24 September 2013

So Much

To my knowledge I have never ventured to, or stayed in, Shropshire. Until Friday that is, when I travelled through Housman Country...

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.
A Shrophire Lad, A.E. Housman

Well, the cluster of Clun-dubbed places may be quiet, but I was destined for the buzz and bustle of Much Wenlock. I was there for a bookish event held along the road from the local independent bookshop at a pottery. A working pottery, which also quadruples as a B&B, event venue and bar. It is guarded by the most dark and gentle German Shepherd I have ever encountered who goes by the name of Shadow, and is run by a jolly woman who asked us on our arrival at 3.30pm if we would like tea or something stronger, as she had just had a tipple herself. Her partner at the pottery has a cider press in the garage and makes his own cider using home-grown apples.

The event itself was a great success, with people travelling in from surrounding villages and towns to come and listen to the two editors of a lovely little literary quarterly talk about how they modestly started up their project around the kitchen table over many bottles of wine more than ten years ago. It is now thriving and growing, with mad office dogs wreaking havoc among hundreds of boxes delivered by a broad-accented Yorkshireman named Bryan from the traditional printers at the crack of dawn on a regular basis. Many more charming eccentricities that are part of their working life were touched on too. The audience listened and drank and asked questions and got cosy by the fire. Anybody who had arrived alone was welcomed in and seated by the wonderful owner of the local bookshop, who knows everyone's name and whether or not they have a dog. 'This is Jane. Jane this is Sylvia. Sylvia has a spaniel, Jane has a schnoodle. You may have seen each other out dog-walking.' And the bar did a great trade. One of the woman working behind it clocked that there wasn't enough wine left in one of the bottles for a full glass so took it upon herself to quaff it.

A Much Wenlock door - take note of the terrific sign
So, as I say, the event was splendid, but I was interested in exploring the village the morning after the night before. It is an other-worldly place of crammed-to-the-rafters junk shops, markets awash with fresh veg (soil-clumped potatoes and carrots with masses of thick green tops), home-made pie shops that do a nice side-line in sparsely bristled salty pork scratchings, and the most beautiful 17th century buildings decked out in time-worn timber. One such building is the bookshop. It is gorgeous. Bunting made from comic books hangs in the children's section and The Guardian is spread invitingly on the large round table upstairs. The owner runs this bookshop almost single-handedly and is enthusiastic, passionate and pro-active, with the likes of poetry festivals, children's activity groups and literary events spilling from her imagination into the community. She read The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge as a child and was captivated by the description of the fictional bookshop with its wooden beams. She decided then that she would like to be a bookseller when she grew up. It was only a little while ago, when standing on the upper floor, beneath beams and between second-hand books, that she realised that she has the bookshop she'd wished for.

Dream bookshop
We had a good long mooch among the shelves that morning. I picked up a paperback of my favourite novel. My mother had bought a copy for my chap when he was new to our world (she never, ever lends out her own copy) and he was so taken with it that he foolishly passed it on to friends to read and it was never returned. So we were, appallingly, without this oh-so-necessary novel in London. The second-hand copy I picked up is signed and dated by one who once owned it. The date is the year of my birth. The bookseller gifted it to me. I am so happy.

Just inside my favourite novel

1 September 2013

Letters II

We receive so many bonkers and lovely letters and emails from our appreciative, enthusiastic and very jolly readers at both the small publisher and independent bookshop for which I work so consistently that sometimes I worry that I do not pay all of them their deserved attention. I fear that I could end up taking these bibliophilic outpourings for granted, and this absolutely must not happen.

We have postcards and greetings cards and photographs and drawings and long beautifully handwritten letters posted to us every week, and it is the most cheering thing to slice all these words free with the silver letter opener. So cheering that we have made space on the daily-use-database for a 'corner of good cheer'. This corner holds snippets of delicious comments from our readers - funny, eccentric and heartening.

A letter arrived at the bookshop all the way from Australia the other day. I will transcribe it here (changing the name) as it pretty well made my heart shatter into a million pieces at the end of a long day unpacking and packing up books in a manic tap-gun delirium.

