Thursday, July 09, 2009

Lived in London edited by Emily Cole.

Last night I went to the English Pen summer party. It was in a lovely old house along a busy high street in Notting Hill Gate, the sort of place I don't think I'd have noticed if I'd happened to be rushing past. The door, in a porch, was grand and black with polished brass fittings. A man who had stopped there too rang the bell and we were welcomed inside. When the door closed behind us everything seemed to change; it became quieter and more peaceful, as if that couple of steps had taken us into a different time.

The rooms were tastefully arranged with musical instruments, small tables and chairs; in a dining room there was a great table laden with plates of roasted vegetables, cold meats and pieces of quiche, and next to it another stacked with bottles of wine and glasses. Then, through an open door, under a canopy of heavy wisteria blossom, was a walled garden with smoothly carved figures, fountains and benches. A small jazz band played beside some French windows, and soon the place was pleasantly full of people. I talked to several writers: Amit Sole and then Jeremy Cameron and then a man who wrote plays for disadvantaged people. I had to leave too early, but as I rushed out to catch my train, I came across this:

a blue plaque on the side of the building at the front. I had not much time to take in the name or the occupation of the man who once lived here, but thanks to this book

'Lived in London' this photo was all that I needed to discover the story.

According to the book, Muzio Clementi was (1752 - 1832) is known as the father of the pianoforte, and lived in this house from 1818 until 1823. He was born in Rome, became an organist at a young age, then came to England under a patron called Peter Beckford. He was so talented that in 1781, whilst travelling on the continent, he was drawn into a famous musical competition with Mozart - which ended with Emperor Joseph II declaring a draw. By 1817 he had turned from performance to composition, teaching and business, and it was in this house in Kensington Church Street that he presumably wrote his most famous pieces including this one:

This is Chelsea Dock, who is aged just 6, playing Muzio Clementi's Sonatina in C Major.

Of course I had no idea of all of this when I was sitting in the window seat of the window you can see above, listening to the jazz band. But maybe Muzio once sat exactly where I was sitting, vaguely aware of the oak panelling and the view to the garden, and judging from an old photograph in the book the house has changed very little since.

'Lived in London' goes on to describe two other people who lived at this address, but were not considered important enough to be honoured with a plaque; they were another musician called William Horsley (1774- 1858) and his son John Callcott, a painter. The Horsleys were visited regularly by yet another composer, Felix Mendelssohn. I find this sort of information fascinating, and it is the sort you are unlikely to find in a quick Google search.

London contains thousands of commemorative plaques, but this book concentrates on exactly 800: the blue plaques which commemorate people of note and the buildings associated with them. I've enjoyed leafing through it, looking for places that I know, and just wish I knew the various areas of London a little better. For instance it took me a little time to work out where Spitalfields would be since there is no overall map; but once I did (categorised as parts of Tower Hamlets) then I was very interested to come across the section on Anna Maria Garthwaite, a designer of silks in the eighteenth century. I had just been looking at her silk designs in the Victoria and Albert Museum,

and the day before been trying to find out where she lived. I'd wandered around the area close to the old London wall until my legs were aching - I wish now I had thought to consult this book first.

Anna Maria Garthwaite and Muzeo Clementi are two of the more obscure people in this book. There are many that are probably of more interest to more people: Charles Dickens's house down Doughty Street, for instance, which is now a museum. Doughty Street is an area that is particularly rich in blue plaques (I used to see them when I used to go and visit my former agent in John Street). The book could be used to either look up names or, and I think this is how I will tend to use it, to wander down streets and see who lived there. And of course now, thanks to Google's 'street view', it is possible to wander around London without leaving your desk. It could be a new game - strolling (virtually) around the capital looking for blue plaques. I think I might try that tomorrow. Either way would initiate discoveries of people and places and their stories.

As Stephen Fry points out in his introduction finding out where these people lived their lives is a powerful thing; somehow it makes us feel closer to them. By learning about where they walked we feel a physical familiarity with their lives. It is something I always tried to do when I started a novel. Whenever I have written about a person or a group of people I have visited their homes, and where they worked. I have stood outside where they once lived and tried to imagine how it felt like to be them. The setting is important to any story; and how it looks is only part of the experience. As a writer I have always felt that I needed to go there and listen, sniff and generally soak up the place. I also needed to know its history, and this book contains enough detail to not only satisfy the casual armchair investigator, but also makes a good starting point for those with a more intense interest.

Book sent to me for review by the publisher.



Blogger Al said...

Sigh, I didn't get to London Last time I was in England, but taking an impromptu tour using a book like "Lived in London" sounds pretty close to heaven.

Fri Jul 10, 10:05:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes Al, it's almost as good as being there!

Fri Jul 10, 10:22:00 am  
Blogger Jud said...

That sounds like a truly delightful way to spend an evening, and one of the benefits of visiting an urban center so rich in history.

I do have a question for you, as I am reading your books: is there something in particular that draws you to writing of German scientists, or that fact that Hoffman and Wegener were both German is merely coincidence?

I certainly understand that Germany produced a wealth of scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries, and one would have ample personalities from which to choose for interesting subjects.

Fri Jul 10, 04:01:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I was obsessed with Wegener for a long time - virtually ever since I'd heard of continental drift. The interest in Hoffmann came about because I was researching German history for Wegener.

I already knew about the Struwwelpeter book, and when I found out that the author of these delightfully macabre little tales was a revolutionary psychiatrist I got interested in linking the two together.

That's all really - no really big interest in things German, but I did like going over there to find out more.

And yes, Jud, there would have certainly been a lot to choose from - especially in the scientific field.

Fri Jul 10, 04:28:00 pm  
Blogger Paul Halpern said...

Alas, there is so much to see in London; I hope someday to find an excuse (and funds) to spend more time there. The last time I had reason to visit was writing a book about higher dimensions, and finding the need to research the work of Edwin Abbott, author of Flatland. I'll just need to find another Londoner to write about (hmm maybe "The Science of Dick Whittington and his Mysterious Quantum Cat" or "Explosion: The Physics of the Guy Fawkes Plot.") Worth a try anyway; otherwise I would just have to be a tourist.

Sat Jul 11, 09:58:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I like the Guy Fawkes idea, Paul. A much misunderstood man, I think, and recently people in the UK have had cause to think of him in more sympathetic terms.

If you come in the summer have a look at the university accommodation. Some of it has self catering facilities and is very reasonably priced and impressively central. I highly recommend it.

Sat Jul 11, 11:39:00 pm  
Anonymous Mary said...

Being a historian by profession, I can attest to the importance of being in a particular place to soak up the vibes of a past individual. What's also good, if you can wrangle the opportunity, is to be able to handle the artifacts of said past person.

How interesting that you should mention Edwin Abbott, Paul. I just ran across Flatland in a bookstore this past week. I first heard of him while in a college math class and have been curious about the book since. After paging through it, I get the sense it might take time to digest.

Sun Jul 12, 03:04:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I've never read (or indeed heard of) Flatland, I feel ashamed to say - though looking in Amazon I can see it is a classic, and looks fascinating. So thanks Mary and Paul for educating me. I'm putting it in my Amazon shopping basket right now!

And yes, Mary, holding these old things is pretty wonderful too. I've held a few old things -like one of Heinrich Hoffmann's original letters in pen and ink, and some of the old diaries from Wegener's artic expeditions - and couldn't quite believe that I was being allowed to do so. It felt such a privilege.

Sun Jul 12, 10:27:00 am  
Anonymous Susan said...

Young Chelsea Dock is certainly a talented pianist, but *my Lord!* she's an even more remarkable quick-change artist.

Tue Jul 14, 05:05:00 am  
Blogger Paul Halpern said...

Flatland is indeed a classic, and I highly recommend it. It serves as both a primer on dimensional geometry and a satire of Victorian society. The author, Edwin Abbott, was headmaster of the City of London School, which I visited during my research. His archive, including original manuscripts, is in the school library, which offered me the amusing spectacle of sitting there amongst high school students while doing my research.

Tue Jul 14, 05:09:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Susn, I dound that impressive too. She doesn't miss a beat!

Thanks Paul - this does sound worth reading - and that experience at the City of London schoolvery funny.I used to love science fiction as a teenager, and my current reading is reawakening that interest.

Tue Jul 14, 06:49:00 am  
Blogger TheHighamSpark said...

kensington church street, know it well, very pleasant and expensive place to live.

forget tour books, so old school - create your own london tour at

Thu Aug 13, 01:08:00 pm  

Post a Comment

Comments are subject to moderation.

<< Home