Witnessing London’s bewildering and unstoppable transformation into a steel-and-glass Mecca of modernity, it’s no wonder more and more of us are looking for something older and more substantial.
Places where history can be felt and seen, places where you can feel the ages of London in the architecture, but where you can still relax and enjoy yourself.
The House of St. Barnabas of Soho Square is just such a rarity. A genuine treasure of London’s past, fully refurbished and hosting some of the most topical, relevant and engaging talks in the capital in the shape of chatty culture curates Bug, whose ’37 Things You Need to Know About Modern Britain’ series will be running throughout this summer.
The House itself was first built in 1679, receiving a well-preserved Georgian renovation in 1746, and is an absolute treat to explore. It’s now a private members club, but with an important difference: the House of St. Barnabas is a charity, donating all profits to the homeless. There’s a beautiful circularity in the idea that one of London’s finest houses uses its splendour to help those who lack shelter of any kind.
Inside, there’s a moody, atmospheric bar beside an ancient-looking stone fireplace. Attention to detail is breathtaking: the blend of colours, the artful mismatching of paintings, the wonder of the architecture itself, all of it gives you a sense of occasion, of lives spaciously lived. There’s an undeniable decadence about the place – hell, a bottle of Heineken is £5 – but the fact that all the patrons are contributing so handsomely to an important cause soothes lingering quasi-socialist guilt. The sixth-former in me is temporarily appeased.
Bug’s lecture is hosted within the chapel, and the hubbub of the bar gives way to the solemnity of the church in the time it takes to traverse a corridor. We sit on tight, ascetic wooden pews, and stare up to the pulpit, where Miranda Sawyer and Ekow Eshun – both, among other things, journalists and broadcasters – are holding forth about celebrity culture. The title of tonight’s talk is Why We Need Our Celebrities to be Mad.
Ekow’s talk focuses solely, almost obsessively, on Kanye West. Miranda, meanwhile, meanders through a whole host of popular princesses of pop, from Gracie Jones to Lady Gaga, tying the talk together with anecdotes relating to bizarre interview incidents and indiscretions that she’s collected over the course of her career as a music journalist.
Both Ekow and Miranda are very forgiving of the flaws we’re so quick to identify in our celebrities. Ekow argues that Kanye’s perceived arrogance is in fact a natural and understandable reaction to a society whereby being black has all too often meant knowing your place. Miranda celebrates the over-the-top spontaneity that she encounters in the famous and revered, situating these ‘mad’ celebs as an antidote to a stiff mainstream culture which sterilizes all that it touches.
Uncomfortably, every celebrity described is casually referred to as ‘mad’, seldom negatively but always with a vague distance, as if it were some unknowable attribute inaccessible to us normals. I can’t help but wonder throughout the duration of the talk as to why no definition of this madness has been attempted here. We need our celebrities to be mad, Miranda and Ekow say, but perhaps it’s us who are making them mad. Ekow’s right in that Kanye is not that different from the rest of us. But when he does behave in grotesque ways, you can be sure that obscene wealth and incessant media attention have fed and strengthened these egotistical tendencies. Our obsessive gaze is the catalyst that leads to the monstrous devolution of the ego, a regression from adult to child. For my mind, there was too great an eagerness to defend these ‘mad’ people and their behaviour, because we the public need them to be mad after all. Perhaps if ‘we’ need a cabal of characters to be distorted and demonized to the brink of insanity for our light entertainment, it’s time to hold a detailed and sustained inquest into our national culture. Which, I suppose, is what a series like this is all about.
I leave with a sense of hunger, of unease, knowing that we had barely scratched the surface. Miranda’s anecdotes raised a smile, and Ekow’s compassion and readiness to see the good in his hero was heartening, but so much fascinating ground was left untrodden. A question-and-answer session at the end of the talk allows us, at least, to make encouraging forays into these thoughts, and the audience raises questions that clearly interest the speakers, and there’s a sense that this would have continued for a long time had the chapel not closed at nine o’clock.
Bug’s talks give you a helping of debate and discussion. Don’t expect to come away knowing the answers, but a thorough ruffling of your conventional wisdom is a certainty. And, of course, witnessing the stunning and vivid interior of London’s beautiful House of St Barnabas is not to be missed.
words Chris Zacharia