Thursday, 2 April 2020

Stirring up ghosts

Chris Hemsworth as ‘Thor’ | © Disney/Marvel

Grass trodden by Thor!
I promised myself never to take the sight of Christopher Wren's distinctive Old Royal Naval College for granted, no matter how often I see it in my time at Greenwich. It's an easy promise to keep.  Every time it comes into view, from river bus, footpath or big red bus, I marvel anew at its symmetry of design, its grandeur and the centuries of cultural change it communicates. 

And I'm repeatedly awestruck that these elegant buildings were completed and opened some 76 years before Lieutenant Cook landed at Botany Bay.  We white Australians have such a short story.

Inside the Painted Hall
Some of the internal spaces are equally stunning. Thornhill’s Painted Hall is an exquisite storybook of characters from history and myth, and the chapel never fails to make me think of fine Wedgewood china.

But, let's face it, it's also pretty gosh-darn impossible not to be gobsmacked that, almost daily, I'm standing where the mighty Thor battled Malekith, evil leader of the Dark Elves —— right there between the domes in beautiful downtown Greenwich. Truly. Awesome.

Inside the chapel
But these impressive buildings were created not just to inspire awe and celebrate the glories of Britain. As the Royal Hospital for Seamen, they housed thousands of pensioned seafarers, plus the widows and children of such men. Some of the inhabitants were highly distinguished, some were scoundrels. Many were quite unremarkable.
But life is a narrative.
Everyone, no matter how seemingly ordinary, has a story.

The Pensioners
And so it was that a small group of enthusiastic amateur-historian volunteers became the Lives of Pensioners Research Project. Our objective: to transcribe some 250 wills of people who lived at the Hospital in the 18th and 19th centuries and, using them as a starting point, to flesh out their narratives — to put the people back in the buildings.

Just reading the handwriting, dealing with variant spellings and navigating the lack of punctuation in historical wills posed problems to we novices. So, a core group of seven met over Tuesday morning coffee to compare notes, check each other’s transcriptions and compile lists of names, places, words and dates that needed further investigation.

I lack the formidable knowledge of British history and naval traditions in general, and of Greenwich in particular, that the others have. I didn't know the typical names of the era and common place names were a mystery to me. I couldn't even have told you what county Greenwich was in. Boatswain, testatrix, the Chalk Groins — all strangers to me.
Bumpkin from the Antipodes.
Pop kulcha loving hick from the New World.
Definitely odd-one-out.
That is me.
Our summer picnic in the grounds with archive staff.

But this group of intelligent, witty women has become my lifeline.
Intelligent AND witty AND willing to tolerate me. 
Go figure.
Proves how great they are — right?
They are the only people I've met in my three years in London who have included me in anything.
I owe them more than they can possibly imagine.
But I digress.

Back to the wills
...and on this excursion day, we froze!
We Pensioner Researchers set out on a fun journey through genealogical data, naval records, court and parish documents, rate books, letters, diaries, newspapers and journals.
We explored the treasures of the National Archives at Kew, Caird Library of the National Maritime Museum, Wellcome Library, and Greenwich Heritage Centre. We even visited cemeteries and Chatham Historic Dockyard. It's definitely been what Pooh would call a grand adventure.

Many of the wills offer little to work with, but others give rise to fascinating questions or have quirky details to inform our investigations:
·      pensioner Edmund Grenan stipulates that he be buried at the very specific cost of £1 11s 6d. How much DID the average funeral cost?

·      porter John Woolley bequeaths each person who supports his pall a hatband and gloves. Gloves seem reasonable, but why a hatband?

·      Elizabeth Latham, a nurse 1707–1727, bequeaths valuable fabric and silverware to her granddaughter, but leaves just one shilling to her son, John. What did John do to piss her off?

We have been stirring up ghosts and helping them tell their stories.

It's fun.

I'm pretty sure Stan Lee would approve.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Show and Tell

When we left The Rock, I claimed I would write about all the amazing things I do and see over here, that I'd review theatre and music experiences, describe museum adventures... that I'd blog often.
I haven't.
Coz really, that's a journal isn't it? 
Who cares what I think and do?
My posts that get the best responses are the funny ones.
Or the heartfelt ones.

And if I did write about all those things, wouldn't I run the risk of boring the pants off the precious few people who do visit my blog? And alienate others with tales of my over-privileged-brat existence? I mean, honestly, why would anyone give a fat rat's rear end about my London life?

Well, this week I had an experience that I so desperately need to share, that my brain is
Clock storage V&A
going to explode if I don't.

