So long Soho

SOHO BAR ITALIA

IN MANY MINDS ‘SOHO’ conjures up sleazy night spots, strip joints, sex shops, and risqué nightlife. For me, Soho contains many memories of my childhood. And before you wonder about what kind of upbringing I had, let me emphasise that these recollections have nothing to do with the seamier side of this colourful district in London’s West End. If you are hoping for something more ‘exciting’, stop reading now to avoid disappointment.

My mother was an artist. Her preferred metier was sculpture. In the 1960s, she used to work in the sculpture workshops at the St Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. She welded pieces of metal to create artworks. Her companions in the studio included now famous artists such as Philip King and Anthony Caro.

In addition to being a sculptor my mother was acknowledged by friends and family as being a good cook. She was a disciple of the food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce French and Italian cuisines into British kitchens. Ms David’s recipes required ingredients and cuts of meat not readily available to British shoppers in the 1960s. However, St Martin’s was close to Soho, in particular Old Compton Street and Brewer Street, where the ‘exotic’ ingredients needed for Ms David’s recipes were easily accessible. These streets contained a variety of shops that catered to French southern European culinary needs.

We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an attractive but, in my opinion, rather dull place. As a youngster, I loved being taken into central London. My mother often took me to the West End. We used to take the ‘tube’ to Oxford Circus Station. Near there, we always entered Dickins and Jones department store. Why, I cannot say, because my mother rarely bought anything there. The ground floor of the shop was dedicated to perfume and other cosmetic sales. Once, one of the salespeople, called to me. Without prompting, she advised me never to use after shave lotions. I was far too young to have begun shaving, but I have followed her unsolicited advice ever since then. I have not yet been brave enough to experiment with these lotions and to discover why she advised against them.

After leaving the department store, we used to visit the Danish Centre in Conduit Street, where I would be treated to an open sandwich and a kransekage, a Danish confection containing marzipan. From there, we used to head for Soho.

Meat was always bought at Benoit Bulcke, a Belgian butcher shop on the corner of Old Compton Street and a smaller side street. According to my mother, only this place knew how to cut meat properly, and she was not someone to argue with. Their motto was “Meat to Please You, Pleased to Meet You”. They moved from Soho to northwest London some years ago. 

Coffee was always purchased at the still extant Algerian Coffee Stores. The shop’s appearance remains unchanged since I was a child. My mother used to choose Mocha Mysore, a name which meant nothing to me as a child. Decades later, when I began visiting India, I got to visit Mysore and also Indian coffee plantations. One innovation at the Algerian Coffee Stores instituted long after my childhood, and well before the Covid-19 crisis, was the inclusion of a small counter where exquisitely made espresso coffee is served.

Other groceries were bought at Lina Stores, still in existence, and Camisa, another Italian grocery nearby. Almost every visit to Soho included a stop at Bar Italia. Founded in 1949, this coffee bar still exists. Entering it is like stepping straight from Soho into a typical bar in Italy. Much of its décor remains as I first remember it, but now the far wall of the café is lined with an enormous TV screen on which Italian football matches can be watched. Whenever we visited Bar Italia, my mother would point at a doorway close to it and tell me that it led to Jimmy’s restaurant. Founded in 1948, it was the first Greek restaurant to be opened in Soho.  Although she always mentioned the place, we never ate there. However, close by in a parallel street there was an Italian restaurant, Otello, which my parents visited often, sometimes taking my sister and me.

One shop that no longer exists was on the short stretch of Old Compton Street between Moor Street and Charing Cross Road. It had trays of vegetables and salad greens on stalls on the pavement outside the front of the store. It was a French run greengrocer, whose name I cannot recall. One of the things my mother bought there was something that sounded to my young ears like ‘mush’ (rhyming with ‘slush’). I had no idea what it was or what it was used for, but I know that my mother prized it greatly. Many, many years later, I realised what she was buying was in fact ‘mache’, also known as ‘lambs lettuce’ or ‘corn salad’, and to botanists as Valerianella locusta. In the 1960s when my mother was buying mache in Soho, hardly anyone in the UK would have heard of it, let alone eaten it. Today, it is a common ingredient of packaged salads found in supermarkets. I had no idea that back in the 1960s, my mother had become a foodie trend-setter by serving us mache in our salads.

My mother died forty years ago, and Soho has changed since then, but much remains that she would have recognised. Whenever I sip coffee at Bar Italia, I raise my tiny cup of strong black coffee to her memory. Mache more than that, I cannot do!

Books of choice

Beerwolf_500

 

I HAVE LOVED READING ever since I was first able to master this skill. During my childhood, we used to drive to Hampstead (in north London) every Saturday morning. We always used to visit the now long-since closed High Hill Bookshop on Rosslyn Hill. Our parents allowed my sister and me to choose one book each Saturday and bought them for us. Week by week, my collection of the adventures of Tintin by Hergé grew until I had all the episodes that had been published in English. There was little, if any, censorship of our choices. However, I had the distinct impression that my parents preferred that we avoided books by Enid Blyton. So, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of her extensive literary oeuvre.

I discovered and fell in love with “Mad” magazine, which was not available at High Hill Bookshop. I bought copies of it at a local shop, using my pocket money. My parents appeared not to approve of the magazine, but my father (not my mother) was always happy to read my copies of it when I had finished with them. “Readers Digest”, like Enid Blyton, did not fulfil my parents’ criteria of ‘good’ literature. I enjoyed leafing through this periodical and particularly remember reading and re-reading an article written by someone who was conscious during his brain surgery. I did not need to buy “Readers Digest” at full price as it was possible to buy boxes crammed full of old issues, sold as a job lots for a few pence at local jumble sales.  

There was only one book that was deemed strictly forbidden during my childhood. It was “Struwwelpeter” by Heinrich Hoffman, published in 1845 and reprinted many times since then. It is a series of moral tales about children who misbehave. For example, when Konrad disobeys his mother’s instruction not to suck his thumbs, an itinerant tailor appears and cuts off Konrad’s thumbs. Each tale is illustrated by frighteningly graphic illustrations. On afternoon, my sister and I, who had discovered this book by accident, were interrupted by my mother. She seized the book and tore it into pieces, which she stuffed into the wastepaper basket. Apart from this violent reaction to a book and the hints that Enid Blyton was to be avoided, I could read pretty much anything I wanted.

At school, books were recommended as being worth reading, especially those by famous 19th century British authors. I never read any of these. For some unknown reason, probably contrariness, if someone told me that I ought to read a particular book, this put me off even opening it. I wanted to read what I had chosen myself, not what had been chosen for me because it might be “good for you”. Similarly, if someone tells me that this or that food item is “good for you”, I do not rate that as a positive recommendation.

At Christmas 1963, we were in New York City. A friend of my parents, ‘E’, met us in the book department of FAO Schwarz, a toy store on Fifth Avenue. She wanted her son and me each to choose a book as a gift from her. E showed me a thick encyclopaedia of anthropology, which she had decided either that I would enjoy it or that it would be good for me. Well, I took one look at it and decided to check out the other books on display. I homed in on an illustrated history of the FBI. It was filled with intriguing black and white photographs, some quite gory. I took the book to E, who looked at it disapprovingly and then asked whether I was sure that I did not want the fine book on anthropology. I was sure, and a few minutes later I became the proud owner of the book about the FBI. E’s son, who was clearly more easily influenced by his mother than me, chose to buy the anthropology book. Years later, he qualified as a psychiatrist and I as a dentist. I am not sure what can be concluded from that.

My parents’ suggestion that there was something not quite right about Enid Blyton left a lingering doubt about the author in my mind. In the mid-1990s, I began visiting India regularly. There, I discovered wonderful bookshops, some of which were (and still are) much better stocked than those in London. What surprised me in those shops were the huge numbers of books by Enid Blyton on sale. Clearly, Enid was well-read and her books much purchased in India.  So, when I heard that there was going to be a lecture about Enid Blyton and India at the Nehru Centre in London, I felt that this was not to be missed. The speaker was none other than Enid Blyton’s very articulate daughter. She told us that British educators often frowned upon her mother’s works (just as my parents had done). The reason they were not keen was that it was considered that Enid’s vocabulary was not rich or varied enough. She revealed that when the texts of her mother’s books were analysed numerically, the vocabulary used I them was, in fact, no less rich or varied than that employed by other authors writing for the same age groups.  

In recent years, I have changed. Maybe, I have become a little less stubborn about book recommendations. If someone suggests a book to me, I no longer instantly reject the idea of reading it. There is a good chance that I will look it up to see what others think of it. If it is about a subject that might chime with any of my interests, there is a good chance that I will buy a copy and add it to the ever increasing pile of unopened books waiting to be read by me.  However, you will still not be able to find Dickens, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, or titles that would “be good for me” on their spines.

Where there is smoke, there is fire

I WAS EATING CHEDDAR cheese at tea time at my best friend’s house when his mother announced:

“We don’t like Jews, but you’re different, Adam”

I was less than ten years old at the time, but I can still picture the room in which this was said. I do not remember that I  told my parents about what my best friend’s mum had told me, but I remember it almost sixty years later.  Knowing how she felt about Jewish people did not spoil my friendship with, ‘R’, her son.

