Friday, 31 October 2014

The Tower of London (part 1)

Wednesday 29 October 2014

We wanted to visit the Tower while the poppies were in their glory in the moat, though there are schools of thought which suggest that a rainy half-term day was not the perfect choice.  But we went, and enjoyed it a great deal.  We shall go back as we did not have time or energy for the Bloody Tower and the White Tower, and it is not possible to see the Chapel Royal before 4.30 unless you are with a guided tour.  This means that there will be more than one post about the Tower.  Linda will tell you about the outside spaces, and the art works which embellish them; and we shall return.

The place was very busy but we were there before 10.00 and, on my instigation, made a dash for the crown jewels first, and so there was almost no queue.  When we emerged, the queues were of Alton Towers/Disneyland proportions, snaking for miles.  The jewels are very well displayed, we thought, with plenty of introductory information, film and photographs of coronations, and swords and maces in display cases to keep the crowds occupied till we got to the room.  Then, a moving pavement takes you gently past the actual crowns, sceptres and orbs.  There is no limit to how often you can go back and slide past them again, so we felt we had had a good look.  Our only quibble was that they talked about the 17th century republicans destroying lots of the jewels (almost everything on display here is from 1661 or later) whereas we thought that Charles I had actually pawned quite a lot to raise money for his armies.  The advantage of having an empire full or territory that produced precious stones was abundantly clear!

Next we made our way to what remains of the medieval Palace, with multi media explanations of Henry III and Edward I who did quite a lot of extension building.  The Historic Royal Palaces have done some set dressing here, of the kind that English Heritage does, so the King's bedchamber was furnished with some rather nice wallpaper and a bedside mat, which we thought enhanced the experience.  The tiny turret chapel has been retiled, and it was great to see how luminous such floors must have looked when they were new.

The throne room, which is in the Wakefield Tower, is a handsome, octagonal room, again modestly furnished (ie there is a throne...) with information about the various Plantagenet kings.

We had originally agreed that we would walk the walls (wall walking being a pastime to which we are both much addicted) when the drizzle stopped;  but in fact the route thorough the medieval palace takes you to a bit of wall-walk, which leads to another tower with interesting things in it, and so on until you have walked all the wall there is.  

So we next came to the Salt Tower, where prisoners were once kept, and where some interesting graffiti have been preserved behind perspex, with explanations.  More wall walk brought us to the Broad Arrow Tower, which was dressed as the Guard Room, with the obligatory metal hats to try on, and instructions about being on duty to preserve the Tower, the King, the Kingdom and, no doubt, civilisation as they knew it then. Sounds of battle followed us along the wall to the Constable Tower, which has a model of the tower as it was, with key areas to defend, and lists of the weapons needed by each grade of soldier.

We felt able to skip the Martin Tower, because it houses a history of English Crowns and pictures of all of that we had, of course, seen earlier in all their sparkle.  

The next tower delayed us for some time, as it contained fascinating information and pictures of the Royal Beasts:  the menagerie which was here between 1210 and 1832, when the creatures were moved to the care of ZSL at London Zoo (a mere 6 years after the zoo had been founded, so they must have been pleased to get a few extra animals)

The public were allowed in to see the animals, and the accounts around the walls indicate a serious shortfall in health and safety monitoring: during the eighteenth century a young girl lost her arm (and subsequently died) because a lion objected to her stroking its paw.  The various monkeys were loose, and damage was frequently done to ladies' hats.  It's hard to imagine how extraordinary these animals must have appeared to a public with no visual media.  It was the Duke of Wellington who insisted that the menagerie should be closed.  He was in any case, hostile to the admission of the public into what was meant to be a fortress.

It is fitting that the next display you come to is about the Iron Duke himself, since he was Constable of the Tower for a long time as well as being Prime Minister and war leader against Napoleon and so on.(Incidentally, next year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, so expect much commemorating of that!)  The exhibition about Wellington's life  is illustrated with slides of stages in his career, with a particular focus on his time at the Tower.  He began to employ veterans to guard the Tower, ending the tradition of purchase for these rather cushy positions.  He also had the moat drained during the cholera epidemic of 1843, which was far sighted of him, not least because the link with contaminated water had not yet been established by Dr John Snow.

After a few more metres of the wall walk, we came to the exhibition about the Tower in the  First World War.  It was a centre for recruiting and training, and there were some very interesting archive photographs, enhanced by having a modern civilian (or soldier, or Scout, or Nurse), in colour, added to show where the picture was taken. 

