The White Rose of York

The minster illuminated with white roses. Photo by Kippa Matthews

Every place has its symbol that defines it, captures its genius loci.

In London I worked in the City for a spell– one of the darker times in my life. I would often look to the guardian of that place– the pizzled dragon with its heraldic erection, and wonder.   To survive the alienation and everyday struggle I would often call on dark things to help me.  They were always there, waiting.

The York Rose

What a contrast now to find the sigil of this city, York, to be a white, five petaled mandala.  I fell in love with it when I first saw it.  Though the history dates back to the House of York in the 14th century and the War of the Roses in the 15th century, it was really the Victorians who popularized the symbol.  Great urban planners they were (though they tried to take down the city walls!) But they were also sentimentalists, and the white rose as a municipal symbol seems uniquely Victorian.

Of course the rose is the Christian symbol representing Mary– and where Mary is, we are sure to find also a much older goddess that predates Christianity. The rose is a pagan symbol– with its five petals like the five arms of the pentagram. Their cyclical, spiraled structure suggests the unfurled labyrinth of faith.

White Rose of York earrings by Feral Strumpet on Etsy

A Congress of Rough Riders

Congress of Rough Riders--- a treasury on Etsy

I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the postmodern aspect of the Wild West Show, despite its problematic legacy regarding race and Native Americans as well as the myths it produced.   This week marks the 122 anniversary of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show opening in London.  The English gathered to see a circus of dime novel heroes, beasts near extinction, Little Sure Shot, Sitting Bull, Calamity Jane.  What did they think of the Sioux Ghost Dance?  Or the “Deadwood Concord Stagecoach”?  Judging by current British stereotypes about Americans, these shows had a lasting impression.

But hot damn, don’t you wish you could’ve seen it?  I’m skeptical about the Steampunk craze for clockwork gee-gaws and Victorian anachronism, but if there is any part of this fad that really gets my heart beating, it’s the whole Wild West Apocalypse Extravaganza (ah, Firefly…) Give me grit and horse sweat over gears and goggles any day.

Before all this Steampunk, there was the 80s “prairie” look, a look that as a pre-teen I was strangely devoted. I had  weighty conch belt, one of my prized possessions.  I wore it with (dear Lord!) and Oxford shirt and skinny jeans.  So it was the little 13 year old in me who delighted in putting this treasury together, the same one who did a grade school book report on Annie Oakley, dreaming of sharp-shooting.

Image from

The only London constant is the weather, its shifts, the theatre of clouds. The only way to free up a story is to start walking.  To take a train somewhere you have never been and to recognize it, immediately, as the missing paragraph of a novel that should never be written.

–Ian Sinclair, London: City of Disappearances.

Londinium de Los Angeles

“It is as though London stretched unbroken from St. Albans to Southend in a tangle of ten-lane four-deck super parkways, hamburger stands, banks, topless drug-stores, hippie hide-outs, Hiltons, drive-in mortuaries…all shrouded below the famous blanket of acrid and corroding smog.”

–James Cameron wrting of Los Angeles in the Evening Standard, 9 September, 1968


Like it or not, most of my adult life can be pinned to a map of the Southern California coast. The privilege of the emigrant is to know home through absence, perhaps better than those who’ve never left.  I have been researching 19th century California history, a quixotic and surreal endeavor as I sit in my London flat overlooking a street where a Morris Minor and black cab park nightly, a street with a pub which plays the footie and a green that was quite recently glowing with daffs.

The friends and lovers from the past were all tied to the Southern California beach.  There was no place else to go.  Drunken nights, wandering, the ocean was always there cradling us, setting an infinite boundary to our boldness. Cruising up and down PCH, all of it was ours.  And then I left.

Like Dick Whittington and his cat of the pantomime, I heard the two-syllable bell of Lon-don tolling for me.  I packed up Lemmy-cat (and my SoCal husband) and crossed the ocean.  I know many of my fellow ex-pats have surrendered certain aspects of their Americaness– they have closed themselves in that London po-faced way or have let the tumbles of immigrant life smooth their broad accents to something rounder and more placeless. But the longer I reside here the more American I become, or, even more West Coast.”…to speak in superlatives, to live out-of-doors, to tell tales…to believe what isn’t true, to throw dignity out the window, to dress dramatically, and, last but not least, to tackle the impossible.” I have embraced Lee Shippey’s list of California traits without knowing it.  And more and more I am struck by how completely UnLondon it all is.

London, in its present manifestation, is a hard place of fiscal facts, of interiors and conformist decorum.  Increasingly it has become, for me and probably most other writers and artists working here, a place defined by the narrow possible.

I find myself perpetually in a mind of two maps; the jagged, golden coast twisted round the M25.

“Over 30,000 streets in your pocket”

Meteorite Lands on Buckingham Palace by Cornelia Parker
Meteorite Lands on Buckingham Palace by Cornelia Parker

Before I leave the flat, I often consult the codex of the A-to-Zed, the exhaustive walking map of London.  (It’s not an A to Zeee.  No, never!)  I have no shame in taking it out on the street, appearing lost, or worse–a tourist.  It is because I love it so.  Often, even when not leaving the flat, I read the city in this way.  The place names suggest stories I have read or have not yet been written, the density of history.

Cornelia Parker’s A to Z has a hole burned through it.  If one were to turn the page, surely the meteorite would have also obliterated Westminster Bridge on the next page, and might just miss Waterloo Station as it would surely take all of Borough Market, Druid Street and Tabard, where I am supposed to go this evening.

Cornelia Parker's Tube Map Brochure
Cornelia Parker's Tube Map Brochure

I have made a note of my destination, not far from the Marshalsea Road and a place I have never been which is now called Little Dorrit Park, named after my favourite Dickens novel.  Much of my London geography I owe to Dickens.  Long before I picked up an A to Z, his London was mine.  When I’m blue I often say to myself, Let’s see what’s going down at the Marshalsea Prison and I will pick up the novel and begin reading at random.

I haven’t made many literary pilgrimages since moving here, probably because they are always a disappointment, either completely missing from the landscape of chain stores, luxury flats and tourist crowds or they are overly mediated Heritage sites. There is something joyless about having someone else’s official dream imposed upon your own.

In the A to Z London returns as a tabula rasa, a web of place names held in the hand. Even the name suggests the sprawling labyrinth of London could somehow be alphabetized to order.  Everyone orders London differently, the maps of our minds no doubt carry with them distortions, contractions and omissions. Cornelia Parker’s Tube Map brochure from last year suggests this by using the iconic colours as an ink blot.

Tonight I might just visit Little Dorrit and make something of it, leave there a little of my own jealous imagination.

No Wondercabinet for the Waxworks

Yesterday I braved the den of screaming children that is the Science Museum to see what I thought was their revamped display of the Wellcome collection.  I’d read about it on one of my favourite blogs, Morbid Anatomy.  Wellcome’s eccentric somatic artifacts fascinate me, as does the man himself.  The sample collection on display at the Wellcome museum is a very tough act to follow, and I was disappointed to find there was nothing new in the Science Museum’s History of Medicine display, save at the entrance which featured snippets from the Brother’s Quay film that uses some of the collection.  There are a few fascinating objects here– a velvet-lined drug chest, elegant bullet extractors and the loneliest mummy in London. The rest is just dimly lit and numbingly chronological, with dry notations in an 80’s font.

Apparently what has been revamped is the online gallery. While missing the wonder cabinet aspect of the Wellcome’s curation, the objects themselves are fascinating, if difficult to find.  (For a fun starter search, type in “amulets” or “gas mask”  on the object page.  If you want to see the extensive chastity belts in the collection the search will yield no joy. Maybe it’s a work in progress.)

While trying to find the Art of Medicine on the 5th floor, I wandered into History of Medicine gallery on the seemingly secret 4th floor.  All the stairs to the 4th floor are roped off, and it seems only one of the numerous lifts go there. By the time you find it, you’ve left the sticky crowds of school children behind and start to wonder what the museum is hiding here.

I can heartily recommend finding it.  Why fork out £20 quid at the London Dungeon whilst being crowded by hoards of tourists when you can totally get vibed out for free at the History of Medicine dioramas?  I guarantee you that you will be alone whilst taking in the “Dentistry in the 1930s” wax tableau as well as the seen-better-days Modern Operating Room circa 1978 (just what are they doing to that poor wax sod?  Why is the blood transfusion bag all brown and crusty?).  Don’t forget the dimly lit amputation.  It’s hard to make out much beyond the tarred wax leg in the foreground.  And in the center of the floor: a cavernous Victorian sweet shop of a chemist, where the mustachioed wax man leans over the counter to help two wax girls with giant bows in their hair, his old timey jars and bottles obscured in shadow.

I should really mention the most soulful of the exhibits: the neolithic trepanning diorama.  Call me crazy, but those hirsute dudes look a lot more comforting than the wax doctors in the other exhibits.  (Insert need-a-hole-in-the-head joke here).

Palace of Pills from the Marketing Drugs to Doctors case
Palace of Pills from the "Marketing Drugs to Doctors" case

The exhibit’s timeline makes an unintentional argument.  Despite all the advances in modern medicine, the cures and curers are often no less terrifying than a caveman with a sharpened rock.