London: “The Joy of Bees” and “Through a Glass Darkly”

dsc07797This week, I wanted to tell you guys about two events I recently attended (despite always feeling kind of bad for reporting on events that were a one-off, because what’s the point if no one else can go?! Oh well), and given that it’s October, I couldn’t resist opening the post with a creepy blurry picture of Brompton Cemetery at night, even though I’m going to talk about the Joy of Bees first.

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So, the Joy of Bees.  I’ve attended a few of Bompas and Parr’s events over the years, with mixed results (I blogged about “Sensed Presence” a couple years ago), and at some point ended up on their mailing list, which means that if they mention anything interesting, I’m more inclined to go than I perhaps otherwise would be (especially because hearing about it before the general public means I’ve actually got a shot at booking tickets to most things).  I like bees, I like honey, and their description of the event, though pretentious (“an experiential art installation and gastronomic tasting of some of the rarest honeys in the world”), was nonetheless sufficiently intriguing for me to book tickets, despite the hefty £9 price tag.

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Knowing what I now know, I wish I’d kept that £9 and just bought a couple jars of nice honey.  I think the best way I can review this is by going through their descriptions of each level of the townhouse (it was in some random narrow building (maybe a former brothel?) in Soho), so you can see that although I can’t technically accuse them of lying, the grandiose promises didn’t quite match up to what was delivered.  First up, the “Observation Colony, containing 20,000 live bees” (seen in the picture on the left, above).  I didn’t count them, but I do believe that it contained that many bees.  The problem is that 20,000 bees don’t actually take up all that much room, so it wasn’t any more impressive than the bee display at the Geauga County Fair, and the Geauga County fair does free honey tastings free of pompous trappings.

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The 1st Floor contained “Hive Mind, an exposition of cultural contributions from artists for whom bees, hives, honey, and the visual language of beekeeping have provided a source of information.”  I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “exposition,” I think of it as being more than three things.  Because that’s how many pieces of “art” were there.  3.  You’ve already seen two of them (the log looking things and the vase thing) and the other was much the same, just another thing made of honeycomb.  When I heard “honeycomb inspired modern art,” for some reason I was picturing maybe like a giant honeycombed hive you could walk through or something, not some unremarkable little vase in a glass case.  Anyway, this was lame, and the resident beekeeper who was allegedly on hand to answer questions was none too friendly either.

The 2nd Floor, shown on the left above (I’m running out of pictures here because there wasn’t much worth photographing), was “Pollenesia, a botanical paradise where you’ll meet the enigmatic, steely and magnificent Mellifera, Queen of Honey.”  Mellifera was quite clearly an aspiring actress who didn’t seem particularly interested in “bee-ing” there.  Her whole shtick consisted of asking us to smell the wildflowers and then do a shot of malic acid, which was meant to cleanse our palates for the honey tasting.  And man, that was not what I’d call a “botanical paradise.”  When I think of botanical paradise, I think of something like the inside of the big greenhouses in Kew, where you’re actually surrounded by plants.  Not some clumps of dirt on the floor with wildflowers stuck in them (and rather hilariously, the wildflowers were arranged in exactly the way the honey tasting ladies told us not to plant them; i.e. you should plant flowers of one type all together, so bees don’t have to exert themselves too much gathering pollen.  These were all mixed together).

