Mudlarking

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Last week, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of being a mudlarker on the Thames. When I was at primary school, a man came in to talk to us about the treasure that could be found on the banks of the river, and showed us some of his haul. Clay pipes, pottery, even Roman coins; the thought that all of this was just floating about in the Thames, ready to be picked up by an eagle-eyed passer by, was incredible. Obviously I went home and told my mum all about it, and begged her to take me mudlarking so that I could find Roman coins of my own. My mum, unsurprisingly, was less keen on the idea, and so my dreams of discovering treasure amidst the detritus of centuries worth of rubbish slowly died. Over the years I have often seen people pottering about down on the river banks, but I never felt that I could join them. I wouldn’t know where to look, or even what to look for. The whole concept of mudlarking seemed silly and fanciful, and so it merely remained a wistful and much treasured memory of my childhood, destined, I thought, never to see the light of day.

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Until I taught my current Year 7 class about Roman Britain, that is, and I happened to tell them about the man who came in to talk to me when I was at primary school, and who showed me the Roman coins he had found on the banks of the Thames. My students, with eyes like saucers, demanded to be taken to find their own Roman treasure, and I thought, why on earth not? Finally, I would have the chance to fulfil my own dream, and get a day out of the classroom to boot! So, I looked into our options, found a wonderful tour run by the Thames Explorer Trust in conjunction with the Museum of London, and promptly booked us on. Trussed up in wellies and waterproofs, we went to the museum for a workshop, where we learned all about the different types of objects we might find on the river bank and how we could tell the age of the most common things we were likely to come across. It was absolutely fascinating; the bits and pieces of broken pottery, masonry, clay pipes, oyster shells etc that are scattered across the muddy banks are a window into the social history of London, revealing the habits of the people who walked the same streets I do every day, as well as the changing make up of London and the significant events of its past. I had no idea that it was still possible to find roof tiles that were thrown into the Thames after the Great Fire, or that there are so many clay pipes in the river because they were the equivalent of cigarettes. I also had no idea that oyster shells were the equivalent of our fast food wrappers, and that so many have holes in them not because they’ve been eroded in the waters over time, but because Victorians used to use them to make spare buttons. It’s amazing to think that so much of this history is still here, and in plain sight, too. It’s just lying there, waiting to be discovered.

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And that is exactly what we went on to do. Just a few yards from the museum are steps down to the river bank, and as soon as we set foot on the rocky slip of sand beneath the Millennium Bridge, we started finding treasure. Without even needing to dig or move any stones, we could pick up clay pipes, pieces of pottery, old glass and tiles. We were amazed at the ease in which we filled up our little bags with colourful shards of pottery, some of which was medieval, as well as 17th century glass and a very impressive collection of clay pipe bowls. I was thrilled to find a lovely selection of bits of white and blue pottery, as well as my own clay pipe, which was the only thing I really wanted to find, having been so amazed by the ones the man who came to my primary school had shown me all those years ago. We trooped back to school feeling like archaeologists, and though we hadn’t found any Roman coins, we had discovered so much about the history of our city and how much we can learn from the rubbish we leave behind. It was such a remarkable adventure and one I plan on repeating again soon. There’s nothing like a spot of mudlarking to connect you with the history of London and make you feel like a character in a Dickens novel. And best of all, it’s completely free! Just make sure you check the times of the tide before you go.

ps. mine and Simon’s latest podcast is now live – you can listen here!

Various Pursuits

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Sorry for disappearing for a while there. I’ve got no real excuse other than just being busy!

I’ve just come back from a few days in Paris, which was lovely; it was a work trip, so I didn’t have masses of free time, but I did manage to sneak in a visit to Musee d’Orsay and the Petit Palais, both of which have wonderful examples of 19th and early 20th century art, a cake and chocolat chaud at my favourite cafe, Cafe Angelina, and a night time stroll that took in Notre Dame and Shakespeare and Co. Plus of course plenty of steak frites and vin rouge. Unfortunately I always seem to be in Paris when it’s grey and miserable, so I’m looking forward to this summer, when I’ll actually be there when it should be sunny…though as you can see from the picture above, it is still pretty even when the sky is glowering!

I’ve been up to a lot in the last couple of months in London, too. I’ve been to a few exhibitions – Two Temple Place’s new exhibition on Ancient Egypt is very good, and as always, it’s worth a visit just to look at the building, aside from the objects on show. I really enjoyed the Artist and Empire exhibition at the Tate, though I thought Frank Auerbach was everything that I find incomprehensible and infuriating about modern art – if anyone is a fan, please do enlighten me about what I was supposed to see in his work, because I failed to see anything! The Vogue Century of Style exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is enormous and worth seeing, though personally I could have done with far more on the early days of the magazine and its design and photography than the stuff from the 70s onwards. I thought Lee Miller’s war photography was the all too limited star of the show, and I must get to the exhibition of her women in war photographs at the Imperial War Museum before it closes. Cinema-wise, I’ve been doing my best to see the Oscar nominated films, and I have to say my favourite of the lot so far is Spotlight, which was shocking and compelling in equal measure.  I expected my favourite to be The Danish Girl, but in fact, I was largely annoyed by it. It was beautifully shot, and Alicia Vikander in particular was marvellous, but overall I found the story very reductive and lacking in any actual substance. I thought that everything that really mattered was completely glossed over, and it’s a shame, because it could have been a brilliant and quite daring film in bolder hands.

And finally, reading. I’ve not managed to read a lot of late; there’s just not been time. But I’ve just finished re-reading Marghanita Laski’s To Bed With Grand Music, which I found just as shocking yet compulsive as the first time I read it, though this time I could not find as much sympathy for Deborah, the protagonist, as I did when I was a younger reader. It’s a fascinating novel set in London during the Second World War, but rather than the plucky, can do spirit seen in many wartime novels, this takes a very different tack, looking at the war from the perspective of those who used it to their advantage. With husbands and wives away, the characters that populate Laski’s wartime London can’t wait to play, and Deborah, initially determined to not be unfaithful to her husband, soon finds herself irresistibly drawn into the glamorous whirl of life as a mistress to a variety of rich and handsome men. I think I was almost the same age as Deborah – 24 – on my first reading, and I could appreciate her youth, her naivety, and her selfishness from the perspective of being that young myself. I could see how she could have been led astray, seduced from the comforts of hearth and home to live a life of excitement and glamour that she had never really had the chance to enjoy. However, on this reading, I only saw her as a selfish, shallow woman, whose only aim in life had always been to secure the best for herself, regardless of anyone else. However her husband is no better; in fact, almost everyone in this novel, male and female, comes across as being incredibly self-centred and weak, and Laski paints a very unpleasant view of the world, suggesting that, by and large, people are incapable of fidelity and only motivated by their own desires. As such, even though it’s a very well written book, and brings the seedy streets of wartime London very effectively to life, it does leave a somewhat unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Another book that I wouldn’t call an enjoyable experience, but was an interesting and compelling read nonetheless, was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I found it incredibly hauntingly and powerfully written, with Capote’s customary elegance and style, but the portrayal of events was completely not what I had expected. The family, made out to be types, examples of those who prospered from the American Dream, became unreal, the tragedy of their deaths undermined by the saccharinity of their depiction. Homecoming Queen Nancy, science fair winning Kenyon, tee tolling, God fearing Herb and his shy, anxious wife Bonnie felt like caricatures, and though the gruesome manner of their deaths was certainly graphically described, I felt I was not encouraged to grieve for them as people. The real sympathy in the book is given to their killers, Smith and Hickock, who are painted as lost souls failed by the system, products of abuse and poverty and lack of opportunity, who killed out of a frustration and envy that the world had not offered them what it had promised. Capote’s fascination with and romanticising of the killers bordered on the disturbing for me, and I found his decision to turn the murders of four completely normal, innocent people into some sort of modern day fable, almost excusing their deaths as being the inevitable result of inequality in American society, actually rather disrespectful. Therefore, as much as I enjoyed the quality of the writing and was intrigued by the subject matter, I found it a very unsettling book. I’d be very interested to hear what other people have made of it.

