Sun lover

MY MOTHER KEPT A SUN LOUNGER in the garden. It was propped up against a wall of our family home in northwest London. It was made of aluminium tubing and ‘upholstered’ with tautly stretched dark blue canvas. I will tell you why it was there and not in Canada.

Hel

My late mother, Helen (pictured above), was born in South Africa in 1920. Until 1947, I believe that it was quite possible that she might have spent her whole life there.

While living in Cape Town in 1947, she and her sister were invited to a party held by their stepfather’s relatives in the suburb of Parrow. Their hosts, Mr and Mrs Kupfer, had also invited two bachelors, Basil and his brother Ralph, whom they knew from the time when the Kupfers and the two unattached men and their parents lived in the small town of Tulbagh east of Cape Town.

By the end if the evening, Basil and Helen agreed to meet again. Not long after the party, Basil invited Helen to the cinema (bioscope in South African English). They met and talked so much that they never made it to the picture house. Almost immediately after this, they became engaged.

Soon after this, so my mother once told me, Basil informed her that they would not be able to meet again for a few weeks because he was too busy marking university students’ examination scripts. Also, he told her that was about to set sail for England, where he was taking up a teaching post at the London School of Economics (LSE). They agreed that given the imminence of his departure, Helen should follow Basil to London, and they would get married there. Basil departed for London.

Helen, who could not contain her excitement, sailed to Southampton in early 1948. She sat in the boat train to London dismayed by what she saw of England.  It was soon after WW2 had ended. She told me that the sight of rows of small houses all with chimneys emitting filthy smoke and the grey skies made her wonder why she had come to such a dismal place to marry a man she hardly knew. They married in mid-March 1948.

After my parents ‘tied the knot’, Basil chose to leave LSE to take up an academic post at McGill University in Montreal. Helen and Basil ‘upped sticks’ and emigrated to Canada in about 1950. The move was not a great success. The climate in Montreal was harsh. My mother told me that for most of the nine months they remained there, it was bitterly cold. She related that they had a flat that overlooked a cemetery. For a few months, the frozen ground was so hard that graves could not be dug. Coffins had to be stacked up above ground until the ground was soft enough to be dug. Helen bought a fur coat. It was made of soft brown fur that I can still remember. In 1950, stores in Montreal were well heated. Customers left their fur coats near the shops’ entrances whilst they were inside shopping.

It was not only the climate that was difficult in Montreal. My father found the atmosphere in the university was awkward to say the least. There was great antagonism between the francophone and anglophone academics. This created an environment that reminded him of the racially divided one he had happily left behind in his native South Africa.

The adverse conditions in Montreal, both social and meteorological, and the offer of another job at LSE, caused my parents to return to London (UK, not Ontario!). They put down a deposit on a detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a part of London where many other LSE academics lived. These included: Sir Lionel Robbins and Sir Arnold Plant, and later Professors J Durbin, I Lakatos, P Cohen, and J Watkins and many others.

My parents’ bedroom in the Suburb contained some very well-made wardrobes, which they had had made for their flat in Montreal and brought to London. That they had gone to the trouble of having bespoke cupboards built in Montreal suggests that they had planned to stay much longer than a few months in Montreal.

My mother could never get used to how little light there was in England compared to what she had been used to in South Africa. Every interior wall in our house was painted white, to reflect as much of the little daylight that there was. In contravention of the strict conservation area planning rules that were, and still are, in place in the Suburb, she made alterations to some of the south facing windows in our house during the 1960s. The original windows consisted of a latticework of small panes. She replaced these with large single panes, which allowed far more daylight to enter the house. Even though our neighbours were always asked to remove unauthorised modifications to their houses, the frowned-upon modified windows were still in place more than three decades later. Now, finally, I see that they have been restored to their original, officially approved design.

My mother died in 1980. Between her arrival in London and her death, there was less sunshine in the city than there is nowadays. Had she lived longer than her six decades, I believe that she would have approved of the warmer, sunnier climate that London enjoys now.  When she was at home and the sun happened to shine through a gap in the clouds, she would stop whatever she was doing and rush outside into our garden. She would lie on the sun lounger and enjoy feeling the sun’s rays on her face even if only for a few minutes. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, she would leave the lounger and prop it up against the wall of the house ready for the next opportunity to enjoy what she so missed after leaving South Africa. Had my parents remained in Canada, I wonder whether she would have kept a sun lounger at the ready outside her home there. Also, if they had not returned to London, I would have been born a Canadian instead of a ‘Brit’.

Voices from Ancient Rome

DOES IT REALLY MATTER how an ancient Roman, may his or her soul ‘requiescat in pace’ (RIP), pronounced the letter ‘V’? It did to the Reverend Gowing, one of my teachers of Latin at Highgate School back in the mid 1960s. Did they pronounce V as in ‘verb’ or as ‘w’ in ‘word’? To vee or not to vee? That was the question in my mind. At the school I attended before Highgate,  we pronounced the Latin v in the same way as the English v. Oddly, I felt disturbed that  Gowing believed that the toga clad Romans pronounced it as a w, as in ‘wobbly’.

LATIN ancient wikipedia commons BLOG

We questioned Gowing about this problem. Our venerable teacher decided to prove to us that he was right, that the Romans pronounced ‘veni, vidi, vici’ as ‘wayny, weedy, weeky’. His method of proof involved use of technology that was unavailable to Julius Caesar and his contemporaries.

One morning, Gowing brought a gramophone (a name derived from two Ancient Greek words) record player into our Latin classroom. He placed a record on its turntable and told us to listen very carefully. We heard someone speaking in Latin, and … enunciating words beginning with v as if they began with w. QED (three Latin words that do not contain the letter v), our Latin teacher believed.

The Reverend Gowing was old enough to believe that the gramophone record was a technical miracle that could capture the voices of those who died long ago, even around the time when BC became AD. It still amazes me to think that Gowing might have believed that. However, his ‘proof’ of the pronunciation of the Latin v did not convince me.

Some years later, I mentioned the V/W controversy (not ‘controWersy’) to someone who had a degree in linguistics.  Her view was that the ancient Romans were more likely to have pronounced v as v, and not as w. Her reasoning was based on the evolution of languages derived from Latin. For example, we neither watch a ‘wideo’ nor do we say say: ‘in wino weritas’.

Unwittingly, Reverend Gowing did something important for our class with this discussion about v. He made us question the academic authority of teachers and that is important if knowledge is to advance.

True to the spirit of what I have just written, I have just challenged what I have long believed.  I decided to  look at various sources (on the Internet) to see what they say about the current understanding of the pronunciation of V in Latin. First, the English V and U are both represented by ‘V’ in Ancient Latin. Thus, on an Ancient Roman statue of Julius Caesar, one would read ‘JVLIVS’ rather than ‘JULIUS’. Also, it appears the pronunciation of the written Latin V varies. It seems, although I do not know on what evidence this is based, that the Ancient Romans probably  pronounced v as the English say ‘w’ or even ‘oo’ (JVLIVS is a good example of this). Whether it was pronounced as ‘w’ ou ‘oo’ depended on the letters close to it in a word. For example, the name ‘FLAVIVS’ would have been pronounced ‘Flawioos’. So, our Reverend Gowing was at least half correct, and us doubters in his class were all in the wrong as far as usage of Latin by the Ancient Romans is concerned.  However, as time passed and the Roman Empire declined and fell, languages related to, or descended from, Latin adopted the V pronunciation, as did ecclesiastical users of Latin.

Finally, I have looked at the Latin textbook, which we used at school, “The Revised Latin Primer” by Benjamin Hall Kennedy. Had I not been so averse to opening this much-hated book, I would have discovered that its author, once a Fellow of St Johns College, Cambridge, wrote that ‘v’ is a “Labial Spirant (sounded as w”). If only I had taken more interest in this book instead of avoiding it whenever possible, I might have been more convinced about my teacher’s opinion about the Latin V. It seems as if I really do owe Reverend Gowing a belated apology.

 

[This is a somewhat new version of something I wrote earlier]

 

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Mon oncle – My uncle

UNTIL I BEGAN LEARNING LATIN (at eight years old), I used to think that my mother’s brother’s name, Felix, was strange. Then, I learned that ‘felix’ was the Latin word for ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’. My Uncle Felix lived up to both meanings of his name.

FELIX BLOG

Felix was born in one of the rooms of his grandparents’ house in Maitland Road, in King Williamstown in South Africa. This house was the home of his grandfather Senator Franz Ginsberg and his wife Hedwig. His three full siblings (and maybe also his half-brother) were born in the same room of this house, which still stands today.

On the 9th of May 1920, Clothilde, Felix’s maternal great-grandmother celebrated her 79th birthday at her home in Munich. That day, she wrote in her diary:

“… Ilse my granddaughter came to Munich with her husband and her indescribably sweet child. It so happened that they could celebrate my birthday with me…”

That child was Felix. That indescribable sweetness remained with him throughout his life.

Felix spent his early years in the tiny town Barkly East in the Eastern Cape, where his father, Iwan, born in Germany, was managing director of the family firm S. Seligmann and Company, which was established in 1885 by his uncle Sigmund Seligmann. In the last few years of his life Felix’s father was the highly respected mayor of this small town in the Eastern Cape. Iwan became very wealthy. The family imported luxury goods from Europe, such as the latest fashions from Paris. Felix told me that they used to buy new American cars (costing £2000) every couple of years. On his deathbed, Felix shared with me some memories of his father, who died in 1931. Iwan used to return home at midday for lunch. He would sit down with his feet up to read his post. Felix told me when he was a little boy, he used to open letters for his father. Many of them came from Germany, where, just after the end of the First World War, there was great inflation. Felix remembered the stamps which bore extremely high denominations (millions, or more) of Reichsmark. He also recalled that his father often took walks on the Common near Barkly East with his friend Mr. Nurse, the proprietor of the local newspaper, “The Barkly East Reporter”.

Even as a child, Felix was an avid reader. It was difficult for his mother to detach him from a book. His love of reading continued throughout his life. He read widely: both fiction and non-fiction. His primary education was in Barkly East. Later, he studied, as a boarder, at Dale College in King Williamstown. After Iwan died, his widow, Ilse, remarried. Her second husband Oscar died soon after the birth of their son John. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Stellenbosch, where Ilse bought a farm called ‘Bantouzel’ (now re-named ‘Mon Repos’), opposite the Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery. In 1936, Felix entered the University of Cape Town and enrolled on the BCom course. His future brother-in-law, my father Basil Yamey, who began this course at the same time as Felix, remembers being greeted by him. They had met in Tulbagh some years before at the home of the Kupfers, who were friends of the Yamey family and relatives of Oscar. Felix and his siblings stayed for a while with the Kupfers in about 1935 whilst their mother was undergoing an operation. He never completed this degree.

World War 2 (WW2) was declared in 1939. Felix joined the South African Army.  Because his eyesight was too poor to be a soldier, he served as a medical auxiliary and saw action in many of the major North African campaigns, including Mersah Matruh and Tobruk. My uncle’s wartime experiences were especially important for him.  He used to love to tell stories about them. I feel that he looked back on this tough time, which encouraged warm camaraderie amongst the military at the front, with affection.  As the War ended, Felix went with the army to Palestine.  There, he met Reinhold Seligmann (son of Sigmund) and his daughters. One of the daughters, Felicity (now deceased), showed me pictures of my uncle taken in Jerusalem during that visit. From Palestine he reached Europe, where he ended his tour of duty with some well-earned sightseeing. In Zurich, he visited the ageing Benno Seligmann, who had once lived in Barkly East.

On his return to South Africa, Felix re-entered the University of Cape Town, this time to study engineering. His mother became extremely unwell and died in 1948. After her death, Felix became one of the two joint guardians, with his uncle Rudolf Ginsberg, of his half-brother John. By that time, my mother had settled in London.  He and my mother’s sister Marion helped to look after their younger brother John. They did most of the caring for their far younger half-brother. When John and his wife Mickey came to settle in London in the late 1990s, the two brothers spent much time together. Having John in London gave him much pleasure. Felix became close to John’s sons in London, my cousins Arnold and David, when they came from South Africa to settle in London.

Felix did not complete his engineering degree. Instead, he helped to run the farm at Bantouzel, but its land was poor because it did not have its own well. He bought another farm, called ‘Eureka’, near Stellenbosch.  Next, Felix studied agriculture at Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch. Eureka was not a great success: Felix sold it. For a brief time, he worked in a nursery garden run in King Williams Town, one of Rudolf Ginsberg’s many businesses. Then, Felix joined his sisters Helen and Marion in the UK where they were both living.  He arrived there on the 5th October 1955.

Felix had a varied career in the UK. At an early stage he worked in a photographic shop near Holborn. This must have suited him, as he was a keen photographer.

Just after I began studying at the Hall School (1960), Felix came to our house to take pictures of me in my new uniform. He brought with him various special studio lamps with long cables, which had to be set up. I remember my mother’s dismay when these lights succeeded in blowing the electrical fuses of the house.

At various times, Felix had small businesses. I recall two of these. One was a flock factory: flocking is the addition of a furry surface to objects such as wallpaper. Another was his foam rubber business, which was concerned mainly with cutting foam rubber into various shapes for cushions etc.  While this enterprise struggled along, my sister and I would be presented with pieces of oddly shaped foam rubber whenever Felix came to visit our home.

For a long period, he was technically unemployed, but far from inactive. He was involved in helping charities. He and his friend, Patrick, were the co-founders of a shop (in Hampstead) set up to raise money for the charity Shelter. Felix used his car to ferry around stock collected to sell in the shop. Although this must have helped others, it did not help Felix financially. This did not seem to concern him. He enjoyed a frugally bohemian lifestyle,  financed by the not insubstantial inheritances that his father and grandfather had left him (and his siblings; my mother used her share to lay down a deposit for a house and to pay for private schooling for my sister and me). However, eventually, his bank balance became worryingly low.  

In his early fifties, Felix he joined the General Post Office. He became a postman, based at the sorting office at Rathbone Place. His delivery round was part of Crawford Street. He was much loved by his ‘clients’, who showered him with lavish gifts at Christmas time. As in the army, his time with the post office pleased him greatly. His career as a postman was curtailed by ill health: he took early retirement. The income he gained as a postman allowed Felix to buy a house in Hampstead opposite the Royal Free Hospital. This was divided into three flats. He lived at the top of the house until the last two years of his life, when he moved to the ground floor flat. In the early 1980s, a Nigerian moved in as a lodger: Bayo. This tenant became a good friend of my uncle. In the last years Felix’s life, Bayo and his brother, Folo, looked after Felix as if he was their beloved father.

Felix used to visit us frequently. He always came laden with gifts for us children. This, he continued when we grew up. He never came to see us without a bundle of well-chosen gifts for our daughter, and flowers for my wife.  He loved to entertain children. An annual treat at Christmas time was the sculptures he made by tying together inflated balloons. He would create dog-like balloon creatures for our entertainment. On Christmas Day he would punctuate the meal we used to eat at my aunt’s home with recitations of the story of Chicken-Licken and Turkey-Lurkey, and renditions of a song about Figgy Pudding.

One evening, when our young daughter could barely walk, he came over for dinner. Arriving an hour earlier than expected, as he often did, he sat quietly amusing himself and our tiny daughter. He had brought along the balloons that could be tied together, as described already.  He wanted to create balloon toys for our little one while my wife was busy in the kitchen. Suddenly, my wife rushed into our bathroom. She was bleeding profusely because she was beginning to miscarry. She called to me to bring tissues. As I rushed past my uncle, who was oblivious to the recently developed crisis, he called to me:

“Here, just put your finger on this knot while I tie these balloons together.”

It was like a black comedy or an aeroplane disaster film. He was calling for me to help tie balloons whilst my wife was trying desperately to stem her bleeding. I explained the problem to him and said that my wife needed to go to hospital urgently. Sweetly, he offered to look after our infant, but we declined his kind offer. As far as we knew, he had little or, most probably, no experience of looking after all the needs of a child less than two years old. Fortunately, my wife was rescued by the local hospital.

Felix talked to everybody and anybody. This was a trait he shared with my mother and Bobby, his younger brother. Almost without exception people responded well to Felix’s friendliness. He was genuinely interested in everyone with whom he spoke.

When I bought my house in Gillingham (in Kent), Felix was my first visitor. He arrived before the house was furnished, a few days after I had moved in, and was happy to sleep on a mattress on the floor. I remember that as we sat on the wall at the front of my house awaiting a delivery, he greeted every person who walked past, proudly informing them that I was his nephew, and that I had just moved into the area. Although Felix never married, I do not believe that he was felt alone: the whole world was his family!

Felix was full of enthusiasm for a wide range of things. He pursued his interest in photography until the end, graduating, before many other people did, into using the latest digital technology. He was an active member of the Hampstead Photographic Club and made many friends there. In the early 1970s, he and I used to attend bookbinding classes together at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute. Later, Felix became interested in pottery. For many years, he produced ceramic objects at a prolific rate, creating a veritable ocean of objects, some useful, but most of them not.  He was full of ideas, which he tried to express in his ceramic art. Everything inspired him. These objects varied greatly in quality of execution, but never lacked in originality. What many might have expressed in poetry, Felix expressed in glazed pottery.

He had a passion for indoor plants. At one stage, half of his large living room floor was covered in flowerpots filled with a variety of plants and much mud that had spilled from the pots on to the carpet: a chaotic indoor nursery. Added to these interests were history, his lifelong love of reading, cooking, and music. Whenever he could do so, Felix travelled: in the UK, Europe and South Africa, where he spent much time with his brother Bobby and his partner Duffy.

Felix was inventive, as already described above. He loved gadgets and creating them. Once when I went to see Felix in hospital a couple of years before he died, I coincided with the visit of a physiotherapist. She asked Felix whether he could walk, and he answered that he could do so with the help of a stick. She asked Felix to show her his walking stick. This consisted of a piece of metal tubing, which Felix had picked up in the street, and to which he had added a wooden umbrella handle. She looked surprised, said that she had never seen this design before, and Felix answered, “I made it myself”.  More than inventive, he was very intelligent and thoughtful.

To the dismay of some of his close family Felix was untidy. Extremely untidy! His flat had to visited to believed. I am sure that the disorder did not bother him at all. Whenever we visited him, he would sweep things aside, so that there would be somewhere to sit down. He would brew up a hot drink, which he would serve in mugs, which did not bear too close an examination. I believe that he had a confidence in himself that stopped him worrying about what others thought of him.

Felix was born on the 31st of December. Whenever I was near to, or in, London, I used to visit him on that day. One year, he greeted me telling me that he had just treated himself to a video cassette player. He asked me whether I would like to watch a film with him. He told me what he had in his small collection of tapes, and I chose to see Ingmar Bergman’s “Magic Flute”. Felix found the box for it, but the cassette was not the one we needed. He rummaged through the other boxes, all of which contained films that differed from the boxes’ labels. In the end, he found a video of the “Three Tenors” and inserted it into the player. The TV monitor screen was not too clean, so Felix picked up a cloth off the floor and began wiping it across the screen, covering it with grey mud.  In his still strong South African accent, he said:

“Ag, sorry, I forgot that this bleddy cloth is the one I use after I have watered my plants.”

Felix loved exploring, or, what most people would describe as ‘fiddling’. He picked up everything around him wherever he was. We often ate with him at his sister’s home. He would pick up the crockery, turn it over to see its makers label, and flick it with his fingernail to discover whether it was made of fine china. Once, when he was at our flat, he noticed one of our wedding presents displayed on a shelf. It was a valuable, delicate Rosenthal vase. We held our breath as he picked it up, turned it upside down, rotated it, and pinged it with his fingernail … before returning it safely.

If Felix spotted something that needed mending, he was quick to offer to repair it. He knew how to mend things, but his repairs lacked finesse. One day, he spotted one of my saucepans with a loose handle. He just happened to have some glue in his pocket and began mending it. Although the handle stuck well to the pot, so did the glue, which he had spilled accidentally inside the pot. My cousin told me that once he had tried to fix his broken Pentax camera, but unfortunately managed to drop strong adhesive onto its shutter, rendering it quite useless. She also related that when she and her brother were clearing Felix’s flat after he had died, they found a drawer filled with broken radios awaiting repair. His intentions were good, but the results were not always optimal.

In about 2002, Felix began to suffer several ailments, which gradually eroded his quality of life. He was constantly in and out of the wards of Royal Free Hospital, a place where for many years he had worked as a highly valued voluntary helper. Despite these ailments, he remained as cheerful and as caring of his family as ever. In Spring 2004, Felix was admitted to hospital yet again. For over three months he remained there, ill and very slowly losing strength. Until his death, despite becoming increasingly more debilitated Felix retained an interest in the lives of his family and his many friends. His love of life and of Africa continued until the very end. On the day before he died, Felix was chatting with a Zimbabwean nurse who looked after him. She offered him a piece of biltong (dried meat), which he was pleased to eat despite his loss of appetite.  Soon after this last taste of his beloved Africa, he passed away on the afternoon of Saturday 19th June 2004.

Felix was passionately fond of his nieces and nephews, and this was reciprocated. He had no children of his own: we were like his children. He had a great rapport with children. In a way, and I mean this in the best way, he was a child at heart. He was also first and foremost a South African. Although he spent much of his life in the UK, he was at heart was an African.

One of my favourite comedy films is ‘Mon Oncle’ (1958), directed, produced, and starring Jacque Tati (1907-1982). It portrays the unemployed Monsieur Hulot, who lives happily and modestly in a ramshackle Parisian neighbourhood and is loved by everyone. His nephew, Gerard, lives in a sterile, modern house fitted out with the latest gadgets. Gerard’s parents lead almost mechanical, dull lives, with a great emphasis on tidiness and minimalism. There is little scope for Hulot’s nephew to enjoy the normal life of a child. Fortunately for him, his uncle, M. Hulot, visits often. Hulot is both bemused and intrigued by the hi-tech aspects of his relatives’ uncomfortable home. Prone to curiosity, he fiddles with the modern gadgetry sometimes causing unexpected chaos.  After watching this film on YouTube recently, it suddenly struck me that the M. Hulot, portrayed by Tati, and my uncle Felix, although not too similar, did share some very loveable characteristics.

