Saturday, 14 January 2017

A 9d Piccadilly ticket to Museumland

News in The Guardian and on BBC News yesterday that Tristram Hunt is resigning from Parliament to become Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in South Kensington, reminds me of how growing up in Wembley gave me a life long love of museums.

I have a vague memory of memorabilia being displayed in the old Barham Park Library and when the Brent Borough Council opened the Grange Museum in Neasden one of its first displays had the photograph below at its centre surrounded by work tools my family gave to the Museum before it opened. By chance, Susan and I knew the museum's first curator, Val Bott, because we were all members of the then Labour Arts & Museums association (LAMA), which later merged with Arts for Labour.

The photograph is from the 1920s, when my great-grandfather had his own business, H Howard & Sons, which had a shop on Wembley High Road and a yard on London Road. My grandfather (who I called 'Pop'), with my Uncle Arch, worked with their father, but by the time I was on the scene and remembering things in the late-1940s, the business had gone and my grandfather was trading from the backroom of 36 Swinderby Road as E W Howard & Son. Pop is on the far right of the photograph.

The 1906 Wembley Directory & Almanack has an entry for 'H Howard, Ironmongers' at 3 Totnes Terrace and the 1932 Kelly's Directory lists 8 London Road as 'H Howard & Sons Contractors yard'.

Totnes Terrace was on the southside of the High Road by the Station Hotel.

But I digress (this is a good example of how one thing leads to another and takes you away from the topic/memory which got you writing in the first place), the main point of this post is to write about my Wembley childhood and the importance of museums, especially the South Kensington museums, which could be reached direct from Alperton Station for the cost of 9d half-fare return ticket on the Piccadilly Line.

When I was little, before my mother got married, I remember her taking me out for days on our own, just her and me. She wasn't about most of the time (even though she is recorded as being at 36 Swinderby Road on the electoral rolls for 1947–52) and one our regular haunts was the museums at South Kensington. They were easy to reach, a ten minute walk to the station, thirty minutes on a tube train, then along the pedestrian tunnel which linked South Kensington Underground Station to the natural history and science museums.

They were (and remain) all close together, the V&A, the natural history, geological and science museums. What has gone is my favourite from those day — the Commonwealth Institute as I remember it, although back then records show it as the Imperial Institute.

The V&A didn't get much of my attention, nor did the Geological Museum — ten minutes was usually enough, but I could lose myself all day in the other three. In the Science Museum there were a few what we would call today 'interactive' displays, mostly mechanical. There was the telephones which you dialled and then watched and heard a mini exchange click and whirr before another telephone rang a few feet away.

I used to watch other children approach the telephone with caution, not sure of what to do. In the late-1940s/early-1950s home telephones were a rarity. At Swinderby Road we always had one because Pop was a plumber. The first number I remember is Wembley 394 (or was it 439?) and our upright telephone did not have a dial. Later it did and our number became Wembley 4394. It was the mid-1950s before we got a modern telephone, complete with a pull-out tray containing cards on which you could write telephone numbers. We may have been high-tech insomuch as we had a telephone, but we had gas lighting until 1954, so I grew up a little in awe of light switches! Even now, in 2017, I press a light witch and somewhere inside me I am amazed.

When my mother got married, our days out together came to an end. After that, for a while Uncle Jimmy came along as well but when they married and they moved to Kingsbury, we would not visit museums together again for many years and started visiting museums together again with my children, Alicia and Owen, then my grand-children, Laura and Natalie. I see my mother as responsible for sowing the seed which grew into a lifelong love of museums on my part and for that I thank and remember her still.

My interest in the Commonwealth Institute (as I will call it) must have been enough to prompt my being given a Commonwealth Annual one Christmas as a child, and then every year thereafter for a good few. 

I took them into adulthood with me and left them behind in Birmingham in 1975 when I left Tricia, my first wife, for Susan, then Curator of Mansfield Museum & Art Gallery in Nottinghamshire. The best and worst acts of my life all rolled into one and there, at the centre, so to speak, were museums, for I met Susan at the 1975 annual Museums Association conference, held in Durham that year, where I was speaking about 'Museums in a period of inflation' and what local councils might do to address the challenge (one thing I did not advocate was museum admission charges).

There were other museums I visited regularly as a child, Gunnersbury Park and Kenwood House. The former my favourite childhood museum and park. Gunnersbury Park and its museum will get a blog post of its own one day because that childhood connection re-surfaced in the 1970s, during my years as Chair of the Midlands Area Museum Service (MAMS) and a former curator of the museum introduced me to Susan in Durham. His name was Vernon Radcliffe and he was curator at Gunnersbury in the 1950s. He became  a mentor when I joined MAMS. I gave the eulogy at his funeral in 2011.

There really was a dearth of local museums in our part of Middlesex, so by the time I was eight or nine I was taking myself off to South Kensington on my own because, by then, I had the confidence to use buses and tube trains like an adult. 

I think the Commonwealth Institute played a part in shaping my take on the world even then, looking at the displays and watching films in its cinema, you could not but help see the way we treated Black people in Africa and the West Indies. Those in charge were always white and the workers always Black, yet I knew from the Fanthornes (I hope I have spelt the surname correctly), who were Anglo-Indians and members of St John's Church, that colour was no bar to ability. In those days Black faces were a rarity in Wembley, but when they came my years of visiting the Commonwealth Institute helped to put their arrival into some kind of context.

Add to this liberal schoolteachers like Mr Fowler, Mr Irvine and Mr Sladden at Alperton Secondary Modern, and listening to adults talk at 36 Swinderby Road, I can understand how I became who I am today. Pop and my Uncle Dave had very different views of the Suez War in 1956. At school I was on Nasser's side, just like I was always a 'Roundhead', never a 'Cavalier'. These things just went with the territory of me being who I was, a little apart from others even then.

The Natural History Museum helped me question what I was taught at Sunday school long before I knew the name Charles Darwin. It was there, all in plain sight for any child to see if he or she looked. My questions resulted in being given The Story of the Bible as my reward for regular Sunday school attendance in 1957, which I still have (all it did was fuel the fire).

I wasn't bright at school because I suspect I was seen as disruptive, always asking questions, even challenging what teachers said at times, but these are things for another day.

Had I not grown up in Wembley, a 9d train ride and forty-five minutes away from 'Museumland', as I liked to call it then, I would not be me.

There is one teenage footnote to this story. My first job on leaving Alperton Secondary Modern School eas as a a trainee animal technician at the Chester Beatty Research Institute in South Kensington, so I would take myself off at lunchtime or when I finished early on a Saturday to the V&A Museum, which was just five minutes away. This was when I got to see and learn about another side of history and as really my introduction to 'the arts' as such. If I had my way all museums would have a virtual reality website so that, with the touch of a finger (or saying a few words) we could visit them all if we wished! 

I will end where I started, with another reference to Tristram Hunt. He is on record as supporting museum charges and the V&A has already felt the need to reassure the public that it has no plans to introduce charges. I have always opposed museum charges (just as I am opposed to university tuition fees and private fee charging education) and, at the root, of this objection are my own experiences as a child. Had she to pay, I suspect my mother would never have taken me to museums… the rest you know.

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