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Finally, there was the honey tasting itself, or should I say the “Salon of Honey, a honeycombed haven where you’ll be guided through a taste of some of the rarest honeys in the world.”  This was by far the best part of the installation, because it’s hard to go wrong with tasting honey, though I was annoyed that they had a map posted everywhere showing the “29 honeys featured at the Joy of Bees,” yet we only tasted 5 honeys.  I realise it wouldn’t have been practical to taste THAT many honeys, but why advertise them then?  Because of that map, I’m not sure which honeys we actually tasted, as there was nothing to distinguish the tasting honeys from the 24 other featured honeys, and many of them were from the same countries as the ones we tasted.  But the honey was delicious, no complaints there, and I actually quite liked the apple chunks soaked in super-tart malic acid that we were given to cleanse our palates.  I also enjoyed the honey mocktail we were given afterwards, and the bonus honey on bread.  But really, none of it was worth £9.  I’m not much of a drinker, but if they would have dumped some booze in that “mocktail” at least I would have felt like I was getting my money’s worth.  The other main complaint, in addition to the general vibe of half-assedness that pervaded, was that the whole thing was sponsored by some hotel chain I’d never heard of, and the honey came from their hives, as we kept being reminded, to the extent that the whole thing felt like a big advert that they should have been paying us to listen to.  Very disappointing overall, and I think it’s going to be a long time before I risk another Bompas and Parr event, unless it’s something free.

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However, all was not lost, because later that evening we attended “Through a Glass Darkly” at Brompton Cemetery, part of London Month of the Dead. London Month of the Dead offer some of the few non-clubbing related Halloween events in London, and for this I am grateful.  It was £12 (and did come with an actual cocktail, although I didn’t drink it due to an unfortunate incident at a different Month of the Dead event last year where I desperately had to pee for the entire lecture after having the cocktail, and then had to frantically run to the men’s room at the back of the chapel, because the women’s toilet wasn’t unlocked), which I didn’t object that much to paying because it was a Halloween event (the things I’ll do for my favourite holiday), and also a chance to enter an awesome Victorian cemetery at night (and because some of the ticket price went to cemetery upkeep, of course).

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Anyway, after a bit of waiting around in the cold for someone to open the gates (I think every goth in town was there, and we all know I’m a goth at heart…), we all headed up to the chapel, which is a fair walk up the path between the graves, and the cemetery was good and dark, though the chapel was atmospherically illuminated with candlelight.  I realise I still haven’t explained what the event actually was (if you didn’t click the link and find out); it was advertised as a phantasmagoria, in other words, a creepy magic lantern show.  Ever since reading about a similar event held in a cemetery in Paris in the 19th century, I’ve been dying (not literally, though I guess it’s a pun) to attend one, so I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw this event on the Month of the Dead website.  Hence the need to snap up tickets.  It turned out to not exactly be a straightforward phantasmagoria, but it was so good that I didn’t mind.  What actually happened was that Professor Mervyn Heard, operator of the gloriously steampunk-looking magic lantern (it ran on electricity, but apparently they were originally powered by a volatile mix of gasses that blew up and killed several magic lantern operators), gave us a history of magic lantern shows, accompanied by some of his favourite slides, many of which were gothic in nature, although he provided amusing sound effects (he did comedy accents and everything), so not really scary.  There were a few ghost stories thrown in, and Professor Heard was extremely engaging, and infectiously passionate about magic lanterns (to the extent that I kind of want one of my own).  He was also very knowledgeable, which was nice after recently attending a couple of lectures where the speakers didn’t really seem to know their subject matter.

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My only problems with the event were that the people behind us talked through the whole damn thing (not Month of the Dead’s fault), and that it was hard to see the screen from where we were sitting because of all the heads in front of me (I had to lean to the side and got a crick in my neck), but I’m not really sure what could be done about that, other to let fewer people in, but then I might not have gotten to attend at all, and I would have rather had a sore neck than not seen it.  Professor Heard was fantastic; surprisingly funny, and he had an excellent collection of slides.  The second best part of the evening came when we left the cemetery; as the gates had been re-locked during the show, we had to all exit together so they could let us out.  After impatiently waiting for everyone to leave, we were rewarded when one of the event organisers strapped on a wind-up gramophone, and led us out of the cemetery whilst cranking out spooky music (I’ve got a video up on my Instagram, if you want to hear it).  It was hilarious, and the perfect end to the evening.  London Month of the Dead have got a few more events this month, though I think most of them are sold out (and I’d avoid the one about the architecture of cemeteries; we went last year and it was pretty lame), but I’d definitely recommend the magic lantern show if they do it again next year!  It even made up for the disappointment that was the Joy of Bees!



Croton-on-Hudson, New York: Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze

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I’m spending my last week in America on a road trip around New England and Upstate New York with my boyfriend, which is pretty neat since these are all parts of America I haven’t visited before.  On the plus side, the leaves are gorgeous this time of year, and there’s lots of neat Halloween events, but the downside is that winter appears to “officially” start in mid-October here, at least as far as small museums are concerned, with the result that many places I’ve been dying to see are already closed for the year, like Grant Cottage, the Pierce Homestead, Calvin Coolidge Homesite, and most crushingly, Almanzo Wilder‘s boyhood home in Malone (I’ve wanted to visit it FOREVER, and was majorly disappointed when I realised I couldn’t).  One event I was able to attend, however, was the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, near Sleepy Hollow.  I’m not sure that I’ll do anyone much good by posting about it, as I believe it’s already sold out for this year, but maybe you’ll enjoy some of my pictures (though, as usual, they are a bit crap), and can use the post for future reference!

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The Blaze was promoted as one of the premier attractions in the Hudson Valley, with thousands of illuminated jack o’lanterns on display.  I’ve been to my fair share of haunted houses, so even with timed entry, I expected a bit of a queue, but the line was stretched from the parking lot to (as I would later realise) the entrance gate across the street, which was pretty insane.  We finally gained entrance about half an hour after arriving, which would have been fine, if we weren’t packed in the actual attraction with hundreds of other people, leading to yet more tedious queueing.  Personally, I’m not that bothered about waiting to get in somewhere, but I get super annoyed if I have to wait once I’m inside, so I was in an irritable mood the entire time.

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That said, the pumpkins were damn cool.  I don’t think they were all real pumpkins, as there’s no way they would have held up for the six weeks the event runs for, but I don’t see how that really matters.  They covered the lawns and the exterior of what I believe was Van Cortlandt Manor, and the front of the house was lit up as well.  After walking under the pumpkin arch at the start, we progressed up a lawn with pumpkin snakes and Venus Flytraps, with a garden of “sunflowers” and (eek!) “butterflies” opposite.

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The manor house was garnished with an array of classic Jack O’Lantern faces, segueing into a gourd graveyard, and the scariest part, Clown O’Lanterns!  There were even working Jack O”Lantern-in-the-Boxes, with a gurning face popping up at irregular intervals.

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There were pumpkin spiders, a massive spiderweb, witches, the full range of Hollywood monsters, and even Native Americans.  The collection of large objects was completed by a clock with working pumpendulum, a tower, and a tunnel of love, and the final garden was turned into a veritable bestiary of zoo animals, fish,  and dinosaurs.  Naturally, there was the requisite gift shop, and stall selling apple cider, doughnuts, and caramel apples, but again, the lines were super long.  Finally, the experience concluded with a trip through the “museum of pumpkin art” which mostly featured headless horseman themed works, in keeping with the proximity to Sleepy Hollow.

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Even though I loved the pumpkins, the whole set-up of the place was incredibly irritating.  I get that it’s a popular event, and they want to let in as many people as possible, but they need to scale their ticket sales way back, as being slowly shuffled along a path for ten times as long as necessary as it actually takes to look at the displays is not my idea of a good time.  In addition, the layout was poor, as the trail went from narrow, to wide, to narrow again, creating a huge bottleneck next to the house, where we were crammed in a claustrophobic crowd, not moving at all for a good half an hour.  I was so annoyed, and I wasn’t the only one, judging from the grumbling going on around me.  Personally, I would introduce cattle prods to take care of those people who find it necessary to block paths for twenty minutes whilst they take photos involving every possible combination of people in their group, but I suppose that wouldn’t be allowed with modern health and safety regulations, so they need to either make the paths bigger, or let in fewer people.  For $20 per ticket, I expected a much better experience.  The Jack O’Lanterns get 4.5/5, but overall experience was only 2.5/5.  At any rate, you get to look at the rest of the photos without suffering through the crowds.  Lucky you!

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