Smoking drums

A DENTIST NEEDS manual dexterity and good powers of observation (amongst many other skills). My PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, used to teach physiology to the first year (pre-clinical) dental students at University College London. He not only encouraged them to learn the rudiments of the subject but also how to improve their dexterity and skill in observation.

While the students were under Robert’s care, he tried to instil in them something of his spirit of scientific curiosity. Each student had to carry out an investigative project as part of the physiology course. This had to make use of the students’ powers of observation. He felt, quite correctly, that a good physician must be very observant. He had students, with their pencils, watches, and notepads at the ready, measuring, for example, the blink rates of people travelling on the Underground, or how many times a minute peoples’ jaws moved whilst chewing gum, or how often and for how long people scratched their heads. Projects like these, simple though they sound, honed the students’ ability to observe carefully. These projects also helped to instil something else in some of the students: many of them went on to have academic dental careers.

Robert had great manual dexterity and knew that development of this in his students was of great importance to those aspiring to practise dentistry. When he or his wife Margaret was interviewing prospective students, they always enquired whether a candidate played a musical instrument or enjoyed making models or sewing/knitting/embroidery. If they did, then there was a good chance that the candidate’s manual dexterity would be sufficient to perform dental procedures. Robert encouraged this in the practical physiology classes that he arranged for his pre-clinical students. Typical of this was his insistence on the use of the archaic smoked drum kymograph.

Most students doing experiments in physiology would record results from their experimental set-ups, be it a contracting muscle or a stretch of live nerve, on an electrically operated pen and ink tracing that produced a graph on a piece of paper tape. All that was necessary was to plug the measurement transducer out-put lead into the electronic moving chart recorder and wait for the results.

Robert insisted on his dental students using a kymograph with smoked paper, a mechanical predecessor of the modern electronic equipment. A sheet of white paper had to be attached around the outside of a metal cylinder (drum). This had to be rotated carefully above a smoky flame until the entire surface of the paper had been uniformly blackened by a thin layer of charcoal particles. Without disturbing this fragile black layer with a stray finger or thumb, the smoked drum had to be carefully attached to the vertical spindle that emerged from a cylindrical motor. The experimental tissue – often the students measured the contraction rates and strengths of lengths of rodent gut – was attached via a thin cord to a delicate lever which had a sharp point (stylus) at one end of it. This point was then placed against the smoked paper and then the motor was activated, causing the drum to rotate at a known speed. As the gut contracted, it moved the lever up and down which in turn caused the sharp point to displace carbon particles beneath the stylus point to leave a white tracing on the slowly moving blackened paper covering the metal cylinder. When the tracing had been made, it had to be removed from the drum without smudging it, and then immersed in some liquid, a smelly lacquer, that fixed the image to the paper. This procedure, I can assure you, is no less demanding on one’s manual skills than, say, preparing a tooth for an inlay or a bridge abutment or placing an implant.

Many generations of Robert’s dental students remember him fondly. Recently, someone with whom I studied dentistry at University College reminded me about his curious laboratory coats. He did not wear the long white coats that most scientists and many medics normally use. Instead, he wore a long coat coloured brown or ochre. Why he wore a lab coat that looked more like the work wear of an old fashioned grocer I have no idea – I never thought to ask him – but Robert did many things in his own inimitable style. Often his approach to things seemed eccentric at first sight, but usually after reflection you would realise that there was a lot of sense in what he did and how he did it.

Ulysses and the underground

THE IRISH AUTHOR James Joyce (1882-1941), author of “Ulysses”, “The Dubliners” etc., lived at number 28B Campden Grove in Kensington in 1931. While living in this flat, he worked on his novel “Finnegans Wake” (published in 1939) and married his long-term companion and muse Nora Barnacle (1884-1951). A blue plaque, which I had never noticed before during the 28 years I have lived in the area, on the house records his stay in Kensington. Joyce was not keen on this dwelling. In 1932, he wrote to Harriet Weaver Shaw:

“’I never liked the flat much though I liked the gardens nearby. That grove is inhabited by mummies. Campden Grave, it should be called. London is not made for divided houses. The little sooty dwellings with their backs to the railway line etc etc are genuine; so is Portland Place. But houses like that were never built to be run on the continental system and as flats they are fakes.” (quoted in http://peterchrisp.blogspot.com/2019/05/campden-grave-james-joyce-in-london.html

A few yards further west of Joyce’s temporary home, I spotted something else that I had not seen before and is relevant to what Joyce wrote.

The rear outer wall of number 1 Gordon Place is best viewed from near the end of Campden Grove just before it meets the northern end of Gordon Place. That rear wall is unusually shaped. Its windows are set into a concavely curved brickwork wall rather than the normal flat wall.

Today Gordon Place extends southwards, then briefly joins Pitt Street to run east for a few feet before making a right angle to continue southwards, crossing Holland Street and then ending in a picturesque cul-de-sac lined with luxuriant gardens. This has not always been its course. A map surveyed in 1865 shows Gordon Place as running between Campden Grove and Pitt Street. The section of today’s Gordon Place that runs south from Pitt Street to Holland Street was called ‘Vicarage Street’ and the cul-de-sac running south from Holland Street was then called ‘Orchard Street’. A map complied in 1896 reveals that Gordon Place was by then running along its present course. Vicarage Street had become renamed as part of ‘Gordon Place’.

Aerial views of the curved building, number 1 Gordon Place, show that its curved rear wall forms part of a deep opening that extends below the ground. Maps compiled from 1865 onwards show the presence of this hole and within it short stretches of railway tracks. The hole is a ventilation shaft for the Underground tracks, currently the Circle and District lines, that run just below the surface. Standing on Campden Grove close to the back of number 1 Gordon Place, one can hear trains clearly as they travel below the hole in the ground. How deep is the hole? The corner of Gordon Place and Campden Grove is 86 feet above sea level and High Street Kensington Station is at 43 feet above sea level.  The railway lines do not slope too much between the ventilation shaft and the station. According to Transport for London, between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington, they descend by 12 feet (www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/70389/response/179967/attach/html/2/Station%20depths.xlsx.html). Using the information that we have, we can estimate the depth of the shaft to be at least 43 feet (i.e. 86-43 plus a little more because the rails are several feet below the surface).

The Metropolitan Railway that included the stretch of track between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington stations was laid before 1868, and from the 1865 map, it was already present before the date when the map was surveyed. According to a detailed history of the area (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp49-57), houses near the corner of Camden Grove and Gordon Place (and in other locations nearby) had to be rebuilt after the railway was constructed between 1865 and 1868.  The 1865 map shows no house at the site of the present number 1 Gordon Place. This building with its concave curved rear wall appears on a map surveyed in 1896. It would seem that the developer who constructed number 1 did not want to waste any of his valuable plot; he constructed the rear of the building right up to the circular edge of the ventilation shaft.

So, now we have an explanation for the curiously curved wall and for Joyce’s comments about houses with their backs to railway lines. Some friends of ours own a house with an outer wall that forms part of another ventilation hole on the District and Circle lines. They told us that should they need to make repairs to the outside of the wall that overlooks the tracks, they would need to get special permission from the company that runs the Underground and that many precautions would be needed to protect the workmen and the trains running beneath them.

Life is often far from straightforward, but London is endlessly fascinating. James Joyce preferred Paris to London, where most of his books were published. I hope that it was not his experience with trains running close to where he lived in Campden Grove that influenced his preference.

A brief video that I made gives another view of the ventilation shaft described above: https://youtu.be/js87XIWn1gU

Under pressure

THERE IS A LOVELY STRETCH of the railway from London Paddington to Devon and Cornwall. It is between Exeter and Newton Abbot. The train runs from Exeter along the western shore of the wide estuary of the River Exe, then along the seashore between Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth (often between the base of cliffs and the sea), and finally turns inland to run along the shore of the broad River Teign to reach Newton Abbot. This scenic stretch of track helps make the trip to the far southwest extremely pleasant.

In August 2020, our friends in Torquay took us by car to Teignmouth and other points along this scenic rail route. It was fun to stand near the track and watch trains rushing past. One of the places we visited on that trip was the small village of Starcross, where a small passenger ferry crosses the Exe, carrying pedestrians, cyclists, the crew and their small dog to and from Exmouth. Near the Ferry embarkation point which is reached by crossing the railway via a footbridge, I spotted something quite surprising for this day and age of concerns about health and safety. A small gate (‘kissing gate’ variety) for pedestrians allows people to cross the tracks to reach the beach beyond them. This crossing is unguarded and permits folk to walk across two lines of track along which trains hurtle every few minutes. A sign exhorts those foolhardy enough to make use of this crossing to “Stop, Look, and Listen”.

Near the pier where one boards the ferry at Starcross, there is a brick building with white stone facings and a tall square brick tower. This edifice that has an industrial appearance stands close to the railway lines. In days gone by, it was a pumping station for a railway whose trains were propelled by compressed air, the so-called ‘Atmospheric Railway’.

The South Devon Atmospheric Railway, which followed the route taken by trains today, ran between Exeter and Plymouth. The construction of the westbound line from Exeter, The South Devon Railway, gained Parliamentary authorisation in mid-1844. Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was the engineer in charge of constructing the South Devon Railway. Given the then current power of steam locomotives, he decided that they would not have sufficient strength to deal with some of the gradients along the route. He opted to use propulsion generated by gases under pressure – the atmospheric system.  One of the pioneers of atmospheric railways was the English engineer and politician Joseph d’Aguilar Samuda (1813 –1885), whose ideas influenced Brunel.

Trying to put it as simply as possible, here is how I understand that the atmospheric railway system worked. A cylindrical metal traction pipe was laid between the railway tracks. This pipe had a longitudinal slit facing upwards. The slit was sealed shut by leather flaps that kept the pipe airtight when it was filled with compressed air provided by a series of pumping stations along the line. The building we saw at Starcross was one of these units, whose engines could generate between 45 and 82 horsepower.

The pumps injected air into the slitted longitudinal iron pipes (20 inches in diameter), whose leather flaps prevented escape of the gas. The trains using the atmospheric system were pulled by specially designed traction cars. Each of these cars was attached to a piston that fitted snugly within the air pipes running along the track. The attachment of the piston to the traction car was fitted with a mechanism that opened the short section leather flap immediately beneath it. The compressed air exerted pressure on the end of the piston, causing it to move along the pipe. Being attached to the traction car, the motion of the piston caused the car to move along the tracks. As the traction car was attached to the carriages, they were pulled along by the air-propelled traction car. As soon as the traction car moved along the track, the part of the flap that had been open momentarily, then closed, and the next short section opened briefly. What I have described is an oversimplification that ignores how the system dealt with points, level crossings, etc.  More detail is available for those interested on various websites (e.g. https://railwaywondersoftheworld.com/atmospheric-railway.html and on Wikipedia).

This system of propulsion was able to propel trains at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, although this speed was rarely attained. It also allowed trains in the late 1840s to overcome gradients that would have been too challenging for the steam engines at that time. The system was abandoned in about 1848. The leather valves caused numerous problems. Air leakage was one of these. Throughout the year, the leather dried out and became too stiff for use.  In winter, frost also damaged their flexibility. Throughout the year, they provided food for rats, whose activities were detrimental to their efficient functioning. The rat story is oft quoted but WG Hoskins, author of the much-respected book “Devon” notes that the atmospheric railway:

“… was a complete failure mainly because of the decomposing action of water and iron on the vital leather component of the valves … In September 1848 the line was worked by locomotives and the ‘Atmospheric Caper’ was abandoned for good, after more than £400,000 of the company’s money had been wasted. Brunel had made a tremendous mistake …”

I wonder whether with today’s synthetic rubber the experiment could be repeated, thus creating a railway system that makes little use of diesel engines. I suppose that electrification of the line might be a more practical solution.

Today, the largest relics of the short-lived Atmospheric Railway are the well-built pumping stations such as the one next to Starcross Station and the ferry embarkation point. It was built in 1845 and designed by Brunel. It consists of two blocks and the tall, solid looking chimney (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1097684). In 1869, the east block, which used to house the boilers, was converted for use as a Wesleyan chapel, and served this purpose until 1950.  The west block used to house the beam engine that used to compress air. This block was later converted to an engine shed for housing steam locomotives until 1981, when it became home to a museum related to the Atmospheric Railway. In its heyday, the Atmospheric Railway was powered by 11 pumping stations, of which only four remain standing (Starcross, Totnes, Dawlish [not much left to see], and Torquay). There is one other souvenir of the ill-fated system at Starcross. This is a pub opposite the station. It is called ‘The Atmospheric Railway Inn’. Sadly, the covid19 pandemic has resulted in it deciding to remain closed for the foreseeable future.

I had never heard of the Atmospheric Railway until we visited our friends in Torquay. Had it not been for their suggestion that we took a trip across the River Exe on the ferry, I might never have noticed the former pumping station at Starcross and remained in ignorance of Brunel’s adventurous experiment in railway technology.

Exhibitionism then and now

THE DIORAMA IN REGENTS Park is no more. However, the building on Park Square East (number 18), a protected edifice which housed it, still bears the word ‘Diorama’ prominently displayed. Designed by Morgan and Pugin, architects, and opened in 1823, this former London attraction, a mere 700 yards away from Madame Tussauds, a current attraction, was described in “Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to its Sights, 1844”

(quoted in www.victorianlondon.org/entertainment/diorama.htm) as follows:

“The Diorama, in Park Square, Regent’s Park, long an object of wonder and delight in Paris, was first opened in London, September 29, 1823. This is a very extraordinary and beautiful exhibition; it consists of two pictures that are alternately brought into view by a very ingenious mechanical contrivance; the interior resembling a theatre, consisting of one tier of boxes and a pit, being made to revolve upon a centre with the spectators, thus gradually withdraws one picture and introduces the other to the view. A judicious introduction of the light, and other contrivances, give increased effect to pictures beautifully painted, which, by a concentration of talent, completes an illusion that with perfect justice may be pronounced ‘the acme of art’.”

In 1844, the place was open from 10 am to 4 pm and the admission charge was steep for that era, two shillings (10p in today’s currency). The technology employed to create the show was invented by the Frenchmen Louis Daguerre (1757-1851), of photography fame, and Charles M Bouton (1781-1853). John Timbs in his “Curiosities of London” (published 1867) provided more details of the Diorama:

“The Diorama consisted of two pictures, eighty feet in length and forty feet in height, painted in solid and in transparency, arranged so as to exhibit changes of light and shade, and a variety of natural phenomena; the spectators being kept in comparative darkness, while the picture received a concentrated light from a ground-glass roof. The contrivance was partly optical, partly mechanical; and consisted in placing the pictures within the building so constructed, that the saloon containing the spectators revolved at intervals, and brought in succession the two distinct scenes into the field of view, without the necessity of the spectators removing from their seats; while the scenery itself remained stationary, and the light was distributed by transparent and movable blinds-some placed behind the picture, for intercepting and changing the colour of the rays of light, which passed through the semi-transparent parts. Similar blinds, above and in front of the picture were movable by cords, so as to distribute or direct the rays of light. The revolving motion given to the saloon was an arc of about 73º; and while the spectators were thus passing round, no person was permitted to go in or out. The revolution of the saloon was effected by means of a sector, or portion of a wheel, with teeth which worked in a series of wheels and pinions; one man, by turning a winch, moved the whole. The space between the saloon and each of the two pictures was occupied on either side by a partition, forming a kind of avenue, proportioned in width to the size of the picture. Without such a precaution, the eye of the spectator, being thirty or forty feet distant from the canvas, would, by anything intervening, have been estranged from the object.”

Although the Diorama was successful from a cultural viewpoint it was not commercially viable. By 1850, it had been sold. In 1852, the politician and engineer Sir Morton Peto (1809-1889) bought the building, and it was turned into a Baptist chapel (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp262-286). More recently, its interior has been modernised and converted to be used for various purposes.

The former Diorama faces the south east corner of Regents Park, the English Garden, where once a year this area briefly becomes host to a contemporary cultural event: The Frieze Sculpture show. Various commercial galleries display works of art from their collections in the open air in this part of the public park. It is a show that we enjoy visiting and this year, 2020, was the third year running that we have attended.

This year, the show runs from the 5th to the 18th of October, a shorter time than in previous years because of the covid19 pandemic. Realistically, it could have been held for far longer given that it is in the open air and crowding is unlikely. The 2020 exhibition comprises 12 artworks selected by curator Clare Lilley (Director of Programme, Yorkshire Sculpture Park). The artists whose works can be seen are as follows: David Altmejd, Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, Gianpietro Carlesso, Eric Fischl, Patrick Goddard, Lubaina Himid, Kalliopi Lemos, Richard Long, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Rebecca Warren and Arne Quinze. Of these, I had heard of some of them and already seen some of their art.

Without attempting to describe the artworks, all of them were visually intriguing, well-executed, and most of them evoked light-hearted feelings to a greater or lesser extent. The visitors who were looking at them seemed to be enjoying what they were seeing. Both children and adults were having fun. A lot of selfies were being taken, especially next to the sculptures that featured free standing doorways by Lubaini Himid and another by Gavin Turk. Fabio Lattanzi Antinori’s “viewing room” also attracted many people. This simple electronic sculpture flashed up a series of ridiculous but amusing messages such as “Culture is £1.28” and “Raju is £0”, which together formed a curious critique of today’s cultural values. An artwork which was somewhat macabre and delightfully weird was a collection of latex rubber animal heads scattered around in the grass. Each head also incorporated a mirror. This collection, entitled “Humans-Animals-Monsters (2020)” was created by Patrick Goddard. So, when a viewer looks at one of the heads, he or she not only sees the animal or monster but also his or her own reflection.  One sculpture, which I liked but my wife and daughter did not, was a tower of twisted torn metal sheets created by Arne Quinze. One work, which I did not particularly like, but was popular with small children was a sculpture depicting an oversize sandwich, created by Sarah Lucas.  The other six artworks, although not insignificant visually, attracted me less than those I have just described.

In brief, although a far cry from the long-lost Diorama, the outdoor Frieze Sculpture show is great fun and worth visiting if you can. Interesting artworks are displayed in a lovely environment. Some of them seem in harmony with nature and others deliberately clash with it. I must confess that I have a great fondness for outdoor displays of sculpture. Maybe, this derives from my childhood when my mother used to create sculptural works and displayed some of them in the garden of our home in northwest London. Recently, apart from seeing the sculptures at Regents Park, I have enjoyed seeing artworks displayed outdoors at Salisbury Cathedral, Compton Verney House (in Warwickshire), and at Henry Moore’s former home near Much Hadham.

PS: If you cannot get to Regents Park, the exhibition is on-line for a while at: https://viewingroom.frieze.com/viewing-room/

See a short video made by me at the exhibition by clicking here:https://youtu.be/Hg1IfB4jR9U

Pelicans in the park

I HAVE BEEN FORTUNATE to have lived in parts of London close to large green open spaces. When I was at secondary school in Highgate (north London), I could walk there from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, hardly needing to walk along streets. It was a short distance from my house to the grassy Hampstead Heath Extension. From there, I crossed a road to enter the wooded part of Hampstead Heath through which I walked to the Spaniards Inn. Then a few hundred yards of pavement followed before I entered the pleasant landscaped grounds of Kenwood House. Walking through this lovely park brought me to within a few hundred yards of my senior school.

When I was a student at University College London (‘UCL’), I was able to walk there through green areas most of the way from my family home. By walking the length of Hampstead Heath Extension, and then strolling southwards across the eastern part of Hampstead Heath, I reached South End Green. From there, I had to tramp the streets towards Primrose Hill, where once again my feet were on grass instead of paving stones. Primrose Hill led straight to Regents Park and from that splendid open space, it was a short walk along pavements to UCL.

