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Respite through retail

Condemning Isis’s destruction of ancient Middle Eastern monuments is one thing but could the arts and culture fraternity be doing something more tangible?
Robert Bound

Do you mind being made to exit through the gift shop? Retail is a vital revenue stream for any museum; in the UK there’s a tacit agreement between museum-goer and museum director that a visit to the merchandise stall is the way to pay for ogling all those treasures for free. In the US, paid-for shows and collections are the norm; at the Moma for example, the store is an extension of the curatorial attitudes of the cultural institution to which it’s attached. The gift shop is a powerful way to communicate the beliefs and the brand of a place – rendered on tea towels and umbrellas – but nonetheless communicated in that most understandable of ways: part with a little money and you can go home with some approximation of Degas, David or a chip from a vase from a Chinese dynasty in a sturdy, well-printed carrier bag.

In the gift shop we are buying into something familiar: Sunflowers, Screams, nags by Stubbs. But what if we weren’t? What if we were being encouraged to buy a souvenir of something that we’d never seen? And what if the things that were printed on tea towels, mousemats and brollies were the endangered masterpieces of the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, smashed and pillaged and shot at by the militias murdering under the black flag of Isis?

Across the world, museum directors have shaken their heads in sadness at this orgy of nihilism but have offered no sort of united front. Standing on a dais and declaiming such frenzied nastiness is one thing but I wonder what it does? Isis aren’t exactly ashamed of condemnation, rather they proudly stockpile it and use it as fuel. So we must do something else and something new. Printing the extant and ruined treasures of the Assyrian and Akkadian empires of Mesopotamia on pencil cases, silk scarves and carrier bags might be the spur that we need to care more about this pillage. Let’s familiarise ourselves with these works. Let’s make them Pop.

We find it hard to care about things of which we know little; it’s easy to cough politely and look away from rack and ruin if we’re unfamiliar with the imagery, with the history, with the importance of these objects. But not if the mercantile wing of a museum (pick for yourself the percentage that fits) asks us to buy the postcard. It’s in these small and incremental ways, where a little money changes hands, that attitudes are changed and eventually forged anew.

I’d love to see the great museums of the world allied on each printing a tea towel with a work of art from Iraq or Syria that’s been lost to the terror. The quiet activism of drying your teacups with the image of a priceless relic, a wonder of antiquity, will start to effect the change the world could do with. Exit through the gift shop with pride.

Q&A- Lawrence Osborne


Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist and travel writer who has lived in New York, Istanbul, Paris, Mexico and Bangkok, where he currently resides. Osborne’s memoir of drinking in dry countries, The Wet and the Dry, is a modern classic of itinerant intoxication. His new novel, Hunters in the Dark, is reviewed on this page.

How do you create the dream-like atmosphere of your books?
My books always start with a place in which I’ve lived or spent a lot of time. Familiarity for me breeds love, not contempt. Over time this love for a place begins to suggest emotions, which I transfer to characters.

How does your travel writing cross over with novel writing?
Not very much. I do rather little travel writing now. One immerses oneself better in the spirit of a place through surrogates, through characters.

Cambodia and Thailand, which feature in Hunters in the Dark, are often written about in an Orientalist way. How do you achieve your even-handedness?
The more I live there the less seriously I take the white-saviour industrial complex. I want to be an observer, nothing more but also nothing less.

Your characters usually embrace their strange circumstances. Is this a trace of autobiography?
Indeed it is. It’s a necessity for an immigrant, is it not? And I consider myself an immigrant not an expat.

Culture cuts

Listener’s Project, Ben Lambert and Natasha Coleman’s troupe of directors and actors, make site-specific films dealing largely with UK sites that are just on the verge of being bulldozed or renovated. It will be taking on a broadcasting monolith next: BBC Television Centre. The defunct headquarters for the broadcaster’s drama output is an iconic building in west London that is coming to pieces incrementally. Capturing the moment never had such pathos.

This month, two new books bore into the heart of artistic truth for very different reasons: Noah Charney’s The Art of Forgery is a bold and witty study of one of the world’s oldest professions, encompassing the perception of value and the dawn of mass production of imagery.

Meanwhile Michael Craig-Martin’s On Being an Artist is part memoir, part guide. Craig-Martin is often cited by Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas as an inspiration both as an artist and a teacher. Chapters such as “On Standards of Living” are droll; why, he wonders, did his artwork stored in Mayfair enjoy a higher standard of living than him?

