Books of choice

Beerwolf_500

 

I HAVE LOVED READING ever since I was first able to master this skill. During my childhood, we used to drive to Hampstead (in north London) every Saturday morning. We always used to visit the now long-since closed High Hill Bookshop on Rosslyn Hill. Our parents allowed my sister and me to choose one book each Saturday and bought them for us. Week by week, my collection of the adventures of Tintin by Hergé grew until I had all the episodes that had been published in English. There was little, if any, censorship of our choices. However, I had the distinct impression that my parents preferred that we avoided books by Enid Blyton. So, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of her extensive literary oeuvre.

I discovered and fell in love with “Mad” magazine, which was not available at High Hill Bookshop. I bought copies of it at a local shop, using my pocket money. My parents appeared not to approve of the magazine, but my father (not my mother) was always happy to read my copies of it when I had finished with them. “Readers Digest”, like Enid Blyton, did not fulfil my parents’ criteria of ‘good’ literature. I enjoyed leafing through this periodical and particularly remember reading and re-reading an article written by someone who was conscious during his brain surgery. I did not need to buy “Readers Digest” at full price as it was possible to buy boxes crammed full of old issues, sold as a job lots for a few pence at local jumble sales.  

There was only one book that was deemed strictly forbidden during my childhood. It was “Struwwelpeter” by Heinrich Hoffman, published in 1845 and reprinted many times since then. It is a series of moral tales about children who misbehave. For example, when Konrad disobeys his mother’s instruction not to suck his thumbs, an itinerant tailor appears and cuts off Konrad’s thumbs. Each tale is illustrated by frighteningly graphic illustrations. On afternoon, my sister and I, who had discovered this book by accident, were interrupted by my mother. She seized the book and tore it into pieces, which she stuffed into the wastepaper basket. Apart from this violent reaction to a book and the hints that Enid Blyton was to be avoided, I could read pretty much anything I wanted.

At school, books were recommended as being worth reading, especially those by famous 19th century British authors. I never read any of these. For some unknown reason, probably contrariness, if someone told me that I ought to read a particular book, this put me off even opening it. I wanted to read what I had chosen myself, not what had been chosen for me because it might be “good for you”. Similarly, if someone tells me that this or that food item is “good for you”, I do not rate that as a positive recommendation.

At Christmas 1963, we were in New York City. A friend of my parents, ‘E’, met us in the book department of FAO Schwarz, a toy store on Fifth Avenue. She wanted her son and me each to choose a book as a gift from her. E showed me a thick encyclopaedia of anthropology, which she had decided either that I would enjoy it or that it would be good for me. Well, I took one look at it and decided to check out the other books on display. I homed in on an illustrated history of the FBI. It was filled with intriguing black and white photographs, some quite gory. I took the book to E, who looked at it disapprovingly and then asked whether I was sure that I did not want the fine book on anthropology. I was sure, and a few minutes later I became the proud owner of the book about the FBI. E’s son, who was clearly more easily influenced by his mother than me, chose to buy the anthropology book. Years later, he qualified as a psychiatrist and I as a dentist. I am not sure what can be concluded from that.

My parents’ suggestion that there was something not quite right about Enid Blyton left a lingering doubt about the author in my mind. In the mid-1990s, I began visiting India regularly. There, I discovered wonderful bookshops, some of which were (and still are) much better stocked than those in London. What surprised me in those shops were the huge numbers of books by Enid Blyton on sale. Clearly, Enid was well-read and her books much purchased in India.  So, when I heard that there was going to be a lecture about Enid Blyton and India at the Nehru Centre in London, I felt that this was not to be missed. The speaker was none other than Enid Blyton’s very articulate daughter. She told us that British educators often frowned upon her mother’s works (just as my parents had done). The reason they were not keen was that it was considered that Enid’s vocabulary was not rich or varied enough. She revealed that when the texts of her mother’s books were analysed numerically, the vocabulary used I them was, in fact, no less rich or varied than that employed by other authors writing for the same age groups.  

In recent years, I have changed. Maybe, I have become a little less stubborn about book recommendations. If someone suggests a book to me, I no longer instantly reject the idea of reading it. There is a good chance that I will look it up to see what others think of it. If it is about a subject that might chime with any of my interests, there is a good chance that I will buy a copy and add it to the ever increasing pile of unopened books waiting to be read by me.  However, you will still not be able to find Dickens, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, or titles that would “be good for me” on their spines.

From Cuba to Corona

CURRENT AFFAIRS DID NOT interest me when I was a child. I did not read newspapers nor did I listen to the news broadcasts on the radio (we did not have TV at home).The first news item that I can remember hearing my parents talking about was something to do with Cuba. Now, I realise that they must have been discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis that occurred in October 1962 when I was a few months over ten years old. For those who cannot remember this event, it was a dangerous moment for the world because the Soviet Union had placed ballistic missiles in bases on the island of Cuba, which is dangerously close to the USA. These missiles could have been used to drop nuclear weapons on the US. Had that happened, most of us would have been wiped out in a nuclear Armageddon. Luckily, the missiles were removed and a showdown avoided.   

 

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Almost a year later, we lived in Chicago for three months because my father was a visiting academic at the University of Chicago at the end of 1963.  One of my memories of the USA during that time was the preponderance of yellow and black coloured signs indicating the entrances to nuclear bomb (fall out) shelters. The university gave us a flat to live in. This contained a booklet, which fascinated me. It was filled with advice on how to survive a nuclear bomb attack. Two things in that booklet stick in my mind. One was to make sure that you removed your watch if it had a luminescent dial, one which glowed green-ishly in the dark. The other was to crouch under a strong kitchen table. I am not certain how either of these actions would have significantly improved one’s chances of survival.

After we had spent three months living in Chicago, we spent Christmas in New York City. One evening, we visited Steve Rousseas (1921-2012), an economist whom my father knew. He lived in Greenwich Village and was, incidentally, one of the few people who bought any of my mother’s sculptures. As we walked with Steve to a restaurant, he chatted to me. He told me something that made a great impression on my young mind. And, that was if a neutron bomb exploded, most lifeforms would be exterminated, but buildings and other man-made structures would remain intact. I found that idea very eery and quite frightening.

Many years later, I watched a documentary film that graphically portrayed the effects of a nuclear blast. Several aspects of this terrifying film impressed me. First, is that following a blast, there would be a great, powerful wind, which would carry a cloud filled with lethal splinters of glass from windows that had been shattered by the explosion. Secondly, the blast would most probably disable electricity generation and supplies. Thirdly, several species, being relatively insensitive to radiation, would survive the effects of intense radioactivity. These included cockroaches and other vermin.

By 1987, I was well-established in my house in Gillingham, Kent. One night in October of that year, I awoke in the early hours of the morning. It was dark but there was a great noise outside. There was a wild wind blowing. It was so strong that my house swayed slightly as the tempest buffeted against its walls.  I tried to turn on my bedside lamp to see what time it was, but there was no electricity. Then, remembering the documentary, I feared the worst. Was Gillingham being blown by the wind that I had learned from the film would follow a nuclear blast? The failure of the electricity supply confirmed that fear. I lifted the receiver from the telephone by my bed and, to my great relief, I heard a dialling tone. The electricity had gone, but the ‘phone line was still functional. The wind was not due to a nuclear bomb blast but was a fierce storm that devastated many of the trees in the south-east of England. Next morning, I rang my father, who lived sixty miles away in London, and asked him whether his area had been affected by the storm. He asked me:

“What storm?”

When I looked out of my window that overlooked my garden and those of the neighbours, I noticed that all of the greenhouses in my neighbours’ gardens had been flattened by the wind, but not mine. The reason was that my greenhouse had many missing panes of glass, which I had not bothered to replace. So, the wind blew through my green house rather than against it and that left it standing. Another thing I noticed was that the wooden pole in the street from which overhead telephone cables radiated to the surrounding houses had resisted being toppled by the storm. This was not the case for many thousands of lovely old trees all over Kent.  As for the electricity, that returned very soon where I was living but not at the dental surgery where I worked. As a result, the devastating storm provided me with an unexpected day’s holiday.

Now, let us move to the present and the scary pandemic that is affecting the whole world. During, the so-called ‘lockdown’, London became eerily silent. There were few people to be seen out and about and even the main roads were devoid of traffic. One day during a telephone call to a cousin, I was speaking about this weird situation when I suddenly remembered what Steve Rousseas told me long ago one December evening in Greenwich village. The corona virus, as invisible as the neutrons produced by a neutron bomb and almost as lethal, had temporarily rendered London almost devoid of visible human presence. I never would have believed that I would live to experience something like that. Now that the lockdown is easing, London has become noisier and the thoroughfares busier. With good luck and by exercising great caution, we can hope that the virus might well be less successful than neutron bombs in depopulating our world.

It is a long time since the Cubans hosted Soviet missiles. Since then, and especially lately during the pandemic and the Brexit brouhaha that preceded it, from being uninterested in news bulletins I am worried about becoming obsessed by them. As some people say, infuriatingly:

“Such is life” and “these things happen.”

 

Picture from Wikipedia

Along the canal

THE PADDINGTON ARM of the Grand Union Canal connects Paddington Basin to Bull’s Bridge at Hayes. It was opened in 1801 and was an important transport route before the growth of railway usage in England. Today, it is used mainly for leisure. People enjoy walking, running, and cycling along its well-maintained towpaths. Others keep long canal boats, known as ‘narrow boats, on the water. Some live in these vessels, others use them to move slowly through Britain’s antique but still usable canal network.

 

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During my teens, I used to explore London with three good friends and an excellent guidebook to London’s quirkier sights, “Nairn’s London” written by Ian Nairn. We walked along the banks of the River Thames, which were undeveloped and somewhat sinister in the late 1960s. In those days, there were stretches of riverside that had barely altered since the era of Charles Dickens.  Nowadays, there are few if any stretches of the Thames in London, which have not been made ‘visitor friendly’.

One day, the four of us decided to walk along the Grand Union Canal, starting our exploration at Camden Lock, now a crowded, popular tourist area. We followed the Regents Canal to the point where it enters the Maida Vale Tunnel, and then re-joined it where it emerged. From Little Venice, we continued westward along the Paddington Arm. For most of the way, we saw nobody else on the towpath. As we headed further west, the canal began running through a dreary semi-industrial neighbourhood. Just before we reached the road bridge that carries Ladbroke Grove over the canal, we saw a gang of young men in leather jackets, who looked at us menacingly. They were busy throwing a motorcycle into the canal. We did not like the look of them and decided that we had seen enough of the canal.

Years later, we joined other friends on a boat trip that began at Camden Lock and continued along the canal to Greenford, a suburb in the far west of London. The trip was very picturesque as far as Ladbroke Grove, but the remaining long stretch was less exciting. West of Ladbroke Grove, the canal winds past industrial buildings and the gardens at the back of residential houses. Later, we accompanied the same friends on a boat trip that took us east from Camden Lock. This was a far more interesting ride as its route includes many fascinating built-up urban areas of east London, which have a richer history than the suburbs of west London. It included a visit to the Olympic Games park that was being constructed at the time.

Today, my wife and I re-visited the Paddington Arm, walking the short stretch between the Harrow Road bridge and the point where, long ago, my friends and I saw the young men throwing a motorbike into the water. We did not see anything like that but had to contend with the almost continuous stream of cyclists sharing the towpath. Most of them were courteous, but a few inconsiderate wildly pedalling folk seemed to think that they were taking part in the Tour de France. Given that it was a Sunday afternoon, it was not too busy to make walking along the towpath anything but enjoyable.

Military disasters

IT IS ALWAYS PLEASING to read about a subject that is new to me. A friend gave me a copy of “Fall of the Double Eagle” by John Schindler. It deals with the conflict between Austria Hungary (‘AH’) and its enemies Russia and Serbia at the beginning of WW1.

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Schindler’s book is clearly written and engaging. It reveals a tale of truly lethal incompetence, that of the military leaders of AH during their pointless attacks on Galicia and Serbia. These were confrontations whose aim appeared to be to satisfy the egos of the arrogant leaders of AH’s military.

With the exception of skilful use of radio interception of Russian signals, everything else that the leaders of AH’s military laid their hands on led to the unnecessary deaths and injuries of a horrendously large number of brave and loyal soldiers. These soldiers, drawn from all of the numerous ethnic groups in the AH Empire, were united in their loyalty to their Habsburg rulers and very brave in battle. However, the incompetence of their superiors rendered their bravery pointless and in most cases their actions resembled those of lemmings running towards a lethal ending.

Despite knowledge of recent examples of modern warfare, the Anglo-Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Balkan Wars, the AH high command made little or no attempt to update military equipment and tactics/strategies. Schindler describes this well, and also the unwillingness of the AH government to invest money on bringing the military up to date. Consequently, when the AH armies came into conflict with the Russians and Serbians, courage and bravery were futile in the face of superior artillery and tactics.

What Schindler describes brilliantly in his book is a tragic epic of incompetence. The military leaders of AH should have had, but did not appear to have had, very bad consciences in the light of the number of fatalities caused by their negligence.

Reading Schindler’s fascinating compendium of official arrogance, refusing to learn from experience, and lack of foresight, during the first years of WW1, made me have worrying thoughts about what is going on around us today during the current pandemic.

I recommend Schindler’s book to anyone interested in WW1 and/or the importance of competent planning by governments.

PS: The inclusion of some maps might have been helpful to assist the reader in following the exciting descriptions of some of the campaigns described.

A novel idea

BY 2010, I HAD DONE a great deal of research on the backgrounds of both my parents’ families. I had published a few papers in prestigious genealogical journals, such as the former “Stammbaum” published by the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. I felt that it was time to combine the results of my investigations into a great compendium. I started compiling this with a view to publishing it eventually. After writing a couple of chapters, I sent them to a wise friend to get her reactions to what I had done so far. She wrote back that she was impressed by the research I had done but found that the chapters of my great compendium made for dull reading. She suggested that I should abandon the enterprise and instead choose one of my ancestors and write a novel based on what I had discovered about his or her life. I liked the idea.

ALI BLOG

Adam Yamey at the grave of his ancestor Heinrich Bergmann. In Aliwal North, South Africa

I chose Heinrich Bergmann (1831-66), my mother’s grandmother’s cousin. He was the first person to whom I am related to have left Europe for South Africa. He sailed from London to Cape Town in 1849, hoping to meet someone who had migrated from his village in Bavaria to South Africa. That person had left Cape Town by the time Heinrich arrived. He soon became employed by the German Jewish traders, the Mosenthals, and within a year of landing in Africa, he was put in charge of opening and running a branch of the firm in the newly established town of Aliwal North. Within a short time, Heinrich became very wealthy and was regarded by a highly respected banking family in Frankfurt-am-Main as being a suitable bridegroom for their daughter. The happy couple returned to Aliwal North from Germany, after they married. However, Heinrich’s rapid increase in prosperity led to problems that could only be resolved by taking a drastic measure. 

I wrote a novel, “Aliwal”, based on what I knew about Heinrich and the times he lived in. As the cause(s) of his downfall are not clear, I invented a sequence of events to replace the gaps in my knowledge of his short life.  I embarked on my novel-writing not having read a novel for over twenty years. Some people who have read “Aliwal” say that can be seen in my writing and what I produced was more like a narrative than a modern novel. I cannot argue with that. Except for the last few chapters, the denouement, which I invented, what I have written is largely based on historical research. I tried to transport myself back to mid-19th century Germany and South Africa to explore the kind of experiences that my ancestor may have encountered. For example: how did he learn English so quickly? Did he need a passport to travel? How did he find his spouse? What was it like landing in Cape Town in 1849? What was it like travelling through the arid interior of the Cape Colony? How did a young Jewish man interact with the English, the Boers, and the Africans? What was it like doing business in rural communities? I hope that all of these and other matters have been adequately covered in my novel.

When I read through what I wrote 10 years ago, I wondered if it would be worth bringing out a revised edition with a new ending. Let me think about that. Now here is an excerpt from the original version. In it, Heinrich is travelling from Cape Town to Graaff-Reinet in the heart of the Cape Colony soon after landing from London and meeting Mr Caro, with whom he is about to work.

THE EXCERPT FROM “ALIWAL”

They travelled for well over a week, lumbering from one pothole to the next, leaving behind them clouds of dust that hung above the road along which they had come. Heinrich clung onto the bench on which he was perched in order not to be thrown to the ground. This journey was more uncomfortable that any he had made in Europe. He thought that even the worst tracks around Dittenheim were not as bad the one along which they were travelling, and this was the main road to Graaff Reinet! They crossed numerous dried up streams and riverbeds. Most of these were without a bridge. This made the crossings slow and dangerous. The wiry, muscular native helpers sweated profusely as they eased the wagons down one bank of a riverbed, and then steadied them as they were hauled up the other. They had to take care to avoid damaging the wheels and axles of the wagons. Whenever they reached a pool or any other water, Caro ordered the convoy to stop to allow the oxen to rest and drink. Heinrich used these breaks as an opportunity to stretch his legs and give his aching backside a rest.

The days slipped by. They met few other travellers apart from the infrequent wagon trains heading back to the coast, and post carriers who hurried past them on horseback. The few Europeans they encountered were mostly Dutch speakers, eking out a living on their isolated farms. After having drunk coffee with some of these farmers, Heinrich remarked:

“These Afrikaners are friendly, open, and welcoming.”

“Yes, Heinrich, they are, especially to us Jews, because they regard us highly.”

“That makes a change!”

“They welcome us because they read in the Old Testament, whose words they follow closely, that we are God’s ‘Chosen People’, and understand our flight from Egypt.”

“Why?”

“Not so long ago, many of the Dutch fled from the British, whom they regard as oppressors. They piled their possessions in to wagons like ours, and left the Cape, crossing the Orange River – their ‘Red Sea’ – in search of their ‘promised land’. They are trying to live the way they choose, without interference from outsiders. The main thing is, as far as we Jews are concerned, that the Afrikaners respect us as fair and honest people, and like doing business with us.”

“And how do the English regard us?”

Caro did not answer immediately. He looked ahead towards the flat horizon, and then said:

“The English are not easy people. They say one thing, but often mean something else. Mastering their language is one achievement but deciphering what they really mean is quite another. Their attitude towards us is more of tolerance than acceptance. It is odd that the British, who have spread themselves all over the globe, are wary of foreigners and what they consider to be foreign ways. They put up with us Jews because we are useful to them and we don’t make trouble, but they’re not at ease with us.”

He turned away from Heinrich, and, standing precariously on the wagon’s seat that tilted as the vehicle crossed a pothole, ordered the men to stop and set up camp for the night. Then, turning to Heinrich, he said:

“To succeed with the English, we need to try to be, or at least to seem to be, more British than they are. We must emulate their ways when dealing with them, so that they feel that they should treat us as equals rather than ‘inferior foreigners’.”

After the sun had set, Heinrich and Caro sat by the embers of the fire having just eaten tasty steaks from a small hartebeest that Caro had shot earlier that day. They were enjoying a post-prandial brandy when Caro announced:

            “We must do something about your name.”

 “My name, what’s wrong with it?”

 “Even when your accent fades away and your English improves, your name, ‘Heinrich’, will always label you as foreign.”

Heinrich remembered the shipping agent in London: Gladstone, formerly ‘Goldstein’.

Caro plucked a meerschaum pipe from his jacket pocket and lit the tobacco in its ivory bowl carved in the shape of a sheep’s head. His face, barely visible in the dim evening light, brightened for a moment. He sucked on his pipe, and then, after blowing a cloud of smoke towards Heinrich, he coughed, cleared his throat, and said: 

“From now on, you must call yourself ‘Henry’. It is a name which you will share with eight kings of England! Keep ‘Bergmann’, but change the way you pronounce it.”

Heinrich looked puzzled. Caro sucked noisily on his pipe, and then said:

“From now on you are ‘Berg-man’, not ‘Berch mun’ – try to express your name in your mouth, not in your throat!”

Caro looked at Heinrich sternly for a moment, and then asked him his name.

“My name is Henry Berg … mann.”

END OF EXCERPT

ALI cover

In case you feel intrigued and want to read more, my book is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/144618322X/ and also on Kindle.

 

Camping under the stars

THE FIRST TIME I SLEPT in a tent was in 1972. With five other chaps including a friend from childhood and the now well-known Matthew Parris, we set out on a fortnight’s driving holiday around France. We did not stay in hotels. We camped in a large tent divided into two rooms. The inner one had its own fitted groundsheet. The outer one, which led to the inner, had no floor. So, it was necessary to lay out a separate groundsheet in this section. Without any prior knowledge or experience of camping (and without employing an ounce of common sense), I volunteered to position the outer groundsheet. I placed it so that the edge of one side of the sheet was just outside the wall of the tent.

 

adventure alps camp camping

]Photo by Sagui Andrea on Pexels.com]

At bedtime, I unrolled my recently purchased sleeping bag and wriggled inside it. I was assigned a position inside the outer room of the tent close to the wall mentioned above. I lay in my sleeping bag and felt every pebble and other irregularity of the earth beneath me through the bag’s meagrely padded material. Why, I wondered, was this uncomfortable bedding called a ‘sleeping bag’, when sleep appeared to be impossible inside it. Naively, I thought that a sleeping bag was supposed to encourage sleep. My fellow campers had all brought inflatable mattresses. I understood the reason but wished that someone had mentioned the necessity of these things before we had set off.

In the middle of the night, there was a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The inside of my sleeping bag began to feel cold. Soon, I realised that it was absorbing huge amounts of cold water. Then, I discovered why this was happening. My positioning of the outer ground sheet so that its edge was sticking out of the tent was the cause. Rain was hitting this exposed edge of a waterproof sheet, and then running into the tent.  After a sleepless night, my sodden sleeping bag was tied on to the roof of the car and it dried gradually as we sped along French D class roads (we avoided motorways) in the sunshine that followed the storm. When we reached the appropriately named town of Tonnerre, the name means ‘thunder’ in French, I purchased an inflatable mattress. Equipped with this, I fell in love with camping.

We had decided to have picnics for our midday meals, and to eat in restaurants every evening. My five travelling companions were far more energetic and adventurous than I was. It was important for them that we either had our picnic by a running stream (for cooling the wine) or at the summit of a slope (to enjoy a view). Reaching either of these ideal picnic locations usually involved climbing or descending sleep slopes. I was not good at either activity. I used to arrive at the picnic spot long after my companions had begun eating. So, after a while, I armed myself with a bag of sweets so that I could do something to assuage my hunger whilst struggling to reach a picnic spot.

The two-week camping trip in France whet my appetite for more camping experiences. The next trip I made was with my own one-man tent and rucksack. I went for a short walking trip in the Eifel Mountains in what was then West Germany. I disembarked from a train at Gerolstein and knew from my detailed map that I needed to walk past a certain hotel to find the footpath that led to my first night’s campsite. As I left the station, I asked a man the way to that hotel. He took one look at my heavily laden rucksack and recommended that I should go there by taxi. I had not the heart to tell him that not only was I going to walk to the hotel but then eight miles beyond it.

That initial encounter in a part of Germany famous for hiking was a foretaste of what was to follow. The Eifel mountains, full of former volcanic craters containing mirror smooth lakes, is criss-crossed, as is much of Germany, with well-made well-signposted footpaths. The signage on these wonderful  ‘Wanderwege’ is so thorough that you would have to be completely blind to get lost. Everyday, I left my campsite with my tent and rucksack and wandered along these paths to my next night’s stopping place. What I noticed was in accord with my brief meeting with the man at Gerolstein. The footpaths were largely unused apart from within less than a mile from a village. Near settlements, the footpaths were populated with men, often wearing lederhosen, and women out for a stroll. Almost all of them looked like professional hikers with proper boots and walking sticks often decorated with badges from places that they had visited in the past. However, none of them strayed more than a kilometre or so from their hotels and campsites. It was only I, who strode boldly through hill and dale from one village to another. My only companions were avian.  I came away from my enjoyable wanderings in the Eifel with my illusion that the Germans were a nation of keen walkers shattered. This did not put me off making another camping trip in West Germany in the late 1970s.

With my rucksack and tent in the hold of a Lufthansa domestic flight, I flew from Frankfurt-am-Main to Nuremberg, a short hop. At Nuremberg airport, I waited to reclaim my baggage, but it did not appear on the conveyor belt. After all the other passengers on my flight had left the airport, I reported my missing baggage to an official, who answered:

“That is not a problem. It will probably arrive in a few hours’ time on the next flight from Frankfurt. Just give me the address of your hotel and, surely, we will deliver it for you.”

“But, there is a problem,” I answered.

“And, what is that?”

“Well,” I replied, “My hotel is contained within my missing baggage.”

The official looked at me curiously. I explained:

 “I am planning to camp in Bamberg.”

“Ach, then you must wait for the next flight.”

I waited for about three hours in the empty airport accompanied only by the occasional security men with their Alsatian hounds at the end of stretched leads. My tent and other baggage arrived on the next flight, and I proceeded to Bamberg. I have no idea why I wanted to visit Bamberg, but I am glad I did. Many years later, I discovered that one of my mother’s ancestors, her great grandmother, Helene Springer, was born there in 1819.

From Bamberg, I travelled to Ljubljana in the former Yugoslavia. I made my way to an official campsite and pitched my tent. Then, I went into town for dinner. I ate a large and delicious fried breadcrumb-covered chicken breast stuffed with masses of molten cheese and salty ham. I returned to my tent, inflated my air-mattress, and settled down for the night. Two things troubled me throughout the night. The first was my digestive system that was struggling desperately with the extremely rich food I had enjoyed earlier. The second was incessant noise. The official campsite was located in a corner plot bounded on one side by a motorway, the main road from Western Europe to Turkey, and on another by a railway track, that which connected Western Europe with Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Between the roar of the traffic on the road and the noisy rumblings of trains passing through the night, sleep was impossible. The next day, I flew between Ljubljana and Belgrade, where my friends Mira and Peter welcomed me at the airport. I had the impression that they were shocked that I had even thought of camping on my way to Belgrade.

Despite various hitches, I remained keen about camping, something my parents never admitted to having done. Some years later, I had several highly enjoyable camping holidays in northern Greece, but these I will describe on another occasion.

 

Puncher

THE HUMBLE COCONUT plays an important part in Hindu ceremonies because, to put it very simply, it is a very holy item.

 

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We had a Hindu wedding in Bangalore (India) in January 1994. A most important part of our more than three-hour long ceremony was to do the ‘feras’, that is walk around a sacred fire seven times. My wife, Lopa, and I were attached together with several garlands that had been draped around us earlier in the proceedings. At the end of the religious activities conducted by two pandits (‘priests’) near to the fire, we walked to my in-law’s small Maruti 800 car, a vehicle hardly larger than a Fiat 500. With some difficulty Lopa and I, still attached together by the garlands, squeezed into the back seat of the car. Then my brother-in-law started the engine and drove us forward over a coconut placed under one of the car’s front wheels. The coconut was broken. Breaking coconuts is very auspicious for Hindus and, therefore, a good thing to do at the start of a marriage.

