Becoming more aware during the covid pandemic

THERE MUST HAVE been some mistake. The organisers of the 2022 Bangalore Literary Festival omitted to invite me to speak about my writing at the festival, which is held in early December.

However, one of the invited speakers was the renowned travel writer Pico Iyer. He said many things that chimed with my way(s) of thinking. One of these was how little we know about our immediate surroundings. During the pandemic lockdown, his movements were restricted to the places in his near neighbourhood (in California). Everyday, he used to walk to the end of his street and gradually realised that until the lockdown commenced he had been unaware if the great beauty of his immediate surroundings, which he had never noticed before.

Likewise, for a few months during the first London lockdown, we did not stray more than about 1 ½ miles from our home. Every day, we took a stroll along streets, which we thought we knew well, and also along nearby streets we had never entered or even knew existed. Everyday, we spotted things we had never noticed before, despite having passed them often over a period of several decades. It seemed that when our horizons became closer and our world contracted, the acuities of our vision and perception expanded. We discovered that our temporarily contracted world revealed details and facets that were hidden from us, or went unnoticed, when our movement was unrestricted. It was these details that inspired me to investigate them and then write about them in what has become my book about West London.

As I listened to Pico Iyer’s excellent lecture, I realised that what we had noticed during the lockdown in relation to heightened awareness of our immediate surroundings in London was what he had experienced several thousand miles away in California.

Modern transport and communication technology has in many ways caused the world to seem as if it has shrunk. Pico Iyer mentioned this, but said that despite this we appear to know less about the world than we think. The enforced confinement to what we believed to be a familiar environment has demonstrated that we really know far less about it than we had hitherto always assumed.

Beverages beneath the banyans

ONCE A CITY FILLED with lovely gardens and other verdant open spaces, Bangalore (Bengaluru) is growing alarmingly rapidly. So, public spaces that have been as yet saved from being built on are valuable amenities. One of these areas of greenery is the so-called Tivoli Garden, which is in the grounds of Airlines Hotel in the heart of the city.

Known popularly as ‘Airlines’, the Tivoli Garden, a name by which it is hardly known, has tables and chairs set out in an open space, a clearing, surrounded by trees, several of them being elderly banyans.

Opened in 1969, the open air café and eatery is still supervised by a man who helped set it up two weeks before it opened all those years ago. Despite its rather untrendy appearance, Airlines is popular with Bangaloreans of all ages. Quite a few of them are students, but many are office workers. Very good South Indian filter coffee is served at Airlines. A wide range of South Indian vegetarian dishes is also served.

The coffee, other drinks, and food are prepared in the kitchen of the hotel. Waiters in white uniforms carry drinks and food across the car park from the kitchen, which is located at the far end of a dingy dining hall, to the garden seating area. Some customers prefer to have their orders served to them whilst sitting in their parked cars.

For my wife and me, Airlines has several attractions. One is the coffee. Another is the pleasant ambience under the trees. And yet another is nostalgia. My wife used to visit Airlines with her family in her late teens. And together with our daughter, my wife and I have been regular visitors to Airlines since when we married in 1994.

For several years, Airlines has been under threat of closure by the people who own the land. Over a decade ago, these people reclaimed half of the area occupied by the café. They built an ugly grey wall (rather like a Berlin Wall) to separate what is left of Airlines from what has now been built on. The supervisor, whom we have known for ages, assured us that as far as he knows the remaining part of the establishment will remain safe from redevelopment.

It would be tragic if Airlines were to disappear, not only because we love it but also it would be yet another example of how what was once a lovely garden city is becoming more and more of an urban jungle

Welcomed to India with coffee

BECAUSE OF THE COVID19 pandemic, we had not stepped onto Indian soil for two years and nine months. This was unusual for us because after we married in early 1984, we have been visiting India on average twice a year. For family related reasons, we have almost always landed in Bangalore.