Dear S Fox,
Your ‘gift to a friend’ offer.
I wish to thank you most sincerely for your above service on behalf of my dear friend in Scotland. The book was Island Summers: Memories of a Norwegian Holiday, chosen by me for its vivid evocative value. That it achieved its purpose is apparent from the response I received and partly quote here in some detail in spite of testing your patience:

On the basis that you are the only Edward in my life I am assuming that the exciting parcel that I received today with a card saying, ‘With love from Edward’, is from you. If I am wrong I am stuck!

The book was gift wrapped in thick, dark green paper and tied with a narrow, scarlet satin ribbon. Very elegant. The book itself has a very pretty cover – a seascape in pale blues and pinks – and smells gorgeous. Did you order it online or choose it yourself in their London bookshop? I shall be very cross if you have been in London without telling me…

I can’t wait to start it, but I’m going to force myself to put it on one side till I am able to savour it. This week is going to be hectic and I want to relax and enjoy it. Very many thanks for the kind thought…

You see, as you well know, books mean many things to many people. Your thoughtful action has brought two hearts, about as far distant as it is possible to be on this planet, together as one.

Yours sincerely,

(Dr) Edward Swinton
Oh boy, that last line just about kills me.

6 August 2013


Party Favours
These pencils are tokens I took away from a party in Beckenham on Saturday. Not just any party. The party I have been waiting for most of my life. A party which had as its perfect theme (drumroll please): The Princess Bride. My favourite film. A bit because of this. A bit because of this. And a lot because of this. I carried an actual sword with me on public transport for the occasion, that's how much I love this film. I know every word. And I now have pencils to prove my ardour for the story and script.

My camera is far from top-notch, so I will provide clear text.


Man, I can tell you I had awesome fun storming the castle. I brought Miracle Max's chocolate-covered miracle pills, jelly-sweet shrieking eels, Buttercupcakes and half a bottle of absinthe. The absinthe went towards the 'Iocane Potion' cocktail I invented then drank a great deal of. It was all as I wished.

22 July 2013

Common Dead

I must admit that I only really know South East London because of the bookshops. Through work, I speak to the good chaps at both Herne Hill Books and Dulwich Books every so often and package off boxes of books to those distant climes. However, I am always prepared to venture further afield by various buses to discover a good cemetery. So on a summer's Sunday we packaged ourselves off (by way of hot top decks) to West Norland Cemetery. I would recommend visiting these beautiful burial grounds, designed to mimic paradise and rather successfully to my mind, any time you can make the trip, but we specifically went on Sunday so we could Feast for the Common Dead.

The artist Jane Millar has curated the Curious Trail which is comprised of of 21 works exhibited within the walls of the cemetery, using the architecture, landscape and historic burials as reference points for the artwork. These in themselves are completely fascinating, especially by the likes of Steven Ounanian who unveils a new technology that makes it possible to speak to the dead. He custom made a contraption he calls TELEX-666. This device has electrodes attached to it which plug into the cemetery earth and enable the listener to hear conversations and existential diatribes occurring underground.

Chris McCabe's work entitled Clotted Sun: An Anthology of West Norwood Poetry also particularly interested me. He found details of ten poets buried in the cemetery and researched their poetry. To provide them with another chance of readership he engraved a phrase from one of their poems onto stone and returned it to them. He also had the stones photographed and made into a limited edition book. This is on display at the Columbarium, together with the engraved stone for Sydney Carter who wrote 'The Lord of the Dance' and was cremated at West Norwood.

I could go on and wax lyrical about each and every artist involved. They are very much worth the journey alone. But, as I say, we were there for more ceremonial reasons. For exuberance and remembrance and cake.

Cemetery Map
Sunday's Feast for the Common Dead was a grand picnic held by the Living for those bones and souls who were anonymous, untraceable or simply poor and easily forgotten. The tale begins at Enon Chapel, off Clare Market, in the 1800s. Due to high death rates, lack of space, and the hoards not having money to pay for pomp, circumstance and headstones, twelve thousand bodies were buried, or not even buried, beneath the rickety floorboards. Piled up, filling hundreds of coffins, hacked into bits to make bodies fit, the dead were crammed into a 30' by 60' basement. Not all twelve thousand were present (and rotting) at one time, with corpses being disposed of in rivers and similar when the nooks and crannies between the decomposing dead were simply too small. But these thousands all passed through this underground lair, beneath the chapel which was transformed into a dance hall for a spell, the living dancing over the dead then fainting at the smell.

