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The other night, my sister’s boyfriend said: “When I arrive somewhere new, I head for the nearest market“, on the grounds that it gives him the best sense – and you can usually use all your senses – of what a place is really like.

He then proceeded to recount a horrible tale involving good intentions, dead kittens and stir fry, which I’m not going to repeat here. All I’ll say is that if you see a live animal for sale at a market, it’s probably going to end up as someone’s lunch and there’s probably not a whole lot you can do about that. Sorry.

Anyway, even after hearing that story, I still love markets. And I’m lucky enough to live near lots of them. In or around my patch of Hackney you’ll find Broadway Market just off London Fields, the nearby but newer Netil Market and, in super-trendy Clapton, Chatsworth Road Market. I’ve also heard good things, from a reasonably reliable source, about Walthamstowe Market, allegedly “Europe’s longest street market”.

But my nearest market and my favourite one is Ridley Road Market. It’s an old-school east London market which, excitingly, was apparently the inspiration for the street market in EastEnders (if that means nothing to you, don’t worry about it). None of that cupcakes or organic soap nonsense at Ridley Road – here you can have fruit and veg, underwear, or cheap electronics, plus a whole host of other genuinely useful stuff.

Many of the goods for sale at Ridley Road are associated with one of the ethnic communities found in the area – you’ll find West African cloth, fresh Indian naan bread, Caribbean carnival CDs and more. You’ll also find one of my favourite bars in London, perfect for a dose of tropical in what is often a grey and cold city.

Unfortunately, the multicultural nature of the market has led to some arguably racist hysteria about the nature of the products on sale there in recent years. More happily, the mix of cultures and products available has also inspired some very creative people to set up stall.

Earlier this summer, artist Lorenzo Vitturi exhibited the results of a year-long project centred around Ridley Road Market at Fishbar gallery, also in Hackney. After taking photos and collecting objects and substances from the market, Vitturi began a process of “decomposition and re-composition” to create a series of artworks. These mix together, say, meat and hair dye or fabric and fruit in surprising and sometimes disturbing combinations.

He then took many of these works back to exhibit at the market, at his own stall and he also gave photographs to stallholders to display. “Initially perceived as a chaos,” he says in his notes about the exhibition, “the market has, day after day, revealed to me its own order and harmony…It became really important for me to take the work back into the community to complete the cycle.”

Dalston Coathanger also thinks that markets, and Ridley Road Market in particular, have something to say about social chaos and harmony. This organisation makes T-shirts with slogans and designs inspired by the summer 2011 rioting in London, some of which took place pretty near Ridley Road, and sells them at the market where they hope their range will help people “explore social and political issues that are still at the forefront of minds across the country.”

Over to New Orleans, and this city has fabulous – and though-provoking – markets too. When I’m there, I always end up at the French Market at some point. I love the great food and drink, but also all the other good things that seem to bear the French Market tag  – free music, food festivals, and one of my favourite WWOZ shows.

I also really like the Crescent City Farmers’ Market – on my last visit, I got the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever eaten and a free peach – what more could you want for breakfast? But this market too is about more than just one meal. Farmers’ markets in general are great for reconnecting us to what good food tastes like – and why eating local and seasonal is often a good idea. And when I was there, they also had music and childrens’ activities going on, showing that markets are about building communities as well as making dinner.

Recently, I was reading about what’s going on in the St. Roch neighbourhood in the Bywater, and was excited to hear that its market has been redeveloped. It’s a beautiful old building, with plenty of history – it was built in 1875 and a 1930s renovation was part of one of the original Works Progress Administration projects after the Great Depression. It gradually fell into disuse during subsequent decades, however, and finally closed post-Katrina.

But now the city government has invested $3.7 million to redevelop the space into a community market, due to open very, very soon. It’s part of a wider renewal project in the St. Roch area, which also includes a park, art walk and new streetcar, which again shows that markets can’t be separated from the communities around them and that more markets are generally a sign of more good things for everyone. Unless, that is, you’re a kitten. Sorry (again).


Death, Film And Taxes

2013-07-14 23.03.41I watched Interview with the Vampire this weekend, the largely Louisiana-set 1994 Neil Jordan film based on the Anne Rice novel of the same name.

I’ve read the book recently (love it), but hadn’t seen the film since my last year at school, over fifteen years ago. That was long before I’d visited Louisiana, so it was interesting to watch it again knowing the state and New Orleans in particular, though of course there are one or two differences between Jordan’s dark and theatrical settings and the state today.

Large portions of the film were filmed on location in Louisiana, though – for instance, lead character Louis de Pointe du Lac’s estate is Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, and the house where he sets his onetime companion Lestat on fire is in fact the building known as Madame John’s Legacy at 632 Dumaine Street.

Since the mid-1990s, a fair few more movies have been filmed or partially filmed in the state, including two vampire flicks schoolgirls are probably more likely to be found watching today – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and Part 2, and the superlative Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In fact, Louisiana boasts more cinematic activity than any other state in the US apart from California and New York, with New Orleans being nicknamed “Hollywood South”.

