In memoriam: do not pull it down

TEARING DOWN STATUES or defacing them is nothing new, as some might believe after hearing about dunking Edward Colston’s toppled statue into a river in Bristol.

Violette Szabo

When I visited Albania in 1984, I saw statues of Josef Stalin and the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha prominently placed in public spaces. Neither of these two gentlemen can be seriously considered to be God’s best gifts to humanity. Many of their actions caused great fear and suffering in both the former USSR and in Albania.

In 1991, Albania’s long (1944-1991) Communist regime crumbled ignominiously. In February 1991, citizens of Albania’s capital, Tirana, attached cables to a huge statue of Enver Hoxha, an admirer of Stalin, and pulled it down. Many of the police guarding the huge monument to repression assisted the people to cause this bronze statue to topple to the ground.

Years later, in 2016, we visited Albania. In the centre of Tirana, there is a national museum of art, which was present when I visited the city in 1984. Back then, and even in 2016, there was a good collection of fine works created in the Social Realism style, so popular amongst Communist regimes. After seeing the gallery in 2016, we happened to bump into one of the museum’s curators. I showed him a picture of a sculpture I had taken in 1984 and asked him if he recognised it. Without answering, he invited us to follow him to a yard at the rear of the gallery.

There, in the yard, stood the sculpture I had photographed in 1984. More interestingly, it was not alone. It stood next to a giant statue of Lenin and another one of Stalin and another large object wrapped in cloth tied down with ropes. The curator explained that these statues, although they depicted people whose ideas and actions had done much harm to the Albanian people, were valuable works of art, not simply because of their great scrap metal value but, more importantly, they helped record the country’s history. In addition, he explained that they were fine examples of their genre. The bundled-up object standing in that yard was, he explained, too sensitive to uncover as it would upset many people viewing it. It was part of an enormous statue of Enver Hoxha, who had not yet been forgiven by many Albanians. Clearly, Lenin and Stalin were thought to be less disturbing as they were not covered up, but sufficiently upsetting to be confined to a relatively unvisited yard behind the gallery open to the public.

Both Trafalgar and Parliament Squares in London contain statues that might cause offense to those whose knowledge of history is more than superficial, yet their actions have not always been 100% reprehensible. Fortunately for these monuments, many of the kind of people who might be inclined to topple statues do not usually read much detailed history.

There are some statues or monuments, which remember people, whose actions cannot rationally be called into question. One of these is that of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), whose work formed the foundation of something on which we are currently becoming extremely dependent: vaccination. Only someone out of his or her mind would consider pulling down or defacing his statue.

Recently, when strolling along an embankment, I spotted a monument close to the River Thames outside Lambeth Palace. Erected in 2009, it commemorates the Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), whose covert activities in no little way helped to bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany’s forces during WW2. The plinth with metal commemorative plaques is topped with the head of a woman with high cheekbones, a serious, determined face, and luxuriant curly hair, tied back. She stares out across the River Thames toward the Houses of Parliament. The bust depicts Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo (1921-1945), whose actions behind enemy lines in France were designed to sabotage German military activity. She was one of many women including Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), of Indian aristocratic heritage, who risked and lost their lives to assist in the defeat of a repressive regime.

SOE was staffed by both men and women of many nationalities, and their bravery is recorded on this simple memorial outside Lambeth Palace.  Although simple in design, the expression depicted in the face of Violette Szabo gave me a feeling of the great determination of those brave souls who gave up their lives in horrific circumstances. They did so in the hope, fulfilled, that we could enjoy life in Britain and elsewhere without having to bear the burden of inhumane dictatorial rule.  

Unlike Stalin and Hoxha, statues of the purely benevolent such as Jenner and Szabo should be allowed to stand undisturbed for ever, well, at least, so long as they can survive London’s ever-changing weather conditions and pollution.

Feeling at home in the UK

ALBANIA. BULGARIA, AND YUGOSLAVIA are countries that I visited in the 1970s and 1980s. I visited the former Yugoslavia the most and acquired a smattering of Serbo-Croat, the main language spoken in that fascinating part of the Balkans. My limited knowledge of this language helped me get by in Bulgaria. My poor Serbo-Croat seemed to be well understood in Bulgaria. During my first visit to Albania in 1984, although we were prevented from communicating with the locals, there were plenty of examples of the Albanian language in the form of propaganda posters and political slogans written with numerous pebbles on the sides of mountains.

