Mother of parliaments

It may have escaped the attention of the less eagle-eyed of you, but there’s just been a General Election. While plenty of constituencies  did change hands, Westminster residents seemed pretty happy with their MPs  (Mark Field  and Karen Buck), both of whom increased their majorities.

If you aren’t sure who your MP is, go to Write to Them for a list of all your representatives including Councillors, London Assembly members and MEPs and even Parish Councillors if you happen to live in Ambridge

Currently Parliament is in the period known as prorogation, which is the name given to the period between the end of a session of Parliament and the State Opening of Parliament that begins the next session. Usually there are only a few days between the two events but the current session of parliament was ‘prorogued’ on 26 March to give time for the election.

The next event in the life of parliament is the State Opening, this Wednesday 27 May. Even if you’re not politically-minded, it’s a splendid piece of pageantry involving the official known as Black Rod having the door to the House of Commons shut in his face to symbolise MPs’ independence. Well, maybe it’s weird rather than splendid but it’s a bit of light relief before the serious business of the Queen’s Speech.

Preparing for State Opening: checking the cellars  The Yeomen of the Guard pick up their lamps in preparation for checking the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a tradition carried out before every State Opening of Parliament since the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

You can find films of the Queen setting off the open Parliament as far back as 1952 on the British Pathe newreel site. In fact, she’s only missed two years – 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively.

Queen Victoria at the opening of Parliament, 1866

The State Opening was originally designed to give the monarch a chance for a roll-call of the lords and other representatives and the ceremony has existed since at least the 14th century. Not all monarchs have been as assiduous in attending as the present Queen, with Queen Victoria bothering to show up only 7 times between 1865 and 1901. Those interested in such things can check back through the Times Digital Archive. The language used in the past was somewhat different and I doubt that will be hearing this sort thing this year:

“The difference which exists in several important particulars between the commercial laws of Scotland and those of other parts of the United Kingdom  has occasioned inconvenience to a large portion of my subjects engaged in trade. Measures will be proposed to you for  remedying this evil”
Feb 1st 1856

For more parliamentary matters, check out the Government section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to websites. You’ll find links to Hansard which records parliamentary debates, and while I wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading (though it would be a good soporific), there are occasional gems to be found. In 1993, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Michael Portillo described Harriet Harman’s appointment as his Shadow as “like appointing Joan Collins to buy costumes for an impoverished amateur dramatic club” while veteran Labout MP Dennis Skinner is famous for his humorous injections during the State opening itself.

And if all this has whetted your appetite for more parliamentary ceremonial, you will be able to watch the whole event on BBC Parliament. It may even inspire you to arrange a visit to the House of Commons, or even get involved in politics yourself.


Two lions to guard me

Marylebone Council House lion after restoration, July 2013

Damaged Marylebone Council House lion, 2013Anyone walking past Westminster Council House on Marylebone Road a few weeks ago will have been horrified to see that the splendid art deco lions who have guarded it since it opened in 1914 had been brutally assaulted, with one losing a nose and the other an ear in the attack. Fortunately they have now been mended and thanks to an excellent cleaning job they look better than ever. Do give them a pat if you’re in the area.

But these fine fellows are not  the only lions in Westminster – let’s have a look at some of the others. The most famous, of course, are the four guarding Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. These were designed by the noted animal painter Edwin Landseer after a competition set by Parliament, despite the fact that, as The Times said, “Sir Edwin never had a chisel in his hand in his life, and never yet, we believe, attempted to model anything.” Read more about Landseer and his family (he was the youngest of seven children, all talented artists) in Oxford Art Online (you will need to log in with your Westminster Library card). The lions, of course, feature in the famous music hall song I Live in Trafalgar Square, which inspired the title of this blog post. Skip the boring introduction and listen to Richard Thompson’s rather splendid version instead.

London pride, by Valerie Colin-RussBut not all London lions are quite as big as those guarding Trafalgar Square and the Council House. London Pride by Valerie Colin-Russ attempts to list all the London lions ‘visible from the streets and public footpaths’.