To cut a long - and fairly gruesome - story short, these representatives of the Common Dead are now at peace in the common burial plot in the cemetery. Dr Ruth Richardson, a medical historian, has steeped herself in this sorrowful tale, researching the lives of the twelve thousand and is passing on the uneasy knowledge. So we joined her and Jane Millar and poets and singers and the general joie de vivre of living breathing people in sunshine to feast for those now resting in the earth. There was a cake the size, shape and spitting image of a coffin, constructed with marble cake and cocoa icing and studded with silver chocolate nails. The artist and grower Elizabeth Myers had created a grave-shaped plot near the common burial area, and grown produce similar to that of a 19th century charcoal burner's cottage garden, and some of this produce became ingredients for the picnic fare. A band, complete with ukulele, played the Jeff Buckley version of 'Hallelujah' and, wonderfully, Pulp's 'Common People'. I don't feel the song sheets were necessary for that particular number, Jarvis being my main man. There was also an eccentric and mostly grey-haired socialist choir belting out a few tunes (and history lessons), and a local community choir who sang the tear-jerking 'Moon Rover' as I leant against a gnarled tree and closed my eyes in the sun. They led us in a procession to the Enon Burial Plot across the cemetery, singing all the way. Flowers and tokens were placed in front of the small squared-off plot, and the dead below were commemorated for the first time. Then something I had never experienced before: a keening. Half a minute of wailing, ululations, drumming, cries of grief, deep sounds of pain, remembrance, joy... I stayed silent but felt at the heart of it.

It all finished with a jolly song. 'The Lord of the Dance'. Of course. Delirious from sun and surreality, we walked through graves and mausoleums, sniffed a few lilies, then sweated back on tarmac.

22 May 2013


A letter I wrote to Hadley:


In other news, THIS HAPPENED:

A friend was drinking G&Ts with Alan in his kitchen on a Monday afternoon, watching birds out the window, and asked him to sign this for me. Oh boy. 

28 April 2013


We'd made a Saturday afternoon plan of an exhibition followed by pints in the Princess Louise, so we met in the rain at the Gargosian Gallery to see Rachel Whiteread's casts of the space inside sheds. They were arresting for sure, solid and stark in the huge white room, but very grey blocks of art on a very grey rainy day. So we wrestled our umbrellas up the road to the Wellcome Collection, a place which always cheers me, being bright, buzzy and full of millions of interesting things. They usually have some kind of rather wondrous free exhibition going on, and I end up scribbling all over the hand-outs and staring at stuff like brains in jars and 18th century prosthetic toes.

The current special exhibition is the opposite of grey blocks. It is colourful and varied and crammed with all sorts of ideas and creations. It goes by the name of Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan. The artwork on show is by 46 artists who attend or live in Japanese social welfare institutions. All the artists have cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illnesses. And they create. The word 'outsider' has somewhat negative connotations, and 'outsider art' is a rather ugly term for works by untutored artists who are not conscience of an audience for the pieces they make and who live the edges of mainstream society. However, the word 'souzou' is much more positive. It has a dual meaning: both creation and imagination. And these artists have imaginative creativity in no short supply.

This is art as therapy or distraction, but it's beautiful and intriguing in its own right. Visual expression is used as a release from the confines and confusion of language, and such different ways of seeing are represented throughout the exhibition rooms, as well as a whole range of materials and methods. Textiles and ceramics require lengthy repetitive processes that have a calming, therapeutic effect. One of the artists, Komei Bekki, takes a ritualistic approach to making his ceramic miniatures. Arriving at the studio at 16.00 every day, after everyone else has gone, he performs a sequence of actions which involve removing his clothes and putting them on again inside-out and partially moulding the clay in his mouth.

Everyday objects and the culture that surrounds the artists - film, television, landscapes and transport systems to name a few - are are very much in bright and bold evidence. Norie Shukumatari makes fluffy embroidery representing beloved subjects such as chocolate cake and a 1970s Japanese pop icon.


Shota Katsubi crafts a vast army of tiny anime soldiers wielding swords and bazookas from coloured wires which, on closer inspection, transpire to be the twist-ties used to fasten bin-liners. And an artist known as M.K. paints on a simple sheet of roughly cut cardboard. The image is called 'Lady with Rainbow Coloured Hair' and is a vibrant depiction of a female bust accompanied by an aeroplane safety announcement in English, beneath which is written: The gnus/were afraid of/the alligators in the/river/They waited for a long/time/before entering the water.

Lady with Rainbow Coloured Hair
Norimitsu Kokubo is a map-maker; his sprawling, intricately detailed drawings are fictional cityscapes that explore real places he has never been to. He plots and constructs from facts he's picked up. The one I was most drawn to was 'Shanghai Disneyland of the Future'. It is relationships rather than landscapes that provide the overriding impulse behind Sakiko Komo's art. She makes round-faced friendly rag dolls, some life-size, representing friends and staff who have been kind to her over the 55 years she's lived in the residential facility. One of the dolls is called 'Looks a bit like an alien'. And Takahiro Shimoda is the artist behind the piece I loved most: a pyjama triptych. Comfy cream 'Ruff Hewn' tops-and-bottoms serve as a canvas for his fried chicken, salmon roe and pigeon-shaped cookies nightwear. Pyjamas printed with patterns of his favourite foodstuffs.

I want to eat a pigeon-shaped cookie. And, after walking through this odd forest of fascinating artworks, I just really want to make stuff. To whip out crayons, felt-tips, sewing kits, pipe-cleaners, paint and PVA glue. To create. That's the effect of souzou.

23 March 2013

Gin Before Bedtime

At the end of the working day on Thursday evening I put on my pyjamas. In the office. As did my two colleagues. Our boss opened a bottle or two of wine, and we sipped as we applied false eyelashes, rouged our cheeks and, crucially, rolled curlers into our hair, pinning them in place as the pièce de résistance of our bedtime glamour. Then it was on with our slippers (slightly adapted for city streets) and into a cab.

Our destination was a boutique hotel in East London by the name of 40 Winks. The building is rather nondescript from the outside, a rather run-of-the-mill terraced townhouse on Mile End Road. But we had the correct address, and were all dolled up in the strict though sleepy dress-code. The instructions had stipulated nightwear, and we were to turn up no earlier than 7pm, no later than 8pm. So at 7.30 we were on the steps leading up to the front door, where Mr Carter presided over the arriving guests. Mr Carter is the owner of the hotel and was our top-hatted host for the night. The fourth member of our party was already inside, having arrived a little before 7pm. This meant that she was a Sinner. All guests were to be separated into Saints and Sinners, with the Saints a chorus of hallelujahs and the Sinners bellowing 'hells bells'. As our friend had been dubbed a Sinner, we were Sinners too. Much more interesting.

After popping on the white slippers provided by ladies in nightgowns, we padded up the stairs to the toppermost bedroom where guests were changing into silk and adjusting their jimjams. The bedrooms and bathrooms, stairways and corridors were bonkers and beautiful. Kitsch, chintzy, luxurious, curious, decadent, Gothic; all grandiosity on a small scale in this wonderful mini-hotel. Dark reds, rich creams, glossy black, burnished gold and pearls. A dressing table full of perfume bottles and trinkets stood beside a wrought iron bed, and taxidermy, antlers and tasselled cushions abounded.

From the top of the house to the bottom. Teacups filled to the brim with a gin cocktail were offered into eager hands as we poured into the basement, and hand-painted murals on the walls encircled us gin-drinkers. Top-ups came frequently, gin flowing in arcs from the spouts of tall teapots. Mr Carter did a turn as host, encouraging flirting and splitting the Saints from the Sinners in time for the bedtime stories upstairs.

Gin cocktails. Photo from 40winks Facebook page.

Sinners settled themselves on chaise lounges and satin floor cushions to listen to a black-gowned, red-haired tale-teller. She told us of a woman who wrenched out a man's tongue by the root with her own as she kissed him, then followed this with a shorter tale involving camels and mathematics. I listened in a warm haze of soft cotton pj's, gin and story-spirals. Then into another beautiful room to sit on a different satin cushion and be wholly captivated by Katrice Horsley. Big dark eyes, short corkscrew curls, glittery make-up and physical flair. But all she really needed was her voice. Tumbling words, rhyming, working and weaving in rhythms and refrains. My mouth was open as I listened. Death, love, mouths slurping brains, beads of blood blooming from bosoms, handsome princes, broad-shouldered narrow-waisted devils, and old crow crones. Almost an hour of these wondrous things, told in something like a long song.

From stories to music. A young woman wearing sequined white, decked out in a huge feather and pearl headpiece, played the musical saw and a Victorian children's piano. She ended her set with a version of Abba's 'The Winner Takes it All'. I don't know if it was the gin, the sleepy setting, or the fact that Meryl Streep singing that particular song always kills me, but I could have cried. The musician calls herself The Tiger's Bride after the tale by Angela Carter. I think this very fitting, as the whole evening struck me as something oh so Angela Carter: darkness, fairy tales, the visceral, theatricality, absurdity, decadence and storytelling. Is Mr Carter's surname mere coincidence? See here for more of an idea of the night.

I pulled out my curlers in the dressing room, strode into the cold wearing winter boots, and made my way home to a Turnpike Lane bed which, alas, is not surrounded by boutique-beautiful furniture and soft furnishings and stag antlers. But it is, as everywhere is, surrounded by stories.

11 March 2013

Académie des Femmes

On the day following International Women's Day I journeyed west - by bus, rail and foot - for a party. The theme of this gathering was 'Académie des Femmes'. I strongly felt it was worth venturing to West Ealing for such a soirée.

There was once a woman named Natalie Clifford Barney. She was an American. An expatriate. A francophile. A novelist, a poet, a lesbian, a hostess. A pretty cool woman living on the Left Bank in Paris in the twentieth century. This is where she held her literary salon, a weekly meeting at which people gathered to socialise and discuss literature, art, music and any other topic of interest. French, American and British writers, artists and dancers crowded into her house for these famed evenings where both lesbian assignations and appointments with academics could, and did, crackle and fizz.

Barney wished to promote writing by women and formed L'Académie des Femmes in response to the all-male French Academy. She did also give support and inspiration to male writers, but strove to feature women's writing just as prominently, or more so, than the leading male names of the day. So Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Rainer Maria Rilke all attended her salons, and were welcomed wholeheartedly. But women were given an equal platform, and were arguably the more interesting, intriguing, eccentric characters. Imagine a riverside Parisian chamber after dark, lit up with the likes of Colette, Mata Hari, Isadora Duncan, Mina Loy, Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall and Rachilde...

I was not in Paris, but West Ealing. However, the well-furnished flat, with its Singer sewing machine, lobster telephone and Playmobil horse bathroom light-pull, held all the charms of the Modernist dream-world through which Barney swanned and scintillated. I was in a new place with  new people, stationed next to a glossy dark-wood drinks table of gin and whiskey and rum and bottles and bottles of red wine, surrounded by top hats, cloche hats, dinner jackets, bow ties, unfamiliar repartee, cheese and crackers. I had painted my lips red for the evening. It may have rubbed off as I drank and ate and chatted, but my husky unhealthy rasp of a voice remained due to a harsh March throat-sore that seemed more alluring than gross for this particular night. We all played pin the phallic symbol on the Freud, and pass the parcel with forfeits hidden in each layer of tissue paper such as having to recite a particularly sibilant line of Stein with a pronounced lisp. I caught two night buses home through the whole of London and fell asleep wearing faded red lipstick in my four-poster bed.