The only annoying thing about this very interesting little exhibition was that  the film of the Artists Rifles in training had been recorded with the projector running too fast.  I do wish people would take the trouble to get things right.  Soldiers of the Great War did not jerk about in a slightly risible way.

Also in this room was a film about the making of the ceramic poppies for the moat.  The artist, Paul Cummins, talked about the people who were working on the project and how long it had taken. 

Finally, we made our way across to the scaffold site, where the modern sculpture which marks where people were executed was hidden by tarpaulins as it was undergoing maintenance, and to the Beauchamp Tower.

This is another area where prisoners were kept, especially those who were not of the 'right' branch of Christianity:  quite a difficult balancing act, after all, with monarchs changing the particular fine tuning much as modern governments fiddle with the school curriculum.  On the other hand, in 1570, the Pope excommunicated the Queen of England, a sort of fatwah inciting Catholics to assassinate her, so imprisonment was not unreasonable.  Some of the inmates were incarcerated for so long that they clearly had plenty of time to carve their feelings and family information into the walls.

If the weather had been better, we should have eaten our sandwiches and gone on to look at more;  but the persistent drizzle and chill made that unattractive and all the Tower's indoor eateries were - of course - heaving with half-termers.  So we agreed to come back another time, and left.  

What did we not see?  Well, we chose to avoid the 'Torture in the Tower' bit, with its straggling queue, and shall return, as I said at the top, for two towers and the chapel.

And the poppies?  we thought they were very moving and beautiful, disagreeing with the art critic of the Guardian who said they were prettified and mawkish.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Alexander Fleming Museum

St Mary's Hospital
Praed Street
W2 1NY
Wednesday October  22 2014

This was a solo expedition by Linda while Mary and Jo were doing half-term activities of a more boisterous nature.  It was also partly to honour those ‘back-room ‘ scientists who still work with Petrie dishes and test tubes filled with dangerous substances – yes I’m talking about you the 16 micro-biologists headed for a testing month  in Sierra Leone.

This is also a story of mould, so unwelcome when it appears unwanted on walls and carpets but clearly something with occasional uses.

I strode out of the Bakerloo line exit from Paddington and took a back route to St Mary’s hospital (as signposted) which was NOT the way to go; I filtered my way through out-patients and asked at the hospital refreshment counter (no Costa Coffee here) where the Museum was: what Museum? they asked. Threading my way between the buildings I finally located the Clarence Wing – actually fronting busy Praed Street which was more or less where I had started   On entering it was like stepping into a set from ‘Call the Midwife’ so old-fashioned does it look. I followed the signs round several corridors and up a flight of tiled stone stairs to the Reception/Shop for the Museum. The actual room is kept locked and can only be visited with one of the volunteer escorts who tell you about Fleming’s life and work and the importance of the discovery of penicillin.  

Fleming was born in a farming community in rural Ayrshire and had a very basic education – but he perhaps developed his powers of observation   during these early years. Bored with being a shipping clerk in London he applied to be a surgeon but was turned down.  However, following receiving a small legacy he re-applied and became a medical student at St Mary’s excelling at all his exams. After graduation he joined the department of Bacteriology, headed up by Almroth WrightThe latter was one of those caricature flamboyant physicians (immortalised in Shaw’s Doctor’s Dilemma) who believed passionately in research, especially into typhoid, but not in keeping statistics. He also could not abhor women at work, especially in medicine!!!  His work was in immunisation and this is the department that Fleming joined working on Lysozyme, one of our inbuilt defences against BACTERIA.  From there you probably know the  rest ... that he left his petrie dishes open and went away and returned to find mould had formed on one of them but the microbes/germs/bacteria close to the mould had vanished .

The volunteer will take you up to the second floor where you will see a small workbench with adequate stool seating for two. It has all the paraphernalia you would expect from a 1928 laboratory – racks of test tubes, piles of Petrie dishes, two bunsen burners, an incubator and pipettes. There are three  pretty dirty windows out onto Praed Street. In a side cabinet there are various awards that Fleming received in his life-time and a Scottish £5 note which he adorns. The original Petrie dish apparently is preserved in the British Library. Fleming went on to publish his findings – that the mould penicillin seemed to kill Bacteria – in 1929 and he continued to practise at St Mary’s.  (My mother swears that when she visited another woman from her hostel admitted  to the hospital during the war Dr Fleming was on the wards… who knows.) The problem then was how to manufacture ‘enough' mould to be able to use it to combat sepsis, which was of course the main killer of the times.

