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My digital home

Welcome to The Northernist.  This is the umbrella for my loves in life: travel, art, food and conversation.  I think I might finally have managed to create a site where they all intersect and overlap.

Thinking about what I wanted this site to be, I came to a few realiasations. I’d been a digital vagrant for most of the last decade, starting a blog here or there on a whim. Most of them have been on another platform, whose limitations were starting to frustrate me.  So it was probably time to settle down and get stuck in on WordPress, where I’m bringing over previous content (ie my writing in Liverpool and eventually my travel writing from earlier this year).  I also want to use this as a platform for conversation (interview sounds too formal) with some of the most interesting writers, travelers, critics and creators I’ve encountered on the interwebs.

As for the title? I’m a northerner by birth (US) and marriage (UK).  The two have different connotations in each country, but I’m proud to call them both home.  Certainly there’s plenty to celebrate about my adopted northern home, and that will be my focus until the next foreign adventure reveals itself.

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"Magritte: The Pleasure Principle" at Tate Liverpool

Last Friday I finally got around to seeing Tate’s summer/autumn blockbuster Magritte show. There was a special evening viewing for Tate members and a visit from broadcaster Jon Snow in his capacity as head of the Tate Members’ Committee. He was a genial speaker and did his best to fly the flag for increasing Tate’s membership. I spoke with him briefly after his talk and he was very pleasant and obliging, signing autographs when asked.

The exhibition itself was worth seeing for the usual reasons, namely bringing together a large number of works, many never having been on display in the UK before, and showing another dimension to Magritte’s oeuvre by including some of his commercial output, personal photographs and home movies. In that sense it bears some resemblence to the recent Picasso: Peace and Freedom and Nam June Paik exhibitions.

The actual experience of being in the first gallery was surreal in a sonic sense. It was an extremely windy night and noises from the roof (which at times sounded like you were beneath a bowling alley) combined with the periodic squeaking of a visitor’s folding portable seat was distinctly unsettling. The grey and wooden walls, occasionally glaring lights and darkened windows added to an atmosphere heavy with uncertainty. Perhaps it was just my height or where I was standing in relation to the pictures, but I found the lighting to be overly harsh at times and dazzling to the point of obscuring the works. This may not have been an issue in the daytime, but it did affect how I was able to look at some of the paintings. One stand out in the first section was The Age of Fire which was far closer to Dali and Ernst in its use of Surrealist imagery than to Magritte’s usual subjects.

Because the rooms were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, it was easy to see recurring ideas, such as the pipe. Works spanning twenty years were grouped together, making the interplay between image and language more interesting. Two versions of The Flavour of Tears hung side by side, possibly for the first time since leaving Magritte’s studio, since each was created for a patron who didn’t know of the other’s commission. Artistically they weren’t Magritte’s strongest work, but raised questions of originality and reproduction similar to those Marcel Duchamp considered in his readymades and miniature versions of his best-known works, the Boites en Valises.

The final galleries were easier on the eyes, decorated in soothing blues to reflect the streetscapes of day and night and the sky of Golconda. There were also several female nudes and a gallery of erotic illustrations (discreetly curtained off from the main gallery space). Overall it was an impressive show in terms of quality and quantity and will doubtless pull a similar number of visitors when it moves on to Vienna next month.

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A Pie for Mikey

The internet’s a funny thing. Until a few days ago, I had never heard of Jennifer Perillo or her husband, Mikey. Then, via Twitter, I learned of his sudden death. Jennifer posted the recipe for his favorite pie and said anyone who wanted to do something to help her could simply make this pie in his memory and share it.

As these things do, the word spread quicky and even appeared on CNN’s Eatocracy. I’m making this pie along with many other people, for many reasons. It’s been a difficult and exhausting week here in several ways. Riots have torn across much of England, churning up issues many people would rather not acknowledge except to deal out punishment. My own city has been affected, reminding many that while Liverpool has changed a great deal since the Toxteth riots of 1981, desperate social problems still persist. And I’m standing at a crossroads in the dark, not knowing which path to follow.

Something I read earlier I know to be true: “One thing I love about cooking is that when things don’t make sense, cooking allows you to DO something. Even if it is only baking a pie.”

Right now, the world is not making a lot of sense to me. So when I didn’t know what else to do, I made this:

Jennifer Perillo‘s Creamy Peanut Butter Pie

Shauna James Ahern has gluten-free and dairy-free alternatives (and some very heartfelt and moving words) over on Gluten-Free Girl

Serves 10 to 12

I’ve added approximate weight measurements, where not already stated, for those outside the US and because, and I can’t quite believe it either, I prefer to bake with measurements in grams (or ounces at a push) rather than cups. This American never thought she could cook in metric.