The close-up

James Corden: British actor, comedian and presenter. Smiley, down to earth, self-confessed chunky unit.

At a time when most of the world is tucked up, in the US they’re downing the last of their 15 daily coffees and settling down to The Late Late Show with James Corden on CBS at 00.35. Then debating whether this unknown (to most of them) Brit has the chops for it.

Anyone that can go from schlock-horror movie Lesbian Vampire Killers to storming Broadway with the commedia dell’arte-inspired One Man, Two Guvnors and winning a Tony award deserves the highest of fives. Plus there’s the Bafta for co-penned comedy Gavin and Stacey.

He may be big but my God does he have energy. And in terms of legacy, well, he’s already got a masterplan, saying, “Rap and dance is pretty much what I want to be known for.” We’ll check in on that at a later date. But despite the clowning he’s perfected the whole style of heartfelt without being sickly.

Despite the soon-to-retire David Letterman dismissively calling him “the chubby guy” and questioning Corden’s commitment, the reviews and ratings have been good. Now we’re not going to say Hollywood but we’re thinking it...

The show

Fathers’ Pride
Dutch social-experiment-turned-reality-series that takes four homosexual men and their homophobic fathers and drops them in the wilderness of South America, where they must work together to make it out and attend the Gay Pride festival in Buenos Aires.

The content
Holland has regularly been responsible for coming up with cutting-edge television formats, from Big Brother to Utopia and The Voice, and Fathers’ Pride – known in Holland as De Roze Wildernis – is no different. The four young men and their fathers must take part in a series of bonding exercises and outdoor challenges that aim to bring them closer together.

The talent
The show is hosted by television personality and fashion model Arie Boomsma, who previously fronted the Dutch version of 1990s UK show Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush.

The schedule
The series premiered earlier this year on Dutch public broadcaster KRO. It launched at Mip TV in April with international distributor Lineup Industries set up by a number of former Sony Pictures executives in discussions in a number of countries.


The Nearest Thing to Life
James Wood
One of the New Yorker’s most cherished writers, Wood’s memoir – a reading of his relationship with words – is autobiographical, open- handed and endlessly engaging. Chapters may explore the likes of Sebald, Chekhov and Fitzgerald but really they explore Wood.

Out in the Open
By Jesús Carrasco
Spanish author Jesús Carrasco’s debut tells of a runaway finding himself ill prepared for the countryside against a backdrop of violence and poverty. Carrasco omits mention of time and place to focus on the human condition when faced with the most trying of circumstances

Mark Vanhoenacker
Vanhoenacker is both a long-haul pilot and a poetic prose stylist. And what a great idea this is: a memoir of flying that mixes musing on mountain ranges and continental curves with studying the charts. A masterpiece of time, distance, palm trees, frosty mornings, lofty ambition and self-effacing charm.

Hunters in the Dark
Lawrence Osborne
The best writer you’d never heard of, Osborne (see interview, right) is hitting mean form as a writer of exotic literary thrillers. Here a wandering Englishman swaps identity with a wasted American in Cambodia and a chase for a bag of cash hots up. Sensual, dream-like and gripping.

The Fishermen
Chigozie Obioma
In his debut novel, Chigozie Obioma tells the tale of a family from his native Nigeria that is ripped apart by a madman’s prophecy, propelling the characters down a path of revenge paved by Obioma’s powerful visual language.

On record

Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear
At the core of this confederacy of troubadours is Madisen Ward and his mum. The Wards are Kansas City folks who have Roots in their roots and rock n’ roll on their radio, at least enough to update a bluesy template with some mean licks and singalong choruses for a charming debut full of harmonies and heart.

Tei Shi
Here we go: a Colombian singer born in Buenos Aires and based in Brooklyn with a nom de plume that sounds like a branch of meditation. What’s not to get all airmiles-excited about? Valerie Teicher’s EP is so good that we sneaked it into the LP reviews section. Like FKA Twigs cutting the wonky electro in place of pure pop, Björk at her most direct or Taylor Swift if she’d been signed by 4AD, Verde won’t leave your stereo until the LP drops.

Meg Baird
Part of Philadelphia’s alt-rock royalty, Baird is on fantastic form with songs that kiss folk’s touchstones – Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins - and twist themselves around an idea. Often that idea seems tied up in losing the innocence that comes with making well-loved, successful music. It’s soul-searching stuff then – and sounds that way – but you can still dance to the Smiths as they break your tender heart, can’t you?







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