Dr Who and me

CHICAGO WAS MY HOME for the last few months of 1963. My father was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago during that period. While we were in Chicago, President John F Kennedy was assassinated. However, that was not the only momentous event that I recall from that time,

My best friend in London, whom I had known for about seven years, Nicholas Gilks who is no longer alive, sent me an airletter in which he wrote that he could not wait for me to come back to London, not because he was just missing me, but because he wanted me to watch the new, exciting television programme that had begun whilst I was away. The programme, which still runs today in 2022, was “Dr Who”. It was first broadcast on the 23rd of November, the day after Kennedy was shot.

Well, “Dr Who” was certainly a fine programme. I used to watch it at the Gilks’s home because we did not have television at our family home, and never ever did. To reach my friend’s home, I walked. On the way, I used an unlit pathway that runs between Hampstead Way and Temple Fortune Lane, where Nicholas lived. Frankly, the ominous Daleks that starred in the programmes every week terrified me so much so that I was afraid of walking home along that pathway in the dark. So, Dr Gilks, my friend’s father, used to accompany me to that dark passageway and waited till I reached the far end of it. For this, I was very grateful.

Today, a sunny Sunday morning, the 20th of November 2022 (almost 59 years after Kennedy’s death), we walked along the Hammersmith riverside and reached the Riverside Studios, where we stopped for a coffee in its superb new café. Standing next to the doorway and pointing its weapons at the tables in the café stands a real-life Dalek. Why is it there you might ask. The answer is that between 1964 and 1968, “Dr Who” was filmed in the Riverside Studios, which was then a BBC studio complex. Furthermore, and worryingly, it was from the water beneath the nearby Hammersmith Bridge that the Daleks commenced their attempt to invade the Earth.

Luckily, the sun was shining brightly and there were plenty of people out and about. So, there was little chance that my childhood fears about the robotic Daleks would be awakened.

Cattle in Cornwall and Denmark

THE EARLY MORNING sun was shining over the hills surrounding our holiday cottage near Wadebridge in Cornwall, and we decided to take a stroll along the narrow country lanes nearby. The air was crystal clear, and we could see far-off grassy fields dotted with grazing sheep. Wind turbines with slowly turning blades punctuated the northern horizon. After crossing a small, fast-flowing stream, we ascended a steep hill. Every now and then, gaps in the walls bordering the roadway afforded us with splendid views. We reached the entrance to a field, I was reminded of a holiday I enjoyed in 1962 when I was ten years old.

Cows in Cornwall

Early in 1962, I underwent surgery to have my inflamed appendix removed. A few weeks after this, we set off for Denmark in our family Fiat 1100. It was just before Easter and the weather was cold. After traversing West Germany, we crossed into Denmark and headed for our destination, a farm near Toftlund in Jutland. The farm was owned by Lis, one of our former au-pair girls, and her husband. One thing I remember about Toftlund was something pointed out to me by Lis’s father. He showed me that each house had two different numbers: one was on a red background, and the other on blue. I cannot remember which was which, but one numbering system was that of the Danish authorities, and the other was that of the Germans, who had formerly occupied this part of Denmark.

The most memorable and enjoyable aspect of our weeklong stay on the farm was being able to mingle with the farm animals. The cattle and pigs were housed in sheds because it was too cold for them to graze outside. All day my sister and I enjoyed watching and stroking the animals. I think that the time we spent on the farm was so much fun because it was far more ‘child friendly’ than most of our other family holidays, which were centred around my parents’ fascination with artworks in Italian churches and museums.

Some of the cattle had horns. There is nothing unusual about that. However, my mother, who worried about most things and saw potential danger everywhere, was extremely concerned about these horns. What made her anxious was the possibility that one of the creatures might gore me and thereby cause my appendicectomy scar to burst open. Luckily, I survived to tell this story.

Returning to our walk in Cornwall, you will recall that we had reached an entrance to a field that sparked off my memories of Denmark more than 60 years ago. The gate to the field was the entrance to a small pen, The pen contained several cows waiting to be moved somewhere, or maybe to be milked. Seeing them staring at me staring at them reminded me of my wonderful holiday near Toftlund.

Eating there again at least 50 years later in Venice

EARLY IN SEPTEMBER (2022), I was eating spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) in a restaurant in Venice (Italy). The place where I was eating this delicious dish has many memories for me.

Lantern hanging outside the entrance to the Antica Locanda Montin

During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, my parents took my sister and me for annual holidays in Venice. My parents were discerning eaters. Unfortunately, back in those now far-off times, there were very few restaurants in Venice which served food that met my parents’ approval.  Eventually, they homed in on one place that they liked enough to return there for every evening meal (our accommodation provided lunch as part of our demi-pension deal). That restaurant is called the Antica Locanda Montin (‘the Montin’). According to its website, it has hosted celebrities including Modigliani, Ezra Pound, Robert de Niro, Luigi Nono, and David Bowie. Well, I did not know that when I used to dine there with my family.

During our recent trip to Venice, we found out that the Montin is still in business, and we booked a table for lunch. To my delight and amazement, the restaurant looks exactly as it did when I last visited it over 50 years ago. It does not seem to have changed one little bit. The front of the Montin faces a small canal. The dining room is long and rectangular. At the far end opposite the front door, a rear door gives access to a pleasant garden, where people can eat in good weather. The walls of the dining room are covered with framed paintings, many of them of great artistic quality. Apparently, they have been donated over the years by artists, who have dined in the restaurant.

I cannot remember what I used to eat at the Montin over 50 years ago. However, my spaghetti alle vongole was tasty and enjoyable. My wife and our daughter were also happy with what they ate. Our lunch was one of the better meals we ate during our four days in Venice. What I enjoyed even more than the food was discovering that the Montin looks as it did when I was much younger. I am glad that the place has survived the trying times we have been through recently and Italy’s various economic crises.

Piero della Francesca in my life

A FEW WEEKS AGO, we were going to meet friends at a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown. As we had arrived in the area far too early for our rendezvous, we decided to pass some time looking at pictures in the nearby National Gallery. We headed for the rooms containing paintings from the Renaissance era, which we had not visited for a long time because usually, for reasons that I cannot fully explain, we look at works created in later periods. We entered one of the rooms and I stopped in front of a couple of paintings that brought childhood memories flooding into the forefront of my mind. Both artworks are lovely creations of the early Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (‘Piero’; c1415-1492).

In the National Gallery, London

In my childhood and early adulthood, I lived at 36 Hampstead Way in Hampstead Garden Suburb. The front door was under a covered porch and reached up a few stairs that led up from the street. The front door opened into a hallway with red polished stone flooring and a few pictures hanging on its walls. At the end of the hallway, facing the front door, there was a large high-quality photographic reproduction of the “Montefeltro Altarpiece”, painted by Piero. This coloured picture had been bought in Florence (Italy) from Alinari, the famous photography company that specialised in taking good photographs of artworks. The feature of the picture that always fascinated me was the egg suspended from a scallop shell above the head of the Madonna.  I have learned recently that the egg depicted is an ostrich egg, symbol of the new Venus: i.e., the Virgin Mary. It has also been suggested that it is not an egg but a pearl, which is a reference to the Immaculate Conception (pearls are created in oyster shells without sexual intervention!).

Also in the hall, there was a smaller coloured reproduction of another of Piero’s paintings: “The Flagellation of Christ”. Mounted on board and glazed with a shiny varnish, this reproduction was smaller than the original. So, every time I entered or left our home, I used to see these two images originally created by Piero. They were a part of my life.

My parents loved Italy. We visited Florence and Venice every year except 1967, the year after Florence had suffered from a devastating flood. My mother was a sculptor, and my father was a serious amateur art historian with a special interest in the Italian Renaissance. Hence, their love of Florence and the art treasures it contains. Piero was amongst their favourite artists.

Piero was born in Borgo Santo Sepolcro (‘Sansepolcro’) in Tuscany, which is about 47 miles southeast of Florence. Once when we were staying in Florence, we made an excursion to Arezzo, where there are some frescos by Piero, and then to Sansepolcro. There, we visited the Museo Civico that contains one of Piero’s great works: “The Resurrection”. None of us, my parents, myself and my sister, had seen it ‘in the flesh’ before.