Ten years or so later the work continued in Oxford where two overseas researchers Howard Florey (from New Zealand) and Ernst Chain (from Germany) worked on the manufacture and further application of penicillin. The start of the war added impetus (and money) to the research project with the thinking being that wounded service personnel could be saved and turned round to fight again – by D-Day there was enough penicillin for every combatant.

There is no photography allowed in the laboratory but you will be escorted up a further level to a smaller back room where there is a short film sponsored and produced by one of the major pharmaceutical companies, who in a former incarnation doubtless made money after contributing to the development of a manufactured strain. The website leaflet very much turns the spotlight on Fleming but to be fair the film, with some good archive footage, gives due credit to a range of other chemists, biologists and doctors who all helped to pioneer the safe use of one of the 20th century ‘s undoubted life savers. At one point they were 'harvesting' second hand penicillin from soldiers prescribed it (don't ask). Public recognition came in the shape  of a Nobel prize for all three men. 

The film (20 years old) pre-dates the  research showing us that over- use and over prescription  or failing to finish  a course of treatment  has led the bacteria to evolve greater resistance than they showed in 1928…so the story is not entirely finished.

A short but intense museum experience. 

PS Relying on scientists to correct any factual errors that may have crept in.... please.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Garden Museum

5 Lambeth Road
London SE1 7LB
Monday October 13th 2014

On a day when we had more rain than during the whole of September Jo bravely arrived by bicycle and was thrilled to find that the Garden Museum encourages you to padlock your bike to metal planters decorated with a bike symbol. Linda, for nostalgia’s sake, took a rather tortuous route on the Number 3 from Crystal Palace which spent the early part of the trip hemmed in by all the delivery vans and dumper trucks that are now a regular part of commuting as the property boom is followed by a ‘house improvement ‘ boom which sees lorryloads of bricks and dumper trucks clogging the bus routes.  As there had been a hitch with the sound quality of recordings made at the Cinema Museum  we were joined again by Jo McDermott from the BBC Website team.

The Garden Museum, previously known as the Museum of Garden History is housed in the former church of St. Mary’s Lambeth,  within spitting distance of Lambeth Palace, which is of course the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury  

We had coffee with one of the Garden Museum’s volunteers who admitted herself to be better informed on the local history rather than the horticultural side. The current building is probably the third church to be built on this site; the original was founded by the sister of Edward the Confessor, as evidenced in the Domesday Book. Through Tudor times, and probably in a newer building, the church was of some importance as Lambeth was an area housing some significant people whose names still resonate with us, providing worshippers such as Ann Boleyn and Catherine Howard (not the luckiest of course). Though many of the country’s Archbishops are buried close to the palace some seem to have found their way into St.  Mary’s churchyard alongside such other worthies as  Bligh Admiral Bligh  and the plant hunters and gardeners, locally based and buried,  the Tradescants.

The church was rebuilt in Victorian times and  came through the Blitz mainly unscathed though losing its windows, and then continued as a place of worship until the 1970s – declining congregations eventually led to an abandoned church which was taken over by squatters and the like. Lambeth council was keen to use the space as a car park but some of the local community felt differently. The couple most committed to keeping the church and churchyard had connections with a lady in waiting and word got through to the Queen Mother who visited ‘incognito’ and thought the building and churchyard should be saved, doubtless supported in this by her grandson.  The Museum opened in the 1980s and has largely relied on contributions for its continued existence. While the frame of the church is clearly visible there have been additions to the interior to allow for display and education spaces, the ubiquitous cafĂ© and shop and access to the upper floor.

The current exhibition, like so many we have visited this year, focusses on gardens and War, specifically the First World conflict. Yes eventually the parks and public gardens were turned into allotments to produce food as shortages became apparent (German U-boats had a role in this) but also there was gardening at the ‘Front’, even in the trenches themselves. Many of the original photos are courtesy of the Imperial war Museum and can be more easily seen on their website than in our inadequate attempts to photograph them. Here for example is image number Q 6131 – ‘Soldier of the Gordon Highlanders (51st Division) tending his trench garden. Heninel, 23 October 1917.’ – downloaded from the Imperial War Museum website under (we hope) the terms of their non-commercial licence.

