Dig weed

GATE 3e Old Highgate School changing rooms BLOG

HIGHGATE SCHOOL IN north London, like many other public (i.e. private) schools in the UK and far fewer state schools, operated (and might still do so) a Combined Cadet Force (CCF). The CCF was designed to provide military training to teenage schoolboys. It provided military experience that would allow its members, if they joined the forces, to advance up the ranks faster than young people who were recruited without this training. It helped give public school boys an earlier chance of commanding their fellow soldiers than those who had not been privileged to attend expensive private schools.

Highgate School had a well equipped CCF. There was an armoury, a drill hall, an assault course, and at least one member of staff dedicated to running the CCF. During the period I attended the school,1965 to 1970, many of our teachers had served in the armed forces during WW2. Some of them were involved with the school’s CCF.

Fortunately for me, participation in the CCF became voluntary instead of compulsory when I reached the age for joining it. I would have hated the discipline, the polishing of belts and boots, the physical activities, and wearing the uniforms made of scratchy materials.

The CCF training took place on Tuesday afternoons. When it ceased to be compulsory, the school decided that those who did not volunteer should spend Tuesday afternoons doing some kind of useful social work

I was first assigned to gardening duty, known as ‘digweed’. Along with another boy, we spent Tuesday afternoons in the garden of one of the boarding houses. Our mission was to clear the weeds from flower beds. Neither my companion nor I could distinguish a weed from a flower. The sight of the house master’s wife bringing us cups of milky tea and biscuits always marked the end of a pointless afternoon, which left the garden in a worse condition that when we arrived.

After a while, I was transferred to visiting the inmates of a local old age home, what is now called a ‘care home’. My task was to chat and cheer up the inmates sitting in high backed padded chairs around the walls of the large sitting room.

In my teens, I was not the chattiest of people. And, all o the elderly inmates except one, were either incapable or uninterested in responding to my attempts to engage them in conversation. The exception was a feisty lady, who was very talkative. The only problem was that she was not there every week. She told me that whenever she was able, she escaped from the home and enjoyed herself until the police brought her back.

One afternoon, I rang the doorbell of the home. When the doors were opened, but only a little, I caught a glimpse of a coffin standing on a trolley in the dimly lit hallway. The matron told me that it would be best that I came back the following week. I had a free afternoon that day.

At some point the school decided that those who did not join the CCF should become members of the newly formed Basic Unit. Instead of wearing miltary uniforms we wore track suits. We spent time ‘square bashing’ or military style drill. I was hopeless at this, turning left when I was supposed to be turning the other way, and not moving in time with the other members of the unit.

One day during Basic Unit, we had to attempt the school’s military assault course. At one place on this, we had to scramble up two metal pipes to reach the flat roof of a seven foot high concrete block house and then to jump off it. I reached the roof, but refused to jump down. I remained up there until the other hundred or so boys had completed the course and were in position for some more drill before the afternoon ended. In desperation, the supervising teachers pleaded with me to jump down otherwise nobody else would be allowed to go home. I told them that did not bother me nor would I jump down. In the end, I was helped down so that the session could be brought to an end.

The best and most enjoyable Tuesday afternoon activity I did was during my last two years at Highgate. I worked as an assistant at the now long since closed New End Hospital in Hampstead. But, more about that another time!

Picture shows the concrete area where the Basic Unit trained

Saturday night feeder

BRUGES 65 BLOG

MY LATE MOTHER trained at the Michaelis Art School in Cape Town. She became a commercial artist. After she married my father in London in early 1948, she became a more creative artist, a painter and then a sculptor. Her interest in art was shared by my father, who became deeply interested in the history of art. Most of our family holidays were connected with my parents’ enthusiasm for art both old and new. I used to be quite envious of my friends whose parents took them to the seaside, but now that I am older I appreciate the special nature of our family holidays.

One of the places my parents enjoyed visiting was Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium.  We used to stay in the city’s Hotel Portinari. Once every visit, we did something that I found more enjoyable than visiting churches and museums. We took a boat ride along the city’s canals. These tours involved travelling in a small low boat powered by an outboard motor. The most exciting part of this voyage was when we passed beneath a particularly low road bridge. The tour guide would tell us all to duck our heads. My mother, who saw danger around every corner, always  emphasised how important it was to lower our heads as much as possible to avoid them being smashed to a pulp by the metal struts under which we were passing. In retrospect, considering the potential for experiencing this awful injury (possibly leading to death), I am amazed that my mother sanctioned these boat trips every time we visited Bruges.

My mother passed away, I married and in 1995 our daughter was born. Six weeks after her birth, we crossed the English Channel and we took our daughter with us. We were driving to Rotterdam in Holland to meet my wife’s parents, who were disembarking there after a cruise on the River Rhine.

We wanted to spend a night in Bruges on our way to Holland, but were unable to find accommodation in a hotel that we could afford. Instead, we booked a hotel at nearby Damme, which was said to be picturesque.

We arrived at our hotel in Damme on a Saturday afternoon. I remember that we had trouble getting hot water to flow in our shower. However much the hot tap was turned, the water remained icy cold. The problem was solved when a member of the hotel staff explained that the taps had been labelled wrongly: hot water flowed when the cold tap was opened.

 In the evening, the three of us went to a restaurant in Damme. The dining room was a long rectangle in plan. A long central ‘aisle’ ran between two lines of tables. Each table was occupied by late middle-aged couples sitting  with their backs to the walls and facing the diners seated opposite them across the aisle. Not one of these people looked as if they were enjoying their night out, or even being alive. They were a miserable looking bunch.

We were shown to the one remaining empty table. Within minutes of sitting down, our daughter decided that she needed a drink, not of Belgian beer but something that only wife could supply.

My wife asked the maitre d’hôtel whether there was somewhere that she could breastfeed our daughter discreetly. He pointed at a door. My wife stood up and walked towards it. Before she reached it, the hitherto seemingly moribund diners sprang to life. They told us that they did not mind if our daughter suckled in the dining room. They did not want mother and child to be exiled, or even self-exiled.

For the rest of the evening, our fellow diners remained animated, exclaiming how sweet our daughter was and offering much advice. Our arrival and our daughter, in particular, had made that Saturday evening a huge success for these ageing members of Damme’s  bourgeoisie.

 

Picture of the Minnewater in Bruges, taken in the early 1960s

 

The kindness of strangers

SARA 4 BLOG

I VISITED YUGOSLAVIA frequently during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Often, I travelled between towns on public transport, often using the efficient networks, each of them operated independent bus companies, of inter-city buses. I travelled routes all over the country from Subotica in the north to Ohrid and Skopje in the south, and from Zadar in the west to Zaječar in the east. It was on these vehicles that my love of the varied forms of Balkan folk music was born. Every bus was fitted with loudspeakers and a radio. For hours on end the bus passengers were treated to an endless, and in my view delightful, stream of folk songs and folk music. On one of these bus trips, my first to Sarajevo, I met someone who was to become a good friend.

Dubrovnik was the point of departure for my first visit to Sarajevo. I bought a ticket at the bus station just outside the walls of the old city, entered the bus, and headed for the seat, whose number was printed on my ticket. In those days, and maybe this is still the case today, passengers were assigned specific numbered seats on long-distance buses. Whenever I knew that I would be travelling a day or two ahead, I used to buy my ticket in advance in order to get one of the seats numbered 1 or 2, which were at the front of the bus, and therefore with the best view, and, incidentally, also with the highest risk of injury in a head-on collision.

On this particular occasion in the bus station at Dubrovnik, I found a young French tourist was sitting next to his girlfriend in my seat. I started explaining, in my poor French, that he was occupying my reserved seat. As I was doing so, a middle-aged woman, sitting near the rear of the bus, explained the situation in fluent French. The French couple vacated the incorrect seats and settled into their assigned places. These happened to be close to the woman and her friend. I could hear them conversing in French as we wound our way up along the valley of the Neretva River and away from the Adriatic coast. I felt a little miffed that they had found someone to converse with, but I had not.

After a few hours we stopped in a village perched high on a hillside. The young French couple said goodbye to their new friends, and left the coach. Our bus, which should have arrived in Sarajevo well before nightfall, remained parked on a steep slope in the small mountain village for hours. The few passengers who were continuing on to Sarajevo sat on a bench under a tree in the sultry afternoon sun. Eventually, I asked the lady, who could speak French, what was happening. She explained that one of the tires of our bus had been punctured, and that it was taking a long while to repair it. She revealed that she was an inhabitant of Sarajevo and that her travelling companion, an old friend of hers, was a schoolteacher from France.

Finally, our bus was ready to depart. As it was now almost empty, I sat near to the two women and chatted to them. The sun was setting, and we were still only halfway to our destination. Soon after we began moving, the heavens opened. The mountainous region through which we were slowly making our way was filled with crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning. Torrents of rain made driving slow and difficult. I began despairing of ever reaching the city where the Hapsburg Archduke was shot in 1914. And, I was becoming concerned. I was heading for a city, which I did not know and where I had no accommodation arranged, and it was beginning to look as if would be almost midnight by the time we reached it.

I asked Marija, the French-speaking lady from Sarajevo, whether she could recommend a hotel for me. She shrugged her shoulders and said that as she lived there, she did not know about hotels. At this point, her companion said to her in French:

“Whenever I meet foreign students in my hometown in France, I invite them to stay in my home.”

Marija said nothing. It was my impression that she had not needed to hear this bit of information.

It was late at night when we eventually arrived in Sarajevo’s bus station. It was located far from the town centre on the main road that led to the spa at Ilidža. Miodrag was waiting for Marija, his mother-in law, and her French friend. I was told to get into his tiny car with them and all of our baggage, and we drove along ill-lit rain soaked streets through the darkness of the night until we reached the end of a short, steeply inclined cul-de-sac in central Sarajevo. We entered Marija’s second floor flat, and Liljana, Marija’s daughter, served us a huge, tasty supper. At the end of the meal, I still had no idea where I would be spending the night. Before I could ask where I would be staying, Liljana showed me her mother’s spare bedroom, and told me (in good English) that I should sleep there.

After breakfast the next morning, I set off to find a hotel in which I could stay for the rest of my visit. It did not take long to find one and to reserve a room. Next, I bought a bunch of flowers – they were stems of gladioli – for my kind hostess and returned to her flat. I entered, gave my bouquet to Marija, thanked her for looking after me, and told her that I had found accommodation. She told me not to be ridiculous; I was to cancel the hotel and to stay with her and her family.

Marija and her family lived in two flats in the small houses that lined a short street that led off one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Marshal Tito Street. It was within a few metres of the Baščaršija, the old bazaar area of the city. From my centrally located base, I was able to explore Sarajevo with ease. Set on both sides of the River Miljacka, the city stretches along a long narrow valley and spreads steeply up the hillsides flanking it.

The Baščaršija district looked just like a typical Turkish bazaar. When I showed pictures of it to Mehmet and Saadet, some Turkish friends in London, they said that it looked just like Bursa, their hometown in Turkish Anatolia. Like most oriental bazaars the one in Sarajevo was divided up into areas specialising in different trades. For example, there was a cluster of copper-beaters, another of silversmiths, and yet another of leatherworkers. I fell in love with the city.

I visited Sarajevo several times, always staying with my new friends. On several occasions, they visited me in London and once they stayed in our then family home in north London.

In the late 1980s, Miodrag and Liljana expressed their concerns about political changes that were happening in Bosnia. This was before the city became entangled in a fearful struggle for life during the complex and bloody civil war that occurred during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. They decided that they needed to leave Yugoslavia and start a new life elsewhere, which they did. Miodrag and Liljana and their daughter migrated to an island in the Indian Ocean, where life was calmer and prospects better than in Bosnia. Although we met them on one of their visits to London from their new home in the Indian Ocean, I have lost touch with them unfortunately. As for Marija, who remained in Sarajevo, I hope that she did not suffer during the attacks on her city.

For more of my experiences in the former Yugoslavia, please read my “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, available on Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and lulu.com.

Himalaya Palace

HIM 1 BLOG

 

THE HIMALAYA PALACE cinema in the London suburb of Southall, an area where many people of Punjabi descent live, showed only Bollywood films from India, usually the latest releases. Being keen on these films, we often made the long trip from our home to Southall to watch them. During our regular visits to India, always including Bangalore, we take time to see Bollywood films in the country where they are created.

We were in Bangalore in December 2001 when the blockbuster film “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (ie ‘sometimes happy, sometimes sad’) was released all over India. We were staying with my in-laws,  and everyone decided that we had to see it.

We chose a cinema near the famous Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR), a long established popular eatery in Bangalore. It was decided that we should have breakfast there before seeing a morning screening of the film. So popular is MTR, that queuing is always required before getting a table. It was my first visit to this highly esteemed place and I hope my last. Everything we were served was almost dripping with ghee, which is part of its attraction for its many fans.

The cinema was a few steps from MTR. After buying tickets, we had to wait in another queue. This one was to await one’s turn to have bags searched by security personnel. I thought this was to prevent weapons and bombs from entering the auditorium, but it was not. The security people were searching for food and drinks. So-called ‘outside food’ could not be brought into the cinema because it risked reducing the sales of overpriced snacks and drinks sold by the cinema.

When we reached our seats, my sister-in-law showed me her basket, lifted a shawl within it, and revealed the sandwiches and other snacks beneath.  So inefficient were the security people that they had not delved into the bag with any seriousness of purpose.

Before the film started, my sister-in-law offered me and the rest of the family rolls of compacted cotton wool rather like those that dentists stuff into patients’ cheeks to dry the mouth. She said we might need them because the volume of the soundtrack would be very high. I declined them, and enjoyed the full impact of the sound.

At the Himalaya in Southall before the start of any film, a sign would be projected. It said something like:

“Please do not talk during the performance.”

This was a pointless exhortation because at the Himalaya the soundtrack was played so loud that even if you screamed at your neighbour, they would not have heard you.

Sadly, the Himalaya Palace (built 1929) is no longer a cinema. It closed in 2010. When we last visited Southall a few years ago, the Chinese style front of the Himalaya, complete with dragons, still existed, but its interior had become a covered market.

Nowadays, well at least before the pandemic arrived,  we watch Bollywood films that are shown regularly (at least one per week) at a Vue cinema in London’s Shepherd Bush.

Providing you miss the Friday and Saturday screenings of the latest releases, the audiences are usually minute, often less than ten people in an auditorium that can seat well over 150 people. Even before the pandemic, social distancing  was the norm during the screenings because empty seats usually greatly outnumbered occupied ones.

Most Bollywood films are long, usually over two and a half hours. So, there is an interval during their screening. The point at which the interval occurs is chosen by the film maker to leave the audience at a point of high suspense in the story.

Once during an interval at a Bollywood screening at the Vue, we sat in the almost empty cinema and heard two ladies, sitting several rows in front of us, chatting in Italian. Out of curiosity,  we asked them in Italian why they had chosen to see a Bollywood film. Their reply surprised us.

The two women were members of an Akshay Kumar fan club in Calabria in the far south of Italy. They had only ever before seen films starring Akshay on video screens.  They were staying far away from Shepherds Bush in Dulwich when, to their delight, they discovered that the film we were watching, starring Akshay, was being screened in Shepherds Bush. They had come to see one of Akshay’s films on the ‘big screen’ for the first time.

Bollywood’s films have captured the hearts of people all over the world. They were even  popular in the former USSR. When we visited Albania in 2016, we discovered that they, as well as Indian TV soap operas, had captured a significantly large audience of Albanians. These films would not have been shown in Albania prior to the downfall of its Stalinist style regime in 1991.

Until it is safe to do so again, my wife and I will have to enjoy armchair screening of our Bollywood DVDs. Enjoyable as these are, they are an incomplete substitute for ‘in your face’ full blast performances in a cinema auditorium.

