Tuesday 30 April 2024


 Dr Johnson and the first members of The Club meeting in a second floor room of The Turks Head Tavern.

In 1764 , two friends, Sir. Joshua Reynolds and Dr Johnson gathered a group  who called themselves The Club. They were to meet once a week, at number 9 Gerrard Street, The Turks Head Tavern, just north of The Strand and Leicester Fields ( Leicester Square). The intention was to form a group,

“made up of convivial and interesting friends.”

 It is worth looking at how Dr Johnson defined the word, club, in his dictionary.  In his dictionary he always wrote the definition first followed by quotations from various sources, poets, playwrights, The Book of Common Prayer and so on ,that include the word. Johnson gives five definitions of ,club, including the name of a suit of cards, a stout stick, a dividend paid by a company and a contribution, as well as the use we are concerned about.

4. An assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.

What right has any man to meet in factious clubs to vilify the government?

Dryden’s Medal. Dedication. 

An 18th century print of The Turks Head Tavern.

There was a practical purpose for forming the club. It was more Reynolds idea than Johnsons who nevertheless took to the idea with alacrity. Reynolds as a good friend had noticed the terrible mental state that Johnson had fallen into. He had  become impoverished since completing his great dictionary and had to move from the reasonably grand Gough Square house where he had compiled the dictionary. He was living alone, in one sense, since his wife Hetty had died  a few years previously. Now he was living in a small house in Temple Court just south of the Strand, allowing all sorts of waifs and strays to stay with him there. Many of these characters did not get on and there were often arguments and fights. 

His living conditions and lack of money were among a number of reasons he had fallen into this mental state. Since childhood he suffered from ,”melancholy.” In the eighteenth century the term meant clinical depression. He once described to James Boswell what it was like for him at these times. 

“he felt himself overwhelmed with a horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation forgetfulness and  impatience and with a dejection, gloom and despair which made existence a misery.”

The word ,” hypochondria,” in the eighteenth century  meant suffering from a very real mental disorder.

Johnson had terrible pangs of guilt for not being able to complete a Shakespeare edition he had been working on for seven years by that time. He also  suffered what might be described as religious paranoia. He worried that he could not fulfil his God given talents so was destined for hell. He had sexual fantasies which also made him extremely neurotic. Henry Thrale , a good friend who, together with his wife Hester  had a big influence on his life, reported to his wife,  who kept a journal, some of the terrible things that Johnson had told him that troubled his mind. Probably a psychiatrist today would delve into his childhood experiences and find all sorts of damaging events. 

Forming a club in the way Reynolds envisaged was, in a way, a means of taking things off Johnsons mind . Johnson loved discussions. He saw them in an adversarial way. He competed to win.

Joshua Reynolds lived in a house on this site, now in Leicester Square (Leicester Fields in the 18th century).

The Turks head Tavern, where they were to hold the club appears in the ,”Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34 which covers St Anne SOHO.  Gerrard Street is described as such.

“During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many artists lived in Gerrard Street, and there was also from an early period a number of metal workers and jewellers, the most notable being Paul de Lamerie.”

Gerrard Street has a complex history not least house number 9 where the Turks Head Tavern was located .

The London Survey states:

“The site of No. 9 was one of the two largest on the north side of Gerrard Street, having a frontage of thirty-eight feet. The present building was erected in 1758–9.

The earliest known occupant of the first house was a Lady Wiseman, who lived here from c. 1685 to 1697.  From 1701 it became the Romer Tavern which held musical evenings. By 1737 the tavern was called the Bear and 'Rumer'.


The house survived, presumably as a tavern, until 1758, when the freehold was bought by John Spencer of St. George's, Hanover Square, carpenter. Matthew Fairless of St. James's, carpenter, was a witness to the conveyance.   Spencer's first tenant in 1759 was Christopher Winch, a victualler who had previously kept the Turk's Head in Greek Street. He transferred the name to the new house in Gerrard Street which remained in use as a tavern under that name until 1783.”

To begin with ,The Club, comprised of nine people. The number nine being decided on because if anybody could not attend for any reason there was still enough for a broad and diverse conversation assured of a broad spectrum of viewpoints. They also thought that if any two members should meet they would still be able to have  an interesting and invigorating discussion. There were Johnson and Reynolds,who  both had public reputations. The rest , to begin with, were mostly starting their careers. The main criteria for membership were intellectual capabilities, to be able to think and be entertaining. Things such as wealth or poverty were not taken into consideration. There were wealthy members such as Reynolds and there were impoverished members such as Johnson himself. The other seven members were Edmund Burke, the great political thinker whose influence is still felt today, Dr Christopher Nugent, Anthony Chamier,a stockbroker, Oliver Goldsmith,the author and journalist, Topham Beauclerk,an old friend of Johnson’s from Oxford who was very wealthy and who was entertaining but could be acerbic, Bennet Langton another wealthy friend who was learned in the classics and Sir John Hawkins magistrate and musicologist. Hawkins was stuffy and humourless and didn’t last as a member. As the years progressed more members joined. James Boswell, Johnsons biographer, was not elected a member until1773 at the insistence of Johnson. Other members thought he was a lightweight. Later on Dr Burney, the composer and church musician and father of Francis Burney the author, joined too. Burney was an avid social climber, getting to know the right people and had a creepy tendency to ingratiate himself on those with influence, power and money.  

Burney wrote about The Club, that Johnson wanted a group 

"composed of the heads of every liberal and literary profession" and "have somebody to refer to in our doubts and discussions, by whose Science we might be enlightened."

It is Boswell, with his insatiable appetite for recording Johnson’s and others conversations and actions that we have to thank for an example of a conversation held in the second floor room at The Turks Head on April 3rd 1778.

“On Friday April 3, I dined with him in London in a company where were present several eminent men, whom I shall not name, but distinguish their parts in the conversation by different letters. 

 (many of the members did not want  Boswell to record their conversations at first but were happy that he record them anonymously.)

F:  I have been looking at this famous antique marble dog of Mr Jennings, valued at a thousand guineas, said to be Acibiades’s dog.

Johnson: His tail then must be docked. That was the mark of Alcibiades’s dog.

E: A thousand guineas! The representation of no animal whatever is worth so much. At this rate a dead dog would be better than a living lion.

Johnson: Sir, it is not the worth of the thing, but of the skill in forming it which is so highly estimated. Everything that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shows man he can do what he thought he could not do is valuable.” 

This discussion about the value of things, the enlargement of human powers and an understanding of the classical world gives a sense of the depth of conversation and the  relaxed atmosphere and the friendly exchanges, even if the members were not always agreeing. 

There was conversation but there was also the eating. James Boswell does not record what they ate at these gatherings but at the same time as The Club met, two cooks, who worked at the nearby Crown and Anchor, in the Strand, a short walk from the Turks Head,published, 

“ The Universal Cook and City Housekeeping.”

Here is a list of possible dishes and choices the Turks Head Tavern would have served up. 

MEAT: beef, mutton, veal, pork, lamb and rabbit.

POULTRY: geese, ducks, widgeon, chicken, turkey, pigeons, woodcock, partridges and pheasants.

