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Sunday, 27 October 2013

We are all the chimps and the marrows

He was a good man Mr Darwin, he put a pot of earthworms on his wife's piano to see if they responded to music. She in turn, Emma Darwin played for them. Down House - a bus ride away from Bromley - is a walk out of time. While a keen guide shone his wind-up torch at a box full of stuffed birds, I ached for it to be the way it once must have been without the red night-club ropes and the locked doors with 'Private' inscribed on metal plates. I imagined the edges of the grass had not always been cut with scissors and a ruler and what was there before the cafe with a man in an apron, grating cheese, slapping together the sandwiches to sell at lunch. I so wanted to immerse myself further back and get underneath, to the place that 'Farthing Lane' had suggested on our way in.

The Sandwalk - walking=thinking
I found a sense of what I came for, in the gardens with the exotic carnivorous plants, in Darwin's blue painted greenhouses where in my mind he, or what he was, remained in his rhubarb and along the 'sand-walk' where he used to do laps three times a day as he took time to think. It was here, I played a little Hide and Seek with my girlfriend and got to thinking that it was even more fun with clues sent from a mobile phone.

The smell is claustrophobic
I am not good with earphone guided tours. I get competitive, wanting to get in the next room before everyone else and really, for it to be over. I feel impervious towards a dead man's hat and dog basket, it brings no comfort or inspiration to know that someone could do this with your stuff long after you have gone, to use it to try to show your life. It's unsettling how they mix the authentic and the fake; the new packet of Kendall Mint cake alongside the ivory nail clippers. It adds to the sensation of sea-sickness I get when I try to immerse myself in the remains of someone's life. But then, I find myself stopped dead by his eldest daughter's writing box, the nibs of Annie Darwin's ink pens who only lived to be ten years old. Next to this is a list, days and weeks long, as he attentively recorded his daughter's health. The exhibition makes it clear how Annie's death changed everything for Darwin, his faith, his ideas about the survival of the fittest and a suggestion how the pointlessness of deaths like these could feed back into and shape the evolution of humans.

Next treasure find: a drawing of an orangutan in a dress whom he met at London Zoo, he gave her a mirror to play with and music to listen to. The wall in the room I should have gone in already (the one before he got married) lists his thoughts on 'to Marry or not to Marry'. The whole piece is titled 'This is the question'. In his faint, slanted ink handwriting I could just about make out a sentence under the 'not to Marry' side (worth the ten pounds entry fee alone) 'No children, no second life'.

The tastefully evolved heritage gift shop sold the normal jam, ginger wine and mugs with cows or sheep on them but in the corner were giant marrows or white squashes for one pound. I felt a leap of excitement at the thought of buying a Darwin marrow, but soon realised the burden of carrying it. I regret that now, it was not in the spirit of the day. Darwin, the avid collector, upon finding a patch of land where there were multiple species of beetle, once popped a beetle in his mouth because he ran out of hands to hold them all. The beetle let out an acrid squirt and he spat it out, losing it for all time.
Two females holding hands in public:
still at risk from attack from
other upright walking mammals

On the train home, a teenage girl looked across at me and my girlfriend and after inspecting us laughed out loud, as if it was socially acceptable, as if the sight of two women who are together was OK to find ridiculous, ugly or silly. Her mum, who had a tough face, one that had been forming and reforming in the family for at least a few generations, said to her curtly while looking across at us, 'What's so funny then?'
And from this one firm correction from a mother to a daughter I felt we had evolved just a little way more, if you'd like to know Mr Darwin. It's just one more note added.