No refusal

UBER DRIVERS IN MADRAS are, so I have been told, unaware of a potential customer’s desired destination when they accept a job. It might be a short ride or even an out of town destination. We discovered a consequence of this when earlier this year we were advised that the most reasonable way to make the three hour journey from Madras to Pondicherry was to hire an Uber.

The first three drivers, who offered us rides, phoned us to ask where we wanted to go. When we told them, they cancelled our rides. On our fourth attempt, an Uber arrived. He was happy to drive us to Pondicherry because, as we found out three hours later, he had a friend he wanted to visit there.

In Bombay, the taxis are nicknamed ‘kali pili’, which refers to their black and yellow body paint colours. Most of the cabbies are argumentative and some if them seem reluctant to work, making complaints like “too much traffic” or “that’s too far”. Eventually, one finds a cab that is willing to carry out one’s wishes, often complaining all the way.

Further south in Bangalore, popular transport for those who avoid urban buses include Uber and Ola cabs as well as three-wheeled autorickshaws.

Bangalore Ubers and Olas are unreliable. Often they accept a ride and minutes before they are about to arrive at the pickup point, they cancel. I imagine that often they get stuck in the city’s slow moving or often static congested traffic and feel they are wasting their time trying to reach their passenger waiting beyond the traffic jam. Whatever the reason, these app connected car services are not nearly as reliable as they are in Bombay or London.

Autorickshaws are the best method for getting through the congested thoroughfares of Bangalore. Their plucky drivers are able to take risks with their small vehicles that larger cars are unable to attempt. These manoeuvres are daring and can be hair-raising for the passengers but they get you to your destination relatively quickly.

Hiring an autorickshaw in Bangalore is always an adventure. The vehicles are fitted with taximeters, which are supposed to determine the fair. They are used occasionally but not often. The driver will suggest an often outrageous fare, which is the starting point for haggling. Or, some drivers will agree to use the meter determined fare plus some extra Rupees in addition.

Some autorickshaw drivers without much to do will often foreigners something like:
“Come with me. I’ll take you anywhere for only 10 Rupees.”
Sounds tempting, does it not? Do not succumb to this unbelievable offer because if you do, you will soon discover the catch. The naive passenger will be invited to visit the driver’s friend’s/cousin’s/brother’s store, where if you buy something, the driver will be rewarded with something like: school books for his children, or a kilo of rice for his starving family, or a new shirt, or …

Some autorickshaw drivers will set off for a journey in Bangalore, and then after a few minutes, will ask the passenger whether, on the way, they want to do some shopping at a shop the driver recommends. A determined refusal is required to ensure that your journey will not include an unwanted detour for shopping.

On the whole, autorickshaws are a great way of getting around Bangalore.

Calcutta is filled with rugged but battered yellow Ambassador taxis. These are slowly being replaced by newer vehicles with blue and white body paint. One thing they share in common is the wording “No Refusal” printed on the exterior of their doors. The cab driver, who stop to pick up a passenger, are not supposed to refuse to take you wherever you want. Most of the drivers comply with this.

Taxi drivers in London and other places in the UK are, by law, required to take you anywhere within the area they are allowed to operate. Like the drivers in Calcutta, the British cabbie is supposed to adhere to the “No Refusal” concept, and often, cabbies, but by no means always, comply.

Interesting as all this is, present conditions during the current pandemic mean that not too many cabs are being hailed at the present.

Picture: Taxis in Calcutta

Ignorance is bliss

DURING MY UNDERGRADUATE student days in the very early 1970s, a good friend, who is now my wife, suggested that a group of us should visit one of the then very few Japanese restaurants in London. The one we chose was in St Christopher’s Place, close to Oxford Street.

We decided to order sashimi, raw fish. I chose to have a plate of tuna sashimi. I had never eaten raw fish before, but after my first bite I decided this was a very superior way of serving fish. The sashimi was more than delicious. I would have loved much more than the five neatly cut pieces of tuna, which was the portion size. However, I could not afford that luxury.

The five bite sized pieces of tuna cost £7. And, in the early 1970s that sum could pay for a lot of food or other goods. For example, a Penguin paperback book cost 12.5 or 17.5 pence and a gallon (4.5 litres) of petrol was well under £1.

I was left hungry after our visit to the Japanese restaurant, and had to assuage my appetite at a fast food outlet.

Today, the price of Japanese food in London has dropped relative to what it was almost 50 years ago. Outlets like Itsu can provide a satisfying Japanese set meal for little more than £7. Better quality Japanese restaurants are justifiably more expensive, but not usually way out of reach, as was my plate of sashimi in St Christopher’s Place.

We used to visit a lovely Japanese restaurant in Holland Park side street. It was run by an elderly couple from Japan. It closed when they retired. For a year or two, we did not eat Japanese food in London.

One Saturday evening, we were watching a play at the National Theatre. It was not satisfactory. So, we walked out after the first act. We decided to drive to Ali Baba, an Egyptian eatery near Baker Street.

On the way, I thought that if we were to see a Japanese restaurant, we would stop and eat there. I stopped the car outside a Japanese restaurant near Bloomsbury and suggested to my wife that we ate there. She agreed and we entered the small eatery.

We looked at the menu and then looked at each other across the table. By chance, we had walked into a very (no kidding) expensive place. We were on the point of walking out when I said to my wife:
“Let’s eat here. I will enjoy it if I don’t see the bill. You check it, and I will hand over the card.”
Ignorance is bliss, and so was the food.

Pictures taken at Harima restaurant in Bangalore, India

The kiss

SHE LAY ON A RUG on the well-trimmed lawn of the Ootacamund (Ooty) Golf Club, propped up by one of her elbows. Dressed in a colourful sari, her long black hair was partly hidden by a picnic box filled to the brim with fruit. There was a thermos flask and a cylindrical container for warm food next to and in line with the fruit filled box.

Soon, a bespectacled young man with well coiffured hair and dressed in a white shirt with brown trousers began crawling towards the lady’s feet. Then, he manoeuvred his body over her knees and towards her face. Then, just as he was about to kiss her, both of these figures lowered themselves so that their heads were hidden from view by the picnic box, the hot food storage and the thermos flask.

This amorous couple were neither alone nor unobserved. Apart from my wife and me, local women carrying unwieldy bundles of wood on their heads passed by. Also, the couple were surrounded by a large film crew with lights and cameras.

Soon after their heads disappeared from sight, they reappeared as the film director came running towards them. He talked to them and they repeated what we had just watched after a man with a clapperboard bearing the film name “Andaz” had stood close to them for a few seconds.

“Andaz”, a Bollywood film, was released in April 1994. By chance we had stumbled on this outdoor film shooting in January 1994 during our honeymoon, part of which was spent in Ooty.

In 1994, and certainly until quite recently, intimate displays of affection were not included in Bollywood and other Indian films. What we saw in rehearsal was one of many ways from which film audiences would be saved from seeing an intimate moment. At the moment the audience would expect the male actor was about to plant a kiss on the young lady, they disappear from sight behind the picnic items. Nowadays, the audiences in India get to watch the intimate moment, often in surprising detail for someone, like me, used to watching the older more prudish Bollywood productions.

Although my love of Bollywood films began around 1994, seeing this scene being shot only increased my affection for them. My addiction to Bollywood films began in 1993 when in London some Maharashtrian friends of my wife-to-be insisted that watching the Bollywood film “Sholay” (1975) was important for acclimatising me to the Indian milieu I was about to marry into.

Although many of the latest Bollywood films are extremely good, my preferences is for the older ones. Though often with very complex plots, they have, I believe, an enjoyable innocence that transports the audience temporarily away from the harsh realities of the world beyond the walls of the cinema. Many of the more recent films do the opposite: they remind the audience of the problems they are facing.

A narrow escape

IN AUGUST 2011, MY WIFE was invited to attend a Loreto House school reunion in Calcutta (Kolkata). As I had never been to the city before, I accompanied her. While my wife took part in the daily activities with some of her former schoolmates, I explored and fell in love with Calcutta.

Throughout our five day visit to the city, the monsoon rain fell heavily and incessantly. I walked around Calcutta, often wading through filthy water that submerged my feet and lapped around my ankles. This hardly affected my enjoyment of the delightful decaying city, in some respects India’s own distinctive version of old Havana in Cuba.

One day, I visited Jorasanko, the palatial residence of the Tagore family, whose members included not only the Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath but also artists such as Abanindranath and Gaganendranath.

After seeing around the fascinating rooms of Jorasanko, I sploshed through the flooded streets towards the Hooghly River. On my way, I walked along a busy street lined with shops and filled with crowds of people. A steady stream of rickshaws pulled by thin sinewy men and each laden with two or three passengers made its way through the busy throng. The huge wheels of these vehicles keep the passengers high above the water flooding the streets.

I noticed that some shops, often clothes and textile merchants, were giving hot food to some passersby. At one of these shops, I asked about the food distribution. It was explained to me that during Ramadan, it was considered to be a virtuous thing to feed the poor.

Eventually, after crossing a wide road clogged with slow moving heavy traffic, I stepped onto the Howrah Bridge, a gigantic steel bridge, a Meccano lovers dream, which traverses the River Hooghly. It was constructed between 1935 and early 1943.

At first, the bridge crosses over a large market that runs along the riverbank. Then, after a few yards, it is over the water. I walked along the downstream facing pedestrian walkway, dodging many porters carrying heavy and bulky loads on their heads. I took numerous photographs until I was two thirds of the way across the bridge and met a policeman with an ancient rifle slung over his back. Politely, he informed me that photography was forbidden on the bridge. By then, I had sufficient images stored in the memory of my camera.

Once over the river, I headed through the streaming rain and thick crowds to a boat station close to the Howrah railway terminus. My plan was to travel on a river bus downstream to a landing stage not far from Park Street.

I bought a ticket which was printed on very poor quality paper, that had to be kept dry to avoid it falling to pieces. I asked someone on the floating platform at the water’s edge if the boat that was approaching was heading for my planned destination. I received what I believed was an affirmative reply, and then boarded a relatively empty boat with plenty of free seats. We set off.

To my surprise, the boat headed upstream rather than downstream. Soon, we passed beneath the Howrah Bridge. We sailed a long way upstream away from the city centre. The banks of the river were lined with unattractive industrial buildings and these were punctuated by occasional bathing ghats.

I disembarked at the boat’s first stop. Had it not been raining so heavily, I would have exited the boat station to take a look around the area. Instead, I bought another flimsy ticket to return to Howrah. This time, I asked several people at which of the two floating embarkation pontoons I should board the downstream boat. I waited close to the water while a large crowd of fellow passengers gathered behind me. I wanted to be sure of embarking first.

The boat approached where we were all standing. I could see from afar that it was packed to the gills with people. When the boat was about 18 inches away from the pontoon, I felt a great push from behind me and I was catapulted across the water towards the approaching vessel. Luckily, I was able to grab something on the boat and this saved me from falling into the water and being crushed between the boat and the pontoon.

The boat was stuffed with people. I am sure that sardines are less tightly packed in tins. I wanted to try to take a photograph to capture an image of this crowd, but I could not because so great was the pressure exerted by those around me that I was unable to raise my hands from beside my body.

I looked around and noticed there were few life saving flotation items. Had our boat sunk, few on board would have survived.

It was a great relief to disembark at Howrah. I was drenched, somewhat shaken, and hungry. I decided to take a taxi to Flurys in Park Street, a European style tea room that served what I was yearning at that moment: toasted club sandwiches.

I boarded a battered yellow Ambassador taxi in a car park near the railway station. We moved forward into a mass of other similar taxis. The crowded taxis were so close to each other that it felt that they were all welded together. It took almost an hour for my driver to skilfully manoeuvre his taxi a couple of hundred yards on to the bridge.

At last, we arrived at Park Street, where, slightly drier because of sitting for ages in the taxi, I settled down at a table in Flurys. I ordered my sandwich and savoured the peaceful atmosphere in the tea room.

