You want planes? We got planes.
After the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, though really it should be called the Technology Museum as there's not a lot of what I would call basic science on show (perhaps due to the afore-mentioned Natural History Museum being right next door). Still, that's just nit-picking, as this is yet another truly excellent museum.
I headed straight for the space section ...
A rather Vorlonish-looking whale skeleton.
On my second Sunday here (so the day after the RAF Museum, I'm way behind here), I travelled out to South Kensington to visit the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, which are right next to each other (and the Victoria and Albert is conveniently located just across the road, but will have to wait for another day). The NHM (opened 1881) is one of the great natural history museums of the world, and its creation (for a long time, as a semi-independent arm of the British Museum) on such a grand scale is a testament to the importance of the life and earth sciences in Victorian Britain. The architecture alone is powerful:
Last night I ventured out to a cinema1 to see Die Hard 4.0 (AKA Live Free or Die Hard). I've long been a fan of the Die Hard movies, and I thought this one was pretty good, though nowhere near the brilliance of the first one. But here I just want to briefly discuss the premise of the film, which is a bit spoilerish, so if you care about such things don't read on.
On my way back from the RAF Museum, I paused to take some pictures of the beautiful neoclassical St Pancras Parish Church, completed in 1822. They don't really do it justice, but I do like this one, of one of the caryatids guarding the entrance to the crypt. The caryatids were modelled on those on the Erechtheion, and the crypt was used as an air-raid shelter in both world wars. You're never very far away from history in this town.
On my first Saturday here, I spent the morning printing out pages from the Daily Mail at British Library Newspapers in Colindale, and then headed over to the nearby RAF Museum London for an afternoon wandering around the historic aircraft. The problem with this is that it meant I had to carry with me (a) my laptop and (b) a thick sheaf of printouts. This was not too hard at first, but as the day wore on my feet got sore, and my arms got weary, and both my patience and my ability to hold a camera still decreased as a result. When combined with the often dimly-lit exhibition halls (including the Battle of Britain hall) this meant that many of my photos didn't turn out so well. Luckily for you, I've weeded out most of the bad ones!
The degree to which science fiction accurately predicts the future is not really the point; its value is more as an exploration of what people might do and what society might look like if you change things in a few fundamental ways. (And for my purposes, it's the assumptions underlying a given exploration which are most interesting.) Nevertheless it's always fun when somebody does get it right. Take this description of Britain in 1920 -- written in 1893:
Things had been looking very black in the closing years of the last century, but the pessimists of that epoch were the optimists of ours. London even in the old days was a bloated, unwieldy city, an abode of smoke and dreariness startled from time to time by the angry murmurs of labour. In 1920 this Colossus of cities held nigh six million souls, and the social problems of the past were intensified. The circle of competence was wider, but beyond it stretched a restless and dreaded democracy. Commerce had received a sharp check after the late Continental wars, and the depression was severely felt. That bad times were coming was the settled conviction of the middle classes, and to this belief was due the Coalition government which held sway during the year in which my story opens. In many quarters a severe reaction had set in against Liberalism, and a stronger executive and repressive laws were urgently clamoured for. At the opposite extreme flew the red flag, and a social revolution was eagerly mooted.1
It's not too far off, is it: the expansion of democracy, recent war (OK, wars) in Europe, a post-war slump (if you ignore the post-war boom just before that), a Coalition government, the decline of Liberalism, the rise of Labour (the narrator is a parliamentary candidate for a non-revolutionary socialist party), fears (or hopes) of revolution. The above quote is from the 1893 novel Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City;2 the author, Edward Douglas Fawcett, mainly extrapolated two trends of his own day, the beginnings of organised labour and the anarchist terror. In the novel he allies these to a revolution in flight, an aëronef (the Attila) powered by coal-fired electricity and which derives its lift from hydrogen gas-meters and 'an inclined plane driven rapidly through the air by a screw, a device first prominently brought into notice by the nineteenth-century experiments of Maxim'.3 The inventor, Hartmann, and his band of merry anarchists proceed to shell, bomb and burn much of London, as the beginnings of their plans to destroy civilisation and replace it with anarchy:
It's Lord Baden-Powell, Chief Scout, who at one stage in the 1930s seems to have had a regular spot in the Daily Mail's "Boys & Girls" section, teaching the future imperial overlords all about their wonderful Empire. In the 18 March 1938 issue, he contributed a piece called "Policeman aeroplanes", along with the following rather cute drawing:
(I apologise for the blurriness, I don't have access to a scanner at the moment and so a photo of a printout is the best I can do.) B-P explains how aeroplanes can keep restless natives in line:
The other day, in passing through Aden, we heard that two of the tribes of Arabs in the district had broken out into war against each other. Before they could get very far with it, the Royal Air Force had an aeroplane hovering over them like a policeman. The aeroplane dropped notices to tell them that they were to stop fighting at once, and make peace and go home.
So although aeroplanes have done so much in speeding up transport, so that people can travel and mails can go in a few days where it used to take several weeks, aeroplanes also have their uses in many other directions, and will go on becoming more and more useful when you fellows grow up to pilot them.1
So RAF air control policies -- the use of airpower in internal security roles -- are, according to Baden-Powell, much like a firm but kindly neighbourhood bobby breaking up scuffling schoolboys. Nobody even gets hurt, isn't that nice!
Last week, in an effort to get over the jetlag I went to Leicester Square to see a movie. Since I had some time to kill before the movie started, and because Leicester Square itself is pretty ordinary, I went for a wander. I still have only a basic grasp of London geography, so I was most surprised (and somewhat awestruck) to end up at Trafalgar Square! So here's Nelson's Column (which novelists of the next air war were always careful to knock over for the symbolism):
And Nelson himself, catching the last glimmers of sunlight:
Actually, that should be "The lodgings of the compiler of the damned", but it's more dramatic this way.
39 Marchmont St, Bloomsbury, WC1, just a few blocks from my own lodgings. The word "unprepossessing" could have been coined in honour of this building,1 and there are certainly many far more pleasing buildings too look at around here, so why does it warrant a post of its own? The not-actually-blue plaque attached to it explains further:
Here are a few of the best pictures from my first trip to the British Museum, almost a week ago already. How time flies when you're stuck in the archives!
Marble statue of youth, possibly Caligula, early 1st century AD. If it is Caligula, then the horse is presumably Sir Thomas Inskip.