One of the more sinister links between gardens and war is that of the role of fertiliser. My chemistry knowledge is non-existent but as far as I understand it, and this still holds true today, bags of fertiliser with sodium nitrate may do your garden a power of good but equally can be used for more destructive purposes.  The Germans, namely Messers Haber & Bosch, evolved a method of producing the key elements (see what I did there) in an industrial process and then you had not only the basis of explosives but also chemical warfare in the way of gases.

On a more pleasant note much of the exhibition is devoted to the therapeutic effect of gardening on convalescing combatants; Talbot House, named for a dead brother, was set up back from the front 
in Belgium and proved to be a place of R&R, later the model for a range of TOC H facilities.  The garden and what it offered was considered one of the most important aspects of the experience.

Similarly productive though in a different way was the experience of UK internees at the Ruhleben Camp close to Berlin. Berlin lies in a very sandy and largely hard to farm area of the country. Initially the internees were encouraged, as food shortages became evident, to farm for produce and so successful did they become (writing home to the RHS for advice and seeds) not just at food production but they branched out into flower gardening and formed their own horticultural club  with all the side benefits of routine/working together/ seeing results that such efforts are rewarded with. This unique experience is very moving. 

Interestingly, what we think of as a very 20/21st century (post Diana) phenomenon of leaving flowers outside the home of the deceased is very much in evidence and come to think about it probably predates photography – sometimes we think because there isn’t a photo of it, it never happened. But of course visual evidence make better museum displays than written archives….

As a postscript to the WW1 exhibition – which is most beautifully decorated with individual dried meadow flowers, many of them poppies, hanging from the ceiling – there are some stunning colour photos (there I go) of gardening in modern conflicts  including Afghanistan, Gaza and Donetsk.

The upper floors hold what we took to be the ‘permanent displays’ which can roughly be broken down into
Tools: Some strange beasts (a cucumber straightener for example) here but others barely changed through the ages.

Lawn Mowers : The less said the better as mowing the lawn is always a chore and never a pleasure
Gnomes: Small display of these which means at least the whole experience was not as ‘po-faced’ as it could have been. It is thought gnomes may hark back to the Greek god Priapus.
Seeds and catalogues: Little change here either – earlier versions had botanical drawings rather than photos of what your seeds might produce.  There seemed to be an arcane breed called  'the Student Parsnip'  – difficulty getting up? Bit scruffy? Takes long holidays?You can still get them evidently.

I had never heard of Yates' Seeds with their pretty packaging but gather they are an Aussie firm now… 
There are plans for further displays most notably to commemorate the Tradescant Family and their contribution to horticulture, of which there was further evidence in the garden or more properly the graveyard. The Museum has created a knot garden around the remaining tombs of both Bligh and the Tradescant Family but today was no day to linger.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Review of ‘FREEDOM PASS LONDON – Make the most of your travel pass 25 SPECIAL DAYS OUT

Mike Pentelow and Peter Arkell
(£12.99 or with 40% reduction quoting LWB)

There is of course an ethical dilemma in reviewing a book to which you have made a contribution, but as I wrote a mere 530 words of a 244-page guide book I do not feel too guilty.

Bradt seem keen to target the older demographic, in this particular case the London Freedom Pass user, while previous companion volumes have looked at scenic and memorable bus journeys round the UK. However there would be nothing to stop a London based Oyster card user following any of the listed 25 walks, as they can all be easily completed in a few hours and at little cost depending on your beer consumption.

There is one caveat to this – the author and his photographer friend are clearly great ‘real ale’ connoisseurs and therefore each walk is liberally sprinkled with specific brewery  recommendations – of course if the book runs to a second edition they will have to visit every hostelry again to make sure the same beers are on offer. Beer is not my particular thing so you have been warned. Interestingly the ‘Famous Women’ Feisty Females (Walk 24) walk is actually a pub crawl as much as anything – you  need to hop on a bus or two between stops. I shall need to ask my nephew’s opinion as he enjoys and knows his beer.

Refreshments apart the walks are reasonably well distributed round inner London and the green Belt and range in length from 1½ to 9 miles, the latter being the good old Fleet.  The authors do acknowledge previous walk compendia and any seasoned walker will recognise some of the contributions relying as they do on branching out from the Capital Ring, Thames Path and London Loop.

