Sunday, April 24, 2005

Curious Cabinets

Originally uploaded by jamesandthebluecat.
Wandered around the British Museum on Friday, vaguely meaning to look at things Viking, but ended up in a gallery devoted to different 'cabinets of curiousities' (the sort of strange random collections rich types used to accumulate before the museum as we understand it came into being - and the subject of the children's fantasy book I'm very slowly writing). And it's fabulous - exactly what you'd want a collection of collections to look like: glass-fronted shelves crammed with ancient books, coins, glassy*-eyed stuffed animals and so forth.

Originally uploaded by jamesandthebluecat.
I would tell you where it is in the building, only I can't remember, and I'm not having much luck with the website either, but I did take some photos, so I'm fairly sure I didn't imagine it (wait - having had another look at the layout I think it's room 49 on the upper level). Anyway, well worth a look if you're around that bit of London.

*The repetition of 'glass' here really annoys me. Still, what's done is done. But it does annoy me.


Swiv said...

Not the King's library is it?
the pictures look a bit like it.

that's possibly one of my favourite rooms ever.

belladona said...

Wow, you managed to find a bit without egyptian antiquities or Buddhas in it. I can never find anything else. Well apart from the ugly pottery section. Maybe I should use the stairs next time. Actually I did find the roman room once and swore a lot about the knavery and thievery that means that anything really shiny isn't in my museum. Huh.
I take it you must have been to the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford then? If you haven't you'd like it - full of shrunken heads and odd sharp things in dangerous places. You could clearly have adventures in there.

cello said...

No Egyptian antiquities...apart from the bronze Pharoah's bust you mean.

Bella, I agree. The Pitt Rivers is just the best museum ever. Not too big, but containing a bit of everything, and all really exciting things, like a stuffed dodo. And crammed so close you don't get sore feet walking miles around it.

But James, if cabinets fascinate you, then the Pitt Rivers has cabinets to die for; ancient black lacquer ones, mahogany ones polished with real beeswax, and most with hand-blown glass. The sort of cabinets that Uncle Quentin would have had, or Indiana Jones's dad.

And now I am now going to read your story.......

James Henry said...

Oooh, never even heard of Pitt Rivers. Must investigate. And it's not so much story as opening two chapters of book I haven't had time to complete.

belladona said...

Woohoo! You're going to love it! It's just like museums used to be, before the onset of modern life etc. Hasn't been touched since about 1860 I should think. It's fabulous. Quite surprised you haven't heard of it, considering the fascination with such places.
This is probably redundant by now but here for everyone -
I would do the link thingy but it doesn't seem to work. It's been a while since I used html much. Ahem.

Anonymous said...

What is earth is Tramadol!?

Anyway, LOVED the Curious Cabinet. Please write more. Reminiscent of Pullman/Narnia/Wynne-Jones, also nice characterizations and very British. Loved it.

James Henry said...

Comment spam deleted there...

Glad you liked it - particularly chuffed by the DWJ ref. I'm about half way through chapter 3 now - so it's getting there, but very very slowly.

cello said...

I'm now hooked on the 'Curious Cabinet'. It's going to be as frustrating as waiting for the next 'Harry Potter'. What a great idea to have the rooms with links to other books. I hope Amazon are paying you a commission.

Having a 10 year old son means I get to read all those sorts of books with him. We've just finished The Seeing Stone and before that The Phantom Tollbooth. I think I may be imposing my tastes on him. I think he just wants to read books where people die painfully in lakes of blood. But then, reading your post after this one, it seems the two interests may not be incompatible.

Anonymous said...

I'm hooked on "The Curious Cabinet" too.

James Henry said...

Hooray! Now if only some kind publisher could give me a hefty advance on the first two chapters, I could put aside the six months I need to finish the damn thing (there's a great ending planned, with pirates, and a pier, and portals to other worlds, and maybe lots of other things beginning with 'p')

cello said...

Prisms? Pearls? Pants?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting about the British Museum and the cabinets of curiosities. Am immersed in late-Victoriana, having recently read George Robert Gissing's novel "The Odd Women" (1893), and now "New Grub Street" (1891), in which key characters do much of their work in the British Museum's Reading Room, jokingly characterized as being "in the valley of the shadow of books."

James Henry said...

Well I'm old enough to remember when we just had three channels: BBC 1 and 2 (both advert-free) and ITV (adverts). Then came Channel 4 (adverts) and much more recently Channel 5 (also adverts).

And now (by which I mean in the last ten years) it's gone mad, with Freeview (lots of non-advert BBC channels and plenty of minor channels with adverts (Living, The History Channel, some music vids and so on)) and satellite stuff like SKY, which I don't understand, but it seems to move us closer to US TV which is partly a good thing (west wing, buffy, battlestar galactica, the daily show) and mostly a bad thing (everything else). Although the worst of UK TV is somehow worse than the worst of US TV, as over here it's made by inherited wealth types who went to posh colleges and don't give a toss about the 'product' they make, or its social consequences. Gah, I'm quite angry now.

Hope that helps.

James Henry said...

oops, replied to wrong thread there...

cello said...

Are you referring to Peter (Big B, Changing Rooms etc) Bazalgette, or maybe Stephen (Wife Swap etc) Lambert? I would totally agree with you if it were the former, but I would defend the latter on the grounds of his other work, like The Power of Nightmares which was marvellous....

James Henry said...

Peter Bazalgette, amongst others. I loathe Big Brother, or rather what it turned into all too quickly. Some reality TV stuff has the power to move, astonish and educate - some of the Faking It's have been just wonderful, as has Jamie's Dinners and the Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon (which I'm counting as reality tv for the purposes of this argument). I only saw a few bits of Wife Swap, but underneath all the sulking and fighting there were real moments of people having to take a hard look at their own lives - and deciding to change the way they live as a consequence.

I missed the Power of Nightmares - hope to catch it on repeats, or DVD, as it looked very good indeed.

What I really loathe about some kinds of reality TV is that it's really not that difficult to make something good - but it's so much easier to pump out repellent crap about poor people being ghastly to each other. Maybe people called Piers and Jocasta (apologies to anyone reading this who's actually called Piers or Jocasta) don't have to see such things in real life, but I do, and I hate it. It depresses the crap out of me, and watching appalling, horrible people like Jade Goody being rewarded for acting like spoilt hateful children has to have some effect on the people are increasingly behaving to each other on the street and in school classrooms.

Obviously a large segment of the population perpetuate this awful chain reaction of ghastliness and stupidity, so heaping it all on the head of PG, who I'm sure is a perfectly nice chap, is rather unfair. So just to make it clear - I hate them too.

Embarrasingly, I quite liked Changing Rooms.

cello said...

Ooh, righteous anger. Hotter than sexydancing any day.

I've just done a review of Bazalgette's new book for Television mag, the edition with the RTS awards in spookily. I'll email it tomorrow. Buried in it, (as I'm less brave in real life) is roughly what you said, but not as eloquent sadly.

Now I really have to finish my work, or I could stay and chat all night.....

James Henry said...

Looking forward to the email..

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for your feedback re UK TV, most helpful. When you say
[T]he worst of UK TV is ... made by inherited wealth types who went to posh colleges ...
it of course begs the question, What shows do you mean? Very curious.

And when you mention the [way] people are increasingly behaving to each other on the street and in school classrooms I totally concur. (Cross-thread comment; Bring on the frockcoats!)

How do you do, hope you saw my brief post to you at Toy-Fu 11. :-)

cello said...

Dear Websafe,

Thank you so much for your response to my, rather silly, question. I think we are all hoping to discover that we are really princesses in disguise, with or without jacuzzis, extra jumpers or Steve to comfort us.

Have you been to Sissinghurst? I am a bit of a gardening bore, and it has to be my favourite garden so far. Apart from my own of course, because that is full of hard graft and love.

And apologies, James, for usurping your blog to conduct transatlantic garden chat.

James Henry said...

Don't apologize - I like it when the threads go off on a tangent.

Anonymous said...

I've never been to Sissinghurst, though, decades ago, I visited England a few brief times (British Museum, V&A, Liberty's, Kensington Gardens, Cambridge, Ilkley Moor, the Settle-to-Carlisle railroad ...) Would love to hear your description, though.

Most genial of you ... Speaking of collections, I spent yesterday studying English candies in general, traditional boiled sweets in particular. My favorite names so far: Coltsfoot rock, fairy satins, Jargonelle pears, Kendal mint cakes, Pontefract cakes. Have you ever eaten any of these and if so, what are they like, especially coltsfoot?

By the way, if you or any of your visitors need to research US daily-life references in the same vein as the UK questions I've been asking, feel free to ask me, I'd be glad to reciprocate. One discovers what one doesn't know about a setting as soon as one tries to write fiction about it, I've found.

Anonymous said...

