Music in my kitchen: the weird & wonderful world of K-Pop

Recently I fell down a deep, dark hole. Its name was K-Pop.

It started with a joke on American Dad about boy bands with ridiculous amounts of members and lead to this video.

If I felt anything after watching EXO’s Overdose, it was deeply perplexed. I had so many questions. Did the pretty lady make it out of the maze? How many people are in the band and who’s the main singer? Did they steal that opener from Labyrinth? Who thought that a blonde bowl cut was a good idea?

This lead to more videos and more questions, but, slowly, one video at a time, I’d worked my way through BIG BANG, 2NE1, Girl’s Generation, Orange Caramel, B.A.P, SHINee and finally BTS. And so began my love affair with K-Pop – a sort of socially inappropriate boyfriend that you’d call if you were home alone but would never dream of introducing to your friends.

Quick facts about K-Pop

  • K-Pop is an entirely manufactured industry. A conveyor belt of pop that recruits future stars in their early teens using country-wide auditions. They’re then sent to bootcamps and rigourously trained before the best are divided into man-made groups, given a makeover (which can involve the K-Pop plastic surgery triple threat: eyelid, nose and chin surgery – yes, there are sites dedicated to spotting the surgery) and then debuted. Sort of like The X-Factor on steroids.

“We’re sick with work for half our days
We live sickly in our studios, our youths may rot away
But thanks to that, we’re running to success.” – Lyrics from BTS’s Dope

But hey, sacrificing your youth in pursuit of your popstar dreams, being put into a group with strangers that you have to share bunk beds with and spending evey minute of your life either training or performing must be worth it for the cash, right?

  • With Korea’s leading record label, SM Entertainment, posting a reported annual revenue of $1 Billion in 2013, you’d think that its stars would be banking the mega bucks. Not true, apparently. Unless you’re a megastar like BIG BANG’S G-Dragon (the undisputed daddy of K-Pop who, at 27 is worth around $8 million), the average K-Pop idol income is around 47 million won (£26,718) so, less than a London tube driver…and K-Pop stars will work nights.

Ah. But, when that magic formula works, it REALLY works. According to Forbes, SM entertainment’s artists played to a total audience of 2.5 million in 2010-2013 and their YouTube page got 1,000 views a second.

  • One of the most recognised K-Pop songs ever, Gangnam Style, has more than 2.5 BILLION views on YouTube. To put that into perspective, that’s more than Beyoncé’s Put a Ring on it, Love on Top, Run the World, Drunk in Love, Crazy in Love, Halo and If I Were a Boy combined.

And, with armies of fans across the world – due in part to the fact that Korean popstars can perform in multiple languages, including English, Japanese and Chinese – K-Pop is only going to get bigger. So you’d better brace yourself for the bonkers bubblegum, bullet-ridden onslaught.

10 reasons to love K-POP

The styling


To be honest, this could have just been a gallery of Korea’s leading trendsetter, the solo artist and BIG BANGer, G-Dragon, but that wouldn’t have been fair to some of the other exceptional efforts from bands like EXO, 2NE1 and SHINee.

The high production values

No one watches music videos anymore right? Well, we would if they made them like the Korean’s do. All you need is a loose theme, an acre of glitter, six costume changes and, as my friend put it, a banging donk. Oh, and an absolute ton of cold, hard cash. Some of the most expensive music videos outside of America have been K-Pop ones, like T-ara’s Cry Cry – a 20-minute musical soap opera that cost around $1,000,000 to produce or B.A.P’s gangster-themed gun-toting kidnapping montage for One Shot

The elaborate dance moves

It isn’t enough to be able to sing in a K-Pop group, you have to be able to dance like the lovechild of Michael Flatley and Usher. Every music video has a complicated routine, often involving some sort of gimmick like the shiny-gloved human centipede dancing in a pool of milk in TVXQ’s Catch Me

And, even when only a fraction of the actual routine is shown in the resulting video, the bands still release their full practice videos. You know, incase you feel like learning them of an afternoon…

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Let’s take a moment to appreciate this beautiful moment of symmetry from BTS’s Boy in Luv studio session

The obligatory rapping

Every K-Pop band has at least one rapper. It’s imperative, because how else would they sample American tracks and channel that oh so 90’s desire for, as Suga (BTS) puts it: “Big house, big cars and big rings” (and bitchin’ hood threads, too, obvs).

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However, no one does it better than Korea’s answer to Busta Rhymes, Outsider, or T.O.P from Big Bang. At least, I think so, I still have no idea what he’s saying, but I appreciate the Twin Peaks madness of his video.

The sheer volume of members in bands

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If K-Pop had a motto, it would be more is more. I mean, why have five people in a band when you can have ten and up the choreography difficulty to infinity? Also, bonus, with that many members, fans are bound to find someone to obsess over and, if a couple have to drop out to complete their obligatory military service, you’ve still got enough to maintain the vocal harmonies. Smart K-Pop, smart.

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The cultural mash-up

It’s no secret that K-Pop likes to imitate American and British culture. Sometimes it’s a little nod like a Sid Vicious T-Shirt or an overuse of the Union Jack, and sometimes they take it to the edge of too far, a la Big Bang’s gorgeously garish bedlam that is BANG BANG BANG.

The glittery gimp on a leash and THAT lacy shirt aside, this track is packed with a back catalogue of cultural appropriation, from Indian headresses and cowboys to lowriders, astronauts and American football shoulder pads.

It’s like a drinking game – take a shot every time you see a piece of Americana.

The English language fails

K-Pop is littered with token English words…usually used incorrectly. But then again, what isn’t sexy about being told “I really want to touch myself”, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know but I’m hard” or “you look like a door”.

The fan service

K-Poppers are treated almost like public property in Korea. On top of their shows they do endless promotional TV stints and behind the scenes programmes, from a wacky show invoking random choreography challenges and a plastic toy hammer called Weekly Idol to embarrassing shows like Intimate Moment, where stars who are perceived to not have close relationships with other brand members are forced to play games with each other all day until their pride is battered into non-existence and they’re the best of friends.
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Can you imagine any Brit pop star letting anyone have this much access? although…I wouldn’t mind seeing Noel and Liam Gallagher being forced to re-assess their relationship through two-person limbo and feeding each other…

Oh, and then there’s this advert from EXO-K for Baskin’ Robbins, which deserves a special mention…Strong.

The fact that they’re idiots

There’s a universe of #derp memes and macros out there celebrating the stupid side of K-Pop.

And can we talk about Aegyo?

Aegyo (Korean: 애교, hanja: 愛嬌) in Korean refers to a cute display of affection often expressed through a cute/baby voice, facial expressions, and gestures. Aegyo literally means behaving in a coquette-ish manner and is commonly expected for male and female k-pop idols to behave this way

If anyone was worrying about BTS’s mental state after their ‘we work like slaves’ lyrics in Dope, don’t. They’re fine.

Their videos MAKE NO SENSE

One of the most appealing things about K-Pop is that their videos. As beautifully produced and choreographed and manufactured to within an inch of their lives they are, they’re also, sometimes, bat shit crazy.

The most obvious example of this is Orange Caramel’s Catellena, which involves mermaid sushi, tears and cannibalism. I’ve watched this five times and am still none the wiser but have become unnaturally disturbed by the octopus and the feminist in me has become increasingly annoyed at the fact that they’ve slapped a price tag on their sushi bodies.

Surrender to the K-Pop, you know you want to…

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In Pictures: Word on the Water

I’ve just opened a book that I levered off the heaving shelf in the next room, unconsciously perching on the threadbare pew that’s nudging the backs of my knees as I turn the bruised and pleasingly used pages.

“The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda. The hour was approaching six, and up in the compound’s solitary tree the sparrows began to call. Gustad listened to their chirping every morning while reciting his kusti prayers. There was something reassuring about it. Always, the sparrows were first; the cawing of crows came later.

From a few flats away, the metallic clatter of pots and pans began nibbling at the edges of stillness…”

Certain pages are bent and folded; stained where fingers have traced over the ink of complicated passages or favourite phrases that have been memorised and pocketed away for later. Music from Porgy and Bess is spilling around, warming the whisps of the dank, winter’s day that are seeping in through the open door, dragging themselves along the dark floorboards to sit grey and heavy on my chest.

When the wind changes the air is flooded with an acrid tang of burning fuel that briefly masks the comforting smell of old dust and second-hand paper. Someone’s feet startle me out of the corner of my eye, stamping through the passage I was reading as they pause, somewhere between my head and the low ceiling.

As they continue past, I realise that the floor underneath me is moving. It lurches gently as the books on the shelf that were once perfectly level are suddenly and disconcertingly skewed and my stomach takes a slow tumble. Although I should have anticipated that really, because I’m on a Dutch book barge, where words float on water.

Keats’ chosen epitaph was “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, but luckily this watery writing hub has a little  more permanence. Founded by affable owner Paddy Screech as a solution to the threat of rising overheads involved in owning an independent shop in the capital,  this 100-year-old barge has been converted into a book-lovers’ paradise with shelves groaning under the weight of reasonably-priced (two paperbacks for £5, if you were wondering) books penned by everyone from philosophers and criminologists to Booker Prize winners.

Word on the Water changes location every so often, but for the time being it can be found moored on the murky canal just below Granary Square in King’s Cross. Marooned on the greyish waters, this is a little shop quite unlike any other and is full of little eccentricities that make it disarmingly charming – like the resident little buddha with its tattered prayer flags or the forlorn Noah’s Ark bookends propped against the encyclopaedias above the old, coal-blackened stove.

DSC_5312 DSC_5308 DSC_5299 DSC_5284 DSC_5313 DSC_5316 DSC_5322 DSC_5293Kai the whippet seemed like a regular customer and was very at home on the leather chair, even if he wouldn’t keep still long enough for an in-focus picture.

Word on the Water might not have such a happy ending, however. The Canal & River Trust, which awards permanent moorings to worthy applicants, has just decided to give preciously rare trade moorings in Paddington away to a multi-billion pound property company British Land instead of this floating world of literature.

There’s a petition on Change.org you can sign if you think the council should reverse its decision. I’ve already signed it and urge others to do so – they only need 313 more signatures and it would be a real shame if this unique shop had to close.

Last Words…

The book barge is cash only – I stupidly forgot to bring any so couldn’t leave with the book I started.

If you get peckish, there are lots of brilliant places to eat a stone’s throw from Word on the Water. Try Caravan for exceptional coffee and brunch grub; The Grain Store for interesting all-day nibbles like spiced lentil cake with cucumber salad and banana ketchup or my favourite, Dishoom.

Sitting in one of their summer house cane and leather chairs sipping chai and smelling incense feels like visiting the days of the Old Raj. Don’t leave without trying one of their impossibly creamy mango and fennel lassis or their chargrilled paneer and green chilli Roomali roti rolls.

Review: Searching for the filth at Grimeborn: Madame X, Arcola Theatre

With a name that pokes unsubtle fun at one of the UK’s most elite opera festivals, Grimeborn is the Arcola Theatre‘s annual opera festival that has quickly grown a reputation for showcasing fresh adaptations of traditional operas and rarely seen operatic works and providing a receptive platform for new composers, musicians and artists.

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I have had plenty of grime this year so far and have wallowed, like a pig in muck, coating myself in some brilliant modern opera, from Benjamin Britten’s sea-lashed epic Peter Grimes to the five-hour odyssey of shit, spit and silver semen that was Matthew Barney’s bonkers and beautiful River of Fundament (and believe me, when you’ve seen a man reborn through the feces-smeared anus of a decomposing cow you can assume that you’ve become fairly immune to good old fashioned filth). So I went to Grimeborn in Dalston to see Tim Benjamin’s Madame X, hoping for another lashing of brutally brilliant modern opera, with a name like that, what more could you expect?

Inspired by Handel’s operas and Jacobean tragedies, but also littered with references spanning everything from echoes of La Traviata to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and with a score that takes you from lyric Italian operetta to Baroque chamber music with a spot of hugely effective off stage Gregorian-esque chant for good measure, Madame X is a postmodern critique of how consumerism and consumption destroys art.

It’s root, however, comes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, stealing the identity of the opera’s lovers, the artist Masetto and his fiancée and muse Zerlina, and transplanting them in his new world as immigrants, starving and near-desperate and at the mercy of their unscrupulous agent Botney. Masetto, the next big name of his generation, is forced to open his studio to a braying mob of would-be art appreciators, the aristocratic Lady Brannoch, who wants Masetto to immortalise her on canvas, and the lecherous financier Mr Wilmore (Marc Callahan).

The dastardly Wilmore – whose appearance practically screams one dimensional baddie, from his outfit of leather strangler gloves and swinging, silver-topped cane to his repertoire of threatening bass notes – takes a fancy to Zerlina and, when he can’t woo her, turns her into his own Coy Mistress by buying all of Masetto’s paintings of her. Later, he returns to offer the struggling couple an Indecent Proposal of money for an evening with Zelina, which she accepts, only to be left mutilated and murdered in the river in Act II.

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Tom Morss and Laura Sheerin sing prettily enough as Masetto and Zerlina and Morss plays Masetto’s grief with enough restraint to keep it the right side of schmaltz but both are restricted by the plot line and the libretto, which constricts Masetto into communicating solely in the titles of paintings and sends Zerlina to a conveniently sticky end.

When Zerlina’s body is discovered offstage it feels more like a plot contrivance to allow Masetto to become a more three-dimensional character than a driving force in the story line. It also seems monumentally unfair to reduce Zelina to a pliant victim and silently bump her off when she’s previously shown enough knowing sarcasm and moxy to easily avoid the advances of the amorous financier and outwit the squawking party goers.

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Jon Stainsby’s Botney (he’s the one sporting the unmistakable sign of the cad – red trousers) was one of the highlights of the performance and, despite being similarly restricted and speaking mainly in proverbs, he thrust through the melodrama, spewing cliches like a macabre agony aunt. The other was Taylor Wilson’s statuesque Lady Brannoch (if you aren’t pronouncing that like you’re clearing your throat then you aren’t doing it right), the wealthy Dowager who paid Masetto to create a flattering portrait and who had low notes that throbbed with her aching but intangible desire for youth and beauty.

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The stripped back staging probably hinted at the metaphor of baseless, empty consumer culture and worked well in the Arcola’s claustrophobically intimate setting. But I was left wanting more from this primitive and almost schoolish stage, which felt, with its jumble of blank canvasses and empty frames, not strong enough to anchor the opera’s sea of allusions and emotional histrionics.

It’s a clever concept with brief flashes of brilliance – the harpy chorus, for example, acting as figurative culture vultures, circling Masetto on his opening night and demanding: “Is it modern? I don’t like modern / Are you famous in your own country? / Is it expensive? How much is it worth?”

The singing is uniformly good, as was the score and conductor Antony Brannick’s small ensemble orchestra, it’s just a shame that it’s hampered by a sometimes mawkish libretto. Take your chances with Madame X, it’s at the RNCM Opera Theatre, MANCHESTER before it goes on tour.

Tickets are £15 (£12 concessions), contact the box office on 020-7503 1646 or visit the Arcola theatre website.

A Storm on the High Seas: Review of Peter Grimes at Grange Park Opera

After the fanfare that surrounded Benjamin Britten’s 2013 centenary and the accolades David Alden’s Peter Grimes generated in its ENO incarnation, transporting this sea-ravaged epic deep into the heartland of Hampshire’s countryside for opening night of The Grange seemed a tall order.

In truth, the Grange Park Opera’s rose-strewn lawns and delicate, neo-classical architecture are worlds away from the setting of George Crabbe’s 19th century poem The Borough that this Britten is rooted in. But any concerns about containing the intensity of Britten’s maritime opus in The Grange’s auditorium were, however, partially washed away by the execution of Jeremy Sams’ production, which managed to be both claustrophobicly intimate in its portrayal of gossiping village life and expansive, with a wall of sound that engulfed the audience emanating from his ensemble cast and an omnipresent sea that became in itself a lead character.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

The seaside setting for the tale of gnarled and brutish fisherman Peter Grimes, who stands accused of killing his apprentice, was in full force from the off with the air full of the shrieks of seagulls and the entire cast already milling about on stage, gathering for Grimes’ trial in The Prologue before most of the audience were seated.

The somewhat stagey authenticity of this pre-brined atmosphere was helped hugely by Francis O’Connor’s brilliant set – a stripped back, wooden affair that unfolded during each act like a Russian doll, revealing interior glimpses of tavern, church and hut against a backdrop of a seething, steely grey digital sea. It might have been almost too stylized and gritty picture-book perfect (sort of like the miserably bleak film set for Les Miserables) for a ‘real’ portrayal of tough, coastal life, but it was hugely effective.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Every detail and nuance, from the worn paint on a wooden pillar where the ship’s ropes were fastened to the puddles that blotted the stage and the incredibly realistic rain drops of light (in fact all of Paul Anderson’s lighting design was superb) that lashed the theatrical town were impressively and immersively done and the nuances didn’t stop with the set design.

Peter Grimes is no light opera. Britten’s score is punishingly complex – the orchestra at The Grange conducted by Stephen Barlow never abated; never fully relaxing into the music and keeping listeners alert and unsettled throughout – and his characters three dimensional, always evoking a visceral reaction. Sams offered something new to Britten’s hard bitten story of Grimes, a gruff bear of a man who is physically harsh to his young apprentices, generally despised by his fellow villagers and redeemed only partially by his love for Ellen Orford – a widow who seems to love Grimes in spite of his mercurial nature and the town’s damning disapproval.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Atypical though Grimes is as an operatic leading man, the writing never fully allows the audience to warm to him. Sams’ theatrical addition of on stage flashbacks that depict Grimes’ violent childhood as he is sold to a terrifying sailor and show a young Ellen’s fascination and desire to protect and befriend this battered little boy add new weight to their love story and hints at the dangerous, cyclical effect of physical abuse, which explains (though does not excuse) Grimes’ mistreatment of his own apprentice. Although the verdict on whether these less than subtle explorations into the character’s psyches helps or hinders the opera is still out.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Carl Tanner’s Grimes came with a pre-performance disclaimer of severe sinusitis and he eased himself into the role, almost struggling with the higher register so much so that the audience was unprepared for the volume he unleashed in Act III when he declares in a bone-rattling roar that he will marry Ellen despite the mob’s opinion of him. Sinusitis or no, there was no holding back that rich tenor for the big notes.

Georgia Jarman’s sweet soprano for Ellen was high and pure and stood out alongside Stephen Gadd’s vibrant baritone Balstrode and the admirably affable Ned Keen played by Gary Griffiths, who was all mad hatter’s hair and lothario’s swagger.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Elsewhere, Clive Bayley made a formidable Swallow and Andrew Rees’ Bob Boles was a convincing moral zealot, whipping the villagers into a baying mob thirsty for Peter Grimes’ blood in Act II after he witnesses Grimes strike Ellen. Rebecca de Pont Davies, who plays the pill popping Mrs Sedly – a pseudo detective who’s convinced that Grimes murdered his apprentice – balances convincingly on the knife edge of shrill hysteria throughout with an expression that’s set in a near-permanent state of despairing horror.

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GPO Peter Grimes 2014 Robert Workman

Opera fanatics who yearn for the lyrical gymnastics of Puccini and Verde might lament the lack of pretty arias in Peter Grimes, but there’s no place in this unforgiving, elemental world for superlative love songs. The one piece of musical light relief that sees Ellen’s soprano intertwine with Auntie’s (the local pub landlady) alto and the pretty vocals of her nieces of dubious repute – played Soraya Mafi and Rosie Bell – provided a brief moment of lovely melancholy among the intensity of Britten’s nerve-jangling, beautifully discordant score. But while it took off it never quite managed to soar and left the audience yearning for a less transient reprieve.

As Grimes’ boat set sail for the a final time into the smoke machine mist and the ensemble gathered for one last choral crescendo, walking back out into the soft Spring evening and the rolling countryside surrounding The Grange seemed almost wrong. Yet somehow, despite the disconnection, this immersive piece of theatre feels oddly at home here in Hampshire and is a suitable opener for the Grange’s season. As Peter Grimes declares: I am native, rooted here. / By familiar fields, / Marsh and sand, / Ordinary streets, / Prevailing wind.

Peter Grimes is at The Grange until 21 June, 2014. For performance information and tickets see the Grange Park Opera website.

Originally reviewed for The Huffington Post.

In Pictures: Maltby Market & Secret Salon Swing Dancing

Just down from The Shard, off Tanner Street in Bermondsey is The Ropewalk Market on Maltby Street, an alley way bordered by antique shops brimming with vintage delights and, on the weekends, packed to the rafters with food stalls, small scale booze producers and weekend foodies.

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I was meeting a photography group called Click London there to take pictures inside the tiny, cramped inner salon of Lassco, a warehouse overflowing with all things reclaimed, revived and rejuvenated, from tweed flat caps to worn suitcases, gleaming brass door handles and warm wood, glowing golden and maple and chestnut. It’s a treasure trove, it’s mind-boggling and completely immersive and I managed to take near-on 100 pictures of the stock alone.

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Inside a wee inner room, the entrance half-hidden by racks of vintage dresses and coats, you’ll find the Secret Salon, where swing bands and dancers come to play and move to an old-fashioned sort of beat.

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The guitarist was pure cockney, the singer a Londoner through and through who sang with as perfect a French accent as Edith Piaf and, as the band started to play and the music filled the room I was reminded why I love London. I love it for these rare moments of discovery and joy, contained in that moment in a rose-tinted room on a creaking antique stool. Sure the gin cocktails outside were being served at inflated hipster prices and I didn’t have enough money in my purse to buy one of the haggis scotch eggs that were calling to me from a plate of burnished beauties on a stall outside, but in here something wonderful was happening.

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And as they continued to play the dancing began. The professionals, dressed to the nines, moved so fast and so precisely that they became a blur. In the dim, orange light the women looked like they were on fire as they twirled around and around and around. The amateurs who joined in later were easier to photograph and I became transfixed by a young couple swaying slowly, their eyes only ever fixed on each other. It felt like love in motion.

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I took over 200 pictures on Saturday, but here are my favourites. I would love to hear if anyone else has caught a swing dancing session in the Maltby Market and if they enjoyed it as much as I did!

Song for the Day: Sing Sing Sing

This song is exactly what you need for a Monday morning. It’s almost impossible to listen to this without feeling like foxtrotting your way around the kitchen or swing dancing your way through the crowds on the tube. It’s a running song, a dancing song and a working song all rolled into one. Typing to this makes you feel as though you should have cartoon smoke rising from your fingers as an acme temperature gauge slowly climbs to an explosive boiling point.

It’s also the perfect accompaniment to the swing dancing, retro pictures that I’m publishing last today, please do have it on in the background while you take a peek later on! Happy Monday.

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Nude: Models and Life Drawing

There’s nothing better than drawing people with no clothes on.

The best practise – and practice – for an amateur artist (and probably for a professional as well) is life drawing. It’s a rare opportunity to draw something that’s alive and right in front of you, and yet conveniently still.

ImageReclining Nude, 2007

Drawing nudes from photographs or even other works of art is also fun, but less satisfying and probably less productive. Participating in life drawing itself takes a bit of practise. Anybody who claims not to revert to a sniggering teenager (on the inside, at least) the first time they attempt to draw a naked life model is fibbing. It takes a little getting used to.

They are only human after all, and as such susceptible to boob-jiggling sneezes or willy-wobbling coughs. It’s only natural to find these jiggles and wobbles amusing, but getting beyond this and eventually perceiving the body in front of you as an object to be studied, appreciated, and somehow represented on paper is much more rewarding overall.

I am, frankly, in absolute awe of anybody who has the confidence to bare all in front of a group of strangers – and, not fleetingly, but for an entire hour. Thank you to all those brave (and probably slightly insane) life models – in particular those below, who kindly modelled for me.

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Song for the Day: Solange Knowles and the Sapeurs

There’s a great photo piece in The Guardian today about the well dressed Sapeurs of Congo, Africa – members of the Society for the Advancement of Elegant People.

3234732201_ebc45428f4Image: AfricaFeed — The Sapeurs of Congo: Open Gutters and Gucci Loafers

It put Solange Knowles’ video for Losing You straight into my mind as she filmed it with some of these smartly-dressed sartorial butterflys. Enjoy the spectacle and fingers crossed it brightens your rainy day.

 

The Art of Erik Johansson: “I don’t capture moments, I capture ideas”

Last month I featured the work of surreal photographer and artist Jee Young Lee (whose exhibition, coincidently, opened Friday 7 February at the OPIOM Gallery in Opio, France) and her immersive, dream scape images and now I’ve been bowled over by the strange and subversive world of Swedish photographer Erik Johansson.

Like Lee, Berlin-based Johansson plunges his fists deep into his own imagination and mixes it fluidly with a kind of distorted reality to produce these unsettling, thought-provoking and always beautiful works of art.

On his website, Johansson says that: “I use photography as a way of collecting material to realize the ideas in my mind.” If his mind is full of fish islands, mutated roads, midnight ski slopes and portraits of the human industrialisation of nature then, in my opinion, it’s definitely a place that’s worth a sneak peek.

I’ve collected my favourite compositions below but, if you like what you see, you should  explore the rest of his photographs on his website, erikjohanssonphoto.com.

Go on, walk through that wardrobe and fall down that rabbit hole, or at least take a walk through his wonderland on your way to work this morning.

driftingawayDrifting Away. © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

“A safe place, drifting away.”

fiskFishy Island.  © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

long-road (1)Go Your Own Road. © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

tvattBig Laundry Day. © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

snowcover1Snow Cover.  © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

cutandfoldCut and Fold. © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

“Cut along the dotted line”

breakingupBreaking Up. © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

“Breaking up, drifting apart”

expectingwinterExpecting Winter. © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

“Where seasons meet”

vasenArms Break, Vases Don’t. © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

groundbreaking - CopyGroundbreaking. © Erik Johansson erikjohanssonphoto.com

“Let’s go on a field trip”

Click on any of the images to expand to their original size.

Cover image: Set Them Free. © Erik Johansson  erikjohanssonphoto.com

“Do the right thing, set them free!”

2014 in Books: February

February is packed to the rafters with literary fodder. Lynne Truss is back for the first time in 10 years with her new novel Cat Out of Hell. If you liked Child 44 by Rob Smith, he’s got The Farm coming out just before Valentine’s Day this month, and, if that wasn’t enough, Paul Theroux’s son, the broadcaster and novelist Marcel, is releasing his fifth book, Strange Bodies.

For my five picks this month, I’ve chosen a sultry love story thrumming with female sexuality in Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove, a stark look at the history and reality of a soldier’s life in In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds – one of Granta’s Young British Writers 2013 – and a story of ageing authors clashing with new industry blood in Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s a moving window into the life of a lesser-known literary subject in Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman, which Colm Tóibín called a “fiercely original act of creation,” and Joanne Harris’ (Chocolat) The Gospel of Loki, an exploration of Norse mythology through one of it’s most mischievous characters. Happy February reading bookworms!

February

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh. Tinder Press

isbn9781472212085-detail“Each summer, Jenn and her husband Greg return to Deia, on Mallorca’s dramatic west coast. This year the arrival of Emma, Jenn’s stepdaughter, and her new boyfriend Nathan threatens to upset their equilibrium. Beautiful and reckless, Nathan stirs something unexpected in Jenn. As she is increasingly seduced by Nathan’s youth and the promise of passion, the line between desire and obsession begins to blur. What follows is a highly-charged liaison that puts lives and relationships in jeopardy. For Jenn, after this summer, nothing can ever be the same.” Tinder Press

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi. Faber & Faber

a132e2f4258f7e6f2d8bd7d321e6e9f3“Mamoon is an eminent Indian-born writer who has made a career in England – but now, in his early seventies, his reputation is fading, his book sales have dried up and his new wife has expensive tastes.

Harry, a young writer, is commissioned to write a biography to revitalise Mamoon’s career and bank balance. Harry greatly admires Mamoon’s work and wants to uncover the truth of the artist’s life. Harry’s publisher seeks a more naked truth, a salacious tale of sex and scandal that will generate headlines. Meanwhile Mamoon himself is mining a different vein of truth altogether.

Harry and Mamoon find themselves in a battle of wills, but which of them will have the last word?” Faber & Faber

In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds. Jonathan Cape

9780224098281“Set in North Africa and Sicily at the end of the last war, In the Wolf’s Mouth follows the Allies’ botched ‘liberation’ attempts as they chase the Germans north towards the Italian mainland. Focussing on the campaigns of two young soldiers – Will Walker, an English Field Security Officer, ambitious to master and shape events, and Ray Marfione, a wide-eyed Italian-American infantryman – the new novel from Adam Foulds contains some of the best battle writing of the past fifty years. Particularly eloquent on the brutish, blundering inaccuracy of war, this is a sensual, intimate experience: the immediacy of the prose uncanny and unforgettable.

A novel about many things, including the impossibility of good and evil, In the Wolf’s Mouthshows how individual fates and truths are lost in the writing of history – lost, along with all tenderness and humanity. At the same time, Adam Foulds has remade a history: lifting it out of newsreel and back into its raw and helpless flesh and blood.” Jonathan Cape

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Grove Atlantic

9780802122148“Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s  “unnecessary appendage.” Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated over her lifetime have never been read—by anyone. After overhearing her neighbors, “the three witches,” discussing her too-white hair, Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair too blue.

In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Colorful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s own volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.” Grove Atlantic

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris. Gollancz/Orion Books

isbn9781473202351-detail“The novel is a brilliant first-person narrative of the rise and fall of the Norse gods – retold from the point of view of the world’s ultimate trickster, Loki. It tells the story of Loki’s recruitment from the underworld of Chaos, his many exploits on behalf of his one-eyed master, Odin, through to his eventual betrayal of the gods and the fall of Asgard itself.” Gollancz/Orion Books