Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Cinema

18th London Turkish Film Festival. 21st February - 3rd March. Odeon West End, ICA, Rio Cinema and Cine Lumiere.

The festival begins with the Open Night Gala, the climax of which is the UK Premiere of Yılmaz Erdoğan’s ‘The Butterfly’s Dream’, starring Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, Belçim Bilgin and Mert Fırat. Five films are competing for the Golden Wings Digiturk Digital Distribution Award, one of which is the new film from Reha Erdem, ‘Jin’, which screened for the first time just a few days ago at the Berlin Film Festival. Beside a wealth of new and exciting cinema, there will also be events with features, documentary programmes, a selection of outstanding short films, Q&A’s and a Workshop with Reha Erdem.

Art

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. 14thFebruary - 26th May. Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld is presenting the opportunity to re-live the exhibition which launched Picasso as an artist. At only nineteen Picasso collected these rapidly produced, in many ways derivative works in Paris. The works demonstrate Picasso’s emerging aesthetic beneath the influences of Gauguin and Van Gogh. The exhibition includes pieces of remarkable assurance, such as ‘Child With A Dove’, and raw youthfulness, such as ‘Spanish Dancer’. The Courtauld allows us to witness the germination of the twentieth century’s most important artist, which the Telegraph has called ‘a tight, compelling, and beautifully installed exhibition’, and the Independent “a real stunner”.

Ballet

Aeternum. February 22nd – March 14th. Royal Opera House.

Christopher Wheeldon, who at 39 has already made over sixty ballets, is choreographing the world premiere of his Aeternum at the Royal Opera House, in a programme which includes Apollo and 24 Preludes. Wheeldon is using Benjamin Britten’s ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’, and directing Royal Ballet principal Marianela Nunez. He has put this performance together in little over a month, and it promises to be a vibrant treat for fans of his abstract, contemporary classic style.

Opera

Medea. 15th February - 16th March. English National Opera.

David McVicar’s production of Charpentier’s opera of sorcery and vengeance, starring Sarah Connolly, has garnered superb reviews. Baroque and bloodthirsty, it is the tale of the scorned lover of Jason of the Argonauts, who murders their two children when she learns that he will marry another. It is an opera teeming with violence and the supernatural, and Connolly, its mezzo-soprano, gives a highly-praised performance. Medea is conducted by period specialist Christian Curnyn.

If you fear that by the interval you and your company may require a relaxant (a distinct possibility) the ENO offers the opportunity to order champagne along with your tickets.

Comic Books

SuperLab. 20Th and 27th February. Bedroom Bar, 62-68 Rivington Street, Shoreditch.

Now for something different. A group of science Phd students and post-doctoral researchers from UCL and Goldsmiths are hoping to demonstrate to a willing public how comic books can enlighten our real-world experiences. An interactive event called ‘Crime’ on Wednesday 27th will discuss how science can explain artistic ability and whether illegal drugs can bolster creativity. Moreover, stalls will be set up to determine your own superpower (lie-detector cheating and the like). It might also be prudent to note that the event is free, and held in a bar. Golly gee whillikers Batman!

Pablo Picasso (RALPH GATTI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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