Sunday, 20 January 2008

Lessons from History

In the winter gloom and bluster S and I headed to the Cabinet war rooms in Whitehall. The usual “lived in London for so long never been” excuse. I was a little put off when I got there and found it was £12 to get in. However I think it’s worth the cost as you get a 2 for 1 deal as you get to explore the tunnels and war rooms but also the interactive Churchill exhibition.

I am always wary of interactive displays (mainly because they are always broken) but this display has a good mix of hi-tec and unique objects, photos etc. One spooky system projection a very narrow band of sound down from the ceiling literally the width of your head, so you get to hear Winston’s speeches as if wearing head phones. Because the band is so narrow, you have to stand still and look at the illuminated pictures in front of you. One in particular struck me, it was of a young couple, a cheery looking soldier in a forage cap and uniform and his “girl” a young friendly lass in air raid wardens (ARP) overcoat and tin helmet. As usual you have to put aside the 1940’s hair etc to see faces like you’d see in London today, the girl looks happy but weary the lighting on her helmet with the rim catching the light makes her look as if she has a halo. Her “chap” is looking relaxed and jolly, UK battle dress always making Tommys look slightly scruffy, the short jacket looks ill fitting and draughty quite unlike the smarter or more casual German or American uniforms. The genius of this display is you have to look at the picture for the length of speech, taking time to think about these “unknown everyday heroes”.

The rest of the displays are just as good/fascinating and in the case of the voiceover free footage of Winston funeral quite moving. One last thing it’s not all hero worship there’s lots of negative stuff about Churchill to give balance and honesty to the whole affair.

The rest of the War rooms are quite evocative, the use of Foley sounds such as disappearing foot steps, air raid sirens and typewriter noises brings the place alive, the most evocative thing however is the smell of some of the rooms. They have that smell of my grandparents’ homes a mixture of dust, musty canvas and paper and as S point out old cleaning products.

I know that some people think places like the CWR glorify war, ironically I think they occasionally go too far the other way, on dwelling on “CND” side of things without reminding us of why they are important and that we live pleasant free lives today because people did brave, scary, selfless deeds in the past.

The personal nature of the world war is always brought home to me by the picture at the head of this post, a famous picture of a German bomber flying over East London in 1940.
Stan Boardman’s joke about “bombing our chippy” is sadly sometimes true, my chippy is under the “r” in “imperial”, flats like mine are here because the terraces in this picture were bombed out. Just up the road from my chippy is the Iceland in Newcross, which use to be a Woollies until one Saturday afternoon late in the war a V2 rockets hit it and killed over a 100 shoppers in a split second. Sadly there are 29,000 other stories like this in London to go with the untold sorry millions of others in Russia, Poland etc.

So if you haven’t been the Cabinet War Room is worth visiting, having said that as usual London’s history is all around us too...


ally. said...

i don't quite know how i missed this - my mouse lead is too short and often gets very jerky and useless isthe best i can do.
top stuff - it's on the list
any other suggestions - i think i might try a whole weeks proper pretending to be on holiday

BLTP said...

Ally: here's some ideas The sir john soames museum is great just off Holborn it's free and wonderfully weird. One night a month in winter they use to do night time candle lit tours which would be very good.
dulwich picture gallery is good as is the horniman museum and if you want a real trek to the burbs we really liked Eltham palace (can you tell i live in SOuth London). Oh and Fullers brewery in Chiswick is good if you like beer. Oh and an off season week day visit to westminster abbey was really good. I should have my own open top bus! "All change for the Fan Museum and Greenwich market"