So that’s me caught up. I’ll try not to leave it so long next time! In the meantime, do make sure you go and listen to mine and Simon’s latest podcasts – you can access them through Simon’s blog or on our iTunes page here. We can’t promise professionalism, but we can promise you will be entertained!

Books of 2015

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I feel like I didn’t get an awful lot of books read just for my own pleasure this year. The majority of my reading, when I look down the list I’ve kept, is made up of books I’ve taught, books I’ve read for school book clubs, and books I’ve read to learn things from that I then had to teach. Of the handful of books I chose myself, not many made a lasting impression. I was particularly disappointed by Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping; as an adoring fan of her Gilead trilogy, I was very surprised and not a little deflated to find that her first novel left me so cold. I’ve dabbled in a fair few of the British Library Crime Classics reprints, but none have matched up to the first one I read, Murder Underground, by Mavis Doriel Hay (what a name!) and unless someone fervently recommends another title to me, I don’t think I’ll read any more of them next year. They might have ridiculously pretty covers, but I can’t help but think there was probably a good reason none of those writers became another Agatha Christie.

So, negatives out of the way, what books did light my fire this year? Well, in actual fact, there were quite a few, and they are a very random selection that, when I think about it, does sum up my year uncannily well. The first is a book I have just finished, and am yet to review. It’s been sitting on my bookshelves for probably a good decade, ignored and unappreciated, and I feel quite ashamed for having abandoned it for so long. Rosamund Lehmann is a novelist I went through a binge read of just after I left university, and I found her a refreshing, interesting and beautifully lyrical writer whose words just danced on the page. For some reason, I decided to save Invitation to the Waltz for another day, however, and sadly that day took an absurdly long time to come. Never mind, because it has come at last, and I was absolutely enchanted by this brilliantly poetic, wonderfully atmospheric account of a girl’s first ball, and all of the attendant hopes, dreams and emotions that come with it. It’s exactly the sort of book I love – absolutely nothing happens, but within that nothingness contains everything that life is really all about. You must read it. I’m currently reading the sequel, The Weather in the Streets, which is just as marvellous, and I’ve fallen in love with Rosamund Lehmann all over again.

The second and third are Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – no need for me to tell you what they’re about, I’m sure – only that they’re amongst the best written books I’ve ever read, and absolutely compulsive reading material. I was utterly sucked into the world she created, and the characters possessed my mind for weeks after I’d finished. If I could write like Hilary Mantel, I’d die a happy woman. If you haven’t tried her yet, you need to! Fourth on the list would be The Chateau by William Maxwell – a beautiful account of a long summer spent in post war France that is fully representative of the stunning prose and empathetic heart of Maxwell. He is such a fantastic writer, and though my favourite of his books will probably always be They Came like Swallows, The Chateau is superb, and a real treat for the mind.

Fifth and Sixth are two books about the First World War – the first a contemporary novel, The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray, reprinted this year by Persephone Books. Not actually all that much about the war, as it turned out, but instead a very powerful book about regrets and hopes and learning to be content with what life hands you, and it has a stunningly written portrayal of a childhood home that took my breath away. I haven’t been enormously enamoured with Persephone’s choice of new books of late, but this one really reminded me of how superb their selections can be. The second book about the war was Pat Barker’s modern take on the war, Regeneration, which I inhaled over the course of a few days and found absolutely compelling. Barker’s writing style is so fresh and readable, and she chose a fascinating angle to explore in this account of Craiglockhart war hospital. If you’ve never read it, you must!

