The End of the World As We Know It

I’ve been on two little outings this week that I thought were worth a mention, The two are unrelated, but can be tenuously linked under a sort of apocalyptic theme…

First up was a trip to the British Museum to view their much talked about exhibition on the destroyed towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. I say much talked about, and I’m sure that it is amongst historians, archaeologists, interested parties and the general educated masses of London. I don’t really move in those circles, but it seemed like a very popular place to be on a Saturday afternoon.
It was actually my first ever visit to the British Museum (oh, the shame of it), and I’m not really sure what I was expecting. It turned out to have everything I’ve come to love about London Museums: dramatic architecture, that slightly showy offy sense of opulence about everything, and pigeons. Where there’s a museum, there’s a packed lunch, and in London, where there’s a packed lunch, there’s a pigeon. As I stepped under the dauntingly large stone pillars at the entrance, half of me was wondering whether I was about to enter some ancient Greek temple.The other half was remembering having my sandwiches stolen by pigeons at the Natural History Museum as a child.
Tickets to the exhibition need to be booked in advance, and they give you a very specific time slot in which to enter. Our tickets were for 13.50. When we arrived, the queue was waiting for the 13.40 slot – we were politely asked to wait to one side. I’ve heard that it is possible to just turn up on the day and wing it, but I really wouldn’t recommend it. They’re very strict about how many people are inside at any one time, and you’d probably have to wait until the end of the day before there was room for you.
Having done absolutely no research before arriving, and having very little pre-existing knowledge about the towns and the volcano (I didn’t know that there was a Herculaneum until I got to the museum), again, I didn’t have any idea about what was coming. I was certainly expecting to be in and out within the hour. I was wrong. It was massive. If you’re going, I’d allow at least two and a half hours.
The exhibition opens with some information about the eruption, and the different ways that it affected the two towns. Aside from this, and a step by step breakdown of events at the end, Vesuvius is never really mentioned. The focus is on the ordinary people of the towns, and how much we are able to learn about their everyday lives thanks to the unique way that the sites have been preserved. The halls are laid out in the formation of a typical Pompeiian house, with each room dedicated to a specific area and filled with relevant artefacts.¬† The whole experience was kind of like visiting a new friend for the first time, and having a nosy round their place whilst they’re in the toilet. The thematic approach really helped me to absorb the information though, and there is a lot to absorb.
I was struck by how similar Roman culture was to ours. The technology was incredible, for starters. Running water, two thousand years ago. They even had a sewer system (its preserved contents are said to be the largest collection of er, historical human excrement ever recovered). The jewellry looked very similar to today’s offerings, as did the tableware. No forks though, they ate with spoons and knives. The paintings and frescoes were absolutely stunning, and I was very impressed with one particular display which assembled examples in chronological order to demonstrate the advancement of painting techniques.
What I found really interesting though, were the differences between then and now. It seemed to me that ancient Romans were far more open-minded, self-motivated and fair than us today. In these two towns, almost everybody was in business. Nearly every house had a shop at the front; everyone was an entrepreneur. Almost everyone had a slave, which is expected of the time, but what was fascinating was that a huge percentage of the towns’ populations was made up of freed slaves who had gone into business for themselves. Women also had important roles to play in society. It seemed like the same opportunities were afforded to everybody, no matter where they started from. The outlook was for everybody to do the very best that they could, and to be proud and enjoy their achievements. I’m guessing that we could learn a lot from this point of view.
I have to say that I went in with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. I didn’t have any special interest in Pompeii, or Ancient Rome in general. I went along on a mother-daughter outing, and, if anything, expected to be a tiny bit bored. I surprised myself by really enjoying the whole experience, and it actually did leave me wanting to know more. The style of the commentaries and signage was informative without being patronising, and I never once felt like I was talked down to. I wouldn’t recommend taking young children though. It’s not interactive in any way, and it’s very busy, meaning that there’s not much freedom to wander around and look at the exhibits in your own order. You end up joining an extremely long, slow moving conga line and following it around the course. There were a fair few bored youngsters in there; they weren’t enjoying themselves and nor were the adults accompanying them.

Life and death, Pompeii and Herculaneum is on until the 29th September. Apparently advance tickets are sold out, but the British Museum website states that during August, 500 tickets for same day entry will be on sale.

My second little excursion wasn’t quite so highbrow, but is probably a bit more relevant to most people – a wee trip to the movies. The boyfriend and I are die-hard fans of both ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’, and have been chatting for ages about going to see the final in the trilogy, ‘The World’s End’ (get the apocalyptic theme now?). Not being the most proactive couple on the block, it’s taken us a while, but we finally got around to going this week.
We’ve dilly dallied so long that it’s not even on in our local cinema any more. After a little internet research, we found a few London theatres still showing the film, and quickly settled on West India Quay, because whatever you’re doing, it feels more special on the Isle of Dogs. I don’t know what it is, but walking around there always makes me feel like I’m a character in a video game. Maybe it’s all the skyscrapers, or the fact that it’s so clean, or that you meet so few people along the way. Whatever, none of it feels quite real. And everyone’s always dressed to impress, trying to show off how well their careers are going, or how much money they’re making. It really is the home of the ‘trendy wine bar’ from the bank adverts. Anyway despite having very little interest in the corporate world (let’s be honest, despite being unemployed), sometimes it’s nice to put on a pretty dress and sashay about like you own the place, especially when doing something totally mundane like going to the cinema.
Dodgy reasoning aside, it was a great choice. Spotlessly clean of course, nice bar, several snack bars to avoid queues (I’m a bit of a cheapskate and had smuggled in my own popcorn though). The screening hall had lots of tiers rather than stretching off to the sides, so everyone had a good view, and was steep enough that the head of the person in front didn’t block anything out. There was oodles of space between rows as well. Not the cheapest evening out, but we were informed at the ticket office that if you register online you get a ten percent discount on all future tickets.
The film itself was a bit of a surprise. The plot centres around five childhood friends who take a trip back to their hometown in order to do ‘The Golden Mile’; a pub crawl that they had attempted but not completed as youngsters. Last pub on the route – The World’s End. Based on the first two films, I’d been expecting some real deadpan, straight faced British comedy. The only time I actually laughed out loud was when the boyfriend popped a handful of crisps into his mouth just as the speakers fell silent at the end of the trailers, and he had to wait for the feature to start before he could crunch them.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is funny. They’ve completely nailed life in middle England, and the dialogue is as witty (and as relevant) as you’d expect from these guys. There are numerous homages to the first two films: notably the population of Newton Haven recreating the zombie walk from Shaun of the Dead, the customary attempted leap over a garden fence and of course, a Cornetto. It’s just that this film is much more thoughtful than its predecessors. It’s a bit darker, and wrapped up in all the humour are some very pertinent messages. This film demands to be taken seriously in a way that neither of the first two did.
I felt quite satisfied with the stronger, meatier content¬† of ‘The World’s End’. I did wish there had been just one truly hilarious scene though. There were some great one-liners that kept me giggling, but nothing to take away in the same way as the ‘big cop in a small town’ line from Hot Fuzz, or the whole ‘going to the Winchester and waiting for it all to blow over’ thing. Having said that, I’ll certainly be watching it again. In fact, I think it’s one of those films that you need to watch a few times in order to really absorb.

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