In the House @ Spitalfields Music Winter Festival 2012

A musical diversion for this blog, although not the first of my visits to Spitalfields.

The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival is currently running and last Sunday I went to In the House, a series of mini-concerts performed in the drawing rooms of Georgian Spitalsfields houses. The houses, all in the vicitiny of Christ Church, had been selected for their beautiful restoration back to Georgian glory (some with a contemporary twist or two); the music was a mixture of pieces chosen to match the location, along with four new works that had been specially commissioned for the event. The musicians and composers were all students from the Royal Academy of Music, and our guide for the evening taking us between each location was one of the excellent Spitalfields Music team who do a fantastic job of running this informative and enjoyable variety of events.

We started at 20 Fournier Street where Raphael Lang performed cello pieces by JS Bach and George Crumb,  followed by a new composition by Freya Waley-Cohen. The house has a fascinating history, and in the last 280 years has been home and workplace to hatters, tailors, cutlers, tobacco manufacturers, handbag makers and more; the looms of silk weavers once filled the attics, while at other times the house served as a Wesleyan Chapel and Rectory. The restoration project had uncovered remnants of the original Georgian patterned wallpaper hidden under many layers of papering, and this has been replicated to adorn the walls of the room where we enjoyed the performance of some rather haunting cello music.

From there it was onto our next location, just down the road to 7 Fournier Street, a 1722 silk weaver’s house overlooking Christ Church and typical of the finer houses of the region, which moved from prosperous desirable locations in the 18th century to declining fortunes in the 19th century. Wallpaper again featured as important in this restoration, which uncovered fragments from 1690 through to the 1960s, including designs by William Morris. The star of this evening was, however, the harpsichord, played by Nathaniel Mander. Mander’s choice of pieces was in keeping with the French history and salon atmosphere of the rooms in which we sat, reflecting the salon recitals of 18th-century Paris in which such pieces would originally have been perfomed. Baroque compositions by Jaques Duphly and Claude Balbastre showcased the vivacity of the instrument and technical command of the musician, whilst an original piece by Grigorios Giamougiannis drew on a range of musical influences to experiment with the harpsichord’s capabilities.

In our next stop at 24 Hanbury Street, Thomas Hancox gave a flute recital of works by Telemann, JS Bach and Michel Blavet, along with Angell Lin’s Cocoon – a piece that took the silkworm as its inspiration and created the idea of thread being spun into a cocoon, a wonderfully evocative image for the sound of the flute. This house had predominantly been inhabited by silk weavers, as well as being converted into a shop and later a cigar factory and furriers’ workshop. It was certainly a cosy setting, and one which took us through more of the Spitalfields streets, ever varied and contradictory in the meeting of old and new.


The final location 1 1/2 Fournier Street (yes, that is one and a half!) involved some interesting music history, as Victoria Rule began her trumpet performance with a replica of a much older style of trumpet, which originally had only holes rather than valves and therefore a more limited range. Rule began on this trumpet with the Trumpet Call from Beethoven’s Leonore and later talked us through the history and different capabilities of the varieties of the instrument which made for a very interesting end to the evening. She also performed JS Back’s Goldberg Variations – written for keyboard so again this made for an entertaining performance – and a new composition by Alice Beckwith, both of which impressively showcased the solo trumpet as a more versatile instrument than perhaps often thought.

This was a really unique way to experience live music and historical walking tour, and I really enjoyed the interesting variety of the houses and musical performances, presented with great and engaging enthusiasm by the musicians involved. If you’re in London and looking for a different diversion then do take a look at the Festivals as a fascinating way into experiencing the diversity and creativity of Spitalfields life.

Great African Travellers: Attenborough on Livingstone

In celebration of David Attenborough’s 60 years in broadcasting, the BBC have been showcasing some of Attenborough’s early works. This wouldn’t ordinarily have been my go-to subject for TV watching, but it caught my eye because of this 1965 documentary retracing the journey of David Livingstone along the Zambezi river. It’s an intriguing watch for thinking about the afterlives of Livingstone’s legacy into the twentieth century, and for considering the shift from travel writing to travel film documentary.

Livingstone’s African travels began with his Missionary work in the 1840s, which this film briefly details before focusing in on his expeditions of the 1850s onwards in which Livingstone set out to explore the inner regions of Africa. Travelling in the company of local guides, Livingstone travelled from Sesheke up the Zambezi river, striking out to the West, and back again towards the Indian Ocean; following a visit back to Britain in the late 50s, he travelled back heading a larger group expedition and later continued to explore central Africa for his final years.

Map of Livingstone's travels
Map of Livingstone’s travels

Although undertaken some 100 years later, Attenborough’s expedition was still quite  a feat to accomplish – as the BBC website records,

“It took us four months to trace the 2,000-mile length of the Zambezi. Sometimes, we walked along its banks; sometimes we sailed down it. Twice we flew. Most of the way we went by truck will all our stores and equipment on board. But all the time, our actions and our thoughts were governed by the great river beside us, and it is the river which dominates the three films we made about the journey.”

Yet in this documentary, it isn’t so much the river which dominates but rather the ghost of Livingstone that looms large over Attenborough’s journey, resonant both in action and in thought. As we might expect, the young Attenborough’s adoration and reverence for his “astonishingly bold” predecessor shines throughout this documentary, especially in the seriousness and sobriety with which Attenborough often reflects on Livingstone’s greatest of feats or most testing of trials. Yet as a result of this the problematic elements of Livingstone’s narrative, imbued as it is with late-nineteenth century colonial discourse, go largely unchallenged in Attenborough’s retelling. As he treads in the footsteps of his great hero we find Attenborough repeatedly attempt to construct a literal re-treading of the same space, casting the Africa of 1965 as a space unchanged and untouched in the 100-odd years since Livingstone’s journey.

This is most obvious in the landscapes which indeed seem little changed from Livingstone’s accounts: the 1965 film is set against textual descriptions and illustrations that form a coherent picture between then and now, and the Victoria Falls, the unpassable Zambezi rapids, and the Piri hills standing as impressive monuments in a vast landscape. Interesting in the narration of this landscape, though, is the unquestioning use of language familiar to nineteenth-century travel narratives to describe these sights: Attenborough talks of Livingstone “penetrating inland”, filling in “huge spaces of the map”, and later “returning to civilization”, reiterating the idea of Africa as the empty, feminised wilderness to be claimed and conquered by the explorer.

Illustration of Livingstone's adventures
Illustration of Livingstone’s adventures

More problematic, though, is Attenborough’s handling of Livingstone’s encounters with African people, for here again we find a narrative at pains to draw on the similarities between Livingstone’s visit and his own. Visiting some of the same tribes that Livingstone describes, Attenborough reflects on Livingstone’s depictions of their behaviours and customs: “their people to this day pay homage in the way just that Livingstone described” we are told; reading out Livingstone’s horrified description of the  “barbarians” and their “inconceivably vile” customs Attenborough follows with the words, “the practices that so appalled [Livingstone] are still carried on today.”

In doing so, Attenborough reiterates a nineteenth-century imperial discourse which sought to temporalise other lands as unchanging spaces off the axis of modernity, representative of older form of civilization; Attenborough’s point of comparison is 100 years or so and works specifically to reclaim the space through which he moves as specifically Livingstone’s Africa, but in doing so his narrative reiterates and intersects with an older, much more prolonged and deep-set discourse of temporalisation, within which Livingstone was writing and which is more widely found throughout nineteenth-century travel narratives.

Illustration of Livingstone's adventures
Illustration of Livingstone’s adventures

If Attenborough’s narrative reiterates this, however, visual images tell another story: in one instance, just as Attenborough is detailing the unchanged customs of the tribe, the film shows men dressed in modern-looking clothing – crisp-cut suits and shirts – quite clearly not untouched by the “civilized” world; Attenborough’s reiteration of “then as now” continues regardless without a hint of irony at the competing narrative that the film presents.

In many ways, then, this film is reminiscent of much earlier hero-narratives of great explorers – such as W.H.G. Kingston’s Great African Travellers of 1874 (from which the above illustrations are taken). Watching this today, what comes through most clearly is not, as Attenborough hopes, the unchanging nature of Livingstone’s Africa, but rather the unchanging discourse of the white British male imperial explorer as the most stagnant legacy of the late-nineteenth century. So too is it clear that many unspoken stories around the great Livingstone are deserving of further attention – the stories of his wife and children, for example, of whom we find a tantalizingly small amount of information tucked in here. For these criticisms, though, it is all the more intriguing to watch and disentangle the intersecting narratives of Livingstone and Attenborough.

Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1920

boreasFollowing my previous post about nineteenth-century rurality, I’m very pleased to say that Gender and Space in Rural Britian, 1840-1920 has been accepted for publication by Pickering and Chatto’s Warwick Series in the Humanities. Edited by myself and Dr Gemma Goodman, the collection brings together essays by a range of scholars from literary studies, history and historical geography, covering a diverse rural landscape both within and beyond Britain.

Here is a quick peek at the contributions we have lined up for inclusion:

‘Gertrude Jekyll: Cultivating the Gendered Space of the Victorian Garden for Professional Success’

Christen Ericsson (University of Southampton)

‘Women and the Country House: Matilda-Blanche Gibbs at Tyntesfield and Dorothy Elmhirst at Dartington Hall’           

Emma Gray (University of Bristol)

‘Women in the Field: Thomas Hardy and Richard Jefferies’

Professor Roger Ebbatson (Lancaster University)

‘Mathilde Blind’s “The Teamster”: Gender and the Rural Space’

Maija Kuharenoka (De Montfort University)

‘“Between two Civilisations”: George Sturt’s Constructions of Loss and Change in Village Life’

Dr Barry Sloan (University of Southampton)

‘At Work and at Play: Charles Lee’s Cynthia in the West

Dr Gemma Goodman (University of Warwick)

‘Obliged to Remain: Being Rural in the Fiction of Violet Jacob and Mary and Jane Findlater’

Samantha Walton (University of Edinburgh)

‘Drowned Lands’: Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake and the Masculation of the English Fens’

Dr Lynsey McCulloch (Coventry University)

‘“Wandering like a wild thing”: Rural walking in George Eliot’s early fiction’

Dr Charlotte Mathieson (University of Warwick)

“I never liked long walks”: Gender, Nature, and Jane Eyre’s Rural Wandering

Katherine F. Montgomery (University of Iowa)

‘From England to Eden; Gardens, Gender and Knowledge in Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out

Karina Jakubowicz (University College London)

‘Space, Mobility, and Flexibility: Transnational Rural in Alicia Little’

Dr Eliza S.K. Leong (Institute for Tourism Studies, Macao)

I’m really excited to be working on such an interesting project and can’t wait to receive the submissions for review early next year.