Despite the busyness of the half-term holidays, the Dickens Museum was an oasis of calm. The townhouse has been mostly restored to how it was when the Dickens family lived there and is also partly a museum-style exhibition, laid out over five floors with shop and small café. The set-up is very evocative and aids the visitor in imaging that they may be a guest at one of Charles Dickens’ famous dinner parties, perhaps rubbing shoulders with the ‘literary lions’ of their time, and to be treated to one of the after-dinner readings in the second floor drawing room, hearing the great writer practice the recitals from his work that he would later take on a theatre tour.
We spent a good hour in the modest museum and learnt more about Dickens than most of his friends and family knew of him in his day. He was very secretive about his early years and his workhouse childhood due to his father being in debtors’ prison. He also concealed the fact that he wore spectacles, though here you will find an intimate portrait of him wearing them. The story of his own early years is told through a selection of artefacts displayed in the nursery, where his own children were stored during social functions. Here you will also see a glass cabinet displaying a rather handsome stuffed raven, presumably one of Dickens’ series of pet ravens (or representing them) but not the famed raven named Grip who was the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven (according to Poe, he had originally considered using a parrot before the 'Dickens Intervention', though this would never have had the same Gothick import as the big black wound-grouse).
|The writing desk those famous words flowed across... (and a waste paper basket where other words ended up)|
Before visiting this charming museum, with its intimate atmosphere and very helpful staff, I did recognise Dickens as an important author and particularly admired A Christmas Carol and The Signalman, though now have a deeper understanding and admiration of the man. Amongst the many things I learnt during the visit, one of the most memorable was that hedgehogs were often employed in Victorian households as kitchen maids…
|Hedgehogs were sometimes kept in Victorian kitchens |
to help control the slugs and bugs...
It was too busy to really engage with many of the exhibits, but so many of the items on display are of such historical importance than any engagement is rewarding. After leaving the evocation of the Victorian era at the Dickens Museum, we stayed with this narrative and tracked the Industrial Revolution, Watt's Rotary Steam engine, Stevenson’s Rocket, Babbage’s Difference Engine, an original Daguerreotype camera, lovingly detailed models of ocean going steam ships… then suddenly we saw the modern age come into being and above us were rockets and communication satellites… Dickens was alive during a period of great change and political upheaval in the world, he saw steam power and the dawning of the modern age, but in less than a century after his death we had satellites!
This particular visit was of great personal benefit because we discovered the 'flight' room on level 3 - which we had never seen before - packed with huge antique aeroplanes including the Hawker Hurricane and the even more beautiful Spitfire: an engine of death, but also a symbol of hope, and a rare example - along with the Dazzleships - of creative art having a tangible, quantitative effect in the real world. Apparently, the curve of the wings and their rounded tips were added by a concept artist for aesthetic reasons in some sketches and only then did the engineers realise that this would allow the wings to be shorter whilst retaining their structural integrity, enabling the Spitfire to execute its famous tight turns and increase its manoeuvrability at speed… There was also a cabinet displaying lovely detailed scale models of First World War planes and this helped me correct a potential error in one of the current stories I am developing. Time spent in the Science Museum sparks many creative ideas.
|An inspiring detailed model of the DeHavilland DH4 (1917)|
So, it was time for dinner and we had a table booked at the legendary Mr Kong’s in Soho’s Chinatown. We received the usual warm, friendly welcome from Edwin and the staff and enjoyed the best Cantonese food to be had outside of Canton! It was a table of five, so we were able to sample a good variety befitting a celebration of the new Year of the Goat.
We started with the house special of steamed scallops, served on a half-shell with glass noodles and a fantastic sweet and hot chilli-garlic-coriander sauce that changes every time, adjusted to balance the character of the shellfish according to their seasonal variations – if I had to name a favourite food… The plain fried noodles were a fantastic culinary backdrop to the sizzling king prawns in garlic sauce which cook on an iron skillet as they are brought to the table. The fried, shredded, roast pork with garlic sprouts is another recommended order – the pork delivers the salty satisfaction of good bacon and the garlic sprouts have a fresh sweetness similar to green beans in garlic butter. The duck with mango and spring onion was a balancing act of richness, tang and fresh sweetness… The old standard of sweet and sour chicken is anything but standard… The Chinese tea and Tsingtao beer tasted much better than they should! Perhaps it was relaxing and chatting with friends after a busy and fulfilling full day out in London, in a great restaurant serving world-class cuisine at very reasonable prices – what better way to round off the Year of the Horse and a Saturday in London?
Happy New Year!
Next: A Sunday in London