beautiful sentence: I salute you. BUT it’s refreshing to know enjoying books is not the preserve of a particular generation, or the elite intelligentsia. Books are trendy, stylish, fabulous and sexy, and all those other words usually reserved for the fashion and lifestyle pages of magazines. Reading is hot. And if that doesn’t deserve a huge chocolate cake of celebration, I don’t know what does.

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Review: Giselle, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg.

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When in Russia, do as the Russians do: go to the ballet. The Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg is an oversized peppermint cake of a building, fitted internally with glittering chandeliers, golden cornices, and enough cloakrooms to house the many layers necessary to move about in this city.

My friends and I arrived at the theatre a little late, no great surprise there. We need not have panicked. Instead of just a two-minute warning bell announcing the start of the performance, there were a series of bells.  Having witnessed the subsequent quick gulps in response to one, I like to think it was the ‘drink up your champagne’ bell. There is plenty of time to enjoy the caviar blinis, smoked salmon and copious quantities of champagne in the many bars peppered throughout the building.

There were a number of English speaking staff and numerous signs written in English, more than perhaps anywhere else we’ve visited during our stay. Ballet and Opera clearly attracts an international crowd.  We were even able to purchase an English program. We were shown to our seats on the balcony; they were green velvet padded dining chairs, rather than the pull down fixed seating I’d normally expect in a theatre. The view was only partially obscured by an unusually tall man who sat in front of me.

This version of Giselle is the same that’s been performed in the Mariinsky, by the Kirov ballet, since 1884.  The only minor tweaks added were those for Anna Pavlova’s debut in 1903. This is history dancing, in it’s birthplace.

The orchestra sounded heavenly to me, and I drifted off to another world by the time the curtain rose. The scenery was quaint and hand painted, perhaps a little bit dated compared to the more experimental and flashy set design you see in the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum, but charming nonetheless. Though it’s the traditional way to perform the piece, I found the melodramatic hand signals, which indicate the story between the dancing, a touch pantomime.

The moment the prima ballerina, Evgenia Obraztsova (from The Bolshoi Theatre), floated onto the stage the crowd went wild. When she performed her pas de bourree (travelling on-point in a series of tiny steps across the stage) the crowd went wild. She was a feather dancing on the breeze. I forgot all about the scenery, and the hand signals, and was swept up into the romance of Giselle and her story.

When Giselle discovers the man she loves has lied about who he is, and he’s betrothed to someone else, I felt her heartbreak so strongly I cried. I’ve been to the ballet several times, but I’ve never been driven to tears by the strength of the emotion conveyed by a dancer. It turns out I’ve been misusing the phrase ‘it took my breath away’ all my life. Now I’ve felt it. Seeing Obraztsova fly across the stage, caught in the agony of her emotion, I felt it, like a punch.

All the dancing was exquisite. The kind that makes you lean forwards in your seat, hungry for more. The beauty, the skill, the pain, and the impossible are all there on the stage. It prompted a physical reaction in me. It was a new and incredible sensation for me. I urge you; if you’re ever in this neck of the woods get a ticket.

Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website. There is an English language version. http://www.mariinsky.ru/en




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A swimming pool in a church and other St Petersburg secrets.

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The Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, St Petersburg.

Today was odd. I’m in St Petersburg, Russia with a friend who is researching Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German scientist who accompanied Vitus Bering on his Second Kamchatka Expedition in 1740. The expedition was organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg and took Bering’s crew from St Petersburg to America, via Siberia, over nearly ten years of travelling.

We’ve been conducting a treasure hunt round St Petersburg, with no ability to read or speak the language, looking for references to Bering or Steller. It has led us down some interesting rabbit holes.

Today we visited the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, which was built on the site of the original Lutheran church of the same name. Steller was likely to have been a member of the congregation. We were looking for his story, but we found someone else’s.

Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg.

The church is on the Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s buzzing main thoroughfare. It’s a stone’s throw from what must be a contender for the world’s largest Zara store. As soon as we entered the quiet foyer of the large, symmetrical yellow building something felt wrong. Instead of stepping into the nave of the church, we were funnelled to the side and into a small exhibition. Here we discovered something unexpected: during the soviet regime, when religion was banned in Russia, the church had been converted into a swimming pool.


Image of swimming pool, with diving boards, in the church. (Postcard image).

The exhibition was written in Russian and German so, as I’m away from home, the following dates have been largely sourced from Wikipedia. Do tell me if you know more.

The present building was built in 1833 – 1837. By 1917 the church had 15,000 members and ran a school, a hospital and an orphanage. By the 1960s it had become a swimming pool.

Staffing the small exhibition was a white-haired man who spoke Russian, German and a few words of English. To our shame, my friend and I mainly communicated through pointing and miming (typical Brits). Perhaps he could sense our interest in the building (my friend was ecstatic at finding references to, and drawings by, Steller), or maybe he had a story he wanted to tell, I’m not sure. But what happened next will stay with me forever.

He signalled for us to follow him. Intrigued and still on the Steller hunt we trailed him through a corridor and several doors until we reached a room, where a lady with tight curled hair and glasses sat behind a desk. There was a brief heated discussion in Russian, and then the white-haired man took a key from a metal box on the wall. At this point I felt excited and anxious: what were we about to see?

We continued up a winding concrete staircase, the sound of a church organ growing nearer, until we came out into the main body of the building. The church is still there. Set up with pews. The new floor is clearly in the shape of the interloping swimming pool. The raised wooden spectator seats, complete with the metal bars of a lido, cascaded down. A strange combination of recreation and religion. The church is being reclaimed.


How the church looks today. Note wooden ‘spectator’ seats and metal bars round the edge.

We thought our tour was done, but the white-haired man beckoned for us to follow him again. Back down the winding staircase, through another exhibition, down further into a cellar. Down through a locked metal door, through fractured layers of foundation, concrete and metal. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. The swimming pool is still there, underneath the church. It is still covered in blue tiles, and you can see the struts in the ground from the diving boards. We were standing in a very unique layer of history.


Sarah standing in the remains of the swimming pool, which is now beneath the church floor.

Then another door, more metal steps, down deeper, until we were beneath the swimming pool itself. There were holes hacked into the ceiling, explosions of plaster up into the base of the pool, to let the light through. On the wall was a series of recently painted vignettes. I don’t know who painted it, perhaps the white haired man. In broken English, mixed with German he told us the story of the mural, the story of his community, the story of his life.

There was a scene of the church we were standing in; women were crying as Soviet officials pulled the cross from the top. A banner of Marx’s statement: ‘Religion is the opium of the masses,’ was brandished by people and men in military uniforms. The next painting showed a train packed with religious dissenters bound for Siberia. Then there was a depiction of a clandestine religious meeting of the Lutheran church.

At this point the man indicated he remembered attending these meetings as a small boy. He would tug on his mother’s coat and she would tell him to be quiet. They were frightened. Persecuted. Scared. The next scene showed a hard labour camp.

The final painting was of a concentration camp: dark, hostile, a military watchtower, barbed wire, snow falling. The white haired man pointed and said: “East Germany. Camp. Mother, father. I born here.” He tapped the wall.

Scattered around this hidden layer, this witness to what happened to a persecuted community, this shrine, were bibles and candles. I did not take any more photos, it did not feel right.


With thanks to @geowriter, Wikipedia and the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul for allowing us access, photographs and postcard images.