FISH: turbot, smalts, gudgeon, eels, sturgeon, sole,carp, cockles, mussels and oysters.

Vegetables were served in the summer but not in the winter.

Drinks might include bourdeaux wine and port. Beer and ale was not served because they were drinks for the lower classes.

The above is not an exhaustive list but it gives you a, “flavour,” of what was on offer.

The Westminster Reference Library in St Martin's Street.The site of the house where Dr Burney and Francis Burney lived with their family.

Everybody who was a member of The Club lived reasonably close to Gerrard Street. Dr Burney,who later joined The Club  , once he and his family had moved to London from Kings Lynn on the Norfolk coast,  from 1760 lived in a house in Poland Street,just off Gerrard Street,  in SOHO. By the time he joined The Club he and his family had moved to a house, once owned by Sir Isaac Newton, in St Martin’s Street just off Leicester Fields to the south, a short ten minute’s walk to Gerrard Street. In Leicester Fields,around the corner and a few yards from the Burneys lived Sir Joshua Reynolds. Dr Johnson, of course lived in Temple Court not far away . Edmund Burke was the closest. Burke lived in Gerrard Street on the opposite side to the Turks Head. Garrick the actor and theatre manager , the greatest actor of his century, became a member. He had been a school pupil of Johnson’s growing up in Litchfield. He lived just off Covent Garden close by. 

The house in Gerrard's Street ,on the opposite side to The Turks Head Tavern ,where Edmnd Burke lived.

Francis Burney the famed daughter of Dr Burney and author of the novels,  Evelina, Cecelia, and Camilla and a number of plays, became famous in her life time. She was friends with Hester Thrale, a close friend of Dr Johnson and a socialite who gathered the famous of the time around her at parties and dinners held at her Streatham home. Francis Burney is more important now for the journals she kept. She provides an insight to many famous people of the time including the King and Queen. She knew Dr Johnson very well.  Her description of Dr Johnson the first time she met him is somewhat alarming.

From a letter written at St Martins Street to Samuel Crisp ,  friend of the Burney family,  on the 28th March 1777, 

"...and in the midst of this performance ( a duet by Hetty and Suzette) Dr Johnson was announced.
He is indeed very ill favoured,- he is tall and stout, but stoops terribly, he is almost bent double. His mouth is almost constantly opening and shutting, as if he were chewing;-he has a strange method of frequently twirling his fingers and twisting his hands, his body is in continual agitation, see sawing up and down; his feet are never a moment quiet and in short his whole person is in perpetual motion."

London is very different today. Johnson and his friends would not recognise it. A few buildings such as The Turks Head Tavern and one or two streets such as Meards Street in SOHO still retain their 18th century character and atmosphere. 


I walked to Leicester Square( Leicester Fields) the other day and walked along Orange Street ,behind the National Gallery, past  Orange Street Congregational Church towards St Martins Street.  The church was founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees. In 1776 it became part of the Church of England. It eventually passed to the Congregationalists in 1787. It is located right behind the site of the Burney’s house. Where the Burney’s house once stood is an elegant building now housing the Westminster Public Library. It often has small display’s telling the story of the sites illustrious past inhabitants. There is a plaque inside the Westminster Public Library  which reads.

 “Here stood the house  of Sir Isaac Newton in which he lived from 1710 to 1727 and was visited by his friends Addison, Burnet, Halley, Swift, Wren and other great men. Later it became the home of Dr Chares Burney and his daughter Francis and was the  resort of Johnson, Reynolds, Garrick and many others. The library covers the site of the Leicester Fields chapel built for the Huguenots in 1693.”

The Chinese supermarket located inside the building that was ,The Turks Head Tavern.

I found myself walking along past the library, through Leicester Square, noting the plaque showing where Joshua Reynolds lived and on to Gerrards Street and The Turks Head Tavern, now a Chinese supermarket. I was very much in the 21st century but thinking myself back to the18th century. It’s quite easy to do.

The Orange Street Congregational Church founded in 1693 by the Huguenots. The Burneys house which was nearby,  was built in 1710. 

The Club, begun in February 1764 lasted for ten years with new members being elected along the way. It eventually grew to thirty five in number. Johnson attended less and less towards the end. 

Note: Leicester Square , as it is known today, was called Leicester Fields in the 18th century.


Leo Damrosch: THE CLUB Johnson, Boswell and the friends who shaped an age, YALE University Press 2019.

James Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson, Penguin Classics 2008 ( first published 1791)

Francis Burney: Journals and Letters, Penguin Classics 2001

Claire Harman: Fanny Burney A biography, Flamingo ( an imprint of Harper Collins) 2001

Dr Johnson's online dictionary: https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/

Survey of London: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp384-411#h3-s4

Monday 15 April 2024

Could I have a conversation with Jane Austen about life?


My dog eared copy of the Penguin Classics version of Pride and Prejudice.

On Sunday 7th April I was invited to take part in a ZOOM meeting with the JASNA Vermont group. Deb Barnum had sent me a notice about the meeting which intended to review the recent JASNA AGM at Colorado, whose theme was ,”Pride and Prejudice.” 

What follows doesn’t necessarily discuss things we talked about in the meeting, it is more a riff on thoughts about Pride and Prejudice the meeting got me thinking about. 

I have been reading Pride and Prejudice recently because  I needed something gentle, amusing and thought provoking to help me through these times of recovery after an operation. Jane Austen as recouperation treatment?

One topic we discussed at the ZOOM meeting was how,  Elizabeth Bennet, through her independent behaviour and attitudes to marriage  and also the love she has for her aunt and uncle the Gardeners, challenges the status quo of the world she lived in. 

Her mother, Mrs Bennet, the epitome of that status quo, has one aim in life, to marry her daughters off to whoever makes an offer. Love is low down on her list. A good house, a well off husband and servants to manage, those are the things that Mrs Bennet thinks are important. Their neighbours in Meryton, the Lucas’s, have the same ambitions for their daughter Charlotte.  18th century marriage seemed to be all about property and position. Lady Catherine de Bourgh vehemently tries to uphold these social priorities when she challenges Elizabeth Bennet , the Bennet’s second daughter, over her engagement to Darcy, her wealthy landowning nephew. Mr Collins fits right in to all that marriage process. He tries his luck with the Bennet sisters.. Mr and Mrs Bennet's own marriage is worth exploring in the  light of the social norms of that time.

Tony Tanner, who wrote the first introduction to the Penguin Classics version of Pride and Prejudice, says that ,

"the overall impression given by the book is of a small section of society locked in an almost timeless present in which very little will or can change. For the most part the people are as fixed and repetitive as the linked routines and established social rituals which dominate their lives. Money is a potential problem, and courtship has its own personal dramas but everything tends towards the achieving of a satisfactory marriage- which is exactly how such a society secures its own continuity and minimizes the possibility of anything approaching a violent change.” 

Elizabeth appears to go against these ,”social rituals,” She turns down Darcy’s first rather pompous first proposal and  dislikes him intensely. She doesn’t want the social standing marriage to Darcy would provide on his terms. 

 Elizabeth appears to be the revolutionary in this story. She goes against the expectations of the time. Even Darcy with all his pride, wealth and position in society doesn’t appear to be about to change his stuffy ways at first. Elizabeth jumps to conclusions with her ,”first impressions,” of Wickham and Darcy and much of the story is about the process she goes through, a sort of journey ,that delves deeper into the characters and actions of these two. Darcy of course has his conversion process and Wickham doesn’t. Real love for Elizabeth is at the core of Darcy’s feelings and actions ( he just has to excavate them first) and it is that love  that breaks the mould  and helps him grow. A man who changes ( is that realistic?) for the better, is the great attraction for readers of this novel of course. We are lead through both Elizabeth’s and Darcys inner processes at a gentle pace. He becomes a better nicer person but the two of them only make progress within what the society  allows them. Some might not be completely happy, about their coming together which of course is the tension in the novel. Bingley’s sisters and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are certainly against the marriages of Jane and Bingley and Elizabeth and Darcy. But they are permissible within the bounds of what their society will allow. In the18th century there was some movement possible between the levels of gentry high and low. The gentry needed new blood.

I have come to the conclusion that the real revolutionaries in this story are Lydia and Wickham. They not only challenge the society they live in  but they go much further and step over the line of acceptability. Their characters are not of course the most likeable and far from endearing to the reader but they break that societies mould. Shock and horror is of course the response. Who today would have given their actions a second thought? If we think of our actions and beliefs within the society we live in,  the 21st century , it is the society we live in that shapes our behaviours. 

There is the question of ,"trade." Sir Willam Lucas and Lady Lucas, are near neighbours of the Bennets. Sir Willam  had previously been ,

"in trade in Meryton, where he had made a tolerable fortune and risen to the honour of knighthood by an address to the King during his mayoralty."

However after rising to such  an exalted  level he had abandoned his ,"trade," we do not hear what his trade was, and made every effort to live as though he had always been part of the gentry. He mentions visiting the court of St James ,  and wants to associate with Lady Catherine de Bourg and her nephew Fitzwilliam Darcy.

On the other hand there are the Gardiners,Elizabeth's uncle and aunt, living in Gracechcurch Street in Cheepside, in the  City fo London,  who are also in ,trade. They live near their wharehouses. Presumably their trade is maritime being so close to The Thames. Oddly Austen never tells us what trade these characters participate in. The word ,"trade," is a catch all.The Gardiners are intelligent and kind people who are loved for themselves. They appear to have no grandiose pretentions. With this question of trade and Elizabeth challenging the attitudes of her mother about marriage, is Austen  starting a debate about who and what is valued in society? She seems to be breaking away from the stifling class structure rules. In Austen's novel Emma, there is a character called Robert Martin, a local farmer in Highbury who is looked down upon by Emma. Mr Knightly, a member of the gentry, on the other hand, values him. Jane Austen seems to be exploring changing attitudes in society with these characters. 

I have always thought, in a lazy sort of way, without really thinking about it that the attraction to 21st century readers of Pride and Prejudice was that it shows how a good relationship develops, that people can change for the better and that it is applicable to us today. Having read Pride and Prejudice again I think we are bluffing ourselves. I don’t think that is the case. The way we live now is totally different from the time of Jane Austen. 

What use then is reading Jane Austen novels  today? They are social histories and the novels read in conjunction with historical research can reveal much about life then. There is much in a Jane Austen novel which is useful to the historian. She explains clearly in her novels exactly how things are. She is laying things out saying this is the way it is, whether she is talking about the clergy, the gentry or village life. The gentle narrow world of the gentry and lesser gentry her novels portray, where nothing really terrible happens, where peoples’ lives are mostly in balance and harmony is always achieved at the end, make us feel good. 

In a way  Jane Austen was conning us. The world she lived in was going through one of its most turbulent changes. The Industrial revolution when cities grew, industries poured out smoke and villages such as Chawton and Meryton were emptied of manpower to feed the factories. The differences between those in poverty and those who had wealth became even greater. 

I came away from rereading Pride and Prejudice thinking yes, I enjoyed that, it was fun but its not about me.  A novel takes you into a world where you meet people you would never otherwise experience and a period in history, often, that you could never be in.

I have called this article , 

“Could I have a discussion with jane Austen about life?”

 I think Jane Austen and I are so different in our social experiences, 250 years different. I don’t think I could understand Jane Austen and she couldn’t understand me. A conversation of mutual understanding would be impossible. We might smile at each other over a cup of tea.


Wednesday 3 April 2024

LEGION: life in the Roman Army. A review. (An exhibition at The British Museum)


Head of Emperor Augustus, the creator of the career soldier. 27-25BC.

The British Museum have a new exhibition about the Roman Army. It is the first time they have had an exhibition specifically about the Roman Army. They do have a series of permanent Roman rooms that explore different aspects of life in Roman Britain.  The exhibition runs from the 1st February to 23rd June 2024.

As soon as I saw it advertised on a link on my phone I knew I had to go and see it.  As a school boy of 8 years of age I became enthused by all things Roman. It was not just the history lessons we had ,they could sometimes be a bit dry, it was the books we were given to read. USBORNE is a children’s publisher that have been producing colourful and vivid history books for children for generations. I remember reading and becoming immersed not just in the text of their ,”Romans In Britain,” books  but the illustrations of Roman soldiers clad in armour, wearing plumes in their helmets, carrying shields and spears marching into battle were mesmerising. There were pictures of various battle formations involving the coordinated use of their tall oblong shields. The “Testudo,”using shields to create a tortoise shape so they were protected from above and the sides seemed the most clever  of them all. I could vividly imagine it all and even imagined being there and  taking part. There were the detailed pictures of road building, camp building and fort life to examine and absorb too. I also read ,”Eagle of The Ninth,”by Rosemary Sutcliffe about the same time. I loved reading but that book completely drew me in. I think I read it entirely over three days. I couldn’t put it down.

When I was 9 years old an aunt of mine lived in Dorchester and sometimes I would spend summer holidays with her. She would take me to visit the Roman Town House on the edge of Dorchester. Just the foundations appeared above the ground. We stood in the middle of Malmsbury Ring also in Dorchester. It was reputed to have been a Roman amphitheatre where I imagined gladiators fighting to the death. But the most exciting place was Maiden Castle. A hill fort with massive earth ramparts that surrounded a whole hill. The Romans had attacked the hill fort with ballista and other techniques they developed and defeated the Iron Age inhabitants protected within. I remember my aunt pointing out a very straight country road that stretched into the distance and she telling me it was a Roman road. I was completely seduced by the Romans. Something that inspires you at such a young age is bound to stay with you for life. Hearing about the British Museum exhibition did indeed send shivers down my spine. I am now old. Childhood experiences are profound and lasting it seems.

The remains of the Roman Temple situated on the Iron Age Hill Fort, Maiden Castle near Dorchester Dorset

Those USBORNE history books gave you some facts and also portrayed the Roman soldier picturesquely in all his regalia and explained the different levels of the Roman Army, legionnaire,  auxiliary, standard bearer, trumpet blower, cavalryman, centurion. They showed him building roads and going into battle heroically. What those books didn’t make clear and this exhibition does, through the first hand voices of real legionnaires and auxiliaries by way of their letters home, how cruel, and backbreaking their lives could be.  From their letters we learn about their hopes and ambitions, the mundane and ordinary and the underhand acts of stealing and cheating. The punishments meted out, for sometimes minor misdemeanours, were cruel. 

When we walked into the exhibition the first thing that we were presented with was a large life like bronze bust with eerily white eyeballs with dark pupils set within the bronze head. This is a young, first Emperor Augustus 27BC to 14AD who decided to form the army into a professional organisation. Soldiers became lifelong career soldiers under his reign. To the left of the entrance was an information board introducing us to Terentianus  a second century AD soldier. The letters of Apion and Terentianus  are one of the important themes in the exhibition that show us the lives of real legionaries. Apion’s letters cover the start of his career . Terantianus’s letters extend over the whole of his career. They both came from Egypt . Apion was not a citizen and so could only join the auxiliaries, a lower paid and less well-equipped part of the army. In fact he started as a marine the lowest of the low. Terentianus was a citizen but although he at first began his career as an auxiliary he moved to the legions because of his status as a citizen. Apion hoped to complete his career and as a reward would have been given citizenship and all its benefits  not just for himself but his family and their descendants. Terantianus’s father must have achieved citizenship so passing it on to his son. It was of course a risky endeavour. Only 50% survived to retirement. It was not just taking part in a  battle but also disease that could cause death. Many, however thought it was worth striving for and taking the chance. Terantanius  who already had citizenship, would get a very lucrative pension package if he survived to retirement and the pension package would increase if he was able to advance up the career ladder. The army provided social progress and in many ways was a machine for creating citizens as well as ther means to expand the emire. Hundreds of brass plaques exist with words etched into them giving citizenship to retiring soldiers. There were estimated to be over 300,000 soldiers, both legionaries and auxiliaries, at the height of the Empire which governed 60 million people.

A letter written on papyrus by Apion a marine in the Roman fleet staioned in the Bay of Naples to his father in Egypt. 2nd century AD.

There are a lot of details about life in the Roman army that was new to me. Somebody who could read and write, such as Apion and Terantianus, were more able to move up the career ladder. The aim was to achieve being a centurion. It was however not just ability that  could get you there. If you had money you could pay for advancement. If your father had been a centurion you would automatically get preferential treatment.

There was theft among soldiers. Many soldiers were put together who came from different parts of the Empire. Some were from tribes that had been enemies and often they didn’t speak the same language. Mistrust was built in in some cases. Punishments were severe. If you were dishonourably discharged it meant death. Punishments were severe even for minor infringements. One carved stone relief shows a centurion whipping a soldier who has got out of step while on a march. Crucifixion was the ultimate cruel and barbaric form of execution.

The career ladder was similar in both the legions and the auxiliaries although the levels of pay were different. A legionnaire would aim to become a centurion if he was able but along the way he could become a cavalryman if he had a horse which role paid more. A standard bearer especially the standard bearer who carried the legions Eagle would have more prestige and a better income. The bottom of the ladder was becoming a marine They did much of the heavy work such as building roads and fighting at sea and were the least well paid.

Roman empire

There are clear diagrams displayed depicting maps of the Roman Empire at its largest. One diagram shows how a legion, of usually about 5000 soldiers ,was structured. Each legion was virtually an army in itself.

The structure of a Roman Legion.

The most amazing treasures are of course the papyrus letters written by Terantianus and Apion and other legionnaires and the tablets fromVindolanda. Often the climate of Egypt for instance has ensured their survival.  The Vindolanda wooden tablets found in the peaty soil of the north of England also provide intimate details about life in a Roman frontier fort. Apion writes to his father after making a tortuous journey to the Roman fleet in the bay of Naples that he has arrived safely and is well and happy. The start of his career as a marine was a lowly rank but he does not hint at that. He obviously wants to put his father’s mind at rest. The wooden tablets from Vindolanda, their messages scratched into the wooden surface that originally would have had a layer of wax covering them, reveal, shopping lists, chat between friends, invitations to parties, life as it really was. We get into the minds of the Romans and its amazing to find that 2000 years ago they were in many ways just like us.

A letter written by Terantianus to his father . 2nd century AD.

A warning is displayed before you come into the exhibition that there are human remains on display. The British Museum and all museums in this country show great respect for human remains. Skeletons of Roman soldiers in the exhibition,add to our knowledge and reveal a lot more about being a soldier in the legions. One skeleton comes from Herculaneum and was found near the sea front. Perhaps he had been policing people evacuating from the city during the Eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. He was discovered with all his equipment, sword, belt and other tools. 

Two Roman soldiers found hurriedly buried in Canterbury. Possibly they were murdered by locals. 

Another skeleton shows evidence for crucifixion. A nail protrudes from its right heel bone. He had suffered the ultimate punishment. This reveals another side to being a legionary. Legionnaires were those who meted out the punishments but theywere often also the receivers of punishment. It was the legionnaires  job to punish those who broke Roman law. Two more skeletons of legionaries found together in Canterbury,  shows evidence that they had been murdered. Their bodies had been hurriedly buried, thrown together without any obvious ceremony in a shallow grave. Often the local population hated the strict rule of the Romans and the tough brutal treatment by legionaries and sometimes they fought back. 

  There are a number of tomb stones of legionaries with inscriptions informing us of their name and other biographical details. A tombstone cost a lot of money to have made. Legionaries could supplement their pay by selling captives they had taken in battle and making  more than their salaries. Although a legionary could not marry they often had slave wives that they bought. There are some tombstones commemorating wives. The care and effort and cost of these stones show that perhaps many of these relationships were loving.

Leather tent sections.

 Vindolanda, the Roman outpost fort near Hadrian’s Wall has been extensively excavated. Excavations at Vindolanda, have revealed that often Roman outpost forts had settlements  grow up and develop near them providing all sorts of services. These settlements often became the beginnings of small towns. The exhibition shows us life not just on a frontier fort such as Vindolanda but about,” Tent,” life, life on the march. There are some examples of leather tent roof sections. The soldiers themselves had to pay for their tents. What surprised me was that to get any kit of quality the soldiers had to buy or obtain it themselves. Terantanius in one letter home asks his father to send him a large battle sword. I had always thought tents and weapons were provided. 

Body armour found in the Teutoborg Forest (Germany). There is evdience that the armour was not removed from the body.

There are many amazing items on display that all tell their own story. Helmets and swords, and a whole set of body armour from the Teutoborg Forest, in Germany,  a disaster where three legions were  destroyed by Germanic tribes. Other examples of body armour found at Corbridge, England are on display. There are examples of  pilum spear heads and an amazing example of a shield. It is the only complete Roman shield that remains. It is made of leather on a wooden frame. It has warped into a more curled shape but it shows the size and rough shape of a Roman Legionnaires battle shield. I could imagine it being used to create a shield wall and also a ,”Testudo.” A central metal boss, that would have been placed in its centre, is displayed to one side. This was for striking an enemy at close quarters. 

Roman helmet.

There are examples of Roman legionaries hob nailed sandals. They looked very flimsy to me. Terentianus wrote home to his father asking  for some socks to wear inside his sandals which he complained lasted only two weeks before he had to replace them. Footwear  was an extremely important item in a legionnaires equipment. His feet had to remain injury free for all the marching and heavy labour he had to do. 

Roman military sandals.

There was also a red sock on display similar to the one Terantanius requested in a letter to his father. It’s amazing how leather and woollen items can survive so long. The conditions for their survival obviously need to be right.

A sock to wear with the sandals. Terantianus asked for a pair of socks in one of his letters to his father.

Exhibitions like this have to appeal to all ages. The main target of the exhibition is partly aimed at the interested adult but children are given as much focus. I explained at the start of this post that as a child I had been enthused about the Romans by the brilliantly illustrated and clearly explained USBORNE history books. Nowadays there is a new approach to enthusing children and  I must say adults too are as enthralled by, The Horrible Histories. These were a series of books originally written by Terry Deary and published by Scholastic. The Horrible Histories have branched out into  TV series, films, board games, boxsets and magazines. The concept has covered all bases and now Museums have taken it on. This Exhibition has a subplot. Instead of Terantanius revealing to us the lives of Roman legionaries we also have , “Ratus,”the Horrible Histories Roman character.  A Horrible Histories themed trail has been designed with many colourful  illustrations that include interactive family stations along the way. They have a knack of using black humour to explain the facts. Nothing is out of bounds but it is done at the child’s level and children love the basic and gruesome  personal tuff. .It is a fun way to learn about the life of the Roman soldier. I must admit, because my wife and I did not have any of our granddaughters with us, we did not try any of the interactive displays. I would have loved to have tried on a Roman helmet or spun the wheel of chance to find out what would have happened to me in battle. 

This exhibition is trying its best to appeal to adults and children and does a very good job. But I think it misses a few targets.  The exhibition book by Richard Abdy , who is the curator of the exhibition, targets those who want more. But this exhibition could also come with talks and discussions by academics and experts, outside of the exhibition. QR codes that could be scanned using phones within the exhibit could add more depth of information too. I wonder if there are any teenagers who might be inspired to take up a history degree or archaeological degree at university because of this exhibition? How could they access links to further education? At the other end of the age range I wonder how younger children, younger than those targeted by Horrible Histories could be engaged? 

Ratus, the Horrible Histories character the exhibtion used to appeal to children.

At the end of my teaching career after I had retired from fulltime teaching I was asked to take some infants classes. I had never taught that age range before. I wasn’t sure about how to go about it. I took my lead from the experienced classroom assistant. We set out a theme for the children each day. One day it might be construction;  bricks, Lego, card , paper and scissors with glue were put on the tables. What could they make? The Romans were great architects and builders.   Also story telling and getting the children to interact with the story was so important . Stories about Roman soldiers? Dressing up as Romans,? This exhibition does some of that. Being given an artefact in their hands to  explore? What is it? Who would use it? What is it made of? Can you use it? Can you draw it? These are things the museum could get younger children involved in.

This is a fantastic exhibition. I certainly feel that I learned a lot and felt more connected with what it meant to be a Roman legionary. Parallels with the world today can always be made. Maybe that is what understanding the past does for us. It helps us understand today.

Tuesday 30 January 2024

A REVIEW of Northanger Abbey a play by ZOE COOPER


HEN:  Sam Newton : Henry Tilney.  

CATH Rebecca Banatvala: Catherine Moreland 

IZ:      AK Golding : Isabella Thorpe


Jane Austens Northanger Abbey is often seen as a bit of fun. A swipe at the popular Gothic novel genre of the 18th century. A swipe at the gold diggers such as the Thorpes looking to get themselves advantageous marriages to better themselves financially. The personal development of a young girl supposedly with no hope of a prestigious marriage,plain looking, coming from a very average country family, poorly educated, inexperienced in life and who lives in a dream world of fantasy her life enlivened by the vicarious thrills of the Gothic novel. Zoe Coopers play inspired by the novel has all that but each of those elements are seen in an entirely new way making us think about Austen’s novel differently and perhaps more reflectively. It certainly made me think of Austen’s own life in a different way because of this play. 

Walking through the entrance to the Orange Tree Theatre which is located opposite The Orange Tree public house in Richmond upon Thames we were greeted by a smiling lady welcoming us. Two other ladies , one scanned the bar codes on my phone tickets and the other handed me the copy of the play script I had ordered online. We were welcomed effusively, all smiles and kind words. The  process of arriving at and entering the theatre  was honestly heart warming. The Orange Tree Theater is located in an old Victorian School House. We found our way into the Lower Circle, a bank of four rows of continuous benches encircling the whole arena with the performance space in the middle. An upper balcony provided more rows of seating encircling the upper level. Intimate, cosy Shakespeares Wooden O. “All the World is a stage.” (As You Like It.)  Deep pink carpeted arena and a pink balcony . The whole theatre is small and compact. Five sparkling chandeliers hung from the ceiling. In anticipation of ,”Balls,” no doubt.

We found our seats and on my seat there lay a white envelope  with my name on it. I wondered what it could be. I opened it and was very pleasantly surprised to see that I had received a handwritten message welcoming me personally to the Orange Tree Theatre.

Zoe Cooper has used an academic approach to literacy criticism. Her play is about what lies under the surface of Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey. Queer Theory represents a belief that inborn benign differences between people entitle everyone to equal rights. It is a  way to analyze art, literature, music and the world around us. She has picked out personality traits and also how relationships between the characters work together.

The seats filled up and the three actors who are to perform for us appeared from three different corner entrances.The prologue began. The  actors, made eye contact with some of the audience ,conversed between each other as to who will do what and who needs to don which costumes. This whole improvistaion style lent itself to a fluidity between the three  characters, who play all the parts between them, in their relationships and in their sexual orientation. 

The play  begins. Sam Newton dons a full length dress with bulging lump positioned pregnantly over his stomach. He lays on the chaise long  in the middle of the arena groaning with  agonising birth pains that he / she  is obviously beset with. At this part he plays ,Mam, (a northern term for Mum or mother) Mam is Mrs Moreland  about to give birth to , they don’t know at first the sex of the baby.After much histrionics, screaming, crouching, pushing and heaving the baby is born.

CATH and HEN/MAM ”A boy!”

IZ/MIDWIFE “It must be a boy…”

CATH No, it can’t be because we are doing my/birth.

As you can imagine There is a lot of slipping in and out of different rolls at this point. It’s hilarious.Although I do wonder at all the mothers in the audience, what they made of a male actor portraying child birth. 

It was at this point in the play,at the very beginnng, that the term ,Pantomime ,came to my mind. Those of you who are British you will already know exactly what I mean.

”Oh no we don’t!” 

“ Oh yes you do!”

“He’s behind you!”


( Groan as much as you like!!!!)

But for those of you not British, I won’t hold it against you, ( another well used pantomime innuendo)I will explain briefly.

A pantomime ,is usually based on a fairy tale such as Cinderella.It is an exaggerated form of play, that includes men dressed as women, and women dressed as men.  There is a lot of audience participation, like shouting at the actors. Pantomime actors do expect to be shouted at by the audience.There must  lots of corny jokes, loads of innuendos and pots of gold. Oh yes and its performed specifically for children.

This play has many elements of Pantomime although it really is not a Pantomime at all.The serious points being made are too important.

The play, for all its fun and humour, takes this Austen novel and dissects it analytically into various  levels of meaning.

The beginning I referred to,  the birth of Catherine Moreland , CATH, suggests you question male and female rolls played by individual actors but also the inner feminine and masculine side.

The character of Henry Tilney, HEN ( another one of those northern terms, for a well loved female friend) lover of lace and choosing female clothing for his sister, supposedly, is one example. Henry also gets as much of lifes experiences from novel reading as Catherine does. A supposedly female pursuit.

The role of John Thorpe, on the other hand , the absolute opposite of HEN, also played by Sam Newton, is the supreme pantomime act. A thigh slapping, horse goading testosterone fueled, egotistical  maniac.He remnded me of Rik Mayal in the early episodes of Black Adder. Iwonder that his whipping horses, goading them on to faster and faster speeds, is a sexual metaphor or maybe not so much a metaphor . bestiality is not unknown. Would he have beaten Catherine like his horses if ever they did marry.?

The important relationship though in this play is that of Cath and IZ. They love each other not just on a platonic level. The second act ends in the two of them kissing.They knew soon after they first met I think, although perhaps Cath didn’t have the words for what she was experiencing.  Izzy has her male  side. She ,”decks,” a soldier with a punch. Some  soldiers about town had begun to pester and threaten them. It is quite a threatening moment when the soldiers become aware of Caths accent and country origins. The ,”country,” is played on. “She must be used to cunt try matters” the lead soldier, played by IZ by the way quickly slipping between different characters, is  sinister and worse than John Thorpe who is bad enough of course. At other times IZ tells us she  dresses in a man’s great coat and hat and wanders the streets unchaperoned and unknown.  In the play Catherine dreams of a marriage between herself and IZ taking place in the grounds of her fathers vicarage,her father marrying them and soft petals falling from  the cherry tree above. 

The use of ,”Mam,” a northern name for mother, is the name given to  Catherine Morelands mother. Catherine speaks with a northern dialect, probably a Bolton accent, north of Manchester  as do her mother and father.  Isabella Thorpe and John Thorpe speak with more received pronunciation. The English aristocracy, of which Jane Austen writes a lot in her novels,we always  imagine, from the films, speak with received pronunciation. But are we sure in the 18th century that they all spoke with  received pronunciation? Did some of the aristocracy speak with regional accents? Why shouldn’t Austen’s characters speak with a regional accent? 

In this version of Northanger Abbey the village ,CATH comes from is not  Fullerton a southern Wiltshire village near Salisbury as it is in the novel. It is a northern village hence her northern accent. I wondered why? This play is having its world premier here in the South at The Orange Tree Theater in Richmnd upon Thames, which is a wealthy upper class sort of place. However from Richmond the play will travel to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in North Yorkshire, The Theatre by The lake in Cumbria in The Lake District ( very beautiful too I must add) and the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. All, apart from The Orange Tree, are in the north of England. Zoe Cooper has written the script to make people feel at home, ‘up north.’ as much as ‘down south.’The emaphasise on the north in the play  creates an awareness of the north south divide in the Untied Kingdom. Often the so called divide  is seen as a joke but economically it is a real thing. That north south divide would have been there in Austens’ time. Industry happened ,”up north.”Spending the wealth derived from the industries happened,”down south.”

Is Catherine the writer of this novel? Is Catherine Moreland  Jane Austen? She actually says at one point. “I am the writer.” And the ending of the play suggests so too.We can discern this near the start of the play when the Allans bring Catherine  to Bath. The carriage ride is an adventure full of dangers and  highwaywomen ( already Cath’s inner life is emerging,excited by a dangerous woman). Of course none of this actually happens. The Allens are a little spooked by Catheirnes wild imagination. Remember Emma Woodhouse,  thinks she can direct relationships between people. Has Catherine Moreland  achieved it in the fictional /reality of her mind?  

CATH makes her drab life in a drab country village with ordinary boring parents exciting through her reading and imagination.You wonder what Jane Austen’s life as a spinster would have been if she hadn’t written novels.A pretty drab colourless sort of life I think.I am reminded of Harriet Benn, the impoverished vicars daughter who lived in Chawton  near the Austens and Austen often mentions in her letters. And the question arises, what did women do about their sexuality if they didn’t marry in the 18th century? Is it possible for a human  to cut themselves off from being a sexual person, from being themselves? Of course not. Can we expect that of Jane Austen or Catherine Moreland?. If they didn’t find the right man because the right man was not out there for them what close relationships did they have? Do all of Jane Austens heroines need and want a happy ending? Is marriage really the happy ending? I often shudder at what happened to Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice.

Zoe cooper has chosen her words very  carefully and creates maximum impact, sometimes in a humorous way but always she makes us reflect.Towards the end of the play John Thorpe and Cath are at a ball.CATH has tried everything to deflect John Thorpes attentions . He on the other hand takes ,no, for a ,yes. He just thinks she is playing hard to get. 

HEN/JOHN THORPE: Still never mind,we are here now. Despite your games! Or perhaps because of them. Dancing together!

CATH:I am not dancing with anyone. I am dancing near many people. That is the custom for country dancing is it not?... Our dancing is polymorphous.

HEN/ JOHN THORPE: Polymorphous! Polyamorous! Poo Poo.I consider the country dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity to one man and complaisance to him are the principle duties of both…”

This is a little out of the blue.Polymorphous is understandable, but  where did  polyamorous come from?This throws a whole new light on to the play. Sexual fluidity, different sexual orientations, have all been explored but the idea of polyamorous makes us think again. Who? where? what? Quite something for John Thorpe to come up with at this juncture.

I have begun to think Northanger Abbey is a sort of shadow autobiography of Jane Austen written by Austen but through the mind of Catherine Moreland? We can map the events and characterisations in the play on to Austens life. The men Austen knew and had those truncated relationships with. Did she really want to marry a man? She had strong life long friendships with  females. Like CATH she had  brothers and lived mostly a country life apart from her sojourn in Bath of course. It is worth thinking about. This play certainly makes you wonder.  

There is a two part ending to the play.We have the bit where Cath has been returmed home in a sudden abrupt manner by General Tilney because he believes she is poor and certainly not the heiress he thought she was. Henry turns up at Caths village soon after. He is mortified by his fathers actions and asks her father for her hand in marriage. In this version CATH has discovered herself. She knows her true love is IZ. Henry himself perhaps has to learn his true nature yet. 

“CATH: No.We.That is not…

Because I did betray you,Henry. And it is..

That would not have been enough for me anyway. And it must not be enough for you either.

IZ/HEN…And I don’t expect that you and I shall ever see each other again.

An epilogue occurs. 

HEN: And some years later…

CATH , when visiting a shop sees a female figure examining a new volume. It just happens to be this play script. When she turns it is IZ. IZ has discovered herself in this volume. CATH recalls being under the cherry tree at the start of this story in her garden at home ,”where I started to write.”

So, no traditional happy ending but a reflective ending.