Two historical books take seventh and eighth place. I loved reading My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst after watching the powerful and moving Suffragette at the cinema. It is preachy and hyperbolic in places, and certainly not an unbiased account of affairs, but still an eye opening and passionate revelation of the hideous treatment of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it really should be required reading for those who think that feminism is unnecessary. I was also amazed by what I learned from reading Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain – I may have had to read this for work, but I loved every moment of it. Who knew how sophisticated Stone Age Britons were? I certainly didn’t, and it gave me a real education. Neil Oliver writes with such zest, and he really manages to bring history to life. I’ve already got more of his books lined up to read.

Finally, my ninth book of the year is a YA novel, read for work, but again, a surprising delight and one that actually moved me to tears. I’d never read any Neil Gaiman before, and fantasy most certainly is not usually my cup of tea at all, but The Graveyard Book is a wonderfully imaginative, inventive and emotive exploration of a boy’s journey to young adulthood, in a very unusual setting, and it’s most definitely not just for kids. I’d really encourage you to give it a try.

So that’s my books of 2015. I have no reading plans at all for 2016, because I know from experience that there is no point, as I won’t stick to them anyway. I shall simply read whatever I feel like. Hopefully I’ll get through a fair few of the books I’ve had hanging around on my shelves for years, but with Oxfam’s biggest second hand book shop right next door to where I work, I wouldn’t bet on it…

Happy New Year everybody, and thank you once again for reading! See you in 2016!

Christmas in London

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Living in London for the first time in years has given me a fresh appreciation for the festive delights that pop up as soon as December 1st arrives. I work just off Oxford Street, and depressing as it is that I arrive at and leave school in the darkness, this is made much more bearable by the suspended orbs of light that dangle like baubles from the trees along Tottenham Court Road. The shops are all full of fancy window displays, there are Christmas trees everywhere you look, the banks of the river are swarming with the wooden huts of a German Christmas market, and the shrieks of skaters and the scent of mulled wine float gently on the air. Yes, it’s unbearably crowded in the shops and I wish that people would stop hitting me with their enormous shopping bags, but it’s worth it to experience the way in which London comes shimmering to life at Christmas time.

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A few weeks ago I went to Kew Gardens to experience their Christmas light show; it was incredibly impressive, and I particularly loved the ‘Fire Garden’, which was a section of the grounds filled with sculptures that were lit by hundreds of burning candles. It’s hard to get across in a photograph, but it transported me to another world; it felt practically pagan, and I imagined that this was perhaps what our Stone Age ancestors did on the Winter Solstice, thousands of years ago. There were plenty more lovely sights to see, with all sorts of creative blends of lights and flowers that took my breath away. It’s well worth a visit if you can make it before Christmas.

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Somerset House and the Natural History Museum have the most impressive ice skating rinks in London, and though I am no ice skater, I always appreciate their beautiful decorations and love stopping by to watch the people skate. The enormous Christmas tree at Somerset House is a real beauty, though it’s nothing compared to the colossus that has been erected at Covent Garden, which truly is a tree worth a special trip to see. This year Covent Garden has been decorated with giant mistletoe leaves and berries, and looks absolutely gorgeous; whoever is responsible for the designs is clearly a real talent, and I think it’s a wonderfully inventive take on Christmas lights.

There’s plenty to look forward to for me, yet; I’m off to Westminster Abbey for carols on Thursday, the Royal Albert Hall for carols on Saturday, and the ballet at Sadler’s Wells on Sunday, before heading back to Kent to spend Christmas in the countryside with my family. I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and New Year; thank you so much for reading my blog and I hope next year to be a less sporadic presence…

 

Disappointments in Reading

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I’ve been reading quite a lot lately, but not with much success. It’s always a disappointment when you slog your way through a book, hoping that you’ll reach a point where suddenly a clever sleight of hand will be performed by the author, elevating what has been a hum-drum story into something sublime, only to find yourself reading the final chapter with a sinking heart as you become only too aware that the past week of your life has been spent reading something that was never going to be anything other than distinctly average.

I was so excited to read The Lake District Murder by John Bude, which is one of the gorgeously designed British Library Crime Classics. I thought it would have just the right mixture of a lovely setting, period detail and criminal intrigue to keep me occupied during my commute without requiring much intellectual engagement, as I can hardly be expected to try and work out the solution to a complex mystery while also trying to stay upright in a packed tube carriage. It started well; I loved plucky Inspector Meredith, whose suspicions about the supposed suicide of a garage owner lead to a murder investigation, I enjoyed the Boys-Own style voice of the author, and I was much amused by the depiction of the average life of a police officer in the 1930s, when much of the working day seemed to involve popping home for a ‘good lunch’ or smoking a pipe with one’s superior in a hotel lounge while chatting over the confidential facts of a case in full hearing of the rest of the local population. However, it soon deteriorated into a rather dull, incredibly technical exploration of just how the criminals, who are spelled out from Chapter One, managed to conduct their crime, which involves lots of measuring of time and distance and cubic square metres. This goes on for chapter after chapter, while everyone is stumped by what can possibly be happening, and I was becoming increasingly annoyed by how dense they were, because even though I am no mathematician, it really was quite obvious that they were barking up the wrong tree. By the time I got to the end of what had become a very far fetched story, I was left with the impression that if I had been alive in the 1930s I could evidently have been Head of Scotland Yard judging from the efficacy of the police force at the time, and I was also reminded that choosing a book based on how much I like the cover is not always the best way to find something that sets my heart on fire.

Disappointment number two was my second attempt at reading Toni Morrison. I’ve had Song of Solomon on my shelves for ages, as I thought I’d have to teach it at my last school but never actually did, and as I am trying to reduce the pile of unread books I own, I decided I’d take the opportunity to be able to read it for pleasure rather than with my teacher’s hat on. I studied Beloved for A Level and hated it; I found it a profoundly disturbing and unpleasant book, and while I can appreciate the skill of Morrison’s writing, I did not enjoy the process of reading her at all. I hoped Song of Solomon would be different, but sadly, it wasn’t. Once again I could admire her skill as a craftswoman, and the power of her imagination, but I was left cold by the characters and their stories, and could not feel emotionally involved in what was happening at all. The only pleasure I got from reading it was in mentally analysing the literary techniques, metaphors, Biblical allegories etc that I found as I went along, because Morrison does write beautifully and she is undoubtedly a phenomenally intelligent woman, but I struggled to find any emotional connection to the tale being told, and I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. I think it’s because I find Morrison’s stories so deeply pessimistic that I don’t enjoy them; I know she is exploring the traumatic and unjust experiences of African Americans throughout history, so it’s hardly going to be sunshine and rainbows, and rightly so, but there is a profound misery in her books that leaves me feeling utterly depressed. These days we are surrounded by so much negativity that I suppose I just don’t want any more of it; I want to be inspired and uplifted by what I read, not pulled into the depths of despair. But that’s just my opinion, and it’s clear that plenty of people don’t feel the way I do about Morrison, otherwise she wouldn’t be as lauded as she is. It’s strange how some authors can just not work for you, as much as you can appreciate their skill. I have pressed the remarkable Marilynne Robinson on some people, convinced that they will love her as much as I do, and they have had much the same reaction to her as I do to Toni Morrison. I can’t understand it, but there it is. There is just, I suppose, no accounting for individual taste.

So, next up on my reading list is going to be something I know I’m definitely going to love. Whilst in Daunt Books the other day, I treated myself to the wonderful Alexandra Harris’ new book, Weatherland, which is an exploration of how British writers and artists have used the weather as creative inspiration over the past thousand years. I can’t wait to get stuck in; it’s a beautifully produced book, with loads of illustrations, and if it’s anywhere near as amazing as Romantic Moderns, I know I’m going to be in reading heaven. I think I deserve it after my month of disappointments!