While our neighbours in Kensington and Chelsea have 365 lions and Hammersmith and Fulham an impressive 1,323 (to put this into perspective the much larger Croydon has a mere 17), Westminster, you will be proud to hear, has a staggering 3,766 lions for you to find. Let’s look at a few of them…

Rather different to the placid creatures guarding Nelson is the lioness found in Grosvenor Gardens which is chasing an antelope. This was commissioned by the Duke of Westminster to celebrate the opening of the gardens to the public – what sort of activities he was expecting shall remain a mystery!

Lions turn up in all sorts of expected (The Red Lion pub on Parliament Street if spotting MPs takes your fancy) and unexpected places (the are sixty lion heads around the top of The Albert pub in Victoria Street. And you might want to take a careful look at the statue of World War I heroine Edith Cavell next time you pass the National Portrait Gallery. See how many of the other 3,700 or so Westminster lions you can spot next time you walk around the city.

London Zoo, on the border of Westminster and Camden, was once the home of real African lions but now only plays host to the smaller Asian variety. These were the lions known in Biblical times and which fought in Roman arenas so you still don’t want to mess with them. Of course you could always buy a ticket to The Lion King or Wicked which feature very different theatrical lions. Sadly it’s no longer possible to round off a hard day’s lion hunting with tea at a Lyons Corner House (though you can read about their fascinating history by clicking on the link) so you’ll have to make do with a Lion Bar.

Animal London by Ianthe RuthvenIf this sculptural safari has whetted your appetite for more hidden (or not so hidden) animals, why not broaden your horizons and take a look at a wider range of species… ?


Circle of Shadows

Circle of shadows by Imogen RobertsonOn Tuesday the St John’s Wood Library Crime Readers’ Group welcomed Imogen Robertson to talk about her  most recent addition to the Crowther and Westerman series ‘Circle of Shadows’.

The group had enjoyed discussing a previous book last year and welcomed the opportunity to read another book in the series as well as meeting Imogen, who was also promoting her new book ‘The Paris Winter’.

It was great to have a crime author at the library as part of our Author event series as well as one whose novels are so different from the classic detective genre. From alchemy to anatomy Imogen Robertson’s imagination knows no bounds, particularly when it involves the 18th century.

Starting out as a children’s TV director, then winning the 2007 Daily Telegraph ‘Novel in a Year’ competition, Imogen now writes a book a year and had a demanding research schedule to keep her books original and historically accurate. Old Bailey Online is a favourite resource for finding inspiration about ever more rotten crimes. The good thing about historical amateur detectives is that they don’t have rules and regulations to stick to and this creates  wonderful plotting potential.

The Paris Winter by Imogen RobertsonThe Paris Winter is a refreshing stand alone diversion from the world of the 18th Century to Paris, the Belle Epoque and the Great Flood of 1910. Whilst reading newspapers reporting the flood, Imogen saw an advert for a home for British governesses and shop workers who had fallen on hard times in Paris. This captured her imagination and ended up taking a prominent place in the plot of the novel. You too can read period newspapers online via the 24/7 Library – perhaps you’ll spot the same advert…

We really enjoyed hearing Imogen talk about the craft of being an author and how her characters become real to her – so much so that she worries about what they are up to and feels sad if she has to kill someone off! We also talked about Imogen’s plans for the future: Crowther and Westerman is set to continue at full speed with number 5 on the way.

There are lots of copies of all Imogen’s books in Westminster libraries so do immerse yourself in some historical and colourful crime.

The next author in the series is SJ Bolton, who will be with us on Monday 22 April to discuss her latest book ‘Like this, forever’.


And the winner is…

Film canisters“So tonight, enjoy yourselves because nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.”

Well, I laughed anyway at Billy Crystal’s introductory speech at the 2012 Academy Awards ceremony. And with the Oscars, as they are usually known, handed out just last night (the parties are still going on), let’s see what Westminster Libraries can tell us about the movies.

