I’ve written a review of Rachel Lichtenstein’s very good new book about the Thames Estuary, called Estuary. You can read it here, at Caught By The River.
I’ve written a review of Rachel Lichtenstein’s very good new book about the Thames Estuary, called Estuary. You can read it here, at Caught By The River.
One of the most enjoyable assignments have had in recent months was getting to spend a sunny late-spring morning on Hackney Marsh with John Cook, a forager who calls himself Jon The Poacher.
We wandered through parks and marshes for a couple of hours, filling a basket with wild plants, flowers, herbs and mushrooms, before sitting at a cafe by the Lea and scoffing it all. John has grown up in Clapton and knows “every milimetre” of the vast east London marshland.
I touched on bits of the marsh when I explored the pre-Olympic Lea Valley with archeologist Kieron Tyler. That tour was all about the human impact on landscape (that, really, is the essence of archeology), so the walk with John made for a completely different experience, one in which we looked only at the natural aspect, the ways in which wild plants will seed in the smallest, most inhospitable space, and how we can harvest them without destroying their habitat. John essentially uses the marsh as a giant allotment, and believes almost anything can be eaten if treated correctly.
The difference between the two views is interesting. While Kieron lamented the Lea Valley’s problem with Japanese knotweed – something the Olympic authorities spent millions on eradicating – John notes that if you cook it with a little sugar, knotweed tastes much like rhubarb.
My article about John appears on the Canal & River Trust’s Waterfront blog.
This weekend, the grandly titled Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History opens at 11 Mare Street, Hackney. You may already know of Wynd’s whims. An intriguing dandy, Wynd is the founder of the Last Tuesday Society – a body that promotes the esoteric in lectures, salons and workshops – which included Wynd’s own huge collection of oddities and curiosities, acquired over a lifetime of inquisitive travelling and impulsive purchasing. Originally, these items were meant to be sold – Wynd is still a dealer in the weird, a middleman in this strange underworld of people that buy and sell the corpses of giant spider crabs and Javanese hen’s teeth – but he found “it didn’t work as a shop and it isn’t fun selling stuff. I had to keep buying and you can never be sure what will sell, it’s an endless cycle. So I thought it would be more fun to make it into a museum.”
These curiosities are now going on display as the new museum. And curious they certainly are. On the shelves are two-headed lambs, tribal skulls, dodo bones, plastic toys, lion skeletons, radioactive scallops, Victorian dolls, surrealist art, an artificial foreskin, a cassette of a John Major speech on the subject of red tape, a Victorian mermaid, convict Charles Bronson’s sketches, feathers from extinct birds, a giant hairball from a cow’s stomach and jars of celebrity poo [“How did you persuade Kylie Minogue to poo in a jar for you?” I asked, when interviewing him for Eurostar; “I asked her very nicely,” he replied.]
Impeccably arranged cabinets contain delight after horror after delight, some labelled, others entirely mysterious, but all put together in a way that implies the art of the display, the way these things look on the shelves, is every bit as important as the items themselves.
London has always appreciated the chance to gawp at a gruesome gallery like this. Wynd’s endeavor harks beck to the very first public museum to open in London at Don Saltero coffee shop in Cheyne Walk in 1695. Saltero, a barber, had previously been known as James Salter and worked for Hans Sloane, the collector who started what became the British Museum. Sloane reputedly gave some of his cast-offs to Saltero, who used them to attract custom to his coffee shop. In 1713, his catalogue boasted in terrible rhyme: “Monsters of all sorts here are seen, Strange things in nature, as they grew so; some relics of the Sheba Queen, and fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe.”
Saltero’s collection included such marvels as a giant’s tooth, a necklace made of Job’s tears and Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister’s hat, which had been made in Bedford. It was, nonetheless, hugely popular and by 1760 the collection includes priceless artefacts like the Pope’s candle; a piece of the true Cross; the Four Evangelists’ heads cut on a cherry-stone; the King of Morocco’s tobacco-pipe; Mary Queen of Scots’ pincushion; Queen Elizabeth’s prayer-book; a pair of Nun’s stockings; Job’s ears, which grew on a tree and a frog in a tobacco-stopper. Moreover, it had inspired other entrepreneurs, eager to educate the public in the wider mysteries of the world, to follow likewise. Among those following in Saltero’s wake was Mr Adams of the Royal Swan in Kingsland Road, not far from Wynd’s palace of the strange. In 1756 Mr Adams was exhibiting”the heart of the famous Bess Adams, that was hanged at Tyburn; Sir Walter Raleigh’s tobacco-pipe; Vicar of Bray’s clogs; teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; the very comb that Abraham combed his son Isaac and Jacob’s head with; Wat Tyler’s spurs and the key of the door of the Garden of Eden.”
Wynd is an artist as well as a collector and showman, and his museum will double as a gallery, opening with a show devoted to early British Surrealists and including work by Austin Osman Spare, Leonora Carrington, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff. His curiosities are also sprinkled with the occasional artistic embellishment, whether its sculptures donated by artist friends, his own drawings, fine work by the likes of Spare or Mervyn Peake, or more occultish fare, like “blood squeezed from a stone” or a box containing “some of the darkness that Moses brought upon the Egyptians”. These latter items are much like the imaginative exotica of Saltero and Adams, and also remind me a little of Yoko Ono, and her attempt to auction in London a ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’ to subsidise Norman Mailer’s Mayoral candidacy.
Wynd’s collection features a lot of dead things in jars – babies, dissected vaginas, stuffed animals, old bones, beetles, butterflies, intestinal worms – but he rejects the notion that it is simply a celebration of the macabre, a house of horrors designed to shock the straights. “Nobody’s ever been shocked,” he says. “If you are going to a curiosity museum you want to see dead babies, it’s what you expect. That isn’t what’s new, what’s new is the idea that dead babies and Furbies are equally attractive. It’s uncanny rather than macabre, it’s the juxtaposition of items, setting off thought processes.”
“I see putting everything together as an art,” says Wynd. “If you are a collector then the world is your tins of paint and the walls and cabinets are the canvas. Everything has to look right. It’s a way of trying to understand the world, but a world that has no meaning. It’s all the pretty things that show what an amazing place we live in. It’s also an attack on conventional aesthetic values, so we have a Furby, which is seen as completely valueless, sitting next to a rare and valuable skull of an extinct beast, sitting next to Chinese sex toys. I don’t recognise a distinction between high and low, it’s just if I like it. It also makes me laugh. I’m quite miserable and this place cheers me up.”
It’s not entirely clear how much Wynd enjoys his role as a collector. As he points out, most of us collect when we are children, but then grow out of it. The collector is in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, unable to move on, still fixated by those items that first caught his attention many years before. Wynd says that as a child his favourite places were the Natural History Museum and the Pitts-River Museum. In adulthood, he is still trying to locate that childish sense of awe and intellectual awakening.
He recalls being a student in Elephant And Castle and compulsively filling a garage with items he find on the streets – “I couldn’t pass a bin liner without opening it.” Later he moved to Paris and discovered that at the end of the month everybody’s rental contracts ended at the same time, and on these moving days treasures would be left outside every block of flats. “It was heaven.”
The problem, he says, is that a collection is “like a garden. It’s never going to be finished. It’s never done. It’s a psychological condition, it’s stupid, it’s pointless and causes endless worries.” It also gives us the Museum of Curiosities, for which London should be thankful. Go gawp, embrace the uncanny.
This piece first featured in the April issue of Metropolitan. Interestingly, the Daily Mail had not discovered the aesculapian snakes when I wrote this piece but did so very shortly afterwards. I sincerely hope my article was not what alerted them to this harmless colony.
When workers began clearing the Hackney site that was to become the 2012 Olympic Park, one of the biggest problems they faced amid polluted soil and world war explosives came from a plant. Japanese knotweed is a scarily resilient and fast-growing weed that infested the waterway and removing it was a laborious process that began with chemical treatment before the dense root structure was dug out. Next came cutting, hand-sorting, incineration and burial of the remains inside a welded physical membrane on landfill sites in five-metre pits. Only after this was the plant, introduced by Victorians because it looked pretty, deemed safe. It cost £70m.
London is home to around 76 such ‘invasive species’, leading to the creation of the London Invasive Species Initiative, which monitors those alien invaders that have found a predator-free London life to their liking, causing serious damage to the city’s ecosystem even if they add an exotic splash to the urban landscape. Many, like the knotweed, arrived in the 19th century. “There was a flowering of ‘acclimatisation societies’, which were specifically set up to introduce new species,” says Tim Blackburn of the Zoological Society of London. “The Zoological Society envisioned a golden age where we would have herds of elands [African antelopes] roaming the south of England. But the impacts are pervasive and affect so many aspects of life.’
