Come up and see my etchings

THE TOWER OF BABEL greeted anyone who climbed the staircase at my childhood home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Well, actually it was a large engraving of the tower as imagined by Dolf Rieser (1898-1983). Dolf, who was born in King Williams Town in South Africa, was related to my mother’s grandmother Hedwig Ginsberg (née Rieser). My mother and Dolf were cousins. Even though they lived not far from us in north London, I saw little of Dolf and his family until about 1976 when I began studying dentistry. It was then that my uncle Sven, married to my mother’s sister, and his daughter told me that they were about to join the printmaking classes that Dolf held in his studio above his home in Sumatra Road, West Hampstead. As I liked drawing and painting, I signed up as well. The three of us attended the weekly evening classes that Dolf held on Tuesdays. Out of a class of on average six to eight students, three of us and the teacher were all closely related.

At the top of the stairs leading to the studio, there was a small colourful image created by the artist who is now very famous. It was a gift to Dolf given by the artist when both were living in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Dolf, who had studied biology in Switzerland and was awarded a PhD in 1922 (https://dolfrieser.com/), began studying art in Munich in 1923, and then moved to Paris to study print-making in Atelier 17, the studio of the great surrealist painter and etcher Stanley Hayter (1901-1988) and the engraver Jozef Hecht (1891-1951).

In the compulsory half hour tea breaks during the classes, we used to sit with Dolf whilst he regaled us with tales about his life in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s. Every winter, he used to go to Switzerland to ski. He used to enter the railway station carrying his wooden skis, and Parisians would stop him to ask what they were. For, in those days, it might surprise you to learn, the average Frenchman was unfamiliar with skiing. Dolf used to visit the Café Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris, where he would enjoy the company of other artists. He told us that he often saw Pablo Picasso there, sitting at one of the tables. Dolf said that being a junior and relatively unknown artist at the time, he had to sit at a table near to Picasso’s, which was reserved for the ‘upper echelon’ of the artists community in the city. I cannot recall all that he told us, but much of it was both informative and highly entertaining, if not always entirely suitable for polite company. One bit of French that I learned from him during these entertaining intervals in the class was ‘poule de luxe’, which you can look up for yourself.

Dolf’s lofty studio had several large tables where we worked on our copper and zinc plates. At one end of the studio there was a raised platform, a gallery, on which there was a couch or bed.  The tables were surrounded with a great assortment of stuff, both works of art by Dolf and the plethora of materials and equipment need to make prints, not only on paper but also on plastic and silk, techniques he developed. There was a table with large shallow trays containing nitric acid in which plates of zinc prepared for etching were bathed. The acid in the trays was of variable concentration, unknown even to Dolf, who used to periodically chuck in unmeasured dollops of concentrated acid from brown glass Winchester bottles whenever he felt (rather than knowing for sure) it might be necessary. Often, he did not tell us when he was about to strengthen the liquid. This could prove difficult if someone were trying to make small delicate adjustments to his or her zinc plate. Occasionally, one or other of us would shout, dismayed:

“Oh, Dolf, you didn’t say you were adding acid. Now, see: the acid has eaten deeper than I was expecting.”

But the ever-ingenious Dolf usually always had a way of remedying what looked to be disastrous at first sight. Today, I doubt that the studio would have passed health and safety rules. There were no extractor fans above the acid baths to remove the toxic fumes emitted when a plate was in the acid. This did not bother any of us.

One end of the studio near the acid baths was dominated by a large, hand operated printing press. The etched or engraved plate was placed on a soft woollen cloth, after having been inked up. A sheet of damp paper was placed over the plate, and this was covered by another cloth. Then, Dolf or one of us turned the large wheel that drove the plate between a pair of metal rollers that applied high pressure to the dampened paper, driving it into the ink-filled grooves on the etched or hand-engraved plates.  When Dolf turned the large wheel, always moving his body rhythmically, he often used to say in Swiss German:

“Aber die Bewegung is immer die glierchen,” meaning ‘but the movement is always the same’.

This referred to a slightly lewd joke he often told us. It went like this. Two Swiss peasants come to Zurich, where they decided to employ the services of a prostitute for the first time in their lives. To save money, they agreed that only one of them should pay for the experience. When the chosen one had finished with the prostitute, he joined his friend, who asked him how it was. The other fellow replied that it was quite pleasant, adding: “Aber die Bewegung is immer die glierchen.”

Printing was always a messy business. To remove the ink from one’s hands, we used a petroleum-based jelly often used by motor mechanics, which Dolf kept in his studio. Removing the ink from one’s hands was easier than removing the lacquer that was painted on to zinc plates to prevent acid from reaching parts that were not to be etched. To explain, a zinc plate is covered with lacquer, which is then removed with tools of varying sharpness to expose parts of the plates which the artist requires to be etched.  This is of course an oversimplification. Dolf who was very inventive showed us many other techniques for producing etched plates. It is likely that his early training in science helped him to develop interesting new ways in printmaking. Dolf maintained an interest in science, as is exemplified by his book “Art and Science”, published in 1972. Its opening words are:

“Art and science are generally considered totally different disciplines. The aim of this book is to draw attention to some of the qualities they share.”

Dolf was a superb teacher. Although the students in our classes were of mixed ability, he brought out the best in each and every one of us. I found that he was particularly good on critiquing composition. The compositions and ideas embodied in his own creations were mostly superb. He used to look at one’s work, immediately understand what we were trying to achieve, and to nudge us gently and constructively in such a way that we ended up with what we were hoping to produce and express.

Once, he held an exhibition of our, his students’, work in his studio and asked us to invite our friends. At the end of the evening, Dolf had sold several of his own prints, but none of us managed to sell any that we had created. Dolf told us off, saying that none of us had worked hard enough, if at all, on getting our friends to buy our works.

After Dolf’s wife died, he continued the classes, but used to be reluctant to see us leave at the end of the evening. I liked Dolf so much that I was always sad when the classes came to an end. However, after he became a widower, we used to follow the classes by walking with him to a Turkish restaurant nearby in Willesden, where we all enjoyed a late supper with him.

The last time I saw Dolf was when he was lying in a hospital bed near the end of his life. Even in hospital, he was in reasonably high spirits, telling his visitors stories and jokes. His house in Sumatra Road still stands. I do not know whether his wonderful studio is still being used to create works of art, but it is with Dolf and his students that I will remember it.

Finally, having read the above, I hope that you will not get the wrong idea when I invite you to “come up and see my etchings”. Many years ago, a young lady did accept this invitation when I made it; she is now my wife.

Two archbishops, a biologist, and a Mayor of New York

OUR FRIEND MICHAEL G, who has been following my accounts of our motorised rambles around England since the ‘lockdown’ eased in July 2020, recommended that we should visit the village of Barley in northern Hertfordshire, a place he knows well. We followed his suggestion and were not disappointed.

Barley lies surrounded by deep countryside a few miles east of the town of Royston, which is between Baldock and Cambridge, whose station has signs that tell travellers that the city is “The Home of Ruskin Anglia University”. There have been human settlements in the area since the Bronze Age. The name ‘Barley’ has nothing to do with the crop of that name but is derived from the Old English words meaning ‘lea’ or ‘meadow’. There might also have been an Anglo-Saxon tribe based in Hertfordshire to whom this name referred. The Domesday Book recorded the village as ‘Berlei’, which might be derived from ‘Beora’s Ley’, meaning the woodland clearing of the Saxon lord, ‘Beora’ (www.barley-village.co.uk/about). In 2011, the village had a population of 662. It is a small place, bursting with interest.

The church of St Margaret of Antioch stands on a rise surrounded by a vast cemetery with many gravestones in different styles. The church with its curious spire, which we were able to enter, dates from the 12th century, but has many later modifications. In its structure, the viewer may discover elements of different styles of English architecture ranging from the 12th to 19th centuries.  The church is pleasant to the eye, but I found the name of the saint of greater interest than the church itself. St Margaret of Antioch, a saint whom I had never encountered before, is also known as ‘St Marina’. She lived in the 3rd to 4th centuries AD and was highly venerated in mediaeval times. According to an online encyclopaedia (www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Margaret-of-Antioch), her story is verging on incredible:

“During the reign (284–305) of the Roman emperor Diocletian, Margaret allegedly refused marriage with the prefect Olybrius at Antioch and was consequently beheaded after undergoing extravagant trials and tortures. Her designation as patron saint of expectant mothers (particularly in difficult labour) and her emblem, a dragon, are based on one of her trials: Satan, disguised as a dragon, swallowed Margaret; his stomach, however, soon rejecting her, opened, and let her out unharmed.”

Well, we had to go all the way to Barley to become acquainted with this saintly lady.

Margaret House, next to the church, is now a home for disabled folk and dementia sufferers. Parts of it closest to the church look quite old. Actually, they are not so ancient. Once the rectory, it underwent many modifications between 1831 and 1833, possibly following a fire. These were supervised and designed by Anthony Salvin (1799-1881), an expert in creating buildings in the mediaeval style (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1347406). Since Salvin’s time, the older building has been joined to a far larger modern edifice.

Across the road from the church and at a lower altitude, we saw a beautiful Tudor building, the ‘Town House’, which was formerly Barley’s guildhall. Sadly, it was locked up. It would have been fascinating to enter this well-conserved (highly restored) building constructed in the early 16th century, but during this time of plague that was not possible. In addition to this fine edifice, a short walk through the village will take the visitor past plenty of fine examples of dwellings that were built in the 17th century or possibly earlier. Many of them have overhanging upper storeys and most of them have their own distinctive appearances.

Barley is home to a family-run bus company called Richmonds. Many of their vehicles are parked either in an open space near to the Town House or another that contains a large garage with the name ‘HV Richmond’ above its entrance. Harold Victor Richmond, a former RAF pilot, acquired the fleet and premises of A Livermore in 1946, and his family has run the company since then (www.busandcoachbuyer.com/richmonds-coaches/). The bus garage is opposite a hostelry with a remarkable pub sign. The sign straddles the road. A beam running between two vertical supports is surmounted by painted silhouettes of a fox being chased by several hounds running ahead of two horses with their riders. Appropriately, the pub is called ‘The Fox and Hounds’. The fox is heading for the pub, which is what we did. Many years before us, the highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739) is supposed to have stayed at this establishment. The pub’s interior looks highly modernised. Michael G told me later that the original pub burnt down some years ago and what is seen today is a new building.

Opposite the bus garage, standing next to a war memorial, I noticed a sturdy wooden hut with a pyramidical roof that looked like an oversized sentry box or outdoor toilet cabin. It was probably built in the late 17th century and is known as ‘The Cage’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/herts/pp47-49). Restored in about 1970, it once served as the village lock-up (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1102583). It looks strong enough to have been very secure.

Returning to the Town House, we looked at a rock with a circular metal plate attached to it. Placed to celebrate the millennium (2000 AD), it lists some of Barley’s noteworthy personalities. They are William Warham (1450-1532), Thomas Herring (1695-1757), Thomas Willett (1605-1674), and Redcliffe Nathan Salaman (1874-1955). None of these names meant anything to me before we visited Barley.

William Warham and Thomas Herring both served the church in Barley before becoming Archbishops of Canterbury. Warham practised and taught law in London before taking holy orders and also became Master of the Rolls (in 1494), helping King Henry VII with diplomatic affairs. He served the church in Barley before becoming the Bishop of London in 1501. In 1503, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Herring’s career was almost as spectacular as that of Warham. In 1722, he became the rector of Barley and in 1743 he was the Archbishop of York. Four years later, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

The name ‘Redcliffe Nathan Salaman’ intrigued me. I guessed he must have been Jewish and was proved correct when I looked up his biography. Born in Redcliffe Gardens in Kensington (London), son of Myer Salaman (1835-1896), a merchant who dealt in ostrich feathers, he was a botanist and the author of “History and Social influence of the Potato” (published in 1949). Redcliffe studied at St Pauls School in London, then ‘read’ Natural Science at Trinity Hall Cambridge, qualified as a medical doctor at the London Hospital in 1900. He did postgraduate work at the German universities of Würzburg and Berlin before becoming appointed Director of the Pathological Institute at the London Hospital and pathologist to the Zoological Gardens in Regents Park (https://ice.digitaler.co.il/ice2019/28). In 1903, he caught tuberculosis and gave up medicine. It was around that time that he and his family moved to their rural home in Barley, the large Homestall House.

Established in Barley, Salaman began work on plant genetics, guided by the biologist/geneticist and chief populariser of the ideas of Gregor Mendel, William Bateson (1861-1926), Master of St John’s College in Cambridge. Salaman worked on the genetics of that important food item, the potato. One of his major discoveries was of varieties of the tuber that were both high yielding crops and also, more importantly, resistant to the potato’s ‘late blight’ disease, which was the cause of the major 1845 Irish potato famine and other famines in Europe during the 1840s. In 1935, in recognition of his important work with potatoes, Salaman was elected a member of the prestigious Royal Society. His book published in 1949 was of interest because it combined archaeology, genetics and every aspect of the history of the potato.

Redcliffe, his first wife, the poet and social activist Nina Ruth Davis (1877-1925), and their family (six children) kept a kosher household in Barley and observed the Sabbath. They used to travel to London to celebrate Jewish high holidays. In 1926, following the death of Nina, he married Gertrude Lowy. Despite the ‘TB’, Redcliffe lived until he was 80.

The other worthy commemorated in front of Barley’s Town House is the 17th century Thomas Willett. The fourth son of Barley’s rector, a Calvinist, Andrew Willett (1562-1621), he sailed across the Atlantic to the British colonies in North America. He was put in charge of a Plymouth Colony’s trading post in Maine. Eventually, he became one of the assistant Governors of the Plymouth Colony and then the Colony’s Chief Military Officer. After New Amsterdam was handed over to the British by the Dutch in 1664, and the city’s name changed to ‘New York’. Willett became the first Mayor of New York in 1665. In 1667, he became the place’s third Mayor. It is amazing to think that someone born in tiny Barley became the Mayor of what was to become one of the world’s major cities.

Our short visit to Barley proved to be most interesting. Even if history does not fascinate you, this village has plenty to please the eye. I am most grateful to Michael G for bringing Barley to our attention.

Why don’t trees fall down?

SOME YEARS AGO, I was walking in Stoke Common (just north of Slough) with my teacher and close friend, the late Professor Robert Harkness. The Common was a wooded area with a variety of trees. Some of them looked very awkward in that their curved or leaning trunks seemed to defy gravity. Yet, the trees did not fall over despite this.

TREE 3

Robert, who was a renowned physiologist, was also a naturalist. Everything natural aroused his interest. As we walked through the woods, he explained that the trees did not topple over because each of them maintained their own centres of gravity as they grew. These centres of gravity must, he considered change constantly during the long lifetimes of the trees. How, he wondered, did the trees grow in such a way that they never became unbalanced and always remained standing?

He never told me the answer. Maybe, he did not know, but ever since that damp grey afternoon with him on Stoke Common, I always look at trees and wonder whether anyone knows the answer to his question. This afternoon, I was walking along the lovely tree-lined path that leads to Kenwood House from its public car park, when I noticed some trees growing on a steep slope lining it. The trees’ roots seemed to be clinging to the slope, hanging on for dear life. Seeing them reminded me of Robert and his wondering about arboreal ‘assessment’ of centres of balance and a fine old friend, who passed away in June 2006.

A writer’s confession

HIG 2 BLOG

NOBODY IS PERFECT, not even yours truly.

I was a pupil at London’s Highgate School when I was studying to take state examination, then known as ‘O Levels, taken by 16 year olds. I was studying for 9 subjects, but decided to drop one of them, German. Its grammar was beginning to defeat me and to jeopardize my chances of success in the other 8 subjects.

German was not the only language that was causing me trouble as I approached the O Level exams. Unknown to me and possibly unnoticed by our English teacher, Mr B, my command of written English was insufficient for me to pass the English Language O Level exam. It was the only O Level that I failed. I passed the other subjects, but without displaying much academic excellence.

My failure to achieve the pass marks in English Language cannot be blamed on anyone except me, but there were factors that predisposed me to downfall.

During the examination, I attempted an essay that asked the candidate to discuss whether or not it was fair that pop musicians often earned more than nurses. Being by nature somewhat contrarian, I decided to write an essay in defence of the high remuneration of pop musicians. This idea, to which I no longer subscribe, expressed with poor grammar and spelling, cannot have made the person marking my paper feel sympathetic to me.

The other predisposing factor was our teacher Mr B. He was far more interested in using class time analyzing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than ensuring that all of his charges were proficient in basic skills such as grammar and essay writing.

Failing English Language did not prevent or delay my commencing the subjects in which I was to prepare for the A Level examinations that were required for admission to university.

One of my three A Level subjects was biology. The senior biology teacher was Mr S, affectionately known by his first name George. He set us three essays per week. On Saturday mornings, we had a double-length period (one and a half hours) with him. During this, he went through our essays, pointing out their good points and bad ones. The essays of one student, ‘P’ were particularly dreadful. His spelling was awful as was his punctuation: there was none except a full stop at the end of each foolscap page. And, to my annoyance and surprise, P passed English Language O Level at the same time as I failed.

Six months after failing my English Language O Level, I took the exam again. I passed with a good grade. I believe that I had learnt a great deal about essay writing from George’s Saturday essay critiquing sessions. I shall always be grateful to him.

On Saturday mornings, parents thinking of sending their sons to Highgate were shown around the school. The biology laboratory, where the essay classes were held, was on the tour. George, who was a genial old fellow, allowed us to relax during the Saturday morning classes. However, he always told us that if we heard the door to the laboratory being opened, we were all to act as uf we were concentrating on something serious while the parents peered in.

On Friday afternoons, we had a three hour practical class during which, for example, we dissected the parts of dogfish not required by fishmongers. Friday lunchtimes found George drinking in one of Highgate Village’s numerous quant pubs.

George used to arrive at the Friday afternoon practical classes having drunk far too much. For the first hour of the class, he was a menace, arguing with anyone unwise enough to approach him. After about an hour, he used to sit down and fall asleep. The last two hours of the class were supervised superbly by George’s deputy, Mr Coombs.

George was a wonderful teacher. He inspired his pupils’ enthusiasm for biology. Like my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, his range of interest extended from microscopic intracellular detail to the whole organism. Once, when walking to the Dining Hall with George, he stooped down and picked up a fallen tree leaf. He asked us what kind of tree had produced it. None of us knew. He said:

“That’s the trouble with you youngsters. You know all about DNA, but you cannot recognise a leaf from a plane tree.”

George was, as far as we knew, probably celibate. When we reached the part of the biology syllabus that dealt with human reproduction, he told us:

“You know all about this. You can read up the details in the book.”

I have wandered from my starting topic somewhat. Maybe, you were beginning to believe that I was trying to distract you from my sad performance in English and from thinking that, given my record, I have great ‘chutzpah’ writing and publishing books.

Picture shows coat of arms of Highgate School, founded in 1565

In a while crocodile

THE CROCODILE LYING LAZILY in the hot sunshine with its teeth lined jaws wide open lay motionless as we and many other visitors gaped at it with amazement.

We reached the Crocodile Bank at Semencheri (near Mahabalipuram) after a two hour drive northwards from Pondicherry along the East Coast Road (ECR), which as its name suggests runs close to the east coast of India. We drove through flat terrain with luxuriant vegetation. The road passes many picturesque backwaters and other water bodies, some covered with flowering waterlilies. We also passed a small collection of saltpans, alongside which there were small piles of white salt. This salt gathering area was on a much smaller scale than can be seen at the south eastern edge of Kutch. The road is dotted with numerous hatcheries for edible crustaceans such as shrimps and scampi.

The Crocodile Bank was established in 1976 by Romulus Whitaker and is now being run by his ex-wife, our friend Zai. It was started to breed cricodiles and other reptiles in captivity in order to counter the reduction of their populations in the wild. It is now an important centre for herpetology, education , wildlife conservation, and breeding reptiles. It is open to the public, who gain great enjoyment from seeing and learning about the reptiles.

We first visited the Crocodile Bank about five years ago. When we entered, my first impression was of looking at a sea of grey logs. On closer examination, these ‘logs ‘ were motionless crocodiles. We learnt that crocodiles and aligators are very somnolent unless they are hungry. Therefore, they tend to lie about motionless, basking in the sun or keeping cool in shallow water.

During our first visit, we saw a pair of beautifully coloured iguanas, which Zai and her colleagues were hoping would mate. She told us that they did produce a clutch of eggs eventually, and that some of the baby iguanas were enjoying life at the Crocodile Bank.

We were pressed for time on our visit in February 2020. So, we did not have a chance to have a good look around. On our first visit, Zai arranged for one of her team to give us what turned out to be a very informative tour.

I can strongly recommend a visit to Crocodile Bank. It is not far from the superb archaeological remains at Mahabalipuram and provides an interesting contrast to them. Instead of stones of historic interest, you can enjoy seeing creatures that have survived the passage of time even longer than the ruins.

A writer’s confession

I studied for my O Level examinations at Highgate School in North London. These were important state exams taken at 16 years of age.

My English language teacher was more interested in discussing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than in teaching us the basics of English Language as required for passing the O Level in that subject. I cannot blame him entirely for what happened when I sat the exam.

My poor ability in written English must have contributed to my failing the exam. The examiners must have been further annoyed by my essay on the subject “Is it fair that nurses get paid less than successful pop singers?”. I wrote that it is, because, I argued back in 1968, a pop singer gives pleasure at any one time to a greater number of people than a nurse.

Fortunately, I have forgotten the name of my of my English language teacher, but I still recall the teacher, Mr George Sellick, who helped me pass my O Level retake.

Sellick taught us advance level biology for the university entrance examinations. Every week we were required to write three essays. On Saturday mornings, we had a long lesson with Sellick. This session was dedicated to discussing the essays that the class had submitted. Our teacher used to read out to us the highlights and lowlights of the week’s essays. He pointed out what was good in essay writing and what was to be avoided. I found these sessions to be very useful.

I retook the English Language exam 6 months after my first attempt and passed quite well, albeit not excellently.

During the last decade or more, I have been writing and publishing a great deal. I now call myself ‘an author’. Whenever I think of myself as an author, I remember my disastrous first attempt at the English O Level, and feel that maybe it is a bit of chutzpah* to take up the same profession as truly great author’s such as Balzac and Dickens.

Although my written English has been gradually improving, I often get my wife, a retired barrister, to read through what I have composed. She is a reader rather than a writer (although she used to write much for her professional work). Unlike me, she got top grades in English Language at school, reads a great deal, and has a superb command of written English. I am enormously grateful to her.

*chutzpah is a Yiddish word implying barefaced cheek