A new arrival above the theatre

I HAVE NEVER SMOKED. Therefore, when smoking was banned in cinemas, I was not upset by this ruling. The Coronet cinema in Notting Hill Gate was one of the last cinemas in London to enforce the ban. Smokers sat upstairs in the circle and non-smokers sat downstairs in the stalls. Despite the smoking, it was a delight seeing films at the Coronet because the cinema was housed in what was once a theatre that first opened in 1898. The original interior décor, though in need of some restoration had been preserved.

The theatre was designed by the theatre architect William George Robert Sprague (1863 – 1933), who also designed the Novello and Aldwych theatres in London. Audiences at the Coronet were able to see famous actors such as Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt on its stage. From 1923, the Coronet became used as a cinema, the screen being positioned in the theatre’s proscenium arch. In 2004, the Coronet was bought by Kensington Temple, who used it for prayer meetings. When not being used for religious purposes, films were screened there for public audiences as before.

In 2014, a fringe theatre group, The Print Room, which left its original premises in nearby Hereford Road, acquired the Coronet and began using it as a theatre once more. A new stage was constructed. It covers the area of the theatre where the stalls seats used to be. The audience sits in the steeply raked seats of the former circle seating area. Where the stalls used to be, has been converted to a quirkily decorated bar area. Because the bar is just beneath the stage, the bar is closed during performances to prevent noise from it being heard in the auditorium during a show. All of this has been done without changing what has been left of the place’s old internal décor.

The Coronet occupies a corner plot. Its exterior has neo-classical decorative features with pilasters, pediments etc. There is a dome high above the main entrance, which is located at the corner of Notting Hill Gate and Hillgate Street. For as long as I can remember (about 30 years), the lead-covered dome was unadorned.

The covid19 pandemic began closing London in about March 2020. The Print Room, like all other theatres in the country, closed. As it is close to shops that we use, we passed it regularly. During the summer, the theatre was covered with scaffolding whilst builders redecorated its exterior. By the end of summer, the scaffolding was removed.

Several weeks later, I could not believe my eyes. A statue had been placed on the top of the dome. The figure on the dome appears to be bound by ropes or cables and his or her face is covered by the sort of mask one might wear if one was a beekeeper. The figure is holding what looks like a large open book or an artist’s palette in its left hand, whilst pointing a pen or artist’s paintbrush into the distance with the right hand. Close examination of the sculpture reveals that at present the ropes are holding down a protective covering. I look forward to seeing what is being concealed.

I was curious about the sudden appearance of a statue on the dome. It turns out that when the Coronet was built, the dome did bear a statue (www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/CoronetTheatreNottingHillGate.htm). When it was taken down, I cannot discover, but it was more than 30 years ago. Planning to replace it began in September 2018 (www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Revision%20Content-2133806.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=2133806&location=VOLUME2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1). The planning document submitted by the Studio Indigo architectural practice reveals:

“Historical images and photos of the Coronet show that there was at some point a statue on top of the dome roof. The statue appeared to be of a life size human figure, the details of which were difficult to precise.

The proposals include for a life size bronze sculpture of the artist Gavin Turk as the famous English portrait artist [posing as] Sir Joshua Reynolds. The statue is based on the Alfred Drury sculpture which stands in the Anneberg Courtyard of Burlington House in the grounds of the Royal Academy, and is a design by contemporary artist Gavin Turk. The new statue celebrates the notional idea of a theatrical/cultural building which had a figure calling the people into the venue.”

Looking at old pictures of the Coronet, it seems that the new sculpture will not resemble the original. If the sculpture that now perches on the dome is by Gavin Turk, a leading British sculptor, it will be in good company. Not far away, there is an abstract sculpture by Antony Gormley on the roof of Holland Park school.  

Noticing that a statue had arrived on the dome of the Coronet hit me dramatically. I was very pleased to see it as it will enhance a theatre which is already remarkable for the high quality of its productions. Furthermore, it is heartening that the only remaining elegant edifice on Notting Hill Gate’s main thoroughfare, mostly ruined architecturally in the 1960s and 1970s, is being well-maintained and tastefully improved.

A small zoo in north London

EVERY VISIT TO GOLDERS Hill Park in northwest London gives me great pleasure. Now officially part of Hampstead Heath, it contains a lovely feature, its small zoo. This consists of a large paddock containing deer and sometimes a rhea. Close to this, is a series of cages, an aviary, containing exotic birdlife including a laughing kookaburra. These are located next to an enclosure that contains a small group of ring-tailed lemurs. The lemurs’ neighbours are several wallabies and a couple of donkeys, named Sienna and Calypso. The wallabies and the donkeys have a long rectangular sloping field in which to wander.

I have written about the park and the zoo before, and published it elsewhere (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/11/19/walking-past-wallabies/). When I wrote that piece, I did not explore the small zoo’s history. It was certainly present well over 60 years ago, when I was less than ten years old. As a small boy, I remember seeing wallabies and flamingos. More recently, the flamingos have disappeared and have been replaced by ibis and various other exotic fowl. Before my time, the flamingos used to reside in the duck pond next to the park’s walled garden (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=BAR027).

The zoo’s history is difficult to ascertain. After searching the Google entries relating to the park and its history, I found only one reference that alludes to the presence of the zoo prior to WW2. This consists of a recording of an interview (https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Science/021M-C1379X0029XX-0001V0) with the scientist Sir Anthony Seymour Laughton (1927-2019), an oceanographer. Laughton was born in Golders Green, began his education in Hampstead at Heysham School, a ‘dame school’ (private elementary school) in Branch Hill, and moved to Gerrards Cross during WW2 (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbm.2020.0021). As a young child, Laughton lived in one of the small roads that lead of North End Road and back on to Golders Hill Park. He and his brother were often taken to Golders Hill Park where he remembered that there was a small zoo with wallabies. This would have been before 1939, when he and his family moved out of London. So, we can conclude that the zoo was in existence before WW2.

According to Pam Fox, author of “The Jewish Community of Golders Green”, Golders Hill Park was popular with local Jewish families, who went:

“Golders Hill Park on Sundays to watch the peacocks strutting around the grounds of Golders Hill House.”

The House was destroyed in 1941. Laughton did not mention these in his interview and, sadly, there are none to be seen today.

To discover whether the little zoo existed before Laughton’s childhood, that is prior to 1927, I looked at a detailed map, surveyed in 1912. This was after the park was opened to the public by the London County Council in 1899, making it the first public park to have been opened in what was then the Borough of Hendon (now incorporated into the Borough of Barnet). I compared what was on that map with what is on modern maps and found that the park’s layout has not changed much since 1912. The bandstand that you can see today is where there was one back in 1912. Where there is the deer enclosure today, there was a similarly shaped and located fenced field in 1912. The same is the case for the long narrow field where you can see the wallabies and donkeys today. The 1912 map does not show any buildings where the aviary is located today, but apart from that the pattern of land enclosures in the part of the park where animals and birds are kept enclosed today is remarkably similar. The question is, and I cannot answer it, was what is now a deer enclosure, then a deer or other animal enclosure? Here is another as yet unanswerable question: did the long rectangular field where the wallabies live today enclose animals for viewing by the public as long ag as in 1912?

Prior to becoming a public park, Golders Hill Park was the gardens of the now long-since demolished Golders Hill House, built in the 1760s for the merchant Charles Dingley (1711-1769), who traded with Russia (www.leeandstort.co.uk/Stort%20History/Charles%20DINGLEY%20Biography.pdf). I have not found any references to any collections of birds and animals in Golders Hill Park prior to the childhood of Laughton, the oceanographer. It is possible that the merchant Charles Dingley or later owners of the property might have kept deer and even exotic creatures, but there is no evidence to confirm or deny this.

What is important, is that the little zoo, which I remember from the 1950s, is still thriving today and providing enjoyment for children of all ages. Whether the various creatures ‘enjoy’ being caged-up and gawped at is a question I cannot begin to answer.

And then, there was dim sum and dumplings

OUR FAVOURITE CHINESE restaurant is Golden Dragon in Gerrard Street, which is the heart of London’s Chinatown. It is particularly enjoyable to order dim sum dishes there at lunchtime or in the mid-afternoon. Amongst these delicious small plates, allow me to recommend steamed tripe with ginger and chilli, which contains tripe cooked to perfection. The other larger dishes, available during the place’s opening hours are excellent. Chinatown is rich in eateries serving Chinese food. Although we have tried several of them, we keep on returning to Golden Dragon. A visit to Gerrard Street is never complete without entering the excellently stocked Loon Fung supermarket. Between the Golden Dragon and the supermarket, there is often a street stall where followers of the Falun Gong movement, which is frowned upon by the government in China (PRC), issue propaganda material. For anyone wishing to experience a Chinatown district, Gerrard Street and its environs will not disappoint. Recently, when walking along Gerrard Street during the Chinese New Year, I wondered about the street before it became a vibrant centre of London’s Chinese community.

Gerrard Street, which was named after the soldier and courtier Charles Gerrard First Earl of Macclesfield (c1618-1694) who provided a bodyguard for William of Orange during his journey from Torbay to London in 1688, was built in about 1681 (Chinese Year of the Rooster from 18th February 1681). Gerrard built a house, which according to a map drawn in 1870 stood on the south side of Gerrard Street opposite the southern end of the present Macclesfield Street. The north side of Gerrard street, according to the map, used to be a ‘Military Garden’. This was a walled in area for military exercises using arms. This was covered with buildings by 1746, when John Rocque drew his detailed map of London.

Gerrard House occupied the site of numbers 34 and 35 Gerrard Street and was built between 1677 and 1682 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp384-411). In 1708, it was owned by the well-known rake, duellist, and politician Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun of Okehampton (c1675-1712), who was killed whilst fighting a duel (probably about matters both political and financial) with James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1658-1712) in Hyde Park. Both participants of the duel were mortally wounded and each of them died soon after the fight. In the 1760s, the house was divided into two dwellings by its then owner, Commodore Sir William James (c1721-1783), who had served with the East India Company. He had been commodore of the Bombay marine and retired to England in 1759 with a huge fortune. James had been involved in various major naval fights against Indian forces along the Konkan coast of Western India.  The house was destroyed by fire in 1887.

Apart from Lord Mohun and William James, many other  well-known people lived along Gerrard Street. These include, to mention but a few: the poet John Dryden (1631-1700); the philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797); the antiquary Peter Le Neve (1661-1729); the Dutch painter William Sonmans (died 1708); the biographer and diarist James Boswell (1740-1795); one of the first British balloonists, John Money (1752-1817); and the theatre-manager Charles Killigrew (1655-1725). The street was also home to the ‘Literary Club’ that was founded in 1764 by Dr Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  Meetings were held in the Turks Head Tavern, which might have been located roughly where Loon Fung stands today. It was one of at least three pubs that used to exist in Gerrard Street. Between 1794 and 1801, number 39 housed first the ‘Westminster One-Penny Post Office’, which became the ‘Two-penny Post Office’, when postal charges were increased.

In the early twentieth century, Gerrard Street was home to various restaurants serving European food and some clubs of historical importance:

“Irish proprietor Kate Meyrick ran the notorious roaring twenties 43 Club at 43 Gerrard Street and legendary jazz maverick Ronnie Scott set up his first jazz club in the basement of number 39.” (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/about-us/).

However, the area was rather run-down. In addition to restaurants and other businesses, there were also some brothels.

All of this is interesting enough, but I was curious to know about Gerrard Street’s evolution into a Chinese area. According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown,_London), London’s first Chinatown was in the Limehouse district of the East End close to the London Docks. After the Blitz and WW2, the Chinese people began leaving the East End for other parts of London. The Chinese began moving into the part of Soho surrounding Gerrard Street in the 1970s, beginning with Lisle Street that runs parallel to Gerrard. However, I can remember Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street even in the late 1960s. I recall one example in particular, The Dumpling Inn, which has long been closed. By the 1980s:

“… the area got the full Chinatown treatment; Chinese gates, street furniture and a pavilion were added, plus Gerrard Street, parts of Newport Place and Macclesfield Street became pedestrianised.” (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/about-us/).

In addition, street signs are bilingual, both in English lettering and Chinese (Mandarin) characters.

An area that began to be built-up during London’s expansion soon after the Great Fire of London (1666), has evolved from being a residential street in the late 17th century to an area known for its coffee houses and taverns in the 18th century, Gerrard Street has become world famous for its thriving Chinese activity and wonderful restaurants. Yesterday, 13th of February 2020, despite the pandemic, there were long lines of people, both Chinese and others, who were waiting to celebrate Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox, by purchasing Chinese cakes from the several Chinese pastry shops in and around Gerrard Street. All that remains is for me to wish you all: “Kong hei fat choy” (which means something like ‘congratulations and be prosperous’.)

Where seven streets meet

SEVEN ROADS MEET at a point in London called Seven Dials. A column with seven sundials attached to it stands in the middle of the circle where they meet. Long ago, on the 5th of October 1694, the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) noted that he went:

“…to see the building beginning near St. Giles’s, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area; said to be built by Mr. Neale, introducer of the late lotteries, in imitation of those at Venice, now set up here, for himself twice, and now one for the State.”

The pillar with sundials facing in seven directions was erected in 1694 by Edward Pierce (1630-1695) and Thomas Neale (1641-1699). Pierce was a sculptor, architect, and stonemason. Neale was a Member of Parliament for 30 years; Master of the Mint; gambler; and entrepreneur. His achievements included:

“…development of Seven Dials, Shadwell (including brewing and Navy victualling), East Smithfield and Tunbridge Wells, to land drainage, steel and papermaking, mining in Maryland and Virginia, raising shipwrecks, to developing a dice to check cheating at gaming. He was also the author of numerous tracts on coinage and fund-raising and was involved in the idea of a National Land Bank, the precursor of the Bank of England. The extent of his interests – as a prominent Hampshire figure, as a member of the Royal Household, as a long-standing MP serving on dozens of Committees and as the promoter of an extraordinary plethora of projects” (www.sevendials.com/history/thomas-neale-1641-1699).

In July 1773, the column bearing the seven dials was removed because it was believed that there was a substantial amount of money hidden beneath it, so wrote Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London (1850). None was found. Another theory suggests that the pillar was removed:

“… to rid the area of the undesirables who congregated around it. The remains of the column were later moved to the garden of the architect James Paine (Junior) at Sayes Court, Addlestone, but not re-erected.” (www.sevendials.com/resources/Seven_Dials_History_of_the_Area_by_Dr_John_Martin_Robinson.pdf)

It was not until 1989 that the demolished column was replaced. It was reconstructed according to Pierce’s original design that is lodged in the British Library. The new column was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on the 29th of June 1989.

The entrepreneur Thomas Neale would have approved of a venture that commenced in his Seven Dials district in 1976. That year, Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998) opened his Whole Food Warehouse in a disused warehouse in Neal’s Yard (formerly ‘Kings Head Court’), named in memory of Thomas Neale. In Saunder’s words:

“I decided to start a wholefood shop which I would like myself – one that was cheap, efficient and would not make customers feel bad because they could not recognise a mung bean. At that time wholefood shops were mostly of the hippy style – folksy looking with open sacks and used paper bags; nice meeting places for the in-groups but hopelessly inefficient, expensive and tending to make ordinary people feel like intruders.” (https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/).

His venture proved successful. Various other businesses including Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, Casanova & daughters, and Wild Food Café, opened nearby. Saunders wrote:

“The Yard has developed into a social scene. Even though the businesses are each independent, everyone who works in them, and many of the regular customers, identify with the place. In fact most of the workers are customers who had asked for a job. My old idea of a village community has manifested in the form of a community of small businesses, each one individual and free to go its own way. It is rather like a family, with me as a father and the businesses as my grown-up children.”

Although we made our last visit to Neal’s Yard in the middle of the covid19 pandemic, when the place was empty and closed, it is safe to say that the Yard continues to be a vibrant ‘social scene’ and its shops are still thriving despite the fact that shops supplying ‘whole foods’ have multiplied considerably since Neal’s Yard was established. Saunders is commemorated in the Yard by a wall mounted plaque.

Apart from selling food and remedies, Neal’s Yard was home to the film studio run by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam between 1976 and 1987. It was here that they edited the Monty Python series of films.

One of the entrances to Neals Yard is an alleyway leading from Monmouth Street (formerly ‘Great St Andrew Street’), one of the seven streets leading to the Seven Dials. The street is home to one of London’s older still existing French restaurants, Mon Plaisir, which is close to Neals Yard and was founded long before Saunders established his venture. The brothers David and Jean Viala started the eatery in the 1940s.

My parents moved from South Africa and settled in London in the late 1940s, by which time Mon Plaisir was serving customers. I do not know when my parents first ate there, but during my childhood I remember it as being one of their favourite places at which to to eat out. Until 1972, when new management took over the restaurant, Mon Plaisir occupied one shopfront. Its characteristic quirky décor rich in everyday French posters and other ephemera remains substantially unchanged since the 1940s. As a child during the 1960s, I was taken there infrequently. I remember liking it. One thing that I recall was that the toilets were approached through a doorway at the end of the restaurant furthest away from the street. An artist’s palette was nailed above the doorway. It bore the words “Le Pipi Room”. On a visit made this century to the enlarged restaurant, I noted that the sign had disappeared. When life returns to ‘normal’ again, another meal at Mon Plaisir is on our ‘to do’ menu.

During my childhood, the Seven Dials did not make any impression on me. I knew about Mon Plaisir, but never ventured south the few yards to the Dials. With the opening of the Donmar Theatre on Earlham Street, another of the roads leading to the Dials, in 1977, which we have visited often, the Seven Dials entered my London radar.

Before ending this somewhat rambling piece, here is a true story about the theatre. Soon after it opened, an American friend, a keen theatregoer who was midway in age between my parents and me, invited me to join her at a performance at the Donmar. It was a play with a Chinese theme. We were seated in the front row, literally on the stage. My friend who had long legs, stretched them out onto the stage and the actors had to take care not to trip over them. Halfway through one of the acts, my friend began fumbling in her large bag and withdrew a thermos flask. She removed the lid, which served as a cup, and gave it to me to hold. Then, she filled the cup with hot soup, which she proceeded to drink whilst the drama unfolded in front of us. I often wonder what the actors, who were so near us, thought when they saw a member of the audience enjoying her picnic in front of them.

The Seven Dials and the streets radiating from the column are full of fascinating buildings, some old and others new and there are plenty of shops to explore apart from those pioneering wholefood shops in Neals Yard. If you can manage to get a ticket to the Donmar, and this is quite hard if you are not on their advance booking scheme, then it is often worth watching a performance there.

Music by the River Thames

A ROW OF HOUSEBOATS is moored alongside the bank of the River Thames that runs past Cheyne Walk in London’s Chelsea. The floating dwellings are faced by Lindsey House, one of the oldest buildings in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Built in 1674 by Robert Bertie, 3rd Earl of Lindsey (1630-1701) on land that was once part of Thomas More’s riverside garden, it was remodelled by Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf (1700-1760) for London’s Moravian community in 1750. Five years later, the edifice was divided into separate dwellings. Today, they are numbered 96 to 101 Cheyne Walk. The American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) lived in number 96, and the engineers Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) lived in number 98. My friends Kit and Sheridan lived in a ground floor flat in number 100.

Lindsey House, Chelsea, London

I first met Kit and Sheridan during one of our annual family holidays to Venice. Kit, who was a colleague of my father at the London School of Economics, and her husband Sheridan used to stay in the Pensione Seguso that was next door to the Pensione La Calcina, where John Ruskin (1819-1900) once stayed, and we always stayed in Venice. During one of our holidays when we stopped on the Fondamente Zattere to talk with Kit and Sheridan in Venice, they asked me whether I liked classical music. When I told them that I did, they said that they would invite me to their musical evenings held some Saturdays in their home. I attended quite a few of these during the second half of the 1960s.

On arrival at 100 Cheyne Walk, Kit used to welcome the guests by offering us coloured sugar-coated almonds, which she described as ‘stones of Venice’, an illusion to Ruskin’s book about Venice (“The Stones of Venice”), where the almonds had been purchased. After discarding coats, all of the guests, twenty to thirty in number, had to find somewhere to sit in the large, low-ceilinged living room. I was always directed by Kit to the same seat. She used to want me to sit next to the telephone. She always told me:

“If it rings during the music, dear, lift the receiver and say: ‘Sorry, we are having a party. Please ring again tomorrow’”

It never did ring, but I used to sit nervously in anticipation of having to perform my important duty.

Sheridan was a fine ‘cellist, who knew many professional musicians, all of them quite famous. He used to invite several musicians, anything from two to four, to perform a couple of chamber works with him. Kit knew what was to be performed at each soirée, but the invited musicians were not told until they arrived (at the same time as the audience). Without prior rehearsal, Kit and his musical guests performed chamber works, often by Brahms and Beethoven, beautifully and, except for Sheridan, from ‘scratch’. The acoustics of the 17th (or 18th) century living room were perfect for the music performed. These wonderful evenings engendered my enduring love of the chamber music of Brahms. During the music, Kit sat a few feet away from Sheridan on his right. Her eyes never wandered from him and she always smiled sweetly as he played. Whenever we saw them in Venice, they were always walking hand-in-hand like two lovers.

I believe that Kit and Sheridan married late in life. Sheridan told me once that he was pleased when he married, because as a married man he was able to perform a service, for which only married people were eligible at the time. He was at last able to become a marriage guidance counsellor.

Sheridan told me once that there was a lot of planning before putting on each musical evening. He ensured that none of his guest musicians ever played the same piece together more than once. Also, he tried to make sure that nobody in the audience ever heard the same combinations of pieces more than once. He did this by recording who had played what and who had heard what in a set of notebooks.

Two works were played at each soirée. During the interval, everyone stood up, many relieved to get off the not always comfortable seating provided. Kit served glasses of red wine and crackers with pieces of cheese that contained cumin seeds. Every soirée, the same refreshments were provided. 

A few of the musicians that I can remember hearing playing with Sheridan included the violinist Maria Lidka (1914-2013) and her son, a ‘cellist; individual players from the Amadeus Quartet; and once the pianist Louis Kentner (1905-1987). At the end of the evening when Kentner had played, Kit asked him to give me a lift part of the way back to north west London. He agreed, but as we drove together, I had a distinct feeling that this famous pianist was not at all keen about giving me a lift and said not a word to me during the short journey.

As Sheridan grew older, he became increasingly frail and began looking gaunt. During the last few concerts I attended, I noticed that he covered his hands with woollen fingerless gloves. Maybe, he had a circulation problem. Sheridan died in 1991. Kit lived on another seven years. I believe that the last time I spoke to her was just after I married in late 1993, but she showed little interest in my news. 

Whereas back in the 1960s, when I used to attend the musical evenings at Lindsey House, one could walk from the street to the front door, today this is impossible without being able to unlock a gate leading into the grounds of the house. Currently owned by the National Trust and rented to tenants, Lindsey House is rarely opened to the public. Fortunately, we did once manage to attend one of these openings, but all seemed to have changed since I last listened to chamber music being played close to the river.

Fingers in the cup: taking the water in Slovakia

THE ONLY MINERAL WATER you can get in London’s Hampstead today is bottled water from a shop or supermarket. In the 18th century, people came to Hampstead to imbibe the allegedly curative iron-rich chalybeate waters available from the spring in Well Walk or at the elegant spa rooms established on that street. Walking along that thoroughfare where once people flocked to take the water, which rivalled that which is still available at Tunbridge Wells in Kent, I remembered an experience in the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia, before that country split into the separate Czech and Slovak republics in 1993.

With a friend, I drove to what was then Czechoslovakia in about 1992. The objects of my trip were to visit a country I had never been to before and to collect information about music in Czechoslovakia to help my friend, the late Michael Jacobs, who was writing a new edition of “The Blue Guide to Czechoslovakia”. 

Bardejov, Slovakia

The furthest east place in which we stayed was the small town of Bardejov in north-eastern Slovakia. We did venture a bit further towards the edge of the country, to the Dukla Pass where there was a Soviet Russian victory over the Germans during WW2, but only as a day excursion.  

At Bardejov, we booked into a hotel just outside the centre of the old, picturesque town. The accommodation was part of a spa complex, where people came to take the curative spring waters that issued from beneath the ground. My friend and I were keen to sample these, not because we were unwell, but out of curiosity.

The waters were dispensed in a building a few yards away from the hotel. It was late afternoon when we entered the tap room. A tubby woman in white uniform indicated that she was just about to close up for the day, but somehow, we communicated to her that we only wanted to taste one or two of the different spring waters. She was happy to oblige. She picked up a small porcelain beaker, and before filling it with some water from one of the springs, she rubbed the inside of the vessel with her (un-gloved) middle and index fingers. Seeing this, my travelling companion decided to give a miss to tasting, but I took a swig of the metallic tasting water.

I handed the beaker back to the attendant, who wiped it again with her two fingers, before filling it with water from another spring. I cannot remember that there was much difference between the tastes of the two waters I sampled. After thanking her for letting me try the waters, we returned to the hotel. At the back of my mind, I had two thoughts. One was that I hoped that I did not get ill after drinking from a glass that had been ‘wiped’ with fingers that had probably wiped many peoples’ beakers during the day. The other thought was that perhaps it was something in the lady’s fingers that gave the healing powers, rather than the spring waters themselves. I did not get ill but will probably never get to know whether my wild idea that it was the lady’s fingers that had curative properties, rather than the spring water, held even a grain (or drop) of truth.

A long time has passed since that visit to Czechoslovakia, but that brief experience at the spa near Bardejov lingers in my memory. Thinking about it makes me wonder about the  hygiene of the conditions prevailing when people came to Hampstead to take the waters in the 18th century, when not much was known about the role of microbes in the transmission of diseases.

This brings me back to the present, when in the UK cafés can only serve hot drinks in disposable cups. Often these are covered with special lids with orifices through which the drinks can be sipped without removing them. I always remove these lids for two reasons. First, I do not like sipping through a tiny hole and, second, I wonder about the cleanliness of the server’s fingers, which place the lid on the cup. I will leave you with that worrying thought.

Night at the opera

OPERA IS FOR THE ELITE or, at least, for those who can afford the often-high seat prices. London’s Covent Garden used to offer some reasonably priced tickets, but these only gave access to seats or standing places far away from the stage, from which one could hear the performance, but one only saw what looked like ants moving around on the stage. Once I had one of these ‘budget’ seats at a performance given by the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. I was so far from the stage that, even though my eyesight was excellent at the time, it could have been almost anyone or anything flitting about in time with the music so far away from me. The best I can say is that I have spent time under the same roof as the great dancer even though I could hardly see him.

Floral Hall, Covent Garden, London

In early 1994, my wife, Lopa, became aware that a foundation was offering Covent Garden opera tickets at radically reduced prices to members of south Asian minority communities to introduce them to the joys of western European opera. Lopa decided to investigate this generous offer aimed at what the foundation assumed were ‘culturally deprived people’. She rang the organisation to ask how to become involved in the scheme. An ineffably patronising but kindly lady replied:

“Which community do you come from, by the way?”

“I am Gujarati.”

“All you need is a letter from the association that represents your community.”

“I don’t belong to such an organisation,” Lopa responded.

“Never mind, dear, why don’t you start one, and then contact us again?”

Not once did the lady ask Lopa if she had ever been to the opera. I suppose she assumed that south Asians never watched western European opera.

A short time later, Lopa sent a letter to the foundation on paper she had headed with the words: ‘Gujarati Worker’s Association of Kensington.’ Soon after this, she was accepted on to the scheme, which offered several tickets for each of a selection of top-class opera performances. These tickets were for the best seats and were priced at less than a fifth of their full price, which was still not an inconsiderable amount of money. We attended about six operas, sitting no more than three rows away from the stage. Sitting in these wonderful seats, which in 1994 cost well over £130 each, spoiled me forever. I do not think that I would be happy to attend another performance at Covent Garden unless I sat in seats with as good a view as those subsidised by the foundation.

On one occasion, we invited my father to join us. He was quite familiar the opera house at Covent Garden, having sat in the Royal Box several times with his colleague Lord Robbins, who was Chairman of the Royal Opera House. He accepted our invitation and we sat in wonderful seats watching an opera. I cannot remember which one we saw, but what happened in the interval, has remained in my memory. Dad said that he would treat us to champagne and smoked salmon sandwiches in the so-called ‘Crush Bar’, an exclusive refreshment area in the opera house.

We arrived at the Crush Bar, where a uniformed flunkey stopped all who wished to enter.

“We need a table for three,” my Dad explained.

“I am so very sorry, sir,” replied the flunkey, “all the tables are taken”.

My father reached into his pocket, and withdrew a £10 note before saying:

“Would this help you find a table?”

“Please follow me, sir,” replied the flunkey as he led us to an empty table.

Incidentally, the refreshments my father bought the three of us cost far more than we had spent on the subsidised tickets. 

At each of the subsidised performances we attended, we saw few if any other south Asian or any other people of non-European appearances in the audience. Sadly, the foundation abandoned their scheme about a year after we had joined it. There might have been other schemes that followed it, but we never found out about them.  

Oh, in case you are wondering about the Gujarati Workers Association of Kensington, whose creation was encouraged and suggested by the lady at the foundation, which shall remain unnamed, it still has only one member.

Confined in Japanese occupied Manchuria

PARTICLES OF SNOW, whisked by the breeze, were whizzing about in the air in random directions and eventually reaching the ground this early February afternoon in London. I had just finished my midday meal with some nutritious fermented cabbage and was wondering what to write. Maybe, it was the kimchi that helped me remember an old friend who spent some of his working life in Manchuria, which is close to Korea, the home of this weirdly delicious fermented food substance, or was it something else that has brought him to mind?

Sir Norman had already retired from Britain’s diplomatic service when I first met him in the mid-1970s. An accomplished musician, a string player, he used to perform in concerts given by a fine amateur orchestra based west of London, whose treasurer was both a player in it and a friend of mine. Usually, after concerts, my friend and her husband hosted a coffee party at their home for the conductor and selected patrons of the orchestra. Sir Norman was a patron, and it was at these parties that I first got to know him. The few tales that he related about his years as a diplomat fascinated me.

On graduating from university, Sir Norman had a good command of several modern European languages as well as Latin and Greek. He told me that it was typical of the diplomatic service that they decided that his first posting was to Japan, where he was to have a role in the interpreting of a language he did not know: Japanese. Being a good linguist, he was able to learn it.

During the late 1930s, he was sent to Shanghai in China for a year (1937-38). When he arrived, a war between China and Japan was in progress. He told me that every afternoon, he would sit taking tea on the roof of a building in the European cantonment of the Chinese city. As he sat there, he could see shells shooting overhead. They were being fired at the Chinese on one side of the Yangtse River by the Japanese artillery on the other side. This went on day after day for several months. Then one day, the shelling stopped suddenly and for good. Sir Norman wondered why.

Soon after the shelling ceased, he met some senior officers of the victorious Japanese forces. He asked them why the fighting that had been dragging on for so long had ended so abruptly. The officers explained that the Chinese soldiers were mostly mercenaries. Once the Japanese had ascertained how much to pay them to stop fighting, they stopped.

Later, Sir Norman was transferred to Manchuria, where he was the Acting Consul General in Dairen (now ‘Dalian’).  He was serving there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. After that incident, the Japanese authorities in the city of Dairen ordered him not to leave the consulate building, in which he lived. They cut off his telephone and forbade him to use his wireless to listen to radio broadcasts. Frequently, Japanese officers used to visit his premises to check that the radio was inactivated. Sir Norman, who told me that he had never been much of a technological wizard, told me more about the radio. He said that he had unscrewed a wire in the radio, which rendered it inoperable, and left it disconnected whenever he did not want to use the apparatus. With a smile on his kindly face, he explained to me that whenever he wanted to listen to a news broadcast, it was a simple matter to reattach the wire. During the time that he was being held under house-arrest, none of the Japanese officials who had visited to check on him had ever bothered to examine the radio properly.

In about 1942, the Japanese transported Sir Norman to Tokyo and eventually he was transferred into Allied hands. He said that at no time was he treated badly by the Japanese. In fact, he was looked after by them very well.

The last time I saw Sir Norman was not long before he died. We went to visit him at his home, whose lovely garden ran down to the bank of the River Thames.  He was in good spirits, recovering from a hip replacement. He told my wife and me that both of his hips had prosthetic joints and that every few years they required replacing.

“It’s like changing a car’s tyres, you know,” he explained cheerfully, “except that it lays you up for a few weeks each time.”

Although I did not meet Sir Norman as nearly as often as I would have liked, I feel privileged to have been able to hear about historical events from someone who experienced them first-hand.

Sir Norman died in 2002. Sitting at home today in early February 2021, watching whisps of snow swirling in the air, whipped up by a strong cold wind, had brought him to mind. I am not sure that it was because of the kimchi I had just eaten that made me think of him. I wondered if I had recalled him because just as he was confined in Manchuria, we are also being confined, or at least being restricted in our freedom to move around. Unlike him, we have plenty of access to communications from the outside world, much of which arrives in ways that Sir Norman did not live long enough to experience. However, like him, we are currently limited in our movements. We can leave home, which Sir Norman could not, but we cannot travel as far from it as we had become accustomed to doing before the onset of the covid19 pandemic. Sir Norman used to sit out the several weeks of recovery from his hip surgeries patiently. I suppose that we must also wait patiently, but for far, far longer.

Friedrich Engels and his unfortunate neighbours

FRIEDRICH ENGELS LIVED almost opposite London’s Primrose Hill at number 122 Regents Park Road. A colleague and friend of Karl Marx, he lived between 1870 and just before his death in 1895 in this large house located 360 yards west of the railway lines that run from Euston to places outside London.  His residence had been chosen for him by Jenny (1814-1881), wife of Karl Marx. Every Sunday, Engels used to hold an ‘open house’; all visitors were welcome. Liberal amounts of food and drink would be available and there was music and singing. According to Tristram Hunt, a biographer of Engels, the visitors included, for example, leaders of European socialism such as Karl Kautsky, William Morris, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Keir Hardie, Eduard Bernstein, and Henry Hindman. Hindman, who was a mentor and supporter of the Indian freedom fighter Shyamji Krishnavarma, who was active in Highgate between 1905 and 1910, nicknamed Engels ‘The Grand Lama of Regents Park Road’. Amongst visitors from Russia:

“The founders of Russian Marxism, George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod, considered the visit to his house in Regents Park Road a necessary pilgrimage whenever they were in London. Vera Zasulitch, who lived in London was another regular visitor as indeed was Stepniak, the terrorist author of “Underground Russia”” (note 1)

The congregation of so many socialists at his home attracted the attention of the police, who frequently kept number 122 under surveillance. Lenin, who first visited London in 1902, clearly would have not been able to visit Engels at Primrose Hill.

We visit Regents Park Road on some Saturdays and Sundays when parking is easy and free of charge, but, alas, we were born far too late to have been able to enjoy the stimulating atmosphere that must have reigned in the home of Engels on Sundays. Despite the absence of the great Engels, there is much to enjoy along the road where he lived, even during these restricting times of the covid19 ‘lockdown’. Apart from fresh air in plenty on Primrose Hill, there are interesting food shops and a few places that serve hot drinks to passers-by. One of these, which we favour, is Greenberry Café, which is located near to the railway lines. Almost next to this establishment, there is a building set back from the road. Its red brick façade is topped with a green tiled pediment with white lettering that reads:


Chalk Farm Garage

Proprietors

The Flight Petroleum Co Ltd

The ground floor of this building, which might once have included the workshops of the garage are closed in with modern glazing. Now used as the art gallery of the Freelands Foundation (https://freelandsfoundation.co.uk/about), this used to be a regular local petrol filling station. Flight Petroleum is a company that still exists. It is based in Mississippi (USA).  Before becoming a gallery, the former filling station was a branch of the Bibendum company that supplied alcohol not as motor fuel but in the form of wines and spirits.

Almost next to the former garage, a few feet left (i.e, west) of it, there is a curious looking white building, that was not built as a dwelling or a shop. On 19th and early 20th century maps, this is marked as being a ‘chapel’. An extremely detailed (5 feet to the mile) map of 1895 reveals that this chapel was in the grounds of the ‘Boys’ Home Industrial School’. The school’s grounds occupied much of the corner of Regents Park Road and King Henrys Road that meets the former at an acute angle. Where the former garage stands now used to be the entrance to the courtyard around which the school’s buildings were arranged.

I looked at two useful websites, www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonBoysIS/ and http://whispersandvoices.blogspot.com/2009/07/boys-home-regents-park-road-london.html, to learn about the school and its history. The school was originally founded by the physician and social reformer George William Bell (1813-1889) as the ‘Home for Unconvicted Destitute Boys’ in 1858 in some houses on Euston Road, where the British library stands currently. Later that year it became a certified ‘Industrial School’, which admitted boys sent by the courts for their protection as well as those who came voluntarily. In 1865, the school had to move because its premises were to be demolished in order to build a railway goods shed.

The school moved to new premises on Regents Park Road, initially a row of three houses. The chapel, one of whose pediments bears the letter ‘T’, was added after the school received a donation from a generous donor and was later superseded by the establishment of the St Marys Church on the northeast corner of Primrose Hill.  In 1868, a new school room was built on the northern side of the school’s yard. This was raised on arches, the spaces beneath them being used to store materials such as wood that was used in some of the practical classes taught in the establishment. By the 1890s, the school occupied the buildings that now form the corner of Regents Park and King Henrys Roads.

The boys learnt a variety of skills including carpentry, brushmaking, tailoring, shoemaking, and so on. They were also hired out to local residents, as Edward Walford described (writing in 1882):

“A large quantity of firewood is cut on the premises, and delivered to customers, and several boys are employed by private families in the neighbourhood in cleaning knives and shoes. The amount of industrial work done in the Home is highly satisfactory. The products of the labour of the boys and their teachers —clothes, shoes and boots, brushes of every kind, carpentry and firewood—are sold, and contribute to the general funds of the institution …”

I wonder whether any of these highly productive young boys did jobs for the household of Friedrich Engels, who lived close by. At the same time as they were beavering away, so was Engels. During his residence close to the school, he:

“ … wrote many of his famous works at № 122—The Housing Question (1872), Anti-Duhring (1877-78), the revised form of three chapters of this book published as Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (1880), Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Ludwig Feuerbach (1888).” (www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/pamphlets/1963/london_landmarks/index.htm).

Engels died in 1895. The school closed in 1920. On a map surveyed in 1938, the school’s courtyard still existed, the garage was not yet built, and the chapel was still marked as such. Today, there is no memorial to the school where it used to stand, but Engels’ house is distinguished from its neighbours by a circular plaque. Both the school and Engels were involved in social reform and the welfare of the oppressed, but few today would associate this pleasant road near Primrose Hill with those historical activities.

Note 1:

www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/F19FEAB88CAD3C1ACBB7B917B1EC1E00/S0020859000002364a.pdf/russian_emigration_and_british_marxist_socialism.pdf

Sir Harry loses his head

LOSING AN ELECTION is probably one of the worst things that happens to politicians today. Several centuries ago, a politician risked facing a far worse fate: decapitation. Such was the ending that was suffered by a 17th century politician who chose to live Hampstead in north London, close to Westminster yet surrounded by countryside.

Sir Henry Vane (c1612-1662) is often referred to as ‘Henry Vane, the Younger’ or ‘Harry Vane’. Born into a wealthy family, he completed his education in Geneva, where he absorbed ideas of religious tolerance and republicanism. His religious principles led him to travel to New England. Between May 1636 and May 1637, he served as the 6th Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While in America, he raised a large amount of money to be used for the establishment of what is now Harvard University. Soon, he came into conflict with other colonists. Barratt, an historian of Hampstead, wrote:

“…he soon found that his own ideas of religious independence and those of his friends were not in harmony. Their “tolerance” was shown in a cruel and rigid intolerance of everything that did not fit in with their own narrow Calvinistic views; Harry Vane stood for a larger humanity.”

Harry returned to England and became a Member of Parliament as well as a Treasurer to the Royal Navy (in 1639). He was knighted by King Charles I in 1640.

When the conflict between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians broke out in about 1642, it was hoped that Harry would stick with the Royalists, but he did not. He became a solid supporter of the Parliamentarians. During the Commonwealth that followed Cromwell’s victory in the Civil War (1642-1651), he regained his position of a treasurer to the navy. Harry’s views on various things differed from those of Oliver Cromwell. By this time, Harry had moved to a house in Hampstead, Vane House, where, it is believed, he used to meet with Cromwell, Fairfax, and other prominent Parliamentarians. The poet Milton was also a visitor at Vane House. Barratt relates that when the question of executing King Charles I was being decided:

“…Vane refused to be a party to the sentence, and retired to his Raby Castle property in Durham, one of the estates his father settled on him on his marriage in 1640.”

Vane had married Frances Wray, daughter of Sir Christopher Wray, who was a Parliamentarian.

Harry became concerned when Cromwell barred him from the dissolution of the so-called ‘Long Parliament’ in 1653. Let Barratt expand on this:

“When Cromwell violently broke up the Long Parliament, his most active opponent was Sir Harry Vane, who protested against what he called the new tyranny. It was then that Cromwell uttered the historic exclamation, “O Sir Harry Vane! Sir Harry Vane! the Lord preserve me from Sir Harry Vane!” Vane was kept out of the next Parliament, and, still remaining at Raby, made another attack on Cromwell’s Government, in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Healing Question’. This was a direct impeachment of Cromwell as a usurper of the supreme power of government, and led to Vane being summoned before the Council to answer for his words.”

Harry’s actions led him to be imprisoned on the Isle of Wight.

Following Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, Harry returned to public life and his home in Hampstead. He was striving for Britain to become a republic rather than a continuation of the dictatorial Protectorship established by Cromwell and continued by his son Richard.

When King Charles II was restored to the throne, ending the Protectorship, Harry, who had not been party to, or in favour of, the execution of Charles I, was granted amnesty and hoped to live in retirement, contemplating religious matters that interested him, in his Hampstead residence. But this was not to be. Although the King was happy to forgive Harry, some of his advisors were concerned that, to quote Barratt:

“Vane’s ultra -republicanism was probably more objectionable to Charles II. than it had been to the Protector, and Charles had not been established on the throne more than a few months when the arrest of Sir Harry Vane was ordered.”

Harry was taken from his garden in Hampstead by soldiers on an evening in July 1660. After a short spell in the Tower of London, Harry spent two years as a prisoner on the Isles of Scilly. In March 1662, he was brought back to the Tower and faced trial at the King’s Bench. The charge against him was:

“…compassing and imagining the death of the king, and conspiring to subvert the ancient frame of the kingly government of the realm…”

The judges in this unfair trial had no option but to find him guilty. He was executed at the Tower.

I would not have been aware of this remarkable man had I not spotted a brown and white commemorative plaque in his memory on an old brick gate post on Hampstead’s Rosslyn Hill. The gatepost and a short stretch of wall are all that remains of Harry’s Vane House, which was has been demolished. It was still standing in 1878, by which time it had been heavily modified and:

“…occupied as the Soldiers’ Daughters’ Home. Vane House was originally a large square building, standing in its own ample grounds.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp483-494).

This was connected by a covered arcade to a school for soldier’s daughters. The building which housed the school still stands on Fitzjohns Avenue and has been renamed Monro House. The heavily modified Vane House, in which Sir Harry resided, was demolished in 1972. Its only remains are as already mentioned.

Once again, seeing a small thing whilst strolling around in London has opened a window that has given me a first view of an aspect of history that was almost, if not completely, unknown to me.