The Great Wen Of London

I’ve just got back from a research trip to the National Archives. The allure of the rest of London, however, was too great to resist, and so the highlights of the last few days are not fading sheets of parchment, I’m afraid. Perhaps I’m a new, and inferior, model of historian. I can report, from my venturing into the archives, that while there is a certain magic in handling centuries old documents, that magic tends to fade if you struggle to read early-modern handwriting (exacerbated by early-modern spelling)… I am still more spellbound by working with modern printed editions of early modern sources, I’m afraid, than by the originals, as I can read the former quickly enough to allow my brain to jump around making spiders webs of connections and citadels of arguments.

I can also report, to my astonishment, that the National Archives are very prettily situated (once you manage to navigate the tube to Kew). Their, rather questionable, space-age architecture sits beside a garden with trees, lawns, benches, and a lake with swans. Sitting on a bench in the sunshine, watching geese plop gracelessly into the lake, I thought the NA had some advantages over the Bodleian… why does the Bodleian not have a garden?!

This morning, I went to see the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery, which was so fantastic that I’ll save it for a post of its own! Passing by St Martin in the Fields, I stopped, as almost always, to admire the most breathtaking piece of modern sculpture I have ever seen. In the heart of busy, noisy, cluttered London, lies a tiny new-born baby, his umbilical cord still trailing, on pitted rough stone. Carved beneath: “In the beginning was the word and the word became flesh and lived among us”.

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Michael Chapman’s ‘The Millenium Sculpture’

From the sublime to the disappointing: next, I visited the Wellcome museum’s exhibition ‘Medicine Man’. My research borders on early-modern medicine, so I hoped that this would be a really interesting exhibition for me to visit, but, even with some knowledge of history of medicine, I found it confusing. The labels barely gave any details, and objects from all time periods and areas of the globe were cluttered together, under vague themes, leaving the viewer unable to appreciate the significance and purpose of most of the individual objects (nor, in some cases, their medical relevance – e.g. images of the Virgin Mary… I can infer from my own knowledge how these relate to medicine… but some explanatory labels/texts would have been a good idea, I think.)

And so, lunch. Much more satisfying. I caught up with a friend over a seared tuna salad at The Refinery at Regent’s Place; it was the best tuna steak I have ever had. I highly recommend this restaurant – the food is exceptionally good, the service quick, and the location is really nice (I love the Monaco-esque feel to Regent’s Place, with its colourful deckchairs under tower blocks) and central, yet it’s very reasonably priced (especially for London!).

Finally, a very quick visit to the bewitching blossoms of Regent’s Park. Who can resist them? They make deckchairs under tower blocks, and seared tuna steaks, seem like chewing gum on the pavement… but I think they share a strange kindred with the baby nestling on stone, under the cloak of St Martin’s church. Both say that we busy humans understand almost nothing at all: for, what is worth understanding is not what the world teaches us to know.

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