Atlantic crossing

I CAN ONLY FIND ONE photograph taken on board the SS France when we sailed from Southampton to New York City in September 1963. I do not know who took the picture and why I seem to have no photographs taken during the four months we spent in the USA that year. However, I do recall aspects of that voyage across the Atlantic, and I will share these with you.

FRANCE BLOG

My dear Uncle Felix gave me a present before we left London. It was a pocket-size set of tools (screwdrivers, a miniature saw, etc.) held together on a hinge. I thought that it might prove to be very useful if I became trapped in a cabin while the ship was sinking. Years before, my friend Charles S had recommended that I kept a small notebook and pencil in my pyjama pocket, just in case I was kidnapped – a prospect that used to fill me with fear. Charles’ idea was that, equipped with the writing material, one could send notes to rescuers in the (unlikely in my case) event of being kidnapped. I was, as you might be beginning to realise, a cautious little boy.

Soon after boarding the liner, which had been selected amongst others because my mother had learnt that the vessel had been fitted with the most advanced stabilisers, we looked around. When we reached the ship’s cinema, we poked our heads in and saw (on the screen) a parade of scantily dressed women parading round a pool. My mother pulled my sister and me out of the auditorium to protect us from seeing something she thought inappropriate for our tender young eyes (I was only eleven and my sister younger). The film being shown was “Scheherazade”. 

We set sail in the evening. Our first night was horrendous. As we crossed the Irish Sea and entered the Atlantic, the sea was exceedingly rough. My mother, my sister, and I became terribly sea-sick, despite the state-of-the-art stabilisers. None of my mother’s strong sea-sickness tablets had any effect on her. She insisted on summoning the ship’s doctor, a French man. She told him that she had read that there was an injection for countering seasickness, which had been recently developed, and she wanted that immediately. The doctor had not heard of this wonder cure. However, my mother, a forceful personality at the best of times, insisted on having it. She was not taking ‘no’ or even ‘non’ as an answer. I am sure that the doctor was beginning to regret having come to her aid. In the end, he gave in, and gave her an injection. It may have only been saline, but my mother was happier although no less seasick.

My father was the only member of our family who felt well enough to face lunch in the ship’s dining room. When he arrived there, he was one of a small handful of passengers who felt well enough to have an appetite. After that first night, we sailed through calm waters for four gloriously sunlit days.

During the day, my parents lazed on sun-loungers on a deck. My father is a keen amateur art historian. In his spare time, he read the academic journals, like the Burlington Magazine and the Art Bulletin, which professional art historians read and in which they published learned articles. He might well have been reading one of these, when he turned his head and noticed that a man on the lounger next to his was reading an art historical monograph, which he had read recently. He began speaking to his neighbour. Dad was very excited to discover that he was lounging next to the art historian Leopold Ettlinger (1913-1989), a specialist in the art of the Italian renaissance, the period which fascinated my father most. Leopold and his then wife, Helen, were on their way to the USA to take up a temporary position in an American university, as was my father. My parents struck up a friendship with the Ettlingers, who came to stay with us in Chicago on the weekend immediately following the assassination of President JF Kennedy.

I cannot remember what my sister did during the days we spent on board, but I recall what I did. Far from soaking up the sun, I spent most of the daylight hours in darkness, in the ship’s comfortable cinema. Every day, a different film was screened, several times each day. Except at mealtimes, I watched the same film again and again each day. Two of these films, both filmed in black and white, stick in my mind although I have long forgotten their titles.

One of them, which might have had a title like “The Siege of Altona” concerned a German (maybe a Nazi), who had locked himself inside a flat in the Hamburg suburb of Altona. It was a very moving psychological drama, something that my mother might not have thought suitable for her eleven-year-old son.

The other film was a French comedy. I have not the slightest memory of its title. It concerned two thieves, who robbed locked collection boxes in churches.  Their method was ingenious even if not particularly efficient. The thieves first sucked thin circular toffees attached to long threads. After sucking one, ta toffee was lowered through the coin slot until it touched the coins. When the sweet touched a coin, the latter would stick to the toffee. Then using the thread, the coin and toffee where carefully removed from the collection box. The film worked towards it climax when the thieves conceived an improved method. They arrived in a church with a vacuum cleaner. Attached to its hose was a long thin plastic piece that fitted into the slots on the collection boxes. The thieves inserted this nozzle, turned on the machine, and were able to suck all the coins from a box. However, this discovery coincided with greater police in the activities of this duo. I cannot remember how the film finished, but the two crooks did not come out well in the end. I would love to see this film again. So, if any of you, dear readers, have any idea of its title, please do let me know.

We docked at a quay on the west side of Mahattan. Soon after that, we visited our old friends, the late Cyril and Elaine Sofer, in their holiday home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Cyril had been a friend of my father’s since they were both young in Cape Town. Elaine outlived him. She was, incidentally, the first person to make a Bloody Mary for me (not in 1963, but much later, I hasten to add). Leopold Ettlinger, Cyril and Elaine Sofer, and my mother are no more, nor is the SS France. It made its last voyage in 2008, when it docked at the breakers’ yards in Alang (Gujarat, India), where it was broken up for scrap.  

Blue notes

I ENJOY ENTERING HOUSES in which famous characters once lived. It gives me a thrill to think that I am entering rooms where, for example Samuel Johnson or Benjamin Franklin, once lived and worked. But, how does one know where these personalities once resided? In London, that is quite easy because the homes and places where famous historical characters lingered are marked with blue (usually) plaques recording their occupation of these buildings. In other parts of the world, signing is often attached to the places which were occupied by well-known or, sometimes once famous, men and women.

BLUE BLOG

In London, many of these plaques which are circular with white writing on a blue background. They are known as “blue plaques”.  According to that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, the first blue plaque scheme was started by the Society of Arts in 1867. The first of these was installed in 1867 (on a house which has since been demolished). It commemorated the birthplace of Lord Byron. Another early one (in King Street, London SW1) commemorates Napoleon III, who “lived here, 1848”. He lived there from February 1847 until September the following year. It is one of, if not the only, blue plaque to be put up whilst the person named on it was still alive.

We are fortunate to live in a part of London rich in blue plaques and similarly purposed plaques of different colours. Kensington was favoured by the rich and famous (in all fields of activity) and remains so. The names on the plaques differ, and that is not surprising, but so do the words describing the nature of the person’s occupancy of the marked buildings. A small plaque in Sheffield Terrace in Kensington, records that the author GK Chesterton was “born” in a house on that street but gives no indication of how long he stayed in that place. In contrast, there is a house not far away which records that “Dame Agatha Christie … lived here 1934-41”, a good length of time, accurately recorded. Incidentally, I have enjoyed strolling through the rooms of Greenway, the house overlooking the River Dart, which she used to own and occupied during her holidays.

Much vaguer than Agatha’s is the plaque in Palace Court, which reads “ALICE MEYNELL 1847-1922 POET AND ESSAYIST lived here”, because it gives the passer-by no clue as to how long the building was home to Ms Meynell (actually she was ‘Mrs’ but as a promoter of women’s rights, she would have probably liked the title ‘Ms). Not far from this plaque, there is another one in Portobello Road. It informs someone walking past that “George Orwell … lived here.” Again, we are not made privy to how long the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984” lived on this street, which in normal, virus-free times is flooded with tourists heading for the Portobello Road street market. It would fill me with a sense of well-being to know I was sharing the same roof as someone as illustrious as, in this case, George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair). And, no doubt it would impress some of my friends and family. However, if they knew that Orwell had only lived there for one winter in 1927, they might be less awed.

One of my favourite composers of western classical music is the Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The first classical LP I ever bought was his Second Symphony. So, I was excited to find a blue plaque with his name in Gloucester Walk in Kensington. It is a “lived here” plaque. However, according to the memorial, he only lived in this lovely part of London in 1909.  A little research reveals that it was only a few weeks in that year. I think the wording “stayed here” would have been more appropriate than the wording on display. There is a brown circular plaque in Kensington Square, which reveals that “WM Thackeray … lived here”. This is an honest record because the novelist did live in the house from 1846 until 1854. Close to Thackeray’s former home, we can find a blue plaque recalling “TS Eliot (1888-1965) … lived and died here.” He lived there from 1957 until his death. This is also an honestly worded plaque.

I have long been interested in Hungary and the Hungarians. I was excited to discover recently that the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth (1802-1894; ‘Kossuth Lajos’, to use the correct Hungarian version of his name) had spent time near where I live in Kensington. His blue plaque is on a house in Chepstow Villas, not far from Portobello Road. According to the plaque, he “stayed here”, rather than “lived here”. He stayed there in 1851, whilst on a three-week lecture tour in England, during which he spoke to the English about Hungarian independence and his exile. Of these three weeks, maybe only a few nights were spent at this address in Kensington, or, he and his family, who did spend another seven years in England, might have lived in the house in Chepstow Villas. Possibly, the plaque should be worded “lived here”, rather than “stayed here”.

Number 18 Melbury Road, near Holland Park and the oddly-shaped Design Museum (formerly, the Commonwealth Institute), offers us two blue plaques, one a “lived here” and the other a “stayed here”. The pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) “Lived and died here”. The other plaque on the building records that Cetshwayo (c. 1832-1884), King of the Zulus, “stayed here in 1882”. When I first spotted this plaque several years ago, I was intrigued, and wrote a little about it (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/ ) , which I will repeat here:

“Earlier in 1882, this house, built in 1877, hosted a very important guest, King Cetshwayo (Cetshwayo, ka Mpande, c1832-1884), King of the Zulus. After being defeated by the British in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, Cetshwayo was held captive in Cape Town. During his exile, he visited London in 1882:

“On his arrival, 18 Melbury Road … was made more appropriate to his needs and those of his chiefs. The beds, for instance, were reduced to floor level. On waking on 5 August, the ex-king ‘made his way through the various rooms of the house, examining them with curiosity’.

Outside, a huge crowd of people had gathered, eager to see Cetshwayo. The Times described how ‘at times the ex-king would appear for a moment at one of the windows, and he was invariably greeted with cheers’. Cetshwayo himself looked upon the throng ‘as a display of friendly feeling towards him’. By the close of his visit, he had become something of a celebrity.

In an interview given while at Melbury Road, Cetshwayo said that he regarded the war as ‘a calamity’. He had made it clear that the purpose of his visit to England was his restoration to the throne, reasoning that his people wanted him and that there would be another war if he didn’t return. Following a meeting with Gladstone and a visit to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, his reinstatement was agreed.”. The British allowed him to return to Zululand in 1883.”

Would the famous artist have met the African king in Melbury Road? I doubt it because Holman Hunt only moved into his final home from 1903 onwards. However, Cetshwayo might have seen or been seen by another artist Colin Hunter (1841-1904), who lived nearby on Melbury Road from 1877 until his death. His home was destroyed by bombing in 1940. Woodsford Court, built on its site, bears a blue plaque, appropriately of the “lived here” variety. By the way, if you are ever near to it, a leisurely stroll along Melbury Road will delight those fascinated by late Victorian domestic architecture.

For my favourite memorial placed on a building to commemorate its occupancy by a notable person, we must transport ourselves to Palermo in Sicily. The island of Sicily is full of plaques celebrating the temporary presence of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) in this place or that. This might not be surprising because he did travel a lot around western Sicily while fighting the Bourbons. In a square in Palermo, I spotted a grand marble plaque carved with the words: “In questa illustre casa il 27 Maggio 1860 per sole due ore poso le stanche membra Giuseppe Garibaldi”, which loosely translated means ‘Garibaldi, rested his weary limbs in this illustrious house for only two hours on the 27th of May 1860.” So, it sems that a two-hour stay is enough to bring fame to a building, providing the temporary occupant is worth remembering. I am not sure whether it would be justifiable for one of our local supermarkets used by a former Prime Minister  to put up a plaque with the wording “David Cameron stayed here”, or even “Peter Mandelson shopped here”,  but one can never tell what the future holds.

 

 

Love at first bite

I WAS A VERY FUSSY eater when I was a child. Because the first few weeks of my life were fraught with medical problems and then later I was a poor eater, my mother was extremely anxious about me, She allowed me to eat only what I liked and not what might have been good for me, but which I did not even want to try. In short, I was a spoilt child when it came to being fed. As I grew, I remained unadventurous gastronomically. We travelled to places like France and Italy where food is exciting and varied, but instead of exploring the wonderful foods that my parents ate in those places, I stuck to a boring diet of steak or ham (or, occasionally, Dover sole) and chips. Looking back, I regret turning down the undoubtedly delicious alternatives to these mundane foods.

FOOD Pizza Etna_800 BLOG

My parents were not keen on pizza. At least, I never saw them eat it even though we had holidays in Italy every year. They ate pasta and many other delicious Italian dishes. Naturally, given my unadventurous approach to food, I never ate it, at least not until I was about 17 years old. When I reached that age, I decided to spend a few days travelling alone in Italy whilst my parents stayed elsewhere. I used local transport to visit Volterra, Grossetto, and then reached the city of Orvieto. Believe it or not, I was extremely shy at that time and minimised speaking to anyone. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Orvieto, I was feeling miserably lonely. I felt to shy to enter restaurants and wandered around Orvieto from one eatery to the next, becoming ever hungrier.  Finally, I reached a shop that sold squares of hot pizza at a counter. The aroma coming from the pizza ovens was irresistible. I bought a square, took a bite of it, and … it was love at first bite.

Although she died forty years ago, people still fondly remember my mother’s cold rice salad, which was cooked white rice mixed with small specks of red and green peppers. Whether it was in my mother’s much praised salad or in the school rice pudding, I refused to eat rice when I was a child. This situation changed just before my 19th birthday. I was travelling around France with a friend who was studying at Cambridge University and four of his friends. One of these was Matthew Parris, who would later become a Member of Parliament and is now a frequently read columnist in the London “Times” newspaper. He was our driver. He drove us around France in an old car, which he had driven from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) across Africa and Europe to England. One day we camped near Cerbère on the Mediterranean. As we were close to the Franco-Spanish border, we crossed it one evening to eat a meal in Port Bou (in Catalonia). Everyone wanted paella, which is a rice dish. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try some. It was the first time that I ate rice. It was love at first bite.

