Thursday, 29 January 2015


It's 1943.
The latest and most innovative technology is being used by the British and the Americans
to communicate with each other via transatlantic radio-telephone
during the Second World War.
For security, a 40 ton scrambling machine, Sigsaly, has been installed
in the basement in Selfridges department store, Oxford Street, London.
A private extension is being installed at the Cabinet War Rooms,
for the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill's, private use.
A direct line to President Roosevelt.
Secrecy is of the utmost importance.

Where to put that extension?
For the Prime Minister's ears only.

The Transatlantic Telephone Room disguised as a toilet.

To keep this telephone top secret, a toilet lock was put on the door.
Surely Churchill's staff would never guess that when 'engaged',
behind that door Churchill was not spending a penny
but talking to the president of the United States of America.

No point waiting for the 'vacant' sign to appear, they were told.
This toilet was especially reserved for the Prime Minister, for his sole use.
It was to be kept locked at all times.
It was 'said' to be the only flushing toilet in Churchill's secret underground war rooms.
However, there was no running water in the underground Cabinet War Rooms.

Everyone else, his wife, Chiefs of Staff and office staff
had to make do with one of these,
the Elsan Chemical Lavatory.
Or they could go upstairs to the ground floor of the building above.

However arrangements were made in case you were caught short in the night.

Clementine Churchill's bedroom.
more 'toilette' than toilet.
Perhaps a chamber pot was deemed too unseemly
for the bedroom of the wife of the Prime Minister.

Churchill doesn't seem to care though.
Nonchalantly on show at the end of his bed in his study bedroom.

The Cabinet War Rooms, now Churchill War Rooms
have been open to the public since 1984
and reassuringly do have public toilets with running water and a flush.

Details on the Churchill War Rooms website, here.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Five on Friday: Please take the stairs

Taking five minutes to enjoy five things...

1. Stairs invite us in.

Like into Dr Johnson's House,

up the stairwell,

 into his attic where facsimiles of his dictionary await your perusal.

2. Stairs can lead us down.

Into the First World War tunnels at Vimy Ridge,
in France but a National Historic Site of Canada.

Fourteen miles of tunnels leading to the front line,

built by Welsh miners for Canadian troops.

3. Sometimes it is necessary to make temporary arrangements.

Awaiting new stairs at the Brunel Museum.

The only way in and out of Brunel's underground chamber.

You can see where the stairs used to be,

helpfully illustrated on souvenir cups.

4. Stairs provide convenient places to hang portraits

Going left up the stairs to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons,
you are introduced to past presidents.

Not gowned up (surgically speaking), but wearing RCS ties.

As the fashions for portraiture, ties and gowns have changed,
fortunately so have surgical instruments.
Doubt Professor Peter Morris here, ever had to work with the chicken bone or razor shell
that we had just seen in the Hunterian Museum.

5. Some stairs are best approached with caution

 Down the hatch on HMS Belfast.

Always face the ladder and best wear trousers.

Perhaps head to the Shell Room below the water-line.

Ladders and hatches on HMS Belfast accessing all nine decks.

I am joining in with Amy with Five on Friday,
taking five minutes from our day to enjoy five things.
Please visit the other bloggers who are also blogging about Five on Friday this week.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


The irony of visiting the Citi Money Gallery at the British Museum
just after having had my debit card refused in a pizzeria didn't escape me.
What with my card refused and my friend not remembering her PIN,
we would have perhaps done better with cash.

Cold, hard cash,
from Egypt 1352-1336BC.
Back then it was all about weight. Gold and silver cut up to produce the exact change. 

What weight for a pizza and a couple of drinks, I wonder?

In China we could have paid with strings of cowrie shells, 1000BC.

You'll have to trust me on this one...
"Decorated bronze axes" from Brittany, France, "may have been used as currency".
What's that in new money?

Perhaps not small enough change to pay for a pizza?
These gold bars from the Roman Empire, AD250-400, were used to pay taxes.
Careful though, that coin's a fake.

Plenty of change in this hoard, shipwrecked in the 1630s
off the coast near Salcombe, Devon.

In the 17th century, carrying your money around
wasn't simply a case of shoving your purse in your handbag.
 This cash box, used to transport money, is hardly what you'd call discreet.

You couldn't pay in a hurry, it had three separate locks needing three different keys.

I love this. Money to subvert, to circulate messages.
Although illegal, the Women's Social and Political Union used coins for Votes For Women.
Small change for a big change.

Illustrating modern consumerist society,
the British Museum really does have a 'Shop with me' Barbie cash register on display.
"Complete with a miniature credit card".

At the beginning of the 20th century in London,
not only did cash registers record sales and do the adding up for you,
it was important that they looked good too.
This cash register's case was made by Tiffany & Co, New York.

As a little girl, I know which one I would have chosen to play with,
I wanted buttons, cash, drama, drawers that opened and a bell that tinged.
I wanted plastic money, payment and change.
 If a cashless society is the future, what will happen to all that plastic money? And chocolate coins?

It is illegal to copy currency in Britain,
so when Dr Who needed cash to confuse the enemy in 2006,
Cybermen if I remember correctly,
the BBC made these fantastic Ten Satsuma notes.
There's even a short film to watch, Dr Who saving the day/tampering with
a cashpoint (ATM) using his sonic screwdriver.

Money, the subject of art.
Nine dollars from Andy Warhol.

Art, made of money.
Trillion Dollar Poster 2009.

Money as protest in 2009.
During Zimbabwe's time of hyperinflation this artwork was made of worthless banknotes,
in protest against a 55% luxury tax, which included the independent newspaper,
The Zimbabwean.

I think the Money Gallery in the British Museum houses one of the most diverse collections
on one theme that I have ever seen.
From the beginnings of money 2500BC, to shop-keeping and 21st century art.

Details about the Citi Money Gallery are on the British Museum website, click here.

Thinking about a previous museum visit, I spotted a connection,
between the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery,
between this 16th century church offering box in the British Museum from Italy,

and the Jesus Army Money Box by Grayson Perry in the National Nortrait Gallery.
From the 'Who are you?' exhibition, which I posted about, click here.

I don't know whether Grayon Perry had drawn inspiration from the 16th century offering box or not, but in spotting the two, I felt like I had found a little bit of treasure, a discovery all of my own.

Just in case you were worried about my financial situation, had I overspent on my card?
It worked fine the next time I used it,  must have been the card reader at the restaurant.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Who are you?

At the National Portrait Gallery in London
Grayson Perry asks us, "Who are you?"

"Who am I?"
I'm a mum, I like going to exhibitions, I love museums and galleries, I watch TV,
I like going out, occasionally I draw and make things, I like Grayson Perry.
I watched Grayson Perry on the telly, his series of the same name,
So I went with my kids to see his exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.
My fifteen year old had watched the programmes with me.
At eleven the other two had gone to bed by the time it was on,
so they weren't keen but I had promised them hot chocolate and that we would also see
the Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square next door.

For this exhibition, there's a route, a journey around the first floor. 
Grayson Perry talks about identity in terms of a journey,
"I have attempted to portray the character of the identity journey
they (the subjects) are facing."

You begin at Grayson Perry's self portrait, 'Map of Days'.
A self-portrait as a fortified town with walls that he suggests are his skin.
I notice that the walls are thick, heavy lines.

Very near the Map of Days was a Families Activity Base
where my younger two were given sketchbooks and a pencil each. They were happy. 

From 'A Map of Days' you head to Grayson Perry's 'Comfort Blanket'.

All things British.
Grayson Perry gives you something to "wrap yourself up in".
Things "we love, and love to hate".
I'm British, is this me?

I've never been to Number 10, Offa's Dyke or Glastonbury.

I do love a 'cuppa' though.

I queue with the best of them.

I've never met the Queen.

So who are these people in this exhibition?

'Melanie, Georgina and Sarah'
"Three women, big and proud, who want their size to be seen as positive."
Their dresses are decorated with images of food and women.
Food and self-image are so intertwined, I get that.
I don't want my daughters to get that though, they will soon enough.
Food can be glorious and so can women's bodies.

'Modern Family'.
Male parents with a mixed-race daughter.

 Grayson Perry tells us that they teach us an important lesson,
that parenting is hard work, needs thought, is not something you can take for granted.
You don't often notice good parenting, it just happens.
But there are times when you high five yourself,
little moments when you could burst with love and pride for your kids.
This family appears to be revered on a pot, canonised, enthroned in the clouds.
Hurrah for Grayson Perry, celebrating good parenting.

Kids are part of the next story too.
Four kids, I know what that involves.

'The Ashford Hijab'.
Mum, Kayleigh is a convert to Islam,

and on this hijab, Grayson Perry shows a journey from the temple of consumerism,

to Mecca across a busy road.

Watching this couple in the TV series was very moving.

'Memory Jar'. 
Alzheimer's disease, robbing this couple of memory and identity.

Memories, family photos, are being snipped away.
The thought of either myself or my husband losing memories of our life together
is something I find hard to deal with.

In our family, an older generation, some memories are slipping away, it's disconcerting.
Though I've never thought of it as an act of vandalism, ravaging with scissors,
but more of a river gradually and slowly washing away the bank.

I have to mention 'The Huhne Vase'.
Chris Huhne found fame (infamy) perverting the cause of justice,
all over a speeding offence.
Surely I can't relate to this? 

I loved what Grayson Perry had to say about this story.
"I have smashed the pot and had it repaired with gold
to symbolise that vulnerability might be an asset..."

I'm not that broken, but we all know what it is to have cracks.
But imagine being repaired, put back together with gold?
Vulnerability, gleaming and attractive, something beautiful.
As a friend said about this work,
"Grayson Perry has been very kind."
I'm not sure, having watched the programme, that Chris Huhne really got that.

As for my kids identity, for now anyway.
Not on a pot, a blanket or a hijab, those sketchbooks were very revealing.
My son, asked a new question.
"What is your story?"

He's not interested in identity, he wants genres, characters, main events.

My daughter made a list.
A visual list, collecting little bits of Grayson Perry's work.
The Queen's eye, a horse's head and The Earl of Essex.

Above are just a few of the people Grayson Perry asked, "Who are you?"
To see more, see the exhibition for yourself at the National Portrait Gallery
on until 15th march 2015.
Details on their website here.

The question remains: Who are you?

Staying with the National Portrait Gallery, I have to show this lady,
she has helped formed my identity,
as a woman,
as a voter.

Emmeline Pankhurst 1858-1928.
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