For my father, Piero was not the only reason for our visit to Sansepolcro. In addition to his deep interest in the history of art, Dad was one of the world experts in the history of … wait for it … double-entry bookkeeping. This system of accounting has been a cornerstone of business since it was invented by the mathematician Luca Pacioli (c1447-1517), whose life overlapped that of Piero. Not only that, but Luca was also born in Sansepolcro. Apart from his advances in accounting methods, Luca also wrote various mathematical treatises including “Summa de arithmetica, geometria. Proportioni et proportionalita”. The second volume of this was Luca’s rewriting of a work by Piero. And the third volume was an Italian translation of “De quinque corporibus regularibus”, which had originally been written by Piero. Apparently, in both cases Luca made no mention of Piero as their author.

Although Piero and Luca figured often during the years I lived with my parents, I have not thought about either of them for a long time. It was only when we entered the National Gallery to pass time whilst we waited for our friends that seeing the paintings by Piero evoked childhood memories.

My childhood home in north London

I LIVED IN A detached house (see the picture) in north London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb during the first three decades of my life. My bedroom window was that on the first floor facing the street, Hampstead Way. Externally it looks much as it did when I lived there. This is not surprising because the houses in the Suburb are all subject to strict preservation orders,which forbid alterations of the appearances of the exteriors of the Suburb’s buildings.

Although I was privileged to have lived in this part of London, it was never my favourite area of the city because during my youth, it was a dull place to be a child or even an adolescent.

By the way, although the name ‘Hampstead ‘ is part of the suburb’s name, the area is completely different from Hampstead proper: it lacks the vibrancy and vitality of old Hampstead village (or town, if you prefer). As a youngster, and still today, I have always enjoyed my visits to Hampstead Village

Images of my mother’s sculptures rediscovered

MY LATE MOTHER (Helen Yamey: 1920-1980) trained as a commercial artist in Cape Town (South Africa) before WW2. In 1948, she came to London to marry my father. In London, she painted and, according to my father, took lessons from the great Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Around the time when I was born (1952), my mother began making sculptures. The first of these was a terracotta mother and child. Maybe, she was depicting herself with me in her arms.  By the 1960s, she was working in the sculpture studios of St Martins School of Art, which was then near Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. There, she was in the company of artists such as Anthony Caro, William Tucker, Philip King, and William Turnbull. At least one of these now famous artists taught my mother how to weld and solder.

My mother exhibited her works in important art galleries at least twice. In late 1961, she exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a show called “26 young Sculptors”. In 1962, she exhibited sculptures at the Grabowski Gallery, along side works by Maurice Agis and David Annesley. Although she sold a few of her creations, she did them more for pleasure than for profit.

My mother was a perfectionist. She destroyed much of what she created. However, at some time during the 1960s, she had a series of professional photographs taken of some of her mainly abstract works. These were kept in a yellow Kodak photographic paper box in a drawer in our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. As a teenager, I used to look at them occasionally and wonder what became of some of the creations recorded in these photos.

My mother died in 1980 and my father remarried 11 years later. After remarrying, he and my stepmother moved from our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to another house (near Primrose Hill). After the move, I used to ask him what had happened to the photographs of my mother’s sculptures and other family photos. Each time I asked, he would say that they were stored somewhere, possibly in the garage of his new home. After a while, I gave up hope of ever seeing these pictures again because it was clear to me that Dad had little or no interest in these photographs and in addition he could not imagine why anyone else would find them interesting. My father died, aged 101 and 6 months, in 2020. What with covid19 and its associated problems, we did not see his widow, my stepmother, again until recently this year (2022).

When, at last, we met her, she arrived carrying a plastic carrier bag, which she handed to me. To my great delight, it contained the box of photographs described above and another filled with family photographs taken mainly in the late 1950s. My stepmother told me that she had found them when she was sorting things in the garage of the house where she and my father had lived.

The photographs of my mother’s sculptures all bear the name of the photographer: Joseph McKenzie, ARPS (95 Blenheim Gardens, Wallington, Surrey). According to Wikipedia, Joseph McKenzie (1929-2015) is regarded as “father of modern Scottish photography”. More relevantly in the context of my mother’s works, he taught photography at the St martins School of Art.