Out of that list I've only ever eaten Kendal Mint Cake and it is really very nice. It's just like eaing a bar of softish sugar mixed with peppermint flavouring (maybe because that might be what it actually is). It isn't much like a cake though, despite the name. Oh and people take them up mountains because the high sugar content provides good climbing energy (and my grandad, always ready for an emergency, used to keep a few bars in the boot of the car in case he was ever stranded).

I have absolutely no real reason to be researching US daily-life references but I shall take up the offer even so: what is a corndog? I have been trying to work this out for about a year now. Is it like a hotdog made of... corn?

Anonymous said...

irony in motion:
Thanks for describing Kendal mint cakes! My source Web site did show a photo of them, they were somewhat nondescript and homemade in appearance. Bearing out your mountain comment, the Hillary/Everest expedition was alleged to have used them.

Re corn dogs:
I have eaten a few bites of one, but as you will see from the recipe, they're a very fattening dish. Basically they're a cornmeal-battered, deep-fried hot dog on a stick. People eat them at state fairs. (Supposedly, they were invented in 1942 for the Texas State Fair.)

The following link has a recipe with a photo of corn dogs:

And here are three very nice professional corn dog photos taken at the Iowa State Fair:
Corn Dogs:
Corn Dog Stand:
State Fair Food [the corn dogs are in the middle]:

cello said...

Dear Websafe,
The ever hospitable James has given us permission to de-cool his blog by introducing garden porn, So I will try to give you an impression of Sissinghurst.

I love it for lots of reasons.
a) It has strong literary connections. Can just imagine Vita Sackville-West writing her love-letters to Virginia Woolf in the shade of an old aplle tree.
b) It's not too big, and is also divided into 'rooms'(Rose garden, Hot garden, White garden, Nuttery, Lime Walk etc), bounded by old brick walls or yew hedges. So it feels very intimate and something you could re-create at home.
c)It's colour-co-ordinated. I hate borders with a million colours shouting at each.
d) It's very romantic. Although there is a strong structure the planting is very loose and relaxed within it. Not too neat. Sprinklings of spring flowers in the orchard in long grass. Cascades of fragrant roses and clematis, gushing over walls.
Secret bowers everywhere.
e) There is a beautiful small Tudor manor at its core which would be wonderful to live in. There is nothing better than old brick to set plants against.
d)My favourite bit is the Lime Walk; a avenue of pleached limes, but underplantd with a succession of low, frothy, pretty stuff that they change each season. It's that combination of formal and informal that is so characteristic of Sissinghurt.

There are some wonderful books you can get, one written by Vita's son, Nigel Nicholson.

That's made me want to leave my desk and head south, as it will be looking stunning right now.

belladona said...

Pontefract cakes are licorice strips rolled up. Possibly with some kind of sweet in the middle. I hate 'em. I suspect coltsfoot rock is like candied sea holly - ie no-one's eaten it for some time (in the holly's case due to it being almost extinct). You can get kendal mint cake with chocolate on which is nicer, quite addictive in fact (but only when you can't get anything else) and a brown type, which is strange, because it kind of looks like you dropped it in the mud already.

Matt said...

A friend of mine had never heard of Kendall Mint Cake. He was amazed when he introduced me to a friend of his from uni and I 'guessed' his nick name. He was called Kendall and I, quite obviously I thought, called him Mint Cake.

Actually I'm claiming too much credit there as I think myself and Izzy said it at the same time.

To bring two random threads into one comment. DID YOU KNOW!!! That Peter Bazalgette's possibly Grandfather was responsible for a lot of the sewage works in London in Victorian-type times (may be completely off on timescale there). Pretty sure this was mentioned in Tim Moore's fab book "Do not pass go".
Lots of jokes there I guess about the Bazalgette family business not really changing...

'Cos they both still deal with human effluent.

Do you see??


Anonymous said...

There was a great "Seven wonders of the industrial world"-type programme about Bazalgette Sr and his sewers (actually it might even have been SWOTIW), worth seeking out as it's a bit of an epic story and we have a lot to thank him (Sr) for.

Cello I love your description of Sissinghurst. I have a slightly ambivalent attitude to gardens having spent most of my childhood competing with them for maternal attention, but as I am no longer 8 I can confirm that Sissinghurst is amongst the very best.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your feedback.
Pontefract cakes appear to be plain black licorice, stamped with a coin pattern.
I believe you are thinking of Catherine Wheels?
Here's a picture of coltsfoot rock:

It just goes to show how seemingly trivial cultural references get interwoven into daily dialogue.