On my third visit to Calcutta at the end of 2019, we visited Flurys but, sadly, we were disappointed to find that its food and service was no longer as good as before. Fortunately, the scruffy Nizams at New Market, which serves parathas stuffed with meat and omelettes, remains as good as it was in 2011 and many years before.

Despite my near escape from severe injury or worse, my enthusiasm for Calcutta and its people continues to grow and grow.

A writer’s confession

HIG 2 BLOG

NOBODY IS PERFECT, not even yours truly.

I was a pupil at London’s Highgate School when I was studying to take state examination, then known as ‘O Levels, taken by 16 year olds. I was studying for 9 subjects, but decided to drop one of them, German. Its grammar was beginning to defeat me and to jeopardize my chances of success in the other 8 subjects.

German was not the only language that was causing me trouble as I approached the O Level exams. Unknown to me and possibly unnoticed by our English teacher, Mr B, my command of written English was insufficient for me to pass the English Language O Level exam. It was the only O Level that I failed. I passed the other subjects, but without displaying much academic excellence.

My failure to achieve the pass marks in English Language cannot be blamed on anyone except me, but there were factors that predisposed me to downfall.

During the examination, I attempted an essay that asked the candidate to discuss whether or not it was fair that pop musicians often earned more than nurses. Being by nature somewhat contrarian, I decided to write an essay in defence of the high remuneration of pop musicians. This idea, to which I no longer subscribe, expressed with poor grammar and spelling, cannot have made the person marking my paper feel sympathetic to me.

The other predisposing factor was our teacher Mr B. He was far more interested in using class time analyzing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than ensuring that all of his charges were proficient in basic skills such as grammar and essay writing.

Failing English Language did not prevent or delay my commencing the subjects in which I was to prepare for the A Level examinations that were required for admission to university.

One of my three A Level subjects was biology. The senior biology teacher was Mr S, affectionately known by his first name George. He set us three essays per week. On Saturday mornings, we had a double-length period (one and a half hours) with him. During this, he went through our essays, pointing out their good points and bad ones. The essays of one student, ‘P’ were particularly dreadful. His spelling was awful as was his punctuation: there was none except a full stop at the end of each foolscap page. And, to my annoyance and surprise, P passed English Language O Level at the same time as I failed.

Six months after failing my English Language O Level, I took the exam again. I passed with a good grade. I believe that I had learnt a great deal about essay writing from George’s Saturday essay critiquing sessions. I shall always be grateful to him.

On Saturday mornings, parents thinking of sending their sons to Highgate were shown around the school. The biology laboratory, where the essay classes were held, was on the tour. George, who was a genial old fellow, allowed us to relax during the Saturday morning classes. However, he always told us that if we heard the door to the laboratory being opened, we were all to act as uf we were concentrating on something serious while the parents peered in.

On Friday afternoons, we had a three hour practical class during which, for example, we dissected the parts of dogfish not required by fishmongers. Friday lunchtimes found George drinking in one of Highgate Village’s numerous quant pubs.

George used to arrive at the Friday afternoon practical classes having drunk far too much. For the first hour of the class, he was a menace, arguing with anyone unwise enough to approach him. After about an hour, he used to sit down and fall asleep. The last two hours of the class were supervised superbly by George’s deputy, Mr Coombs.

George was a wonderful teacher. He inspired his pupils’ enthusiasm for biology. Like my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, his range of interest extended from microscopic intracellular detail to the whole organism. Once, when walking to the Dining Hall with George, he stooped down and picked up a fallen tree leaf. He asked us what kind of tree had produced it. None of us knew. He said:

“That’s the trouble with you youngsters. You know all about DNA, but you cannot recognise a leaf from a plane tree.”

George was, as far as we knew, probably celibate. When we reached the part of the biology syllabus that dealt with human reproduction, he told us:

“You know all about this. You can read up the details in the book.”

I have wandered from my starting topic somewhat. Maybe, you were beginning to believe that I was trying to distract you from my sad performance in English and from thinking that, given my record, I have great ‘chutzpah’ writing and publishing books.

Picture shows coat of arms of Highgate School, founded in 1565