Why You Need A Skull-Shaped Sugar Spoon

IMG_1012

I came across this skull-shaped sugar spoon a little while ago in the bookshop of the National Theatre in London, and was immediately drawn to it.

It seems to me to be that it could be seen as a good combination of the fascination with the macabre you find all over Louisiana and the English obsession with tea which traditionally would always have a couple of spoonfuls of sugar stirred into it.

“When the spoon is used to scoop sugar,” a description says, “the granules create a skull-shaped mound – a reminder to use less perhaps, or just ghastly fun.”

This duality in the spoon could act as an emblem of the New Orleans see-saw between the Catholic tradition of penitence and an instinct to maximise pleasure as life is short. It also reminds me of the British tradition of telling fortunes from tea leaves, which might promise all kinds of exciting things but are always under the shadow of the one certainty in all our futures.

Using the spoon in London or New Orleans would also be a reminder of the huge problems with obesity in both the UK and America. Obesity is a public health issue, but what can be forgotten is that it’s also a political one – a correlation of obesity with urban poverty due to complex factors including a lack of access to healthy food and the filling comfort of junk food can make body size another way to stigmatise already marginalised groups.

If you go deeper into the politics of the food chain, sugar can leave a very bitter taste in your mouth indeed. The spoon could be a reminder that much sugar reaches London or New Orleans today through unjust systems of global trade.

Going back in history, sugar is closely connected with the murderous horrors of slavery in the US and Caribbean, not only through the economics of its production and sale, but also more viscerally – there are reports of enslaved people being punished by immersion in boiling cane liquid, or by being coated in sugar and left outside to be attacked by flies.

This connection of sugar with slavery might have been most visible in the Americas, but a vast amount of wealth from the sugar trade reached London. The history of the abolitionist movement in the UK, closely associated with London’s Stoke Newington near to where I live, includes the 1791 boycott of sugar from the American plantations.

These days however it is possible, especially if you buy fair trade sugar, to enjoy king cake or Tottenham cake or any other sweet treat without too much of a guilty conscience. The spoon and its symbolism is by no means redundant, though: reminders of a less-than-sweet history are always valuable – and too much of the sweet stuff is still likely to bring your inevitable death just that little bit closer.

Death In London, And All That Jazz

OTR

Death is something we all have in common, whatever city we live in. Yet even after we die, social divisions and injustices can still be very evident.

That’s true of New Orleans, an old city where contemplation of death is unavoidable for the living – it’s literally a place on the map. There are jazz funerals and magnificent above-ground tombs with their broken columns and staues of angels. But there are also sites like Charity Hospital Cemetary where thousands of impoverished victims of the city’s nineteen century yellow fever and malaria epidemics are buried in mass graves.

There’s the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, dedicated to “the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death” in the Treme neighbourhood of the city. And then there’s the bodies still unclaimed after Hurricane Katrina, now memorialised by a monument at Charity Hospital Cemetery.

London too has its own distinctive traditions for marking death – only today I saw a traditional East End funeral, horse-drawn hearse, black feathers, top hat and all, pass my window. And as in New Orleans, how you lived determines how you’ll be treated after you die. The number of “paupers’ funerals”, burials for those who die without resources to pay for their sending off, is on the rise in the UK.

This fact is the inspiration for a play I saw last Saturday (from which the image is taken): human rights-focused theatre company Ice and Fire‘s new production The Nine O’Clock Slotnamed after the unpopular time of day when those without friends or relatives to pick a better time tend to be buried.

The piece has a striking start. The venue, usually an art gallery, has been temporarily set up to look like a funeral parlour and action commences with the audience being welcomed by a presiding minister and then ushered into a narrow stairwell and towards an unknown underground zone for what’s been billed as a “a downward journey from the world of the living to the off-limits world of the dead and dying”.

The action that follows, covering the connected stories of four economically and socially impoverished individuals buried together, has excellent dialogue and is extremely well-acted. There’s interesting use of jazz music which, in London as much as in New Orleans, evokes the rich and bittersweet complexities of life, as lived by the deceased. Interestingly, the tracks used include “St. James Infirmary Blues”, in which living and dying in London and New Orleans are woven together.

But there’s much about the play that’s not assured. After the promising beginning that makes full dramatic use of the building’s twists and turns, the work settles into trotting through a one-location incident-packed narrative that sometimes, because of a few overblown set pieces and unnecessary plot twists, resembles an episode of Eastenders.

I’d also add that there are sections that could be unbearable for anyone who’s endured or contemplated the death of someone close to them – there’s pain to be felt here that I don’t think a theatre company should set out to induce in its audience.

But maybe I didn’t really like the play because I simply don’t believe in death. Let me explain. It’s become somewhat fashionable for morbid contemplation to be fêted as a signifier of the value of life, a view I can sympathise with but am now coming to think I can’t fully subscribe to.

I think if you take an audience down into the grave, you need to let them rise out of it again. Thinking about death is an important part of life, but life should be the point – once you’re dead, you’re dead, in this world at least. In a play like this one, and in our lives in general, we should remember the dead but ultimately focus on the living.

 

Send In The Clowns

2014-02-02 16.04.25

Two weekends ago – apologies for not posting last week – a special event took place in Dalston. The Clowns International Annual Service is an act of worship for and centred around clowns always held on the first Sunday in February in Dalston’s Holy Trinity Church.

The service sees clowns from all over the world gather in full costume – shoes, wigs, noses and all, bright in the very gloomiest time of year in London – and mixes readings, singing, clowning and conventional worship, all followed by a performance for children in the church hall (see picture), and tea and cake.

The event always reminds me of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Like Mardi Gras, the clowns’ services shakes up the repetitive and humdrum rituals we all go through, churchgoers or not, things turn loud and garish, and we’re reminded of the importance of foolishness.

But, and I’d argue the same about Mardi Gras, the service shows how foolishness functions not just as a distraction from the realities of everyday life, but can also be a crucial tool in engaging with life’s seriousness and, ultimately, our own mortality.

Mardi Gras is indivisable from the solemnities of Lent, and the clowns’ service is also a memorial service, primarily for Joseph Grimaldi, a eighteenth century actor known as the father of modern clowning and commemorated in a window at the church, but also for all the clowns who have died that year, whose names are read out during the service.

Life is short and death is coming, the service and Mardi Gras seem to say, and the best response is joy and laughter. This message has a particular meaning in a Christian context and has been turned into an art form in New Orleans, but I think it’s also one that has a resonance for humans everywhere.

Things Are Getting Hairy

2013-07-06 01.23.20

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.”