A Visit to Senate House, London

My shot of the exterior of the building on an overcast day.

I go to London quite frequently because I have family over there and every time I make a trip I try and do a little bit of literary tourism. One day I managed to rope my sister, Orla, into accompanying me to Bloomsbury. I got out my map of London (not a physical map, an app map) and plotted out my route and off we headed on the tube towards Russel Square. We disembarked and en route to my destination Google Maps tried to send me through the public thoroughfare of a very impressive looking Art-Deco style skyscraper. I remember craning my neck and looking up at this building and thinking ‘I know this place—I’ve seen it before—this place is important’. 

And then I remembered. Senate House. 

A place on my literary tourism to-do list and I’d just stumbled upon it. 

Senate house was originally built to replace the original University of London buildings. Under the instruction of the University of London’s Vice-Chancellor Sir William Beveridge Architect, Charles Holden was appointed. He was tasked with finally creating a building finally worthy of the title ‘University of London’. And Holden certainly achieved that. Senate House was to be the capital’s first skyscraper and is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture you’ll find anywhere.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a building you can just wander around in. The only areas open to the general public are the thoroughfare and the exhibition area on the 4thfloor, but gazing up at its incredible exterior is sufficient for most. If you want to explore the interior building itself relatively unhindered and get some dystopian/art-deco style inspiration for your writing, the building is open to the public during the annual Open House London weekend which has just passed but will return on the 21stand 22nd September 2019. See the Open House website for details.

Senate House isn’t just an architectural gem, it’s a serious literary tourism gem for three reasons:

  1. It has a beautiful library
  2. Mary Prince used to live in a house on this site
  3. The building and its function during WW2 inspired a number of authors in the early 20thCentury.

1. Senate House Library

A gorgeous shot of the Senate House Library
Image credits
 © University of London/Robert Mills

Senate House is the administrative centre of the University of London and contains the universities humanities and social sciences library. Senate House Library holds over 2 million books and 1,200 archive collections. The library is beautiful, as you can see, but it is mostly restricted to UL students. I understand that you can access it if you show ID and purchase a £5 day-pass.

Treasures held by the library range from mediaeval manuscripts to books printed by William Caxton, the first printer of books to Shakespeare’s First Folio. It also holds a presentation copy of Das Kapital, Byron’s unfinished, unpublished draft for the end of Don Juan, a handwritten letter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a manuscript by Sir Walter Scott, letters by poet, Phoebe Heskith and drafts of Terry Pratchett novels.

Oh how I love the sight of a Chesterfield in a library. Photo of Senate House Library
Image credits: .
 © University of London/Robert Mills

The library holds regular exhibitions and events which are free-of-charge, open to the general public and often book-related. You don’t need a day membership pass to visit these exhibitions but you do need to register online

The current exhibition is entitled Rights for Women: London Pioneers in their Own Words which is running until the 15thDecember, 2018. It features the stories of fifty female pioneers in London, and one of the women whose stories feature in the exhibition is Mary Prince: a West Indian slave and an anti-slavery abolitionist and that’s a good segue into the next part of this post…

2. Mary Prince used to Live on this Site:

Image courtesy of Senate House Library

Mary Prince lived on the site of the Senate House in the 1800s, long before Senate House was a twinkle in Sir William Beveridge’s eye. Prince was an anti-slavery activist and an important literary figure because she was the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography: The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. Her autobiography proved the power of the written word, the personal story, the first-person narrative. It has been proven that books increase empathy in a way that no other medium can and Prince telling her story in her own words gave people a real insight into the horrors endured by slaves. It generated an understanding that could not have existed beforehand. The book sold out three times and was instrumental in changing public opinion and garnering support and momentum behind the anti-slavery movement in the UK. It would be a few years after the book was published before slavery would be fully abolished, but certainly, her book and its impact should never be forgotten. Senate House now dominates the spot where she once lived, but there is a commemorative plaque that reads ‘Mary Prince abolitionist and author lived near this site’ and it is definitely worth stopping there and reflecting on where we once were, and indeed, where we are now.

3. Its Connection with Speculative Fiction

In 1937 the University of London reopened in its new location, and in 1939 the war began. The university staff and students moved out, which was a good thing as Senate House was targeted a number of times during WW2and was but stood tall throughout. The government took the building over for the duration of the war. The building was to house the newly formed Ministry of Information. A department that was tasked with monitoring public opinion and issuing propaganda. It would later be accused of subterfuge, spying on British citizens and censorship, charges which proved so repugnant to the general public that it was disbanded in 1946.

A great number of fiction writers were inspired by Senate House and its wartime function. I have no doubt that the formidable and imposing appearance of the building enhanced the sense of insidiousness around the activities of the occupants of Senate House during WW2. Don’t forget that when much of the literature involving this house was written, it was the only, or one of the only skyscrapers in London. Its stature would have made it the most dominant and visible building in the skyline of the city—and this, combined with its masculine, granite walls and angularity gives it a cold, imposing and formidable beauty. Its appearance is reminiscent of totalitarian architecture going up all around Europe at that time. For people who take an interest in speculative fiction, you’ll definitely appreciate its aesthetic. 

Of all of the authors inspired by Senate House, George Orwell is the most famous. The Ministry of Truth which features in his novel, was based on The Ministry of Information. Orwell’s wife worked in the Censorship Department at the Ministry of Information for a time, and so Orwell obviously had a unique insight into its machinations. Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four are sky-rocketing. It’s not surprising in an era of ‘fake news’, a rejection of science in favour of conspiracy theories, gleaning information from online op-eds and commentary instead of objective reporting on facts, social bots spewing hate, the rise of the far-right in the West, the media’s use of outrage and fear to sell clicks, targeted propaganda being disseminated via social media, personal information being traded for likes and conveniences. Our sense of paranoia about the world and the future has increased, and with it, the relevance of the warnings contained in this very important novel.

Graham Greene is another author who drew inspiration from Senate House. In his novel The Ministry of Fearhe described it as a ‘high heartless building… where the windows were always open for fear of blast and the cold winds whistled in’. His perception of the building itself, clearly influenced by its wartime use.

Evelyn Waugh’s character in the wartime novel Put Out More Flags is repulsed by the building, believing that ‘all the secrets of all the services might have been hidden in that gross mass of masonry.’ 

Interestingly, Senate House is seen as a place of refuge in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. It is the location where a group congregate to make sense of the post-apocalyptic chaos surrounding them. The main character and others gathered there to attempt to form a kind of order among the mess. The building operates in this context as a kind of fortress. Senate House is a place where the characters try and visualize their future. The place they choose to go to and seek out normalcy and order as their reality is turned on its head.

The building also features in the film adaptations of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Day of the Triffids, and it pops up in a number of other movies as a Ministry of War, a CIA lobby and a Russian secret service HQ etc. So there you go, what an interesting place Senate House is. A source of much inspiration to writers and filmmakers alike, and when you see it in person you will be struck by its magnificence, so go and visit.

I’d like to say thank-you to Senate House Library for their assistance with this article. They kindly provided photographs and information around the current exhibition on female pioneers and Mary Prince for inclusion.

A Visit to the Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick

I love a bit of literary tourism. Whenever I leave Dublin I research wherever I’m visiting beforehand. I look for indie bookshops, museums, statues, libraries, tours etc. So for my husband’s birthday, I decided we should take a trip to Limerick. We hadn’t been in years and I’ve learned that everywhere in Ireland has something unique to offer if you do your research beforehand. So, to my surprise, on doing a little bit of googling, I discovered that there’s a Frank McCourt Museum in Limerick city centre.

Frank McCourt was a former resident of Limerick City and wrote the bestselling memoir, Angela’s Ashes. The book tells the story of his ‘miserable Catholic childhood’ which he spent in Limerick, having spent a small portion of it in Brooklyn during the depression. It’s a story of dire poverty and deprivation, but told with such skill, humour and hope that it doesn’t descend into misery-lit. The memoir has since been made into a movie and, surprisingly, a really successful musical. But I hadn’t heard of the museum until I decided to make my trip to Limerick.

I went to the museum on a Saturday afternoon. It’s in a beautiful 150-year-old Tudor-style building: Leamy House. Frank’s old school house. Myself, Alan and two Dutch tourists waited for 2 pm to come around and on the and a harried lady appeared apologising, even though she was right on time. This was Una. The founder and curator of the museum. She was friendly and chatty and totally passionate about her museum. Her ‘labour of love’. She led us upstairs for our tour and we were joined by two more Dutch tourists. The museum was only €4 each, which is a bargain for a thoroughly fascinating couple of hours.

‘Little Italy’

On the first floor, we were led through recreations of the first living-room/kitchen of Frank’s childhood and then the bedroom: ‘Little Italy’ from the novel and finally to the school-room. In each room, Una explained how Frank’s family had lived in the 1930’s and 1940’s. We learned about how they lived in cramped conditions. Washed their clothing in the same water they washed themselves in, used the baby’s pram as a ‘vehicle’ to transport coal, cooked over an open fire, slept on a flea-ridden bed with army surplus coats instead of blankets and a hung their clothes to dry on a clothes-line running across the middle of the room because of the incessant rain. 

Una’s family turned the second floor, where Frank when to school, into a garment factory so the internal walls of the floor where the classroom was were removed. Part of the room is set out as a schoolroom, and the rest as a museum with cabinets and shelves full of Una’s collection of Frank McCourt related paraphernalia, including Angela’s ashes. While in this part of the museum she told us what life was like for children attending school in those days, and the brutal punishments meted out by the priests. 

Frank McCourt’s collection of rosary beads

There was religious iconography all over the two floors, just as there would have been in Irish homes and schools at the time of the novel. As I wandered around the museum exhibits, I was struck most by Frank’s beautiful collection of rosary beads, one of which was given to him by the Pope. And yet Frank was extremely critical of the Catholic Church, describing it as ‘the worst thing that ever happened to Ireland’. The collection of beads seems to contradict his anti-church stance, but I can relate to it. I think he was a cultural Catholic, and I think a lot of us Irish are. We take comfort in the familiarity of the rituals, symbols and traditions of the church, and the superstitions we, as a nation, attached to those things. They make up our own particular, Irish brand of Catholicism. Those things aren’t precious because of their connection with the church, but because of their connection to our past. Saint Anthony finding lost items, or the Child of Prague being left out for a wedding or Saint Brigid’s cross over your door to keep evil at bay. We associate them with protection, and safety and goodness. I’d imagine there was a little of that in Frank. I’d imagine there was a wistfulness for those things he left behind when he left Ireland. Except for the poverty. I’d imagine he was quite content to leave that firmly in the past.

One of my favourite things about the museum was getting to meet Una. Una was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour-guide, as well as an honest and open one. A person not easily forgotten. As a Limerick native, she offers a unique into the city itself. She has a passion for documenting and collecting objects and facts about Frank and his writing, as well as artefacts from that time. She recreated the rooms herself and was true and faithful to the times in doing so. There was a bit of nostalgia there for me and will be for many Irish people, as a lot of the items in the rooms were things my grandparents would have had in her home.

Una herself is a fascinating person. A social historian but also an artist, and a talented painter, hoping to write her own book about the museum. She shared little anecdotes about the museum itself. For example how she can’t keep herself in plastic fleas due to the inexplicable fascination that visitors have with stealing them from the beds in ‘Little Italy’. She also told us that she once opened the museum to find a homeless man curled up on one of those same beds.

Una and I talked about how the Irish hid their poverty well when they suffered it, and out of pride never discussed it. But my mother remembers seeing it. My mother told me that she had seen terrible poverty as a child growing up in Clonmel. My grandmother owned a pub and served men like McCourt’s father, while mothers struggled to care for their many children. And though the pub is an important part of our cultural heritage, I’m glad so many are closing down and coffee shops are opening up in their place. Caffeine is an altogether less destructive drug.

Una is creating mosaics for the back wall of the schoolroom one of Frank (now completed) and one of Angela. Huge mosaics that visitors can paint a tile and contribute to. Before we left Alan and I painted two tiles to be added the mosaic of Angela that is slowly coming together I hope to visit again when it’s finished.

Our mosaic tiles for the large mosaic of Angela on the back wall of the schoolroom

I highly recommend a trip to the Frank McCourt Museum. Not only is the museum a beautiful tribute to a very talented local writer, but it captures a little piece of social history. So often the stories of the poor are ignored. We walk around cities and marvel at the old, beautiful buildings commissioned by the wealthy: iconic architecture, ornate cathedrals, stately homes. We imagine how grand life would have been back then. Yet we forget about the lives of the majority. The majority who lived very different lives, but no less fascinating, and certainly, no less important. Thanks to Frank and Una and her helpers this little piece of Limerick’s history won’t be forgotten.

As I left the museum I reflected on the conditions that Frank and his family lived in. I thought ‘how horrible for a family to be crammed into one room. How terrible that they didn’t have proper cooking or laundry facilities. How awful that they moved from place to place because they couldn’t pay their rent’. And then I remembered: that entire families are living in hotel rooms in Dublin right now, moving regularly, because they can’t afford skyrocketing rents and there is no social housing available or being built. And I remembered Una’s story of the homeless man that broke into the museum and slept willingly on a bed in ‘Little Italy’ to escape the cold of Limerick’s streets. I realised: we think we have come so far since Frank’s time, but we haven’t. Many people were angry when Frank published his book. The fallout of the memoir (there almost always is a fallout when it comes to memoir), was that some people in Limerick took exception to his portrayal of their city. They denied the veracity of the story. And yet here we are, many years later, many years after the great depression, a crisis so great that it made the demise of the Celtic Tiger look like a holiday. We are apparently a wealthy country, and yet people sleep on the streets. Entire families live in hotel rooms in our capital city. And again, many would be scandalised at the suggestion that Ireland was anything but a modern, compassionate, civilised nation. Have we changed that much?

Incredibly, despite the poverty that Frank grew up in, he and his two brothers, Malachy and Alphie, are all published writers. Not many wealthy families can claim that. Una believes that the poverty they grew up in forced them to dream of better things. To use their imaginations to picture a different life in ways that middle-class children didn’t need to. I think that poor children do dream, and hope to improve their lot in life. Not many will scale the heights of success that Frank McCourt did, and very few will, as he is, but there hope. And that is why, despite Angela’s Ashes being very sad, its very existence makes it a book filled with the bright light of human potential.

Starting a Writing Group

I recently started a writing group. A women’s writers’ group to be exact. The name of our group is Bics’n’Brunch because I had visions of doing lots of lovely writing, and then celebrating with lots of lovely brunch (and rivers of booze…) but so far, all we’ve managed is lots of lovely writing, lunch and coffee and I’m okay with that. For now.

So we had our third meeting yesterday and we have a nice mix of members. And we’re all We have a member who has produced a short film and won a competition to have it screened. We have a member who has written the bones of a memoir. We have a member who has written a collection of short stories and is starting the path to self-publication (here’s her website: https://elizabethscullen.wixsite.com/author-liz-cullen ). We have a member who writes a self-development blog. We have a member who is a former journalist. We have a number of members who are just starting out with creative writing of all genres, and I’m excited about the future of our little group, and the future of our writing and the friendships we will make. And I’ve learned so much and I want to share it with anyone who thinks they want to set up a writers’ group. So here are some tips:

Identify the reasons why you want to set the group up and who you want to include:

There are lots of reasons why you might want to set up a writing group. If you’re in a town without one that’s a really, really good reason to set one up. But aeven if there are plenty of groups to choose from in your hometown, those groups might not be what you’re looking for. This was the case with me. Despite the fact that there were plenty of options in Dublin I ended up leaving all of them eventually for the following reasons:

  • They were too big which resulted in the sessions being dominated by reading aloud rather than working on our writing or discussing our writing.
  • The groups felt fully established and the members were all very close friends.
  • Certain personalities had become dominant within the groups and ended up monopolising talking time.
  • They were mainly attended by white men of retirement age. That isn’t a problem in itself, but I found the writing didn’t have much diversity.
  • The writing, for them, was more of a hobby than a serious endeavour.

The groups weren’t what I was looking for. I wanted to be amongst people that took the writing seriously because I felt lonely doing what I was doing. II needed beta-readers who would be brutally honest with me. I also wanted to hear some female writers’ voices, at least for a while. So I decided to set up the kind of writers’ group that I wanted to go to. A group of women of different ages,  interests and backgrounds. Women who write all kinds of things. Women who write for different reasons. Women who take the group seriously. So before launching into starting your group, decide why you want to establish a writing group and who you want to join. These are the questions you should ask yourself:

  • What kinds of writers do you want to invite? Do you want mainly fiction/non-fiction? Bloggers? Poets? Motivational writers? I kept my group mixed because I think we can all learn from one another and it adds a richness to the group, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t narrow your requirements down and be as specific as you want.
  • Do you want to restrict membership to a certain demographic?
  • How often does it suit you to meet up? This is your group, so you decide what suits you best. I think anything less than once a month is too big a gap between meetings

How to find members, and how many is enough?

Establishing the group was quite easy for me in Ireland. There’s an App called GirlCrew, for women who want to socialise with other women and form friendships. I went on there and posted an event. I originally got twenty-two responses, but the weather on the day of our inaugural meeting was horrific: terrible, torrential rain and apocalyptic wind. Four people showed up, so that made five including myself. I thought ‘what a disaster’ but actually, it gave me a good idea of who was serious about the group and in fact, five is a reasonably good number to start off with. It’s easy to manage and not too intimidating, plus you will actually get to know one another. Having had a few meetings now, I’d say a group of eight is optimum. Other ways to find members are:

  • To use socialising apps and websites like GirlCrew, Meetup.com etc.
  • Post on Twitter and Facebook. Invite people to share your post and use hashtags to gain traction.
  • Make your local university/ college, arts/cultural centre, library and bookshop aware of your existence and leave posters for them to put up on their notice boards.
  • Look at writerly websites for your area. Some writers’ websites have sections that list writers’ groups (The Irish Writers’ Centre and writing.ie has one, for example).
  • Attend literary festivals or writers’ retreats and get talking to people.

Find a venue:

The most important qualities that a venue must have are: that it is available on a regular basis, that you can relax, that it is reasonably quiet so that you can concentrate/read aloud without interruption, that it is cheap/free of charge. Your options are:

  • Writers’/ Arts/ Cultural centres
  • Members’ homes (on a rotational basis)
  • Library meeting rooms
  • Cafes/pubs during quiet times (ask permission in advance, and offer to purchase beverages/ food)

I found that almost everywhere other than the libraries charged in some way or another. So I approached the newly refurbished Kevin Street Library as our place. And lads, this place is just beautiful. An old building given a modern revamp with lots of light and airy spaces, comfy seats and books glorious books! They set us up every month with tables and chairs in a lovely space with books lining the walls. Many libraries are only too happy to host writers’ groups. So give your local library a call first. See if they (a) have a meeting room suitable and (b) how regularly it may be available to you.

Decide What You Want to Do:

There are loads of activities that writers’ groups can engage in during their meet-ups, and outside of them. Here’s a list:

  • Writing! Obviously. But what do you want to write? Decide whether you want to do a mix of free writing, working off prompts (see my article on prompts here) or working on existing projects.
  • Reading aloud from your work. Stuff you’re working on within the group or finished or almost finished work from outside of it. My group is still a little shy, and so I’ve asked them to read from other people’s work, works that they enjoy and find inspirational.
  • Updating the group on how you are progressing with projects and what your plans are before the next meeting.
  • Informing the group about competitions that are coming up or literary events that might be of interest.
  • Sharing writing prompts.
  • Discussing problems and brainstorm.
  • Creating accountability: share goals and strategies for achieving them, and discuss progress at each meeting.
  • Sharing writing tips.
  • Offering feedback and beta-reading for group members.
  • Suggesting good books on writing/for pleasure.
  • Attending book-launches, open-mics, literary festivals, plays, movies that are book-related as a group.
  • Creating your own writing retreats and go together.
  • Publishing a book of short stories, essays and poetry as a group. One of my former groups did this and I thought it was an amazing idea.
  • Making friends. Writing is a solitary thing and it’s good to have friends who understand what that’s like. 

Pick a Chair and Communicate:

Every group needs a Chairperson to put a structure on the meeting. Most groups rotate chairs, and I recommend this. It’ll make the group democratic and make everyone feel invested in the group.

Chairing involves:

  • Preparing an agenda which may include: updates on member progress on projects, selecting a ‘writing tip of the month’, supplying prompts, making members aware of upcoming competitions, events etc.
  • Allocating and managing time for discussion, free-writing, writing and reading aloud.
  • Arranging a date for the next meeting. Notifying any absent members and the venue of the date and time of the next meeting.
  • Organising tea/coffee, cakes, lunch where necessary.

Also, pick a method of communication between group members so that you can share work, share tips, suggest meet-ups etc. I use WhatsApp but other groups use Facebook Groups or communicate via email.