My new office takes me away from easy lunch-break access to the British Museum before I have completed seeing the History of the World in 100 Objects, but there is redemption in the form of the nearby Museum of London. Below are the first entries in what I intend will be a gallery-by- gallery guide, depending on how many lunch-breaks I can actually manage to eke out..
Gallery One: London Before London
I have a rule of always visiting the city museum everywhere I go, as a way of gaining an understanding of a new place, and so I spent a lot of time in the Museum of London when I first moved to the Big Smoke. Yet until last week I always used to stride straight past the 'London Before London' gallery and start my visit in the Samuel Pepys era when, so I thought, the roots of modern London really began to form.
It turns out that I was missing out, and not just because much of the best stuff from the seventeenth century was transferred to the splenid Museum of London in the Docklands some years ago. Not only did I discover that elephants likely were harrumphing in Trafalgar Square when the first humans arrived, but the Carcossonne* mystery of what is an Auroch was solved via an impressive 245,000 year old skull (they were a kind of cow). Best of all, however, I was introduced to the wonderful Bernadine Evaristo poem below, which wonderfully evokes an image pre-historic London and which greets visitors to the gallery. It's depiction of the 'first citizens' journey across a drained English Channel had particular resonance for me as I was reading Robert Macfarlane's wonderful travelogue 'The Old Ways' when I visited last week:
Routes, by Bernandine Evaristo
Time has frozen this midwinter night. Outside,
the pavement coated with a transparent skin.
Inside, I retreat down, sensing the vibration
of polar sheets creeping south, burying us
a thousand feet under blue ice, diverting the river
out of the Vale of St Albans into the London Basin.
Welcome home. Welcome first citizen, chasing
reindeer over the hip joint with France,
tropical and glaical cycles, waves of migrators –
your long trek north, from below the Sahara
circling a camp fire by the Thames
the hair of wolves over tight backs; dread-
locked beards, un-polished eyes, your slow, heavy mouths chewing fresh rhinoceros, roasted,
no spices; unaware that you are dislocating
from France as you eat, that the Channel is rising,
that my heated body floats above a London of birch
and pine forest, of open grassland where gangs
of straight-tusked elephants gather in Trafalgar
Square, hippopotomi wallow in the brown marshes
of Pall Mall and from Marble Arch I gaze longingly
on sheets of marigold, meadowsweet, mint.
* The Carcassonne I refer to is a board game sold by the wonderful Spirit Games and popular with most of my board-gaming friends, but disliked by my goodself on account of the fact that I have never won at it and, I think, only once avoided coming last.
Gallery Two: Roman London
Terry Jones spent many of his post Python year's studying in the British Museum to make the case that the Dark Ages were not so dark after all, and I was quite convinced when I read his book. However a quick shufty around the the Roman gallery at the Museum of London rather popped that balloon, with the revelation thatLondon was abandoned for 400 years after the Romans left and was only re-inhabited when a desperate Alfred the Great's fleeing Saxon army sought refuge from Viking attacks behind Londinium's crumbling walls.
It is hard to imagine why the Brits abandoned central heating, leisure centres and good wine for mud huts and mead, but maybe they just lost the manuals.
The Museum does a nice job in recreating life in imperial London, but as fans of Falco, Rome's greatest fictional detective, it was the well-preserved coins featuring the gumshoe's tight-fisted employer, Emperor Vespassian, that caught mine and Liz's attention. He looks serene, rather than scheming, but then I guess that's more the image for an all-powerful ruler on a copper coin.