Since marrying over 27 years ago, we have lived close to the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens. We are about three to four minutes’ walk away from the gardens depending on whether the pedestrian traffic lights are in our favour or not. We can traverse Kensington Gardens, passing close to the so-called Round Pond and then reaching The Serpentine Lake, where maybe one might stop for a coffee at the café by the Lido on the Serpentine. From there, it is not a long distance to the southeast corner of Hyde Park, which is next to Hyde Park Corner, a small green space ringed by busy roads. After crossing Hyde Park Corner, maybe having walked beneath Wellington Arch, which is surmounted by a metal quadriga, one road needs traversing before entering Green Park, which lives up to its name with its expanses of lawn and rows of mature trees. If you wish, you can walk along the northern fringe of Green Park to reach the eastern third of Piccadilly, and then you have arrived in the heart of the West End hardly having stepped upon the pavements lining busy streets.

After walking east through Green Park, one reaches the Mall and the front of Buckingham Palace. Cross the Mall and then you are in St James Park. By crossing this beautiful green space, you will soon reach Parliament Square and beyond it the Thames and the South Bank area.

Let us linger awhile in St James Park. The feature that endears me to this London Park is the St James Park Lake and its rich assortment of waterfowl. The park was established by King Henry VII on marshland watered by the now no longer visible Tyburn River, which runs in underground conduits. The lake, probably designed by the French landscape designer André Mollet (d. before 16 June 1665), began life as a canal dug for King Charles II. The king used it for swimming in the summer and for skating when it froze in the winter (a rare occurrence nowadays, thanks to the so-called ‘global warming’ that many believe is occurring).

There is a pedestrian bridge across the water, two islands, and a fountain, in the lake. A wide variety of ducks, swans, geese, herons, cormorants (or shags), and other birds congregate in and around the water. This is nothing peculiar. You can see the same in The Round Pond, the Serpentine Lake, and many other water bodies that are dotted liberally across Greater London. However, St James Park offers one kind of bird that you will not find anywhere else in London except at the Zoo. The park is home to a small population of pelicans. These creatures are often hard to see as they usually perch on the islands in the lake, but yesterday, the 11th of October 2020, at least three of them were walking fearlessly (it seemed) along the edge of the lake close to admiring visitors including my wife and me.

In 1664, during the reign (1660-1685) of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland, pelicans were first introduced into St James Park. These distinctive long billed birds, which symbolise the Passion of Jesus and the Eucharist in Christian symbolism, were gifts of the Russian Ambassador, who knew that the king appreciated exotic waterfowl. Charles was presented with two grey or Dalmatian pelicans (Pelicanus crispus). Sadly, they did not breed successfully, and the park needed to be replenished with new specimens occasionally. An article in the online version of “Country Life” (www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/st-jamess-park-pelicans-sparked-cold-war-stand-off-russia-usa-171954), published in January 2018, reveals:

“The Russian Embassy’s custom of occasionally presenting new pelicans continued during and after the Soviet era and other organisations – such as the City of Prague in 2013 – have also added to the birds’ numbers.”

However, a diplomatic incident erupted in the 1960s, when:

“… London’s Royal Parks accepted some American pelicans for the lake in St James’s Park … According to Foreign Office tradition, the presence of the American pelicans resulted from a Cold War rivalry between the American and Soviet Embassies. One day, a newly accredited US Ambassador called on the Foreign Secretary, whose office overlooks the lake. He noticed the pelicans and was informed about their history and origin.

Determined not to be upstaged by the Soviet Ambassador, his opposite number announced that he, too, would be presenting some pelicans – American ones – to grace the lake, an offer that the Royal Parks management accepted gratefully.

When the American pelicans duly arrived, they were, predictably, not friendly to their Russian counterparts. Indeed, rather mysteriously, they failed to flourish and seemed miserable. The US Embassy suspected the Soviet Embassy of harming the American pelicans – which the Russians denied – and relations between the embassies became glacial.”

That incident is something that we did not see recorded on any of the numerous informative signs placed near the perimeter of the lake.

Londoners are most fortunate to have so many green spaces often within easy walking distance from their homes. Many other great cities of the world do have significantly large public green spaces, for example Central Park in New York, Cubbon Park in Bangalore, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and Kalemegdan in Belgrade, but few have so many as liberally distributed across their areas as does London. Being within walking distance of both Kensington Gardens and Holland Park during our recent severe month’s long ‘lockdown’ helped raise our spirits during this bleak period. Not only was the walking we did good for our spirits, but it gradually increased the distance that we can walk comfortably before becoming physically fatigued. Even when eventually the pandemic of covid19 dies down, we might well think twice about taking public transport now that we know how pleasant it is to walk instead.

PS: If you wish, you can watch the pelicans feeding in the lake on:  http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/50409682

The story of a bookshop

THE BIOGRAPHY OF STANLEY Spencer, which I ordered online, was too large to fit through the letter flap on our front door. So, as is usual in such situations, the postman left a red and white postcard informing me that I could collect my oversized parcel from the local post office. Until October 2019, undelivered packages could be collected from a busy post office in Queensway. Since then, and throughout the 2020 ‘lockdown’, post can be collected from a new and much improved centre on nearby Westbourne Grove.

Much of the architecture on the stretch of Westbourne Grove between Chepstow Road and Queensway is unremarkable. An exception is number 26, which houses the Al Saqi bookstore. This elegant establishment specialises in selling (and publishing) books about the Middle East and North Africa. In 1978, two friends, André Gaspard and Mai Ghoussoub, left war-torn Lebanon to settle in London. They founded the Al Saqi book shop because:

“They yearned to recreate something of the heady intellectual freedom of pre-war Beirut, and to supply a then-untapped market for English and Arabic books on the Middle East and North Africa.” (https://saqibooks.com/about/history/).

They began publishing as ‘Al Saqi’ in 1983 and have been selling books, including some banned in certain countries, for well over thirty years.

Interesting as the bookshop might well be, its premises catch the eye and intrigue the passer-by. As the “Arab Weekly” wrote in December 2015 (https://thearabweekly.com/al-saqi-not-your-average-london-bookstore), the shop is;

“Not your average London Bookstore … London – Al-Saqi bookshop is housed in a conspicuous building in London’s Bayswater district. With colonnades and arches topped by 11 staring busts, its architecture recalls ruins that are found across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.”

It was the shop’s exuberant and unusual façade that has often caught my attention.

It was not Al Saqi who designed the façade of the building housing it. After he had spoken with a customer in Arabic, I asked a learned looking man, who was working in the shop, about the history of the building in which it is housed. He had no idea.

The architectural historian and his co-author Bridget Cherry mention the building in “The Buildings of England, London 3: North West”. They wrote that the highlights of Westbourne Grove include:

“… No. 26 built as an ‘Athenaeum’, 1861, by A Billing, stuccoed with columns and a good deal of sculpture (musical angels, busts of Milton, Shakespeare, etc.)”

A Billing was Arthur Billing (1824-1896), whose career included construction of, and restoration of, many churches in London and south-east England. Most dictionaries define an Athenaeum as an institution for the promotion of literary or scientific learning. a library or reading room.

Another source (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1066120) describes Saqi’s home as having once been a “… Theatre … built as a Shakespearean theatre”, but does not refer to it as an Athenaeum.  Just as I was beginning to despair of discovering whether number 26 was originally an Athenaeum or a theatre, or both, I stumbled across an informative website (https://archiseek.com/2013/vestbourne-athenom-westbourne-grove-b-wswater/). It describes the building as having been originally named ‘Westbourne Hall’ and quotes an article published in an issue of “The Building News” dated 31st of May 1861.

From the article, we learn that the newly built Westbourne Hall was attached to the Bayswater Athenaeum, which was on nearby Havelock Terrace (which, strangely, does not appear on a detailed map published in the late 1860s). From the detailed description of the façade of Westbourne Hall, it is certain that the premises of the bookshop are in the former Westbourne Hall, not the Athenaeum. The gaslit auditorium, equipped with lights installed by Mr G Reed, “the eminent gasfitter of Westbourne Grove”, had raked seats with “carved ends”. There was a gallery above the entrance end of the hall. The hall was equipped with what was then a “new patented system” of heating and cooling designed to keep the audience comfortable. The article added:

“When the new reading rooms, refreshment and committee rooms, and other offices are completed, the business of the Athenaeum will be removed into them, and look out upon Westbourne-Grove.”

So, it appears that The Athenaeum moved into Westbourne Hall. The article also gives an idea of the place’s original intention. It was to provide a place where the “respectable population” of the area could hear worthy events such as Shakespeare being read by:

“… a silver voiced popular preacher …Lectures on the Holy Land, Revelations, and Negro Slavery, an evening with amatory Thomas Moore …”

Another issue of “The Building News” (see  https://archiseek.com/2013/vestbourne-athenom-westbourne-grove-b-wswater/) gives a very full description of the building’s remarkable exuberant façade.

The subsequent history of the Westbourne Hall is found on an informative website (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp221-226). Here, slightly edited by me, is what is written:

“Westbourne hall in Westbourne Grove could hold 400 people for lectures and entertainments in 1860, when its lessee opened adjoining premises in Havelock Terrace as Bayswater Athenaeum and Literary Institution.  An ornate four-storeyed building with a hall for 1,000, designed by A. Billing, was built on the site of the first hall in 1861 and licensed for music alone by T. E. Whibley in 1863.  The Athenaeum, although welcomed for its educational value, had become the Athenaeum divan by 1865 and may have closed soon afterwards.  Westbourne hall continued to be used for concerts, plays, and public meetings until 1875 or later …”

A playbill preserved in the National Archives (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/6497ee39-a6e5-4a92-9acc-551fda7680ed) gives a flavour of what was on offer at Westbourne Hall:

“Wednesday July 1st 1868.