Well, every library worker’s heart swells with pride at the name of Margaret Herrick, the first librarian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (its library is now named after her). It was Ms Herrick who, on seeing the statuette, is said to have exclaimed that it looked “just like my Uncle Oscar” and the nickname stuck… though you do have to wonder what life in the Herrick family was like if a statue of a naked man immediately put her in mind of her Uncle.

Cinema tickets

This is the 85th year of the Oscars – check out some history on the official Oscars site. It took a while for the current tradition of keeping the names of the winners a secret to become established:

“There was little suspense when the awards were presented that night: the recipients had already been announced three months earlier. That all changed the following year, however, when the Academy decided to keep the results secret until the ceremony but gave a list in advance to newspapers for publication at 11 p.m. on the night of the Awards. This policy continued until 1940 when, much to the Academy’s consternation, the Los Angeles Times broke the embargo and published the names of the winners in its evening edition – which was readily available to guests arriving for the ceremony. That prompted the Academy in 1941 to adopt the sealed-envelope system still in use today.”

The first Brit to receive an Oscar was Charlie Chaplin who received a special award for “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus”. There have been many more since and you can find a list of some of them in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (linked from the Biography section of the Westminster Libraries Gateway to Websites – log on with your Westminster library card). From the ODNB homepage, go to Themes and then Arts and Culture for a list of Oscar winners, including Vivien Leigh, twice Best Actress winner (Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire) who lived at 54 Eaton Place and Peter Ustinov, Best Supporting Actor winner for both Spartacus and Topkapi.

For more cinema history, why not pay a visit to Westminster Reference Library’s Performing Arts section where they have a large collection of books and journals related to cinema going back to the silent era. Or you could check out our extensive online newspaper collections for some contemporary accounts of past Oscar ceremonies (The Times doesn’t seem to have noticed them until 1934 when Charles Laughton won an Oscar for his performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII).

Check out the Stage and Screen section of the Gateway for links to film sites. The daddy of them all is the Internet Movie Database – using the Advanced Search, you can find out that 22 Oscar winning actors were born in London – how many can you name? And check out the British Pathe site (linked from the History section) for newsreel footage of Oscar ceremonies going right back to 1935.

Sadly, once again the Treasure Hunt Towers invitation to the Vanity Fair Oscar Party was lost in the post so we had to make do with watching on telly and gnashing our teeth as Daniel Day-Lewis over-acted his way to another gong. But it did mean that we had a chance to research some Oscar history during the ad breaks…


Onwards to 2013

Another year has come and (almost) gone, and what a splendid year it was – scarcely a month went by without a major anniversary. If it wasn’t Dickens, it was Captain Scott and if doomed explorers weren’t your scene, there were doomed Titanic passengers to read about. So let’s have a look forward to what we will be commemorating in 2013…

Titles by Jane Austen28 January sees the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice. If your knowledge of the book is confined to seeing Colin Firth in a wet shirt, then you’re in for a real treat. It’s much funnier and more knowing about human nature than any novel has any right to be. And if you have read it, why not try one of the many, many spin-offs and sequels, some by very famous writers indeed. You can find all of Jane Austen’s books in Westminster Libraries as well as many biographies and volumes of criticism.

Giant molecules: from nylon to nanotubes, by WB Gratzer   24 February gives us an opportunity to celebrate the 75th birthday of nylon. The first commercial product made with nylon was not, as one might expect, stockings but a toothbrush. Previously, toothbrushes had been made with animal bristles so it’s a cause for celebration for pigs and badgers too. You can find out more about looking after your teeth on our Health page, including finding your nearest dentist via NHS Direct. For everything you could possibly want to know about nylon, have a look at the excellent HowStuffWorks via the Science Gateway page.

Books about David Livingstone19 March brings us the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone. You can read  about his life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your Westminster Library card). It’s hard not to be impressed by the determination of young David who at the age of 10 worked for 12 hours a day in a Clydeside factory and studied for 2 hours every night at the village school, where he developed a lifelong interest in geology and herbal medicine.
One of the favourite heroes of the Victorians, Livingstone’s achievements in exploration (though he failed to locate the source of the Nile), anti-slavery work and promoting Christianity were considerable and, unlike many Victorian heroes, no scandals have been unearthed posthumously. Check out the Themes section of the ODNB for other Imperial Lives, some rather less attractive than Livingstone.

SupermanOn 18 April comics fans everywhere will be celebrating the 75th birthday of Superman and waiting patiently for the summer release of the latest movie retelling of the story: Man of Steel. You can find plenty of the graphic novels and films in Westminster libraries but even if cartoons aren’t your scene, you might want to try Michael Chabon’s masterpiece The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a fictional look at the lives of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the original Superman artists.

StravinskyHigh culture will be celebrated on 29 May when it is the centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Riots at the ballet are, fortunately, quite rare, but the police had to be called, so outraged were the audience at the unusual  movements of the dancers and musical harmony (or lack of it). Log into Oxford Music Online to find out more about the piece and listen to it at Naxos Music Online (though if you think you won’t be able to refrain from throwing the furniture about, we’d rather you listened at home!)

Books about the SuffragettesMore controversy will be commemorated on 8 June, the centenary of the death of Emily Davison, the brave Suffragette who disrupted the Derby in 1913 and was tragically killed. You can read more about her life in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and watch the British Pathe newsreel of the event.

The BeanoRather more cheerfully, on 30 July, we wish a Happy 75th Birthday to The Beano, greatest of all comics and home of Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Rodger the Dodger, Billy Whizz, the Bash Street Kids, Lord Snooty and many another childhood favourite. How many of these can you remember?

The Great Train Robbery8 August sees the 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, not perhaps an event  to celebrate but certainly one that looms very large in the British public consciousness. The are no shortage of books on the subject as well as a number of films. You can see how newspapers at time reported the story by logging in to their online archives (The Times initially reported the theft as totalling £500,000 but it is now thought to have been nearer £2.6 million)

Books about Jesse Owens12 September brings the centenary of the birth of the great Jesse Owens, the outstanding athlete of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, whose achievement in setting three world records and tying a fourth at an athletics meet in 1935 is unlikely to be bettered any time soon. You can read contemporary newpaper accounts of  his winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and even see the events themselves in archive footage on YouTube.

One on every corner- Westminster pubs26 October sees the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Football Association, supposedly formed at a meeting in the Freemason’s Arms in Long Acre,  Covent Garden. Prior to that, different clubs, schools and colleges used their own rules which presumably led to some amusing complications when they played each other. Eleven London clubs and schools sent representatives to the meeting though, ironically, many of them now play rugby union. If you want to take up football yourself, why not check out some of the listings on the Sports page of the Gateway to websites. Or maybe you’re more of a pub person – Westminster Archives have published a splendid history of West End pubs called One on Every Corner.

Doctor Who books23 November is already marked as the key event in the Treasure Hunt Towers 2013 diary: the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Doctor Who. We don’t know yet what producer Steven Moffat has planned  – look at the BBC Dr Who site for the latest info, but also check our newspaper archives to  look back at its past history: The Times’ Toyshop Roundabout (22/11/65) suggested that the must-have Christmas toy for boys was the Anti-Dalek Neuron Exterminator, though it reported with some disappointment that another anti-Dalek weapon, the Fluid Neutralizer was just ‘our old friend the water-pistol’.

Crossword booksEverything will be a bit of an anti-climax after that excitement but, on 21 December, cruciverbalists everywhere will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first ever ‘wordcross’ puzzle being published in the New York World, created by a British journalist called Arthur Wynne (you can try it here). The first crossword in a British paper was published in the Sunday Express on 2 November 1924 with cryptic crosswords following soon after (though the Americans didn’t take to them until they were introduced to the New York Magazine by composer Stephen Sondheim in 1968).
Why not have a browse among some of the language resources on the Westminster site? Check the Oxford English Dictionary to find out where the word ‘cruciverbalist’ comes from and check Oxford Dictionaries Pro for help with grammar and punctuation as well as some more word puzzles. And if you go to Naxos Music Library, you can listen to some Sondheim while you solve The Guardian’s latest teaser.

