Archive | March, 2014

The Club Of Queer Trades

23 Mar

THE CLUB OF QUEER TRADES is an episodic novel by G.K. Chesterton. To belong to the club you have to have invented the trade you live by. These are harder to think up than you would imagine. In my life I have only come across one person (maybe two) who would be a member.

He was an American called Dennis Severs and he was a passionate Anglophile, the kind that knows more of his adopted land than the natives do. The changes of history fascinated him. After casting about in several directions, he settled on the experiment of buying an old house in Spitalfields, an area hard by the City of London that originally owned an immigrant population of Huegenot silk weavers fleeing religious persecution on the Continent. Out of this house gradually Dennis built a time machine. Or the nearest to it than anyone will ever come. He collected the right period furniture and orchestrated the ‘history’ of the house and its family in chronological order from the cellar to the attic. It was a cabinet of wonders and he was the curator.

No more than eight people at a time were taken on the tour of 18 Folgate Street. You were instructed to arrive at the precise moment. If you were late, the effect could be ruined. As the master of ceremonies, Dennis briefly laid down the conditions under which he and we were to operate. Anything untoward like a sudden need for the toilet could disturb the spell he was attempting to cast. Starting with Roman pottery fragments in the cellar Dennis introduced his audience to the generations of the same family that had lived over two centuries in the house. He conjured up their individual lives. He conjured the picture of their world. At times he would leave you alone in a room, the kitchen, say, and you would hear the urgent whisper outside the window of a crony of the cook. The house became alive around you. Hearing voices from the diningroom, you would hover in a panicky silence outside the door, half afraid that you would be caught in the act of trespass. When the diners departed out the other door, when it was safe, you would be permitted entry. A clay pipe would still be smoking on the table. Glasses of half drunk wine. Plates with food scraps. You felt like a burglar in another dimension of time, running the risk of being unmasked, caught stranded.

The whole thing was very difficult to define. Part theatrical performance, part son et lumiere, part museum tour, part historical lecture. The cumulative effect was to feel you were literally by some special dispensation coexisting in the same place with long dead generations. There was a moment on my first visit when I knew the day was cloudy outside and wet with rain and I heard the news from Waterloo. There used to be an American TV program called YOU ARE THERE in which modern newsmen would interview figures from the past like George Washington about to cross the Delaware. In both cases you were an eyewitness to history.

But 18 Folgate Street was the full immersion 3D experience. When I heard the news from Waterloo, I was there. What made it all different from all other attempts to lift the veil of the past, was the simple use of chronology as one moved up the levels of the house. One was not going back. One was moving forward in time. Think of the Victorians and their over stuffy furniture with antimacassers and side tables full of oddments. To most of us now, it would seem a smothering environment. But that is because we are looking backwards at it. For the Victorians, their desire for comfort was a reaction to the spare furniture, elegant and chilly, of the previous century. Seen in that light, it made perfect sense. Each generation was reacting to the one before. They weren’t looking backwards. They were looking forwards. And it was this change in perspective that made the whole experience so compelling for Dennis’s groups.

When the show was over, he would always ask one question. At which point, in which room did you surrender to the spell he was trying to cast? About half would say “the cellar, the beginning”. Nobody resisted past the second room. By the end one was so convinced by the history of the family that had inhabited the house for two centuries and the selected examples of their furniture, evolving over the generations, that it came as a blazing shock to find out that all was a fiction. Dennis had made up the entire saga. And most of the furniture was second hand replicas.

It was an experience that I would term unique. For once the word is absolutely appropriate. It was something new under the sun. And I did not run into an equivalent match until I was living in Los Angeles and came across a weird  operation on Venice Boulevard that called itself The Museum Of Jurassic Technology. A different beast. But they both shared that cockeyed freedom of imagination.

Sadly Dennis died too young. But at least 18 Folgate Street  is still preserved by a trust and you can visit it. A foggy winter’s night is best.