February: Firsts, facts and fine things

I know. It’s almost a week into March but I promised in January to review each month’s gadding about and February has been every bit as jam-packed as January. So hold on tight and here we go…

There have been a few firsts this month. I’ve already posted about my first filling and my first visit to the British Library. I also attended my first Monash University Alumni event. It’s only taken 24 years and a move across the world to do this and I did turn up wondering what this Global Leaders Network was all about. I had a great evening hearing about the university’s plans for alumni engagement around the world and sharing expat stories with like-minded Australians. How nice it was to enjoy some straight-talking Aussie banter, the room humming with that laconic Aussie twang.

Speaking of university, I have a psychology degree from Monash so I’m really interested in the mindfulness conversation that’s happening at the moment. I saw Ruby Wax interviewed on Sunday Brunch and so went to see her show, Sane New World. Not only is she a comedian but is qualified in psychotherapy and has recently completed a Masters in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Oxford. Her show was a frank and funny look at our pace of life, mental illness and how our bodies – and in particular our hormones – are trying to cope. I really admire her philosophy in getting ‘off your a**e and doing the work’ – she’s set up free mental health walk-in sessions throughout the run of her shows with the aim of creating a network of walk-in centres across the UK.

February has also been a month for some of the finer things in life.

I attended a talk at the V&A Museum where Francesca Cartier Brickell, granddaughter of Jean-Jacques Cartier, took us on an enthralling journey through the Cartier family history introducing us to the three brothers – Louis, Pierre and Jacq – who started it all and their commitment to innovating whilst maintaining the essence of Cartier design. She also shared many personal anecdotes, one of these about finding the Cartier history in an old suitcase full of letters in her grandfather’s wine cellar. The many family moments she shared made this talk more intimate – less like a lecture and more like a lovely conversation albeit with more than a hundred of us in the room.

It also inspired me to visit The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery at the museum. We were herded briskly through this collection of stunning jewellery on the way to the auditorium and a couple of weeks later, I turned up early for a V&A book club evening to have a wander through. However, it transpired that the gallery was only open during the day so I killed the time I had by visiting the delightful stained glass gallery nearby and also enjoyed a meander through the just re-opened Europe galleries once book club was finished.

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The V&A Museum on a drizzly winter evening; killing time in stained glass

I also attended a book launch at the Institute of Directors. Peter Frankopan is director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford and over coffee and croissants he talked about his new book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. His contention is that we are taught about history through the lens of a very small number of countries and believes that we have a lot to learn through the stories of other cultures and regions, particularly Russia and Iran, the latter having been the wellspring for language and religion more than a thousand years ago. I left unsure as to what these regions could offer but it did make me realise how uneducated I am about these areas of the world. I’m now waiting for the paperback version of the book to come out (ever tried to read a hardback on the tube?) so that I can broaden my historic horizons.

And speaking of fine things, I also saw Ralph Fiennes in Henrik Ibsen‘s The Master Builder at The Old Vic. Being able to see actors that I’ve loved on screen performing on stage is one of the absolute joys of living in London and despite being in the vertiginous cheap seats, the power of the performance still remained. It’s the second Ibsen play I’ve seen – the first being A Doll’s House which I studied at high school – and there is something fascinating about the way he explores the roles of women and how they use their personal power in a male-dominated society.

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The view from the cheap seats at the fabulously refurbished Old Vic theatre in London

Personal power also underpinned the speaker themes at the opening session of the TED2016 conference which was live-streamed into cinemas on February 16th. Whether it was 10-year-old Ishita Katyal’s opening talk, the performance from musical phenomenon AR Rahman or Riccardo Sabatini‘s vision for personalised medicine (my favourite talk of the night), it was an inspiring and thought-provoking evening and all for the price of a cinema ticket.

February also had me moved by music. My annual pilgrimage to the Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells was a testosterone-fuelled performance by brothers Farraquito and Farruco which had me on my feet at its conclusion. Over at Kings Place, the Brodsky Quartet’s performance of George Gershwin’s little-known Lullaby for Strings was exquisite.

And with all of that going on, I found some time to imbibe in a well-deserved drink

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A couple of new watering holes near Holborn Station to add to my ‘let’s meet up’ list. L: The Princess Louise  R: The Ship Tavern

So that was February, filled to the brim with firsts, facts and fine things.

Phew!

Now for March…

The wall

Last September I ventured below London’s bustling surface to visit the site of a 4th century Roman bath and house. Back then the Museum of London were opening these archaeological sites as a trial to see if there as enough interest from the public in  getting up close and somewhat personal with London’s history.

There are now a whole raft of opportunities listed on the museum’s website so it would appear that the answer was yes.