When a new international airport was opened near Devanahalli village (at the northern edge of Bangalore) a few years ago, a line of eateries and cafés opened alongside the main landside of the terminal building. Being outside the terminal, which can only be entered by holders of air tickets, these outlets can be used by passengers and those who are not travelling by air.

One of these stalls is a grand affair partly decorated with copper sheeting. It is called Hatti Kaapi. The ‘kaapi’ in the name refers to the way local Bangaloreans pronounce ‘coffee’. This particular coffee stand provides excellent quality South Indian filter coffee. It is so wonderful that whenever we visit the airport, either arriving (from the UK or from places elsewhere in India) or departing, we always make time to drink a coffee served by this superb stall.

So, after what was for us an abnormally long absence from India and what has been a disastrous period for everyone, it was wonderful to discover that it was ‘business as usual’ at Hatti Kaapi. And since our last trip 2 ¾ years ago, a new sign has appeared at Hatti Kaapi. It reads:
“HATTI KAAPI The great Indian welcome drink.”


Seeing that sign after 2 ¾ years made us feel much more welcome than its designers could have ever imagined.

Retreating from the pandemic misery

FOR SEVERAL MONTHS following March 2020, movement was restricted to within a short distance of home because of rules that were supposed to limit the spread of covid19 infections. Almost everything except food stores was closed. Socialising was frowned upon. And travel for leisure was not possible. Around about June 2020, things eased up just a little bit, and travelling became possible once more, albeit subject to various rules and precautionary measures. It was then we decided to buy a car to travel around without risking infection by using public transport.

After collecting our (pre-loved) car from a garage on the Edgware Road, we decided to drive up to see my wife’s cousin in Baldock (Hertfordshire). We asked him to recommend a nice country pub where we might be able to get something for lunch. He suggested that we tried Ashwell, which is about 4 miles northwest of Baldock. This pretty village has three pubs. Two of these were closed, and the remaining one did not serve food. We asked the rather melancholic barman to suggest somewhere else in the area. He pointed at the pub’s only customer, a gentleman seated at a table, and said:
“You could try his place at Abington Piggotts – it’s only just up the road.”
The man, Mick, told us that his pub was open and serving food. So, we drove a few miles to tiny Abington Piggotts, which is 3 ½ miles northeast of Royston. With about 80 households, the village has one pub, a free house called The Pig and Abbot. Housed in a century’s old building, this hostelry is a lovely example of an unspoilt country pub. We were given a warm welcome. We enjoyed a small snack and a drink and decided to return at a later date for a proper meal.

We returned and enjoyed excellently cooked food prepared by Mick’s wife Pat. It was so good that we began returning at regular intervals to enjoy Pat’s cooking. The Pig and Abbot, like all other pubs and restaurants, was subject to compulsory closures during the various ‘lockdowns’ that were imposed by the government, yet it has remained in business despite these interruptions. I am not sure how many times we have visited the Pig and Abbot, but each time has been as least as enjoyable as the others. It was not long before we began regarding Mick and Pat as good friends. Whenever we visit the pub, Pat gives us all a great hug when she sees us. Especially during the periods when lockdown restrictions were only partly eased, a visit to the Pig and Abbot provided a welcome respite from the gloomy atmosphere during the height of the pandemic. Whenever we drive along the country lanes leading to Abington Piggott, I have a warm feeling of gratitude because it was this countryside that lightened our lives during two years of covid-related misery.

Recently, we booked for Sunday lunch at the pub. Several days before we were due to eat at the pub, Pat rang. At first, we thought she was going to cancel us for some reason, but it was worse than that. She rang to tell us that Mick had died suddenly and completely unexpectedly. We felt devastated by this news. When we asked her whether she wanted us to cancel, she said ‘definitely not’. She had decided she must continue, and she wanted to see us. When we arrived for our lunch, the pub was full, Pat greeted us warmly, and her food was as excellent as usual. We will greatly miss Mick, and we wish Pat all the very best for the future.

The artist’s son in her Majesty’s Indian Navy

ENCLOSED BY IRON railings, the grave of the artist John Constable (1776-1837) stands at the southern edge of the old part of the churchyard of St John’s Church in Hampstead. The famous painter does not lie alone. He is buried with some other members of his family. One of these people is his second son Charles Golding Constable (1821-1879). I became interested in him when I noticed the words “Captain in her Majesty’s (late) Indian Navy”. The inclusion of the word ‘late’ and its position in the inscription puzzles me.

Charles went to sea as a midshipman in the British East India Company’s navy when he was about 14 years old. According to a genealogical website (www.bomford.net/IrishBomfords/Chapters/Chapter33/chapter33.htm/), he:
“…took to the sea, joined the Indian Marine and eventually became a Captain. Around 1836 he left on his first voyage to China and did not return until after his father’s death so missed his large funeral in London. During the 1850s he gained a place in the reference books for having conducted the first survey of the Persian Gulf. He had to struggle with navigation as a youth so he must have shown considerable determination to be entrusted with this survey. Shortly before his survey the Arab sheikhs bordering the southern end of the Gulf gained their income largely by piracy; this was ended by a treaty or truce arranged by the British, and the Sheikhdoms that signed the truce have been called ever since the Trucial States.” A paragraph in the book “Journey to the East” (published by Daniel Crouch Rare Books Ltd.) related this in some detail:
“Commander Charles Constable, son of the painter John Constable, was attached to the Persian Expeditionary Force, as a surveyor aboard the ship Euphrates. On the conclusion of the war [the First Anglo-Persian War: 1856/57], Constable was ordered to survey the Arabian Gulf, which occupied him from April 1857 to March 1860, with Lieutenant Stiffe as assistant surveyor. The survey (Nos. 2837a and 2837b) which contains the first detailed survey of Abu Dhabi, would become the standard work well into the twentieth century. During the time that Constable was surveying the Gulf, the Suez Canal, one of the greatest civil engineering feats of the nineteenth century was under construction.”
Charles was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

While ‘surfing the net’, I found out that sketches made by Charles during his travels have been on sale from time to time in auction houses. His drawings were competent but no match for those executed elsewhere by his famous father.

When John Constable died, his eldest son John Charles Constable became responsible for dealing with his father’s estate. He was then a medical student as well as having studied under the scientist Michael Faraday. According to a website concerning his college in Cambridge (Jesus), John Charles, died suddenly in 1839 after contracting scarlet fever at a lecture in Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital, at which a patient suffering this disease was being examined. After his father died, he was left “… numerous paintings and works of art, some of which were known to have adorned his rooms in College.” (www.jesus.cam.ac.uk/articles/archive-month-constable-chapel).
In his will, John Charles left his collection of drawings, paintings, and prints to his younger brother Charles Golding Constable. In 1847/48, Charles was responsible for supervising the dispersal of his father’s studio collection of artworks.

Like the rest of his family, parents and siblings, Charles had lived at several different addresses in Hampstead. Although he was buried with other members of the family in Hampstead, I have not yet found out where he resided at the end of his life.

William Kentridge at the Royal Academy of Art in London

THE ARTIST WILLIAM Kentridge (born 1955), son of a prominent lawyer, is a South African. His creations are usually highly imaginative and often politically challenging and critical of the subjugation of non-European African people. This is fascinating given his privileged background – having been brought up in a South Africa where the ‘white’ people were a highly advantaged section of the population until the ending of the apartheid regime (and maybe even now to some extent).

His artworks are frequently dramatic, often employing cinematographic and sometimes theatrical techniques. The messages they convey to the viewers can be both disturbing and humorous, sometimes both simultaneously. Whenever I have seen them, I have been both fascinated visually as well as moved emotionally.