Until 1990, my vocabulary of words from various Balkan languages was of limited use to me whilst I was practising dentistry in England, first in north Kent then, after 1994, in London.

In the mid-1990s, I began treating patients who were refugees from parts of the then violently disintegrating Yugoslavia. Many of my new patients were from Bosnia and Herzogovina. Some of them had little command of the English language and were grateful that they were being treated by someone who knew ‘where they were coming from’, as the saying goes, and who knew some words of their own language. Sadly, some of them hearing me repeating what little Serbo-Croat I knew, assumed that I was fluent. I attracted a faithful following, some of whom were charming and a small minority, the opposite, On the whole, even the most difficult of my ex-Yugoslav patients were grateful and brought me gifts, often strong home-brewed alcohol sent from Bosnia, as a mark of their gratitude. One dear lady even brought me a pair of earrings that her uncle in Sarajevo had made specially for my wife.

Some years later, I began treating Albanian-speaking refugees from Kosova, a region of the former Yugoslavia that had and still has a population, which is mainly of Albanian heritage. Many of the recent arrivals from that country, who came to my surgery for dental care, had minimal or no English. My knowledge of Albanian was extremely limited. I could greet them with ‘diten e mire’ (‘good day’) or wish them ‘mirupafshim’ (‘good bye’), when they left my surgery, but I could say little else of any practical use. However, if I said ‘rrofte partia socialiste e shqiperise’ (‘long live the Socialist Party of Albania’) or ‘lavde shoku Enver Hoxha’ (praise Comrade Enver Hoxha’), which I had learnt from propaganda posters in Albania back in 1984, this caused many of my Kosovan patients to smile.  

Now that I have been retired for a few years, many of the new arrivals to this country from the troubled Balkans have settled down and contribute positively to life in the UK.  Only today, whilst waiting in the street for take-away coffees, we were joined by three other customers, workmen dressed in overalls. Seeing my furry ex-Soviet Army hat, they struck up a conversation. They were all from Serbia and were delighted that I knew some words of their language, if ‘samo malo’ (‘only a little’). I decided not to show off my knowledge of Serbian swear words that my friends in Belgrade had taught me long ago, and which I shall not share with you.

Just before reaching the café, we had been taking exercise in Holland Park. This park, like many others in London, has wooden benches, often inscribed with words to commemorate lost member(s) of a family. I was idly looking at a row of benches opposite the curious “Annunciation” sculpture, a structure consisting of horns and cogs, when I spotted one with words that are not English:

“Detikuar prinderve  tane  te dashur sabri dhe behije preci”

I recognised this as being in Albanian. Google translates this as:

“Dedicated to our dear parents Sabri and Behije Preci”

Until today, I had not seen a park bench with an Albanian dedication. Seeing this typically British form of memorial made me feel that members of communities that have had to flee from their war-torn homes in the Balkans are beginning to feel that Britain is now also a place they can call ‘home’, whose public amenities they are helping to cherish. 

Two books on Albania by an Albanian and his American wife

I have received news of two books about Albania. One, an intriguing novel, is written by American born Kim Malaj. The other, a collection of Albanian folk tales is written by her husband, Arti Malaj, who was born and brought up in Albania. I look forward to reading them in the future. Why not give them a try, and let me know how you enjoyed them?

THE NOVEL:”CASTLE OF TESKOM” by Kim Malaj

‘Shiny ember rocks are fuel for time; the dull rocks are a fool’s dime.’An old nursery rhyme, or so they think. Itra and Danae stumble across an ancient secret kept hidden behind a reflection in time near their Albanian home. A faded memory and cryptic messages have propelled them to risk an encounter with foes from Greek mythology, altering their perception of Albanian folklore and reality. Itra and Danae grapple with events set in motion centuries ago and must choose toprotect and serve or risk having the secret exposed. Will love, loyalty, and lineage be enough to hold them together, or will they lose their way in auniverse they are only beginning to understand?

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3n5Aetj

eBook: https://books2read.com/u/bpryMl

THE FOLK TALESNORTHERN ALBANIAN FOLKTALES, MYTHS AND LEGENDS

by Arti Malaj

Generations of Northern Albanian are known as great storytellers. They shared many folk tales, myths, and legends with their descendants. The collected short stories include mysterious legends of lost treasures, mystical tales of mountain fairies, superhuman powers, century-old witches, blood feuds, and more written by a twelfth-generation Albanian. The lands described in the stories are still visible today, and locals share a sense of wonder and respect the mysteries that hide beneath. Northern Albania is a true treasure of raw natural beauty and a hidden gem in Southeastern Europe.

Amazon https://amzn.to/2GcDDq2

eBook: https://books2read.com/u/b5ZNOl

An Austrian in Albania

I WISH THAT I had taken a photograph of it when I was visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 1984, the last year of the life of its long term dictator and admirer of Josef Stalin, Enver Hoxha (1908-1965). I managed to get at least one photograph of a statue of Stalin in Albania, the only European country that still displayed monuments to this by then mostly discredited Soviet dictator. However, in May 1984, I failed to take a picture of something I have never seen outside Albania or in Albania when I revisited it in 2016. What I failed to record on film was the sight of men walking along the streets with heads of flowers whose stems they were holding between their teeth. Their lips were hidden behind the blooms. I mentioned seeing this to several people who have visited Albania, and none recall seeing flowers being carried that way. So, I was beginning to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks as time passed.

A few days ago, I was browsing the bookshelves in an Oxfam charity shop when I noticed a travelogue that contained a few pages about the author’s experience of Albania, which he visited several decades before my first encounter with the country. I was thrilled and relieved that my memory had not failed me when I read the following words he wrote:

“The inhabitants of Tirana love music and flowers. You can see men going around with roses in their mouths. They seem to use them as an extra buttonhole.”

These words, translated from German, were published in the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, a German newspaper, on the 29th of June 1927. They were written by its journalist, the Austrian novelist Moses Joseph Roth (1894-1939), better known as ‘Joseph Roth’. The book in which I found his articles on Albania is “The Hotel Years”, edited and translated by Michael Hoffmann and published in 2015. The anthology of Roth’s writings covers countries, to mention a few of them, including Austria, Hungary the USSR, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Albania.

Roth visited Albania in 1927 and published six articles about it between May and July that year. He mentioned the love of music in Tirana. This observation relates to both the mandolins played mainly by Albanians who had unaccountably, in his opinion, returned to their country after having lived abroad, mainly in the USA, and to military bands.  During his sojourn in the capital, he notes the seemingly endless army exercises and parades that are carried out throughout the day.

By Cora Gordon, 1927

With regard to the Albanian army, it was his impression that they were poorly equipped:

“Now the army has Austrian rifles and Italian ammunition, bullets that jam, magazines that can’t be clicked in, British knapsacks that can’t be secured with Italian straps, covers for field-shovels and no field-shovels with which to dig trenches, Italian officers who don’t know commands in Albanian, …”

And, he asks:

“For whom do they exercise? Surely not for their country? Because half the country is unhappy with their government – for reasons of idealism.”

Reading this, made me wonder why Roth was sending reports from Albania between the end of May and the end of July in 1927.  Near the end of his largely unflattering description of the country and its people, he wrote:

“Albania is beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring.”

Although Albania is anything but boring for me, I was curious about its “current topicality” during those months in 1927. Roth’s readers probably knew, but that was long ago.

I looked at various issues of the “Times” newspaper of London and other sources to discover what might have interested the world’s press in Albania at the time that Roth wrote his articles. On Monday, the 6th of June, the Times noted that diplomatic relations between Albania and its neighbour Yugoslavia had broken down. On the 27th of May, Mr Juraskovitch, an interpreter at the Yugoslav legation in Tirana, was arrested and his house was burnt down (www.jstor.org/stable/25638310?seq=1). Naturally, the Yugoslav government objected. On the 31st, Tzena Beg, an Albanian representative in Belgrade, explained to the Yugoslavs that Juraskovitch was an Albanian citizen and that compromising documents had been found in his possession. Mr Sakovitch, the Yugoslav chargé d’affaires, disclaimed all knowledge of this and demanded the release of Juraskovitch. Hussein Beg Vrioni, the Albanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that his case was purely an internal matter. On the 4th of June, the Yugoslav legation was withdrawn from Tirana. The following day, the Albanian government declared that it was taking the case to the League of Nations.

On the 5th of June, the “Times” noted that many Albanians feared that this diplomatic incident would create anxiety and unrest in the country, and many felt that the flames were being fanned by a third party with a great interest in Albania, Italy. According to “The Annual Register, Vol. 169- for 1927” Italy had:

“…sent to Berlin, Paris, and London a Note calling attention to alleged preparations on the part of Yugoslavia for an immediate invasion of Albanian territory. The crisis had arisen as the result of the arrest by the Albanian police of a certain Jurascovich, charged with espionage on behalf of the Yugoslav Government. Refusal to release the alleged spy led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Minister from Tirana, and to the Italian Note. The matter was, however, satisfactorily settled between Italy and Yugoslavia.”

Eventually in November 1927 after much Italian antagonism to the French and their cordial relations with Yugoslavia:

“ … the Italian Government published the text of an Italo -Albanian Treaty of defensive alliance.”

This was not the first attempt to forge an alliance between Italy and Albania as is illustrated from the following quote from “The Annual Register”:

“Relations with Italy and Albania were disturbed at the end of 1926 by the first Tirana Treaty and became more strained in March, 1927, when the Italian Government addressed a Note to the Great Powers (Germany, Great Britain, and France) accusing Yugoslavia of military preparations against Albania.”

Thus, Albania was being dragged gradually into the strong influence that Italy held on it until the Second World War had begun.

Roth travelled to Albania around about, or just after the Juraskovitch affair had begun. This might have been one reason for his visit. Another thing that might have attracted his attention, which was reported in the “Times” of the 10th of June 1927, was the growing unrest of many Albanians, particularly in the north, resulting from dissatisfaction with the government of Ahmed Zogu. However, by mid-July, a couple of weeks before Roth’s last article about Albania, the two countries, Albania and Yugoslavia, had come to a more or less satisfactory settlement of the Juraskovitch affair.

My surmise is that Roth came to Albania not out of curiosity but in connection with the diplomatic incident and the strained relationship between Albania and its Slav neighbour. My impression is that the urbane Roth cared little for what he observed during his time in Albania. His description of his arrival sets the tone for much that appears in the anthology of his Albanian travel writings:

“ … the hut, like so many attractions these days, has a guest book; sitting over the book is a man in a black uniform, rolling himself a cigarette, and this is the Albanian border police. A master of the alphabet, but unused to writing, he sits there whiling away the time of new arrivals by painstaking scrutiny of their passports … I cut short his study by offering to set down my name for him … Workmen are repairing the road. There are always two hunched over together … they collect little scoops of sand on their tiny shovels or in their bare hands, pour it into scars and potholes, sprinkle a few stones on top … and stamp it down with their bare feet …”

Roth also remarks on the telegraph wires linking Durres with Tirana. They were:

“… strung not on masts, but on crooked trees, which have been lopped and cropped. They used to stand by the wayside, a home to birds … now they are redesignated as telegraph poles … equipped to transmit journalistic reports – the twitterings of political sparrows – to Europe…”

Whereas Roth’s descriptions of Albania in 1927 are hardly flattering to the country, some other travellers, who visited it that year, published a far more flattering account in the same year. The travellers were Jan Gordon (1882-1944) and Cora C Gordon (née Turner;1879-1950), who wrote and illustrated a book called “Two Vagabonds in Albania”. It is amongst the best books I have read about the country. Unlike the critical and disapproving Roth, they take a delight in what they observed and convey that beautifully in their text and the illustrations they created.

Roth would be amazed by the changes that have occurred in Albania since his visit in 1927. I was also staggered by the changes I saw between my first visit in 1984, when I saw men with flowers in their mouths and motorised vehicles were few and far between, and 2016 when Tirana had become a modern city with traffic congestion and tall buildings to rival those found in any of the world’s large cities.

The Egyptian House

WE WERE NOT EXPECTING to see anything like it when walking down Chapel Street in the centre of the Cornish town of Penzance. What we saw immediately recalled the pseudo-Egyptian, art deco Carerras Building near Mornington Crescent in London. The building in London is far larger than that we found in Penzance, the Egyptian House. The Carreras Building was built in 1926-28. The Egyptian House was built far earlier, in 1835-36. Admittedly, the two buildings hardly resemble each other but when I saw the one in Chapel Street, I immediately thought of the structure in Mornington Crescent.

The Egyptian House is a regularly shaped building with an extraordinary façade. The front of the building is decorated in colourfully painted bas-relief with ornamentation that evokes thoughts of Ancient Egypt. The windows of this three-storey building are not rectangular. Each of them is framed in isosceles trapezoids (the top and bottom of each frame are parallel, the top being shorter than the bottom, and the sides of the frames form truncated isosceles triangles). All three layers of windows are framed in a large decorative isosceles trapezoid. This creates the illusion that the façade is tapering rather than rectangular. An informative merchant, who spoke to us from his shop across the road from the Egyptian House, pointed out that although the windows on the three floors look different in size, this is also an illusion; they are the same size on each floor.

The decorative features on the building include pillars with lotus capitals, sculpted human heads, a royal coat of arms and an eagle. Above the centrally located front door there is yet another feature, which I will describe soon. But first, a little bit of history.

Numbers 6 to 7 Chapel Street, the building now known as the Egyptian House, stands on the site of an earlier building that had been pulled down by 1835, when John Lavin (1796-1856), a Cornish mineralogist, purchased the site.  According to one source (https://medium.com/the-history-of-collecting/the-sir-russell-collection-of-cornwall-mineral-collections-439cfdb2ae2d) Lavin was:

“… was a stationer and bookbinder in Penzance, Cornwall, who was also dealing in minerals by 1830. Such was his success that he was able to build the famous Egyptian Hall, “Lavin’s Museum”, in Chapel Street in 1835–36.”

The building he created was typical of the early 19th century craze for building in the ‘Egyptian style’. It is said to resemble the now long-since demolished Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly and the Oddfellows Hall in Devonport (constructed 1820s). Also, some of the tombs in the older, spookier, part of London’s Highgate Cemetery were designed to evoke the architecture of Ancient Egypt.  When Lavin died, his son Edward sold his father’s collection to Baroness Burdett-Coutts for £3,500.

The building became neglected and fell into disrepair. By the 1960s, the façade was in a poor state, In the 1970s, the building was restored, and its original colouring reproduced. Now, it is maintained by the Landmark Trust, which rents out rooms within it to visitors at a high price, so we were informed by a local.

The decorative feature that intrigued me most is on the lintel above the front door. It is a bas-relief depicting two outstretched wings attached to a centrally located sphere from which a pair of bird’s heads each, on their own curved necks project. The bird’s heads are shown in profile with their beaks pointing in opposite directions, one to the left and the other to the right. The style of the depiction of the birds is pseudo-ancient-Egyptian as are many other of the ornaments on the building.  As I am fascinated by the double-headed eagles that are used as the symbols of many places including, for example Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Russia, and Karnataka, I was immediately curious as to whether what is above the doorway is a depiction of a double-headed eagle (‘DHE’).

Greatly simplifying matters, the earliest archaeological evidence of the DHE is in sites in Ancient Mesopotamia (3000-2000BC). The civilisations that thrived there were contemporary with Ancient Egyptian civilisations. Although DHE motifs have been discovered in Ancient Egyptian sites, they are not as prevalent there as in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates. Without getting bogged down with the history of the usage of the DHE, I want to speculate on why Lavin included the two-headed bird decoration on his Egyptian-style building.

Was the centrally located motif simply chosen for its decorative symmetry or was John Lavin aware of some connection of the DHE with Ancient Egypt? Or was he making some reference to Cornish families, such as the Killigrews and the Godolphins, that included the DHE in their coats of arms? Sadly, I have no answer to these questions yet.

Our ‘discovery’ of the Egyptian House in Penzance was just one of many lovely things we saw during our brief first visit to the town. I have already written about the Turks Head pub in Chapel Street and I hope to reveal more of the town’s interesting sights in the near future.

Hidden in the rocks

MY FASCINATION WITH MILITARY bunkers began after visiting Albania in 1984, when the country was stilled being ruled by the last regime in Europe that still revered Joseph Stalin. Tiny Albania was surrounded by potential enemies, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Italy across the Adriatic. Having had his country invaded many times in the past, Albania’s dictator, Enver Hoxha (who ruled between 1945 and 1985) was determined to make the country as impregnable as possible. One approach that he adopted was to cover (literally) the entire country (towns and villages included) with small (and large) concrete bunkers, many of them were hemispherical in shape. As Albania was never invaded after 1945, the effectiveness of these concrete structures that looked like a severe rash of pimples was never put to the test.

blog cave

Bunker at Torcross

The same can be said of the numerous concrete bunkers that were constructed in many strategic places all over England before and during WW2. Fortunately, the Germans never managed to invade the UK, with the exception of the Channel Islands. Judging by how useless the Maginot Line proved to be in France, I suspect that the British bunkers would have been fairly useless had the Germans invaded.

Today, we visited the tiny hamlet of Torcross in south Devon. It lies at the southern end of the long causeway that separates the sea from Slapton Ley, a large freshwater lake. While sitting at an outdoor table on the sea front at Torcross, I was staring at a picturesque rocky outcrop when I noticed what I thought was a rock with a rectangular slit cut in it.

Looking more closely using my camera’s zoom lens, I realised that the slit was really there, but it was cut in something that was not rock, but a thick concrete wall. The wall looked identical in texture to the rocks surrounding it. I realised that what I was looking at is an old bunker that ovelooks the long stretch of Slapton Sands, which is on the sea side of the causeway. It overlooks what would have been a perfect beach for a foreign invasion force to land.

In fact, the stretch of beach known as Slapton Sands was used by an invasion force in 1944. It was not a hostile force belonging to the Axis powers, but a friendly one used by Allied troops. The troops, mostly Americans, were using Slapton Sands to practice or rehearse the planned landings (on D Day) that were about to take place in Normandy as a prelude to recovering Western Europe from German occupation.

As I have described in another post, the rehearsing Allied troops were attacked by German boats, resulting in the tragic deaths of over 700 young Americans. The Germans, based in France, attacked the beach at Slapton Sands because they had picked up very busy radio signal activity in the area. Luckily for the planned invasion of France, the German attackers had no idea of what was being rehearsed at Slapton. Had they known they might well have returned to do even more damage that might have sabotaged the D Day invasion plans.

An amphibious tank, recovered from the sea in 1974, stands at Torcross as a memorial to the men who lost their lives during the German attack of the boats and other military positions at Slapton Sands.

The bunker, which I spotted at Torcross, is known as ‘Pillbox Torcross’. Near to the former Torcross Hotel, this was one of six bunkers at the south end of Slapton Sands. What I thought was concrete is actually local stone (see https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV39402&resourceID=104).

 Hence, it blends with its surroundings far better than it would have had it been built in concrete. Whether or not this and the other bunkers nearby were of any use when the Germans attacked during the very early hours of the 28th April 1944, I cannot say. However, I feel that given the devastating results of the German attack, this is unlikely.

Today, Torcross is a popular place with visitors. It has several eateries and places to stay. During past visits to this delightful spot, once the scene of a horrible tragedy, we have eaten good seafood at the Start Bay Inn, which is only a few feet away from the tank memorial. The inn was established in the 14th century, when it was known as ‘The Fisherman’s Arms’.

Visiting Torcross provides a good place to reflect on the heroism of those who fought in WW2. Little did those 700 or more men lost in this place in 1944 know that their sacrifice has allowed us to enjoy holidays at this beautiful spot. Whenever I am at Torcross, I have mixed emotions: joy because of the place’s great natural beauty, and sadness when I look at the tank memorial and remember why it is there. Had the D Day landings been thwarted, who knows under what kind of regime we would be living today.

Polish or Russian

BLOG HOOP 1l Eagle Lodge

 

THE DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE, the symbol of Albania, has fascinated me ever since I first became interested in the country in about 1967. This much-employed imaginary creature, whose origins go back at least 3000 years before the birth of Christ, is not only the national symbol of tiny Albania but also of Imperial, and now modern, Russia. A year or so ago, I was walking along Golders Green Road in northwest London, one of my childhood haunts, when I saw something I had never noticed before. It was a block of flats on which I spotted a large sculpture of a double-headed eagle. The building is appropriately named ‘Eagle Lodge’.

According to Pam Fox, author of “The Jewish Community of Golders Green” a detailed and fascinating book published in 2016, Eagle Lodge was one of a number of mansion blocks built on the sites of former large villas with extensive grounds that used to line Golders Green Road. Next to the mention of ‘Eagle Lodge’, Ms Fox refers to her endnote number 1, which reads:

“It was designed by a Polish architect who carved the Polish eagle onto its façade, giving the block its name.”

Although I doubt that Ms Fox’s book attracts many Polish nationalist readers, this footnote would certainly upset them. The Polish eagle used heraldically or as a symbol has only one head. Having been subjected to domination by the Russians for many years, to confuse the single-headed eagle of Poland with the double headed version used by their Russian neighbours would not go down too well amongst the Polish fraternity.

As for the “Polish architect”, there is another problem. Eagle Lodge was, according to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, designed by MV Braikevitch and built 1935-37. Mikhail Vasilievich Braikevitch (1874-1940) was a Russian engineer and art collector born in the Ukraine. I found an interesting pamphlet published by the London Borough of Barnet, which contains the district of Golders Green. Titled “The 1917 Revolution & Barnet’s Russian Heritage”, it says:

“Possibly the most interesting Russian resident was Mikhail Vladimirovitch Braikevitch of Woodstock Avenue. He had been an important engineer in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, was the mayor of Odessa before the war, and had been a member of the interim government, who ran Russia between February 1917 and the October Revolution. Remarkable as all these things are, it was his art collection which was most important. Having settled in England, he started to collect works of art smuggled out of Russia from fellow refugees – both in London and Paris – and amassed one of the best collections of Russian art outside of Russia itself. On his death in 1940, he left the collection to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but we can imagine an ordinary house in Golders Green with some of the greatest works of Russian art on the walls.”

It was at Braikevitch’s suggestion and following a visit to his home in Golders Green that the undeservedly lesser known but remarkable Russian composer Nicolas Medtner (1880-1951), a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, shifted from Paris to London in 1935.  The composer and his family settled into a new home on Wentworth Road in Golders Green.

Braikevitch, like Medtner, was buried at Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium, not far from Golders Green.  The architect’s funeral was held at St Philip’s Russian church, Buckingham Palace Road, London. So, all things considered, it is highly likely that the architect of the rather unappealing looking Eagle Lodge with its double-headed eagle was not Polish, and that the bird with two heads has nothing to do with Poland as erroneously suggested by Ms Fox in her end note.  

A bookshop in my memory

I HAVE LOVED BOOKSHOPS ever since I can remember. In my teenage years, I used to haunt the shelves of Foyles, a multi-storey bookshop in Tottenham Court Road. The store is named after its founders William and Gilbert Foyle, who established their business at Station Road in Peckham in 1903. A year later, they moved it to Cecil Court, an alley near Leicester Square, which still contains several bookshops. By 1906, Foyle’s had a branch on Charing Cross Road, which is where I got familiar with it.

BLOG FOYLES by Tarquin Binary

In the second half of the 1960s, Foyles was a very well-stocked bookstore even if it seemed a bit confusing to its customers. There were separate departments specialising in various topics distributed over at least three floors. I discovered soon enough that behind the bookshelves in some of the departments there were yet more shelves, and these contained second-hand and remaindered books often at reasonable prices. It was amongst these hidden shelves that I found a rather useless but picturesque road atlas to Bulgaria, published in Bulgarian, and a wonderful detailed street map of East Berlin, “Haupstadt der DDR”. This map carefully avoided mapping the city’s contiguous West Berlin. It gave the impression that East Berlin bordered the edge of an area of uninhabited desert.

The language department was very interesting. It stocked books on every language from A to Z. It was there that I discovered a copy of “A Short Albanian Grammar” by SE Mann, published in 1932. This hardback book with dark green board covers was priced at 15 shillings (i.e. 75 pence). I was particularly excited to find this volume as my interest in Albania was already becoming quite well-developed. However, 15 shillings was way beyond my budget in 1968. That year, I began studying biology for the A-Level examinations that had to be passed to enter university. It was then that a chance to obtain this book arose.  

During the first year of the A-Level course, I entered the school’s Bodkin Prize biology essay competition. I wrote a long treatise on the life of the woodlouse. This was my first ever bit of serious research. I visited the Science Library, which was then housed in a part of the then disused Whitely’s department store in Queensway. There, I translated a long article written in French about the reproductive system of the woodlouse. From what I can remember, the woodlouse can reproduce asexually, a process known as parthenogenesis.  I was awarded the second prize. The only other contestant was my classmate Timothy Clarke, whose older brother, Charles, was to become Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006. Tim won the first prize.

Thesecond prize was 15 shillings to be spent on books. I asked the school to spend that money on procuring me the copy of the Albanian grammar book in Foyles. To my great annoyance, my choice was turned down and I was asked to choose again, making sure that at least one book was a hardback, because it was to be embossed with the school’s crest. I chose two books. One was a costly paperback on genetics and the other was the cheapest hardback I could find. To this day, I still do not possess a copy of Mann’s book.

Returning to Foyle’s, let me tell you about its payment system, which resembled, so I was told, the system adopted by shops in the Soviet Union. First, you had to find a book you wished to purchase. Then, you took it to a desk in the department where it was shelved. A shop assistant took the book and wrote out a paper bill. Next, you had to take the bill to one of the few cash desks in the shop. After queuing, you parted with the correct amount of money and then the paper slip was stamped. Following this, you returned to the department where your book was being held and queued up again to exchange your stamped paper slip for the book, which you were then free to take away. This laborious payment system survives today in the government run khadi (home-spun materials) shops in India. These old-fashioned shops, often smelling of moth balls, are picturesque to say the least.

Foyles was bewildering to the newcomer stepping off the street. Like the tiny alleyways in Venice, it was a great place to lose your way. However, if a customer was looking for something specific, this was not helpful. So, quite sensibly, there used to be staff standing near the entrance to help customers find what they were seeking. Some of these no doubt poorly paid staff had poor command of the English language. On one occasion I heard the following:

“May I help, Sir?” asked a young lady with a strong Eastern European accent.

“I am looking for choral music.”

The assistant hesitated and then pointed at the escalator while saying:

“Please try the engineering department.”

That was long ago, back in the late 1960s.

Foyles moved out of its home on Charing Cross Road in 2011 and occupied another building a short way from it on the same street. Its current premises occupy part of the former St Martin School of Art, where my mother used to work in the sculpture studios in the 1960s. I no longer shop at Foyle’s but remember it fondly.

 

Picture by Tarquin Binary from Wikipedia

Death of a theatre

ON SATURDAY THE 17th MAY 2020, an act of cultural barbarism was performed in Tirana, the capital of Albania. The National Theatre of Albania in the heart of the city was demolished. It is unclear who ordered this demolition of a much-loved cultural monument located in a part of the city where property prices are high. The theatre was built in 1939 during the period that the Italians, under Mussolini, were ruling Albania. It was originally a cinema designed by the architect Giulio Berte, but later its screen was replaced by a stage.

TIR 4 BLOG

In 2016, my wife and I visited Tirana and attended a dramatic performance at the National Theatre. I have described this in my book “Rediscovering Albania”:

“…we visited the National Theatre, a building that dates back to before Communist times. A Pirandello play (Play without a Script) was to be performed in Albanian that evening. The charming ladies clustered around the ticket desk assured us that we would enjoy it because it was going to be full of song and dance. We bought a couple of tickets … The rectangular auditorium of the National Theatre was delightfully old-fashioned, with many drapes and an upper gallery that extended around three sides of it. Everything was red including the plush upholstery of the comfortable seats. Although we did not understand a word of it, the Pirandello play was acted beautifully. The expressive acting was so good that we were able to get a rough idea of what was going on. Some years earlier in London, Lopa and I once attended a performance of Gogol’s Government Inspector acted by a Hungarian troupe entirely in Hungarian, and on another occasion a play from Kosovo in Albanian, during the course of which one of the actors threw a fake chicken at me! On both of those occasions and also in Tirana, great acting compensated for our inability to understand the words. If the actions of actors move me more than their words, I feel this is a sign of truly skilful acting. As the great Constantin Stanislavski said: “The language of the body is the key that can unlock the soul”. This is exactly what the actors in Tirana achieved. The audience was appreciative, and, unlike at the opera, hardly anyone used their mobile ‘phones during the show.”

That has now disappeared. So, has also the unusually attractive appearance of Tirana as it was when I first visited it in 1984 during the dictatorship of the faithful follower of Joseph Stalin, Enver Hoxha. In those repressive times, Tirana was a quiet city with only one high-rise building, the 12-storey Hotel Tirana. Of course, back in 1984, times were tough for the average Albanian citizen. They remained quite difficult during the decade following the ending of Communist rule in 1991. Even now, many Albanians prefer to increase their prosperity by seeking work abroad.

When we visited Tirana in 2016, I found it to be a far busier place than it was in 1984. The traffic was busy – a sign that motoring, an option not available to most Albanians during the dictatorship, had become popular and also affordable. Some of the charm of pre-1991 Tirana remained, but many picturesque old buildings, examples of traditional Turkish and Balkan vernacular architecture, had disappeared (or were about to). In their place, there were many high-rise buildings of little or no architectural merit. I suspect that whoever ordered the demolition of Tirana’s historic, much-loved National Theatre has in mind to construct yet another aesthetically unpleasing edifice.

If as Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage”, then the demolition of this theatre in Tirana is yet another tragedy enacted on that stage.