But not every alien species is dangerous and London is home to hundreds of non-native species that merrily co-habit with London’s longer-term residents. “There are many species we think of as part of our national heritage that were originally non-native,” points out Alex Robb, a London Wildlife Trust warden, in defence of the ring-necked parakeet, which has adapted to London life so successfully it has been adopted as the country’s first naturalised parrot. It is unlikely, however, that Japanese knotweed will ever be regarded so warmly.
Originally from: China.
Now found: Mill Hill, Barnet, Enfield, Edgware and Bethnal Green.
Daily Mail headline: Two-Foot Muntjac Deer Cause Thousands Of Crashes Every Year, Sept 2011.
For centuries, London parks have contained red and fallow deer, generally doing little other than giving dogs something to bark at. Now there’s also the muntjac deer, introduced to Britain in the 19th century. As muntjac began escaping from zoos or were deliberately released, the population expanded to today’s 2 million. The muntjac is small and shy, with stubby antlers and an unappealing call that sounds like a smoker’s cough. It can usually be seen in north London suburbs munching roses, but some have been spotted as centrally as Bethnal Green and they have an annoying habit of running into the road, causing accidents.
Originally from: Japanese volcanoes.
Now found: Everywhere, especially alongside railways.
Daily Mail headline: The Dreaded Alien Eating Your Garden And Home, July 2013
Japanese knotweed was introduced by Victorians as an ornamental plant. Big mistake. The bamboo-like plant is one of the country’s most invasive species with a frightening rate of growth – up to 10cm a day to a height of three metres and with a root system (rhizome) that can expand seven metres in all directions. It’s persistent too. It can push through cracks in cement and tarmac, and has been known to grow through floorboards, wrecking houses. Knotweed is devilish to remove, requiring intensive herbicide treatment and even then, freakishly, a new plant can spring from a fragment of rhizome the size of a fingernail that’s lain dormant for 20 years. The problem is so great some banks refuse to give mortgages to properties that have knotweed within sight of the walls. The good news? A predatory insect has been shipped in from Japan that’s meant to control the triffid. Another alien species introduced from overseas – what could possibly go wrong?
Originally from: The Americas
Now found: Regent’s Canal and other waterways.
Daily Mail headline (after related scare in Lake District): Terrapins That Can Bite A Child’s Finger Off Are Being Dumped By Owners, August 2013
Terrapins arrived during the brief but annoying Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle craze of the 1990s when parents bought baby terrapins for demanding children but then dumped the creatures in the nearest pond when playground tastes turned to Pokemon. These red-eared terrapins love London lakes, with meals of fish and ducklings helping them grow to around 30cm. Terrapins can live for 40 years and while it was believed London would prove too cold for them to breed, a baby terrapin was spotted in Regent’s Canal in 2013. Will warm summers may see a generation of even tougher, London-born terrapins take over our waterways? Worse still is the American signal crayfish, an armour-plated monstrosity that was introduced in the 1970s, escaped and set about annihilating the native white claw crayfish. Fortunately, the signal crayfish has one predator, “Crayfish Bob”, who has turned the epidemic into an opportunity, serving Thames-caught crustaceans at pop-up restaurants around London.
Originally from: Afro-Asian.
Now found: Originally south-west London, now widespread.
Daily Mail headline: Native British Birds Are So Scared Of Invading Parakeets That It’s Putting Them Off Their Food, April 2014.
There are several legends about how shrieking flocks of green parakeets came to colonise south-west London. The most popular is that they are descendants of a pair released by Jimi Hendrix while he lived in Notting Hill. Another is they escaped from Shepperton while The African Queen was being filmed in 1951. Or maybe they fled from exiled King Manuel II of Portugal’s Fulwell aviary in the 1920s. The population has rocketed since the 1990s, when flocks were concentrated around Esher, Richmond and Twickenham. Mobs of noisy parakeets are everywhere, and the splendid ease with which this hardy, convivial, colourful bird has adapted to London life has made it increasingly popular among Londoners.
Oak processionary moth
Originally from: central and southern Europe.
Now found: Kew and across south-west London.