However it is fair to say that Mike Pentelow and his photographer friend give a fine spin to some of the sights and sites en route – they do have a light touch and this comes as a welcome surprise after some of the more po-faced contributions to the earlier bus volumes; also because they have authored the whole book there is a greater consistency in style and approach. To say these walkers wear their political hearts on their sleeves is an understatement – there is one whole walk dedicated to Karl Marx and the Communist Party and their political leanings are fairly transparent throughout – not that we mind as the LWB have not been fans of many recent political parties and what they have ‘achieved’ (hah) round London. William Morris gets a big ‘shout-out’ along the Wandle (Walk13) as do Ramsay McDonald and Friedrich Engels on their version of the Fleet walk (Walk 6).  I admire the author’s skill in giving us potted biographies or nuggets of history at the different stopping points as I know this can be difficult to do without becoming too teacherly in your text. 

The real test of a walk book however is how clear is it to follow?  Will you stand at the crossroads non-plussed or stride ahead confident that you won’t be retracing your steps any moment soon when the paths gives out? A bonus for this book is the little ‘Hands Up’ sign meaning – you can bale out here with all the relevant transport links given – and they are not sparing with these. Also they advise having back-up maps either A-Z or Ordnance Survey.

The little maps are nicely illustrated, though as ever digital black and white always looks a little disappointing and the colour pictures suffer a little from appearing as compilations, which detracts from their innate quality.  

The book has a slightly ‘blokey’ feel to it (own up chaps) though I suppose most pubs do coffee nowadays…However this book makes an excellent introduction to walking for pleasure – if you are a London-based seasoned walker much of this will already be familiar but they have managed to find new angles, certainly new watering holes and it offers a good all round use for London’s Freedom Pass users. 


Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Wellcome Collection

Thursday 9 October 2014

183 Euston Road NW1 2BE

Today Linda and I visited the Wellcome Collection, to see their current exhibition, which is an A-Z of the human condition.

By the end of our time there, we realised that we should have begun by reading the introductory signage, and then we should have known that the best way to experience this exhibition was by a regular 26 zig zags across the gallery. Instead we began with 'A' on the near wall and worked our way round to 'Z'. These were very populist exhibits, starting by putting a dot on the map to show where you come from.  

From then on, each letter, whatever its name, involved participation: H was for Heredity, but involved measuring your own height. The wall showed London's average height rather well!  A was for Acts of Faith, and asked for any miraculous escapes, several illustrated by the artist in residence. Several of the others required the taking a selfie and so on, with more Twitter addresses to send things to than you can imagine. When it came to P for Philosophy, we were invited to take a fortune cookie, and open it later. In a couple of places, there were straw polls, with two ballot boxes to pop your tiddlywink vote into:  rather annoying, because if you are asked 'should there be forcible quarantine (yes, Q) during pandemics?' you want to say, 'well, how enforced? who by?' rather than just voting. S was for Skin Art, with an invitation to post your tattoo, and V was a chance to record your Voice.
When we got to Zoonoses, and a couple of board games about the spread of disease, everything became clear, because the 'return wall' if you follow me, was a display of items from the historic collection on the same themes.  So H (heredity, remember) was the first complete print out of the human genome, all100+ volumes of 1000 pages each and 3.4 billion units of DNA.

For S there was some Maori Skin Art, and for M, which was Music, some amazing Tibetan music, which looked like the outlines of clouds, and presumably told the performers what sequence of sounds they should make.

The most upsetting item, for me at least, was in the case for K, Keeping Up Appearances. which included the tiny shoes worm by Chinese women who had had their feet bound to produce 'lily feet'. The hinged metal corset in the same case reminded us that all cultures produce men with peculiar ideas about what makes a woman desirable

When we got to Chemical Life Support, we had a video of the C Section birth of Louise Brown, the first ever IVF baby.

And for Acts of Faith, there were Etruscan votive offerings of the kind that we remember seeing in Spanish churches half a century ago, when people gave their crutches or a model of the part of the body which had been cured, to the Saint who had performed the miracle.  A more moving act of faith was the German memorial to a dead child: the metal penetrated the earth of the grave, to connect the coffin to the world left behind and those who grieved.

So as you see, if we had crossed the room between the old and the new for each letter, we should have made more sense of the point of this exhibition, and put the modern fixation with 'what do you think' into a more historical and scientific context.

Their next event is to be about Human Sexuality and, yes, you are invited to contribute your thoughts about what the exhibition should show....