London

Charles Dickens’ House: Closed for refurbishment during the year of his 200th anniversary!

This year marks the 200th year of the birthday of Charles Dickens.  Though I don’t claim to have read ALL of Dickens’ novels, I have read many.  I am a fan.  I am also a literary tourist: i.e. if I should be in a city or place that has been graced with the birthplace of a famous writer, or scene from a famous novel, I make the effort to visit the landmarks and museums and what not.  I’ve been to the Bronte Parsonage, I’ve done the Bronte Walk, the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, the Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh (which features the writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott).  I lived in Dorset long ago (Weymouth), and next time I visit will go and see Thomas Hardy’s house.
When I lived in London in 2005, I lived quite close to Charles Dicken’s house, which is now the  Charles Dickins Museum.  It is located at 48 Doughty St London, near Russel Square Station.  Not far from 343 Euston Road (where I lived).  But I didn’t make it there during that time.  There is so much to do in London, its easy to neglect seeing things you want to see, and experiencing things you want to experience, because you have it in the back of your mind that you’ll do it eventually.

I saw the film ‘Hereafter‘ (2010), starring Matt Damon, which featured three interwoven stories of characters who experience glimpses of the ‘after-life’ .  The film was set in 2005;  it follows a tsunami survivor (from the 2004 Boxing day tsunami disaster), the London bombings (one of the characters ‘just’ misses catching an underground train whilst scuttling about on the platform  for a hat blown off his head by the force of his brother’s deathly spirit) and Matt Damon’s character – who has come to London to take a break from the difficulty of life back in America where he feels cursed by his ability to communicate with those who have passed away from life.

I only lived in London for six months in 2005 , and unfortunately Dickens’  house is something I missed out on (one of the things I would get round to … eventually!).  Seeing ‘Hereafter’  re-invoked the shock of the day that the London bombings happened ( my experiences is written about here).  And Matt Damon’s character goes to visit Charles Dickens’ house –  and so I have promised myself, I will eventually do the same.

Here in Australia, I was surprised that the ABC (broadcast station that schedules BBC adaptations of everything!), did not schedule anything ‘Dickens’ on the date of his birthday (February 7th).  About two months later the latest adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’ was aired.  At the Melbourne International Film Festival, a handful of Dickens themed evens will be on, and the Melbourne Writers Festival, happening over the next two weeks, will include a keynote opening address by Simon Callow about Dickens (Callow published a book this year celebrating the life of Charles Dickens).

I was lucky enough to visit London again this year (2012) in May, and was determined to go and see Dickens’  house.  I made it to the door.  But the place was being refurbished, no entry!  I couldn’t believe that of the possible sights to go and see that morning, I went all the way up to Russel Square, walked to Doughty St, and the museum was closed!  Fortunately there are plenty of other things to see and do, but I haven’t been able to cross this one off my list.    I almost went to The Old Curiosity Shop when I found out that such a place actually existed, but wasn’t sure what would be there.

Next time I’m in London I will go to Dicken’s house!  Such a pity that with so much happening in the year of the celebrations of his 200th Anniversary, the museum dedicated to him should be closed!

The Winner is ‘London’, London wins the Olympic Bid, followed by terrorist bombings

With the opening ceremony of the London Olympics merely a week away, I remember back to the year 2005 when I lived in London and the host city for the 2012 games was announced.  I purchased a copy of ‘The Guardian’ on the 7th July, the day after the announcement took place, the front page story .a great contrast to what would be shown on the cover of the 8th July edition.

I worked in (and lived in) a pub, The Greenman, 243 Euston Road, NW1  ( the centre of zone 1 London).  The news was announced and the city of London revelled in joy.  I rung the bell at closing time on the 6th July, and tried to kick out the remaining stragglers at the pub, a group of which were some Aussies, who picked up on my accent and attempted to appeal to my ‘shared homeland’ sympathy and give them some more time to finish their pints and carry on.   Being tired from my twelve hour shift, I wouldn’t have any of it, then one of them said “c’mon, let us stay, have a drink with us, we won the Olympics!”.  I acknowledged and agreed with this statement – ‘We won the Olympics!’, for about two seconds before I had to again politely ask them to finish their drinks and leave at last.

