I’d like to take you on a voyage through time and space to this time a week ago when boredom and the vague desire to do a particular thing intersected, resulting in my finally getting around to visiting the revamped Museum of London.
Really, given the amount of time and effort I spend researching (if you can call it research) the history of London, this ought to be my favourite museum. Unfortunately, I have in recent years found it a little frustrating – there’s no denying that it has some very fine exhibits, but so many times I’ve dropped in on a whim only to discover that half the place is closed off.
Unlike the museums of South Kensington or the British Museum, the Museum of London is located on the edge of the old City. The City is, frankly, not the liveliest of places at weekends. On the left you see the Bank of England, practically deserted.
Rather than change trains for the sake of going one stop to St Paul’s, the closest stop to the Museum, I tend to get off at Bank. Bank is perhaps my least favourite Tube station, consisting as it does of seemingly miles of crowded pedestrian tunnels where the going is always slow and the temperature is always too hot for comfort. Like many similar stations, Bank was not originally intended as an interchange – rather, it happens to be a desirable place for a railway company to serve. The idea that passengers might want to change between Central, District, Circle, Northern and Waterloo and City Lines without ascending to street level was a bit of an afterthought, and the Docklands Light Railway even more so. I’m told that Bank Station is haunted – commuters and late-night staff have reported a strange and unearthly presence, a feeling of unease as if they are being watched. I suspect further investigation would reveal a piece of electrical equipment vibrating at a frequency of 17Hz to 19Hz, but then I’m no expert.
The area was more-or-less empty apart from a few bewildered-looking tourists. My trusty street atlas let me down, as several of the roads that in theory were quick routes to the Museum were in practice gated off. Roads like the one on the right. This is exactly the sort of thing that Woody Guthrie was complaining about. At this point, someone normally tells me to get an iPhone and I normally say “No thank you, I would far rather spend the money on opium and whores.”
Eventually, and somewhat unexpectedly, I came to Moorgate station. Had I known how close this was to the museum, I would most certainly have alighted here rather than Bank.
Instead, I climbed up to the highwalks of the Barbican. I don’t know why, given my hatred of Brutalist architecture, but there’s something I find strangely compelling about the Barbican Estate. It’s got a weird, retro-futuristic desolation about it. I think I’d like to make a film just so I could film something there. I’m not the only person who thinks it’s alright, as the whole place has been Grade II listed.
And yet, despite the absolutely 1960s/70s look of the place, you get odd little pockets of the ancient city peeping through. For instance, this section of the medieval City Walls that survives. There are a number of other medieval fortifications around here, not least of which is the section of wall outside the Museum of London itself. These were built, as you might imagine, on the old Roman walls.
I must admit that I’m a little loath to go into massive detail about the Museum itself, as I fear I would snap up about eight entries’ worth of information. However, the World City galleries were what I was here for, so I suppose I probably ought to talk a bit about those.
These galleries cover the city from the rebuilding in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London to the present day. This was when the city really took shape – indeed, I would go further and say that it’s really in the last 200 years that the city took on its modern form. This was when the Docklands appeared, when the city expanded to absorb Westminster, Kensington, Islington, Southwark and the suburbs, when industry brought people flooding in from the countryside and, in the second half of the twentieth century, when the city developed its modern ethnic makeup.
The new galleries are certainly impressive – large amounts of exhibition space are devoted to subjects such as pleasure gardens, fashion, ethnic and civil tensions and entertainment. The old star exhibits – the Victorian street scene and the frankly tasteless Lord Mayor’s carriage – are still there, and there’s even a gallery of London art from the 19th century to the present day. I was quite excited by the puppets of Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, who I recall watching as a small child (lest you think this to be an anachronism, I should point out that I saw them on video). I also noted the same edition of The Alternative Guide to London as I own on display in the 1960s cabinets, which was cool.
Spitalfields Market looked interesting, so I headed in that direction. It’s a fine place for fashionable folk, I have no doubt, but I found it a little too glossy if you know what I mean. I like those markets that are a bit illogical. Still, worth bearing in mind if you’re looking for presents. I must confess to indulging my sweet tooth at a fudge stall, where I purchased some rather decadent chocolate chilli fudge. I was also rather tempted by the fudge containing marshmallows, but let’s not be silly here.
Late on a Sunday afternoon is perhaps not the best time to come upon Brick Lane Market, so perhaps it can be forgiven for not quite matching up to my expectations. But I couldn’t help noticing that much of what was on sale was identical to what I’d seen in Spitalfields Market less than half an hour previously. Come to think of it, quite a lot of it was identical to the stuff I’d seen in Camden the day before. This and the sheer volume of East End hipsters led me to head off in the direction of Shoreditch High Street. From there to Old Street and a Tube home.
I think I’ll finish where I started – in the deserted City. In the Museum of London, there’s a display made up of status updates, tweets etc. from Londoners’ social networking sites, and this one particularly struck home: