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.