Double vision and Blenheim Palace

WITHOUT DOUBT, Blenheim Palace (at Woodstock in Oxfordshire) is both impressive and grandiose. Built in the first decades of the 18th century, the Palace was designed by the dramatist and untrained architect John Vanbrugh (c1664-1726) in collaboration with Nicholas Hawksmoor (c1661-1736), who was a trained architect. The result, though magnificent in a monumental way, lacks the fine aesthetics and delicacy of, say, the Palais de Versailles or the Palazzo Pitti. The interiors of Blenheim Palace outshine the building’s rather charmless monumental exterior. That said, a visit to this palace is a must.

My interest in Blenheim Palace was immediately enhanced when, on arriving, I noticed the coats-of-arms adorning the gates to the visitors’ entrance. I was struck not only by their complexity but also by the presence of the two heads of a double-headed eagle (‘DHE’) prominently peering out of the coronet above the shield on the crest. Although over the years I have casually researched the distribution of the use of the DHE, I had not realised that it also appeared on the crest of the family of which the late Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was a member, and whose life is greatly celebrated at Blenheim Palace and its gift shop. Sir Winston, who was born in Blenheim Palace, was also briefly a member of the Bangalore United Services Club, now the Bangalore Club, of which I am a member.

Getting back to the DHE, which, incidentally, is the symbol of the Indian state of Karnataka in which Bangalore is located, I was curious as to why the Churchill family has it incorporated into its coat-of-arms. Wherever you look on the inside or the outside of Blenheim Palace, you can spot the DHE. It is on external walls, internal furnishings, wall decorations, and even embossed on leather book covers. But why? I asked an official wearing a facemask and transparent plastic visor about it. She explained that it was because of one of the military exploits of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), for whom the construction of Blenheim Palace was commissioned. John Churchill was a son of Sir Winston Churchill (1620-1688) and an ancestor of Sir Winston, the 20th century Prime Minister.

Without going into much detail, John Churchill was an important commander in the Battle of Blenheim (in Germany; 13th of August 1704), during which the armies of the Elector of Bavaria and of Marshal Tallard were defeated. This victory during The Spanish War of Succession helped to save the Holy Roman Empire (including Austria and Prussia) from defeat by the armies of Bavaria and France.  For this and other important military assistance, John Churchill was made a prince of The Holy Roman Empire by the Emperor Leopold I (1640-1705). It was because of this, that the DHE can now be found on the arms of the Churchill family.

Another DHE also found its way into the Churchill family by marriage. There is a portrait of Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin (1678-1766) by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) hanging in Blenheim Palace. Son of Sidney Godolphin (1645-1712), the first Earl of Godolphin, Francis married Henrietta Churchill, 2nd Duchess of Marlborough (1681-1733), a daughter of John Churchill, the hero at the Battle of Blenheim. The Godolphin family were based in Cornwall. Their coat-of-arms contains the DHE. Unlike the Churchills’ use of the DHE, the Godolphin family had been using it heraldically (possibly, much) before the 18th century (www.british-history.ac.uk/magna-britannia/vol3/lxxviii-lxxxix). I do not know for sure but speculate that the DHE that appears in Cornish family crests, like those of the Godolphin and Killigrew families, might have some connection to the fact that for a while Duke Richard of Cornwall (1209-1272), second son of King John of England, was King of the Germans. He was holding that exalted position whilst he was a candidate for becoming the Holy Roman Emperor (he never did achieve that). So much for eagles with two heads and a total of four eyes. Now, I will remark on an exhibition held at Blenheim Palace that makes the viewer look at two disparate sets of images with only one set of eyes.

Blenheim Palace regularly hosts exhibitions of artworks by ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ artists. The curators juxtapose the recently created art with the fantastic collection of much older pieces that adorn the rooms of the palace. We had come to see the works of the British artist Cecily Brown, who was born in London in 1969. I must admit that I had never heard of her until our daughter, an accomplished young art historian, said that she was keen to see Brown’s works being exhibited in Blenheim Palace. Cecily Brown, so I have learned, specialises in producing paintings that both reinterpret older artworks and also remind the viewer of the appearances of the originals.

Having spent some time studying the palace and its artworks, Cecily Brown created several (about 25) paintings that in her mind echo what she experienced while looking at them. The paintings and some of her sketchbooks were then arranged amongst the paintings and other objects that decorate the rooms of the palace. Was this a successful idea? My answer is both ‘yes’ and slightly more ‘no’.

The placing of her sketchbooks amongst delicate Meissen and other precious works made of porcelain was highly effective. The placing of her paintings beside paintings of established great masters of European painting was less successful for several reasons. Her paintings are fine examples of semi-abstract modern art, pleasing to the eye and capable of intriguing the viewer. Seen against the plain white walls of a commercial gallery, they would be very impressive.

