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

Seven streams

Seven

At first, I was daunted at the prospect of watching a seven hour drama at London’s National Theatre. Then, remembering that I had endured an eleven hour bus journey in Gujarat and several long intercontinental flights, I decided that sitting comfortably at the theatre for seven hours including intervals would not be too bad, and I was right.

The play we watched, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota”, by Canadian playwright Robert Lepage (born 1957 in Quebec,), is divided into seven acts or installments. I found five of those installments to be highly enjoyable. The other two were less good in my humble opinion.

The River Ota runs through the Japanese city of Hiroshima, unfortunately famous for being the first civilian target of an atomic bomb in 1945. One of the main characters in the play by Lepage is a woman who was blinded, as a small child, by the atomic bomb blast’s flash. Each of the seven acts of the drama is linked to her or to characters connected with her directly or indirectly. Therefore, although the play’s plot is quite complicated, there is an easily discernible thread that runs through it.

At times the drama is witty and humorous and at others tragic. However, throughout the performance, the subject matter is both sensitive and moving. The ingeniously crafted play touches on all kinds of important historical events that affected Japan and the Japanese between 1945 and the late 1990s when the play was written. It also makes reference to Theresienstadt, one of the Nazi concentration camps. At first, I was not sure of the relevance of this scene set in the camp, but afterwards it dawned on me. It was an important background to one of the characters, who plays a major role in the latter parts of the play.

Another of the play’s myriad of topics reflects the playwright’s origin, Quebec. There are some very entertaining scenes in which the characters speak in Canadian French (with its particular accent) such as would be heard in Quebec. At times, Lepage makes use of the play to poke fun at cultural rivalry between the Canadian French and the French in France. He also makes reference to Canada’s objection to French nuclear tests that were being carried out in the Pacific between 1966 and 1996. And, nuclear tests relate directly to the main theme of the play, the atomic bomb exploded at Hiroshima.

Without going into detail about the very complicated plot, let me say that this play was highly fascinating, well acted by members of Lepage’s theatre ensemble Ex Machina, and the sets were superb. Sadly, this long play is only being given a short run at the National Theatre. Its final performance, viral microbes permitting, will be on the 22nd March 2020.

As for my initial fears about sitting for seven hours in the theatre, these were unrealised. The time shot past, so intriguing was the play. Lepage’s play was for me as exciting as at least two other epic length dramas I have enjoyed: “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, and “The Coast of Utopia” by Tom Stoppard.

Green and wet

The heart of Central Europe_800

 

As a child and teenager, I did not like gherkins (pickled cucumbers). My parents ate them, but refused to buy them if they were made behind the Iron Curtain, for example in  Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or Poland. They would only by jars of these green, wet vegetables if they were made in Western Europe, say in West Germany or Holland. You may well wonder why my parents were so fussy about the origin of their gherkins. The answer is simple. They were unwilling to buy anything from Soviet-dominated parts of the world because they felt, rightly or wrongly, that every penny they paid for goods from these areas would help the Soviet Union pay for yet another atomic bomb or some other military equipment that could be used against the West.

I did not worry me where my parent’s gherkins were grown and bottled, as I did not eat them. This was true until the late 1970s when McDonalds opened a branch of their hamburger restaurant chain in London’s Haymarket.

At first, I felt that I was too superior to enter a McDonalds, and developed an irrational prejudice against the company. Eventually, some friends decided to eat at the Haymarket branch andas I was with them and also a little curious about McDonalds, I joined them. I cannot recall which burger I ordered, but whatever it was, it contained slices of gherkin. I did not remove the gherkin as I might have done had I been served it a few years earlier. I bit into the burger and realised that it was the gherkin that made the rest of the burger sandwich delicious. From that moment onwards, I have become a gherkin afficionado.

I am happy eating gherkins anywhere. However, some of the nicest gherkins that I have found are those often served in fish and chips shops. These large, very tasty specimens often come Holland. Served from large glass jars, these gherkins are often known as ‘wallys’ (pronounced ‘wollees’) in London and South-East England.

Finally, here is something that you might not know about gherkins. The south of India, which I visit often, hasbeen a major producer and exporter of gherkins since the early 1990s. The soil condition in that region are perfect for growing the cucumbers that will be pickled. For more information, see: http://igea.in/.  Had these been around in the days before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I wonder whether my parents would have bought them.