A few days in London: from pearls to plywood and the Pickwick Papers

Being a tourist in a city where I once lived  as a worker, commuter, tax payer and home-owner is a joy. It’s an absence makes the heart grow fonder scenario. Although I made the most of London when I lived there from 1987 to 1996, there’s nothing sweeter than returning, unencumbered by day to day responsibilities, with the time and space to experience the place afresh, and inspired by the appreciative perspective of a long-distance traveller. Google tells me London is 10,497 miles away from Melbourne.

This time I tapped into a bit of glamour with dinner at the Athenauem Club in Pall Mall, one of London’s oldest clubs which counts 52 past and present Nobel Prize winners among its members and has oil paintings of Dickens, Darwin and other dignitaries lining the walls. Another night, my sister took me to the theatre to see the Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Gielgud Theatre in Piccadilly. The play set in the 80s about four generations of an Irish family was mesmerising with 22 actors on stage at one time plus a live rabbit and a real-life baby. It’s a tale of grief, disappearance and loss – an aunt to dementia and an elder son’s body is found in the bog. Woven throughout the family narrative are myth, magic, ‘the Troubles’ and the corrosive and threatening presence of the IRA.

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Pall Mall at night

Before the theatre we strolled through the Burlington Arcade admiring its high-end jewellery, leather, cashmere, shoe and perfume stores all so exclusive that, in most cases, you must ring the bell to be admitted. For fun, we enquired about the price of a beautiful pearl necklace only to find it was £77,000!

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Pricey Pearls

As if to bring things down to earth – albeit in an airborne way – the ceiling space in the Arcade featured the work of French artist Mathilde Nivet whose 300 bird sculptures, painstakingly crafted from paper, fluttered overhead.

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After that it was onto Fortnum & Mason known as Fortnum’s for short, an elegant and gracious store with its plush red carpet and spiral staircase connecting the floors selling luxury hampers, teas, coffees, cheeses, biscuits and fine wines all presented in its trademark green tins or boxes. It’s a bit like entering a fairy tale until you come to pay the bill.

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A quick trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum offered plenty of contrast. An exhibition about plywood  showed how layering cross-grained veneers to make material stronger than solid wood has been used since 2600 BC in Ancient Egypt, but the advent of mechanised saws in the 1830s saw it emerge as a key material in the industrial age as it was cheaper than cast metal.  From the covers for Singer Sewing Machines, tea chests, car parts, surf boards and the moulded fuselage of Mosquito aeroplanes in the Second World War, the exhibition highlighted the versatility of plywood. Today, plywood has become popular as a material for digital design due to rise of digital fabricating machines known as CNC Cutters (Computer Numerical Control).

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No visit to the V & A would be complete without a wander through the fashion section where we took in (crazy) cumbersome court mantuas, corsets and crinolines –  the starchy, scratchy and restrictive Victorian costumes were a perfect segue to a trip to the Dickens Museum the next day.

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A court mantua worn by women in the 1750s to royal assemblies and balls

Dickens and his wife Catherine lived at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury from 1836-1839, and this is where he wrote OIiver Twist, the Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. Some samples of his hand-written drafts – they were published in monthly parts – are on display along with his writing desk and chair and one of his reading desks, from where he performed his public readings. He’d edit his own text and write himself stage directions in the margins. Upstairs in one of the bedrooms is a mirror in which he practised impersonating some of his characters so he could ‘see’ them.

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A hand-written draft page from Oliver Twist

Other more quirky exhibits include a model of a hedgehog in the kitchen (they were kept in Victorian kitchens to eat insects and keep the bug population down), a commode with a letter from Dickens to his doctor complaining about: “distention and flatulency, and disagreeable pains in the pit of the stomach and chest, without any disarrangement of the bowels.” Sounds like a long-winded way (forgive the pun) way of describing indigestion. Dickens was also a big fan of cane chairs, perhaps the latest in ergonomic design back then. He writes to a friend: “I can testify there is nothing like it. Even in this episodical hotel-life, I invariably have my cane chair brought from a bedroom, and give the gorgeous stuffed abominations to the winds.” I’m sure Dickens would have been a fan of mattress toppers had they existed in his day. See: To sleep, perchance to dream

From Darkest Peru to Central London

I adored Paddington Bear as a child – and still do. There’s something incredibly endearing about the marmalade sandwich-eating bear with the duffel coat and bush hat who arrived as a stowaway from Lima and ended up living with Mr and Mrs Brown at No. 32 Windsor Gardens.

So I was delighted to read in the weekend papers that Paddington will hit the big screen in a feature-length film (opening in Britain on 28thNovember) starring Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey), Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman and a CGI bear voiced by Ben Whishaw. It opens in the US on Christmas Day so I am hoping that the same goes for Australia.

But the excitement doesn’t end there. Paddington’s author Michael Bond, who is now 88, has written a new book which comes out on Thursday. Titled Love from Paddington, it’s a series of letters penned by the bear to his Aunt Lucy in Lima.

Interviewed on the eve of the film’s release Bond explains that Paddington came about in 1957 at Christmas time when he was searching for a present for his wife. It was snowing and so he went into Selfridges to shelter and found himself in the toy department. There was one lone bear sitting on the shelf so he bought it. The rest is history: apart from the Paddington books which have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide and been translated into 40 languages, there are soft toys and other Paddington merchandise, a bronze statue of the Peruvian bear at Paddington Station, and from 4th November 50 different representations of Paddington will be dotted around London.

Each one has been designed by a celebrity and is part of a fundraising effort to support Action Medical Research, the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) and Childline with many of the creations due to be auctioned by Christies in December. Visit London have created a Paddington Bear trail and some of the sites include Selfridges (The Golden Paddington), a Rolls-Royce Paddington in Berkeley Square and Sherlock Bear (designed by Benedict Cumberbatch) at the Museum of London. The capital’s mayor Boris Johnston has chosen a bear decorated with iconic London scenes, a nod to the author with a Tube sign saying Bond Street, and, perhaps unsurprisingly,a blond tousle-haired figure riding a Boris bike. But precise locations of most of the bears are not being published as it’s a treasure hunt designed to get people involved and raise funds and awareness for the charities involved.

I’m off to London to stay with my sister next weekend. I don’t know what she has planned but I might just have to weave in a bear hunt! And I’m even a little tempted to have a go at writing a children’s book.

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Boris’s Blockbuster

Many of my blog posts seem to end up being about my puppy dog Bertie – not by design, more by default. It’s amazing how a curly-eared, doe-eyed, mischief-making, feather-legged, smooth-as-silk-coated, chocolate brown cocker spaniel cross can take up so much of my time, not to mention affection.

But today I’m writing about something different. Last week (yes, I’ve been inundated with work and a bit slow to post) I went to hear Mayor of London Boris Johnson present the Keynote Speech at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Actually, thinking about it, Boris, whose full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (the Pfeffel bit sounds like a German cookie to me) is rather spaniel-like with his floppy hair and cuddly appearance. Oh dear, I can’t go more than a few sentences without mentioning dogs…

Anyway, back to BJ. Spending an hour listening to him talk was one of the best things I’ve done all year. Boris is a dazzling speaker – witty, engaging, erudite, encyclopaedic in his knowledge and self-deprecating in the way only the English can be; he referred, for example, to a small sporting event that took place in London last year and seemed to go quite well!

Our man in London, Boris

Our man in London, Boris

He was given the theme ‘the power of the written word’ but he also spoke in praise of urbanisation reminding us that 89 per cent of the Australian population live in urban areas, a density which rivals that of Monaco. He wove in all sorts of literary and cultural references from Virgil to Chaucer, Star Wars and Harry Potter never missing a beat or an opportunity to refer to his beloved London, Routemaster buses and the Oyster card (with a little side swipe at our Myki system). And, of course, he mentioned his book Johnson’s Life of London here and there. This was a writers’ festival after all.

He’s clearly fond of Australia and Melbourne – like Prince Charles, he spent some time at Timber Tops – and talked about London as Melbourne’s Antipodean mirror. With so many Aussies in London (are they still all in Earl’s Court?), he declared himself Mayor of Australia’s 12th largest city! It was heartening to hear a politician – and a Conservative at that – talk so passionately about cultural and linguistic diversity. London wouldn’t be London without its rich blend of migrants from different countries and cultures with over 300 different languages spoken. What a pleasant contrast to the inhumane refugee and asylum-seeker policies cooked up by our ‘turn back the boats’ politicians on both sides of the divide.

He wrapped up his talk by coming back to words and writing. Asked what he will do when he retires, Boris owned up to a secret desire to write a rip-roaring blockbuster, the kind of book that you’d find at an airport bookshop complete with pink embossed writing on the cover. He’d write under a pseudonym, something like Rosie M Banks. If his thriller is anything like his speeches, it will be utterly compelling.