However, problems begin to arise when these works are placed in rooms full of paintings and other objects of great artistic value. For example, in the Red Drawing Room there is a large picture by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) entitled “The 4th Duke of Marlborough and his family”, painted in 1777-78. This painting includes portraits of male and female family members. Cecily Brown has created her own interpretation of this, calling it “The Children of the Fourth Duke”. It is an impressionistic version of the original in which she has omitted the male figures that appear on the original painting by Reynolds. As a painting, Brown’s image is lovely and cannot be faulted. Placing her picture next to a work by the great Reynolds is both interesting and at the same time disappointing. It is interesting to see her interpretation but her painting pales into insignificance next to the original. That said, this is one of the most successful juxtapositions of Brown’s work in the whole exhibition; the others are less so.

There are two problems I have with the exhibition. First, I found that the placing of many, but not all, of Brown’s paintings distracted me and other visitors from seeing the older artworks that live permanently in the palace. Secondly, although it is brave of Brown to place her artistic creations besides those of long-established artists who have stood the test of time, I am not sure that is entirely wise because the average viewer, and that includes me, might find that her works pale in comparison with those of great masters.  Maybe, that is the case, but it has become popular to juxtapose contemporary art and far older works to stimulate the observer into new ways of looking and thinking. I cannot yet decide whether this is a good idea. To be fair, I can think of one successful exhibition where artworks of widely differing eras have been put together harmoniously, and that is in the Cartwright Gallery in Bradford (Yorkshire).

Just as the DHE can look in two directions, or maybe four, at the same time, the exhibition (and previous similar shows) at Blenheim Palace force us to look simultaneously at at least two eras of artistic endeavour separated by time – a kind of double vision, you might say. 

Silence in the tree

IT WAS ONLY WHEN I FIRST visited India (in January 1994) that I first saw animals that I had only ever seen in captivity, in zoos. It amazed me that in the heart of a big city such as Bangalore I could see monkeys running wild, cormorants drying their wings in the sun, and large birds of prey (eg kites) swooping high above the ground and occasionally making brief landings to steal food of outdoor tables.

During our honeymoon in South India we spent a night in the Bandipur National Park (in Karnataka close to its border with Tamil Nadu). While we were there, we were shown the fresh footprint of a tiger and saw elephants. The highlight of our visit to the place was taking a ride on the top of a large elephant. As it padded serenely through the jungle, it snacked on the grasses which it plucked from the ground with its trunk. Our guide on the elephant pointed out wild deer (sambar) that seemed unperturbed by our passing. It was a delightful experience. We also saw termite mounds that were almost six feet high. I had never seen such things before, except in photographs.

The elephants we met in Bandipur and have seen in other places in India are not usually ‘wild’ animals. They are usually beasts of burden in the employ of mankind. It was only when we visited South Africa in 2003 that we saw truly wild elephants. We visited the Addo Elephant National Park, which is not far from the city of Port Elizabeth. For the first hour or more, we drove around the park, not seeing any elephants. We saw plenty of other tourists’ vehicles but no pachyderms. At about one o’clock, lunch time, the other visitors’ cars and camper vans disappeared from the roads in the park. We continued driving, somewhat disappointed to have only briefly glimpsed a few elephants sheltering in a clump of trees some distance away from the road.

We were about to give up on the Addo park when we rounded a curve, and found the roadway blocked by several huge elephants with one baby. A couple of adults were gradually demolishing the foliage on a large tree, and the others were standing around motionless. We stopped our car. One of the elephants looked at us, menacingly so it seemed. We stared at the trunked creatures and some of them stared at us. The roads in the park were one way. The elephants showed no sign of moving away. We knew that we should do nothing to antagonise the beasts, especially as they were likely to have been very protective of the baby. We could not drive forward safely. “What to do?”, as people often say in India.  There was only one practical solution. That was to turn the car around and drive along the one-way road in the wrong direction. We did this without problems because there was no other traffic on the road at that time of the day.

Another of my wild animal encounters also occurred in South Africa, at Boulders Beach close to Cape Town. I was surprised to discover that in this part of Africa, admittedly one of its places nearest to Antarctica, there is a large colony of penguins living in the wild. They are so-called African penguins (Spheniscus demersus). They settled on Boulders Beach as recently as 1982. Other colonies of this species can be found on the southern African coast between Namibia and Algoa Bay (near Port Elizabeth). A raised boardwalk has been constructed at Boulders Beach to allow visitors to wander through the penguins’ habitat without coming into contact with them. It was delightful watching the creatures going about their daily life. However, the fish smell they create is very strong.

In early 1995, a few months before our daughter was born, we visited California, driving to San Francisco along the coast from San Diego. It was in the latter that we encountered another marine creature living in the wild. We stopped at an inlet of the sea favoured by wild seals. Many years later, I enjoyed watching wild seals gambolling near to Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall.

Our friends, who live near to San Francisco, took us out to Point Reyes one afternoon. The aim of the excursion was to watch whales. We were not alone at our destination. I looked out at the choppy ocean and saw nothing but the white crests of waves. Meanwhile, around me people were becoming extremely excited as they saw what they believed to be whales. It was a pleasant place to see, but as for spotting whales, I drew a blank.

Returning to Bangalore in India and sightings of wildlife, let me describe what happened one Sunday afternoon in the southern suburb of Koramangala, where my parents-in-law had a second floor (third if you are from the US) flat. The living room had windows that looked out towards a huge old banyan tree. It was a tree that provided endless entertainment for the observer. It was full of chirruping birds, busy squirrels, and often troupes of monkeys. There was never a dull moment in its complex network of leafy branches.

One Sunday afternoon, my in-laws had invited Dr and Mrs Srinivasan to take tea with us. We sat by the window with our chairs arranged in a semicircle so that we could enjoy the lovely view of the tree. The windows were open. After some time, I noticed that there was no sound coming from the birds in the banyan. The squirrels were not scuttling about in the branches. It was unusually and eerily silent. Then, I noticed it. At the base of the tree, there was a cobra, its head posed as it is depicted in Hindu temple sculptures. The presence of this motionless, almost statuesque, reptile had silenced the birds and stilled the squirrels. Dr Srinivasan and I were spellbound. I did not have my camera with me. I did not want to leave the cobra lest it disappeared and, also, realised that the camera I used then would not have captured the reptile adequately. Eventually, after we had finished our tea and snacks, the snake moved on and normal activity resumed in the branches of the banyan. This experience of wildlife was for me more exciting than the elephants, monkeys, kites, and the penguins.

Tragically, the owners of the land (who should best remain unnamed) on which the banyan tree grew, a protected plant, illegally felled the banyan one night to clear the land for a building project. Fortunately, this happened after my father-in-law had passed away because he would have been heartbroken if he had been alive to see it. The view of the banyan tree is what endeared him to the flat that he and my mother-in-law bought to live the closing years of their life.

Returning to London, another big city, it is not difficult to spot wildlife. After dark, foxes are commonly seen even on streets quite near the centre of the city. Our local open space, Kensington Gardens, is well-populated with green parakeets. They are wild but at the same time very tame. They, like the ubiquitous grey squirrels, are happy to feed from the hands of visitors. Although I have yet to see a truly exotic wild creature in London, plenty of marine fowl take advantage of the rich pickings available in the capital. Years ago, my PhD supervisor, a keen naturalist, explained to me that the vegetation growing on the banks of railway lines serve as corridors or extensions of countryside that reach right into the heart of London. It is along these that wildlife makes its way into the centre of the city.

Although I would not usually go out of my way to visit a nature reserve or safari park, I do get a thrill when I spot a creature that I normally associate with zoos in the wild. I will bring this to an end with one more tale from India.

There is a wildlife reserve close to Mysore in the State of Karnataka. We visited this with our then small daughter and three members of the Karnataka State Forestry Police, who were looking after us as guests of the then Commissioner of this police force. Looking after us was clearly more fun for the three officers than their normal routine. When we entered the reserve, they noticed that a boat was just about to set off for a trip around a lake. It was a large rowing boat already crammed full of Indian tourists. All six of us squeezed into the boat and we cast off. There were no life-jackets on board and the boat was so full that its edge was less than an inch above the surface of the lake. Being of a slightly nervous disposition, my heart was in my mouth as the boat swayed port to starboard and vice-versa. Had I been prone to panic attacks, I would have had one when I realised that what I thought were logs floating on the water were, in fact, crocodiles. Luckily, I survived the trip, but still shudder when I think that we were far closer to the crocs than we were to the fearsome cobra.

One shirt, two pockets

SOME OF YOU WILL KNOW that I am interested in the mythical birds that have one body and two heads (for example, the Russian, Serbian, and Albanian double-headed eagles). Few will know about my interest in shirts with two pockets. Most people are happy if their shirt has only one pocket, but not me. For, I like to keep my mobile telephone in one shirt pocket and my small point and shoot camera in the other.

About twenty years ago, during one of my frequent visits to Bangalore (the capital of an Indian state whose crest bears a double-headed bird), we found a store in the busy Commercial Street that sold short-sleeved (‘half-sleeve’ in Indian English) shirts with two pockets bearing the brand name ‘Camel Classics’. The store no longer exists but was close to another clothing shop called ‘Favourite Shop’ and not far from a Bata shoe shop.  Year after year, I returned to refresh my stock of double-pocketed Camel shirts. Then, some years ago, the assistants, who by then knew me well, informed me that the manufacture of my favourite Camel shirts was about to be discontinued. Hearing this, I bought all the shirts in my size that were available in the shop.

Nothing lasts forever. This was true of my Camel shirts, which I wore almost everyday both when at work and, also, when not working. The collars tended to fray. This could be remedied during our visits to Bangalore when we found various helpful tailors who were happy to turn the collars. Even with these repairs, some of the shirts became to disreputable to wear in public.

It appeared that two-pocketed shirts had become unfashionable and therefore less easy to obtain. My wife came up with the solution to the problem of replenishing my shirt stock.

We spent a fortnight in Panjim (Goa) in April 2018. While wandering about in the steamy heat, we spotted a tailoring shop. The tailor was asked if he could replicate one of my remaining Camel shirts. He said that he was able to do so, and we were to return after a week. When we went back after seven days, he had produced two perfect replicas. We wished that we had asked him to have made more than two, but our time in Panjim was running out.

The following trip to India, we decided to find tailors in Bangalore, who were willing to replicate my favoured shirts. We found two, both in the Commercial Street district of the city. We got each to make one shirt so that we could assess who did the best job. A tailor on Dispensary Road ‘won the contract’. He made me another five Camel-style shirts. My stock of double-pocketed shirts is currently up to date. Given the present covid-19 pandemic is preventing us from returning to India in the foreseeable future, I am pleased that we had so many of these items manufactured.

Discussing my liking of the double-pocketed Camel shirts with friends and their unavailability, one of them looked at my Camel shirt, and then pointed out that the American Wrangler company makes the same shirts, which are still easily available. So, I could have replenished my stock by buying them on-line, but this would have been far less enjoyable than finding and getting to know tailors in India.

No refusal

TAXI NO RESUSAL[2493]

 

UBER DRIVERS IN MADRAS are, so I have been told, unaware of a customer’s desired destination when they accept a job. It might be a short ride or even an out of town destination. We discovered a consequence of this earlier this year when we were advised that the most reasonable way to make the three-hour journey from Madras to Pondicherry was to hire an Uber cab.

The first three drivers, who offered us rides, phoned us to ask where we wanted to go. When we told them, they cancelled our rides. On our fourth attempt, an Uber arrived. He was happy to drive us to Pondicherry because, as we found out three hours later, he had a friend he wanted to visit there.

In Bombay, the taxis are nicknamed ‘kali pili’, which refers to their black and yellow body paint colours. Most of the cabbies are argumentative and some of them seem reluctant to work, making complaints like “too much traffic” or “that’s too far”. Eventually, one finds a cab that is willing to carry out one’s wishes, often complaining all the way. Maybe, that is because their metered fares are so reasonable for the passenger. Driving in Bombay’s traffic cannot be too much fun, especially if one is getting paid poorly to do so.

Further south in Bangalore, popular transport for those who prefer to avoid using urban buses include Uber and Ola cabs as well as three-wheeled autorickshaws.

Bangalore’s Ubers and Olas are unreliable.  Often, they accept a ride and minutes before they are about to arrive at the pickup point, they cancel. I imagine that often they get stuck in the city’s slow moving or often static congested traffic and feel they are wasting their time trying to reach their passenger waiting beyond the traffic jam. Whatever the reason, these app-linked car services are not nearly as reliable as they are in Bombay or London.

Autorickshaws (‘tuk tuks’) are the best method for getting through the congested thoroughfares of Bangalore.  Their plucky drivers can take risks with their small vehicles that larger cars are unable to attempt. These manoeuvres are daring and can be hair-raising for the passengers, but they get you to your destination relatively quickly. I love the drivers’ sneaky tactics, but others do not. Once, I was travelling in an autorickshaw with two American ladies on a busy main road in the centre of Bangalore. They shrieked with terror as our vehicle sped adventurously between a bus and a heavy lorry that were rapidly moving close together.

One autorickshaw driver, whose command of English was good, told me that he had been a truck driver before driving the three-wheelers to earn his living. He explained that an autorickshaw driver needs to use all of his six senses and to ‘feel the traffic’ with his body. It is my observation that most drivers of these small fragile vehicles have lightning reflexes and nerves of steel. Yet, as they weave effortlessly and excitingly through the traffic, many of them chatter away on their mobile ‘phones.

Hiring an autorickshaw in Bangalore is always an adventure. The vehicles are fitted with taximeters, which are supposed to determine the fair. They are used occasionally but not often. The driver will start by suggesingt an often outrageous fare, which is the starting point for haggling.  Or, some drivers will agree to use the meter determined fare plus some extra Rupees in addition.

Some autorickshaw drivers without much to do will offer foreigners something like:

“Come with me. I’ll take you anywhere for only 10 Rupees.”

Sounds tempting, does it not? Do not succumb to this unbelievable offer because if you do, you will soon discover the catch. The naive passenger will be invited to visit the driver’s friend’s/cousin’s/brother’s  store, where if you buy something, the driver will be rewarded with something like: school books for his children, or a kilo of rice for his starving family, or a new shirt, etc.

Some autorickshaw drivers will set off for a journey in Bangalore, and then after a few minutes, will ask the passenger whether, on the way, they want to do some shopping at a shop the driver recommends. That is, at a shop that will offer the cabbie a commission or a gift when the passenger makes a purchase. A determined refusal is required to ensure that your journey will not include an unwanted, time-wasting detour for shopping.

On the whole, autorickshaws are a great way of getting around Bangalore.

Calcutta is filled with rugged but battered yellow Ambassador taxis. These are slowly being replaced by newer vehicles with blue and white body paint. One thing they share is the wording “No Refusal” painted on the exterior of their doors. The cab driver, who stops to pick up a passenger, is not supposed to refuse to take you wherever you want. Most of the drivers comply with this.

Black Cab taxi drivers in London and other places in the UK are, by law, required to take you anywhere within the area they can legally operate. Like the drivers in Calcutta, the British cabbie is supposed to adhere to the “No Refusal” concept, and often, but by no means always, cabbies comply.

Interesting as all this is, present conditions during the current pandemic mean that not too many cabs are being hailed at the present in London. While the ‘lockdown’ is in force, even in its present slightly diluted form, I feel sorry when I see an empty Black Cab with its ‘For Hire’ sign illuminated cruising the almost empty streets in the hope of finding a customer.

Memorable year endings

NEW YR Turned on palm_1024 BLOG

 

IN 2019, WE SPENT NEW YEAR’S EVE  in Ahmedabad. This beautiful city filled with history and remarkable monuments is in the Indian state of Gujarat, which is officially teetotal. Although we did consider smuggling some booze into our hotel room, we had an alcohol-free New Years Eve. After clinking glasses of chhaas (buttermilk), we sat in our bedroom listening to firecrackers being let off sporadically in the dark streets nearby. Other New Year’s Eves have been more memorable.

When we were young children, my sister and I used to spend New Year’s Eve with my cousins. Their parents, my uncle and aunt,  used to work hard to host our families and friends on Christmas Day. Their treat was to go out to celebrate the last day of the year. My sister, my cousins, and I were left at home to give company to my uncle’s ageing mother. My aunt and uncle used to get ready to leave and then came to say goodbye to all of us remaining behind. Invariably, my uncle’s mother used to try to guilt trip them by saying:

“How can you think of leaving us alone this  evening, of all evenings?”

This plaintive question was always unsuccessful in getting them to change their plans.

Sometime in the 1980s, I was staying over Christmas and New Year in a remote part of  Cornwall near to Bodmin. On that New Year’s Eve, I drove to Land’s End. That year’s end, Land’s End was enshrouded in thick mist. All I could experience of this famous landmark were, the icy cold air, the sounds of waves and a foghorn that blasted intermittently. I have yet to see Land’s End properly.

In 1994, I visited India for my first time. My wife and I were staying with my in-laws in Bangalore.  They were members of the Bangalore Club, one of the city’s prominent social clubs. Every year, they liked to attend the Club’s New Year’s Party. In the 1990s, these parties were fairly modest affairs. Tables were set up under the stars on a large lawn around an open-air  circular dance floor. The tall trunks of the palm trees surrounding the lawn, were entwined with strings of tiny light bulbs. One of the trees would have the current year displayed with numbers outlined with tiny light bulbs. At midnight, these used to be switched off as soon as the illuminated figures displaying the new year were switched on.

There was dancing on the circular dance floor. A competition was held to find the best dancers of the evening. In the past, my in-laws used to carry away the prize year after year. After some years, the committee asked them to forego the prize so that others could win them. Even as octogenarians, my in-laws were superb dancers.

In the 1990s, the ‘happening’ place for New Year’s Eve parties in Bangalore was the KGA (Karnataka Golf Association). Nowadays, the Bangalore Club is deemed to be the place to be as the year passes through its final hours. The party is now noisier and far more crowded than it used to be when I first experienced it – not my ‘cup of tea’.

One year after my father-in-law had passed away, my wife and I spent the 31st of December at home with my widowed mother-in-law. We ordered a pizza from a well-known chain. When it arrived, it tasted alright although it had a musty odour. We decided not to, or could not manage to, stay awake until midnight. We fell asleep. At three o’clock in the morning our mobile ‘phone woke us. It was our daughter ringing to wish us a happy new year. I must admit that this was the most relaxing New Year’s Eve I can remember.

Some years earlier, in the 1980s, I celebrated New Year’s Eve with my friend Raša in Belgrade,  the capital of the former Yugoslavia. To see the New Year in, we went across the River Sava to a party in a large flat in New Belgrade.

Before we set off in a taxi, Raša warned me to keep away from windows and  balconies. You might wonder why. Many retired military men lived in New Belgrade. A lot of them possessed firearms. At midnight, they celebrated by firing these guns. People outside on balconies or close to windows sometimes got injured by ricocheting bullets. We were not affected. At about 1 am, we left the party and visited some friends who lived on the edge of Belgrade. There, we drank a great deal of alcohol. The rest of that New Year’s Day was lost in an alcoholic haze.

I hope that the end of this tragically troubled year, 2020, will be memorable in a pleasant way. Will we be raising our glasses to digital devices,  or will we be clinking them with those held by our friends and family, maybe with fully extended arms?

 

Decorated palm tree at the Bangalore Club

Birthday in Kosovo

K1 PROHOR PC 90 Church ext BLOG

MY BIRTHDAY IS on VE Day (8th of May). In 1990, I celebrated it in the former Yugoslavia. I was driving around Serbia in a rented car with my friend from Belgrade, Raša R. His birthday was the day following mine.

Before I rented the car, Raša, a vey wise fellow, advised me to rent a car from one particular company because its cars carried Slovenian registration plates, rather than Serbian. This  proved to be sound advice.

On the seventh of May, we booked into the comfortable accommodation provided at the beautiful Prohor Pčinjski monastery in the hills of southern Serbia. We decided to stay there two nights in order to celebrate our birthdays.

My birthday wish was to drive into the autonomous region of Kosovo and Metohija, which was populated by a high percentage of Albanians. And, then as now, I was greatly interested in all matters connected with Albania and the Albanian diaspora. Both Raša and I had separately visited the area in the 1970s. We were both keen to see it again.

Raša, a Serbian, had some reservations about driving into Kosovo, where there had been some unpleasant violent incidents between the Serbian and Albanian communities some months earlier. However, he decided that he would accompany me for two reasons. One was that our car bore Slovenian plates, not Serbian. The other related to his excellent command of the English language. He said he would only speak in English in Kosovo, not a word of Serbian.

We set off, driving through the relatively empty Serbian countryside. The boundary of Serbia and Kosovo was at the summit of a low mountain pass. As soon as we entered Kosovo,  we discovered that, unlike the part of Serbia we had just left, the countryside of Kosovo was relatively crowded with people, by the road side and in the fields. The landscape was liberally dotted with recently constructed homes and other buildings. This was quite different from what we recalled of our earlier visits.

We drove into Priština (Prishtinë), the capital city of the autonomous region. The main road was filled with a sea of people. We inched forward. The crowds parted slowly to allow us to proceed. Raša advised, nay forbade, me to sound the car’s horn. He did not want to upset anyone. I had never before driven through such crowds. Four years later, I did it again, but in the central market area of Bangalore in India. There, I and other motorists sound horns incessantly, but nobody pays the slightest notice to them.

We parked in the centre of the city in a car park that looked like it was the site of a large demolished building.

I was keen to buy recordings of Kosovan Albanian music for my ever growing collection of music from all over Yugoslavia.  The best supplier turned out to be a kiosk that sold cigarettes, magazines,  and newspapers. I bought about fifteen cassettes, the kiosk’s entire stock, but had no bag to carry my haul. The enterprising shop keeper saw my plight. He opened a couple of cartons that each contained twenty packs of cigarettes and emptied the packs onto his small counter. Then, he carefully packed my cassettes into the cartons.

After lunch in what seemed to be the grandest hotel in the city, we drove to see the beautiful Serbian Orthodox monastery at Gracanica.  Then we wended our way back towards Serbia, stopping for coffee at Gnjilane (Gjilan). There, I spotted a kebab shop that used a logo identical to the well-known McDonalds ‘M’. When I pointed this possible breach of ‘copyright’ to my friend, he shrugged his shoulders and said:

“This is Kosovo. Anything goes.”

We reached Prohor Pčinjski, where we ate a lavish and tasty dinner. The following day, Raša’s birthday trip was a drive through parts of Yugoslavian Macedonia. After passing some rice paddy fields, we were stopped by a policeman with a speed measuring device. He fined me the equivalent of £1 Sterling for speeding. My friend was fined half of that for not wearing a seatbelt. Otherwise, we had a good day, visiting an attractive small town, Kratovo, and the Roman ruins at Stobi on the River Vardar.

The following day, we drove back into Kosovo, stopping at the small town of Prizren. On both the 1990 and my 1975 visits, Prizren captured my heart more than any other place in Kosovo. Recently taken photographs I have seen show that it is still a delightful place.

From Prizren we drove to a dramatic pass that led from Kosovo into south eastern Montenegro.  We spent the night in Rozaje, a small Montenegrin market town. Thus ended a memorable double birthday celebration.

Soon after we visited Kosovo together, it was time for me to fly back to England. Raša accompanied me to Belgrade airport. Just before I entered the secure departure area, I waved to him and experienced a weird sensation. I felt that Raša knew that we would never meet again.

My sensation was not without basis. Soon after I left Yugoslavia,  the country began its painful dismemberment. Visiting my friends in Belgrade and elsewhere in Yugoslavia became inadvisable.  Sadly, by the time that uneasy peace began to reign again in what was once Yugoslavia, Raša had passed away.

VE Day marked the end of hostilities between the Axis and Allied powers in Europe on the day that was to become my birthday a few years later. The imposition of socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe that followed  did not put an end to festering sores that had been troubling the Balkans and elsewhere since the decline of the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian empires, which had already begun at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This was certainly the case in what was Yugoslavia. During the ‘reign’ of Marshal Tito, a semblance of unity was achieved in his country. However, after his death, as if recovering from a general anaesthetic, old unresolved conflicts reawakened. President Milošević did little to resolve these, but instead helped to exacerbate hem. Hailed by some Yugoslavs, mostly Serbs, as the new hero of Yugoslavia, this assessment was not shared by many, especially the Albanian folk in Kosovo.

For all the opprobrium that was heaped on Serbia during the 1990s, I cannot forget the warmth, hospitality, and friendship shown to me by ordinary people living in Yugoslavia, Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Albanians, and many others during the 1970s and 1980s. They did not deserve what befell them during the 1990s and much of the 20th century.

You can read more about travelling in the former Yugoslavia in “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ” by Adam Yamey. This illustrated book is available from:

Amazon

Bookdepository.com

Lulu.com

Kindle

Photo shows Prohor Pčinjski monastery

Himalaya Palace

HIM 1 BLOG

 

THE HIMALAYA PALACE cinema in the London suburb of Southall, an area where many people of Punjabi descent live, showed only Bollywood films from India, usually the latest releases. Being keen on these films, we often made the long trip from our home to Southall to watch them. During our regular visits to India, always including Bangalore, we take time to see Bollywood films in the country where they are created.

We were in Bangalore in December 2001 when the blockbuster film “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (ie ‘sometimes happy, sometimes sad’) was released all over India. We were staying with my in-laws,  and everyone decided that we had to see it.

We chose a cinema near the famous Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR), a long established popular eatery in Bangalore. It was decided that we should have breakfast there before seeing a morning screening of the film. So popular is MTR, that queuing is always required before getting a table. It was my first visit to this highly esteemed place and I hope my last. Everything we were served was almost dripping with ghee, which is part of its attraction for its many fans.

The cinema was a few steps from MTR. After buying tickets, we had to wait in another queue. This one was to await one’s turn to have bags searched by security personnel. I thought this was to prevent weapons and bombs from entering the auditorium, but it was not. The security people were searching for food and drinks. So-called ‘outside food’ could not be brought into the cinema because it risked reducing the sales of overpriced snacks and drinks sold by the cinema.

When we reached our seats, my sister-in-law showed me her basket, lifted a shawl within it, and revealed the sandwiches and other snacks beneath.  So inefficient were the security people that they had not delved into the bag with any seriousness of purpose.

Before the film started, my sister-in-law offered me and the rest of the family rolls of compacted cotton wool rather like those that dentists stuff into patients’ cheeks to dry the mouth. She said we might need them because the volume of the soundtrack would be very high. I declined them, and enjoyed the full impact of the sound.

At the Himalaya in Southall before the start of any film, a sign would be projected. It said something like:

“Please do not talk during the performance.”

This was a pointless exhortation because at the Himalaya the soundtrack was played so loud that even if you screamed at your neighbour, they would not have heard you.

Sadly, the Himalaya Palace (built 1929) is no longer a cinema. It closed in 2010. When we last visited Southall a few years ago, the Chinese style front of the Himalaya, complete with dragons, still existed, but its interior had become a covered market.

Nowadays, well at least before the pandemic arrived,  we watch Bollywood films that are shown regularly (at least one per week) at a Vue cinema in London’s Shepherd Bush.

Providing you miss the Friday and Saturday screenings of the latest releases, the audiences are usually minute, often less than ten people in an auditorium that can seat well over 150 people. Even before the pandemic, social distancing  was the norm during the screenings because empty seats usually greatly outnumbered occupied ones.

Most Bollywood films are long, usually over two and a half hours. So, there is an interval during their screening. The point at which the interval occurs is chosen by the film maker to leave the audience at a point of high suspense in the story.

Once during an interval at a Bollywood screening at the Vue, we sat in the almost empty cinema and heard two ladies, sitting several rows in front of us, chatting in Italian. Out of curiosity,  we asked them in Italian why they had chosen to see a Bollywood film. Their reply surprised us.

The two women were members of an Akshay Kumar fan club in Calabria in the far south of Italy. They had only ever before seen films starring Akshay on video screens.  They were staying far away from Shepherds Bush in Dulwich when, to their delight, they discovered that the film we were watching, starring Akshay, was being screened in Shepherds Bush. They had come to see one of Akshay’s films on the ‘big screen’ for the first time.

Bollywood’s films have captured the hearts of people all over the world. They were even  popular in the former USSR. When we visited Albania in 2016, we discovered that they, as well as Indian TV soap operas, had captured a significantly large audience of Albanians. These films would not have been shown in Albania prior to the downfall of its Stalinist style regime in 1991.

Until it is safe to do so again, my wife and I will have to enjoy armchair screening of our Bollywood DVDs. Enjoyable as these are, they are an incomplete substitute for ‘in your face’ full blast performances in a cinema auditorium.

Adventurous crossing

BEST TO WATCH THE SHORT VIDEO (1 minute) FILMED IN BANGALORE (India) BEFORE READING THIS!

Watch here:  https://vimeo.com/409423869

SINCE THE ‘LOCKDOWN’, and the worldwide decline in road usage, what is written below has temporarily become historical.

Crossing main roads in Bangalore and many other Indian cities requires an act of faith and is quite an adventure. There are, of course, some pedestrian crossings controlled by traffic signals that are usually but not always obeyed. Once we were in an autorickshaw in Ahmedabad. The driver hardly ever stopped at red signals. When we asked him about this, he told us that there was no need to stop at red lights unless there was a policeman nearby.

Despite the availability of controlled pedestrian crossings in Bangalore, most people cross busy roads wherever they feel like and however hectic the traffic, putting life and limb at risk every time.

Now, I do not want you to think that I am singling out Indian road users including pedestrians for their exciting approach to road safety.

Long ago in Rome, I got the feeling that pedestrians who expected motorists to stop at pedestrian crossings mostly stimulated drivers to drive more rashly when they were trying to cross the road.

In another former imperial city, Istanbul, which I visited in 2010, motorists drove fast and recklessly. When drivers paused at pedestrian crossings, it was only briefly. They were like energetic dogs straining on their stretched leashes. I had the feeling that at any moment cars would charge forward to crush the people scurrying across the road.

Indian drivers, although seemingly undisciplined, expect anything to happen on the road, be it a cow that suddenly strays onto the carriageway to vehicles driving in the opposite direction to the rest of the traffic and people who have decided to dry their grains on a sun drenched flat road surface. Most Indian drivers, expecting the unexpected, seem to have good reflexes. So, pedestrians wandering across the road wherever and whenever they feel like it do not pose a great problem for drivers. That said, I feel that crossing busy roads in Bangalore requires much courage and faith in the skill and care of drivers.

My approach to crossing busy roads in Bangalore is as follows. Quite simply, I look for someone else nearby who wants to cross. As these strangers are often locals, I assume, perhaps naively, that they are experienced in crossing the road. I join them to take advantage of their supposed experience and because any sensible motorist would rather injure one pedestrian rather than several at once. Foolish reasoning, maybe, but apart from making long detours to find allegedly controlled crossings, I will willingly accept better suggestions.

Well, at the moment (April 2020), the streets of Bangalore and London, where I live, are pleasantly devoid of traffic apart from occasional cars, delivery motor bikes and public service vehicles.

Even in London, where drivers are not mentally prepared for pedestrians wandering into their paths away from controlled crossings, traversing the street ‘Bangalore style’ has become possible. My worry is that when ‘lockdown’ is unlocked, will people in London be able to get out of their newly acquired habit of crossing wherever and whenever they feel like it?

Unsuitable for the elderly

I HAVE ONLY VISITED Nandi Hills once. That was in 1994. My wife’s grandmother was approaching the age of 97.

We were staying with my in-laws in their two storey house in Koramangala in the south of Bangalore. One day, it was decided that a visit to the Nandi Hills would be fun.

Nandi Hills is about two hour’s drive north of Koramangala. Perched on the summit of a steep hill, Nandi Hills used to be a summer fortress of the great Tipu Sultan, whose life ended at the end of the 18th century.

Given that at our excursion destination there would be steep paths and uneven ground, it was sensibly considered that it would not be a good place to take a frail 97 year old.

My wife’s grandmother (‘Granny’), who was fully alert intellectually, was not at all happy with the idea of missing the trip.

While the family was assembling the copious amounts of food to eat during the journey and at our destination, several of us noticed Granny, who usually never left the ground floor, sprinting up and down the stairs leading to the first floor.

When Granny had completed her athletic feat, she came up to us and said:
“See? I can easily manage the stairs. So, I can join you on the trip to Nandi Hills”
My parents in-law employed a great deal of tact tinged with a modicum of firmness to get Granny to agree, somewhat reluctantly, to remain at home.

The road that ascended from the plain up to the fort at the summit of the Nandi Hills was spectacular. It had at least twelve extremely tight hairpin bends, each one numbered.

We spent a pleasant couple of hours picnicking in the garden amongst rusty old cannons near the fort. My wife and I walked to some stone Hindu temples overlooking a sharp cliff-like drop down to the plain far below. One of the temples housed a large stone carving of a Nandi Bull, a creature found in many Hindu temples.

I suppose that once travel becomes safely feasible again, I would love to pay another visit to Nandi Hills.

A picnic to remember

 

I AM NOT A LOVER OF picnics. My perfect idea of eating outside my home is not squatting on a rug in a picturesque open-air location, but in a restaurant. In contrast, my wife and her parents loved picnics.

Many years ago, when both of my dear in-laws were still alive and healthy, that is well before 2006, we decided to have a picnic at the Big Banyan Tree just outside the city of Bangalore (India). Known in Kannada, the official state language of Karnataka, as ‘Dodda Aalada Mara’ that means ‘Big Banyan Tree’, this huge tree, an example of Ficus benghalensis which is about 400 years old, covers about three acres. It is located about 17 and a half miles west by southwest of the Bangalore Club in central Bangalore.

It is a popular local attraction for picnickers. This being the case and also the fact that I had never been there helped my in-laws decide that we should enjoy a picnic at the Big Banyan Tree. After thermos flasks had been filled, masala omelette sandwiches prepared, blankets packed, puri aloo packaged, bhakri boxed up in cylindrical steel containers with tight fitting lids, we set off: my parents in law, my brother in law and his family, my wife and our very young daughter, and me.

We arrived at the tree, which looked more like a dense, tangled forest than a single tree, but that is what banyan trees become when left to their own devices. After threading our way through the aerial roots hanging down from the tree, we found a small open space that looked nice for a picnic. At least everybody except me, not a lover of picnics, thought so.

We laid out the blanket, and put out the containers of food, and that is about as far our picnic was to resemble a normal meal ‘al fresco’. Moments after setting out the food, swarms of our closely related primates appeared. These monkeys had not come to keep us company or simply to watch their two-legged relatives eating. No, they had arrived to be fed. Their only intentions were far from friendly. They had come to steal our picnic. One by one they dropped out of the trees and approached our food. With great difficulty we were able to ‘shoo’ away these almost fearless raiders. At one stage, I resorted to throwing wet used teabags at them. They were very persistent, in fact so persistent that we decided not to persist with our picnic. We packed everything and made a hasty departure having eaten nothing.

This experience did nothing to remove my long-held prejudice against picnicking. It did the opposite. Wasps and other intruders are bad enough, but monkeys ‘took the biscuit’. Well, metaphorically if not in fact.