Yesterday I spent an hour visiting another site from Roman London, the ruins of the fort lying underneath the busy city street of London Wall that runs outside the museum itself. I had seen this view from Bastion High Walk on previous museum visits…

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…but had never dreamed that there was any more to see. After spending an hour with Museum of London guide Mike, I was proved wrong.

Here’s what happened.

We started up on Bastion High Walk just near the museum entrance with an overview of the site. This is Mike…IMAG4093 (360x640)

…and here are a couple of pictures from our handout. The left-hand picture shows the fort at the top left within the wall surrounding the City of London. The right-hand picture is the layout of the fort itself – the area we explored is in the middle of the outside left wall.

We headed down the stairs and along the slip road to examine things more closely. I love how these old sites are tucked in between London’s more modern buildings. IMAG4096 (640x360)

Up close we could see more of the detail – the soot blackened walls, the wear on the steps from the boots of the soldiers.IMAG4097 (640x360)

Mike pointed out this line of Kentish ragstone running along the front. This is the oldest part of the structure dating from the 4th century AD.
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Can you see the two parts of the ragstone wall? The lighter-coloured part at the front would have been built first with the darker grey section added afterwards for additional fortification.

The rest of the site dates from about the 14th century when, in typical London fashion, new buildings were simply built over the top of what was already there, the previous city being abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century. I wonder what will be built on top of us?

We then headed through a non-descript door next to the London Wall car park to visit the fort remains that are kept under ‘lock and key’ by the museum. Here’s a model of what this site – the West Gate of the Roman fort – would have looked like in its ‘hey-day’.

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Mike explained that this gate was probably more administrative than military. Gates around the wall – Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Aldgate to name a few – aside from being defensive usually served as revenue-raisers, collecting taxes from those passing through. That this gate was un-named suggests it was less likely to support such functions.

Here are a couple of photos of the site discovered by William Grimes in 1956.

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North turret and guard room.

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The north gate

The area we visited covered only the left-hand section of model I showed previously – the guardroom and north turret, and the north gate – from the 14th century. Mike spent about 15 minutes helping us visualise the way the site would have looked, pointing out various details which archaeologists have used as the basis of their assumptions about life at the fort hundreds of years ago.

The official tour drew to a close after about 40 minutes but there was more to come. Mike mentioned that there was a piece of 4th century wall in the public car park next door that we could take a look at. I envisaged something quite small but after a brisk 10 minute walk, I was absolutely astonished to see this.

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The detail was extraordinary. You can see in the photo how the wall has been constructed for strength, stepping inwards with each row of levelling tiles (these tiles are the red lines you can see). You can also see the difference between the dressed stone on the outside and the rougher packed stone behind it.

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In London, archaeological sites are the responsibility of the land owner. Rather than being owned (and looked after) by the Museum of London, the car park is owned by the Corporation of London. It is a public space and so this historic site is at the mercy of exhaust fumes, human hands and unsympathetic modern additions.

I was really delighted to be able to see such an amazing piece of history up close (although at Mike’s request, we did not touch it – after all it is 1600 years old). But I felt irritated by its casual treatment.

A group of young skateboarders were gathered right next to it and several times I saw them lean on the wall, with some actually running into the wall itself. Granted they probably don’t understand the historical importance of this pile of stones or even if they do, appreciate it. When I think about my fascination with history, I realise that I’ve become more awestruck and humbled by it – in equal meaures – over the years. This is probably a result of my own ‘maturing’ in combination with moving to London from Australia (with its relatively shallow roots in European history) over a decade ago.

However, there was no excuse for the rubbish strewn around it by car park users and seeing the steel girder that had been inserted left me both sad and horrified.

To this end, I posted…okay, had a little rant on Instagram as I was reflecting over a post-tour coffee back at the museum. Paying for the tour itself (£5 is pretty amazing value given the expertise people like Mike provide), buying a book at the museum shop afterwards and even my new Friend membership feels like a tiny drop in an enormous ocean. Hopefully as I continue to explore what the museum offers, I will find more ways to support their work.

In the meantime, all I can think to do is to encourage you to visit these extraordinary sites – if not in London then wherever you are – to reflect on the history of humanity, how our society has evolved and perhaps consider how the story of our time might appear to the future generations.

Under foot

The Museum of London is my favourite museum. When I first arrived in London, I spent a too-short couple of hours sheltering there from the January cold before a meeting-over-a-drink on London Wall and over the years I have visited several times, not just for new events but also to revisit the permanent exhibition. It’s the patchwork of all of London’s faces through history that I find so endlessly fascinating.

Anyway, the Museum is trialling a series of Archaeology Archive events over the next few months, opening up sites for the public to visit and to learn more about what went on here well before we were a twinkle in anybody’s eye. So at 2.45 yesterday afternoon, I entered the nondescript door at 101 Lower Thames Street and followed our Museum of London guides, Joe and Nicola, down the short flight of stairs to the Roman House and Bath.

The house and bath is thought to be from the period leading up to 400AD – the story of the site came to life under Nicola’s passionate telling: the building and its abandonment – probably around the late 4th/early 5th century when Rome withdrew its support from Londinium – the unusual layout of the bath house and why it might have been built that way, and how archaeological evidence – or absence thereof – plays its part in refining the story. There still remains some debate as to whether this was a mansio – a ‘stopping point’ – or a family home but that in no way diminished the impact of what we saw.

The tour began with a look at the east wing, what was thought to be the furnace room and the remains of the hypercaust heating system beneath the floor.

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The east wing – you can see hypercaust tiles to the right. The furnace room is on the other side of the walkway and links through a series of channels under the floor to circulate warm air throughout.

We then spent some time looking at the bath. Comprised of a frigidarium cum change room in the centre, the tepidarium (warm room), caldarium (hot room) and plunge pool, Nicola’s narration took us back over 1600 years, introducing us to the family who may have lived here.

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You can see the layout of the bath here. The frigidarium was the flat area in front, to the right you can see the site of the caldarium (hot room) with its hypercaust tiles and the furnace that you can see just on the outside of the wall). The family would have walked through a small connecting room to the tepidarium (warm room) on the other side (left side of picture).

They may have trodden the tessellated floor of the frigidarium to change, walked through to the tepidarium to acclimatise to the heat, then visited the caldarium  for a short time before returning to the tepidarium to relax, chat and receive the cleansing ministrations of various experts (scraping the skin with a strigel was a common method of removing the dust and grime of London).

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Remains of the tessellated floor of the frigidarium

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The tepidarium – you can see the remaining floor level tiles sitting above the the hypercaust pillars

And let’s not forget an invigorating dip into the plunge pool before leaving the bath.

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The plunge pool was located at our backs as we looked over the frigidarium. It’s not huge – just enough for a dip in and out.

Just under an hour later, our small group headed back up the stairs and, after signing the visitors book, emerged onto the sunlit street. I still find it quite hard to believe that all of that fabulous history lies beneath an unassuming office block opposite the imposing Billingsgate Fish Market on a roadwork-strewn City street.

The Roman House and Bath is a Scheduled Monument which means that it is registered as one of Historic England’s 5627 important archaeological sites. It also means that it is a legal requirement of the owners/occupiers of the property to protect the site. The Museum of London plays a big part in this with teams of historians, archaeologists and conservators overseeing preservation efforts.

This trial – the opening of their Archaeological Archives – is an effort to raise public consciousness about London’s history and encourage visitation albeit, with a small fee, in the hope that there will be support and funding for a permanent programme.

If you are fascinated by history and/or London and have an hour one weekend to visit the Roman House and Bath – or any of the other openings in this year’s trial – please do it. Being able to stand beneath the street, to see this and listen to the expertise and passion of people like Nicola and Joe from the Museum of London is an absolute privilege.

It would be a shame if the doors were closed again and the conservators were left to appreciate London’s past alone.

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For more information about this special programme, visit; http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/whats-on/adult-events/archaeology-events/

Men of imagination

I’ve had an extra couple of days off to extend my Easter into a 6-day break and it’s been a lovely mix of lolling about at home and getting out and about to explore more of this amazing city.  As some of you know, the Museum of London is a favourite of mine but this time I went to wander through the Sherlock Holmes exhibition (which finishes on the 12th of April – how did I nearly miss this?)

icons of Holmes

Detective Sherlock Holmes featured in the 4 novels and the 56 short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle trained as a physician in Edinburgh in the late 1800s and also started writing during this period. He had limited success until the publication of Holmes’ first outing in A Study in Scarlet in 1886 with the sequel, A Sign of Four, published in 1890 while Conan Doyle was studying opthalmology in Vienna. He then wrote The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, each comprised of 12 short stories and elevating Conan Doyle to being one of the best-paid authors of the time.

But Conan Doyle was unhappy with the time ‘taken away’ from more serious writing pursuits and in 1893 wrote The Final Problem, plunging Holmes and Professor Moriarty to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls. But Holmes had taken such a firm hold in people’s minds that in response to public outcry, Conan Doyle resurrected his popular protagonist in 1901’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and continued to scribe his consulting detective’s adventures until 1927.

It is worth remembering that Holmes is a man of imagination – the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle created a quirky, impatient and sometimes unlikable character who loved the gossip columns and yet was in equal parts enthusiastic and dismissive of society and its pretensions; who could wax lyrical on criminal method and motivation yet exhibited such anti-social behaviour that at times, you might question how Holmes could have any insight into people at all. I wonder whether there was something in Conan Doyle’s interest in freemasonry and mysticism that brought an extra potency to his complex and quite frankly addictive protagonist.