8 ounces/225g chocolate cookies (I used the Co-op’s Double Chocolate Chip cookies. It only came in a 200g pack, so I’d get a larger amount next time. I had to improvise the sides of the crust using some graham crackers, as you’ll see below)

4 tablespoons/2oz/50g (approx) butter, melted

4 ounces finely chopped chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used Divine 70% Dark Chocolate, but milk chocolate would probably be fine for the base)

1/4 cup/1 oz/35g chopped peanuts

1 cup/250ml heavy/double cream

8 ounces/225g cream cheese (Again, you may find the 200g regular pack isn’t enough, but that’s what I used. Get a large one and use the rest on bagels if you prefer).

1 cup/10 oz/285g creamy-style peanut butter (I used crunchy as that’s what was in the house)

1 cup/5 oz/145g confectioner’s sugar

1 – 14 ounce/397g can sweetened condensed milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 oz/25g melted chocolate to drizzle on top, optional

Add the cookies to the bowl of a food processor and pulse into fine crumbs. Combine melted butter and cookie crumbs in a small bowl, and stir with a fork to mix well. Press mixture into the bottom and 1-inch up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave. Pour over bottom of cookie crust and spread to the edges using an off-set spatula. Sprinkle chopped peanuts over the melted chocolate. Place pan in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

I had a 100g bag of peanuts, so I just used them all.

Pour the heavy cream into a bowl and beat using a stand mixer or hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a small bowl and store in refrigerator until ready to use. Place the cream cheese and peanut butter in a deep bowl. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy. Reduce speed to low and gradually beat in the confectioner’s sugar. Add the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla extract and lemon juice. Increase speed to medium and beat until all the ingredients are combined and filling is smooth.

Stir in 1/3 of the whipped cream into the filling mixture (helps lighten the batter, making it easier to fold in the remaining whipped cream). Fold in the remaining whipped cream. Pour the filling into the prepared springform pan. Drizzle the melted chocolate on top, if using, and refrigerate for three hours or overnight before serving.

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Lorenzo Fusi is an excellent tour guide

photo of Lee Mingwei’s Mending Room installation, 52 Renshaw Street

I arrived slightly early for my tour with Lorenzo Fusi, curator of the public realm of the Biennial. As the other winner wasn’t able to attend, I was asked if I would like to bring a guest. Cue a quick phonecall to my husband doing errands nearby and he agreed to join me. Lorenzo arrived a few minutes later and we set off from the visitors centre:

We strolled through the ground floor while Lorenzo outlined the themes of works exhibited within, broadly relating to the idea ‘rethinking trade’. Visitors can have items mended with brightly coloured threads in Lee Mingwei’s exhibtion. He himself was mending during the first two weeks of the Biennial, now volunteers have taken over. Ideally items can be left until the end of the exhibition as part of the display.

I asked him about the challenges of working in a disused space, and how easy or difficult it was to get permission for the building to be used in the Biennial. He admitted it was quite challenging from a logistical standpoint; there are four separate electrical systems inside the former Rapid store. No one knew how to fix the elevator when it broke. And so on.

I asked to go downstairs to Ryan Trecartin’s video installation trilogy; I had a visceral dislike of them upon first viewing and wanted to try to understand a bit more about why they had been selected. We watched one film, it felt like for at least ten to fifteen minutes, though I’m sure we didn’t stay there quite so long. Each is a visual and aural mashup, skin colour and voice are altered or distorted on each of the participants. Lorenzo talked about the controlled chaos of Trecartin’s films, how it seems like they’re purely frenetically random, but that it takes a great deal of time and editing to make each one. Also he admitted that he wanted to sex up the show a little bit by including them, otherwise it risked being too safe. That made me smile; I still don’t care for the trilogy, but I can’t fault Lorenzo’s desire to include something provocative.

Thanks to all at the Biennial who made this event happen, especially Lorenzo for sharing his time and insights.

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Picasso: Peace and Freedom

Opening today at Tate Liverpool, “Picasso: Peace and Freedom” is a major exhibition examining Picasso’s work in the post-war period, situating many of his works in a polictical context relating to his nearly 30 year membership of the Communist party.

Several column inches have already been devoted to the exhibition before it opened and what surprises it may have in store, such as the Daily Telegraph’s claim of Picasso’s previously unknown support for feminism and the Guardian’s skepticism of the depth of his political beliefs.

