On 24 February 2020, my colleague Liv Leigh and I accompanied a group of Tortoise members on a special early evening tour of the British Museum’s astonishing exhibition, Troy: myth and reality.
As we all listened to the curators describe the ancient artefacts on display and what they signified – the persistence of Homeric legend, the impact of Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Hisarlik in the 1870s, the entanglement of evidence and imagination – none of us, I suspect, was devoting too much thought to the government’s likely response to what was not yet officially categorised as a pandemic. Lockdown? What lockdown?
Yet, almost exactly a month later, on 23 March, Boris Johnson instructed the whole nation in a televised address to “stay at home”. The British Museum, along with every other cultural and artistic venue in the country, was shuttered to visitors, with no clear sense of when and how they might reopen.
When I think now of that memorable visit – a journey into the world of the Trojan myth with which we all grow up – it feels like a century ago. So much has happened since then: so many lives lost, so much disruption and so much psychological oscillation from good news to bad.
I am struck, too, by how easy it is to take for granted the incredible wealth of cultural life in London (and not just London); a form of collective wealth about which I must never be remotely complacent again.
The excellent news is that, as part of Step Three of the lockdown relaxation roadmap, the British Museum – along with most of the nation’s artistic institutions – is open once more, and plunging straight back in with a magnificent exhibition on Thomas Becket and his assassination in December 1170.
You should also book now for Nero: the man behind the myth, which opens on 27 May: an exhibition which calls into question the traditional verdict on the fifth Roman emperor (54-68 AD) as a deranged debauchee and presents him in a more nuanced light.
Booking is essential, by the way, and will be so until the government lifts all Covid restrictions. You can return with relish to your favourite museum or gallery – but you have to reserve a slot to do so. Welcome to what will be, for now, the “new normal” of exhibition visits.
On which note: it is already hard to get tickets for David Hockney’s new show at the Royal Academy which runs from 23 May to 26 September – but there is a waiting list for slots as they are freed up, which is well worth joining.
Devotees of the 83-year-old magus will know of his affection for iPad art, and this exhibition displays 116 such digital images, spread across three of the RA’s galleries. The work, inspired by the rural setting of Hockney’s home in Normandy, is gloriously in tune with the season and the mood of the moment, a celebration of nature and rebirth. This is the modern painter paying homage-by-app to Monet. The pop art and the swimming pools are a distant memory.
Over at the Victoria & Albert, the long-awaited exhibition on the world of Lewis Carroll – Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser – opens on 22 May: a celebration of the stories that, written pseudonymously by the Oxford maths lecturer, Charles Dodgson, have burrowed into our collective culture at every level and in every genre. Video games, cartoon movies, the particle physics experiments at the Cern labs in Switzerland, the music of Jefferson Airplane, the surrealist movement, Heston Blumenthal’s recipes… all have been influenced by Carroll’s unhinged ingenuity.
Another must-see: The Making of Rodin at the Tate Modern. The exhibition, which runs until 21 November, explores the importance of plaster casts in the evolution of Auguste Rodin’s bronze and marble sculptures from experimental, textured workshop experiments to the finished works. It is mesmerising.
One of the least edifying sideshows of the pandemic has been the government’s increasing encroachments upon the independence of museums, galleries and other artistic venues as part of Number 10’s crude bid to launch a culture war (see last week’s Tortoise Take). So please do support these institutions as they reopen: we’ll be covering new exhibitions in the months ahead (and not just in London, of course). Do let us know of any gems that we should know about.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to book your place at our next Creative Sensemaker Live – 13:00-14:00 BST on Friday 28 May – on the furore over children’s fiction sparked by the books of (amongst others) Dr Seuss and David Walliams. How concerned should we be about stereotyping, classism and gender representation in kids’ stories? Or do we all need to relax? The great Michael Morpurgo will be joining us to bring his inimitable thoughts to the conversation.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Rare Beasts (cinemas, VOD 21 May)
From teen pop star, via Doctor Who, celebrated stage performances, and I Hate Suzie, to accomplished debut movie director: is there anything Billie Piper can’t do? Her first film is both intelligent and pleasingly zany, tracing the tribulations of nihilist writer Mandy as she looks for love, raises her son, and deals with her parents (David Thewlis and Kerry Fox).
She imagines the internal mantra of the women around her (“Money. Cock. Promotion”), tapping her head as she repeats inwardly: “Even though I feel scared and angry, I still love and respect myself.” Lily James plays the bride at a wedding who blissfully declares herself a “post post post feminist”. A very watchable film – and one, more to the point, that will leave you eager to know what Piper’s next directorial project might be.
My New York Year (cinemas 21 May)
Based on Joanna Rakoff’s terrific memoir My Salinger Year, Philippe Falardeau’s movie follows Margaret Qualley as Joanna, as she joins a fantastically traditional Manhattan literary agent as assistant to the scary boss, Margaret (Sigourney Weaver).