Popularity with filmmakers is something Louisiana has in common with London, where film production also continues to boom. Those making movies here also show an appetite for horror, with zombie films being some of the best-loved London productions over the past decade – see 2004’s Shaun of the Deador the more recent Cockneys vs Zombies.

I’d love to be able to say that London and New Orleans/Louisiana in general have storytelling in their water, or that there’s some mystical quality to these places that makes them particularly magical when looked at through a camera. I do actually think these things could be true, but what’s probably the real reason for their cinematic popularity is more prosaic – both Louisiana and the UK offer hefty tax breaks to filmmakers.

However, I think the association of both places with telling horror stories on film is about more than accounting. London and New Orleans are old cities with long and – partially – dark histories that hover close to their surfaces. They’re also ports, always welcoming a flow of new people, new tales and new money which can mean, in the popular imagination at least, new dangers. Both of these factors make them good settings for all things scary supernatural happenings.

And it’s intriguing that New Orleans and wider Louisiana continue to be associated by filmmakers with vampires, which were popularised in the modern era by Irish-born London resident Bram Stoker through his seminal and partly London-set novel Dracula.

Zombies, meanwhile, London’s silver screen monsters of the moment, have their cultural roots in Haiti, which is not so far from Louisiana, geographically and culturally.

I think it just goes to show that, while bloodsucking and monster munching are a little icky in literal terms for some, even those who don’t love watching a good horror film have to admit that they’re thoroughly good things when seen as metaphors for cross-cultural feeding and fertilisation. As are those juicy tax breaks too, of course.

Things Are Getting Hairy

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Over the past month or so, I’ve been attending a great series of events on Morbid Anatomy, held at the fabulous Last Tuesday Society museum/shop in Hackney, and created by Brooklyn-based artist, curator, blogger, and graphic designer Joanna Ebenstein.

The series arose out of her fascination with death and its manifestations in different cultures and time periods. This fascination led her to make a “pilgrimage” around “the great medical museums of the western world”, then to her “Morbid Anatomy” blog (see link above), then to the creation of the Morbid Anatomy Library in Brooklyn, of which she is “Keeper”.

I’ve written about this series of events in general elsewhere, but here I want to focus on what I think is one very interesting aspect of them – what I call the the “getting up close and personal” dimension. Ebenstein has deliberately included a number of hands-on sessions in the series, including a “Wax Wound Workshop”, a session where you can make your own “Bat in Glass Dome”, and classes on the Victorian art of hair jewellery.

Getting close to bodily structures and their fragility as a way of “making sense of ourselves” is very popular today, says Vadim Kosmos, the manager of the Last Tuesday Society’s shop/musuem. I’d argue that this interest is currently very evident in both London, and also in New Orleans which, in the view of New York master jeweller Karen Bachmann who ran the hair jewellery classes, is “a death-obsessed city”.

This widepread interest, Kosmos thinks, is what’s behind the popularity of the society’s shop/museum, which is stuffed with a mixture of natural history specimens, mineral samples, religious iconography and ethnographic items. “It’s so compact and crowded – you’re literally nose to nose with something in there,” he says. That “something” could be a piece of antique taxidermy, a shrunken head, or a “Fiji mermaid” (in reality a mixture of monkey, fish and papier mâché).

And the Morbid Anatomy workshops allow participants to get closer still. In the hair jewellery classes, for example, they were encouraged to bring in their own hair, or the hair of a loved one to work with. That’s hair from the head, by the way, though Bachmann did reveal that she’s been asked to make jewellery incorporating pubic hair for clients in the past.

Bachmann used to work at Tiffany’s, famous as a purveyor of neat heart lockets and icy engagement rings for Manhattan princesses, but she’s long had an interest in more earthy Morbid Anatomy-type decorative objects. She has, she says, always collected “dead shit” – “bugs, bones, freeze-dried animals”, and has been building a personal collection of hair jewellery for over fifteen years. She bought her first piece – a brooch made out of Whitby jet – in Harvey Nichols in London, and her collection also includes items found in New Orleans.

Is there something unhealthy about the appeal of handling these kinds of objects, in contrast, perhaps, to relishing the vanilla sparkle of a standard Tiffany bauble? No, says Ebenstein, who took part in one of Karen’s London classes. For her, the process of being able to turn an anatomical relic like hair into a cultural object has a profitable philosophical resonance.

“In workshops like these,” she says, “you think about what the pieces mean, how it’s really about the thought of the deceased, and you realise how painstaking and slow [the work] is. You get it on a different level: it’s like meditation. Someone could have explained that [in a lecture], but I don’t think you really get it until you try to do it yourself.”

Ebenstein sees using these kinds of experiences to promote thoughtfulness about death – and life – as central to the Morbid Anatomy mission. “I think if you believe as I do that our time on earth is it,” she says “you want to do the best you can, and reminding ourselves of our mortality is a really good way to stay on track.”