Some of the photographs have notes written on their backs. The handwriting is my mother’s. One of the pictures, that of the mother and child has the words: “my first ever sculpture, terracotta, mother and child, 24””. Some of the other photos have information about the size and the material of the work depicted.

About 10 years before she died, my mother became disillusioned and practically gave up making sculptures. Although she made a few abstract images in pen and ink and a few carvings in alabaster, her abandonment of sculpture making as a full-time activity left a great hole in her life.

I have taken pictures of the photographs, and they can be seen on:

http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/album/1323344

Remembered in a Cornish car park

THE FORD CONSUL was made in the UK between 1951 and 1962, when I was 10 years old. As a young child, I used to be extremely impressed by this vehicle and was happy when I was occasionally driven in one. Recently, I was in a car park near the Art Deco swimming pool by the sea in Penzance (Cornwall) when I spotted a well preserved example of a Consul, which was still in use. Seeing it, brought back memories of many years ago.

Out to sea without stepping off land

THE FIRST TIME I visited Southend in Essex was in about 1960. I was invited to go there on a day trip with my best friend, his younger brother, and their father, who was a senior official in London Transport. We went by car, stopping on the way at several London Transport bus garages, where we saw a few vintage busses. I remember two things about Southend on that first visit. First, we ate fish and chips. It was the first time I had sampled this cuisine because my parents were too snobbish about food to have been seen dead in a fish and chip shop. I have enjoyed fish and chips ever since that time in Southend. The other thing that sticks in my mind was travelling along Southend Pier in a special train that carried passengers almost to its furthest point from the seafront. It was not until the 11th of February 2022 that I made my second visit to Southend.

Southend Pier

Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world. It is 1.34 miles (2.16 kilometres) in length. The present pier, which replaced an earlier wooden one built in the early 1830s, was completed in the late 1880s. it was opened to the public in 1889. At about this time, the single-track railway running along it was also ready for use. It was extended by 1898. The trains were then electrically operated. In 1978, the electric railway was closed. By 1986, it had been re-opened using trains that were driven by diesel engines. It was on one of these that we took a return trip this February.

I enjoy piers. They provide a way of going out to sea without leaving land and without risking seasickness. In addition, like the one at Southend, most of the piers in England are visually satisfying when viewed from the shore. At the sea end of Southend Pier, there are various structures ranging from painted wooden shacks to the beautiful contemporary-style Royal Pavilion, opened in 2012. Despite being a complete contrast to the other constructions on the end of the pier, it enhances to visual attractiveness of the area.

Although the pier was not the primary reason for our excursion to Southend, it certainly enhanced our enhancement of the place as did our lunch at a local fish and chips shop.

Mahatma Gandhi in Hampstead

WHEN I USED TO visit Hampstead with my parents in the early 1960s, we always walked past a place that intrigued me when I was a youngster. It was the still standing Hampstead Quaker Meeting House, which has a lovely front garden. The latter is overlooked by its neighbour, the late 18th centuryMansfield Cottage, which in the 1960s housed a tearoom or restaurant. The Meeting House with art nouveau (Arts and Crafts) features was built in about 1907 to the designs of Fred Rowntree (1860-1927). According to James D Hunt in his detailed book “Gandhi in London”, Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), the future Mahatma, spoke in this meeting house on the 13th of October 1909:

“… perhaps travelling there by the recently opened underground line … The Society of Friends (Quakers) were not at this time much interested in Indian affairs … The 1909 meeting was sponsored by the Hampstead Peace and Arbitration Society”

The speech, as recorded by Robert Payne in his “The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi”, was entitled “East and West” and outlined the evils of the British occupation of India and the sufferings of Indians in South Africa. I knew nothing of this or about the house when we used to stroll down Heath Street.

A lost landmark and a treasured map

EVER SINCE I CAN REMEMBER, I have been fascinated by maps and collected them. I cannot say exactly why I enjoy them, but one reason is that I get satisfaction from aesthetic aspects of cartography. Another reason is that when I look at them, I try to imagine the reality that they represent, a form of virtual travelling. Whatever the underlying cause(s) of my fascination with maps might be, it is irrelevant to what follows because what I want to tell you is about a shop that I used to love to visit. It was Stanford in London’s Long Acre, a street not far from the old Covent Garden Market and Leicester Square.

Founded by Edward Stanford (1827-1904) in the early 1850s, his business was one of the best specialist suppliers of maps in the UK, if not the very best.  His company’s store on Long Acre opened in 1901, having moved there from Charing Cross. When I used to visit the shop to browse the lovely maps on display in the 1960s, there were two floors open to the public. The ground floor was the main showroom with maps of popular destinations that appealed to the majority of customers. The basement was less attractively arranged but far more interesting to serious travellers and map collectors such as me. There were no maps out on display down there. One had to ask a salesman to show you maps of areas that interested you. I believe it was there that I bought a nautical chart of the extremely remote French island of Kerguelen in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, a place that I had no intention of ever visiting.

In about 1966, my interest in Albania was born. I have tried to explain why this happened in my book “Albania on My Mind”, which I published in 2013, 101 years after Albania gained its independence.   In those days, not much was known in the UK about this small country in the western Balkans. Maps of Albania were not available in most shops, probably because few people visited the place, or were even remotely interested in it. So, I took the Underground from my local station, Golders Green, to Leicester Square. Stanford was a few yards from that station. At Stanford, I enquired about detailed maps of Albania, and was sent to the specialist map department in the basement.

The only detailed map of Albania available at Stanford was a 1:200,000 scale map with the information that it was made:

“Auf Grund der Oesterreichischer-Ungarische Kriegsaufnahmen und der im Auftrage der Albanische Regierung Von Dr Herbert Louis gemachten aufnahmen sowie mit Benützung italienischer und franzoesischer Karten” (i.e., ‘On the basis of the Austrian-Hungarian war recordings and the recordings made by Dr Herbert Louis on behalf of the Albanian government, as well as with the use of Italian and French maps’)

The map, which comes as two sheets, was up to date in 1925. A small map alongside the main map shows which parts of the large map were surveyed by whom and when.        Between 1916 and 1918, the surveyors were the armies of Austria-Hungary, France, and Italy. Some information collected by Baron Nopcsa between 1905 and 1909 is included in the map, as well as data collected by Dr H Louis between 1923 and 1924.

Baron Nopcsa was the Hungarian aristocrat and politician Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933; see: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-forgot-rogue-aristocrat-discovered-dinosaurs-died-penniless-180959504/), a founder of paleobiology and a specialist on Albanian studies. This one-time candidate for the throne of Albania created the first geological map of northern Albania. The German Dr Herbert Louis (1900-1985), whose name is prominent on the map, was no stranger to Albania. In 1923, he accompanied the Austrian geologist Ernst Nowack (1891-1946) during his research in the country, and in 1925, he was awarded a doctorate for his studies concerning Albania.

The map looked beautiful, I fell in love with it, and I knew I had to obtain a copy of it, but it was priced at 23/- (23 shillings: £1.15) for the set. That might not sound excessive today in 2021, barely the price of a small bar of chocolate or a cup of tea (in a scruffy café). But in about 1966, it was a huge sum of money for me, many times more than my weekly pocket money. I left Stanford, determined to save up for it and hoping that in the meantime the shop would not run out of copies of it. Eventually, I was able to purchase a set of these maps.

Delicately drawn, covered with contour lines, shaded representations of rocks and mountains, a variety of colours, the map shows how few roads there were in Albania in the 1920s. The tiny black dots, which represented buildings or small groups of them are often shown to be connected by tracks or footpaths, but many of them are a long way from any line of communication marked by the map makers. Most of the names on the map are in Albanian, but a few are also in Italian (e.g., Durazzo [Durres], Valona [Vlora], San Giovanni di Medua [Shengjin], and Santi Quaranta [Saranda]). Some words on the map are also in German.

I treasure this set of maps I bought at Stanford so many years ago and my memory of first being shown them in the basement of the shop. Yesterday, on the 15th of August 2021, first day of the 75th year of India’s independence, we walked along Long Acre, and discovered that although its name on the building is still there, the map shop is not. I had not realised that in 2019 this repository of records of landmarks and one of my favourite childhood haunts had moved from Long Acre to nearby Mercer Walk near The Seven Dials.