So if you don't give a fat rat's rear end, I fully understand. But I'm going to gush anyway. Feel free to bail out when you feel your pants slipping off and your brain going numb...

If you know me at all, you understand that I became emotionally entangled with the National Vietnam Veterans Museum on The Rock. And I decided that while I was living in this history-soaked city, I would absorb/learn/cram into my leaky brain as much as possible that might benefit NVVM when I come home. So, I'm currently four  weeks into twelve mind-expanding Wednesdays of a museum skills course at the magnificent Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. 

This week's topic was Research and Resources. Sounds dry and dull, I hear you say. Fear not! It was anything but...

It all began when the Head Librarian of the National Art Library brought a collection of Charles Dickens' hand-written manuscripts and type-set page proofs into our classroom. 
I was allowed to handle them, to get up close and personal with how Dickens edited his own writing and to see what a headache he must have given the typesetters who had to make all the adjustments he demanded.
 Right there in my hands.
 Breathing was difficult.

Next came a visit to the Prints and Drawing Study Room. Apparently anyone can request to see anything stored there. The collection belongs to the people.

A selection of archive boxes had been set out for us to explore. We were encouraged to handle the contents and consider how well they reflect the information stored in the catalogue.
In some of those boxes were:
E.H Shephard sketches for Now We Are Six
Medieval illuminated manuscripts
Horst photographs for Vogue in the 1930s

Rembrandt etchings
Blythe House
By then I needed a good strong cup of tea and a little lie down.
But it was only lunchtime.

The V&A has on display only two percent of its collection. Most of it is stored at Blythe House in Olympia, a facility shared with the Science Museum and that also houses the Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion. 
The building is every bit as immense and imposing as you might imagine it to be.

In the Clothworkers' Centre, mannequins and variously shaped garment bags accommodate gowns and jackets and breeches and suits and dresses and shirts from the greatest of designers and eras —on bespoke hangers.
I walked amongst them.

Metal drawers protect items too heavy or fragile to hang.

Like these:
Norman Hartnell's Flowers of the Fields of France worn by HM Queen Elizabeth II in Paris, 1957.

It's a Norman Hartnell icon, an early example of a formal gown decorated with plastic beads instead of glass, to make it lighter for the small-framed Queen to wear. 

Amidst the native flowers and grasses of France, bees — the symbol of Napoleon —hover.

The hem is soiled where it has brushed the floor, and the wine stain on the bodice has yet to be removed by a specialist conservator.

Tapestry from wall hanging c.1570

About 15 cm x 7 cm in size, this is one of several pieces of tapestry featuring animals that had been removed from their safe dark bedroom and left on a table for us to scrutinise with a monocle-like magnifying device.

A PhD student investigating art created by women during their incarceration had requested a viewing of these pieces — stitched by Mary Queen of Scots when, having been forced by rampaging Protestants to abdicate, she was imprisoned in Carlisle Castle by Queen Elizabeth 1... 450 years ago.

Seemingly endless hallways of rolling storage vaults house furniture and artwork.
Roomsful of moisture-proof boxes protect manuscripts and theatre programs by the tens of thousand. 
I wanted to hide in there and make it my home.

The NVVM collections volunteer in me was just a little amazed to discover that London's Science Museum favours open-shelf storage — no boxes. 
The accreditation managers at Museums Victoria would fail them for that!

Science Museum treasures in open storage
 That's what I felt.
 Overwhelm and a deep sense of privilege —   all swirled together with an ever-present   awareness that Australia is a such a young   country.
It's humbling for me to be amidst objects of such rich cultural significance and profound historical interest. I'm pretty sure I've never done anything to deserve such plenty.
But I am learning heaps about museums  best-practice. I really am. 

So if you've made it all the way to here, thank you for indulging me.
And I sincerely hope you still have your pants on. 

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Of daffodils

It's Wordsworth time of year — daffodil season. 
'Hosts' of the 'jocund' things are 'fluttering and dancing' in parks and public spaces all over London. 

Bucketsful of rigid buds, not-yet-golden, bundled into £1 and £2 bunches wait patiently in Tescos, Sainsbury's and M&S, promising to fill 'my heart with pleasure' and brighten dull corners of our mostly-grey apartment.
The other morning as I set out across the park that borders our block, I was, as usual, running a little late and feeling anxious about whether the damn bus would be, as usual, running a little early. So I wasn't paying much attention to anything. But I did notice that a young woman pushing a stroller was coming the other way, towards me from the roadway. She was looking at her phone. And dragging on a cigarette. 
I moved to other side of the path.