Daily Mail headline: Rise Of Poisonous Caterpillar That Can Cause Lethal Asthma Attack Is Unstoppable, May 2012
It’s the caterpillars you have to watch. These hairy toxic insects arrived in London in 2006 on imported oak trees and established colonies around Kew. While the caterpillars can damage oak bark, they are also a pain for humans thanks to 60,000 poisonous hairs that irritates skin, eyes and throats, or provoke allergic reactions. Fears were raised by newspaper that the caterpillar would cause carnage during the 2012 Olympics but fortunately this came to nothing. The pest has spread from Ealing, Richmond, Brent and Hounslow to Bromley and Croydon.
Originally from: Former Yugoslavia, now found across mainland Europe
Now found: Regent’s Park.
Daily Mail headline: London Hit By Outbreak Of Eight-Foot SNAKES That Could Kill Cats Or Small Dogs, May 2014.
While the aesculapian snake is common in mainland Europe, London only discovered its colony in around 2007, when several were found in Regent’s Park alongside the canal near the zoo. Nobody knows how the snakes got there, but they are the first examples of non-native snakes breeding successfully in the wild in London. The snake can grow to 3-4 metres and is harmless to humans – although they can bite – developing instead a fondness for rats, of which London has plenty.
Originally from: Asia, Africa, Americas
Now found: Sydenham
Daily Mail headline: The Night I Was Mauled By London’s Black Panther, March 2005
Police with taser guns were called to south-east London in March 2005 when a man was attacked by a huge black beast. ‘I could see these huge teeth and the whites of its eyes just inches from my face,’ he said. ‘I believed it was trying to do some serious damage.’ The “Beast of Sydenham” was seen again in 2009, chasing a jogger through Dulwich Woods, but has since gone quiet. While such stories often turn out to be nonsense – the Essex Lion of 2012 was a large ginger cat – strange mammals, escaped from zoos, farms and private menageries, do turn up in London, most recently two wallabies in Highgate Cemetery and an American mink in Thamesmead.
Some years ago, the writer and scientist Richard Fortey took me on a tour of his favourite items in the Natural History Museum. His book, Dry Store Room No 1, is one of the best books I’ve read about London museums.
1 ‘This is the collection of all known species of humming birds which I used as the cover for my book. It goes back nearly 200 years to the earliest days of natural history as spectacle. One of the amazing things is that the colours, the iridescent feathers, have survived so long. You can even see the tiny eggs, with the appropriate egg in it. This whole bird gallery is a survivor to the old days of the museum, preserved almost apologetically as an example of the classic gallery, but a lot of people still stop and look at it even though it’s just stuffed birds.’
s 2. ‘This one of the great sea dragons, an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile. This one is particularly beautiful and informative because within the body cavity you can see here outlined in red, the remains of other smaller individuals. The question originally was ‘were they cannibals or did they give birth to live young’ and the answer is almost certainly the latter. These animals are very like porpoises and almost certainly lived the same way, gregariously and pursuing a very fast life that gave them no time to sit on eggs. But this is very easy to miss.’
3 ‘The building itself. You can choose anything from the various animals and birds that adorn the interior. Even the pillars are based on the bark of trees. On the whole, the building moves from living to fossil as you go from one end to another and that is true also of the animals portrayed. In the mineral gallery, right at the end above a door on the left is a dodo. I also think that one of the monkeys has been made to look a little like Darwin.’
4. ‘The mineral gallery has probably changed the least since my early days and it’s also the least visited. It’s a classic systematic approach where all the minerals are laid out in cases arranged by chemical composition, so you could come here and learn some serious mineralogy if you started at one end and worked your way through. At the end, in the Vault, where particularly precious minerals are displayed, is something called bournonite with black wheels shaped like cogwheels. This came from a Cornish mine that has since closed so this is really the only good specimen that will ever be found with this particular chemical composition. It’s now extremely valuable because the rarer something gets, the more valuable it becomes.’
5. ‘The blue whale, it might be obvious but it is remarkable. For a while, during the war, some people working here kept an illicit still in the belly of the whale. So even with the best-known exhibit, there are secrets to be had.’
6. ‘Finally, head for the geology section in the mezzanine level. This used to be an old-fashioned museum in its own right but now it has been changed and in making space they only put back about ten per cent of the specimens. Each one is individually highlighted so it doesn’t give you the systematic overview or leave room for the quirkier items. But this table is still here. It’s a collection of North European ornamental stones all made into one table. You can even make out fossilised nautiloids of around 450 millions year in some of them, and also fossilised coral. There’s no label for it, nothing to say what it is and where it came from. You and I are probably the first people to have stopped and look at this for several weeks.’