While on the subject of female Modernists, the below photograph is my all-time favourite image. Virgina at Knole at the time she was writing Orlando. Wearing the most glorious outfit and facial expression. Orlando: the biography of a man who becomes a woman, who transforms and is transformative. Literature's greatest love letter, from Virginia to Vita. A love letter from a woman to a woman, capturing all sex, gender, power and magic. The life of a woman. This photograph is in the centre of my copy of the complete letters Vita wrote to Virginia, with snatches of Virginia's replies interwoven. Many letters of domesticity and romance and adventures and arrangements to meet for tea.

Centrefold of one my obsessions
Also for International Women's Day, I thought I would include this treat of a scene. Because it's brilliant. Bathing suits, pizza and solidarity.

In 1921, early suffragettes often donned a bathing suit and ate pizza in large groups to annoy men... it was a custom at the time.

Also, on a similar theme, yet from the sublime to the ridiculous, I would like to end with this clip. It is from A Woman's Place, an episode of BBC Four's 'Britain on Film' series which uses the Rank Organisation's Look at Life documentary shorts to look at British society during the 1960s. It is fascinating (not only for the astonishing hairstyles) and I wish the full episode was still available on iPlayer. A crying shame that the footage is narrated by men with their RP accents and outmoded views, but this does serve to highlight the absurdity of these chaps and the times they lived in, and how awesome women were and have since become.

3 February 2013


Sunday lunchtime at Selfridges. It's fair to say that this is not my usual haunt. But I had my reasons. Reasons in addition to fantasising about my other life as a window dresser (though the true high-fliers for this fantasy are of course Liberty and Fortnum & Mason). I was popping in for a talk on Ancient Greek Philosophy.

Tracking my course through the wondrous gluttonous food hall, picking at tasters of pumpernickel and fruit breads on the way (I may have also left via this route, scoffing more bread as I fled), weaving between the fragrant, dazzling perfume and make-up counters, trying not to crash into meticulously displayed crockery in the homeware section, I eventually made it down to the basement. Books on Lower Ground. It's not my idea of the perfect bookshop, but I was not there to browse. Selfridges have introduced a concept called No Noise for January and February. 'We invite you to celebrate the power of quiet, see the beauty in function and find calm among the crowds.' So there you go. This means that they have a Silence Room, an idea apparently dreamt up by Harry Gordon Selfridge himself in 1909, a Quiet Shop which sells de-branded products such as Marmite and Heinz Baked Beans without the logos (oddly surreal), and Idle Sundays when the public can come and listen to a series of talks put on by the Idler Academy.

They vary in topic, from fishing to cloud spotting to moonlight... I wish I had been available last Sunday for the talk entitled 'The Poetry of Silence, featuring readings from my main man Keats and additional Romantic poets. Alas, I was otherwise engaged, settled on the sofa watching the whole BBC series of Pride & Prejudice back-to-back in celebration of the novel's 200th anniversary. Jane Austen and Colin Firth unfortunately had to take priority. However, I was ready and willing to hit 'Aristotle, Epicurus and the Vita Contemplativa' with Dr Mark Vernon.

At first it felt rather absurd and ironic to be listening about the contemplation of silence in the middle of one of the busiest and flashiest stores on Oxford Street, one of the most crowded and stressful streets in the world. Especially when the tannoy/alarm thing kept going off at intervals right next to where we (a motley crew of curious beings) were all gathered. But then it kind of made sense. It's about finding the time to stop, contemplate, reason and feel when in the midst of living life. It's about looking over your shoulder at the silence that always lies just behind us and letting it push and nudge you further into knowledge rather than a vacuous ignorance. Or something.

Very odd. Photo from selfridges.com.
I was all set to just listen and absorb as the talk began, feeling a little sceptical of the whole thing. But then we had to participate in some audience interaction. Fateful words. Even more so when out of place among the clientele of Selfridges. We were asked to pair up and simply ask our partner 'Who are you?' Over and over. Quickfire, with short, sharp answers. It became more difficult and awkward and invasive as the unrelenting question persisted. My partner was a rather lovely old woman with wispy hair on her head, top-lip and chin, who answered with 'searcher' and 'traveller' and 'open'. I was less philosophical, more stuttery. The lecturer eventually put us out of our misery - before we could have nervous breakdowns about finding ourselves and knowing our souls - and I did actually LEARN THINGS.

