The tightly-wound baby saint

One day early in the trip I dragged the fam down Strand, past King’s College, to an obscure sci-fi shop to get some Dr. Who swag. I made out that this was some great sacrifice in order to bring home a present for Chad but of course it was all about ME. And I found something pretty awesome: a pewter Dalek bottle-stopper, which is threatening to exterminate our bourbon even as I type this.


On our way we noticed the Courtauld Gallery, which looked to be an interesting little museum. So we came back a couple of days later.


The Courtauld belongs to the University of London. Apparently it’s one of the best small galleries in the world, and is famous for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, such as the famous Manet above. It’s pretty cool to stand in front of the Manet and contemplate the angles of the reflections that have sparked so much debate. And also to contemplate her eyes, which are bored, tragic, and a little hard.


My favorite, however, was from a few centuries earlier – The Birth of St. Augustine, circa 1450, by Antonio Vivarini. I love the drapey folds of the bedcover. I love Augustine’s grim little old-man face  — and how sad everyone else is, like they were expecting a piano or a keg of beer instead of a baby. I love how tightly he’s swaddled, as if he’s been put through one of those machines at the airport that wraps your luggage in layers and layers of plastic. I love the rich colors, and the mystery lady in red who’s staring out the window. What is she doing there? She creeps me out a little.

I’ve never heard of you before, Mr. Vivarini, but I salute you.



One for the millennium

Every great city needs a river – if only to have something to build bridges over.


I loved London’s new-ish Millennium pedestrian bridge. For one thing, I love infrastructure that elevates walkers to the same level of importance as drivers. For another thing, it’s gorgeous, with curvy tubes that swoop like birds in flight.

Photo: Wikipedia


I think it’s time New York had a pedestrian bridge this nice. Perhaps from my apartment directly over the Hudson to the giant Korean spa in Jersey. How about it, Mr. Mayor? I’ll be expecting your call.



Not your average fire tower

London sprang back quickly from the Great Fire of 1666, and in 1677 it unveiled an impressive monument to the fire. It was designed by the great architect Christopher Wren – who, it must be said, made out like a bandit after the fire, building more than 50 churches to replace those that had burned.


Centuries later it’s still breathtaking to turn down the little alley off King William Street, right at the foot of the London Bridge, and catch sight of the monument holding its own among all the newer buildings.

It’s 202 feet tall, and stands 202 feet from the bakery where the fire started. There are 311 stairs leading to the top and of course we climbed them.

The stairs start out narrow and get narrower as you go up.

The views from the top are ample reward.



Especially this one.


It’s fun to get a close look at the golden flame on top of the monument, too.


Proving that humans are really kind of terrible (as if we needed more proof), the inscriptions on the sides of the monument became a political football in a decades-long battle of religious prejudice. When the fire swept through London, some residents concluded that Catholics were trying to burn the city down. They began grabbing and beating anyone suspected of being Catholic.

Early inscriptions on the monument blamed a “Popish frenzy” for the fires. The words were removed when James II, a Catholic, ascended to the throne in 1685. They were restored when William III and Mary II succeeded him in 1689, and stayed until they were chiseled out for good in 1830.

Please sir, I want some more

It turned out that the neighborhood we were staying in, Southwark (pronounced like “mother” with a k on the end) is rich in Dickens history. The old Marshalsea debtors’ prison, where his father was jailed, was located there. So was the factory where 12-year-old Charles was sent to work off his old man’s debt, and the boardinghouse where he roomed. So on our last day in London I downloaded an excellent walking tour of Dickens’ Southwark and set out to see the sites.


This wall is the only piece of the Marshalsea that survives. It’s pretty powerful to stand here and imagine Charles visiting his family on Sundays, as he did. Or, since Little Dorrit is my favorite of his novels, to imagine Amy Dorrit growing up behind these bricks, and Arthur Clennam thrown in here after losing all his money to the Bernard Madoff of his day.


The block on Lant Street where Dickens boarded is now occupied, appropriately, by the Charles Dickens School.


There’s no trace left of the boot-blacking factory where Dickens worked on Mint Street. This area remained a slum into the 19th century, and then was heavily damaged in air raids during World War II. Now Mint Street is pretty and leafy.


But there’s a glorious treat for Little Dorrit fans that is still very much standing: the Church of St. George the Martyr, where the pivotal wedding takes place. Be still my heart!

Foundlings and faux orphans, part II

The Dickens Museum is located in the only house where Dickens lived in London that’s still standing.

Charles Dickens Museum - interior and exterior photography
Photo: Dickens Museum

Dickens stayed here early in his career, but he was already successful, having rocketed to fame at age 24 with the publication of the Pickwick Papers. He was happily married – at least in those days – and often had gangs of friends over. He had a parlor and a wine cellar and a dining table that comfortably seated eight.

All the while, he was cranking out the pages. It’s amazing to look at his writing desk and ponder the sheer physical effort involved in writing a honking big tome like David Copperfield in longhand.

Photo: IBTimes .com

So, the downstairs rooms of the house reflect success and satisfaction. But there are secrets in the attic – secrets Dickens hid from almost everyone during his lifetime.

When Charles Dickens was twelve, his father was thrown into the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. His mother and younger siblings were clapped in with him, but Charles, being old enough to work, was sent to a factory to paste labels onto bottles of boot blacking. He lived on his own in boarding houses.

I can’t imagine the trauma of being orphaned by the state, tossed out of school and sent to work at age 12. But it becomes a little more real when you see a set of bars from the Marshalsea on display in the attic.

Photo: Dickens Museum

It’s easy to see how this experience shaped Dickens’ writing: all the neglected waifs, poorhouses and debtors’ prisons; the thick vein of social justice that powers the novels. But it raises a tricky question: if you could go back in time, would you pay off the elder Dickens’ debt and rescue Charles from faux orphanhood? Would his brilliant novels then vanish in a puff of smoke? I suspect they would.

If you had the choice, what would you do?

For more Dickens-y stuff, check out the next post about the Marshalsea wall, St. George the Martyr church, and other key Dickens locations.


Foundlings and faux orphans, part I

It was grey and rainy and I guess we were all in the mood for some Sad Tourism, because we set our sights on the Foundling Museum and the Charles Dickens Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from each other in Holborn.

Wisely, we fortified our spirits beforehand at the spectacular Indian YMCA canteen, which I’ve already written about.

The Foundling Museum commemorates London’s first orphanage. Two things stood out to me: one was the remarkable determination of its founder, sea captain and merchant Thomas Coram. In the 1720s, Coram was horrified to learn that upwards of a thousand newborns per year were left to die in the streets of London. He spent 17 years campaigning to establish an institution to take in unwanted children.

Thomas Coram as painted by William Hogarth in 1740.

The second thing that stays with me – that haunts me – is the tokens that parents left with their children when dropping them off at the Foundling Hospital. The tokens allowed them to retrieve the child if their fortunes changed. Many parents wrote wistful messages on the rubbed coins or bits of fabric they pinned to their child’s clothing.

Photo: Foundling Museum

This one has a rebus that spells out “I want relief,” with a little sketch of a baby in a cradle. Sob!


This is a fancy little fabric heart. Bawl!

There was definitely an air of Dickens about the place, too. Cathy remembered that there’s a token involved in Oliver Twist. I remembered that Little Dorrit has a orphaned character named Tattycoram. Sure enough, she’s named after Thomas Coram. So we were in a suitably Dickensian mood as we set off to our next stop.

The Worst Two Years: "A woman might pisse it out"

London in the 1600s was a jumble of wooden houses. The streets were so narrow, the overhanging gables of the houses often touched. Fires were not unusual, but they typically burned out after claiming a few streets. Firefighting pumps had just been invented and weren’t very effective, but bigger blazes could be stopped by pulling down houses to create firebreaks.

So nobody was unduly worried when a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane went up in flames in the early morning hours on September 2, 1666. Mayor Bludworth, awakened from a drunken sleep at 3 AM, looked at the flames and said, “Pish. A woman might pisse it out.” But nobody called a woman to do so, and before long the fire, pushed by a strong wind, was raging out of control.

Several unfortunate happenings converged to make this fire special. In the first place there was that howling wind, which drove the fire across the city. Second, people in the path of the flames began pulling their belongings out of their houses in a panic. The streets were soon clogged with carts, piles of furniture, people carrying all their worldly goods on their backs, and refugees trying desperately to flee. That made it hard for responders to reach the fire.

London in the mid-1600s was packed with wooden houses on narrow streets

Third, it had been a dry and hot summer, so the houses were primed to burn. And fourth, warehouses along the Thames were packed with pitch, oil, brandy and tar; in the wake of the Great Plague, merchants were stockpiling stuff to sell to residents moving back into the city.

The blaze moved so fast that when people pulled houses down to try to create firebreaks, the flames caught the ruins before they could be cleared away, and the fire roared on.

The aforementioned drunken mayor wasn’t much help. During the crucial early stages of the fire, diarist, naval administrator and man-about-town Samuel Pepys rode to the King and secured the help of soldiers to pull down houses. He rode back to transmit the order to the mayor, only to find him standing in the street, staring at the fire in a daze. “I am spent: people will not obey me,” Bludworth raved. So nothing was done.

London Fire Brigade monument. A fire brigade would have been useful,but alas, it wasn’t founded for another two centuries.

The fire turned London into a different sort of Hell: while the Plague had left it eerily empty, it was now packed with half-crazed crowds and mountains of possessions. Some people threw their furniture into the river with the slim hope of recovering it after the fire; others went out on boats, which rammed each other in the smoke and even caught on fire when sparks blew over the water.

On the fourth day, the wind died down. At the same time, a response had finally coalesced, and men blowing whole streets up with gunpowder had succeeded in creating firebreaks. But 90 percent of the city’s housing had gone up in smoke.

The fire led to many improvements, including wider streets and more graceful houses of brick and stone. It may even have helped clear out the vestiges of the Plague. But after the year they’d just had, Londoners had to wonder what they’d done to bring another disaster down on their heads.

The Worst Two Years: “London’s Dreadful Visitation”

The plague hit London in 1664, but its great death machine did not get fully ramped up until 1665. It was a repeat engagement: London had suffered nearly 40 outbreaks of plague since 1348. But this was the most vicious bout yet, and it turned the city into a credible vision of Hell on earth.

The disease started by claiming a trickle of victims, but the toll from the “Dreadful Visitation,” as the official weekly death report called it, soon soared into the hundreds and even thousands per week. Early efforts to fight the disease may have made it worse. The moment a house was found to have a plague victim, the city sealed it up with all its occupants inside. Nobody was allowed out for forty days, during which time the illness often killed off every member of the family, one by one, and wiped out their servants for good measure.

This policy not only guaranteed prolonged close contact with the disease – it gave people a powerful incentive to hide signs of the plague. Deaths were recorded by indigent old women hired by the parishes as a form of welfare, so it was easy for a family to bribe its way out of a plague diagnosis. While some Londoners were locked up with their dying family members, others who were secretly infected were going about their business and spreading the disease around the city.

Leasor’s The Plague and The Fire argues that many victims could have been saved with proper medical care, but most of the doctors fled the city when the epidemic began, while others were more interested in peddling quack cures than treating fevers and cleaning sores.

“Plague nurses” sent to people’s homes sometimes provided elementary care. On the other hand, they sometimes decided to suffocate you and steal your belongings instead. They were a crapshoot, those plague nurses.

Image: Wellcome Museum, London, on Flickr
In the end, the sheer number of dead brought the city to its knees. There were hardly enough living people left to bury them all. Many were tipped into mass graves with no record taken of their passing. Victims in the last stages of delirium wandered the mostly-deserted streets, sometimes attacking a healthy passerby out of spite. Only the arrival of winter stopped the disease.

Thus ended Year One.