Having previously written about Picasso’s later career and the efforts of different photographers to depict him and how they contributed to his legacy, I was incredibly curious to see how this exhibition would re-interpret his later works, traditionally given much less attention in critical scholarship than his earlier, more groundbreaking pieces and if it would radically revise the perceptions of him as an artist.

The exhibition opens on the ground floor with a timeline of major events in Picasso’s life and western history since World War II. Four screens show documentary footage of Picasso at work and news footage from different political events such as the Sheffield Peace Conference of 1950. Anticipating the work on display upstairs, it is presented in grey and white, though I thought some coloured text might have been useful to distinguish general historical events (such as the Suez Crisis) from ones Picasso was directly involved with, politically or personally.

Moving upstairs to the fourth floor, I would venture that more work by Picasso is on display than anywhere else aside from the museums dedicated to his work in France and Barecelona. It is impressively overwhelming. The Charnel House hangs in a smaller room to the left of the entrance. Though it never garnered the attention or reputation of Guernica, it remains a powerful work. If Guernica is a scream of anguish, The Charnel House is a silent post-mortem. The bodies lay twisted but quiet. I know Picasso was initially inspired by the images of a Spanish family killed during the war, but images of Holocaust victims and the way bodies were disposed of in concentration camps were all I could think of. I found the experience incredibly moving.

Still life and landscape paintings dominate the first room, with a couple of sculptures and portraits of Francoise Gilot and Sylvette David. Some paintings of the view from his home on the Cote d’Azure use a brighter palette, and I can’t help but recall his dialogue, both artistic and personal, with Matisse, who lived in the area until his death in 1954.

The gallery devoted to images of the famous ‘dove of peace’, chosen by Louis Aragon, not Picasso himself, leads to a larger space devoted to posters, newspaper front pages and photographs of Picasso with fellow Communists. He ignored Russian attempts to encourage him towards their sanctioned realism, and they rejected his portrait of Stalin as insufficiently life-like. Cards and posters he designed for different organisations and events certainly demonstrate his engagement and willingness to be publicly linked to these causes. One is a postcard to celebrate International Women’s Day in 1964. I don’t think this, combined with some of his later nudes in display can convincingly make the case for him as a feminist. His misogyny will remain a subject of debate for many years to come, but perhaps this will be one useful example in showing his commitment to freedom for all marginalised groups.

The last few galleries show series of paintings and prepatory sketches for Rape of the Sabines, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (after Manet) and (self)portraits in the guise of a 17th century muskateers. Certainly the more common reading of these paintings is that Picasso at this stage in his life was engaging with art and artists of the past to cement his place in the history of art as the equal of Manet, Rembrandt and Poussin. Situating these works in the context of contemporary events provides an intriguing counterpoint (his Women of Algiers after Delacroix, was painted during the conflict that would eventually lead to Algerian independence), but ultimately a political motivation or theme in these works is surely only one among many.

Making an exhibition around Picasso’s Communism twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall is an achievement in itself and illuminates another facet of his personality. Regardless of one’s political affiliations or opinion of Picasso, the fact that so much of his work has been gathered in one place makes the exhibition worth seeing.

The Guardian’s review

BBC Liverpool video

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‘an unsuspecting joy’

Welcome to the 2010 incarnation of this blog. As spring (can’t say summer quite yet) has finally started to stick around both seasonally and psychologically, I wanted to start writing about art again. I haven’t done this publicly in some time, but the seeds of inspiration blossomed on Saturday night after attending the final performance of The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumiere at Metal’s space within Edge Hill Station.

A collaboration between harpist Rebecca Joy Sharp and artist Elizabeth Willow as well as several actors and musicians, parts of the station buildings were transformed into a Victorian dreamscape as the audience followed the characters of Sonny and Juniper under the tracks, through tunnels and up stairs. We were led by dark-suited ‘conductors’ to each part of the performance. Music alternated with poetry alternated with birds nests on scales, sewing machines powered by foot and wheels being spun with abandon. The antique and industrial sat side by side, hallmarks of Elizabeth Willow’s work. We heard trains go by outside whilst being part of a very different world inside. Rebecca Sharp ended the performance at the pedal harp in a blue room, seemingly weaving melodies across the harp’s strings as the lights gradually dimmed and only candles remained lit. Haunting and beautiful all at once.

Afterwards tea and biscuits were served on bone china by charming attendents, again all clothed in black. Visitors were invited to give feedback and could choose a small token to take away after completing the survey. There was a tombola with mysterious prizes to be won.

All in all an utterly enchanting evening. Click on the link above to see photos by Mark McNulty which give a nice taste of the event, but sadly cannot substitute for being there. I was told that a CD of the music and poetry is available from News from Nowhere on Bold Street.