I am an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern because all known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exterior of the houses as well as in the plan of the city. Here you would fail to detect the least trace of any monument to superstition.
Arthur Rimbaud on London in Illuminations
Getting a face full of wet fish is usually associated with Monty Python at Teddington Lock rather than French poets in North London, but such is the warping power of Camden Town. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine were the Gallic rhymers in question. The pair enjoyed a tempestuous relationship in a variety of London addresses, which culminated in the aforementioned fish-slapping incident in Camden.
They had arrived in London in September 1872 after fleeing scandal in Paris. Rimbaud was 17, Verlaine ten years older, married with a child. Verlaine’s brother-in-law described Rimbaud as ‘a vile, vicious, disgusting little schoolboy’, but Verlaine found him an ‘exquisite creature’ probably for much the same reasons. At first they settled in Howland Street in Fitzrovia. They became part of Soho’s expat anarchist dissident set, reportedly attending meetings helmed by Karl Marx in Old Compton Street, drinking heavily, taking hash and opium (Rimbaud advocated ‘derangement of all the senses’) and keeping warm at the British Museum, where Rimbaud’s name – but not Verlaine’s – was later added to the Reading Room roll of honour. Neither were particularly politically motivated, but the anti-establishment environment would undoubtedly have appealed to the outlaw couple.
They both loved London. Rimbaud felt that by comparison Paris looked like nothing more than a ‘pretty provincial town’ and loved the ‘interminable docks’, while Verlaine was captivated by the ‘incessant railways on splendid cast iron bridges’ and the ‘brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets’. Together they travelled on the river, visited Hampstead Heath and rode the newly opened underground railway. They visited Hyde Park Corner, Madame Tussaud’s, the National Gallery and the Tower Subway (‘It stinks, it’s hot and it quivers like a suspension bridge, while all the while you hear the sound of the enormous volume of water,’ they reported back).
They wrote as well. Parts of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer were written in London, and his relationship with Verlaine is recorded in the latter’s lines: ‘On several nights, his demon seized me, we rolled around together, I wrestled with him!—At nights, often, drunk, he lies in wait in the streets or in the houses, to frighten me half to death… In the hovels where we used to get drunk, he would weep at the sight of those around us, miserable beasts…’ Verlaine was also influenced by the hectic modernity of the docks, and wrote a poem about Regent’s Canal.
Their sojourn in Fitzrovia was briefly commemorated with a plaque written in French and erected in 1922, although it only mentioned Verlaine – Rimbaud’s name was omitted on grounds of morality. Unfortunately, the street numbers had changed by this time, so the plaque on No 34 was almost certainly commemorating the wrong house. These defects were solved in 1938 by simple means – the house was demolished. It’s said the plaque was saved from destruction, but if so it has long since been lost.
There is a plaque for their next house however, left by ‘unknown hand’ according to Simon Callow. This is on their residence at 8 Great (now Royal) College Street, which they moved to in May 1873, living in two rooms on the top floor for three months. Here the pair’s self-destructive instincts really blossomed. They argued relentlessly, and often fought physically. This reached its nadir one July morning when Verlaine returned from Camden market carrying fresh fish and olive oil. It was a hot day and Verlaine had a hangover, but Rimbaud, watching from an upstairs window, was unsympathetic. He laughed and bellowed, ‘Ce que tu as l’air con!’ (‘What a cunt you look!’). Verlaine responded with a kipper in the face (hurt, he later wrote to a friend rather pathetically, ‘I retaliated, because, I can assure you, I definitely did not look ridiculous’), packed his bags and fled to Brussels. Rimbaud eventually followed, only to receive two bullets in his wrist for his troubles.
Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison, which he spent in part reading Une Saison en Enfer, and that was pretty much the end of that relationship. Rimbaud returned to London in 1874, living at Stamford Street, SE1 with the poet Germain Nouveau and later taking a room at No 12 Argyll Square in 1875. He then disappeared for four months – biographers still speculate about whether he was in Scotland, Scarborough or Reading. He barely wrote another word and died, one-legged, in 1891. Verlaine also returned to England, teaching in Boston and Bournemouth, before returning to Paris where he succumbed to alcoholism and died in 1896. Camden can do that.