02 March 2007

The flower of cities all

After 10 solid days of my resurrected London life, I can report that the capital is still the most splendid of places to explore new sights and rediscover old favourites. It's worth mentioning that without the valued kindness of Steve & Fiona in Deptford Bridge and Craig in Stoke Newington, who provided me with a roof over my head and a bed to sleep on, it'd all have been rather less appealing. So, thanks again folks!

Despite having a decent wedge tucked away to provide for the hard times, I've still been operating on a relatively frugal economy drive since arriving, particularly since I moved into the new flat. (Have also been making use of the Iceland supermarket, where everything seems to cost a pound, and mostly resembles actual edible food: their slogan is "so that's why mums go to Iceland..."). Naturally I've been taking full advantage of the many free attractions that London has to offer. Top of the list is the selection of free admission galleries and museums, which rival the best in the world.

The British Museum has always been a favourite, and I've been back twice already to explore and wander amidst the teeming antiquities. It's always a great buzz to see the rich treasures of the Sutton Hoo cache, the remains of the perfectly carved larger-than-life warhorse from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, or the Rosetta Stone, the hieroglyphic primer that long ago unlocked the secret writings of ancient Egypt.

One rainy day early last week I took the Tube to South Kensington and chose the Science Museum at random, but this proved to be a bit of a tactical error – it was school half-term week, and the place was thronged with vocal youths yammering away and generally squawking as much as possible. I secured some respite by venturing to the back of the museum where the older, less trendier and somewhat older exhibits lurk, largely unnoticed by the crowds. The painstakingly-accurate scale models of ocean liners and battleships in glass cases now attract little attention, but have probably seeded generations of young Londonders with an interest in a life on the rolling main. (Arrr!)

One less-visited but no less compelling destination is the British Library in St Pancras, which is full of the most delicate and wholly remarkable documents. There are two copies of the Magna Carta for starters – bearing in mind that there are only four in existence. The last letters of Lord Nelson before Trafalgar, the astonishing beauty of the illuminated text of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the original scribbled lyrics of A Hard Day's Night, scrawled in orange crayon by John Lennon; they're all there. One exhibit I'd not noticed before was the first book by Jane Austen – a history of England, hand-written by Jane for her family when she was only fifteen, and illustrated by her sister Cassandra. Even in this early work Austen's nimble wit is fully evident. She sounds like no fifteen year-old alive today.

Aside from the Library's regular exhibits, a short-term exhibition explored the history of London through maps, which proved to be excellent. It was enhanced by a Library story-teller explaining each room of the exhibit to a class of six or seven year-olds at the same time as I wandered around. Normally a pack of children in a history exhibition would be a nightmare, but the story-teller was so good at his job that he kept the children interested and quiet, and even taught the grown-ups listening in a few things they didn't know.

Ranking alongside the British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery of course remain at the heart of the London experience. Venturing in from hectic Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is an oasis of culture, with its regal grand halls and aristocratic leather couches oozing restrained good taste. Oh, and there's the artworks too of course. As usual, I paid a visit to Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors, which made such a major impression when I first saw it ten years ago. Behind the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery is a little more cluttered, but it has a remarkable assembly of portraiture, with a more solid anchoring in the world of the present day to complement the portraits of ages past. Of course it's the old stuff that I'm more interested in though, like the room devoted to Georgian scandals: a portrait of the superstar mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton takes pride of place next to one of her lover Horatio, Lord Nelson. Two legendary figures of their age.

Last but not least, the superb Museum of London is also free to enter, and does a splendid job of setting out the history of the great city, from pre-historic times through Roman origins, Saxon suzerainty, Norman domination, medieval authority, the Black Death, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Empire, World Wars and onwards to the future. A particular highlight was viewing a book printed in 1497 by an apprentice of William Caxton (pic) – one of the oldest examples of Western printed texts. And before I forget, a caption on one of the background history panels described London as 'the flower of cities all'. It has a nice ring to it.

Today after an agency interview I nipped down to Lambeth to pay a visit to the Imperial War Museum, and was impressed to see how many exhibits the curators have crammed into the medium-sized space available. I enjoyed the parachuting terrier hanging from the atrium ceiling, forming a part of an excellently-apostrophised Animals' War exhibit, JRR Tolkein's service revolver from the Great War, a recovered Chevrolet truck formerly operated by New Zealanders of the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa, and the note written by Lord Kitchener in 1914 to two children in Wigan, forbidding any officials from requisitioning their pony. Plus there was Himmler's grim deathmask from 1945. (Bit of a theme of deathmasks emerging in this blog. Maybe there's a book idea there?).

Now all I need to do is find a job, and then I'll be able to do all those London things that actually require a bit of spending. I'm already drafting a list and adding to it daily, so I guess I'd better find a well-paid job, right?
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