Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Monday, 7 April 2008

The House on the Rock and other Strange Places

I know I promised more from Samuel Johnson but I'll do that next time because it occurred to me that, pretty much to the day, a year ago I was in Chicago and that was a trip that deserves reporting.

I had arrived a few days before our "convention" began so that I could spend some extra time with my hosts. In the flurry of e-mail exchanges that had set up the visit, Ken had mentioned that, if I wanted to, he would be happy to make the drive up to Wisconsin to show me his favourite museum, The House On The Rock.

I couldn't believe the serendipity of it. I had heard of it for the first time a couple of weeks earlier when I'd read Neil Gaiman's marvellous novel "American Gods". The museum is the location for one of the pivotal scenes of the novel but what struck me about it was that it sounded absolutely fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that I felt sure that, in spite of a footnote to the contrary, he was making it up, or at the least greatly exaggerating it.

So, the day after I arrived, I found myself on the way up to the museum. I was like a kid on his first trip to the sea-side but there was still this persistent doubt that it could match up to either Gaiman's or Ken's descriptions of it.

I was worried for nothing. We arrived at the museum in the late morning and by the time we left it was already late afternoon. Five hours wasn't nearly enough to do the place justice and I could happily have marched back to the ticket office and paid to go round again.

So, what is it? Put simply it is a collection of collections housed in one of the most bizarre architectural structures I've ever encountered. That doesn't say much though.

Do you want to see a collection of mechanical money-boxes? There's one here. Fancy taking a look at a collection of pipe organs? You can stroll through a red-lit evocation of hell and take a look at one. Not esoteric enough for you? How about the collection of mechanical orchestras scattered throughout the attraction. And what about collections of dolls, carousel horses, cars, model trains, armour, guns, miniature circuses, oriental statues, whaling equipment, ersatz crown jewels? The full list would fill a magazine.

Everything is contained in a vast series of themed rooms that lead you through a bizarre wonderland of weirdness. There is even an indoor recreation, perhaps evocation would be a better word, of a turn of the century small town US street. Oh, yes, and a simply enormous carousel that, rather than wooden horses, has a series of mythological beasts and curious hybrids to ride on.

Oh and did I miss the most curious architectural feature? The infinity room is a long cantilevered corridor that leads out above the trees going absolutely nowhere designed so cunningly that when standing inside it, it seems to stretch out forever in front of you.

See what I mean? Every time I think I've described enough, I think of something else I need to say that I've left out.

It was an enthralling afternoon*. I wandered round with my camera taking picture after picture after picture.

Afterwards we drove into Milwaukee for some dinner and a drink in the equally strange Safe House. This is an odd theme bar decorated with posters of spy movies and the apparatus of spying which can be entered via a reception where you are asked for passwords and the like before going through into the bar itself. A pretty strange experience but one that complemented perfectly the day out at The House on The Rock.

I also wrote a whole cycle of poems about it that is much too long to put in here (they are available here, if you are really curious) that have met with some considerable approval from people who have read them and went down a storm when I performed the whole cycle (minus one poem, The Mikado and the Invisible Orchestra, which is a poem for two voices and can't be performed solo) at Wolverhampton City Voices.

Instead of repeating one of those poems here though I'll suggest that you follow the above link. Here I'll do a poem about somewhere that in it's own way was equally strange – The Hotel Trinidad in Merida, Mexico. This poem looks like a stream of gibberish and random images. It's nothing of the sort. Apart from a couple of liberties taken for the sake of rhyme it's an entirely factual description.

Hotel Trinidad

Cellophane butterflies above the stone fountain;
Dismembered dolls fill the cabinet.
Reaching for sanity's climbing a mountain,
But we can't leave the valley quite yet.

Arms, legs and heads on a separate shelf -
Where did the torsos all go ?
Charlie Chaplin in cardboard admiring himself
It's clear there's something we don't know.

The inflatable Batman who stands on the stairs,
Wobbling with each passing breeze,
Is surrounded by cupboards that might just be coffins.
This psychotic place is diseased.

Torsos and fish net painted red white and blue;
A bowling ball stands on a plate;
A wraught iron pedastal supports one pink shoe;
Under the water a smiling cold face.

Rows of tights filled with sand have been nailed to a board
Above glass jars full of debris and dust.
A rocking horse body is missing its head
It seems a betrayal of trust.

How did we get here ? I can't be quite sure.
When will we leave ? I don't know.
Through the cracks in the mirror I watch my reflection

And realise there's no hurry to go.

*I have read other blogs by people who don't like The House on the Rock, who criticize it for its phoniness, for the fact that many of the artefacts are recreations, for all sorts of perfectly legitimate reasons. To those I can only shrug and say that it would be a funny old world if we all liked the same things, wouldn't it?

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