Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Roused from my reverie by storming Bastille rhythms

Bastille sang at the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition
Bastille sang at the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition

Gallivanting in London last week, I managed to blag my way into the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum on the day before the official opening. Fewer than 50 people there. All the time and space I needed to wander at will.

But first, the Museum's Ice Age Art exhibition which is what I'd come to see, drawing, carvings, ceramic figurines, stone shapes you could only scratch your head at, representations of deer and horses, bison, mammoths, fish, birds, women. Almost all humans here are women, many of them pregnant, prompting the thought that perhaps they were mainly made by women. But it's only a thought and the perhaps is important.

And yet there are pieces which, were you told they had been made in the last century, might elicit the response – Ah, Cubism!

We cannot know. That's what makes a contemplative morning spent here such an uncluttered artistic experience, that we can apprehend what's on show scarcely at all through the intellect, almost entirely through imagination, even as we stand, shuffling for a better view of them there in their well-lit glass cases.

They were made between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, in the millennia after man had moved into Europe from the origins of us all in Africa. There's a man with a lion's head, carved from the ivory tusk of a mammoth. We are told it took a modern craftsman 400 hours to produce a replica, 10 40-hour weeks of finely-focused labour and intense concentration. It must have meant something terrifically important. These must have been people with minds that could range far beyond the physical world around them.

There is a quote from John Berger as you enter: "Art is like a foal that can walk straight away". That is, its spark may need tending to blossom into flame, but to exist and find expression needs human consciousness only.

There's even a miniature flute made from the wing-bone of vulture. They had music, too.

I infiltrated the Pompeii exhibition by presenting myself as the arts correspondent of the most important newspaper in Northern Ireland. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.

Did you know that beneath the ground of Pompeii before the eruption that buried the city in AD 79 there was an arrangement of pipes and pumps and stop-cocks – that 1,900 years ago Pompeii had pressurised running water supplying the homes of the well-to-do? I didn't.

And there are portraits and classical statuary, some so unrestrainedly full of voluptuous life they would risk being ripped from a gallery wall today, dazzlingly patterned mosaics fashioned from tens of thousands of the tiniest fragments of coloured stone, furniture, utensils and cutlery which might have been crafted for modish country kitchens today except that each was a work of art, human and animal forms grotesquely frozen and preserved within igneous cavities formed as engulfing Vesuvius smothered the city in fire and molten stone.

I was roused from my reverie by rhythmic clapping and a young man's voice in perfect harmony with our surrounding.

In an alcove walled by Pompeii paintings, four young fellows were beating out complex rhythms in claps and slaps on thighs, one of tousled aspect and aching timbre singing in a voice filled with sweetness and sorrow of a city buried, to a dozen or so people semi-circled around him. "We were caught up and lost in all of our vices/In your pose as the dust settles around us/And the walls kept tumbling down/In the city that we love/Great clouds roll over the hills/Bringing darkness from above/But if you close your eyes,/Does it almost feel like/Nothing changed at all?"

When they'd finished, I stepped forward and shook each by the hand, thanking them for the unanticipated pleasure. I assured them, "You'll be singing to far bigger crowds very soon." The singer mumbled thanks. I told him, "No, no, I mean it ... "

Next morning as the plane took off, I opened the Evening Standard and was slapped across the face by a picture of my four new young friends under a headline, "Bastille wow British Museum ... "

They were a band. Indeed, "the most happening band in Britain," with a number one album and a spreading fan base incorporating the serious-minded teeny-bop tendency and light-headed elements of a more venerable generation. It seems somebody at the museum had sussed that the song might have been written with Pompeii in mind and that having the band sing it in situ would be ace as an advertising stratagem.

Bastille play Dublin tonight, the Mandela Hall on Saturday, but you can't get a ticket for love nor money.

Check out their museum performance on YouTube. Listen and you'll play it again right off. Beautiful, brilliant, moving and memorable, it will take you to a place of redemption.

Next week I discover Elvis.

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