We’ claimed London as our home, because we fleetingly lived there on working holiday visas and gap years.  We worked in pubs and hotels, as Au pairs, and signed up to temping agencies when we were sick of the hospitality industry.    We met Brazilians, Italians, Spanish, French, Polish and Lithuanians – who were here in search of a better life or to learn English and improve their chances of a better life back home upon return.  We met Irish, and then hundreds of other Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans here doing the same things.  We took it for granted what we had back home.  The London we found was not the London we read about in Dickens or Sherlock Holmes; it was not just Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, the Thames, Hamleys, St Paul’s Cathedral.   It was this thriving international epicentre, where people from all over the world came to try to make a life for themselves, to pursue their dreams, to party, and to drink their nights away.

The morning of the 7th July 2012, I went for a walk down to Oxford St, bought the newspaper along the way and had been planning to walk up to Kings Cross St Pancras to purchase some National Rail tickets for a trip to Edinburgh, but first stopped back at the Greenman – where the bar staff immediately accosted me with ‘Where have you been? We were worried about you!  Stay in the building and do not leave!!’.

The London Underground had been bombed.  Three major locations were attacked: Kings Cross St. Pancras, Aldgate and Liverpool St Station.  A bomb was set off in a bus at Tavistock Square.

The pub was flooded with passers by the rest of the morning.  We watched the news on the small TV that we had in the pub, it was as crowded as the pub got when a football match was on. Public transport was suspended until 4 pm.  We waited for more news.  We were worried about more bombs.  The city was in shutdown.

I went out to Tesco’s next door later in the day, at about 4:30 pm but found a hand written sign saying ‘Due to the events of today we are closed’.   I wandered further to a Sainsbury’s in hope of finding something to eat and found the same sign.  As the end of the business day approached, workers began leaving their offices for the journey home, with rampant fear of public transport.

I walked up Tottenham Court Road at around 5:30 pm, pedestrian peak hour.  The people walked  in worry and fear.  It was a mass exodus from the city on foot, in silence.  What a day.  The next morning I purchased the Guardian, the front page news in great contrast to the excitement of winning the Olympic bid.

Two weeks after the incident, there were more attempts at bombing attacks.  Along Euston Road, bus stops were covered in missing person signs – I presume, of people whose whereabouts were unknown since that day, the unidentified injured or dead.  Fifty-two people were killed and over 700 injured on the 7th July.

I have read some chilling recollections from survivors of the blasts, and how everyone in London who was there that day recounts their choices about which tube train they were ‘meant to catch’ that morning but didn’t.  One of the survivors from the blasts lost her legs (her story is here).  She looks forward to the London Olympics, and will be competing as a paralympian.

I absolutely dread going through customs in the USA.  After September 11, the London Bombings and other terrorist incidents, those of us who journey across continents will all be treated indiscriminately as a security risk until rigorous body screening and inquisition has shown otherwise.

It saddens and angers me that our collective anticipation of international sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup now also come hand in hand with increased security, and a heightened fear of terrorist threats.  After coming home from London later in 2005, I immediately felt safe and secure back in Australia: World Wars have not been fought on our soil, multiculturalism is increasingly embraced, we are seemingly devoid of class tensions and are generally a tolerant lot.  I admit that these notions I hold are simply ideals – problems are brewing in our society.  The future is a global future.  Ideology will be attacked by those who vehemently disagree – history shows that this has always been the case through the millenia.  The threat of terrorism abounds, we can live on with awareness of terrorist threats but we can’t live on with fear.  Just as the people of London have lived on with awareness of terrorism and have moved on with their lives, they have now got the Olympic games in their home city to celebrate.