During that trip around France, we used to eat our midday meals ‘al fresco’ at scenic spots. The money we saved by having picnics was spent eating more lavish meals at restaurants. Usually, everyone ordered meat (often beefsteak). One evening at a restaurant in Provence, I decided, unusually for me given my history of conservative eating tastes, to order something different. Without knowing what would arrive, I ordered an andouillette. I regretted my choice as soon as I cut what looked like a sausage. As I incised the skin covering the andouillette, little bits of what looked like rubbery material leapt out on to my plate. The thing was filled with chopped-up innards, and I was filled with disgust. Winding the clock forward a few decades, I now enjoy various kinds of innards (e.g. liver, sweetbreads, and tripe, but not kidneys) if they are prepared tastily.

My parents favoured Mediterranean cuisine. My mother was a keen follower of Elizabeth David, whose recipe books help bring the dishes of France and Italy onto British dinner tables. There were often bowls of olives available, especially on the many occasions that my parents entertained guests at our home. Having smelled these olives a few times, I decided that I was not even going to taste them. In 1975, I travelled across Europe to northern Greece with my friends Robert and Margaret. Every summer, they spent about six weeks camping by the seaside just south of the village of Platamon. Every evening while camping, as the sun began setting, we used to sit outdoors on folding camping chairs around a rickety table. Robert mixed himself gin and tonic and I joined Margaret with a glass of red (sweet) Martini. There was always a bowl of Greek olives on the table. On the first evening that I enjoyed an aperitif with my two friends, something inside me made me lean forward and pick up an olive. I popped it into my mouth … it was love at first bite. Since then, I cannot resist eating what I had avoided for a quarter of a century. My favourite olives are, just in case you are interested, the black Amfissa variety. They are plumper and juicier than Kalamatas, and at least as tasty.

In 1976, I began studying dentistry at University College London. My year had 50 students. We were a friendly bunch. One year, Jayne S, invited us all to her home in north London to celebrate her birthday. It was an afternoon event. The only food on offer was fried chicken from KFC (then, known as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’). There were large buckets of it, filled with legs, breast pieces, and wings: an ‘embarass de richesse’ of fried poultry.   As with so many foods, I had fought shy of trying this popular product. By then I was about 27 years old. I had eaten chicken, but never the crumb coated deep-fried variety. That afternoon at Jayne’s party, I do not know what over came me, but as soon as I saw the buckets, I seized a piece of chicken, bit into it, and …it was love at first bite. I would not go as far to say that KFC is my favourite chicken dish, but every few months I yearn for it.

Time passed, and my enthusiasm for trying new dishes and ingredients has grown exponentially. So much so, that once I was in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown when I spotted duck’s feet on the menu. I felt that I had to try them. I ordered a portion, and the Chinese waiter snapped:

“You won’t like them”

Defiantly, I responded:

“Bring me a plate of duck’s feet, please.”

“You will not like them.”

“Never mind,” I answered, “I want to try them.”

“You won’t like them”

“Look,” I said, “I want to try them. Even if I don’t like them, I promise to pay for them.”

The webbed feet arrived. They tasted quite nice, but I did not like their slimy texture.”

The waiter was right. I am glad I tried them, but was not … love at first bite.  

Defeated by snow and meeting Churchill’s widow

WHEN I WAS SIXTEEN, that was in 1968, I made two memorable trips. The first was a youth hostelling trip in Wales and the other, which followed soon after that, was my first visit to Paris.

PARIS Clouds over the Beacons_800 BLOG

Three good friends of my age and I travelled by train to Chepstow in South Wales. Our plan was to walk from one youth hostel to the next, carrying our baggage in rucksacks.

 From Newport, we struggled along footpaths by the east bank of the River Wye until we reached the village of St Briavels. The youth hostel was housed in parts of the place’s mediaeval castle, whose construction began in the early 12th century.

We were assigned beds in a dormitory. At night I struggled to make myself comfortable in the shroud-like sheet sleeping bag that was required by guests staying in British youth hostels. In those days, I used to find it difficult falling asleep in places away from home. St Briavels was no exception. In the middle of the night I felt the urge to go to the loo, but because I was anxious about walking across the dark castle courtyard to the hostel’s only toilets, I remained becoming increasingly uncomfortable until day broke.

The eight mile hike from Newport to St Briavels had been a hard, tiring ‘slog’. We were not looking forward to doing something similar the next day. We walked a few miles until we reached a main road, and then boarded a local bus. At this point, dear readers, you need to know that in 1968 youth  hostels were only supposed to be used only by travellers making their way under ‘their own steam’ (i.e by walking, cycling, canoeing, horse-riding etc.), but not by motorised transport.

We reached the small town of Crickhowell and walked from there towards an isolated youth hostel on the edge of the Brecon Beacons mountain range. The Nantllanerch youth hostel, which only functioned between 1966 and 1969, was about a mile from the house where its warden lived. We were the only people staying in this un-manned hostel miles away from anywhere. It had no electricity and the chemical toilets were attached to septic tanks. Lighting was via gas lamps fuelled from a cylinder. This delightful place was also supplied with an out-of-tune upright piano. We stayed there for two nights, using the day between them to climb one of the nearby peaks. I had never climbed a mountain or a significant hill before. Every time I saw what I hoped was the summit, it proved to be a ridge behind which there was another gruelling climb. After that experience, I decided that Everest was not for me. However, a few years later, I did climb, or rather scramble up, Mount Ventoux in the south of France.

We left Nantllanerch and used public transport to reach Brecon, where we spent another night in a youth hostel. Then, again disobeying the rules, we travelled a long way using public transport to Great Malvern, where we spent another two nights. On the day between them, we completed a lovely walk along the ridges connecting the peaks of the Malvern Hills. I fell in love with Great Malvern and have revisited this mainly Victorian resort often.

Every time one left a youth hostel, the warden was required to stamp our Youth Hostel Association booklets with the hostel’s official stamp. On leaving Great Malvern, we notice that the warden had placed the hostel’s stamp upside down in each of our booklets. We wondered why. Long after we had returned to London from Great Malvern, we discovered the reason. An upside-down stamp was to warn the wardens of other youth hostels that the bearer of this stamp had caused trouble or breached a rule. The warden at Great Malvern must have realised that our itinerary as recorded by the hostels in which we had stayed could not have been undertaken without making use of motorised transport along the way.

I loved my first youth-hostelling trip and felt sure that my first trip to Paris, which followed it, would be an anti-climax. But I was wrong. I  travelled with my family to Paris on the Night Ferry train, which was boarded in the evening at Victoria station in London. There were two platforms at the station dedicated to the Night Ferry trains. To enter them, one needed not only tickets but also passports. Our family occupied two neighbouring compartments. My sister and I shared one of these. It was equipped with two berths, one above the other, and a basin with water taps.

The Night Ferry travelled to Dover, where the sleeping cars, such as we occupied, ran along rails into those in the hold of a cross-channel ferry. We all remained in our compartments. After a while, our carriages were pulled out of the ferry and onto the rails at the French port of Dunkirk. I could not sleep a wink. I stared through the glass of the window of our compartment throughout the night. There was not much to see during the sea crossing, but things improved at Dunkirk, where our carriage was shunted around a huge floodlit marshalling yard for what seemed like several hours. As dawn broke, we set off through France towards Paris.

Paris was a wonder, an ‘eye-opener’ for me. I loved everything about it, especially the metro with its curious pervasive characteristic smell and some of its trains that whooshed along on rubber tyres instead of metal wheels. In those far off days, the entrances to station platforms were provided with doors, ‘portillons’, which closed automatically just before a train left the station. These were supposed to prevent passengers from rushing to board the train just before its doors closed. Once, I got caught behind a closed portillon just after my parents and sister had passed through on to the platform. For a moment, I felt panicked, but the family waited for me to be liberated. Above ground, some of the metro stations were decorated with art-nouveau metal work. I loved this because I was already very keen on this artistic style.

We stayed in a small hotel on the Ile St Louis, a peaceful oasis separated from the rest of Paris by the River Seine. It was the nicest place I have stayed in the city. On my first visit, I loved the bookshops on Place St Michel and the well-stocked record shops nearby. We did a great deal of sight-seeing including a visit to the Louvre. What I remember most about this world-famous collection was rather mundane. We had left our coats at a garde-robe near one of the entrances. By the time we had paid our respects to the Mona Lisa and many other great works of art, we had forgotten where we had left our belongings. We spent longer looking for our coats than we had done admiring artworks.

My parents, who were not keen on visiting places that were neither churches nor museums, did take us up the Eiffel Tower, but only to its lowest viewing platform. What impressed me there were the lifts that climbed at an angle rather than vertically. My first visit to Paris was followed by many more, always enjoyable and always eliciting in me the same sense of wonder as my first.

We returned to London on the Night Ferry, arriving at Victoria in the morning. After we had stepped down onto the platform, my mother pointed to a lady disembarking from the next carriage to ours and said to us excitedly:

“Look, there’s Lady Churchill.”

It was Winston’s widow. I had been at the Hall School in Belsize Park when in early 1965, my class gathered around a small black and white TV to watch Winston’s funeral, ‘live’, as it happened.

The next year, following the success of our first hostelling trip in Wales and nearby, my three friends and I decided to go back to Wales on another hostelling trip. The first hostel on our itinerary was at Capel-y-Ffyn in the Brecon Beacons National Park, just north of the ruins of Llanthony Abbey. We booked in and woke up the next morning to discover that the ground was covered with a thin layer of snow. Then, fate struck.

 I had promised to telephone my over-anxious mother every day. So, I went to the village telephone box and rang her. She told me that she had heard that there was snow falling in Wales. I told her how little we had seen. She replied that we were to return to London immediately. I do not know what she was imagining. She might have thought that snow in Wales was likely to be as dangerous as blizzards in the Arctic.

My friends and I knew that my mother’s orders were never to be questioned. It was with great sadness that we packed up (while the snow was melting) and returned to London. My mother’s over-anxiety had wrecked our adventure.

Years later, my wife and I were entertaining the mother of one of my friends on the sabotaged trip. Then in her late eighties, she could still remember being amazed at the time when she heard how my mother had reacted to the news of snow falling in Wales.

To my great relief, my three disappointed friends remained friendly with me despite my vicarious role in greatly abbreviating what promised to be a great trip. Sadly, of the three one died a few years ago. A spot of snow never put him off risking his life more excitingly during his colourful career. Nor, did it deter the rest of us from doing many things that would have given my late mother cause for great anxiety.

 

Photo showing clouds over the Brecon Beacons in south Wales

Fading with time

SINCE THE IMPOSITION OF ‘LOCKDOWN’ in the UK, use of public transport has been discouraged, as has wandering too far from home when taking exercise. While not exactly ‘confined to barracks’, the distance that we have been allowed to move away from home has been limited, more or less to the amount of distance that we can manage to walk (or, not in my case, cycle) comfortably, without exhausting ourselves. This meant that for many weeks we have been walking around our local area. A friend of ours in Dublin told us, half-jokingly, that during the Irish lockdown, he felt that he had got to know every blade of grass in his neighbourhood. I understood what he was saying.  For me, greater familiarity with our immediate locality has not bred contempt for it, but the opposite. We have been walking along small streets we never knew existed and discovering interesting details in those thoroughfares that we thought we knew so well.

HORNTON 2 BLOG

I have been walking along Sheffield Terrace, which leads off Kensington Church Street, two or three times a week for the last 25 years, yet it was only yesterday that I noticed a small square metal plate on the wall of a house in that thoroughfare. It recorded the fact that the author GK Chesterton was born in that house on the 29th of May 1874. A few doors away on the same street, there is a much larger and far more obvious plaque commemorating that the founder of the Church Army, Prebendary Wilson Carlile (1847-1942) had lived there. I had often noticed this memorial, but I had never noticed the far more discreet memorial to Chesterton, which looks like a simple grey wall tile from a distance.

Sheffield Terrace leads to the northern end of Hornton Street, which is marked on 19th century Ordnance Survey maps as ‘Campden House Road’.  Hornton Street leads south and downhill towards High Street Kensington. Once again, this is a street along which I have walked several times a week over a period of at least 25 years. Various roads lead off Hornton Street. The short Pitt Street is one of these. On the corner of Pitt and Hornton Streets, there is a faded rectangular sign that I have always assumed carried the words ‘Hornton Street’. However, I had not looked at it closely enough until yesterday.

I do not know what made me examine the faded sign closely, but I am glad that I did. Some of the letters on it have disappeared. The following are just about visible, and even more so on enhanced digital photographs: H, O, R, N, …, D, G, E. The last three letters are not ‘E, E, T’, which you would expect to see if the sign had read ‘Hornton Street’. I wondered if the sign had originally read ‘Hornton Lodge’. I went home and searched for ‘“Hornton Lodge” Kensington’ on Google.

One of the most useful things that came up amongst the Google search results was an offer on eBay for two pages of the issue of “Country Life” magazine, dated 21st of March 1968. These pages contain an article about Hornton Lodge on Pitt Street. The article bore the title “Serene Vision of a Modern Interior”. It describes the interior of a house built in 1948 on a bomb site and owned by Mr and Mrs James Melvin. The house, a long rectangular building, was called Hornton Lodge. The fading sign is all that remains of the house described in the magazine. Currently, builders are erecting a new building on the part of the plot nearest to the corner where the sign can be found. This new construction is, according to a planning application submitted in December 2019 by Nash Baker Architects, to replace an:

“… early post war semi-detached property … constructed circa 1948-49, on the site of a former villa known as ‘Hornton Lodge’. The architect/owner, James Melvin, was a partner in major architectural firm: Gollins Melvin Ward Partnership. However, at the time it was constructed, the firm was in its infancy, and this project was a modest family home for a young architect and his family; designed with modernist intentions during a time of austerity.”

I found references to a ‘Red House’, also referred to in at least one item, maybe erroneously, as ‘Hornton Lodge’.  The Red House was built by Stephen Bird in 1835. It was also known as ‘Hornton Villa’. This was not the property on Pitt Street demolished by a bomb in WW2 because it stood across Hornton Street opposite the western end of Holland Street, which is south of Pitt Street. A future president of the USA, Herbert Hoover, lived at that address between 1907 and 1918. Hornton Villa, The Red House, was demolished in in the 1970s, and on its site stands the architecturally undistinguished Customer Service Centre of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

There is more evidence of a Hornton Lodge, quite distinct from the Hornton Villa, mentioned above. Joseph Foster’s “Men-at-the-bar : a biographical hand-list of the members of the various Inns of Court, including Her Majesty’s judges, etc.” (published in 1885) published the address of a barrister Richard E Webster (1842-1915; called to the Bar in 1868), Lord Alverstone, as “Hornton Lodge, Pitt Street, Kensington W”. He became Attorney General between 1885 and 1886.  Even earlier than that, “Allens West London Street Directory” (published in 1868) lists a Theodore Aston as living at Hornton Lodge.