As I did, the little person burst out of the push-chair. Squealing in excitement, the toddler rushed into the rows of daffodils, running her hands along their heads as she went, her laughter floating up through the naked Birch branches. The flowers bobbed and nodded.
I laughed.
"Get back 'ere. Stop! Why've you gotta be so bloody naughty?"
My smile melted. 
My feet moved me on a little faster.

That afternoon at the Old Royal Naval College, Karen and I were leaving at the same time. John is knowledgeable, genial, helpful ... one of very few who have bothered to engage me in conversation. And I know he loves to garden. So as we passed a bank of daffodils, I mentioned how at this time last year they had struggled to keep their heads above the snow, and of the many varieties I had noticed this season — from compact minis to knee-high trumpeters, from orange centred brights to near-translucent flat-faced beauties. 
And of how they make me happy.

"Not those wretched doubles," he all but spat. "I can't abide those show-off doubles. Can't stand double roses either. Awful frilly things."

I had no response.

Two scoops of ice-cream in a waffle cone, two shots of gin in a long glass of cold tonic, the top deck of a big red bus — I like doubles. 
Extra rows of petals are just fine by me.
Maybe that's my problem. 
Too much is never enough.
And if I was a toddler, I'm pretty sure I'd run through the daffodils too. 
How can people be grumpy around daffodils?
Carnations maybe.
But not daffodils.
Am I right?

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Dental dilemma

Grey skies.
A piece has broken off a molar. 
It's not a devastating break. My brain didn't even realise it had happened. 
My tongue found it. 
I registered a kind of minor ache in my left lower jaw. Nothing dramatic. Not even enough to move the needle on the discomfort metre really, but my damn tongue just wouldn't leave it alone. 
Not like Nabakov's happy seal, though.

His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft... (Pnin, 1957)

Mine hasn't been frolicking playfully.
Mine's been prodding and rasping in a frightfully accusatory manner. 
Ignore this.
I dare you.

I'm not scared of the dentist, though Lord knows I probably should be. I really don't know why I kept going back to Dr Skinner for so many years — decades — especially after those several times he braced one foot against the base of the hydraulic chair for extra leverage to extract a tooth that remained staunchly unwilling to give up its permanent status.
"Better than ... errrgh ... having to...nmnph... wear braces," he assured me as I ... ahem... braced against the g-force. 

No, it's not the fear of the dentist that's brought on the grey skies; it's the having to find a new dentist in this foreign place. I've only regularly attended three different dental practices in my 60 years. 

Finding a new dentist to trust — one who doesn't overcharge, over-service  or over-emote — is almost as difficult as finding a new hairdresser.

 Harley Street waiting room £££
Last year I was recommended a wonderful one in Marylebone. Not just frightfully posh Marylebone. Super-frightfully posh Harley Street, Marylebone.
Harley Street is so posh that the footpaths are even. 
If you've ever walked the streets of London, you'll know  that's a very big deal.

So, yes, she was lovely.
And yes, she was thorough.
But yes, as my dear dad would've said, she charged like a wounded bull.
I won't be going back.
I have to find a dentist on a precariously overcrowded street — one with bins in the front yards, and cracks in the footpath.

Wish me luck.

Friday, 19 October 2018

When is a ticket not a ticket?

I was a latecomer to the party that celebrates how a bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, grew up to be the hero and scholar known as Alexander Hamilton.

If you weren’t, then chances are you’re already snapping your fingers, and the words I just used have dropped a worm in your ear that will hum and tap for the rest of the day.

Possibly longer.

Yes, I love theatre. And I’ve always had an unhealthily dependent relationship with modern music — music in general. So the combination of the two, theatre and music, usually brings me a huge amount of joy. But I was unsure that a hip-hop/rap show about one of America's Founding Fathers would appeal to me.

Waiting at Checkoint-Hamilton
Yes, it won a squillion awards. But it all seemed to me to be a bit too cool and now-ish. Trying too hard.

And, yes, I enjoyed studying American History. But that was way back in 1974, when Mr Livitsanis made lessons fun. Besides, I was far more engaged by reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and watching Little Big Man than learning about a bunch of dead-white-guy political revolutionaries.

Consequently, with no trips to Broadway on the horizon and little likelihood of the Big H ever coming to Melbourne, I didn’t bother to listen to the soundtrack of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical.
Silly me.
Hamilton hit the West End just after I did in 2017. It opened to enormous fanfare at the not-quite-finished-being-renovated Victoria Palace — spitting distance from Victoria Station. Meghan and Harry even gave it the royal stamp of approval. And, as I had set myself the challenge of having a glass of bubbly at a show in every theatre in London during our sojourn here, I decided it was time I joined the Hamil-narrative.

But one doesn’t just buy a ticket and turn up at the theatre with Hamilton. Nothing so simple. There’s a production before the production.

You see, seats went on sale at about the same time that Robbie Williams was revealed to be something less than squeaky clean. His management team was busted putting tickets to his shows directly on resale sites at hugely inflated prices. Bastards. 
One day I’ll tell you about how pissed off I was that BTS tickets were already appearing on Viagogo et al for £500+ each while I was still on hold in the official on-line queue.

Anyway, knowing that they were about to release the hottest tickets in town, the collective mind controlling the West End Hamilton Juggernaut decided to foil any potential on-sellers, and to keep the prices down — cough…splutter…ahem… top of the range seats are £250, and to make it impossible for scalpers to gouge theatre-loving tourists who rock up on the one day they’re in London hoping to get in. 
Hamilton has fraud thwarting paperless ticketing. Here’s how it works.

1   You purchase your non-transferable seats on-line and receive a receipt by email. A warning advises that the:
a.     credit card used should be valid until after the date of the booking
b.     person whose name appears on the credit card MUST be in attendance, WITH said credit card, in order to gain entry to the theatre.
2. You wait anything up to a year for the date of the show you managed to get seats for.
3    A week prior to the performance, another email arrives, reminding you that you are going to the show. It advises you to plan to arrive at the theatre AN HOUR before the performance in order to get through the entry procedure in time for you to take your seat before the overture starts. And it reminds you to bring:
a.     your receipt
b.     the credit card used for the booking
c. official photographic proof that you are the person who made the booking!  I shit you not: licence, passport or equivalent.
Too bad if you’ve lost your card.
And what if the person who made the booking is unable to attend I hear you ask? Well, then NOBODY in the booking can enter the theatre and you will have to apply for refund with acceptable explanation/evidence of the situation.

These are our not-tickets
4   You arrive at the theatre ridiculously early so that you can join an enormously long queue personned by friendly security guards, one or more of whom will check that you have all paperwork necessary to pass checkpoint-Hamilton.

     Finally at the door, after a bag inspection and body pat-down by yet more security personnel, you offer up said paperwork for further scrutinising. If all identity, safety and receipt carrying checks are deemed to have been passed, the seat-purchasing credit card is swiped through a hand-held machine ... which then PRINTS OUT A BLOODY TICKET. Only it’s NOT a ticket. It’s called a Seat Location Slip. 

Anyway, as I sipped my well-dearned pre-show bubbly, the decor in the bar of the theatre was pleasantly diverting. Almost as enjoyable as the conversation going on beside me between a woman in her late twenties and a man who was older than me, which makes him pretty old. Resplendent in a navy-blue suit, white shirt and spotty grey bow tie, he'd been browsing the glossy programme while she bought the drinks.
As he took his glass of red from her, he asked in gloriously educated British tones, ‘So remind me again why I should care about this piece of pop-culture meets American history?’
‘Oh Dad, it’s ground-breaking. The staging is brilliant and the singing is fabulous. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. And it has the most wonderfully culturally diverse cast.’
‘Hmmmm.’ He appeared unconvinced. ‘And how many of the chaps it’s about were “culturally diverse”?’
‘Well, none Dad. They were all white males. But that’s the point…’
… crickets…
Wine sipping.
… more crickets…

Feeling quite smug, my hesitations having been so convincingly eclipsed by his prejudging, and hoping the poor girl hadn’t wasted her money as she had just wasted her breath, I headed off clutching our not-tickets to locate PSTALL E 19 and PSTALL E 20.

And in case you’re wondering, by the time I jumped to my feet crying and applauding in equal measure at the end of the show, I had a new entry for my Top 5 fave musicals. Romance, humour, passion, rivalry, hubris, loyalty… Hamilton has all the features of a classic musical, plus so much more.

So I’m finally on the Hamilton bandwagon or chuckwagon or whatever the hell kind of wagon it is, but I’m definitely along for the ride. Indeed, I will be re-subjecting myself to the overkill paperless ticketless process as I intend to go back and see it again. 
It's worth selling that one functioning kidney.

So were you an early starter? or a doubter ilke me? What's your role in the Hamil-narrative?
And I'm sure you have a ticketing nightmare of your own to tell me about. Share the pain.