There may be some other anniversaries coming up (we’ll all be very familiar with the works of Benjamin Britten by the end of the year) but I’m sure they won’t be as much fun as these…


Are you experienced?

Jimi Hendrix“Purple haze all in my brain
Lately things just don’t seem the same
Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky”

As all lovers of popular music will know, 27 November 2012 is – or would have been – the 70th birthday of James Marshall Hendrix, better known as Jimi.

He sadly isn’t around to celebrate it as he died in London on 18 September 1970. Forty-two years after his death, to many he is still, quite simply, the greatest guitarist of all time.

The basic details of Hendrix’ life can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and, to be honest, it’s the usual rock star story of army, music, drugs and a tragically early death. What really matters is the music, played with his unique  upside-down style (Hendrix was left-handed and played a right-handed guitar upside-down). You can find plenty of CDs of his work in stock in Westminster Libraries as well as  biographies and musical criticism. For an in-depth critique online as well as a comprehensive discography, videography and bibliography, check out the Encylopaedia of Popular Music, part of Oxford Music Online and for some more serious criticism, have a look at African American Music Reference, from the Alexander Street Press.

For some contemporary accounts of his life, you can check out some of our archive of newspapers and magazines. His tragic death was reported on the front page of the Daily Mirror. Ironically the first time he was mentioned in The Times was in a report of the death of  the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, as a concert he was giving  was cancelled as a mark of respect. Only three years later, his own obituary was published in the same paper:

“In contrast to the violence and seeming anarchy of his music, Hendrix was a gentle, peaceful man whose only real concern was music. His final public appearance was when he sat in with War, an American band, at Ronnie Scott’s club in London last Wednesday, and it was typical of the man that it was he who felt honoured by being allowed to play.”

Hendrix spent much of his short career in London and anyone who wants to get closer to the man might wish to visit the Handel House Museum in Brook Street, Mayfair. For several months in 1968, Hendrix lived next door – he was thrilled to discover the Handel connection. His flat is now used as the offices of the museum. And when you’ve seen where he lived, you’ll be able to see his most famous gig on the big screen as Hendrix 70 : Live at Woodstock  is released in cinemas around the country.


The name’s Bond…

Dr. No, by Ian FlemingIt won’t have escaped the eagle eyes of the film buffs among you that 5 October was the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr No, the first big screen outing for the most popular secret agent ever, James Bond (trivia fans will already know he’d been played by Barry Nelson on TV). Celebrations have taken place and special screenings abounded over the weekend.

We at Treasure Hunt Towers love nothing more than an anniversary and if it involves films, all the better. So it’s a good time to have a look at all things 007 on the web.

First up is the Official James Bond 007 site, which has a counter ticking off the minutes to the release of Skyfall later this month plus news and videos. As so often, the official site is a bit dull but there’s no shortage of much more fun unofficial ones. Check out Bond Lifestyle if you want to live the life of a secret agent, with a list of Bond-style gadgets, food and drink, cars and gift ideas plus a useful bibliography. Or The Ultimate James Bond Resource, a comprehensive guide to all the films.

But how can the Westminster Libraries Gateway to Websites help to find out more about 007? Well, in the Biography section is our old friend, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (available from anywhere if you log in with your Westminster Library card). You can look up author Ian Fleming who was born at 27 Green Street in Mayfair in 1908, and after an inauspicious career at Eton, a brief spell at Sandhurst, a short career as a journalist and a brief spell in the City, he found his niche in naval intelligence during WWII. After he was demobbed he was able to negotiate a somewhat cushy newspaper contract that allowed him to spend 3 months a year in Jamaica (coincidentally celebrating its own 50th anniversary this year).

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian FlemingHe used his leisure time wisely and, between 1953 and his death in 1964, produced 12 Bond novels and 2 collections of short stories, as well as the children’s novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all of which can be borrowed from Westminster Libraries.
By 1962, the Times was describing him as a ‘cult’ who ‘resembles a blend of dazzling (but masculine) Dorian Gray and Dangerous Dan McGrew brought up to the last ticking second of the present’ and President Kennedy was reputed to be an early fan.

Check out other contemporary views by looking through our newspaper archives or look up Contemporary Authors for a critical summary of his work (one critic described them as ‘like life, sexy and violent, but I have never thought them corrupting’).

There was worldwide interest in the casting of the lead for Dr No, and Cary Grant, James Mason. Richard Burton, David Niven and Trevor Howard were just some of the actors approached. Finally Sean Connery was cast despite what The Guardian somewhat surprisingly called his ‘slightly Irish, slightly American accent’. For the Daily Mirror critic though, it was love at first sight for ‘this joyful piece of hammed up hokum’. But the mostly lukewarm reaction of the critics didn’t stop the series becoming the second highest grossing of all time (the adventures of a certain boy wizard are number one, as if you didn’t know).

Young Bond series, by Charlie HigsonWhy not borrow some DVDs of classic Bond to get you in the mood before Skyfall’s release? Or visit the Naxos Music Library to listen to the Best of James Bond while you catch up with Charlie Higson’s excellent series about Bond’s boyhood. Or, you could simply chill out with a Martini… well, you know the rest.


Avast me hearties!

PirateAhoy, there, maties. It’s time t’buckle those swashes, draw a keg of rum and dance the hornpipe like it’s 1724 for today be Talk Like a Pirate Day, now in its tenth fantastic year. And we at Treasure Hunt Towers love pirates (what sort of scurvy landlubber doesn’t?), so we’re thrilled t’have an excuse to celebrate all things piratical.

First up, a quick lesson in talking pirate.  You can’t go wrong by saying ‘Arrh!’ or ‘Avast!’ at the start of each sentence and remember that pirate ladies prefer to be addressed as ‘Me proud beauty!’ while ‘scurvy rogue’ is the usual term for a pirate gentleman. And pirates always talk in the present tense. For some advanced pirate lingo try the English to Pirate translator. And check out your Pirate Persona while you’re about it.

By now you’ll be itching to learn some more pirate lore so it’s off to the Westminster Libraries Information Gateway to find out more about bold seafaring types. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (linked from the Biography section – you’ll need your Westminster Library card at hand if you’re not using a library computer), you’ll find biographies of more than 30 brave swashbucklers, including Edward Teach, Blackbeard himself, who captured 8 vessels in a single week, pirate-wenches Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who were said to be the fiercest members of their crew, and Henry Mainwaring, who, after a successful career raiding Spanish ships on the Barbary Coast, retired from piracy to become an MP. Insert your own joke here…

And don’t forget the patron saint of Talk Like a Pirate Day, actor Robert Newton, whose eye-rolling performances in both Treasure Island and Blackbeard the Pirate have defined our idea of how to Talk Like a Pirate. You can find out more about this fine actor at this excellent site.

You can’t have a crew of pirates without some sea-shanties being sung and where better to learn them than the Contemplator (you’ll find it in the Music section). Turn the speakers up high (not if you’re in a library, obviously – pirates do have some standards!) and sing along to  The Pirate Song, Captain Kidd, and Ward the Pirate. And if you visit the Naxos Music Library you can listen  Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance.

But it’s not just songs that celebrate pirates. Some of us will have enjoyed the recent Aardman film The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists. Why not check out Gideon Defoe’s very funny book of the same name?  There are plenty of other books about pirates – Daphne Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (later made into a splendid film with Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin), and more recently the Vampirates series by Justin Somper. If it’s non-fiction  you’re looking for, there’s no shortage of informative books such as Pirates: a History by Timothy Travers and The Mammoth Book of Pirates by Jon E. Lewis.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis StevensonAnd of course, finally, the most famous pirate book of all – Treasure Island, the essential How To-guide for anyone planning to embark on a buccaneering life. And a jolly good read too.