The Olympics through the lens

London launched a rich variety of Olympic photography exhibitions last week.

You could be forgiven for not knowing where to look first as the capital city launched a myriad Olympic photography exhibitions last week. Whilst Tate Britain opened its nostalgic vintage homage to the metropolis "Another London", The Photographers Gallery by contrast unveiled its ambitious long term project "The World in London". Staged as a large outdoor portrait exhibition that is best encountered via bike (and while wearing imperviously waterproof clothing), it showcases 204 commissioned portraits of Londoners, each originating from one of the Olympic game’s competing nations by 204 acclaimed photographers. The exhibition is repeated across two sites; the BT London Live site in Victoria Park, Hackney and at Park House development in central London’s Oxford Street. Despite the struggles presentating such a project -- the simplistic large scale posters that imbricate slightly with little consideration to pacing -- the depth and breadth of this project is a huge achievement, especially when considering the many pitfalls that a large publically funded project such as this can be faced with. The ensuing exhibition is as much a survey of London’s diverse cultural heritage and identity as it’s a celebration of portraiture itself.

In refreshing contrast and far from the saccharine buzz of the Olympic celebration, "Residual Traces" at Photofusion Gallery, Brixton is a group exhibition of 6 photographic projects concerned with the consequences of the London 2012 Olympic Games and the subsequent marginalisation of a community in one of London’s least known and contentious areas, the Lea Valley. A formerly overlooked and undeveloped enclave of urban neglect - pylons and graffiti, Tower blocks and abandoned sheds, compulsory land purchase orders and hipster regeneration - this polemical exhibition explores the hastily engaged transformation of one of London’s most loved hinterlands. The work included in this exhibition documents aspects of this transformation of Lea Valley and includes work by Sophia Evans, Stephen Gill, Zed Nelson, Jason Orton, Jan Stradtmann and Gesche Weurfel. The exhibition is curated by Bridget Coaker, Director of Troika Editions.

"The World in London" : Victoria Park Dates: 27 July - 12 August 2012, Park House Dates: 27 July - 30 August 2012; Admission: Free Venues: Victoria Park, E3; 453 - 497 Oxford Street, London, W1. 

"Residual Traces": a group exhibition curated by Bridget Coaker: Troika Editions, 27 July – 7 September 2012, Photofusion Gallery, 17A Electric Lane Brixton, London SW9 8LA, 020 7738 5774.

"Another London": 27 July – 16 September 2012, Tate Britain Millbank, London SW1P 4RG.

 

Manor Garden Allotments London, 2007 by Jan Stradtmann on view at Photofusion
Rebecca McClelland is photography editor of the New Statesman
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism