London Landmarks: The Museum of London

A perfect Sunday afternoon

This was my first visit to the Museum of London that nestles against a section of preserved Roman wall, a short walk from St Paul’s Cathedral. Innovative in its design, the museum’s nine (free) galleries—that span from pre-history to the modern era—are laid out such that the visitor must follow them chronologically.

A time of mammoths and lions

The pre-history gallery (450,000 AD to 50 AD) informed me of the mammoths and lion that once roamed the marshland that was later transformed into the great city. There were plenty of bones (some carved) and skulls. Though the artefacts were crude (great cutting flints, rusted axes, battered knives), they were poignant too, as I imagined the early people that lived here. Was it a better time? A worse time? A reconstruction of a woman’s head that oozed humanity, caught my attention.

Julius Caesar

The arrival of the Romans changed everything. Astonishing delicacy of metalwork that included combes, knives, spoons and jewellery vied with sympathetically carved statues. A Roman room looked both familiar (chairs, sofa, hearth, wall decorations) and inviting. Who needs carpet when you can have an extraordinarily ornate mosaic floor?

Medieval London

Then came the medieval galleries that started with the Anglo-Saxons. They named their town “Lundenwic” (London-port), where busy merchants could beach their vessels on the riverbank and haul their fare to one of several markets. I marvelled again at the shields, spears and axes, the pottery and exquisite metalwork displayed in the jewellery cabinets.

Within the old Roman city wall, the first St Paul’s cathedral was built of timber. When the Vikings attacked in 842 and 851, the new city was abandoned.

Death, death and rebirth

The 1550s to 1650s was a period of war, plague (1665)–that may have accounted for 200 million deaths across Eurasia—and the Great Fire (1666) that started at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane. Though the death toll was considered small, the fire consumed 13,200 homes, 87 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. It was the end of the wooden city as the rebuild comprised much brick and stone. There was a model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre that brought back memories of the plays (Othello, Hamlet) I studied at school.

1670s – 1850s

The next two centuries saw a massive expanse in the city’s size and culture. I loved the reconstructed “Pleasure Gardens”—where residents would dress up in their finest to enjoy fresh air and flirting. London was now the world’s largest city and the country’s main manufacturing centre. Great fortunes were made and lost with those on the losing end finding themselves locked up in the forbidding Debtors’ Prison, to be observed via the tiny window in the thick iron-reinforced oak door. Carvings in the salvaged cell timbers recorded many names and dates. Fortunately, there wasn’t a “Starling” amongst the prisoners.

Approaching modernity

The next gallery took us up to the modern era, and the Second World War. An impressive display detailed the 50-year struggle of women suffragettes until they were granted the vote in 1918. I understand a full gallery dedicated to this important period in history is due to open next year, to mark the centenary.

A beautifully reconstructed street, including a toy shop, a barbers and pub had me spellbound as did a 1908 taxi, resplendent in its black livery and white-walled tyres. There was Art Deco too—with a homage to that great hotel, the Savoy. It opened in 1889 and was funded from the profits of Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

Leaving something for next time

And then it was time to leave. But no matter as the 1950s to today, and the 2012 Gallery will be awaiting me on my next visit. As will the suffragette gallery in which I’ll learn about the struggles of extraordinary women like Winifred Rix, Kitty Marshall, Emily Wilding and the mother and daughters Pankhurst.

Tourist or townie, I strongly recommend the Museum of London.

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Ben Performing Live: at the Hackney Picturehouse

Ben performed live at the Hackney Picturehouse

A Bit About a Rolemodel

London UK, December 11, 2017.

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He looks forward to seeing you soon!

 

BAM Festival!

Just back after a couple of days volunteering to help out one of my favourite charities, Good Lad Initiative (GLI). I helped staff a table at the 2017 Being a Man (BAM) festival, held in London’s Southbank Centre.

A packed 3 day event

The three-day BAM Festival ran talks, lectures, seminars and panel discussions addressing topics from bullying to knife crime, from domestic abuse to fatherhood, from privilege to consent.

There were early morning runs, comedians, a talk by Man Booker Prizewinning author Allan Hollinghurst, LEGO workshops for kids, a lecture on ‘How to be a Superman? Gender Equity for Boys’, a Finnish shouting choir, music,… and much more.

Good Lad Intiative

The crowd ebbed and flowed past our GLI table. I spoke to several teachers who were interested in booking us for their schools. An aspiring actor completing his Master’s in drama was looking for ideas for a 40 minute single-man performance. A psychologist dropped by: she engaged me in a discussion about male suicide (which accounts for 75% of suicides in the UK).

I took contact details for a number of potential volunteers and got to meet other GLI team members. I was impressed by the interest, the enthusiasm, the desire to facilitate change.

What does GLI do?

It trains men to run workshops in all-male school classrooms, for pupils aged 12-18, which address issues of gender equality and masculinity. We encourage them to talk openly using the media of role playing, games and exercises.

It’s fascinating to see the pupils challenging their preconceptions and peer pressure, as they articulate thoughts on various topics, often for the first time. At the end of the day, their feedback—which tends to be highly positive—is analysed. But of course, when I was at school, I’d probably have given anything five stars that replaced three hours of geography and math(s)!

Making a difference

‘Being a man’ is a huge—and until quite recently—a largely neglected topic. I’m constantly learning and questioning my preconceptions. Good Lad Intiative is one of those initiatives that deserves to succeed because it’s really making a difference.

A Spooky Tale from Ben

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

Trick or TREAT:

Ben tells a spooky tale live at the

East Dulwich Literary Festival 2017.

 

It’s Back to School for Ben

 

It was back to school for Ben on Wednesday, courtesy of the charity “The Good Lad Initiative”!

The Good Lad Initiative targets young men (13-18 years old) with issues relating to gender equality, and aims to get them thinking differently about what it means—and how to cope—with being a young man in today’s challenging world.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for a two day training course to become a volunteer facilitator for this charity. During the training, questions were posed, exercises undertaken and role playing explored in fun but intense sessions that equipped volunteers with the tools to enter schools and share thought-provoking material with all-male classes.

Wednesday was our chance to round out the training, witnessing experienced qualified programme facilitators in action.

Man-up?

I was one of ten volunteers this day who attended a charming school a few miles outside the metropolis. We watched the leaders present the syllabus to classes of up to 24 pupils. Under the watchful gaze of some of the boys’ curious teachers, our diverse teams of two addressed stereotyping, sexual assault, emotions, violence, consent, objectification, sexual identity etc.

Did you know that 75% of suicides are by men (Office of National Statistics) and that in 2016, 95% of prisoners were male (UK Govt.)? That two women a week are killed in the UK by a violent partner and that on average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before her first call to the police (Jaffee, 1982). Pretty disturbing stuff.

Sowing, not preaching

Sowing seeds was what it was all about. Not preaching. Discussion and participation were encouraged and I was impressed with how the volunteers handled the trickier boys. And the trickier teachers.

It was fascinating unravelling the thinking processes of the young with their unexpected answers; it was great to share their enthusiasm. At times, it looked like the boys were saying what was expected of them, but our well-trained teams had techniques for dealing with that too. One volunteer stunned me by memorising every boys’ name in five minutes—he even got the twins right (after spotting that their glasses were a different shade)!

A great day

The day was about the boys and I left with the impression that it had been most worthwhile. Their feedback slips certainly reinforced this impression.

I look forward to my next school session at which I won’t observe. No, I’ll leap boldly outside my comfort zone and participate as an active facilitator!

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The Good Lad Initiative “aims to promote “Positive Masculinity”, and in doing so, to enable men to deal with complex gender situations and become agents of positive change within their social circles and broader communities. To achieve this fundamental objective, GLI seeks to engage with organizations and individuals of all genders and backgrounds.”

Their “evidence based intervention has been developed with leading academics and experts in gender and sexual discrimination from around the world. Critically both men and women work at every level of Good Lad to ensure [their] work is accountable to women.”

You can find out more at www.goodladworkshop.com

 

 

Bringing London’s Waterways to Life

I spent a fascinating and enjoyable Saturday near Wembley recently learning about the challenges facing London’s waterways, courtesy of Molly, of Thames 21, a registered charity. Like me, she’s a displaced New Yorker, though the time she’s spent in the (dis)United Kingdom is rather less than mine.

“Bringing London’s Waterways to Life” is Thames 21’s strap line and by waterway, they mean struggling Father Thames, his tributaries and the canal system within the catchment area (American: “watershed”).

One of the Challenges

I learned a lot. For example, during storms, the drainage system in Central London allows surface runoff from rainwater and sewage to mix, before discarding the end product directly into the river. Yuck. Further afield, the tunnel system is dual, keeping the two apart. A “super sewer” is currently under construction that should ease this problem.

Why this is so important

I already knew about the countless tyres (ironically, an ideal home for eels), supermarket trolleys (a safe haven for young fish), motorbikes, etc. that have been thrown in. But these are just the tip of the rubbish iceberg. How long does it take for human waste products to biodegrade?

  • Orange peel: 6 months (The New York Times)
  • Cigarette butt: up to 50 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic food container: 50-80 years (Penn State University)
  • Aluminium can: 80-200 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic soda bottle: 450 years (Penn State University)
  • Monofilament fishing line: 600 years ((Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Glass bottle: 1,000,000 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Styrofoam: never (Penn State University)

Getting prepared

Thames21 trains volunteers who then lead clean ups. We went through the Health and Safety guidelines and there’s plenty to think about. Guns and knives are found in the waterways regularly. Their live hand grenade tally is one. We didn’t discuss WW2 bombs but there must be hundreds—perhaps thousands—of them buried deep in the gloopy mud.

Other hazards included Weil’s disease (or leptospirosis). It’s a potentially fatal bacterium that enters the environment via the urine of rodents (especially rats). It can infect the victim via cuts or if contact is made with the mucous membranes. Consequently thick rubber gloves, “picking tools” and steel soled boots and waders are mandatory. If you get flu-like symptoms within several weeks of sharing a location with rodents, tell your doctor!

Then there’s Giant Hog Weed. A beast of a plant which should be left well alone on account of the bristly micro-hairs on its surface and highly photo-sensitive liquid within. If micro-hairs touch your skin, think acid. Think scarring. Think photo-sensitivity (a blistering of the skin triggered by sunlight, not a preoccupation with your Facebook profile pic). These symptoms can persist for months or years. Sounds off-putting? I’d say it’s better to be forewarned.

Progress

Clean-ups are organised locally and the charity is making a difference as streams are cleared, meadows sowed with wild flowers and stretches returned to something approaching pristine condition. Exercise is taken, friendships made and an occasional unplanned swim enjoyed. But it’s a constant struggle – and an important battle to be won!

And here, courtesy of the BBC, is a beautiful video documenting the return of kingfishers to one stretch of our waterways – an stunning illustration of why all this effort is so worthwhile.

I look forward to leading a clean-up soon!

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Thames21’s vision is to put healthy rivers back at the heart of community life, and they’re taking a four-pronged approach to get there. Through their education programme, they are empowering people and their environmental enhancement work is transforming rivers; meanwhile their pioneering research and advocacy work are paving the way for sustainable change and all of this is achieved with the direct engagement and support from a wide network of dedicated volunteers. www.thames21.org.uk

Toastmasters Annual Club Contest – A Record Breaking Turnout!

TFL on Overcrowding Alert
The feverishly anticipated annual Humorous Speech and Table Topic Contests at my local club came around last Thursday night. Transport for London (the city’s underground train service) issued a Code Red warning that Central Line trains to the station nearest my club would be seriously overcrowded between 18:30 and 19:00 hours — at one point the Club Committee held an emergency session to consider relocating to Wembley Stadium…

But seriously… Soon our venue was filled to bursting with enthused members, expectant guests and effulgent contestants. Judges and contestants were briefed and moments later, we were underway…chaired by yours truly.

Armed and Dangerous
Paul, our armed and dangerous Sergeant at Arms (day job: accountant), then delivered a series of rib-ticklers borrowed from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (eg: “I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change”).

Humour Competition
We began with the Humorous Speech Contest in which our brave competitors regaled us with speeches that involved motor-cycle rider Dave Death, the ramifications of being rammed by a ram (in a particularly sensitive spot), all that’s wrong with squabs (young pigeons, apparently), how to survive a hangover and why touching your interviewer’s beard is unlikely to land you that dream job.

Many congratulations to Michael, whose well-structured and highly amusing “The Worst Day of my Life” pipped the others and secured him a place in the Area Final.

Impromtu Competition

My Co-Chair, Robin, successfully retrieved the secret Table Topic question, “If I could grant you one wish, what would you wish for?” from a bunker 4,000 feet below a North Korean mountain. It was cleverly and entertainingly answered by all contestants. Jeff triumphed and his ability to think and talk so elegantly on his feet will be tested again on the 27th where he will join Michael at the next Area level contest round.

It was a fun-filled and memorable evening with friendships made and new members signed. Many thanks to everyone who undertook a role. And a big congratulations to all the contestants. It was an evening in which everyone was a winner.