Stoics are so called because Zeno taught philosophy at the Stoa Poikile, a colonnade overlooking the Agora. Philosophy in the marketplace, among the lettuces. Socrates also taught in open public places (which some people found irritating, hence the death sentence), and Aristotle thought we should take time to share the salt together. I guess he meant sit down and literally share a meal, conversation and points of view with each other, but also the saltiness of things, the bite, the tang, the questions in life that add flavour. So, with that in mind, I went and tasted some more pumpernickel bread and went off to the Jeurgen Teller exhibition at the ICA to look at lots of bright fleshy commercial photographs of naked bodies.

20 January 2013

Hunting for Bodies

A Saturday when the snow was melting to muddy slush and the glisten of frost was fading to grey, a dank and dreary day, so we went to see thousands of glittering jars in a central-heated museum in the upstairs of a grand pillar-flanked institution set in the still snow-covered Lincoln's Inn Fields. Gawping at bits of body preserved in liquid that shined like amber in the artificial light is the only thing to do on such a bitter afternoon. We came to this conclusion having visited The Hunterian Museum yesterday, a little weaker in the knees but our heads swimming with fleshy flaps of skin, fragile scraps of membrane, ragged threads of veins...

Set at the top of the portrait-lined staircase of the Royal College of Surgeons, The Hunterian Museum lures in those cursed with morbid curiosity. The first wall shows four anatomical tables - boards slightly larger than a person with human-shaped maps of arteries, veins, circulatory systems pasted onto the grain of the thick wood, carefully dissected from the dead then stuck like fine blood-embroideries - which were prepared for the diarist John Evelyn in Padua in 1646. The vast majority of all the preparations and specimens in the museum were collected and displayed by John Hunter (1728-1793). The Scottish surgeon was dyslexic, so instead of reading about his craft and learning lots of inherited silly ideas, he garnered all his knowledge from observing, cutting, dissecting, poking, bleeding, preserving as much of the living (or, indeed, dead) world as he could get his hands on. The collection at The Hunterian is evidence of this.

Dissection of executed murderers was deemed acceptable, and the slightly less acceptable practice of grave-robbing abounded, but John Hunter also performed post-mortems on may of his close friends and family members, and was himself dissected after his death. His curiosity and quest for anatomical understanding knew no bounds. One such instance of this was the case of Charles Byrne, the 'Irish Giant'. He was 7'7" and made appearances at entertainments for money throughout his life. He had apparently wanted to be buried at sea, but Hunter purchased Byrne's body for £130 and displayed the skeleton. This now looms large in the museum, next to a much smaller and deformed skeleton, that of Mr Jeffs. This had been buried for many years before a man named George Harking acquired it. Hunter then bought it at auction as he was fascinated by the rare condition Mr Jeffs had suffered from. Fibrodysplasia causes bone to form in muscles, tendons and other connective tissue, so the skeleton has bone mass where one would not expect, as though bone blossomed from branches of rib and trunk of spine.

Other treats include a four-legged chick, a two-tailed lizard, pulp from the incisor of a horse, the healing stump of an amputated leg, three-inch long coagulated lymph coughed up by a patient, graphic illustrations of lithotomy, the beak of a squid which was caught by the naturalist Joseph Banks during Captain Cook's first voyage... Banks gave the beak to Hunter and the rest of the squid was eaten by Cook's crew.

And there are many, many foetuses. Of a rhesus monkey, an armadillo, a porcupine, an aardvark, a guinea pig, unidentified rodents. And humans. I struggled to look. Then I couldn't look away. Three-, four-, and five-month-formed foetuses. Then larger jars for the couple of eight-month-formed, then larger still for the one full-term baby that had not had a chance to escape the womb and breathe it's first breath. Forever in a bell-jar, oddly calm and blank-faced. Next to this was a case holding quintuple foetuses from a premature birth. Five months formed then born too soon. The local doctor, John Hull, was told he could take the foetuses but not the placenta. This was burnt. Heaven forbid he take a placenta.