Inevitable comparisons have been drawn with The Devil Wears Prada, and they are not totally misplaced. But the twist here – lost in the regrettably dumbed-down movie title – is the connection with J.D. Salinger, or “Jerry”, Margaret’s star client with whom Joanna must establish a working relationship by phone. The affinity that builds up between the budding writer and the legendary recluse is really the heart of the story, and what makes the film more than just another coming-of-age-in-the-big-city genre flick.
Army of the Dead (Netflix, 21 May)
If you couldn’t face Zack Snyder’s four-hour cut of Justice League – and let’s face it, very few could – then here, instead, is the director’s splendidly silly zombie, shoot’em up, mercenaries-go-to-Vegas slice of cinematic nonsense that is as thoroughly enjoyable as it sounds. Imagine Ocean’s Eleven meets World War Z, with unfettered recourse to the Second Amendment, and you’ll start to get the picture. Former WWE superstar Dave Bautista – you might remember him from Blade Runner 2049 – takes the lead, resembling nothing so much as a psychopathic, supersize baby who has been fed only with steroids. Good fun.
We Are Lady Parts (Channel 4, Episode 1, 20 May)
Nida Manzoor’s six-part comedy series is irresistible – following, as it does, the quest of a Muslim all-female punk band for a guitarist and a proper gig. As it happens, punk was always more inclusive than many other rock genres – the all-black band Bad Brains being one of its pioneers in the Seventies, alongside the majestic all-girl group, The Slits. But We Are Lady Parts is less interested in musical history than contemporary social tensions, and the humour to be derived from those everyday emotional conflicts. Recommended.
Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein (William Collins)
Famed for Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman is one of the few must-read social theorists in contemporary culture. Noise – a collaboration with the formidable French academic and management consultant, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein, Harvard professor and co-author of Nudge – is not a tract on the excessive decibels of modern life, but a study of fairness. The authors define “noise” as “unwanted variability in judgments” – which is to say, the injustice built into decision-making by extraneous factors (judges tend to pass down tougher sentences when the football teams they support have lost; the diagnostic accuracy of oncologists is alarmingly susceptible to arbitrary influences). The goal, then, is “decision hygiene”, which requires a ruthless, in-depth scrutiny of the hidden influences upon our judgments. A hard task, to say the least – but this book will get you thinking about every decision you take and the forces that (truly) shape it.
The Breakup Monologues: The Unexpected Joy of Heartbreak by Rosie Wilby (27 May, Bloomsbury Green Tree):
If you have encountered Rosie Wilby’s podcasts of the same name, you will have an inkling of what makes this such a brilliant and hilarious book. The self-styled “lesbian Louis Theroux” is unsparing in her analysis of her own love life and the relationships of those she talks to, but her wit and compassion make this a joyful read and one that extracts optimism from hapless human folly.
The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England by Marc Morris (Hutchinson)
As the notion of “Englishness” climbs the political agenda once more, this magisterial volume is a fine place to learn more about its origins: this is the world of Sutton Hoo, Alfred the Great and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, of early Christianity, church-building and a culture and administrative structure of high sophistication. Morris is an excellent storyteller, in command of his sources, and eager to make their significance accessible to the lay reader without surrendering his spirit of scholarship.
Sour – Olivia Rodrigo (21 May)
Not since Adele has such a young singer-songwriter emerged with such promise and with such an astonishing voice. Still only 18, Rodrigo made her name as a Disney star but – since the release of the multiple-platinum single ‘drivers license’ and an extraordinary performance on last week’s Saturday Night Live – it has been clear that she is only in the foothills of a potentially remarkable musical career. Don’t be left out.
Eric Le Sage is one of France’s finest musicians, celebrated for his interpretations of Schumann, sharing with Fouchenneret a deep commitment to chamber music. In this album – part of B Records’ formidable project to record all of Brahms’ compositions – the two pianists offer precious insight into the composer’s comparatively few works for keyboards, performed with delicacy and immaculate style.
Free Dem Boyz – 42 Dugg (21 May)
The Detroit-born rapper’s single with Lil Baby, We Paid, went double-platinum; but, perhaps more significantly, was hailed by none other than Tyler, the Creator as the “core of rap music”. Dugg’s already-released collaboration with Roddy Ricch, ‘4 Da Gang’, and his solo track ‘Free Me’ have raised high expectations for the album. You won’t be disappointed.
…and finally: a big thank you to Tortoise member Claire Wilson for recommending Pip Millett’s terrific new R&B single ‘Running’, featuring Ghetts. Not to be missed.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Have a great week.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy John-Tenniel/Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, Peter Blake/DACS, David Hockney, Musée Rodin