Close examination of a sign that I have passed and seen many thousands of times, assuming it bore a simple faded street name, has revealed that I had never looked at it carefully enough before. The constriction of my field of activities to a small part of London has, to my surprise, heightened my powers of observation rather than blunted them, which could have easily happened when visiting the same locality repetitively.

Soon, the faded sign on the corner of Pitt Street will either be removed or become even more illegible. I am glad I noticed its clue to the past before either of those things happen.

 

 

My sporting life

THE ONLY SPORTS PRIZE I have ever won was at a sports day held by my primary school in Golders Green sometime before 1960. I was in a relay race. Our team members were awarded a green badge. I have no idea whether we were first or just in one of the three fastest teams. Since that glorious day, my sporting ‘achievements’ have been anything but glorious.

 

boys in white shirt and white pants playing baseball

 

Once, while playing football at the Hall School, which I attended from 1960 to ’65, I did manage to score a goal. The ball was coming my way, I put out my foot, and the ball bounced off it, into a poorly guarded goal. The only problem was that I had scored an own goal. My fellow team-mates were not amused.

I entered my senior school, Highgate School, in 1965, four hundred years after its establishment by Sir Roger de Cholmeley in the final months of his life. On the second day of my first term, I had to take part in a game of football watched by senior boys and teachers, who wanted to assess the playing skills of the boys new to the school. It was a very rough experience. The other players struck me as being very aggressive.  Twenty-four hours later, two senior boys, both much taller than me and dressed in the black blazers that only prefect wore, approached me. Very apologetically, they informed me that I was not good enough to play in our house football teams. They asked me to choose another sport instead of football. The choices included Eton Fives, which I had never come across before, and cross-country running. I chose the latter because I had heard of running.

It turned out that I had made a good choice. On most sports afternoons (Wednesdays and Saturdays), cross-country running was unsupervised. I used to change into my school running gear and wander over to the school tuck shop (a confectionery store) to buy some sweets. Then, I used to cross Hampstead Lane and enter the grounds of Kenwood, where we were supposed to run. After a respectably long enough leisurely ramble through the park, eating my sweets and maybe talking with someone else who was ‘going for a run’, I returned to the changing room, and got ready to go home. Showering was unnecessary because I never worked up a sweat nor roamed through muddy parts of the park.

Once a year, our housemaster (pastoral carer), Mr Bowles, took his boys for a run. This was a more strenuous event than my usual outings. We followed him off the paths and into the wilder parts of the park. Once, he stopped and turned to me, saying:

“Yamey, how is it that there is no mud on you?”

I replied:

“Mr Bowles, I don’t know. Anyway, I thought that the point of this was to get exercise, not to get muddy.”

He took this surprisingly well. Although he was the only teacher in the school not to have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, he had more common sense that the rest of the staff put together.

Summer terms gave rise to another problem: cricket. This sport terrified me. I was constantly worried that I would be hit and badly injured by a hard cricket ball flying at speed. Also, I was useless at catching balls, hard or soft. So, when the school began recruiting pupils to be umpires, I volunteered. For a few days, I attended umpiring classes. Each of the new umpires was given a small pocket-sized blue covered book of the rules of cricket. None of it made any sense to me, but one thing stuck firmly in my mind: the umpire’s decision is final.

Fully ‘qualified’, I began my umpiring career. One of the umpire’s duties is to count the number of balls that have elapsed in each over of six balls. I had been advised that a good method of doing this was to place six coins in one hand and then after each ball ahs been bowled, to transfer a coin from one hand to the other. The only problem was that often during an over I forgot in which direction the coins should have been passed. Was it from left to right or vice-versa? Usually, the scorers pointed out when I had miscounted.   Often, the players questioned my decisions. My response was to withdraw the rule book slowly from my pocket and ask the petulant players:

“Have you read the very latest rules?”

This usually worked. On one occasion, the bowling team shouted “howzat” jubilantly. Without any idea why they did that, I declared that the batsman was ‘out’. This caused an uproar, but I knew that the umpire’s decision is always final, and I stuck to it.  Many of my decisions, I must now confess, were based on trying to get the game finished so that I could go home early enough. Had I been more scrupulous and better informed and more interested in cricket, the games that I umpired would have stretched on well after 5pm, which would have messed up my daily routine. At this point, it is only fair that I offer my apologies to anyone who felt aggrieved as a result of my umpiring activities.

Mr Bowles realised that sports was unlikely to do me any good at all. In the last two years of school, he allowed me to visit exhibitions in central London instead of getting in everyone’s way on the playing fields of Highgate. For example, during this period, I visited the exhibition about the Bauhaus three times at the Royal Academy.

When I was about 13 years old, an uncle, who was a keen bodybuilder, gave me a set of weights and a metal bar on to which these heavy metal discs fitted. It was a kind, well-meaning gesture. However, it was not a gift that appealed to me. It lay idle in my bedroom until a friend, who was keen on rowing, asked to borrow them. I lent them to him and was not perturbed that they were never returned.

At University College London, there was no requirement for me to do any kind of sport. So, I did not. While I was doing my PhD, I became good friends with my supervisor Robert and his wife Margaret. For thirty years after finishing my doctorate, I used to visit them at their home near Slough. They had a tennis court in their extensive grounds. Margaret was a fine tennis player, usually winning the finals of the tennis tournament played at the annual Physiology Department sports day held at Shenfield in Hertfordshire.

Whenever I visited Robert and Margaret, I was ‘roped in’ to playing doubles with Robert and Margaret and one other, usually their Irish son-in-law. I was reasonably good at serving and returning, but only if the ball flew towards where I happened to be standing. Margaret told me that I might have become quite a good player if I had bothered to run around the court when I saw where the ball was heading.

One weekend afternoon in early May 1984, while I was on the court with Margaret and Robert, I felt something slip inside one of my knees. As we walked back to the house for afternoon tea, I felt that I could not straighten my leg properly. I did not mention this to anyone for a good reason. It happened a few days before I was about to fly to Yugoslavia to begin a two-week tour of neighbouring Albania. I had been wanting to visit Albania for many years, ever since I was about 15 years old. I did not want to risk seeking medical advice just in case I was told not to travel. I decided that whatever the condition of my leg, I would travel to Albania. I believed that should my leg continue to trouble me, I could seek medical help in the country that had intrigued me for years.

After arriving in Albania and a few alcoholic drinks at various meals, my leg ceased to trouble me. One member of our group fell ill when we were visiting a hunting lodge in rural Albania. This lodge near Lezhë had been built in the 1930s for Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law. As if by magic, when the lady on our tour began feeling poorly, a doctor and two nurses dressed in white uniforms suddenly appeared to assist her. I imagine that our tour bus was followed closely by a medical team.

I mentioned the story of my leg because, contrary to all I have been told, I have noticed that sporting activities are not entirely beneficial. During the 35 years that I practised dentistry, I had several patients a week, who entered my surgery limping. Almost all of them had injured their knees or other body parts while attempting to ‘keep fit’.

Now, I do not want you to think that I am a slovenly ‘couch potato’, whose main form of exercise is breathing. I climb up and down the 50 steps leading to our flat and walk two to three miles a day on average. I walk mainly for enjoyment. If walking helps to keep me fit, that is a bonus.

So now, patient reader, you have been apprised of the secrets of my sporting life.

PS: you will be amused to learn that for a long time I thought that a ‘six-pack’ was a package of six cans of beer or lager. Now that I am better informed, I have looked in the mirror but fail to see any sign of my six pack; it remains hidden.

Photo by Patrick Case on Pexels.com