An insider’s look at London
People flock to Columbia Road's market for the beautiful cut-price flowers as well as its cafés, antiques stalls and musicians. (Matt Munro)
Forget Tony Robinson – if a hoard of Roman coins crops up in the back garden, it’s Philip Attwood you want to call. He is the fabulously titled Keeper of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, and the man on whose desk most glittering new archaeological finds end up. He’s been working at the British Museum for 32 years, and walking through the jaw-dropping atrium, latticed with metal and glass, it’s not difficult to understand why he says he never wants to leave.
“Sometimes you have to take a step back and remember where you are. I can be on my way to a meeting and suddenly realize I’m next to an exhibit that I spent a year studying at university – like this, the Standard of Ur,” he enthuses, gesturing to a 4,500-yearold mosaic depicting scenes of war in ancient Sumer (modern Iraq). “The power of this object is extraordinary. Think of who else has looked at it in different times, and I’m just walking past it for a meeting!”
With more than seven million objects in the collection, it’s hard to know where to start, but Philip is as good a guide as you’ll get. His knowledge of small circular things made out of metal stretches all the way from the Fishpool Hoard of 1,237 gold coins dating from the War of the Roses (the largest found in the UK and with a face value of £400, equal to £300,000 in today’s money), to an intricate gold coin cast for Queen Mary I in 1555, which would set you back around £270,000 if it ever came up for sale. Being able to spot a forgery is a crucial part of the job – although most fakes that do crop up are contemporary to the originals, rather than modern-day cheats.
Philip’s latest project has been to select the design for the London Olympic and Paralympic medals. “The pattern of the Paralympic medal is taken from the drapery worn by the statue of Nike, which stood at Olympia in ancient Greece. We own a cast of the statue, although it’s currently in our store room, which is, weirdly enough, in the London version of Olympia.”
Curators develop a possessive, almost familial, relationship with their collections. “Most of us don’t think about the monetary value of an object, even when it’s worth millions,” says Philip. “It’s the emotional response that’s important, the connection with other individuals over time and space. An object’s meaning can change, but there’s often continuity, too – a basic idea which sustains. It’s a real privilege to have that experience every day.”
More unmissable London museums
- British Museum
- Horniman Museum: A unique collection of anthropological artifacts and musical instruments.
- Sir John Soane’s Museum: This collection of antiquities demonstrates the breadth of the architect’s influences.
George Orwell wrote that the ideal pub should have “uncompromisingly Victoria”’ fittings, be always “quiet enough to talk” and be staffed by barmaids who “take a personal interest in everyone”. He may not have added that the landlady should have bright pink hair, but there can be no doubt that The Seven Stars (53-54 Carey St, WC2A) would meet with his approval.
A snug, squat trio of wood paneled rooms tucked away behind the Royal Courts of Justice near The Strand, The Seven Stars lays claim to being one of London’s oldest pubs, dating back to 1602. Tables are neatly covered in checkered cloths and walls in old movie posters, pictures of Bertolt Brecht and books on literary hoaxes. And in Roxy Beaujolais, a former TV chef turned landlady supreme, it’s blessed with a whirlwind of energy and laughter at its very core.
“The secret to a real London pub,” she says, “is clean lavs, good beer, no music, no fruit machines and no bores. It’s a place where people tell secrets and lies. It’s egalitarian, anyone can come in. Until I say they can’t.”