Anyway, I love these stories and although I have not read them all, I have seen many of the TV adaptations starring the marvelous Jeremy Brett. So it was with Brett’s brooding portrayal in mind that I entered through the bookcase and spent just over 90 minutes wandering though both memories and memorabilia.

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It was fabulous and I am now reading The Adventures of  Sherlock Holmes again.

Then yesterday I went to visit Churchill’s War Rooms. I’ve been meaning to do this for years and so I battled the Easter holiday hordes trundling along Whitehall and descended the steps beneath King Charles Street to the museum below. This underground labyrinth contains both the original War Rooms – left as if someone simply turned the lights off in 1945 and closed the door behind them, leaving everything just as it was – and the Churchill Museum, which covers this charismatic man’s entire life.

Like Holmes, Winston Churchill was a strong and opinionated character who fell in and out of the affections of his public. He was a committed politician and stood for office several times in his constituency and for the office of Prime Minister. He also wrote from the age of 21 to supplement his income and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

I feel devoutly thankful to have been born fond of writing. Churchill, Authors’ Club, London, 17 Feb. 1908

Had World War II not broken out Churchill may have been written off as a failure. Despite early popularity as a war correspondent and his escape from capture during the Boer War, he lost his position as First Lord of the Admiralty following the Gallipoli campaign and his opposition to home rule in India and support of the abdication of Edward VIII throughout the 1930s did nothing to restore his reputation. It was during this period that Churchill raised his concerns regarding the activities of Hitler and continued to warn against the dangers of appeasing such a man. His warnings went unheeded not only because of Churchill’s reputation as a war-monger but also due to Britain’s aversion to embarking on another ‘bloody’ war.

But circumstances conspired to create the right place and time and Churchill captured the public’s imagination by demonstrating his great passion for his country in his speeches – the words he wrote and then delivered into history:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, Churchill to the House of Commons, 4 Jun. 1940

There were many other speeches which stirred the nation and in fact the world, and Churchill went on to lead his country both during and for some periods after the war and to continue writing the pages of history until his death in 1955.

I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.  Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, 27th Nov. 1914

That two such iconic British characters can cross the divide between fact and fiction is quite extraordinary to me. While we will never know Sherlock Holmes (because he’s not actually a real person), the visit to the War Rooms made me wonder how much of the real man – Churchill – is about the ‘facts of the matter’ versus being inspired by the imagination.

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How do we ever know where the facts end and fiction begins?

Old places, new faces

I spent a couple of weeks in Melbourne with family over the Christmas/New Year period and one of the things that I love to do (and miss) is hang out with my sister. There are the things we girls traditionally do – shopping, manipedis and generally hanging out over coffee (and I was reminded once again that Melbourne has the best coffee in the world) – and then there are the moments of ‘inspiration’ subject to how we are feeling at the time.

We were off to partake in a musical favourite of mine, Grease. I know every word and every song (having played Frenchie in our high school production) so I was looking forward to an afternoon of energetic A-Wop-Boppa-Looma-A-Wop-Bam-Boom-ing. And it was on the way to the theatre that I stumbled across a distinctly different face of Melbourne.

Hosier Lane is a cut through between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane alongside the Forum Theatre. It is an unexpected riot of vibrant colour and expression in the midst of the area’s architectural melting pot of gothic (St Paul’s Cathedral), Moorish Revival (Forum theatre), French Renaissance (Flinders Street Station) and contemporary (Federation Square) styles. I could not stop myself from whipping out my phone in an attempt – let’s face it, these things are never as good ‘on film’ – to capture its brilliance.

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We made our way along the alley, the air littered with ‘ooohs’, ‘aaahs’ and the subtle snap of selfies. My head swivelled touristically from side to side to admire each urban canvas and as I meandered along the cobbles with the other Sunday strollers, what struck me most was the how vividly the character of each of Hosier’s painted residents had been brought to life.

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Are any of you old enough to remember this young lady from The Wacky Races

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…or youthful enough to know this ‘lovable’ pair from Monsters Inc.?

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I have been told that shoes hanging from a light indicates where one can score a fix…or is this just an urban myth?

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I would not like to meet this dude in a darkened alley, alone or otherwise…

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…although the location nearby of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, could be considered fortuitous.

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And last but certainly not least, a look skyward evoked the spirit of Australia’s indigenous past.

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Street art continues its emergence as the next ‘big thing’ and a quick google on the way home from the theatre yielded both a list of sites to visit and the hows and wherefores of getting your particular expression of self into Melbourne’s urban spaces.

Unfortunately, we did not get to any of the others during my sojourn Down Under but it has inspired me to look for even more of this in London having browsed Brixton’s backstreets last year. And it would appear – according to a range of stuff-to-do sources that drop into my Inbox on a fairly regular basis – that East London is the current jewel in this city’s urban art crown.

So stay tuned…Shoreditch, here I come!