The play is acted strongly by the three very good actors. Sam Newton and Rebecca Banatvala both trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. AK Golding trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.They are very believable in their parts , parts that sometimes alternate between two characters, the same actor playing each part, characters that change their sex and sexuality, changes that often are denoted by a simple piece of costume. 

Zoe Cooper plays with words adding meaning and depth. After her first menstrual period enacted during Act One Scene 3 while playing rough games with her brother Nigel, specifically re-enacting Boewulf  Nigel goads his sister telling her ,

” Real life women cannot have any  sorts of adventures and must only be sensible …and subservient.” 

Nigel repeats the word, subservient, making much of it, he having recently read it in Dr Johnsons Dictionary. 

It is a  word that describes the plight of women in the 18th century. Something that Austen in her novels shows women struggling with and sometimes overcoming or at least finding ways to manage. When she first arrives in Bath with the Allens she is pronounced ready for ,”balls.” Even I had to stifle a giggle.There is of course the mysogenistic soldiers encounterd by IZ and CATH on Milsom Street who play with the word ,”cunt-ry.”

Austen herself did not like the name Richard. Some aversion to the King Richards in medieval history. She says as much in her own youth when she wrote,”The History of England.” CATH’s father is called Richard to CATH’s mortification. Play on words and word jokes pepper the play. Austen would have loved it. 

Online video of the play: 


The Orange Tree Theatre:



Tuesday 28 November 2023

Brixton Pansies ON RAILTON ROAD a review

On Saturday 18th November my wife Marilyn and I attended the matinee performance of ,”ON RAILTON ROAD,” performed at The Museum of the Home,in Shoreditch.  The play has been sold out. A great success. I  bought our tickets on line about three weeks ago. We were lucky to get tickets.  

 The Brixton Pansies, specifically formed by Ian Giles and Louis Rembges  to produce this play ,”On Railton Road,” take their lead from the  ,”agitprop, ”style used by the Brixton Faeries whose play ,”Mr Punch’s Nuclear family,” was first performed in 1976 . That play is combined as a play within a play within ,”On Railton Road.”   Agitprop  is a conjoining of the words ,agitation,and propaganda, to create a politically themed  art. It originated in Russia to promulgate political ideas. The Bolshevics used the  ,”agitprop train” to travel all over Russia spreading their ideas.   The concept  came to Europe in the 1920s and became associated with the dissemination of political ideas.

RAILTON ROAD from Google images

The play, “On Railton Road,” has been written and performed to commemorate the gay community that lived on the Railton Road, in Brixton,  in the 1970s and early 1980s. It relates the struggles they had to survive and to get recognition and legitimacy. It was a fight to normalise gay lives.  

A play about a community living in squats is an apt play to perform at The Museum of The Home. The museum is about ,”home,” in all its manifestations. 

Railton Road

Marilyn began her teaching career in the late 1970s and early 1980s at St Helen’s Primary School  next to Brixton Police Station close to the Railton Road. She taught the children of people who lived in some of the squats on Railton Road. There was a whole mix in the area.  It wasn’t just the gays who lived there. This is mentioned in the play although the play is specifically about the gay community and its struggles.

The different communities didn’t all get on together. The police stirred up hatred towards themselves and the  government of the time and eventually it was the police , with stop and search policies targeting, in particular the black community, who  ignited  the Brixton Riots. This play does not deal with that particular issue. It is mainly about discrimination against the gay community. It is important to see the gay community, though,  in a wider context. 

“On Railton Road,” is one aspect of the cultural mix at the time. It is important social history informing us of the experiences of people who lived it. The play is also  a lot more than just a history lesson. It informs us how gay people  lived together in those squats and their dreams and aspirations and fears.

Number161 Railton Road from Google images.


There is a lot of humour that  informs us at a deep level. The opening scene is the kitchen of a squat , number 161,  Railton Road. Ned, a young man who has met Philip, one of the long term squatters, turns up wanting to see Philip. He obviously has a crush on him. Because of their situation as squatters and gay squatters  at that,  there is a sense of suspicion and lack of trust of anybody new turning up. A lot of joky banter is an obvious defence. The fridge in the kitchen becomes the topic of intense discussion. The plug socket, the source of electricity , the likelihood of fusing the whole house, the possibility of death by electrocution are all subjects for banter. They deflect from Ned wanting to meet Philp and confuse and bamboozle him. 

The fridge and the squat as a whole are all on precarious terms with the local infrastructure and societal norms. The fridge becomes a metaphor for the precarious situation of the gay community. Exaggeration, banter and loudness  cover deeper things.

The theme of Ned and Philips relationship  explores the different feelings desires and wants of these two characters. Ned ,perhaps naively, wants a monogamous relationship. Philip wants to have more fluid relationships. Their interactions reveal how relationships are for gay people. Theirs is a narrow example of possible relationshsips. It also begs the question what other forms of relationships could be formed? Daire at one point mentions  a party when they are all requested to sleep with somebody they haven’t had sex with before. Daire is a character who aims to shock and Ned is suitably shocked. Was a comment like that meant just to shock or was it for real? It opens up ideas about other relationship possibilities. Much of what is said and done in passing requires a deeper analysis on a second reading or watching.   

There are some great comic  cameos of life in the Railton road squats. Should the meat be eaten? Can the so called  ,”goats milk,” provided by the next door squat be  put into their tea? The next door squat does not have a fridge. We get the idea that all food is suspect apart from vegetables that is. There is a  pervasive  sense of suspicion that imbues all the interactions in the play. There is an edge to their lives.

Facilities are shared between the squats. Garden walls between the properties have been knocked down. It is as though they are creating their own ,”Eden,” their own world. Going beyond the environment of their community always has a sense of risk. Breaking into the local Brockwell  Lido and swimming at night when nobody is around is seen as breaking into the ,”real world.”  Sinking bellow, the black water, kissing in the moonlight,  acts of freedom. 

There are the two strands of affirmative action, peaceful and violent, argued over. (Reminded me of the two strands of Suffragette action) Casper wants to blow up W H Smiths, who have banned the publication Gay News for a number of reasons. Daire wants a more peaceful approach by educating people with demonstrations, banners and street theatre. It certainly makes you think about what is effective and can anything be effective? What processes bring about change?

Lambeth Town Hall

The legal processes with the council to get  ownership of the properties on the Railton Road is dealt with in detail. How can they get the money to put down a deposit? The tortuous scene when Marie goes to Lambeth Council to get recognition for the squatters is a lesson in dealing with officialdom. Admitting to being squatters is not the right thing. She is ignored. The council only deals with Registered Housing Associations or Housing Cooperatives. You have got to get your terms right. The interaction with the council official is comic, sad and serious all in one. The squatters need to become something recognisable to the government. They turn to Croydon Council and get registered as a Housing Cooperative. Jargon , hoops to jump through, becoming legitimate, playing the game, all come to mind. You’ve got to join them to be recognised by them. Laughable if it wasn’t serious. Once they are official Lambeth Council recognise them.

The non-relationships with other communities in the area is discussed and the effects it has on the gay community. Atom, explains. 

“ The Jamaicans came to London, Casper. To Brixton. A huge established community on top of another established community. And then came us.   Layer upon Layer. And at the moment we are refusing to lace together.”

The landlady of the  George Pub ejects the gays from her pub. “Talking to people,” was not acceptable apparently. This reveals some of the tensions living in the area. Those layers one on top of the other, not .”lacing together.” The landlady of the pub is a sort of Margeret Thatcher.  As the pub landlady she has to make an income from the people locally. She tolerated the gay community for a while . The black community are banned form the pub too. It makes you wonder how she made an income.The ,”talking to people ,”is telling though. What was the talking? Maybe it was an attempt  by the gays to ,” lace together.,” the community, make links, break down the barriers. We don’t get to know. The landlady could sense friction perhaps? It makes you wonder cynically that keeping the different layers of society at odds works for her more than if they ,”laced together.”

The George pub was burnt down during the Brixton Riots.

 What appears to be acceptable within the area are things such as  The Gay Centre  and a 24 hour hotline that has been set up for the whole country. The lack of enthusiasm by the  gays for these gay facilities shows their ineffectiveness. The phone line is meant to give support and advice  but is mostly abused by pranksters. Why keep that going?

The second act shows that the  gay squatters communty is eventually fragmented. Have they lost? Or are they just absorbed into society?Casper goes back to his parents in Hampstead. Some of the activists in squats came from wealthy middle class backgrounds and could return home when things got too difficult. Others had to stay. They had no choice. There is a  reference to one of them claiming benefits and others who didn’t have to claim benefits. Many kept quiet about where their money came from it seems.  Philip becomes head of English at a secondary school.Daire writes a play for street theatre (possibly to be performed outside of W.H.SMITHS).  A  looping reference to the play now being performed here in the museum in 2023. Daire also has obtained a mortgage. How normal can he get? There is reference to deaths of friends. “Who is still with us? “ A reference to aids. 

So much is got into this play.  On one level it is light, comic and loud. But it is densely layered , a well structured play and  reveals levels of social comment and personal relationships.

Things are systemic in our society and makes me think the only way to change is to start again. Maybe on one level I am with Caspar. I think that is called, revolution. 

Apparent change can be superficial.. We only have to look back in history not too many generations.  Families, the patriarchy , attitudes to relationships and sexuality, how have they  changed? Do things get better or do they  morph into something just as virulent.  

Taken from a book of photographs from Ian Townson's archive.

 Interspersed throughout the play are scenes from another play, “Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family.“ This was first performed in 1976 by the agitprop group, The Brixton Faeries. It takes the  familiar Punch and Judy seaside story from Victorian times and uses it to show the nuclear family with Mr Punch as a misogynist and homophobic father. Things go wrong for Mr Punch when his wife challenges him and exerts her rights. Mr Punch strangles her. He kills his son who he discovers is gay. He is taken to court and the judge exonerates Mr Punch telling him as the master of the house he was put under intolerable stress by his family. It wasn’t his fault. He leaves the court blameless, free to start a new family. The patriarchal family reforming itself. 

One of the main strands of ,"On Railton Road," is about family. Are we born into a family or can we choose our family? Can we form new sorts of family? A family should be about love, acceptance nonjudgement. A dream perhaps. The play illustrates the underlying attitudes of society as a whole to the family, patriarchy and gays.

Although this play is specifically about the gay squatters on the Railton Road in the 70s and 80s it is much more than that. By looking at one aspect of society it makes us think much more broadly about the whole of society. How is it structured? What are its prejudices?How does it work against so many people ? Why do these systemic prejudices occur, whether it is homophobia or racism or sexism?  How is the struggle to be continued?

The acting is joyous. There are  flamboyant performances throughout that are larger than life. The audience sits either side of the stage and the play is performed in the middle. We felt as though we were  in the action.  

A musician plays and sings to provide background music.  I often got side tracked to focus on her quiet beautiful voice and playing.

The play ends with quotes from some of our greatest poets. 

Chaucer: so fair a garden do I know of none.

Milton: They hand in hand with wander steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way.

Spencer: “Where justice grows there grows eke greater grace.”

Shakespeare: “I know a bank where oxlips and the nodding violets grows.”

A world that is within grasp?.


 We as a society still find it difficult to normalise different groups. In a way there should be no groups, just people, and an acceptance of everybody as they are. There are debates about how we teach sex education in schools? This government, a right wing one, is heavily involved in what and how we teach. The National Curriculum is not education. It is a particular set of things our government think we need to know and understand in the way they want us to understand them. Schools are required to discuss with parents what they are going to teach in sex education. It is the only curriculum area where that happens. Does that mean it’s the parents who write the sex education policies in schools? Is this a way  for society to progress or is it a way of freezing our attitudes and nothing changing? The teaching of history can’t be far behind when it comes to government control. The right wing press say and write WOKE with a snarl of disgust. In its simplest definition it means being aware and awake to things. That can only be good. So how can change occur? We need a much more open societal discussion about sex education and different sexualities and what it means. (The  ,”talking,” that was attempted in The George and got short shrift.) 

Recently there was an outcry, during the covid pandemic, about relationships between teenage boys and girls. Some girls decided to publish on social media the misogynistic and rape culture they experienced from certain boys of their own age . Schools were named. This seemed to be more so with single sex schools and, rather pertinently ,seemed to happen more in private schools than state schools.  Good sex and relationship  education  should be a priority for all schools taking into account all sexualities. 

The conservatives, and in particular Rishi Sunak ,are against transgender children even being allowed to discuss and explore their sexuality.  They are  condemning children to suffer in silence. That is a form of torture if ever there was. We are who we are. 

Maybe the answer is to look at family life, school and society again. What should a healthy family look like? What should a healthy school look like? What can we do to change things? It takes a lot of open conversations which of course are not allowed incase some people are upset. We know who will be upset of course.

Some Christian churches are tentatively accepting gay marriage. Some refuse to condone gay marriage. Systemic homophobia is part of societies fabric still. We still live in a very narrow thinking society. What can be wrong and dangerous about people wanting to be themselves and all of us joining the conversation.


  The Museum of The Home is in a struggle to have Robert Geffrey’s statue removed. He was an enthusiastic promoter of slavery in the 17th century. The Museum of the Home would like to set his statue  within the context of his life and times, so an informed discussion about his life can take place. A museum,   part of the establishment, is at odds with the establishment. How can things really change and develop so we live in a world fit for everybody?


W H Smiths:  

From the Ian Townson archive. 

“ Throughout his time living in the Brixton gay community in the 1970s, Townson took part in demonstrations regarding other political causes including antifascist solidarity with working class struggles, the W H Smith campaign to defend free speech, defence of Gay News against prosecution and many others.”


“ In January 1978 W. H. Smith dropped Gay News from distribution after a  row with the paper over its coverage of the ,”Paedophile Information Exchange.” W. H. Smiths action prompted widespread backlash causing protests outside of its branches  and at the firm’s Annual general Meeting.”


The Ian Townson archive: https://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/collections/ian-townson-archive

Brixton Faeries: https://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/brixton-faeries/

Brixton Pansies at The Museum of The Home: https://www.thereviewshub.com/on-railton-road-museum-of-the-home-london/

The Museum of The Home: 


“The George,” pub Railton Road Brixton: