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1,001 things not to do in London: peer at penises

Posted at 6:15 pm, July 27, 2013 in Arts & Entertainment
Hodge Pompei

Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges has been dallying with danger so you don’t have to. This week’s thing not to do in London – No 733 peer at penises


The erect-penis lamp used olive oil for fuel. You poured the oil into the base of the shaft, and the wick… Well, the wick went where you would expect it to go on an erect-penis lamp. The ancient Romans believed such penises brought luck, and would give them a cheery rub as they passed to invoke the goodwill of the gods.

The family who once owned this particular erect-penis lamp attempted to increase its beneficial effects by hanging several smaller penises on chains from the shaft of the phallus. On a dark night, which they mainly are if you employ erect-penis lamps as your main source of illumination, this must have created a picturesque if unsettling effect. I wonder if the family had time to consider how much luck all these penises would bring them before they were overwhelmed by the superheated gas storm that followed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24 AD 79, which killed them and anyone else who had failed to spot a smoking mountain as an indicator of bad luck heading their way.

But I don’t wonder about this for long. An elbow, coming in low and hard, catches me sharply in the left kidney, and I fall retching to the ground. It is well aimed and merciless, as taught in unarmed combat classes across the world. I am at the British Museum, and things have just turned very nasty.

Because my eyes are on the penis, I don’t see who delivers the dastardly blow, but I’m pretty sure it is either one of the two glum Spanish students who have been trying to wiggle their way in front of me for five minutes, or the American man who has been attempting to edge me to one side with his giant boat-like trainers. Perhaps, although it seems unlikely, it is the elderly lady who smells strongly of talc and who has been poking me in the leg with her umbrella.

But it could be anyone in here. The ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ exhibition is an astonishing array of artefacts that belonged to the residents of those towns, caught in a natural disaster which they had no hope ofsurviving, as the plaster casts of their bodies make horribly clear. Everyone in the country wants to see the exhibition before it ends in September. But the exhibition space at the British Museum is not everyone-in-the-countrysized. It’s not even everyonethat- wants-to-get-into-the-British Museum-exhibition-space-sized. And although our timed tickets are supposed to ensure that everyone can spend a contemplative moment in front of a giant erect-penis lamp, people quickly realise that the only way to see the most interesting bits of the show is to force your way in front of them. Some people do this angrily, some desperately and others, as I have just discovered, with the cold professionalism of a contract killer.

No one offers to help me up from the floor; instead the feet around me rush to fill the space that was created when I was knocked to the ground. Down here among the toes, the ankles and the sandals, I get an idea of what it must have been like in that panicked scramble in AD 79 to get on a boat that would take you away from the inexplicable hell that had descended upon you. It must have been terrible. I mean, look at me: I’m a big man and just the force of this small crowd has sent me crashing down. I don’t seem to be having much luck today. Perhaps I should… No, maybe not.

More tales of violence at the hands of the London mob (and more penises) here.

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