Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Museums and a Sense of Home

20th November 2016

If ever there was a topical subject for our times it is the idea of Home (or the lack of it).  And now that local museums, which are the embodiment of Place and Home, are under threat from lack of funding, I have come to talk to Gillian Tindall, who is a historian of Place and Home.

I want to see if she can cast a sideways light on the questions, Why is it that human beings become so attached to a particular street, or house, or landscape?  What happens if you take it away from them?  And whether knowing the history of a place strengthens our attachment to it?

So Gillian Tindall, in case you haven’t come across her books, was part of that lucky section of society that had just enough money to buy an old house in London after WW2, when nobody really valued them and so they were going, relatively-speaking (and it was only ever relative), for a song. I would say that the concept of Place interests her but that wold be to hugely understate it.  Place for her is everything. Wherever she’s lived she has made herself at home by researching the past of everything nearby or under her feet.  She tries to understand one small patch of earth as a way of understanding all of it.  She writes passionately about the rights of everyone to hold on to their part of the earth, and not to have their landscape turned upside down.

Her books are vividly written, astringent, myth-debunking books – but the ones I know best are the ones about London and especially north London and Kentish Town – Kentish Town being her home, but also once my home and the place where I still feel that I belong. She has that double vision that historians have, seeing the past and present simultaneously. She knows the local dynasties, men and women who came to Kentish Town to work on the railways or in the piano factories in the 19th century and whose descendants have been here ever since. Where other people see simply roads and traffic she sees the original country paths and the fields beneath.  She bought a house – an old workers’ cottage – in Kentish Town and for fifty years she’s been raising ghosts by unearthing the lives of the previous inhabitants.

When she first came here there was a different kind of housing crisis.  The post-war planners were intending to knock down most of west Kentish Town and replace it with high-rise flats.  That would have dealt with some slums, it is true, but would also have knocked down endless Victorian houses where old ladies let out rooms at prices that students and twenty-somethings could afford.  These plans were partially resisted through a series of painful local battles and finally finished off by the unanticipated rise in house prices which began in the 1960’s.  (Yes, there was a time – astonishing to believe – when house prices stayed still, or even drifted downwards.)

‘Again and again,’ she says, ‘I found exemplified the importance people attach to their roots and to their physical habitat, actual or remembered – an aspect of the human psyche which has been treated with the most cavalier disregard . . . ‘

If there were a Museum of Kentish Town – which there isn’t – and if it were a museum that told its story through many voices, then hers would be one of those voices, telling that key part of the story, the story of the housing stock, the bricks and mortar and how people made their homes from it.

And that I think is one small pity, that there is no local museum in Kentish Town (there are in fact very few local museums anywhere in London), because a local museum can be (should be?) a place where people can visit their lost and beloved pasts and therefore feel at home in our big cities where it is getting harder and harder to make a home of one’s own.

Gillian Tindall’s latest book is ‘A Tunnel Through Time’, published by Chatto and Windus, and exploring what Crossrail uncovers as it tunnels through the layers of London’s history.