‘Benefit and last appearance of Miss Lydia Howard, the Baby Actress, when she will sustain her characters of Katherine! in “The Taming of the Shrew”, Falstaff! in “King Henry the Fourth”, Prince Arthur! in “King John” and Matilda Mowbray! Hector Mowbray!! Foppington Mowbray!!! Cobbleton Mowbray!!!! in The Four Mowbrays’. Also appearing: Miss Hazelwood and Mr J S Fitzpatrick Paddington”

That must have been a memorable evening. According to Anne Varty in her book “Children and Theatre in Victorian Britain”, Lydia, who was not yet five years old, ‘retired’ from the stage in 1869. Child actors and actresses were popular in Victorian times. As for the other ‘stars’ of that evening in Westbourne Grove, I have not yet found anything about them. “The Four Mowbrays” was a one-act farce by John Poole (c 1786-1872), first performed in the late 1820s.

So, there you have it more or less: the story behind the building where books on Middle Eastern and North African subjects are on sale. It is appropriate that this former Athenaeum/ theatre is still being used for cultural purposes. I am curious to know whether there is anything remaining of the Westbourne Hall’s former auditorium. Part of the building is now used by the HBA (Hirsch Bedner Associates) Gallery. A photograph of this organization’s premises looks like the space being used might well have been part of the auditorium (see https://foursquare.com/v/hba-the-gallery/5151a5e1e4b0cbcf6b5f4568). So, all is not lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting the professor

AMONGST THE COURSES on offer in the third year in the Physiology Department at University  College London Lon, there was one with the mysterious title of ‘Connective Tissue’. I went to see our tutor Dr Roger Woledge, a specialist in muscle physiology, and asked him about this. He told me that it had been on offer for years, but no one had ever asked to take it. He suggested that I enrol in it so that it would be held for the first time ever, and at the very least he would discover what was on offer. I agreed, and he sent me to the office of Prof Robert Harkness to let him know that I was interested in finding out about his course.

As soon as I entered Robert’s cluttered office, I knew that I would enjoy studying whatever was on offer. There was barely any, if any, free space on the Prof’s huge desk. The walls of the office were crowded with books, runs of journals, pictures, old engravings, and even framed cartoons. There was a small paper notice stuck on the glass door of one cupboard. It was typical of Robert’s sense of humour and his take on common sense.

 His rotating office chair looked antique, rather like something you might expect to see in a bank manager’s office in the old Wild West. There was a glass fronted wooden cabinet filled with books and other objects. On the floor, there was a variety of things including polished wooden microscope cases. I was asked to close the door behind me quickly because he told me that his life would not have been worth living if the new black kitten, which had just emerged from a cupboard, was allowed to escape from the office. He and his wife, Margaret. would be taking it home that evening.

I imagine that Robert must have told me something about his Connective Tissue course whilst I stroked his affectionate young cat, but I do not remember what. All I can recall is that by the end of our brief but friendly interview, I had been enrolled on his course. When I reported this to Dr Woledge, he was delighted. The course was not to be held until well into the academic year, and, by the time it commenced, its participants included G Clough, who is now a professor at a major University, an MSc. Student, and me.

Some months later as I neared the date of graduation, I began investigating the possibility of starting a PhD and began visiting various people who were potential supervisors. While I was walking beside the iron railings enclosing the gardens of Lincolns Inn Fields after just having had two interviews that I had not enjoyed, I had a revelatory moment. It dawned on me that however prestigious a laboratory or potential doctoral supervisor might be, I would have to get on with him or her as well as his or her team of co-workers. I would be spending at least 3 years in their company. It was important, at least for me, that I should feel at ease with whomever I was to collaborate. If I did not, as I had just felt during the recent interviews, I knew that I would not be able to flourish as a doctoral student. Since that day, I have always asked myself whether I would feel comfortable working with whoever was interviewing me when applying for a post. Only once, I did not follow this rule, and then I ended up in a job that did not suit me at all.

On the next day, I visited Robert Harkness in his office.  As I entered and surveyed his undoubtedly individual office, I decided that whatever project that he had to offer would suit me as it would give me the chance to work in the genial company of Robert, Margaret, and their friendly team. He told me that he would be able to get hold of a Medical research Council (‘MRC’) grant for me, providing that I thought of an interesting topic related to connective tissue. He was not going to tell me what to research – I had to make that decision.

Then all of a sudden, he opened one of the leather-bound volumes that contained reprints of his published papers, and showed me a graph published in a paper that he had written for the prestigious Journal of Physiology. I forget what the graph illustrated but recall that it was divided into sections by several vertical dotted lines. He explained to me that he always had a great deal of trouble from the editors of the Journal. They were forever returning the manuscripts of the paper that he submitted to them, wanting him to make minor modifications and thus delaying publication.  He asked me to examine the vertical lines with a magnifying glass, and then I saw that they were made up of dots and dashes, which looked like Morse code. He asked me whether I was able to decipher Morse code. I told him that I could not. Gleefully, he translated the dots and dashes which he had drawn on the published graph and revealed that they spelt out the words ‘drat those flies’ repeatedly along the length of the lines. They had not been noticed by the journal’s fussy editors and were Robert’s revenge for their pernickety interferences.