I would recommend watching this short video of a very cool dude presenting a glimpse of the museum. The warm glow of all life fixed yet floating in hundreds and hundreds of jars, glass reflecting awe-struck eyes, draws pulse-twitching, blood-pumping, air-gulping beings into a treasure trove of fleshy gems. And it's free.

1 January 2013

Modern Love

I could, of course, write reams and reams prompted by the well-promoted, excellently curated exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites I went to a couple of months ago at Tate Britain. I could write about the muses, Mariana, and the watery Ophelia. I could write about the detail and illustriuous list of greats in Ford Madox Brown's painting The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry. I could write about the staggeringly darkly beautiful wardrobe created by Philip Webb and Edward Burne Jones as a wedding present for William and Jane Morris. The front panels depict an image from Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale; a rather anti-Semitic yarn about a young hymn-singing boy who has his throat cut by Jews. Interesting choice of decoration for a wedding gift. But instead I will write about The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis. Partly because I have always loved this painting, but mostly because there seemed to be odd coincidences surrounding it.

Chatterton, that tragic Romantic hero, the poet who penned pseudo-medieval verses and committed suicide at the unfathomably young age of seventeen. [And if it wasn't suicide, it was death from an overdose of arsenic used as self-medication for a venereal disease, so equally Romantic.] Chatterton who ghoulishly languishes on his dishevelled bed wearing bright purple breeches in Wallis's depiction. Chatterton, painted by Wallis, modelled by the poet and novelist George Meredith. Meredith was married to Mary Ellen Nicolls, the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock (the rather overlooked yet most eccentrically excellent novelist), but she ran off with Wallis two years after her husband was painted as Chatterton. Scandal. However, it did lead to a rather great work: Modern Love. Meredith wrote fifty sixteen-line sonnets about the demise of a marriage. Arguably the demise of his first marriage to Mary Ellen.

'Fast, sweet and golden shows the marriage-knot.
Dear guests, you now have seen love's corpse-light shine.'

The sonnets are narrated by the husband and are at once both dramatic and domestic, intimate and heartbreaking.

'I pluck the flower, and smell it, and revive
The time when in her eyes I stood alive.'

The boy I know best once wrote an eight-thousand word essay on this novella in verse. He then used them as a starting point for one of his band's songs. I think of the Romantics and endless sonnets whenever I hear them play Meredith.

And so to yet more coincidental oddities. Just after I went to the exhibition and marvelled at The Death of Chatterton, I began my obsession with Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage. This is an account of his mother and father's marriage. His mother and father just so happen to be Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Their story is told in different sections, with great swathes taken from Vita's autobiography, followed by texts added by Nigel Nicolson who comments on events using his own memories, various letters, and Vita's diaries. It is, quite simply, wonderful. They had an unconventional marriage, yet it worked for them. Vita fell in love with bright distracting glittering figures frequently, passionately and obsessively. Most of these figures were women. Harold had his own dalliances. Yet family, literature, love and gardening fused them together until Vita's death. They were happy oh so more often than they were unhappy. They were separate free spirits, but they made a whole. A whole marriage. I thought it interesting reading about this marriage in light of what I had discovered about George Meredith (who I had looked into further on seeing him posed as Chatterton), but it wasn't until I was a little way through the first part that I had one of those eyebrow-raising moments. Vita is describing her seventeenth year in her autobiography, just before she met Harold but after she has first become hopelessly enamoured with Violet Keppel, and she writes 'I must have been suffering from a bad attack of Weltschmerz, and indeed I had just finished a play on Chatterton of quite unequalled gloom'.

There is no further reference to Chatterton in this work, but Vita did indeed write Chatterton: A Drama in Three Acts. A play running to 60-odd pages and her first published work. Unfortunately I have not read it myself so cannot comment on the content, but I do find it extraordinary that everything is connected and it all overwhelmed me in a wave. The Romantics, Chatterton, Wallis, Meredith, Modern Love, the intricacies and fascinations of marriage, Vita and Harold...

My not very good photograph of a photograph of Vita and her penmanship

NB Weltschmerz, ( German: “world grief”) the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom—a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism.