The Friday arts diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Design

Valentino: Master of Couture, Somerset House, London WC2, 29 November 2012 – 3 March 2013

Recently described by Decca Aitkenhead as looking like "a mafia boss who has been confined under a sunbed for the past 20 years, then dressed as an Edwardian dandy", Valentino is arguably most iconic fashion designer of the last century. Somerset House is currently showing 130 of his most delightfully impractical creations in a retrospective exhibition. If you’re able to screen out the sycophantic fawning over "the life of the master" which constitutes the first part of the show, it’s worth persevering for the chance to admire close-up the hand-stitched masterpiece that is Princess Marie Chantal of Greece’s wedding dress. This Saturday there is also a screening of the outstanding Storyville documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor– indispensible for anyone seeking to properly appreciate the craftsmanship of the clothes and the eccentricity of their designer. Best of all, this show offers all the guilty pleasure you get from flicking through the latest issue of Vogue, with the smug satisfaction that what you’re looking at is culturally credible. Hey, it’s in an art gallery, after all.

Music

Sharon Van Etten,  Shepherds Bush Empire, London W12, 3 December

Yes, we're just as sick of hearing about trendy new "Brooklyn-based singer-songwriters" as you are, but Sharon Von Etten, though she resides in the aforementioned New York borough, is a cut above your average hipster. Her 2012 album Tramp has slowly but steadily been gaining international acclaim, and she has developed a near-fanatical following for her hauntingly mournful music. This show at the Shepherds Bush Empire is the only chance to catch her in the UK this year, so grab tickets while you still can.

Film

Nordic Film Festival, various locations, London, until 5 December

Nordic television has swept these shores and it seems film-makers want a slice of their success with the first Nordic film festival in the UK. A range of independent films from Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden will be shown. Tonight’s opening film is Love is all you need at the Ciné Lumière. The Danish feature film is a romantic comedy and was part of the official festival selections at the Venice Film Festival 2012 and Toronto International Film Festival 2012

Theatre

A Clockwork Orange, Soho Theatre, London W!, until 5 January 2013

This all-male adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s controversial dystopian novel has been widely praised. Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s testosterone-filled production has Martin McCreadie take on the role of Alex, the charismatic yet terrifying young man hellbent on enjoying some "ultraviolence" with his friends.

Set in Manchester the play seems apt following the riots, according to the Independent review, and the fury and anger unleashed by the characters is not too dissimilar from the scenes we saw in August 2011, only violence in this ‘horrorshow’ is directed at citizens of the same society.

Art

Antony Gormley, White Cube, Bermondsey,London SE1, 28 November - 10 February 2013

Antony Gormley claims that his latest exhibition has been three decades in the conception. The artist who brought us the Angel of the North has never lacked ambition, so we shouldn't be be surprised to discover that what he has created this time is a cross between an art work and a climbing frame.

Gormley has filled Britain’s biggest commercial space – the White Cube Bermondsey - with an overwhelming maze-like sculpture, created from more than 100 tonnes of steel welded together. Viewers are invited to walk, climb, crawl through it -  “whatever they want really,” the artist saqys airily. 

Valentino with model Natalia Vodianova (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder