Category Archives: People/Places

Exploring the world with the people I care about.

A Date with Eternity: The British Museum

The British Museum was part of this trip that sparked the most excitement and trepidation. In the Dickens Museum post, I mentioned that context makes the experience in my view. The British Museum has nearly everything but.

So, to make the visit more fun and less overwhelming, I decided imagine Rick Steves was my guide via the “highlights” tour outlined in his London 2008 travel guide. Actually … I started with something that wasn’t in the official tour, but was mentioned in its postscript: the Bog Man.

What’s the appeal of a man who lived thousands of years ago and died a torturous death? It was probably the captivating National Geographic special that premiered years ago featuring him. That’s my story, anyway. Nonetheless, several thousand (at least!) courtyard steps and four rooms of unnoticed Egyptian artifacts led to the home of the Boggyman. Another five minutes of searching finally led to his glass case. He wasn’t there: on loan to another museum in England. Strangely disappointing. I left.

Hunger had set in anyway and most of the museum was set to close in another two hours anyway. There’s always tomorrow …

The Bleak House at 48 Doughty: Dickens House Museum

Don’t tell anyone, but museums bore me.

Maybe it’s all in the presentation. My Rick Steves-inspired tour of the British Museum will be posted soon, and it did have some fascinating moments. But artifacts set in polished glass cases, thousands of miles from where they originated don’t do it for me.

I like context. That’s why I love house museums. Add an element out of classic literature and I’m there.

So its not surprising the Dickens House Museum has been one of my favorite, if unexpected, experiences on this trip. For someone who isn’t looking for it, the museum is easy to miss. It’s one of a long line of undistinguished row houses on Doughty St., with only a sidewalk sign and small plaque to indicate its existence.

You enter the house into a long hallway that ends in the ticket counter/gift shop. The friendly staff takes your money and offers you the opportunity to view the orientation video on loop in the basement of the four story structure. Then you’re on your own.

The first room is a small dining room which has an oblong shape, which is quite interesting when you study it closely. Even the doors are rounded to fit flush when closed. Here, and throughout the house are busts of Dickens, when he was young, old and in-between. It makes you realize what a celebrity he was throughout his career.

Charles Dickens was the novelist who raised social commentating, as well as the “author reading,” to an art form. The Dickens House museum is his only surviving London home and it’s where he published and completed some of his most famous works, including The Pickwick Papers (the first book I ever read by him), Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.

Upstairs is the “reading room,” commemorating his pioneering efforts to commercialize on his success through paid public readings.

Along the way are scattered paintings, rare books, manuscripts, original furniture. Even his toilet chair. My favorite part had to be his desk materials, neatly organized as he kept them: pens, inkwells and even a porcelain monkey he kept around for inspiration. Seems these organizational quirks are common to the writer’s pyche, no matter the century.

And just beyond it is an apparent bedroom converted for the exhibit “Ignorance and Want: the social conscience of Charles Dickens.” The exhibit explores the people and events behind the heroes and villans of Dickens’ writings. I found the story behind Nicholas Nickleby particularly interesting.

To get more of the history, check out the online tour, which details the house’s contents room-by-room.

Misconceptions, part II: No way a southern Yank will fit in

If I’ve had a concern about this trip, it was the anticipation that I would feel like a Neanderthal walking into a village of Homo Sapiens for the first time.

I’ve traveled a bit within the U.S. and don’t always feel comfortable in parts of my own country. I once worked for a company that was headquartered in Oregon and on each visit, a “y’all” would slip and I’d immediately be surrounded by a small group of folks asking me to “say something else.” Just give me an organ grinder why don’t you.

How in the world would I handle a land where people drive on the opposite side of the road and don’t pronounce the letter “R”? The media tells me everyone hates Americans. What’s the best way to hold my luggage if I need use it for self-defense?

The answer is that Londoners really, really don’t care. Diversity is the rule here. With so many cultures and accents, everyone is doing his or her best to understand one other and get through the day. At no time have I been received with anything but a desire to help, no matter how obviously clueless I am. Even when I’m abusing the Wi-Fi at McDonald’s to write this blog!

And I have to say–addressing another misconception–I’ve been graced with a lot of beautiful, genuine smiles this trip.

@weather: it’s what makes London timeless


I mentioned in a couple of previous posts all the pretty flowers in bloom here in England. They are indeed beautiful because, along with these old stately buildings, they’re part of the permafrost. Things that are frozen don’t rot, after all.

{Note to Chris F.: That global warming thing you keep talking about? Ain’t happening, darlin’… Or could be it’s already peaked and has now transitioned into the next ice age?}

I’m kidding, of course. But the 40°F temp plus 20 mph wind gusts that rob your breath is a far cry from home where it’s 89 degrees with 98 percent humidity, which just smothers you all the time. In Louisiana, the weather overwhelms the senses. Anyone ever smelled New Orleans?.

I’ve been walking. A lot. Little wonder that folks are so fit here. Walking lets you see the small things you normally wouldn’t from the Big Red Tour Bus. And London is so pedestrian friendly, it’s quite enjoyable. What I don’t enjoy is having to duck into shops every 15 minutes to let the icicles on my beard melt. This I’m NOT kidding about.

I’ve got to give the store owners credit (and have, quite a lot actually)–they leave their doors open so the blast of heat compels passersby into their lairs. And I always feel guilty when I walk into a store and don’t buy something, so I’m the ideal sucker. Or it could just be that they’re trying to help global warming along? I don’t blame them a bit.

One thing I’m seeing a lot of that’s shocking and hilarious to me is all the kids–babies even–dressed in knickers and eating ice cream. I hope the American social workers never have a convention here. I have a vision of them running around the streets of London, “rescuing” the wealthy children of Kensington Borough.

Right now, I wish someone would rescue me before I either max out my credit card or freeze into a permanent statue in Hyde Park.

Visiting Trafalgar Square & The Impromptu Review: “That Hamilton Woman”

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I’m not a war buff, but I’ve always had a fascination with the story of Horatio Nelson and the events surrounding the Battle of Trafalgar. There are so few heroes left to history, and Nelson is one legend that persists beyond his highly public personal affairs. This trip to Trafalgar Square was a bit of an homage to that legacy.

I mention That Hamilton Woman in this video. Featuring Laurence Oliver as Nelson and Vivien Leigh as Emma Lady Hamilton, it’s an old favorite of mine. It was a favorite of Winston Churchill too, who reportedly saw it over 100 times.

The story centers on Emma Hamilton, a woman of unfortunate upbringing who uses her beauty and charm to marry into high society. Along the way, she and Nelson fall in love and maintain their relationship against great odds (like being married to other people!) to become England’s most famous couple.

Vivien Leigh filmed this role three years after her turn as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. She is noticeably less convincing in this role, which spans Lady Hamilton’s time as a fresh young beauty just entering society to an impoverished middle-age drunkard, dying of liver failure. Then again, every work in her long-running career was doomed to mope in the shadows cast by her Oscar-winning bookend roles of Scarlett and Blanche DuBois.

Olivier approaches the role with his usual magnificence. He rides the line between heroic dignity and desperate self-effacement in his relationship with Hamilton. At the time, Olivier and Leigh were mirroring these roles in real life as a couple who had a famous affair and divorced others to be together.

In both realms, these were people who knew what they wanted and transparently pursued it. Maybe it’s the autobiographical element that is so compelling.

The story itself was made for Hollywood, but perhaps a bit too ambitious for a standard cinema feature. Too many lives, years, and tragedies whiz by for adequate treatment or comprehension. One wonders how differently the story would be portrayed in the hands of someone like David O. Selznick.

Still, for someone who likes classic film and skilled acting, That Hamilton Woman is well worth adding to your movie queue.

The Impromptu Review: Best Camera Cafe’ EVER …

The Camera Cafe

Okay, so maybe it’s the only one. A fit of inspiration hit me and I was desperate to blog, so it was actually the WI-FI INTERNET sign that drew me in. Camera Cafe’ is on Museum Street, which is located across from the British Museum entrance. On entering, the first thing you see are scores of old film (gasp!) SLR cameras–along with two or three “regulars” around a glass counter. Camera equipment occupies every little nook and cranny of the tiny shop. It almost reminds me of the old Star Trek episode with the Tribbles.

Moving toward the back is the equally tiny Cafe’ area, along with two or three “regulars” around a formica counter. Whether the people there were really regulars or not, I don’t know. Its atmosphere is so relaxed that after five minutes, I was deep into a conversation with two guys at the table next to me. Considering the size of the room and the tables, we were practically sitting together anyway.

There were three main courses on the menu: chicken chow mein, vegan chow mein and special chow mein. The curiosity was just too much. I had to see what was so “special.” It turned out to be special indeed. Basically, the chow mein noodles were mixed with fresh spinach, chicken and seafood. The dish was presented beautifully, and boy was there a lot of it. I topped it off with carrot cake and a Diet Coke, which was provided with a frozen mug. All this in a camera shop? Amazing.

This is one of the few places in London that doesn’t take a credit card, so be prepared to hand over a few pounds and then gain some back–around your midsection.

And if you go, see if my travel power adapter is still plugged into the wall between the lens shelf and the first table!

Boag takes an already great conference FOrWarD

Paul Boag in character

Chairing a tech conference and maintaining the eccentric air your audience of artsy-techie designers expects would seem to be mutually exclusive goals. Not for Paul Boag, the brilliant designer and podcaster, whose on-stage persona hovers somewhere between Gilbert Gottfried and Steve Coogan in Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible. But hold it all together he did, through tech glitches, speaker overruns and who knows what else.

My favorite Boag moment followed the blatently useless Photoshop face-off. “I thought this might be an exercise where we actually learned something … But NO!!!” I nearly fell out of my chair. Thanks to Paul, Jo Andrews and all the Carsonified folks for a conference that was at least 98 percent useful.

I hoped to shake Ryan Carson’s hand and say hello in person, but he had the best excuse in the world for staying home. The first weeks after my daughter was born were the most special of my life. Sleep eventually comes again, but those early moments with big blue eyes staring up at you at three in the morning are so, so fleeting.

My one <rant> vaguely related to the conference would be all the whining in social media about the product demo’s. FOWD is open to folks besides web design geniuses and I personally did learn a couple of things from the demonstrations. And if the demo’s can keep the conference price down so that folks trying to establish a name for themselves can afford to attend, show some grace and just tune out for the half hour, especially if you’re a presenter!

You can make up the time by opting out of the design challenge next conference.

This is the last post on FOWD. Loved it. Loving London. Thanks to Adii, who gave me the pass to be there.

More posts coming on my adventures wandering the city.

FOWD: An unconventional way to present a concept

I’ve never consciously thought during a presentation “I want to speak like that person.” But such was the case with Litmus‘ Paul Farnell’s presentation on unconventional ways to promote your site.

What was more unconventional was his “every guy” conversational style of presenting. He didn’t need to be abrasive or over-the-top to engage the audience. Just a straightforward, evenly paced, well-articulated and even humble presentation of a concept. What a concept!

Don’t get me wrong–the content was great as well. Everything from the use of satellite sites to building communities by building a culture of trust was highly relevant and insightful.

I will definitely use the info. But this guy is my presentation hero.

Yet another reason to buy the Conference-in-a-Box: to study what made him so effective. Trading my southern U.S. dialect for his British accent? That’s going to be the hard part. 🙂