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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Soseki centenary passes unmarked as Clapham museum closes

Waste disposal trucks load up with the display cases from the Soseki in London Museum. Looks
 like Clapham has lost another of its already pitifully short list of interesting places to visit.

Last week - on Friday December 9 in fact - it was the hundredth anniversary of the death of one of Japan's most revered novelists, Natsume Soseki. Unsurprisingly, this date went  unmarked in the Clapham street where the famous writer lived during 1901-2.

In fact, it's sadder than that. Ironically, just a few weeks before the centenary date, the small museum dedicated to Soseki at 80b The Chase was apparently dismantled, and is now closed for good.

Earlier this year, the owners of the Soseki Museum in London announced they would be closing down in 2017 because of the increasing costs of keeping it open.

Then, on a cold bright afternoon early in November, a couple of bright yellow rubbish trucks parkked up outside the block. Soon, the workmen were bringing large glass-fronted display cabinets and huge sheets of plate glass out of number 80, and tossing them into the back of the trucks. You could hear the glass shattering.
Part of the Soseki museum's immaculately displayed collection
of the author's published works - now sadly dispersed.

The trucks sped away, and a "for sale" sign went up outside. At the same time a first-floor 2-bed flat in this block went on the market for well over half a million pounds: was it 80b?

Unsure whether this was actually the last gasp of the museum, I checked the doorbell. The notice bext to the buzzer giving opening times had gone. No answers from the buzzer. I rang the museum's phone number. The line was dead, gone.

Of course the museum always did close down for the winter. But all the evidence now suggests it has closed for the last time. All that is left in this street to commemorate the fact that great Japanese writer lived here is the English Heritage Blue Plaque on number 89, opposite the museum, where Soseki actually lodged.

Oh, and the Victorian pilar box which Soseki tourists always seem to find fascinating.

A few months back, I visited this obscure museum that shared the same building I've lived in for the past three decades (see: Catch it while you can: Clapham's Soseki museum). It displayed a small but fascinating collection of photos, books, documents and artefacts relating to  Soseki, and also sold some of his works in translation.  The curator was also a great source of info on Japanese literature in general.

I think the museum was purely private project, funded by a Japanese scholar and businessman long resident in London. All credit to him for opening this museum, and for keeping it going for so long. I can't imagine the £4 entry fee covered much of the costs.

Natsume Soseki museum closing down
The entrance area of the Museum included this display of photos of various
distinguished (mainly Japanese) visitors it had welcomed over the three
decades of its existence
Of course the museum was much better known in Tokyo than in London, and every summer there was a regular trickle of Soseki pilgrims from Japan crossing the Common and wandering down the street in search of the museum. Pointing it out to elderly Japanese tourists was a regular and pleasurable duty. Just another strange aspect of life in this borough that has now gone. Life is that little bit flatter as a result.

Despite his importance in the development of modern Japanese literature, and despite his creatively fertile if very miserable stay in London, Soseki is still hardly known in this country. A few years ago Penguin re-issued a few of his best-known titles in  their Classics series, but these are rarely stocked in any but the most specialist bookshops.

Clapham library held just one of his novels; typically, I found a better selection in Peckham Library, not even in the same borough! (Clapham is in Lambeth, Peckham in Southwark).

If anyone ever actually reads this entry, I imagine the reaction to it would be a simple"so what?" - and certainly the loss of a very small and eccentric museum is hardly a big deal in a world so full of tragedy, death and suffering. Personally I think Soseki has a lot to teach us about ourselves, and I think a much bigger audience could enjoy his work, if they knew about it and could access good translations.

Above all I think the closure is sadly symptomatic of what is happening across London and all of southern England. Realising the maximum value of property is paramount; god forbid that anything as airy-fairy as culture and memory should stand in it way.

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