One of my favourite places in London is 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A stone’s throw from my place of birth, it is resplendent with neo-classical architecture, Greek and Roman bronzes, mosaics, amphorae, curious relics, fragments of sculpture and irresistible antiquarian treasures. Those in the know will realise I am referring to the Soane Museum.
Walking in is like walking out of your life and re-entering the lives of others. I visit often, and always alone. With each visit the genius loci grows friendlier and more eager to communicate its gratitude to those who work tirelessly to conserve the house and honour Sir John Soane’s memory. One day in early spring this year, I wore a custom-made dress that was made for my friend Hannah’s wedding. It was a gown that touched the ground with a heavy brocade of cobalt blue and the grace of a bygone era. No, I don’t dress like that every day, but I felt playful on that particular morning. I may have scared some of the visitors. Because nestled betwixt a Roman urn and a pillar of imposing origin, I heard hushed voices in the dusky light filtering through the stained glass windows.
How nice, they brought in actors to liven up the place. Must be new.
Don’t be silly… Where?
I saw a lady in blue earlier, under the Dome.
By the sarcophagus? Ah. I saw something too.
Well if she wasn’t staff then what the devil was she?
A visitor, Norm.
She looked pale
So do you dear.
She wore a Victorian gown. There one minute, gone the next!
Yes, there was an air about her. But this is a strange place. Come along now.
I can’t help but wonder if I have unintentionally sown the seeds of a new urban legend, that of the lady in blue who haunts the Soane Museum with her otherworldly air and subtle repudiation of the laws of physics. I do hope the couple went home that day thinking they saw a ghost and told all their friends, who in turn told all of their friends. How delicious. Yesterday afternoon I visited my old ‘haunt’ again and felt oddly claustrophobic. True, it is difficult to exhale there without fogging the toe of a Grecian god or tripping over another visitor, but still. I had several plans this weekend; some of which came to naught due to a stealthy brew of misapprehension and human error. One of them was to attend a lecture on Handel, who is in no danger of replacing Amadeus as my favourite composer but whom I am growing increasingly fond of. They cancelled the lecture at the last moment.
And so, I find myself at a loose end. Drinking tea, listening to Handel, and contemplating the mundane and the magic and how to navigate the disparity between the two.
I used to be a teenage hippie. My intimate friends will know how funny this is in light of my current style and outlook on life, but it’s true. I raised the 1960s to such a soaring pedestal that nothing could reach it and hope to intercede, especially common sense. Now that I am older and able to deromanticise the spills and thrills of fickle adolescence, I can see the 1960s for what they are: a mythology, not unlike the deeds and sagas imprinted onto any artefact at the Soane (above). It was a time of great feats and even greater contradictions; where good and evil harvests were sown from the seeds of previous years. Perhaps more than any other decade in the 20th century, the 1960s evoke a treasure trove of sights and sounds all rising to a powerful crescendo of societal transformation, the waves of which are still rippling and reverberating in our minds some 50 years later. When considering the multitude of influences the decade has had on modern life, our cultural references and the way in which we view the world, the impact of the 1960s is brought home with utmost clarity—especially when we reflect on the often volatile forces at play.
Let’s do that for a moment. On one hand the decade is evocative of free love, legendary music festivals, ground-breaking fashion and the emancipation of the younger generation from the shackles of conservatism in the West, but the 1960s were also beset with violent revolutions, wars, assassinations, natural disasters, mass hysteria, substance abuse and suicide. In fact, suicide rates for both men and women increased considerably in the 1960s. While the decade saw the birth of the free love movement, preaching sexual freedom, brotherhood and solidarity to the masses, some would argue that, ironically, it was this tie-dyed tapestry that suffocated and ultimately killed off romanticism; a process that began perhaps when the true horrors of WWII were made public and gradually filtered into the public domain. American author and political activist Abbie Hoffman has argued that while the 1960s brought positive changes, exciting new prospects and an energetic ‘we can do anything!’ attitude to the progeny of a post-war, jilted generation, there was much darkness and hypocrisy among the hippies. According to Hoffman, this ‘dark side’ of the 1960s is often overlooked and masked by the myth and a cloud of heavy incense smoke.
The myth, Hoffman reflected retrospectively, “was the flower children’s fault. Spoiled, selfish brats made the sixties”. A cutting statement. But what were the 1960s like for the simple folk who experienced life beyond the circus and the myth? What changes were manifested in their daily lives, if any, and how did all the noise and ‘revolutions on television’ affect their view of the world? Ten years ago, I simply couldn’t care less about these questions.
Today I am blighted with questions of this ilk and a sobering self-determination to lift the cloud of patchouli and reveal the muted greys of reality. So here’s to deromanticising a myth and discovering something much better. To revisiting your true self in the face of spin and serendipity, and to reestablishing the magic in the mundane.