I’ve always felt a bit sorry for people who were actually born in London because they’ll never have the pleasure of a first visit to the capital. I remember mine. I told the patient Beefeaters all about the Crown Jewel, got a tour of Broadcasting House from a cousin who worked there (and a BBC pen which I treasured for years), fed the pigeons and had my first visit to the Museum of London. The memory of the flickering diorama of the Great Fire stayed with me long after the pen had run out. No surprise then that I’m delighted to have been asked to chair a discussion at the museum on the Great Fire, Fact and Fiction next month.
It’s part of a series of talks the museum is running alongside their excellent new exhibition commemorating the 350th anniversary of the fire, and the panel consists of Hazel Forsyth, Alex Larman and Andrew Taylor. I do hope some of our History Girls readers can come along. It should be a great discussion with Hazel talking about the material culture of the period and what the wreckage left by the fire teaches us, Alex setting the fire in the context of the political turmoil of post-Restoration, post-Plague London, and Andrew discussing how it has inspired his new novel Ashes of London, an explosive beginning to a new series of historical thrillers. You should buy all three books, of course, particularly because they form a matching set.
To make sure I ask them the right questions, I went along to the museum to see the exhibition last week and can thoroughly recommend it. The visual design is gorgeous, based on contemporary woodcuts and it makes great imaginative use of shadows and silhouettes. Vignettes of a spark from Thomas Farriner’s oven landing on a pile of dry wood, figures waking up in the smoke and clambering out of windows, a brilliant map of the spreading flames, and wonderful use of sound all fascinated the children who were visiting with me, and I suspect their memories of the flaming houses will be just as long lasting as mine were. You can handle burnt tiles and bricks as well as hearing extracts of letters, and peer at the first newspaper report of the fire and knowing the press which printed them was consumed the same day.
There is also an excellent final section the the exhibition which looks at the aftermath of the fire, both the rebuilding and the rumours which circulated even before the fires were put out. I did not know for example about scapegoating of Robert Hubert who confessed to starting the fire as part of a Papist plot. On display is the cracked marble plaque proclaiming his guilt which was not permanently removed from the Monument of London until the nineteenth century. There is plenty of food for thought about the politics of blame as well as a chance to sit and listen to the stories of the refugees in the mock-up of one of the camps set up to shelter the thousands of Londoners who had last everything in the conflagration.
It's all gorgeous and thoughtful. Well, I know what I’m aiming for as chair now.
Sounds like a wonderful exhibition and I will certainly come to hear you if someone invents a working teleport in time... ;) I would be interested to think how things would be handled in a modern major fire - probably lots of conspiracy theories would surround it. I don't think it would be that major, though, unless there was an earthquake to help spread the flames.
I remember my first visit to London. I sent to the Tower, the Changing of the Guard(which turned out to be a full-scale parade, not just a small group of men swapping places as I'd assumed), enjoyed my very first chestnuts and visited the British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. I remember the amusement of one of the guards at the NG when he saw how excited I was to turn around and suddenly see Constable's The Hay Wain, which I'd only seen in my school art textbook... And then the Sutton Hoo treasure and Egyptian and Babylonian rooms at the BM...
My second visit, I went to see a Royal Shakespeare production at the Barbican. I had lunch at the rooftop cafe and a lovely London native sharing my table pointed out the church where Oliver Cromwell got married. It's nice to be a tourist and see things through fresh eyes.
Wonderful! I'm off to the MoL immediately! It's such a great resource in London.
Not my first, but one of my strongest early memories of London aged 19, looking up the trendy Kings Road in Chelsea with little fluffy clouds up high and little bitty miniskirts down lower. I thought How wonderful it would be to live here... And now I do!
P.S. Lovely post!
Lovely to hear other first memories of London!
Someone else has just recommended the MOL to me - must go next time I visit London. My first visit was with a junior school trip. We were all astonished by the sight of men in bowler hats, and thought it was hilarious when we went into a shop and asked for 'suckers' (ice lollies) and no-one knew what we were talking about. Very strangely I have no memory at all of what we saw - though I can recall a trip to York the year before that very vividly.
I loved Andrew Taylor's THE ASHES OF LONDON and am tempted to come to this. Also to see the exhibition. Thanks Imogen.
The Museum of London is one of my favourites, and my last visit was to see the Cheapside Hoard - which perhaps was hidden because of the Fire's approach. Absolutely fantastic, highly recommended - standouts are the Roman girl in the shell coffin, and the WW2 house. Plus the bookshop is amazing, the cafe's great, and entry is free! I've written several books set partly in London, and it's a great resource for writers - I particularly like the reconstructed rooms from various periods.
Lovely there are so many MOL fans. It's well worth a visit, Sue! The bookshop is fatal... Andrew is such a great writer, and always an excellent speaker too.
Must go there! Thanks.
Fire! Fire! Only 2 realms after our demise, dear, and 1 of em aint too cool.
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