All posts by Paris Franz

About Paris Franz

Writer, traveller, perpetual student.

Calling on Charles Dickens

 

charles dickens museum london

“At all times, and under every aspect, he gives us to feel and see the great city as it absolutely is.”

So wrote John Forster in his review of Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens, the ultimate chronicler of London in all its Victorian greatness and degradation.

I first came to an appreciation of Dickens while riding Bus Australia. I picked up a copy of Great Expectations in a second-hand bookshop in Adelaide, and proceeded to devour it on the great lonely highway somewhere between the opal mines of Coober Pedy and the low-slung buildings of Alice Springs. It was a landscape as far removed from the crowds and the grime and the melodrama of Dickensian London as you could get. Perhaps it served as an antidote to the endless expanse of dry, red desert all around me, or perhaps I was simply in the right frame of mind, but I was hooked. After a frankly uninspired introduction to Dickens at school, I finally got what all the fuss was about.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m back in the Smoke. The Charles Dickens Museum, housed at 48 Doughty Street in the heart of London’s Bloomsbury district, has re-opened after a £3.1 million refurbishment in 2012, the 200 anniversary of Dickens’ birth, and it really is past time that I visit.

I pay my £8, and venture into the entrance hall. The ceiling is high and there are letters and playbills hanging on the wall; I get a distinct sense of stepping back in time.

There’s a painting in the dining room showing the young Charles Dickens in all his youthful glory. He looks the epitome of the Romantic poet, with his dark curly hair and big, soulful eyes. There’s something of the Regency dandy about him, in his fine, tailored clothes. Dickens always liked to cut a distinctive figure. “A fine little fellow,” Thomas Carlyle once called him, “a quiet, shrewd-looking, little fellow, who seems to guess pretty well what he is and what others are.”

Dickens was also a sociable fellow, and this cozy dining room could, just about, hold some 14 people, squeezed around the dining table. For no one turned down a dinner invitation from Charles Dickens. Against the muted soundtrack of convivial conversation and the tinkle of cutlery, I like to imagine the up and coming young writer entertaining his guests, among them William Makepeace Thackeray, John Forster, the actor Macready, and artists Daniel Maclise and Clarkson Stanfield. Dickens may have been young, a mere 25 years old, when he moved into this fine terraced house in Bloomsbury, but everyone knew he was a force to be reckoned with.

Stepping back in time

charles dickens street artDickens lived here between 1837 and 1839, his three-year lease costing him the princely sum of £80 a year. It’s the only one of his London houses to survive, and was turned into a museum in 1925. It was something of a jumbled mess, apparently, but after the refurbishment it re-opened in December 2012 to great acclaim. Today the house is less a museum and more of a home, albeit one far tidier than any home I’ve ever lived in.

There’s a delicious sense that Dickens has just stepped out – to visit his publishers, perhaps, or the Piazza Coffee House in Covent Garden for a meeting of the Shakespeare Club – and will be back shortly. Peeking out from behind the heavy curtains, I am disappointed not to find a hansom cab pulling up outside.

Inside, the house has been restored to its Georgian and early Victorian splendor, from the basement to the attic, from the heavy drapes to the polished wood. The exhibits – rare manuscripts, letters, paintings, and personal belongings – are arranged in a manner both discreet and enticing. There’s an eye-catching silver-plated samovar in the dining room, and beautiful paintings, by Carlo Perugino and John Everett Millais, of Dickens’ daughters in the living room. Katey and Mary were both born here at Doughty Street, a reminder of Dickens the family man.

I linger in the drawing room on the first floor. The warm voice of Simon Callow reads from Dickens’ work, and I suspect the speakers are hidden somewhere behind the great man’s’ favorite armchair in the corner. I make my way around the dark green sofa and head towards the reading lectern as if drawn by a powerful magnet. Dickens was one of the first authors to read from his works, and he had this lectern built to his own design. It’s a sturdy, yet elegant structure, and I thrill to the idea that Dickens stood before it to read extracts from his books. He long had a fascination for the stage, and I like to think his voice was every bit as warm and commanding as Callow’s.

His study lies next door, a dimly-lit room full of books and a sturdy writing desk. Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist in this very room, and that thought alone is worth the price of admission.

I really must get myself a writing desk.

The next floor contains the bedrooms, arenas for life and death. His daughters were born in the master bedroom, and his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth died in the room next door, at the tender age of 17. The room’s exhibits focus on Dickens’ later years, from the court suit he wore for his audience with Queen Victoria to the copy of Sir Samuel Luke Fildes’ painting The Empty Chair, a response to Dickens’ sudden death in 1870. He had been in poor health for a while, but his death still came as a shock.

The four-poster bed in the master bedroom looks cozy and rather small. Were people really smaller back then? I wonder. I mention as much to the petite volunteer standing next to me. She nods.

“I would have fit right in,” she says.

She leads me to the dressing room next door and points out a caricature of Dickens and his good friend John Forster, which exaggerates their difference in height. A cartoon on the opposite wall takes a different tack: it shows Dickens striding across the Channel, one foot in London, the other in Paris, a veritable literary colossus. He may have been small in stature, but he cast a giant’s shadow.

Originally, the rooms at the top of the house were set aside for the nursery and the servants’ quarters. Today, they are sparsely furnished, the nursery less a place for play and more a place for memory. In the middle of the room there are bars from Marshalsea Prison in Southwark, where Dickens’ irresponsible father was imprisoned for debt, and one of the display cabinets holds jars from the blacking factory by the river Thames where Dickens worked as a child. He rarely spoke of this experience, yet it coloured much of his writing. I doubt I can read Oliver Twist in quite the same way now that I’ve seen this room.

On a lighter note, the tea and cake on offer in the cafe is delicious, and the bowls on sale in the gift ship, marked ‘Please can I have some more’, make me smile. The man of the house may have been out at the time of my visit, but I like to think he would approve of his home’s new lease of life.

 

Elephant Sanctuary

It occurred to me, a little belatedly, that I could do a bit more with my photos, and maybe even promote my travel collection Treading Lightly in the process. So here’s a slideshow I put together of pictures from my visit to Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place, where elephants, some of whom have been terribly mistreated, can live in safety.

Sneak preview of Treading Lightly

treading lightly cover

Here’s a sneak preview of Treading Lightly, my collection of travel writing.

Below is an account from my time in Shanghai, a vast, sprawling building site of a city. Between attending press conferences and interviews, visiting cocktail bars and museums, defying fate when crossing the road and sneezing at the pollution, I built up some fond memories of Shanghai.

Chapter One: Shanghai: Living in interesting times (aka eye-drops are a girl’s best friend)

To anyone who has tried to cross the road in Shanghai, it comes as no surprise to learn that China is the world’s largest car market. The country accounts for around 23 percent of the global annual production of vehicles, and they all seem to be on the road at once. And to think I used to think the traffic in Rome was scary. It’s at times like these that you need the proverbial eyes in the back of your head, and the reflexes of a cat. Nine lives wouldn’t go amiss, either.

Although I think the cyclists are even scarier than the cars. True, the cars come from every imaginable direction and leave it unclear as to whether they’ll obey the traffic lights, but they make some semblance of abiding by the rules.

If the cyclists have rules, I am yet to find out what they are.

All in all, it takes some confidence to cross the street in Shanghai. I’m getting used to the whole adrenaline rush aspect of it, though, and I suspect I’ll be a menace when I get home. If I get home.

I have two possible routes to work from the apartment I share in Pudong, near the Tangqiao metro station. The first option is to change at Century Avenue for West Nanjing Road, and negotiate some frankly scary roads from there. It’s shorter, but can take a while. The second choice is to change at Hongqiao Road for the South Shanxi Road station. This is longer, but it means only having to cross one road at the other end, so it usually takes about the same amount of time.

The scarier route has some advantages. Once across West Nanjing Road – I usually wait for a crowd of people to gather, figuring there’s safety in numbers – my route takes me through the lovely narrow streets and shikumen-style houses of the French Concession. I was a little surprised to see them, considering how much I’ve read of the Chinese fondness for demolishing old buildings and replacing them with skyscrapers. Maybe that’s more of a Beijing thing, or maybe they just haven’t got around to it yet.

The area has retained a homely, slightly battered elegance. The French Concession dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when Shanghai opened up to foreign trade, setting the stage for the international mercantile city it would soon become. The French Concession and the British Settlement, separate administrative units with their own laws and officials, were set up just outside the walls of the old Chinese town, little colonial islands in a Chinese sea. Although, as China succumbed to a century of upheaval, from the Taiping Rebellion to the Japanese invasion, the settlements would become a haven for thousands of Chinese refugees, inadvertently strengthening the city’s cosmopolitan air.

The French Concession was once one of the prime residential areas of Shanghai, and today many of the grand old houses have been converted into boutiques and restaurants, cafes and jazz clubs. The streets are lined with plane trees. There’s even a former Russian orthodox church not far from the magazine’s office, a reminder of the many White Russian refugees who made their way to Shanghai after the Russian revolution.

After decades of dour Communist sobriety, Shanghai is making up for lost time. The city’s pent up energies have been released, allowing it to once again become the happening place it was always said to be, attracting people from all over the world with its unashamed, go-getting business ethic. It’s probably still the most cosmopolitan city in China, after Hong Kong, if our office is anything to go by. The deputy editor is English, the personnel manager French. One of the sales guys is American, and the marketing assistant is Russian. The interns come from England, Chile and the United States. Everyone speaks Chinese, with varying degrees of fluency, and all the Chinese employees speak good English.

I am reminded once again of why I love big cities.

I usually spend the morning scouring press releases and the business pages of the Shanghai Daily looking for relevant news items to put up on the website, and there are plenty to choose from. A cursory glance tells me China is lending 10 billion US dollars to Kazakhstan in return for the right to invest in an oil company in the country; TripAdvisor is launching a Chinese website; foreign firms are set to list on the Shanghai Stock Exchange on a temporary basis. It’s all happening here.

Some mornings are spent at press conferences, where it takes me a while to figure out the simultaneous translation thingamajig, or researching stories. One of the first features I am assigned is a report on the state of the Chinese art market in the face of the financial crisis, and I am pleased. That’s right up my alley.

***

It’s an interesting time to be in China. The rest of the world is reeling from the financial crisis, but you would hardly know it in Shanghai. Other areas of China are feeling it, of course, particularly in the south where thousands of factories have been closed as exports collapse, with millions of migrant workers laid off.

Statistics take on a whole new flavour in China, where migrant workers are counted in their millions.

Elsewhere, though, you would hardly know there was anything wrong, and the art market is a case in point. Art has become both a favoured form of investment and a status symbol for the burgeoning ranks of China’s wealthy. As a result, the Chinese art market has overtaken France to become the world’s third largest, behind the US and the UK. My researches uncover a number of eye-opening facts: principally that prices of Chinese contemporary art have risen 1,050 percent over the last ten years, and of the ten largest auction houses for contemporary art sales in 2008, six are Chinese.

Some have expressed doubt over whether this rate of growth could continue, even before the crisis hit. Collectors are certainly being more cautious. They are still willing to pay extraordinary sums, but the work has to be good. Andrew James, of Shanghai’s Andrew James Art Gallery, tells me many mediocre artists were massively over-priced during the boom years.

“The financial crisis has really shaken things up now. The collectors still have money but they are choosing to spend it very carefully.”

And spend it they do. In Hong Kong, Lin Fengmian’s Fishing Harvest sold for $2,091,030 at Sotheby’s spring sale, a record price for the artist. Collecting is a compulsion, James says, and quality always sells.

Feeling like an anthropologist, I continue my investigations of the rich when I attend a press conference for the launch of the Hurun Report’s Rich List at the Mint Club on Fuzhou Lu. It’s a good venue for this sort of thing, with its floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Bund and its Swarovski chandelier and its 17-metre long shark tank, full of black and white tip reef sharks. It’s a little startling, and confirms a long-held belief that rich people are strange.

The Hurun Report was founded by the dapper Rupert Hoogewerf in 1999, and he gives us the highlights in English and Chinese. Shanghai has 116,000 multi-millionaires and 7,000 billionaires, a little way behind Beijing with 143,000 multi-millionaires and 8,800 billionaires. They are particularly fond of Cartier and Mercedes Benz. The majority have made their money with infrastructure, investing in roads and railways and China’s ubiquitous skyscrapers.
shanghai skyscrapers
Given the glittering skylines of so many Chinese cities, it’s hard to remember this shiny new China is relatively new. Just a few decades ago, the futuristic Pudong on the east side of the Huangpu river where I am staying was sparsely-populated farmland. It is now home to sprawling and surprisingly handsome apartment blocks and the skyscrapers of the Lujiazui Finance and Trade Zone, the perfect spot for a bird’s eye view of the city.

It’s true that Pudong is somewhat lacking in charisma. But, hey, it’s still young – brash, stroppy and convinced it knows everything. In many places it’s still a building site. It’s been said that a quarter of the world’s cranes are in Shanghai, and most of them seem to be in Pudong. Dust is everywhere.

Forget diamonds, in Shanghai eye-drops are a girl’s best friend.

***

I meet up with an old friend on the steps outside the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. I am a little late, as I turn the wrong way when exiting the metro station and get into a minor panic. I gather up my courage and approach a security guard.

“Bowuguan zai nar?” Where is the museum?

To my delight, he understands me, and points me in the right direction.

I must be getting the hang of the tones, at last.

Mona is waiting patiently amidst the weekend crowd. It’s been a few years since I last saw her, back in London, but she hasn’t changed. She still manages to be both petite and larger than life. She shakes her head at my latest metro adventure – Mona is a taxi kind of girl, she doesn’t do public transport – and we pile into a cab and head for the World Financial Centre, and the cocktail bar of the Park Hyatt Hotel, up on the 87 floor.

Skyscrapers, as a rule, are not the most aesthetically pleasing of buildings, but Shanghai is home to one of my favourites, the Jinmao. Inspired by the shape of a Chinese pagoda, it is both striking and elegant, and the World Financial Centre next door suffers in comparison. Elegant it is not. It has been nicknamed ‘the bottle opener’ due to the rectangular opening at the top, an opening which caused some controversy when the building was going up. The story goes that the opening was originally supposed to be circular, but this was deemed too reminiscent of the Japanese flag, so it was changed to a more rectangular shape.

The bar is everything I hoped a swanky Shanghai cocktail bar would be, and the view from the windows is breathtaking. I can see the vast sprawl of the city, extending to the horizon, or so it seems. Shanghai’s not a pretty city, but it is impressive. I can see the handsome buildings on the Bund on the other side of the river and the quirky shape of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which looks like something out of a 1970s science-fiction movie. Next door, the Jinmao glints in the sunlight. A thin brownish haze blankets the city, visual proof of the pollution which is the bane of many a Chinese city.

I can vouch for the idea that pollution makes hay-fever worse, and I wish I knew the Chinese word for anti-histamine.

The experience confirms my initial impressions. The new China likes its buildings tall, its lifts fast and its cities big. There are no half measures in the Middle Kingdom.

***

In praise of the Apostropher Royal

apostrophe

If there isn’t an Apostropher Royal, there really should be. What a job title. (It rivals the Queen’s Remembrancer.)

I came across the Apostropher Royal in Lynne Truss’s wondrous book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (although I gather it made its first appearance in the Daily Express). Given that apostrophe abuse is guaranteed to make me shudder, the idea of such an august position pleased me greatly.

The story goes, and I quote:

A humble greengrocer (in days of yore) was delivering potatoes to Good Queen Bess and happened to notice a misplaced apostrophe in a royal decree. When he pointed it out the Queen immediately created the office of Apostropher Royal, to control the quality and distribution of apostrophes and deliver them in wheelbarrows to all the greengrocers of England on the second Thursday of every month (Apostrophe Thursday). The present Apostropher Royal, Sir D’Anville O’M’Darlin’, concerns himself these days with such urgent issues as the tendency of “trendy publishers” to replace quotation marks with colons and dashes, the effect of which is that pairs of unwanted inverted commas can be illegally shipped abroad, split down the middle to form low-grade apostrophes and sold back to an unwary British public.

A word of advice on the reading of Eats, Shoots and Leaves – it’s better not to read it in public. I started the book in a respectable coffee shop, and through my attempts not to laugh and upset the decorum of the place, I think I did myself an injury.

The last journey of King Charles I

Sunday saw a sombre parade from St James’s Palace, down the Mall to Horse Guards and, finally, Banqueting House, commemorating the last journey and execution of King Charles I in January 1649. It was a bright, sunny day, great for photographs, but the march was conducted with an air of gloom and at an appropriately funereal pace. The wind was chilly, as if to compensate for the brightness of the sun. Legend has it that the king wore layers of warmer clothes on that fateful day in 1649, lest he shiver in the cold; he didn’t want people to think he was afraid.

The occasion was marked, as it has been for the last forty years, by the King’s Army of the English Civil War Society, who were decked out in the costume of the period. They reminded me of the old saying about the combatants of the Civil War, namely that the parliamentarians (the roundheads) were right, but repulsive, and the royalists (the cavaliers) were wrong, but romantic.

Here are some photos from the march.

english civil war society

cwt1 cwt2 english civli war society

english civil war society

english civil war society

For other fun travel photos, check out Photo Friday on Delicious Baby.

 

Book recommendation: Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series

a river in the sky, elizabeth peters
A River in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters

Question of the day – how come I, with my long-standing archaeology obsession, didn’t discover Elizabeth Peters and the glorious Amelia Peabody before? (Scratches head). There is an upside to my tardiness, though, as I am halfway through A River in the Sky, and I’ve got that delicious tingly feeling associated with discovering a great book for the first time, and the will to hunt down all the others. And there are a lot of them. That’s a New Year’s Resolution I can stick with.

For those of you who don’t know, A River in the Sky is one of a series of murder mysteries featuring the formidable Egyptologist Amelia Peabody, who reads like a cross between Gertrude Bell and Indiana Jones (you know, if he were female and knew how to speak to servants).

Peabody, as her equally sharp-tongued husband Emerson, calls her, is the matriarch of a decidedly unconventional clan, who glory in such names as Nefret and Ramses. You could, it appears, get away with a lot in 1910 if you were smart and scholarly and adventurous.

The plot begins with the arrival of two guests for tea, an event to cause Peabody some misgivings at the best of times, given Emerson’s taste in acquaintances – ‘Arab sheikhs, Nubian brigands, thieves of various nationalities and one or two forgers.’ The story stretches from the idyllic Kent countryside to the ancient sites and dusty excavations of Palestine, as Peabody and Emerson attempt to stop a dubious fellow by the name of Morley from embarking on a catastrophic excavation. Meanwhile their son Ramses, also in Palestine, overhears something he shouldn’t.

The book is a delight to read, full of wit and some laugh out loud moments. There are some great descriptions. Mrs Finney, the proprietess of the White Boar, for instance, was “shaped like a cottage loaf, very tight around the middle and very full above and below.” And, so far, I’ve got a soft spot for the biscuit loving Reverend Panagopolous, whose name is, understandably, a challenge, so much so that the other characters take to calling him Reverend Plato.

There is a bittersweet element to the book, given its setting and the weary realisation that not much has changed. Palestine is still in “a dangerously unsettled region” in 2013 as much as it was in 1910.

Published in 2010, A River in the Sky is the last in the series (of 19 books, yay!), and some have criticised it as being not up to the standard of the other books. That is always a danger of a long-running series, I think, but if you’re coming to it as a total newbie, like me, it shouldn’t take you long to be totally absorbed.

So, over to you – what do you think of the Amelia Peabody novels? And do you have any other fun series to recommend? Let me know!