After the lengthier than expected religious ceremony, the reason for its great length is another story, we had lunch in the lovely garden that surrounded my in-laws’ home. Later that day, we enjoyed a formal reception with a buffet vegetarian dinner at the Bangalore Club. As my wife’s grandmother had requested that there be no alcohol on the day of the wedding ceremony, we complied with her wish. So, just after ‘the stroke of the midnight hour’ (to quote the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru on the 15th of August 1947) we cracked open bottles of Marquise de Pompadour, an Indian champagne.

The plan was to leave Bangalore on a driving trip on the day following the ceremonies and festivities already mentioned. However, as Robert Burns famously wrote in 1785: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley [i.e. The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew]”, so did ours. My in-laws had planned for Lopa and I to go on a driving tour around parts of South India in the Maruti, driven by the family’s driver (chauffeur).  But the driver had other ideas.  On the morning of our departure, we learned that he had quit his employment with the family to take up another post elsewhere. We wondered ‘What to do?’ to use an Indian English set of words that appeals to me.

My wife’s parents made a quick decision. They decided to accompany us as far as Ootacamund (‘Ooty’), a hill station in Tamil Nadu state. From there, we would continue the planned trip using public transport and they would drive the car back home. Maybe, it would not appeal to many just-married couples to take their parents on a honeymoon, but we had no problems with it. Mummy and Daddy packed quickly and had the kitchen staff prepare copious amounts of picnic fare. We all piled into the tiny car with stacks of baggage.

Currently, it takes about eight hours to drive from Bangalore to Ooty without stopping. In 1994, it took longer. We did the journey in two stages, spending a night in the Bandipur nature reserve, currently almost six hours from Bangalore, at the state boundary that separates Karnataka from Tamil Nadu. As I was carrying my International Drivers Permit and I was younger than Lopa’s parents, I volunteered to do the driving. A rash decision, you might be thinking, if you are familiar with driving conditions in today’s India, but it was not. I had already made several driving trips in the crazily crowded central market areas of Bangalore and enjoyed the experience.

We set off and were soon out in the country. Outside Bangalore, there was little traffic on the roads except in the small towns through which we had to pass, there being no by-passes. In 1994, far fewer people had private cars than they do today. So long as one obeyed the informal rule that advised you to give way to cows, who seem oblivious to the dangers of traffic, and to anything larger than one’s own vehicle, there was little that could go wrong.

Well, that is what I thought as we drove along two-lane roads lined with ageing trees with thick trunks and shady foliage and plenty of colourfully dressed pedestrians, many of them carrying loads on their heads. Then, I realised we had had a puncture, or ‘puncher’ as it is often spelled (phonetically) in India. For some reason, we did not resort to using the car’s spare wheel. Instead, we drove a little further and stopped by a wayside ‘puncher’ repairer. This and most others, both then and now, were not what you would expect of a tyre repair station in Western Europe, for example a branch of ATSEuromaster or KwikFit, but something far more modest. Usually located under a tree (for shade), the typical roadside ‘puncher’ repairer consists of a pile of mainly damaged tyres and an assortment of scraps of rubber, once parts of tyres. Despite the unhopeful appearance of these waystations, the people who man them can get you back on the road with a tyre repair within minutes. The only problem, which I discovered soon enough, was that these repairs did not last long. Just in case you are wondering, there were no shops for new tyres along our route back in 1994.

Between Bangalore and our destination at the hill station, we limped along from one ‘puncher’ repairer to another. This problem was a result of the driver having deserted the family. Had he stayed on to drive us, he would have made sure that the vehicle and its tyres were roadworthy before our departure. Apart from the stops for repairing punctures, we arrived at Bandipur safely.

On the following day at Bandipur, we lucky enough to get a ride on a huge elephant. The creature carried us almost noiselessly through the jungle. As it moved, it seemed barely unaware of its passengers. It lumbered along, snacking on tufts of vegetation, which it snatched from the ground with its trunk. The only wildlife I spotted were deer-like creatures, sambars, which were not as exciting as the tigers that we were told lurked in the area. The elephant ride was a complete contrast to the ‘wildlife tour’ we joined at the nature reserve. This consisted of a large single-decker bus with a noisy engine, which was loud enough to frighten even the boldest of wildlife. Our fellow passengers included some boisterous Indian schoolchildren, who were observant enough to spot the occasional monkeys. Apart from them and us, there were some very earnest European tourists armed with costly, sophisticated cameras and telephoto lens. They were very dismayed by the racket being created by the enthusiastic children. At one spot, the bus stopped, and we were all invited to disembark to look at an indistinct footprint in damp mud. This was, we were told, the spoor of a tiger. It did not excite me, but I can still remember it.

We made it to Ooty without mishap. Lopa’s parents stayed in accommodation about a mile from ours. We stayed in an attractive guesthouse built in the British colonial period. Rather inappropriately for a honeymoon suite, it was supplied with the widest bed I have ever seen. Ten people could have slept side-by-side with their arms outstretched without touching each other. Its sheets and blankets must have been made specially for this enormous bed. Maybe, this bed had been constructed with great foresight, with  ‘social distancing’ in mind.

Lopa’s parents stayed on in Ooty after we set off to continue our holiday in Kerala. While they were in Ooty, they had new tyres attached to the Maruti, and then Mummy drove Daddy home.

It is now twenty-six years and a few months since Lopa and I sat in the family Maruti and were driven over the coconut. It is only now as I relate this story that a thought has occurred to me. And that is, I wonder whether one of the tyres was troublesome because it had been damaged by a sharp edge of the shell of the broken coconut.

Where there is smoke, there is fire

I WAS EATING CHEDDAR cheese at tea time at my best friend’s house when his mother announced:

“We don’t like Jews, but you’re different, Adam”

I was less than ten years old at the time, but I can still picture the room in which this was said. I do not remember that I  told my parents about what my best friend’s mum had told me, but I remember it almost sixty years later.  Knowing how she felt about Jewish people did not spoil my friendship with, ‘R’, her son.

BLOG JUICE

When I  was thirteen, I  entered Highgate School,  which I  had chosen because ‘R’ was going to be there. At that time, I still regarded ‘R’ as one of my best friends. However, he did something that made me move away from him. One day he was with a group of other boys when in front of them he directed an anti-Semitic remark at me. Although that did not make me hate him, it marked the end of our long friendship.

I had other friends during my schooldays, who were half Jewish. One of their parents was Jewish. They preferred to forget that fifty percent of their heritage. Such amnesia would not have saved them had the rules formulated at the  Wannsee Conference been applied to them.

During the 1970s, I worked on my PhD topic in a laboratory at UCL. During the second year of this, a new PhD student, ‘J’, commenced working on her PhD project. ‘J’, like the others, in the lab seemed very pleasant until one day when she asked me to lend her a pencil.

At this point, you need to know that there was a shortage of pencils in our lab. I have no idea why this was the case. So, when I handed my pencil to ‘J’, I said:

“Please return it.”

To which ‘J’ snapped:

“Don’t be so Jewish, Adam”

I knew that J was most probably unaware that I am of that faith, but what she said upset me. My PhD supervisor’s wife heard what ‘J’ had said, and quickly told her:

“That was not a nice thing to say.”

I was pleased because I  was somewhat lost for words.

A few months later, everyone in the lab was invited by my supervisor to attend the large formal Annual Dinner of the Physiological Society. I sat next to my supervisor’s wife and across the table from ‘J’.

When the main course arrived, there were green peas on the plates. I detest this vegetable. ‘J’ noticed me separating the peas from the rest of my food and said:

“When we invite you round for dinner, I must remember not to serve you pork or peas.”

Remembering the pencil incident, I told her immediately:

“If you ever invite me to dinner, I shall refuse without hesitation.”

My supervisor’s wife turned to me and murmured:

“Well said.”

J’s face turned deep red, tears began running down her cheeks, she stood up, and left the room.

‘J’ abandoned her PhD a few weeks later.

Although I am regarded as being religiously unobservant by most Jewish people who know me, casual prejudice against Jews, or anyone else for that matter, does make me anxious. Prejudice, even if expressed casually, is potentially dangerous. Always remember: where there is smoke, there is usually fire.

Orange juice in North London

AT A REUNION LUNCH held for students who (like me) had attended Highgate School in north London during the 1960s, the Headmaster, Mr Petitt, gave a speech. He said that we, the former students, had reached the age when the ‘nostalgia gene’ kicks in. In my case it has kicked with a vengeance. When I lived near Golders Green, which is not far from Highgate, I would never have believed that one day I would write nostalgically about this, let us be honest, fairly unexciting suburb in northwest London, but here I am at the keyboard doing just that. Squeezing some oranges to produce juice to flavour a dish containing red cabbage triggered one of my earliest memories, that of walking with my parents to the church hall next to St Albans Church in Golders Green to collect bottles of orange juice.

The juice collected from the church hall was quite delicious and richly flavoured. It was contained in large glass medicine bottles with cork stoppers. The juice was supplied free of charge by the state during the 1950s. It was first supplied gratis by the state in 1941 and distributed to reduce the risk of vitamin C deficiency amongst young British children. In 1951, just before I was born, the Conservative Party won a General Election. Soon afterwards, the government restricted the supply of free orange juice to children under two years. My sibling was born in 1956, four years after me. Therefore, I must have been well under six years old when we made these trips to the church hall in Golders Green. Thinking about this juice led me to recall other aspects of Golders Green as it was during my early childhood.

 

BLOG JUICE

St Albans church hall in Golders Green

One dimly recalled early memory of Golders Green is of a delicatessen near the corner of Golders Green Road and Golders Green Crescent. The place was called Apenrodt’s. I remember this shop had a large wooden barrel that contained pickled gherkins submerged in a liquid. This was not a surprising thing to see in a suburb with a large Jewish population, many of eastern European heritage in my early years. My father enjoyed pickled gherkins. I developed a taste for them in my twenties, as I did for smoked salmon. In my childhood, smoked salmon was relatively more expensive than it is today. My parents regarded it as a treat. I remember them buying it at the aptly named Cohen’s Smoked Salmon, which, like Apenrodt’s, was a Jewish delicatessen.

Two shops in Golders Green particularly intrigued me when I was a little boy. One was an old-fashioned shop, Franks. It sold various clothing items, much of it was hosiery and lingerie. It was not the garments that interested me but the pneumatic system that was used to send money and receipts from the shop floor to an office somewhere else in the shop. Money, bills, and receipts were placed in cylindrical capsules that were placed in tubes along which air was pumped to propel them from one part of the shop to another.

The other establishment was Importers, a coffee retailer with a café behind it. The front windows contained cylindrical coffee roasters, which could be seen from the street. The cylinders were made with fine metal meshwork. Filled with coffee beans, they rotated slowly above gas burners. The air inside the shop was filled with a wonderful aroma that must have helped sell the coffee beans and powders stocked on the shelves of the shop and in the sacks on the floor. We used to pass this shop often, but rarely entered it because my mother preferred to buy coffee at the Algerian Coffee Store, which still exists in Old Compton Street in Soho.  Despite this, I always stopped to watch the roasters rotating and savour the odour of the coffee whenever I passed that shop.

During the last three months of 1963, we lived in Chicago, Illinois. There, we experienced and enjoyed self-service supermarkets for the first time. So, I was excited when the first supermarket opened in Golders Green soon after we arrived back from the USA. I cannot recall the supermarket’s original name, but soon it was called Mac Market, when it was taken over by the Mac Fisheries Company. Prior to taking over the new supermarket, the company had run two grocery shops near to Golders Green station. These were stores where one queued up to be served by shopkeepers standing behind counters laden with food items. If you wanted a product, butter for example, the assistant cut the amount you required, weighed it, and wrapped it up.  

The supermarket occupied a plot on the corner of Golders Green Road and a small service road called Broadwalk Lane on which there used to be a small pet shop. Years later, the building that housed Mac Market was occupied by a newer supermarket that stocked many Kosher and Israeli products. Currently, a branch of Tescos occupies the site of Golders Green’s first ever supermarket.  Another supermarket built far later, a branch of Sainsburys, occupies the site of the Ionic, one of Golders Green’s two former cinemas. The other cinema, long since demolished, was the ABC that stood on Golders Green Road northwest of the main shopping area at the end of Ambrose Avenue. A care home now stands in its place. Although another of the area’s entertainment centres still stands, the huge Hippodrome Theatre, where as a child I enjoyed the annual pantomime and adults enjoyed pre-West End runs of new plays, this now houses the Hussainiyat Al-Rasool Al-Adham community centre, a religious organisation.

The supermarket was close to the bridge that carries the Northern Line of the Underground over Golders Green Road. We used to visit a small shop that nestled close to the southwest corner of the bridge. This was Beecholme’s Bakery, which was run by Harry Steigman and his family, who were related to my aunt’s husband. We visited the shop not to buy baked goods, but to greet these relatives of my father’s sister. She lived in South Africa, which felt very distant at a time when international telephone calls were costly, and the means of electronic communication that are now in common use were probably unimaginable even in the minds of science fiction writers.

What I did not know at the time was that one member of the Steigman family, Natty, the youngest of four brothers who helped their parents run the forerunner of Beecholme Bakeries, had volunteered to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.  Tragically, he was killed at the battle of Jarama (in February 1937) only two weeks after his arrival in Spain.  

Crossing the main road from Beecholme’s and walking under the bridge, one reaches Golders Green Public Library. During my childhood, I loved this place. Until a certain age, maybe 12, I was confined to using the well-stocked Children’s Library. When I passed that age, I could borrow books from the much larger, and far more interesting Adults Library. One bookshelf of this section of the library contained books about the sad story of the Jewish people during period of the twentieth century when their persecution and destruction was being carried out to fulfil the evil plans of Adolf Hitler and his sympathisers. Reading books about this terrible period catalysed my interest in twentieth century history and what led up to it. When I was at school in the 1960s, every school year our history syllabuses led us from the arrival of Julius Caesar in Britain to just before the start of WW1, never beyond it. And, the emphasis was not on what happened and why, but on the dates of events. These books in the library opened my eyes to the history of a period that I found far more interesting than what we were expected to learn to pass examinations. Since those days exploring the shelves of Golders Green Library, my interest in history has gradually expanded from the twentieth century back to far earlier times.

The library was next to a branch of Woolworths. This old-fashioned store, a magnificent emporium, stocked everything from plant bulbs to lightbulbs, from liquorice to lawnmowers. Its ceiling was decorated with an elaborate stuccoed pattern. Although illuminated with electric lamps, some of the shop’s old-fashioned gas lamps still hung from the ceiling. They had little chains dangling from them to regulate the gas flow. Shoppers were assisted by salespersons. It was not a self-service store. Oddly, I have no memory of the shop after its modernisation in 1971.

Although the shops I remember from my childhood have disappeared, Golders Green Road’s buildings look much as they did when I lived near there, and the pavements are just as busy as they were in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

All the shops I have described have been replaced by others, reflecting the passing of time and the changes in the ethnic mix of the population living in the area. There is still a strong Jewish presence in Golders Green, albeit now biased towards the ultra-orthodox communities. To this has been added people from a diverse range of backgrounds.  When I was a child, the idea of eating Japanese, Korean, Turkish, or even, surprisingly, Israeli foods would have been unthinkable in Golders Green Road.

St Albans Church, designed by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built in 1933, remains unchanged.  Neighbouring St Albans, the church hall, where we used to walk to collect the orange juice, also looks as I remember it so many decades ago. 

Today, the shops that we visited when I was a child and collecting orange juice in corked glass bottles are merely memories of a childhood long since passed. As I type the final words of this piece, another memory of the church hall springs to mind. Between the ages of four and eight, I attended Golders Hill School on Finchley Road. Once, we, the school children, performed a play for our parents. We acted it on the small stage in the church hall. I had a minor role as a magician. The costume I wore included my beige dressing gown onto which my mother had embroidered different coloured cloth patches. They were cut to look like stars. For a long time after that show, I treasured the dressing gown as it held memories of an evening I had enjoyed greatly. I outgrew the dressing gown, but memory of it still lingers in the folds of my brain. And, yes, Mr Petitt was right, my ‘nostalgia gene’, clearly a dominant version of it, has become most powerfully active.