Next up…Picasso, Peace and Freedom at Tate Liverpool. Stay tuned…

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Liverpool Food and Drink Festival

We went last Sunday morning to its opening event in Sefton Park. Over 50 local restaurants and vendors had stalls and the array of cuisines offered was mouth-watering.

I have never seen so many people lined up on a Sunday morning to get into anything; we arrived right at 10.30 when it was meant to be opening and had to queue for at least 15 minutes to get in. We did get a free goody bag from Delifonseca, though they would have done better to distribute them after people had got inside the park and avoided the bottlenecking.

I only had time for a crepe (made by the Frenchwoman who teaches a conversation course at Cafe O7 on alternate Wednesdays) before having to go to work. I managed to get back after my shift ended (praise Sunday trading laws) and though many of the stands had closed/run out of food (it was nearly 5, when the event officially ended) I did get a delicious chorizo ciabatta from Delifonseca, and a Thai green veg curry from Chayophraya which was a wonderful medley of flavours. Husband’s pad thai was also tasty, and I plan on trying it again when we go to the branch in Liverpool One. The queue at the crepe stand was enormous by this time and I’m sure Aurelie was mad busy toute la journee.

Participating restaurants have had various offers throughout the week and the festival ends tomorrow with the Hope Street Feast which I plan on checking out. If they get the same crowds as last Sunday it will be heaving!

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wanderings in wavertree

Wavertree is the area of Liverpool that borders my neighbourhood on the north. It’s quite student-y and has rows of late 19th and 20th c. terraced houses typical of northern English cities. It still has a high street, but one that may have seen more lively days. There is still an independent bakery, Sandra Dee’s (no website), which I heard of through their appearance at a Slow Food Bread event this spring and at the Lark Lane farmer’s market of next-to-last post. I’ve enjoyed the bread I’ve had from them, it’s fresh, artisan, and pretty affordable. I tried to go again this morning, but it hadn’t opened by its stated 9am opening time. I might try again later on my way into town.

A fixture in the student-land on Smithdown Road was the White House coffee lounge, which has been taken over by new owners and relaunched as Oomoo, which I think may be a word coming from the Pacific Islands. I didn’t hear the owner say which one though. It’s got new wooden furniture and leather couches, with clean lines and brightly painted walls. There seems to be a new outdoor seating area as well. It’s got free wi-fi and friendly employees, two good reasons to visit. Quality coffee and a very tasty savoury muffin with basil and roasted red peppers are two further reasons. Sadly my blueberry muffin this morning, though large, wasn’t as fresh and on the dry side.

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sitting in brew

Sipping a lemon and ginger tea after polishing off a very nice scone with jam. In addition to an extensive tea, coffee and food menu, they have wifi which actually works, unlike another tea venue I visited last week.

Brew opened last year and is a ‘tea bar and lounge’ in the business district. Which means it’s fairly far from anywhere I get to on a regular basis. If only they’d open up on the other side of town.

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an extended weekend

On Saturday I attended the Lark Lane farmers market:

It was the first time I went and wasn’t sure how extensive it would be. There are stalls along the quarter of the lane nearest Aigburth Road. There was a reasonably good assortment of vendors: butchers, fruit and veg stalls, brewers, and one or two with handmade soaps and the like. What pleased me most were the stalls with baked goods. One appeared to be from Sale, near Manchester and the bread looked like it was commercially manufactured judging from the signage. There were quite a few flour treatment agents (E numbers and such), which I’m not sure about the necessity of. The other stall had a French bloke behind the table and a variety of French and continental breads. I chatted with him for a bit, and it turns out the bread was made in Aintree, north Liverpool. They supply a lot of restaurants around the city, as well as Liverpool Football Club :^). They do the farmers markets around south Liverpool as well, but they’re not wanting to open a retail bakery. I want to chat with him again and see if they ever take on apprentices or work experience.

The other nice discovery was an Italian stand with freshly-made pasta and a variety of sauces. The pesto wasn’t cheap, but I froze most of it, so at least it will last for awhile. I also got some roasted vegetable ravioli, which we had Sunday evening.

Sunday night I made Kona Inn Banana Bread. It’s in one of Marion Cunningham’s cookbooks that my mother often turned to during the holidays. I don’t usually put nuts in, so if I do want a bit of texture and crunch I’ll substitute Grape Nuts instead of the walnuts.

I was off today as well, so I went back to Lark Lane to check out some empty storefronts for rent. I couldn’t afford this one even if it was available, but it’s one of the amazing buildings on a street with such a lovely and quirky atmosphere.

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