BLOG JUICE

When I  was thirteen, I  entered Highgate School,  which I  had chosen because ‘R’ was going to be there. At that time, I still regarded ‘R’ as one of my best friends. However, he did something that made me move away from him. One day he was with a group of other boys when in front of them he directed an anti-Semitic remark at me. Although that did not make me hate him, it marked the end of our long friendship.

I had other friends during my schooldays, who were half Jewish. One of their parents was Jewish. They preferred to forget that fifty percent of their heritage. Such amnesia would not have saved them had the rules formulated at the  Wannsee Conference been applied to them.

During the 1970s, I worked on my PhD topic in a laboratory at UCL. During the second year of this, a new PhD student, ‘J’, commenced working on her PhD project. ‘J’, like the others, in the lab seemed very pleasant until one day when she asked me to lend her a pencil.

At this point, you need to know that there was a shortage of pencils in our lab. I have no idea why this was the case. So, when I handed my pencil to ‘J’, I said:

“Please return it.”

To which ‘J’ snapped:

“Don’t be so Jewish, Adam”

I knew that J was most probably unaware that I am of that faith, but what she said upset me. My PhD supervisor’s wife heard what ‘J’ had said, and quickly told her:

“That was not a nice thing to say.”

I was pleased because I  was somewhat lost for words.

A few months later, everyone in the lab was invited by my supervisor to attend the large formal Annual Dinner of the Physiological Society. I sat next to my supervisor’s wife and across the table from ‘J’.

When the main course arrived, there were green peas on the plates. I detest this vegetable. ‘J’ noticed me separating the peas from the rest of my food and said:

“When we invite you round for dinner, I must remember not to serve you pork or peas.”

Remembering the pencil incident, I told her immediately:

“If you ever invite me to dinner, I shall refuse without hesitation.”

My supervisor’s wife turned to me and murmured:

“Well said.”

J’s face turned deep red, tears began running down her cheeks, she stood up, and left the room.

‘J’ abandoned her PhD a few weeks later.

Although I am regarded as being religiously unobservant by most Jewish people who know me, casual prejudice against Jews, or anyone else for that matter, does make me anxious. Prejudice, even if expressed casually, is potentially dangerous. Always remember: where there is smoke, there is usually fire.

Orange juice in North London

AT A REUNION LUNCH held for students who (like me) had attended Highgate School in north London during the 1960s, the Headmaster, Mr Petitt, gave a speech. He said that we, the former students, had reached the age when the ‘nostalgia gene’ kicks in. In my case it has kicked with a vengeance. When I lived near Golders Green, which is not far from Highgate, I would never have believed that one day I would write nostalgically about this, let us be honest, fairly unexciting suburb in northwest London, but here I am at the keyboard doing just that. Squeezing some oranges to produce juice to flavour a dish containing red cabbage triggered one of my earliest memories, that of walking with my parents to the church hall next to St Albans Church in Golders Green to collect bottles of orange juice.

The juice collected from the church hall was quite delicious and richly flavoured. It was contained in large glass medicine bottles with cork stoppers. The juice was supplied free of charge by the state during the 1950s. It was first supplied gratis by the state in 1941 and distributed to reduce the risk of vitamin C deficiency amongst young British children. In 1951, just before I was born, the Conservative Party won a General Election. Soon afterwards, the government restricted the supply of free orange juice to children under two years. My sibling was born in 1956, four years after me. Therefore, I must have been well under six years old when we made these trips to the church hall in Golders Green. Thinking about this juice led me to recall other aspects of Golders Green as it was during my early childhood.

 

BLOG JUICE

St Albans church hall in Golders Green

One dimly recalled early memory of Golders Green is of a delicatessen near the corner of Golders Green Road and Golders Green Crescent. The place was called Apenrodt’s. I remember this shop had a large wooden barrel that contained pickled gherkins submerged in a liquid. This was not a surprising thing to see in a suburb with a large Jewish population, many of eastern European heritage in my early years. My father enjoyed pickled gherkins. I developed a taste for them in my twenties, as I did for smoked salmon. In my childhood, smoked salmon was relatively more expensive than it is today. My parents regarded it as a treat. I remember them buying it at the aptly named Cohen’s Smoked Salmon, which, like Apenrodt’s, was a Jewish delicatessen.

Two shops in Golders Green particularly intrigued me when I was a little boy. One was an old-fashioned shop, Franks. It sold various clothing items, much of it was hosiery and lingerie. It was not the garments that interested me but the pneumatic system that was used to send money and receipts from the shop floor to an office somewhere else in the shop. Money, bills, and receipts were placed in cylindrical capsules that were placed in tubes along which air was pumped to propel them from one part of the shop to another.

The other establishment was Importers, a coffee retailer with a café behind it. The front windows contained cylindrical coffee roasters, which could be seen from the street. The cylinders were made with fine metal meshwork. Filled with coffee beans, they rotated slowly above gas burners. The air inside the shop was filled with a wonderful aroma that must have helped sell the coffee beans and powders stocked on the shelves of the shop and in the sacks on the floor. We used to pass this shop often, but rarely entered it because my mother preferred to buy coffee at the Algerian Coffee Store, which still exists in Old Compton Street in Soho.  Despite this, I always stopped to watch the roasters rotating and savour the odour of the coffee whenever I passed that shop.

During the last three months of 1963, we lived in Chicago, Illinois. There, we experienced and enjoyed self-service supermarkets for the first time. So, I was excited when the first supermarket opened in Golders Green soon after we arrived back from the USA. I cannot recall the supermarket’s original name, but soon it was called Mac Market, when it was taken over by the Mac Fisheries Company. Prior to taking over the new supermarket, the company had run two grocery shops near to Golders Green station. These were stores where one queued up to be served by shopkeepers standing behind counters laden with food items. If you wanted a product, butter for example, the assistant cut the amount you required, weighed it, and wrapped it up.  

The supermarket occupied a plot on the corner of Golders Green Road and a small service road called Broadwalk Lane on which there used to be a small pet shop. Years later, the building that housed Mac Market was occupied by a newer supermarket that stocked many Kosher and Israeli products. Currently, a branch of Tescos occupies the site of Golders Green’s first ever supermarket.  Another supermarket built far later, a branch of Sainsburys, occupies the site of the Ionic, one of Golders Green’s two former cinemas. The other cinema, long since demolished, was the ABC that stood on Golders Green Road northwest of the main shopping area at the end of Ambrose Avenue. A care home now stands in its place. Although another of the area’s entertainment centres still stands, the huge Hippodrome Theatre, where as a child I enjoyed the annual pantomime and adults enjoyed pre-West End runs of new plays, this now houses the Hussainiyat Al-Rasool Al-Adham community centre, a religious organisation.

The supermarket was close to the bridge that carries the Northern Line of the Underground over Golders Green Road. We used to visit a small shop that nestled close to the southwest corner of the bridge. This was Beecholme’s Bakery, which was run by Harry Steigman and his family, who were related to my aunt’s husband. We visited the shop not to buy baked goods, but to greet these relatives of my father’s sister. She lived in South Africa, which felt very distant at a time when international telephone calls were costly, and the means of electronic communication that are now in common use were probably unimaginable even in the minds of science fiction writers.

What I did not know at the time was that one member of the Steigman family, Natty, the youngest of four brothers who helped their parents run the forerunner of Beecholme Bakeries, had volunteered to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.  Tragically, he was killed at the battle of Jarama (in February 1937) only two weeks after his arrival in Spain.  

Crossing the main road from Beecholme’s and walking under the bridge, one reaches Golders Green Public Library. During my childhood, I loved this place. Until a certain age, maybe 12, I was confined to using the well-stocked Children’s Library. When I passed that age, I could borrow books from the much larger, and far more interesting Adults Library. One bookshelf of this section of the library contained books about the sad story of the Jewish people during period of the twentieth century when their persecution and destruction was being carried out to fulfil the evil plans of Adolf Hitler and his sympathisers. Reading books about this terrible period catalysed my interest in twentieth century history and what led up to it. When I was at school in the 1960s, every school year our history syllabuses led us from the arrival of Julius Caesar in Britain to just before the start of WW1, never beyond it. And, the emphasis was not on what happened and why, but on the dates of events. These books in the library opened my eyes to the history of a period that I found far more interesting than what we were expected to learn to pass examinations. Since those days exploring the shelves of Golders Green Library, my interest in history has gradually expanded from the twentieth century back to far earlier times.

The library was next to a branch of Woolworths. This old-fashioned store, a magnificent emporium, stocked everything from plant bulbs to lightbulbs, from liquorice to lawnmowers. Its ceiling was decorated with an elaborate stuccoed pattern. Although illuminated with electric lamps, some of the shop’s old-fashioned gas lamps still hung from the ceiling. They had little chains dangling from them to regulate the gas flow. Shoppers were assisted by salespersons. It was not a self-service store. Oddly, I have no memory of the shop after its modernisation in 1971.

