Catching up with the past: Chicago

chicago theatre

 

During the last three months of 1963, while my father was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, I attended the university’s high school, the Lab School. While we were in Chicago, President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

I was put in the PreFreshman class with pupils who were one or two years older than me. Everyone was very kind and friendly towards me, and a bit curious about having a boy from England amongst them.

I remember being asked about some green plant that the British loved to eat. I had no idea what the questioner was talking about until I realised that he was referring to watercress. Another of my fellow students was surprised that the word ‘bloody’ was a swear word in British English.

I left the Lab School in December 1963 and, sadly, lost all contact with my lovely new school friends. In 1963, there was no Internet and international telephone calls were quite expensive. Hence, keeping up with people living far away was much more difficult than it is today.

Fifty six years later, in 2019, I made contact (via social media) with Steve, who remembered me from my brief stay at the Lab School. He remembered that I had introduced him to the hobby of train spotting. I do not recall that, but many years have passed since then.

A few days ago, Steve came to have dinner with us. I am not certain that either of us recognised each other after over half a century of separation, but that did not matter as Steve turned out to be a very congenial guest and we engaged in interesting conversations. We reminisced briefly about Chicago, but spent most of the evening discussing other topics.

Although, as already mentioned, I did not recognise Steve and barely recollected him, I felt a wave of pleasure catching up with the ever so distant past.

 

 

Photo by Leon Macapagal on Pexels.com

The Patient Assassin

Assass

 

I love browsing in second-hand bookshops. Occasionally, I come across really good books that I had not previously known about. The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand (published 2019) was one such discovery.

The Patient Assassin is about the life and exploits of  Udham Singh (1899-1940), a pro-independence, anti-British activist. Some of his friends were killed in the notorious Jallianwalla Bagh massacre  in mid-April 1919. Under the command of General ‘Rex’ Dyer, several hundred innocent men, women, and children, were shot dead within the closed space of Jallianwalla Bagh, a walled public garden in Amritsar. Many others were injured in this cruel attack whose supposed purpose was to subdue the people of the Punjab so that they would not rise against British rule. 

Dyer died of illness in England, having been proclaimed a hero for his malevolent deed. Michael O’ Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, who thoroughly approved of what was done at Jallianwalla Bagh and other horrific treatment of Indians, retired to London.

Udham Singh had friends who were killed at Jallianwallah Bagh. He made it his mission to kill O’ Dwyer. The author of Patient Assassin, Anita Anand, traces Udham’s complex and mysterious life from the Punjab to London, where he shot dead O’ Dwyer at a meeting at London’s Caxton Hall in 1940. Ms Anand weaves an exciting tale based on her researches of Udham’s colourful and exciting life. Her book about a real person makes far more engaging reading than most fictional thrillers. 

I was very pleased to stumble across Anand’s book for two reasons. One is that it turned out to be an un-put-downable read. The other is that it chimes with something that I have been working on.

In mid 1909, Madan Lal Dhingra, who like Udham Singh came from the Punjab, shot dead Sir William H Curzon Wyllie, a retired important British administrator in India, at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington. This assassination horrified the British nation and many in India. 

Dhingra had come to England study engineering at University College London several years before shooting Curzon Wyllie. He had become involved in the freedom fighting activities that were centred on India House in Highgate between 1905 and early 1910. It was Dhingra’s fatal shots that hastened the demise of India House, a student hostel and meeting place which was regared by the British as a ‘centre of sedition’.  I have almost completed writing a book about India House and its members, including Dhingra, and it should be available for sale soon. Its title will be “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.

Finding Ms Anand’s book quite by chance was a great delight for me. Unintentionally, it might almost be considered a kind of sequel to what I have just written.

A fateful Friday

If you were alive then, what were YOU doing on Friday, the twenty-second of November in the year 1963 ???

My father was a visiting academic in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago during the last three months of 1963. Between September and December of that year, we lived in a flat in a two-storey house with a wooden fire escape near the university. Our address was 5608 South Blackstone Avenue. My sister and I (aged 11) attended the nearby University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (the ‘Lab School’).

I was excited to discover that our rented flat had a television, albeit one which was defective. The image it produced was double. One could see what was being broadcast but everything had a shadow, which made the image seem out of focus. Whichever way one fiddled with the indoor aerial, the image never improved. None of this mattered much to me because in London, where we lived usually, we had no television at all.

In addition to attending the Lab School, I had to keep up with the work that I was missing because I was not at school in London. Soon after returning from the USA, I had important examinations to sit. So, getting time to watch TV was difficult. I decided that the only way I could get a decent long session in front of the TV was to be sufficiently unwell for my parents to allow me to miss school.

I bought a copy of the weekly voluminous TV Guide for the Chicago area. It was the issue that covered Friday 22nd November 1963. I do not remember how I persuaded my parents that I was too unwell for school that day, but I did. My sister, aged 7, was deposited at the Lab School by my father on his way to the university. Much later that morning, my mother, a sculptress, set off for the studio where she worked during the day. I was left at home alone, ready to spend several hours watching the TV programmes I had selected from the TV Guide.

JFK

You can imagine my disappointment when the TV set had warmed up after I had switched it on. Instead of the TV programmes that I was looking forward to watching, there were non-stop news programmes on every channel. President John F Kennedy (‘JFK’) had just been shot in Dallas, Texas. Not only had one of America’s most charismatic presidents been assassinated, but also my day of uninterrupted TV viewing had been wrecked.

My sister returned from school in the mid-afternoon. She told us that her class had been led out of the classroom to the school’s assembly room. There, they saluted the US flag before being told of the tragedy in Dallas.

On the Saturday morning, while I was struggling with my Latin assignment from London, my sister and some guests who were staying with us, the art historian Leo Ettlinger and his wife, were watching our TV in another room. Suddenly, my sister came running into the room where I was trying to study, and my mother was doing something domestic. She announced that while she was watching TV, she saw Jack Ruby shooting dead the prime assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald. My mother and I rushed to the TV. We were just in time to see the footage of Oswald’s murder being replayed.

Although, as an 11-year-old, I had negligible interest in politics or news in general, JFK’s demise made me feel depressed. I am not sure why. Maybe, it was because his death had significantly dampened the mood of Americans in general.

Years later in the mid-1970s I visited some American friends, fellow graduate students, who lived in Pill, a suburb of Bristol in Somerset. One evening, we went to a theatre in the centre of the city. I do not recall the name of the play, but I can remember what it was about. The people on stage, actors, related what the characters, who they were portraying, recounted about what they were doing at the moment they learnt of JFK’s assassination.

Now, you, dear reader, know what I was doing on that fateful day.

[Image source: wikipedia]