Sunday, October 15, 2006

Business as usual

It was business as usual today - our first full day back in London after a week away in New York City. We lazed around all morning having a leisurely breakfast and reading the weekend papers; M went to see his uncle, aunt and two young cousins and to give them some Arsenal tickets; and then I met him at the Barbican for a scoot around the In The Face Of History: European Photographers In The 20th Century exhibition.

Featuring classic photographers such as Eugene Atget, Robert Doisneau and Brassai alongside more modern photographers such as Boris Mikhailov, Jitla Hanzlova and Wolfgang Tillmans, the exhibition collectively mapped out a century of European experience. From the First World War to the Cold War, the sexual revolution to the Velvet Revolution, and from communism to capitalism, the photographers documented the 20th Century.

One of the photographers that affected me was the little-known (in this country at least) Henryk Ross, who photographed the everyday lives of the Jews living in the ghetto in Lodz in the 1940s. Lodz was the second-largest ghetto established for Jews and Roma in German-occupied Poland. Ross documented the Nazi attrocities and then buried the negatives in a barrel deep in the ground before returning after the liberation to retrieve them.

A couple of years ago, his son released to the public for the first time a selection of photos shown today at the Barbican, showing aspects of Ross's own life as a privileged member of the Jewish elite who lived in comparative luxury in the ghetto due to their positions as wealthy and influential Jews used by the Nazis to organise the camps. Ross's photos show this ghetto elite in a form of symbolic resistance: persuing romance and dinner parties of relative plenty, theatre productions and concerts.

Also new to me was the work of Swedish photographer Christer Stromholm who lived amongst and documented the nocturnal community of transsexuals - many of whom worked as prostitutes, saving money for sex change operations in Casablanca - on the streets and in the cafes and nightclubs of Paris in the 1960s.

His son Joachim guided us through the photographs and divulged that one the transsexuals prominently displayed at the Barbican- the beautiful Nana - had successfully made the transition to womanhood and was now married to a high-ranking French military man who didn't know about his wife's past.

Finally, Wolfgang Tillmans's section showed photos of Polish immigrants bagging bargains at a market set in a muddy, rain-swept wasteland in West Berlin in 1989. The photos reflect the lives of the thousands of Poles who entered the country in 1988 after the immigration laws were relaxed, struggling to embrace and participate the free market economy.

We ate dinner at one of our favourite Japanese restaurants Abeno Too opposite the Photographers Gallery in Covent Garden. We sat at a wooden bar in the centre and watched as the waitress prepared our okonomi-yaki -- a sort of bubble and squeak mixture of cabbage, tempura batter, eggs, spring onions, ginger, pork, squid and prawns fried on the grill in front of us and served with Japanese brown sauce, mayonnaise and chilli sauce.

Then it was onto the very old Lamb and Flag pub nearby - a small wooden fronted pub, over 300 years old. It was once known as the Bucket of Blood because of the bare-fisted fights that used to regularly occur there. It is legend that the poet John Dryden was attacked there in 1679 by hired thugs in the alleyway by the side of the pub and nearly died. We sat upstairs in the Dryden Room and toasted my friend R, who is leaving London for adventures as yet unknown in Ireland, India and Hong Kong.

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