Holiday collection # 1

To mark the end of the year – as is now traditional on the blog – we asked people across the company to share something they’d enjoyed this year. We’ll be publishing the responses on the blog between now and New Year’s Day.

Emily Pitts: Canaletto at the National Gallery

I recently went to see the Canaletto exhibition at The National Gallery, which proved a far more eye-opening experience than I’d expected. I went with vague memories of his Venice cityscapes as being slightly boring ….endless views of more or less the same thing. Whilst this exhibition centres on Venice, it is certainly not fair to say the paintings are boring. Taking some time to look at a city from various angles and in different lights made me look at London afresh on leaving the gallery. I found I was noticing more detail in the buildings, more rhythm in the skyline. Incidentally, it’s said that Renzo Piano designed The Shard – currently careering skywards a stone’s throw from our London office – based on Canaletto’s angular London paintings of church spires and tall ships. Whilst I’m not convinced by this design rationale, I’m sure the views from the building will provide new and challenging views of a city so many know so well. But, if you want to fall in love with London again this New Year without waiting for industrial architecture to bring it to you – visit Canaletto and His Rivals, showing until 16th January 2011.

Andrew Curry: Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can

One of my disappointments this year was that Laura Marling didn’t win Britain’s Mercury Music Prize, given for the best record produced by a British artist that year. The judges were seemingly transfixed because last year’s winner – also a solo female artist – had slid back into obscurity afterwards, and cravenly gave the prize to the competent but unexciting The XX. To her credit, Marling seems unconcerned. But I want to be concerned on her behalf. I Speak Because I Can, her second record, is an extraordinary piece of work, steeped in the English folk tradition but sounding completely modern in a way which, say, Seth Lakeman can only dream of. Her songs tell rich stories, which are matched by melodies which are both tuneful and complex. The only other thing I heard this year which had as much depth was Gil Scott-Heron’s CD I’m New Here; but he’s been recording for 40 years and Laura Marling is barely 20.

Alex Steer: The State of Africa, by Martin Meredith

My holiday reading pick is Martin Meredith’s decidedly un-festive The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. Curiously, though perhaps tellingly, this book was published in the US as The Fate of Africa. It’s easy to read Meredith’s compelling narrative of the continent’s troubled half-century as a write-off rather than a write-up. It’s relentless in showing how bad African leadership, not just colonial mismanagement, led to disaster again and again. But this isn’t Afro-pessimism. The honest dissection of Africa’s failures shows how they might be overcome. If you want to understand Africa (and you should), start here.

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