Not only did I complete my PhD under the supervision of Prof Harkness, but also, I established a close relationship with him and his family. This friendship with the family, which my wife and I value greatly, has endured long since the deaths of the Prof and his wife.

Double vision and Blenheim Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A statue and a club

KNOWING MY INTEREST IN INDIA, my cousin kindly sent me some photographs of a statue she saw in a small cathedral city in North Yorkshire. The statue does not commemorate a former slave owner (or even abolitionist) but (if one wants to be politically correct) a former representative of the British ‘oppressors’ of some of their subject people. The city where the statue stands is Ripon and the subject depicted is George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon (1827-1909).

Lift to the Ripon Club

The Marquess (‘Ripon’) was born on the 24th of October 1827 at 10 Downing Street, the London home of his father, the Prime Minister Frederick John Robinson, 1st Earl of Ripon (1782-1859), who was the British Prime Minister between the 31st of August 1827 and the 21st of January 1828. Educated privately, Ripon was awarded a degree in civil law by Oxford University. Between 1852 and 1880, Ripon had a diplomatic career, becoming involved in matters relating to the USA and the formation of Italy. During this period, he also served several terms as a Member of Parliament for various constituencies. In addition, he held various high government positions including a brief stint in 1861 acting as Under-Secretary of State for India.

Between 1880 and 1884, Ripon was the Viceroy of India, one with more liberal views than most other holders of this post. While in India, he tried to introduce legislation that would give Indians more rights, including the opening the possibility of allowing Indian judges to judge Europeans in court proceedings. This reform did not materialise because it met with vigorous opposition from Europeans living in the Indian subcontinent. Ripon was involved in developing forestry in India as well as taking part in at least one huge hunt that resulted in massive killing of wildlife. Some of his efforts during his rule of India were beneficial to his Indian subjects, for example the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885 and the repeal of the Vernacular Press Act of 1878. The latter, introduced by the Viceroy Lord Lytton, prohibited criticism of British policy by the Indian language (i.e. vernacular) press but it did not apply to the English language press.

Ripon returned to England, where he held various important civic and political positions. When the Liberals took power in 1905, Ripon became Leader of the House of Lords, a position he retained until the end of his life.

Ripon is still remembered kindly by a few people in modern India including in Chennai (Madras), Riponpet (in the Shivamoga district of Karnataka), Multan (now in Pakistan), and in Bombay (now ‘Mumbai’). It was in the latter mentioned place that a good friend of ours, a Parsi, took us to see the Ripon Club on the third floor of an edifice on MG Road, the NM Wadia Building, in the Fort area of Bombay.

The Ripon Club, whose membership is open to Parsis aged over 18, was founded by eminent Parsis including Sir Phirozeshah Mervanji Mehta, Jamshedji Tata and Sir Dinshaw Manackjee Petit (grandfather of, Rattanbai, the wife of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah). All these gentlemen tried to improve life in India but had great respect for British imperial rule. The Club’s website (www.riponclub.in) informs that the place:

“…is a quaint, “Ole English-style” establishment for professionals such as Lawyers, Businessmen and Chartered Accountants to meet and enjoy their lunch. Of course, Parsi Zoroastrians from all professions are members of this beautiful club … the Ripon Club is the place to be if you whether you want to relax after a wonderful meal or entertain your guests and business associates … But time still stands still in this bustling club. The furniture from days gone by is evidence of this fact.”

It is much more than the furniture in the Club that gives the impression that time has stood still there. The building in which the Club is housed is old as is also its lift, which looks old enough to be preserved in a museum. However, it worked, and we ascended to the third floor. A pair of dark-coloured, wooden swinging doors, rather like the doors to saloon bars in films about the Wild West, serves as entrance to the Club. We entered a large dining room with many well-spaced tables and chairs, mostly unoccupied. The fittings and screens in this eating place look as if they might have been installed when the Club was founded. If this is not the case, they are certainly very old. The Club’s restaurant is famous for its Mutton Dhansak Buffet on Wednesday afternoons, a treat that I hope to enjoy some time in the future. Of course, we will need to be invited by one of our many kind Parsi friends, who is a member.Three or four people were eating lunch silently, served by a waiter, who was wearing a white shirt with black trousers.  Another room we visited was also furnished with tables and chairs in addition to padded armchairs and sofas, as well as glass fronted bookshelf cabinets. This room also contained the sculpted bust of an eminent Parsi gentleman, whose name I failed to note.

The Club also occupies the fourth floor of the building, but we did not venture there to see its billiards and cards rooms and the fine view from its windows. Although we did not spend long in the Club, we were able to see that it, like many old Parsi and Irani restaurants and other establishments run by these minorities in Bombay, has resisted the tide of time. How much longer these relics of long ago will last is a worrying concern because the world’s Parsi population is diminishing in size.

I am grateful to my cousin for sending me her photographs of Ripon’s statue in the city of Ripon and thereby stimulating me to look into the story of the man who gave his name to a fascinating little club in the heart of Bombay, which was shown to us in early 2018 by a good friend who resides in the city.