The Royal Academy of Art in London’s Piccadilly has a large retrospective exhibition of Kentridge’s work until the 11th of December 2022. Apart from numerous drawings, tapestries, and other static artworks, there are plenty of his cinematographic installations on display. In fact, there are too many of these installations. Each one is amazing to see, but having so many together in one place spoiled their intended impact. Just as the first chocolate from a box is wonderful, eating all of them at once gives one indigestion, and this was the case with the Royal Academy’s crowded assemblage of Kentridge’s works. Too much was crammed together in insufficient space. To be fully enjoyed, each of his installations should be seen on their own in a sufficiently spacious environment – they need ample room to breathe and express themselves.This overcrowding was a pity because the exhibition does not allow his works to shine in their full glory.

Late bloomers in London’s Regents Park

THE BEST TIME to see flowering roses in the Queen Mary’s Garden (‘QMG’) in London’s Regent Park is in the first half of June. At that time most of the 12000 rose plants in the gardens, created in 1934, are likely to be in bloom. So, it was with some trepidation that we took our friends to see the QMG, Although I did not say so, my feeling was that as far as blooms were concerned, this would be a disappointing visit. To my great surprise, it was not such a pointless visit as I had feared. There were a substantial number of rose plants either in bud or in full bloom.

Seeing the roses in bloom in November made me do a little research. I discovered that there are several varieties of rose plants that flower in autumn in the northern hemisphere. These varieties include (according to an American website): Hybrid Tea, Floribunda, Grandiflora, and Climbing Roses. According to another source, some roses have a very long flowering season that can extend into October and November.

I have no idea what kind of roses we saw during our late November visit to the QMG. However, seeing these attractive flowers made me realise that a visit to this garden as late as November need not be a disappointment if seeing flowers is your desire.

A Turkish delight in London’s Dalston

KINGSLAND ROAD AND nearby in London’s Dalston area is rich in restaurants and other eateries serving Turkish food. Early in this century, “Time Out” magazine rated the Mangal Ocakbasi (now called ‘Mangal 1’) restaurant at number 10 Arcola Street as being one of London’s best Turkish restaurants. For those who do not know, ‘ocakbasi’ means ‘fireside’ and ‘mangal’ means ‘barbecue’ or ‘grill’. When we first went to Mangal, and for many years after that, there were tables alongside the long rectangular pit filled hot charcoal, upon which meat and vegetables are grilled. Recently, the restaurant has been redesigned and the grilling area is no longer alongside the tables.

Lokma

The meat served is top quality. It seems far better than that served in the many other Turkish restaurants we have tried in London. Although there is a wide variety of main courses on offer, the range of ‘starter’ dishes on the menu is not as great as at some other restaurants. If it is starters and meze that you are after, the nearby Umut 2000 (on Crossway) is worth visiting. However, their main meat dishes are not nearly as tasty as those at Mangal in Arcola Street. Having said that, Mangal does serve an excellent freshly grilled aubergine hors d’oeuvre. Desserts are not available, but there are plenty of places along Kingsland Road offering a wide range of very sweet but tasty confectionery.

Our favourite dishes at Mangal are lokma, which is grilled rolled fillet of lamb, and yorgutlu Adana, which is pieces of semi-spicy Adana kebab in a yogurt and tomato sauce with lumps of Turkish bread. The lokma and other kebab dishes are served with generous quantities of fresh mixed salad containing many ingredients. As for drinks, you can bring your own alcohol or buy it from the restaurant. If I order a drink apart from water, I always go for Şalgam, which is a purple-coloured drink containing fermented turnip. This has a deliciously sour taste.

We first ate at Mangal in the early 2000s, when we attended a play in which one of my dental patients was acting. The theatre, The Arcola, was across the road from the restaurant, but has now shifted to larger premises on nearby Ashwin Street (close to Dalston Junction station). We loved the food at Mangal from the very first bite. We have been eating there occasionally ever since then, and the quality of the food has never once faltered. We have been there so often that the older members of its staff recognise us, welcome us warmly, and remember what we like eating. Even though this Turkish delight, frequently patronised by the artists Gilbert and George, is far from where we live in Kensington, it is well worth ‘trekking’ across London to get there.