Tag Archives: independent

Dickens And London at the Museum of London

This review was published in the Independent last week but has not surfaced online.

It’s going to be hard to avoid Charles Dickens in the next few months. The writer will be everywhere, as publishers, programmers and producers commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth on February 7, 2012. The best celebration of Dickens’s legacy could be this illuminating exhibition at the Museum of London. It’s an imaginative look at a familiar subject, and represents the best of what a museum can do.

This is no staid trawl through Dickens’s back catalogue but a vivid evocation of Victorian life based around themes from his books, from poverty to innovation. Sure, the big objects like Dickens’s writing desk or his manuscript for Great Expectations are there to grab the attention, but this drama is complemented by Victorian minutiae, the fascinating bric-a-brac of everyday life, everything from rent arrears books and mourning wands (wooden sticks carried by footmen ahead of funeral processions) to clay pipes, Punch and Judy puppets, model trains and Dickens’s soup ladle.

The exhibition is more than objects. There are mournful photographs of Victorian buildings that Dickens wrote about but have since disappeared, and a short film by William Raban that meanders around modern London while an actor recites Night Walks, Dickens’s essay about the sleeping city, drawing subtle parallels between his time and our own. The film is a rare chance to wallow in Dickens’s own voice, but neither this nor the manuscripts are quite as impressive as Dickens’s reading copy of Oliver Twist. This is the book he used on reading tours towards the end of his life; words and sentences are underlined for emphasis, and melodramatic stage directions (‘Action’, ‘mystery’, ‘terror to the end’) are scrawled in the margins.

The Strand, Looking Eastwards from Exeter Change, London

Most rewarding of all, though, is the art. There’s classically sentimental Victoriana, such as William MacDuff’s Shaftesbury, which shows two urchins looking in a shop window like something by Norman Rockwell. There’s the fascinating documentary sketches of George Scharf’s, who drew the people he saw on streets acting as human advertisements, in colourful costume and carrying eye-catching signs for shows and products. And there are many detailed depictions of Victorian street life, which owe a clear debt to Hogarth. Phoebus Levin’s ‘Covent Garden Market’, Caleb Robert Stanley’s ‘The Strand, Looking Eastwards From Exeter Change’ and especially Edmund John Niemann’s ‘Buckingham Street’ portray a city of energetic bustle, cobbled streets and vicious contrasts of wealth that are the visual embodiment of what we still call Dickensian London.

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN (020 7001 9844). Until June 10, 2012. Admission £8 (£7 advance booking); concs £6 (£5 advance booking).

Buckingham Street, Strand, London

Marf: City Blues at the Guildhall Art Gallery

My review of Marf: City Blues, an exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery, appears in the Independent.

The Guildhall in the City is an appropriate venue for a series of cartoons about the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. Marf is Canadian, but her cartoons are all set in London, and the Gherkin, St Paul’s and the tube all make appearances. The exhibition is on until June 20.

The Guildhall has recently become a free venue, which is slightly contrary to current trends, but the City of London has always done things a bit differently. It has a wonderful collection of London-related paintings, and is definitely worth a visit, and there are also plans to host regular paid-for temporary exhibitions. Marf, however, is free. The intention is that local workers, who are overwhelmingly from the financial services, will come to the gallery in their lunchtime to nose around.

I wonder what they will make of cartoons like the following when they do? Water off a duck’s back, probably.

Among the moles at the Grant Museum

My short piece about the recently reopened Grant Museum of Zoology appears in today’s Independent.

If you haven’t been to the Grant Museum in either its old or new guises, do go and check it out one lunch break. This is the only museum in the country where you can see 18 baby moles stuffed in a sweet jar.

It also has one of only seven quagga skeletons that are known to exist in the world. The discovery of the quagga says much about the delightful way the Grant goes about its business.

The museum had two zebra skeletons, but curators were convinced that one was actually a quagga, so in the 1970s they got an expert to make the requisite calculations.  To their delight it turned out that one of the zebras was indeed a quagga, and this was unveiled to great publicity. However, less happily, it seemed that the other zebra was actually a donkey. Both are now displayed in the new museum, the quagga in pride of place near the entrance, the donkey out of sight on the first-floor balcony. But zebras, there are none.

Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL, Rockefeller Building, 21 University Street, WC1E 6DE. Open Mon-Fri, 1-5pm.

Strippers, beatniks, bikers and mods: celebrating BFI Flipside

I have a small piece in the Independent celebrating BFI Flipside, the BFI’s DVD label for forgotten, weird British films from the 1960s and 1970s.

The key Flipside films for any self-respecting London nerd are ‘London In The Raw’ and ‘Primitive London’, two endlessly fascinating exploitation documentaries that ‘lay bare’ the London of the mid-60s, with much emphasis on the weird and the shocking.

These are dayglo Soho-obsessed precursors to the rightly cherished London classic ‘The London Nobody Knows’, but possibly more entertaining for their utter shamelessness: here you’ll find strippers, wife-swapping, prostitution, Jack The Ripper re-enactments – anything that may titillate and tantalise.

It’s pretty tame stuff now of course, which is partly what makes it so intriguing. This is a key point of London history – as the hairy freaks massed their forces in preparation for the myriad cultural explosions of the late-60s – and these films capture some of that sense of a city teetering on the brink of… something. Check them out, you won’t be disappointed.

i think therefore i am unwanted

You may have noticed a new newspaper on your way to work this morning.

i is billed as a new concept, a snappy summation of the Independent  that offers some of the benefits of a serious newspaper with the attitude of a tabloid, and costs just 20p. It’s the Metro with opinion columns.

And it’s not bad. You can see what they are trying to do and they pretty much pull it off (although as somebody who saw Time Out attempt to revolutionise TV listings about a dozens times every year, I don’t give i‘s more than a month). It’s good to see another publisher trying to do something, anything, to save the printed newspaper. 

But I have one reservation: is what they are trying to do right in the first place?

Increasingly, all newspapers have become obsessed with attracting an audience that doesn’t buy newspapers. The success of the Metro has woken them up to this previously untapped readership of busy 20-30-year-olds who want a basic grasp of what is going on in the world, plus a funny kitten story on page 3, but don’t want to pay for it. The Metro serves this purpose tremendously. Now everybody wants a piece of the pie.

But in chasing this audience – an audience, remember, that has never shown any previous interest in paying for news – publishers are in danger of neglecting those of us who value newspapers for other reasons. Perhaps we like good writing and well-researched articles that tell us things we didn’t already know. This is still out there, but it’s increasingly hard to find.

Instead, we get features written by Wikipedia and opinion masquerading as news. And we get newspapers that are increasingly political in everything they do and say, which means you can’t trust any of them.

Columnists are legion, frantically demonstrating their independence of thought by aggressively agreeing with one another, or desperately trying to say something stupid and controversial in the hope it’ll get them noticed. This bores me silly, unless it is well written or funny or thoughtful, which it rarely is. (And yes, I am fully aware of the irony of saying all this on a blog.)

Am I an elitist? Am I hopelessly naive? Am I an out-of-touch snob?


But here’s the thing: the more that newspapers chase this mythical paper-purchasing Metro audience, the worse their sales figures get.

So perhaps it’s not just me that wonders why they should pay £1.20 – or even 20p – to be told things they already know by people they don’t trust or respect?

I am a journalist. I love to write and I love to read. But I no longer buy newspapers and the i is not going to change that.

Update More opinion (chuckle) from 853 and Snipe (whose three conclusions are on the money).