Although the shops I remember from my childhood have disappeared, Golders Green Road’s buildings look much as they did when I lived near there, and the pavements are just as busy as they were in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

All the shops I have described have been replaced by others, reflecting the passing of time and the changes in the ethnic mix of the population living in the area. There is still a strong Jewish presence in Golders Green, albeit now biased towards the ultra-orthodox communities. To this has been added people from a diverse range of backgrounds.  When I was a child, the idea of eating Japanese, Korean, Turkish, or even, surprisingly, Israeli foods would have been unthinkable in Golders Green Road.

St Albans Church, designed by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built in 1933, remains unchanged.  Neighbouring St Albans, the church hall, where we used to walk to collect the orange juice, also looks as I remember it so many decades ago. 

Today, the shops that we visited when I was a child and collecting orange juice in corked glass bottles are merely memories of a childhood long since passed. As I type the final words of this piece, another memory of the church hall springs to mind. Between the ages of four and eight, I attended Golders Hill School on Finchley Road. Once, we, the school children, performed a play for our parents. We acted it on the small stage in the church hall. I had a minor role as a magician. The costume I wore included my beige dressing gown onto which my mother had embroidered different coloured cloth patches. They were cut to look like stars. For a long time after that show, I treasured the dressing gown as it held memories of an evening I had enjoyed greatly. I outgrew the dressing gown, but memory of it still lingers in the folds of my brain. And, yes, Mr Petitt was right, my ‘nostalgia gene’, clearly a dominant version of it, has become most powerfully active.

Love at first bite

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

FOOD Pizza Etna_800 BLOG

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You won’t like them”

Defiantly, I responded:

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

“You will not like them.”

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

“You won’t like them”

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

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

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

My sporting life

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

 

boys in white shirt and white pants playing baseball

 

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

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

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

“Have you read the very latest rules?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Patrick Case on Pexels.com

Time flies

I DO NOT KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I am finding that time hurtles past during the so-called ‘lockdown’, which severely limits our movements and activities to our local environments. Although I needed little stimulus to do so because I find it enjoyable, it has made me look back into my past more than ever before. This morning (19th of May 2020) on BBC Radio 4, the author Ian McEwan spoke eloquently and with great insight about the perception of time and how it changes during a period of forced inactivity such as long-term prison sentences and our present virus-induced predicament. I was heartened to learn that he and I agree about the effects of ‘lockdown’ on the perception of time’s passage. Having got that ‘off my chest’, I will return to yet more nostalgia. I am going to write about my recollections some of the first ever holidays I enjoyed. These happened when I was well under ten years old. So, my memories may be a little hazy and, also, influenced by what I remember being told about these trips when I was a bit older.

 

Hermanus_1024 BLOG

 

In 1955, when I was three years old, my parents took me to South Africa. We travelled by sea. During the voyage, we crossed the Equator. I have seen photographs taken on board of me dressed in a sheet. When we crossed the Equator, so I was told by my mother, the children on board took part in a fancy-dress party. Unprepared for this, but always resourceful, my mother used a sheet from our cabin to dress me up as a Roman in a toga. Sadly, these photographs have been lost.

On arrival in Cape Town, I faintly recall something that I did on the dockside. There were tracks like tram lines embedded in the ground, along which huge cranes moved. I inserted my tiny foot into the groove of one of these, and then could not remove it. I imagine that my mother, who was excessively anxious about my well-being when I was very young because my birth had been fraught with difficulties, must have been very concerned that her precious child (that is me, folks) would be crushed by a crane on the move. My foot was extracted and with no long-term effects.  

Two other recollections of the trip to South Africa relate to our stay in Port Elizabeth, where my father’s mother and sister lived. One faint memory is my concern about the sinister look of the cacti on display in a greenhouse in a park. Another relates to being offered and rejecting smoked salmon – I was an unadventurous eater until my late teens.  

I cannot remember visiting King Williams Town (‘King’) in the Eastern Cape in 1955, but about 60 years later I discovered that we did. Several years ago, I was researching at the British Library, leafing through old issues of the “Cape Mercury”, a newspaper published in King. In one of the issues published in 1955, I discovered an article describing our visit to King. The reason we went there was to visit my great grandmother Hedwig Ginsberg, my mother’s grandmother. As she was the widow of a Senator and herself a prominent citizen of King, her social life and that of her son Rudolph, a Mayor of King, was recorded in the paper’s gossip columns. Our visit to King was described. I quote from what I discovered:

Mrs Yamey … whom many of you will have met in her single days. They now have an adorable little son, Adam, aged three.”

Another trip that I recall vaguely was less exotic. It was to Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk (UK). I was taken there by my uncle and aunt and their then young daughter. I recall staying in a round hut. Although I did not know it then, the round hut was based on the design of the South African rondavel, a circular hut with a conical roof. Many years later, I re-visited Winterton-on-Sea. The resort colony of rondavel-like dwellings was still being used by holidaymakers. The place, set amongst sloping sandy dunes, had originally been set up by people from South Africa, but had long since changed hands.

My parents were not keen on seaside holidays. However, I can remember two that we made when I was very young. In each case we travelled with friends, who lived in Kent. Arthur Seldon was one of my father’s first friends and collaborators when he came to London from South Africa in the late 1930s. His wife Marjory, who was born on the very same day as my mother, was one of my mother’s closest friends. The Seldons had three sons, one of whom has become quite prominent in public life.

One year, we accompanied the Seldons to the North Sea beach resort, Noordwijk in the Netherlands. This must have been in the second half of the 1950s, just over a decade since the end of WW2. I remember that we kept moving our beach blanket from one patch of sand to another. This was done whenever my mother heard neighbouring holidaymakers speaking in German. During WW2, my mother had worked for the Red Cross in Cape Town. As the war drew to a close, she read Red Cross reports of the atrocities being uncovered in recently defeated Germany. I suppose she thought that there was a good possibility that any adult speaking German in the late 1950s might well have once been at the very least a Nazi sympathiser.

One day when walking back from the beach, I stepped on a nail protruding from some driftwood. I remember an unusual sensation as the nail penetrated the sole of my foot, but it was not pain. My mother, always anxious about me, rushed me to a local doctor, who gave me an injection for tetanus, something I had never heard of at that tender age.

The other holiday with the Seldons was in Bognor Regis on the south coast of England. We had hired a two-storey house for the stay. I remember my mother checking it out before we decided who was going to sleep where. She decided that the Yamey family, mine, was to take the ground floor. The Seldons, she decided, were to occupy the first floor. She had discovered that the windows on the upper floor had low sills, making it easy for people to fall from them. This was not a risk that she was prepared to take. It seemed that it did not bother her to worry about the Seldons risking falling out of these windows. And, as far as I know, it did not worry the Seldons, who survived.

Sometime in the 1950s, we visited Hilversum in Holland. It was the home of one of our live-in helps, Truus Vollmer. She stayed with us for two years and became good friends. Her father worked for Radio Hilversum. Every now and then, he made gramophone records for me. They played at 78 rpm and were unusual because they played from close to the central label outwards towards the edge of the disc. The recordings included sounds of trams, trains, buses, and other forms of transport. One of the records, which I played often, included a recording of the Dutch St Nicholas Day song, with the words:

“Sinterklaas Kapoentje,

Leg wat in mijn schoentje,

Leg wat in mijn laarsje,

Dank je Sinterklaasje!”

During our visit to Hilversum, which I remember dimly, Mr Vollmer tried to record my voice. This was later presented to me on one of his records. I was extremely shy as a small boy. The recording starts with the voices of various adults (some with Dutch accents) and my mother, saying:

Come on, Adam … Say something … Why not sing something? … Come, say something … Come along … It’s not difficult … Don’t be shy … etc.”

Eventually, my voice can be heard saying sulkily:

I don’t want to”, and nothing else.

We made several trips to Holland at that time. We always stopped for lunch in Rotterdam, where we ate in the restaurant of a large department store, the Bijenkorf. If I remember correctly, my parents enjoyed eating club sandwiches there. To my knowledge, they never ate them anywhere else.

After 1960, when we stayed close to the sea in Cyprus, our family visited the seaside rarely, and never by design. My mother could not swim, and the sight of water made her uneasy – she was extremely prone to seasickness. My father did enter the sea occasionally, but never for long. The seaside was not my parents’ ‘thing’, nor is it mine.

Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, time feels as if shoots past during the ‘lockdown’. It seems but a few minutes since I woke up in the morning to listen to the latest news of doom and gloom on the radio, but now it is mid-afternoon. Years ago, when I was at school, a 45-minute Latin lesson seemed to last a whole day and I dreaded the occasional double-length Latin lessons we had to endure. Now, it seems that 45 minutes passes in a flash and even a three hour wait in an airport departure lounge seems to shoot past. Yes, our perception of time is a curious thing.

 

Picture showing rondavels at Winterton -on-Sea

A chance meeting

BRIDIE WAS OUR DAUGHTER’S babysitter for several years. She also collected her from school and looked after her until one of us returned from work. Although she was well over 80 when we first employed her, Bridie was a very sprightly, energetic woman.

LondonUnderground_GoldersGreenStation

 

She had been brought up in the wilds of western Ireland. Every day, she used to walk several miles over the hills to go to school. She moved to England as a very young lady. On arrival in Britain, she was at first given shelter by the Salvation Army. She had to promise them she would become teetotal. She kept this promise.

One day, Bridie told us an interesting story. When she was young before WW2, she worked as a maid for a Jewish family in north London’s Golders Green.  She wore uniform. There was one uniform for daytime and a different one for the evenings.

When Bridie was not working for us or ironing for our friends, the Wilsons who had introduced her to us, she used to roam around London taking advantage of her free bus pass (given to Londoners over 60 years old).

One day, Bridie visited Golders Green. When she was waiting for a bus to take her home, an elderly gentleman in the queue said to her:

“Excuse me, but are you Bridie?”

“I am,” she replied.

“Well, you looked after me when I was a child sixty years ago”

Bridie realised that the man was from the family, for whom she had worked in Golders Green before WW2.

A bus approached. The man asked her:

“Are you getting on?”

Bridie nodded, thinking he had asked a different question. The man jumped on the bus, leaving Bridie standing by the bus stop. Had she heard his question correctly,  he would have waited behind to reminisce with her: an opportunity lost for ever.

Ever since hearing about Bridie’s chance encounter, I have always considered her story as being rather sad.

 

Picture of Golders Green bus staion (Wikipedia)

A road through my childhood

IT IS BECOMING AN ADDICTION: I must write something every day. It is probably a harmless compulsion, but it gives me great pleasure. Today, I will write about a road that did not exist until 1835. It runs northwards from the centre of London. It was built to bypass the hills on which Hampstead perches. The old route to Finchley and Hendon from central London passed across these hills before Finchley Road, originally a toll road, was constructed. Part of Finchley Road connects the suburb of Golders Green with Swiss Cottage. For five long years I travelled along this stretch.

HALL BLOG

Swiss Cottage is named after a pub, Ye Olde Swiss Cottage, which still resembles many people’s idea of what a Swiss chalet should look like. The pub is a descendant of the Swiss Tavern, built like a Swiss chalet. Opened in 1804, it stood on the same spot as its most recent avatar. It stood on the site near one of the toll booths built for collecting money from people using Finchley Road in earlier times.

There was another toll collecting place at Childs Hill, between Golders Green and Swiss Cottage. This toll gate was next to the now demolished Castle pub. For five years, I passed through Childs Hill on my way to the Hall School near Swiss Cottage.

I attended The Hall between 1960 and 1965. The Hall, founded in 1889 (the year the Eiffel Tower was built) was a private school for boys preparing boys for entry into private secondary schools, misleadingly called ‘public schools’.

During my time at the Hall, several bus routes plied between Golders Green and Swiss Cottage: 2, 2a, 2b, and 13. The fare was five pence (less than 2.5p) for children. I used to say to the conductor: “five-penny half, please”.

The bus journey to and from The Hall was tedious and slow. This was because Finchley Road was being widened. The roadworks began before I entered The Hall and continued after I left it five years later. To widen the road, which was lined by houses and shops all the way between Childs Hill and Swiss Cottage, every garden by the roadside had to be cut short. There was a garden centre in a long greenhouse near Finchley Road Underground station opposite the present O2 Centre.  More than three quarters of its length was demolished to permit road widening. All in all, the long section of road being ‘improved’ caused the rush hour traffic to move sluggishly. After 5 years of enduring this, I used to be able to recite from memory and in the correct geographical order the names of all the shops along Finchley Road. Today, hardly any of them exist. Even the large, still extant department store John Barnes has changed its name to John Lewis. Gone is the remains of the garden centre and the Edwardian Swiss Cottage public swimming pool. During my time at The Hall, this place closed when the then new Swiss Cottage Library and swimming pools opened close to the swiss style pub. Another of many disappearances is that of Cosmo, a restaurant that used to be popular with refugees from Central Europe and later with my wife, who loved the Hungarian cherry soup served there.

The Camden Arts Centre stands at the corner of Arkwright Road and Finchley Road.  The arts centre faces across the main road the start of Lymington Road, which soon runs along the side of a large grassy open space. This is where Hall School boys played football and cricket. We used to walk two by two with one of our teachers from the school to and from the field, a distance of at least a mile.

The Hall School was an ‘elite’ establishment. Almost all the pupils had parents who were listed in “Who’s Who”, or royalty, or were extremely wealthy. Several of my fellow pupils were sons of Greek shipping magnates. One of these used to be driven from the school to Lymington Road in his chauffeur driven Bentley, which he pronounced ‘bantly’. Occasionally, he used to offer teachers a lift in his luxurious vehicle.

The sports field in Lymington Road was opposite a small newsagent-cum-sweetshop. We were not supposed to enter this during school hours, which included time at the sports field. And, because we walked back to school after a sporting session, there was little chance to explore it, but somehow, we managed. The shop was amazingly well-stocked with cheap sweets. I discovered that if I walked from Swiss Cottage to Lymington Road, the fare from there to Golders Green was two pennies (there were 240 old pennies in one Pound) cheaper than from Swiss Cottage. This gave me two pennies on top of what I was given daily to buy snacks (in my case, read ‘sweets’) on the way home.

At Swiss Cottage, there was one sweet shop near my bus stop. It was a branch of Maynard’s inside the subterranean foyer of the Underground station. The sweets it sold were poor value: there was nothing for under three (old) pennies. In contrast, the shop on Lymington Road was full of sweets costing less than one (old) penny. For example, one penny bought four ‘blackjacks’ or a large chewy item called a ‘refresher’. And, for three pence, a ‘Sherbet Fountain’ (still available on the internet for 132 [old] pence or 55p). This used to consist of a paper cylinder containing a fizzy lemon flavoured white powder into which there was a black cylindrical straw made of liquorice (used to suck up the powder). The thing looked just like an unexploded firework. In short, It was worth walking about a mile to save on the bus fare and then to spend it in a place where my money had much better buying power.

At the end of the day, I disembarked at Golders Green near the Underground Station. There used to be many children from other schools mingling there on their journeys home. One incident at this place remains in my mind, but before relating it, you need to know what we wore at The Hall. The colour that predominated in the school uniform was pink, which was considered rather strange for a boys’ school. Blazers and peaked school caps also contained black trimmings. One of these, which was prominently sewn on to our caps and the outer breast pocket of our pink blazers trimmed with black, was a black Maltese cross. The way that the school’s emblem was drawn was closer to the shape of the German Iron Cross than to the real Maltese cross. By the time I was attending The Hall, I had already become interested in the Holocaust (the Shoah). Golders Green had many Jewish people living there and several shelves of its public library were filled with books about the deeds of Hitler and his followers. I borrowed and read many of them. Therefore, I was horrified when I stepped off the bus at Golders Green one afternoon, and then some schoolboys from another school shouted at my friend and me:

“Look, the Nazis have arrived.”

Is it not strange what one cannot forget?

 

Picture from https://www.uniform4kids.com/ 

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A slice of lemon

TU 5 Genuine old Dutch architecture BLOG

 

MY FATHER WAS BORN in Cape Town in South Africa.  His childhood was spent in the small town of Tulbagh not far from Cape Town.  His father had a general store in Tulbagh. The family lived across the yard behind the shop in a house on Church Street.

In 1969, Tulbagh suffered a devastating earthquake.  The town’s authorities decided to rebuild the houses in Church Street to make them resemble the original appearance of the sort of houses that Dutch settlers built when they first arrived in the Cape.

Some years after the earthquake,  my father paid a visit to Tulbagh. He said that his former home in Church Street in neither resembled the place where his family had lived nor had ever looked like it did after its ‘restoration’ following the earthquake. In addition,  he felt that the town looked far smaller than it did when he was a child.

In 2003, I visited Tulbagh with my wife and daughter. We stayed in a bed and  breakfast in one of the picturesque houses on the restored Church Street,  a few doors away from my father’s childhood home.

We visited the house where my father once lived. It was another bed an  breakfast. Had I known it was, I would have booked a room there. The landlady showed us around. She had no idea that her back garden had been part of the yard behind my grandfather’s shop on the next street.

There was a lemon tree laden with lemons growing in the back garden of my father’s former home. We asked our host if we could pick a couple of lemons, one for my father and the other for his only surviving sibling, my aunt Elsa. She agreed.

Before leaving South Africa, wr managed to buy an official school tie as used in Tulbagh High School,  where my father studied (in Afrikaans, rather than his mother tongue English) until he entered Cape Town University.

In 2003, it was  12 years since the official ending of apartheid laws. These laws included prohibition of inter-racial intimate relationships. We expected that by 2003 we would have seen, if not many at least a noticeable noticeable number of mixed-race couples. I think that in the one and a half months we spent in South Africa we saw only three. The members of two of the couples were not born in South Africa. It was only in Tulbagh that we met a young ‘white’ Afrikaner with his arm around a ‘black’ African girl. They were both studying at Tulbagh High School.

When we returned to Cape Town, we gave Elsa the lemon that had been growing in the back garden of her childhood home in Tulbagh. She showed little interest in it and put aside.

A day or so later, Elsa was preparing gin and tonic for us at sunset. She need a lemon. Her eyes fell on the lemon that we had brought from Tulbagh. She seized it, and cut slices of it to drop into our drinks. So much for sentimentality!

As for the High School tie, we presented that to my father when we got back to London. He thanked us, then said:

“ I don’t need that. I left the school long ago.”