Return to the Himalayas

SOUTHALL LIES NOT far from Heathrow Airport. Despite its architecture being mostly typical of dull London suburbs that developed between the two World Wars, it is far from being a run-of-the mill west London suburb. Recently, in March 2022, we visited Southall after several years since we last went there.

The centre of what was once the tiny village of Southall is about 1.7 miles north of Osterley Park house. The manor of Southall was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 14th century. Separated by countryside from its neighbours, it lay on the road from London to Uxbridge and Oxford. It was only in the 1870s that the village began expanding southwards to the Great Western Railway line. Today, the place has been fully incorporated into London and retains little or nothing of its former rustic nature.

Detail of the roof of the Himalaya Palace in Southall

On arriving by train at Southall station, the observant traveller will notice that the station name signs are bilingual; they are in both Latin and Punjabi scripts. Southall is sometimes aptly referred to as ‘Chota Punjab’ (Little Punjab). The three Punjabi brothers, Charan Singh Bilga, Jagar Singh Bilga, and Lave Singh Bilga, began living in Southall in 1938. They were followed by Pritam Singh Sangha, who opened a shop in Southall in 1954, having arrived in the area in 1951. His shop was then the only shop in west London, if not in the whole of the metropolis, purveying Indian provisions.  Pritam Singh Sangha in partnership with his friend and business associate, Jarnail Singh Hura (also known as “Ghura”), established the first known business in Southall and Fakir Singh purchased numerous houses which he rented out to his countrymen.”

Vivek Chaudhary, writing in the Guardian in April 2018, recorded:

“By the time my own father arrived in 1960, local authority records show that there were approximately 1,000 Punjabis living in Southall, nearly all men. He would joke that one of the reasons why they settled here was because of its proximity to Heathrow airport, only three miles away, and “if the gooras [whites] ever kicked us out, it would be easy to get on a plane and return home”. It was a light-hearted reference to the uncertainty that was generated by the chronic racism of the time. It was the R Woolf rubber factory in neighbouring Hayes that attracted Punjabis to Southall – the general manager had served with Sikh soldiers during the second world war and was only too happy to recruit them…”

He added:

“Punjab was partitioned by the British in 1947; part of it fell within Pakistan with the remainder in India. Punjabis can be Sikh, Hindu or Muslim, and while all three demographics settled in this outpost of west London, it was the Sikhs who came in the largest numbers and gave Southall its distinct identity.”

Chaudhary mentioned that at the time he wrote his article, although at one stage Southall’s population was 70% Punjabi, this has decreased to about 50% and the descendants of many of the original settlers:

“…have prospered and moved to wealthier pastures, replaced by new communities from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia. At its heart, though, this corner of west London remains an indelibly Punjabi town.”

And so, it is. Southall is like the Punjab and other places in India or Pakistan, but with the often-dull English weather and rather pedestrian suburban architecture. The main streets, South Road and the Broadway (Uxbridge Road), are lined with shops, small bazaars consisting of several tiny shops, and eateries. Judging by the profusion of colourful, often glittering, Indian (and Pakistani) style party clothing on sale, one might be excused for thinking that the people of Southall do nothing apart from attending ‘glitzy’ weddings.   If you wish to sample shopping as it is in India without leaving the country, then Southall is the place to do it in London. It seemed to my wife and me that the quality of the clothing on sale was high, better than much that is available in India. A Sikh salesman explained that what is on sale in Southall is made in India but unlike what is on sale over there, this is export quality.

One building is worthy of special mention in Southall, apart from the area’s gold-coloured domed Sikh gurdwaras. This is the former Himalaya Palace cinema. Built in 1929, it is unique in Britain in that its façade is in the form of a Chinese Temple. It has a pagoda roof which is flanked by dragons. It used to screen films from India’s Bollywood studios until it closed in 2010. It has now become an indoor market called Palace Shopping Centre. Fortunately, the building is protected by a preservation order and the façade is likely to remain a wonderful landmark in the foreseeable future. Not far away in a less distinguished building is another mall, the Himalaya Shopping Centre. Entering these malls, and the others in Southall, is like stepping into a typical indoor shopping bazaar anywhere in India. The air in these Southall shopping centres has the special fragrantly perfumed odour I associate with India.

Near the former cinema, stands the former Southall Town Hall, which was constructed in 1898. On its wall, there are commemorative three plaques placed by an anti-racism group called Southall Resists 40. They are dedicated to Gurdip Singh Chaggar, who was killed in 1976; Blair Peach who was killed in 1979; and ‘Misty in Roots & People Unite Musicians Cooperative’. Each of the three bears the words “Unity against Racism”.

A small cinematic survivor

THE COUNTY OF Essex is traversed by numerous rivers (http://essexrivershub.org.uk/), one of which is the Crouch. This lies south of the Blackwater and north of the Thames. The small town of Burnham-on-Crouch with its picturesque river front and much-favoured by yacht owners lies on the north bank of the estuary of the Crouch, about five miles from the North Sea. So near London, the town feels so far away from the metropolis – another world. Once home to several boat-building yards and various factories, Burnham appears to have become a centre for leisure activities. If you are staying in the town and have had your fill of pubs, cafés, and bistros, there is also a small cinema that shows the latest films.

The Rio cinema, despite its name, is not on the river front, but not far from it. Its decorative façade and foyer are backed by a shed like building with a corrugated iron roof, which contains the auditorium and screen, which I was not able to enter as we visited Burnham one early morning. The cinema has a long history (http://burnhamrio.co.uk/history.php), which I will summarise.

Burnham’s first cinema, The Electric, opened in 1910, making Burnham-on-Crouch one of the first towns in England to have a cinema. In 1931, this ran into problems when a rival, a purpose-built cinema, The Princess, was opened. The Electric closed and the larger Princess thrived. In the late 1960s, its name was changed to its present one, The Rio.

Burnham-on-Crouch is one of the towns and villages in the Dengie Peninsula, which until quite recently was a relatively impoverished part of Essex. During The Great Depression when money was scarce and people lived literally ‘from hand to mouth’, they had little or no money to buy cinema tickets. In those difficult times, the cinema was prepared to accept goods instead of money for tickets. The history relates:

“A Jam Jar would get you admission for the Saturday morning picture shows. Something as uncommon as an orange would admit a whole family midweek…”

Things have changed in the Dengie Peninsula. Today, many of its inhabitants and visitors are:

“… fat merchant bankers, Hooray Henrys, Minor Celebs and eastern Europe nouveau rich.”

The Rio was one of the last cinemas in England to have a gas-powered emergency lighting system. Reading this reminded me of my visits to The Everyman Cinema in Hampstead during the 1960s. I saw many films there. My enduring memory of the auditorium was that it always smelled of leaking gas. I now wonder whether The Everyman, like The Rio, also had a gas-powered backup lighting system.

The Rio in Burnham has survived two of its rivals, The Flicks in nearby South Woodham Ferrers and The Empire in Maldon, also not far away. The latter, which was housed in an Art Deco building, has sadly been demolished. The Rio’s website makes it clear that the 280 seat cinema is not in the Art Deco style. I am not quite sure which architectural style, if any, can lay claim to it. However, next time we visit Burnham, we will make sure that we watch a screening at the long-lived Rio.

Unveiled at last

THE CORONET CINEMA in London’s Notting Hill Gate was renamed The Print Room a few years ago. Once a cinema, it is now a theatre. Like other theatres, it was closed for a long time during 2020 and early 2021 because of the covid19 lockdowns. During this prolonged period of closures, a statue was placed upon the dome that stands above the theatre’s main entrance. In my book “Walking West London” (freely available as a pdf file from https://adamyamey.co.uk/walking-west-london/), I wrote about the Coronet/Print Room as follows:

“… the former ‘Coronet Cinema’. This was designed as a theatre by WGR Sprague (1863-1933) who designed many of London’s theatres. It opened in 1908. By 1923, the Coronet had become a cinema, and remained so for many years. Apart from the screen, the fittings inside the auditorium were those of an unmodernised Edwardian theatre. Until smoking was banned in all public places, the Coronet was one of the last cinemas in London which permitted smoking (but only in the balcony seating). Between 2004 and 2014, the Coronet doubled up as both a branch of the Kensington Temple Church and, also, as a cinema. And, in 2015 the Coronet reverted to being used as a theatre, now called ‘The Print Room’. This sensitively restored theatre puts on interesting plays, which are well-produced. The bar, which is located beneath the stage in what was once the stalls area of the cinema, is worth visiting to see its ever changing, tastefully quirky décor. In 2020, the theatre was redecorated and a statue by the British sculptor Gavin Turk (born 1967) has been placed upon the dome above the building’s main entrance. The new artwork replaces one that was removed many decades ago.”

When I wrote this, the sculpture was enshrouded in a tarpaulin. Only recently, the covering has been removed and the sculpture can be seen in all its glory. The artwork depicts the artist Gavin Turk posing as the famous artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) just as he appears his sculptural in the Annenberg Courtyard of Burlington House in the grounds of the Royal Academy. When seen from the east, the new sculpture looks like a painter holding a palette and his brush. However, when seen from the west, the viewer might be led to believe that the statue is of a man holding a gun. I feel that the sculpture is a great addition to the landscape of Notting Hill Gate, but a bit too high above ground level to be able to see it easily with the unaided eye.

Street market in Portobello Road

THIS IS AN EXTRACT from my latest book, “Walking West London”, which can be downloaded in its entirety (as a pdf file), free of charge and with no strings attached, from: https://adamyamey.co.uk/walking-west-london/ (just click on the green button, labelled “Download”). The sample below relates to the street market on Portobello Road:

NO LONGER A COUNTRY LANE (PORTOBELLO)

Lovers of street markets, whether they be searching for antiques, bric-abrac, jewellery, telephone covers, clothing, snacks, cafés, flowers, fruit, or vegetables, will enjoy browsing the diverse stalls and small shops that line Portobello Road. This street, which used to be called ‘Portobello Lane’ runs from Notting Hill Gate to just south of the main railway line that begins at Paddington Station. In days gone by, it ran from the gravel pits at Notting Hill Gate to the now long-since demolished Portobello Farm,which stood roughly between Orchard Close and Blagrove Road in NorthKensington.

Before the mid-19th century Portobello Lane, as it was then called, was to quote the historians Florence Gladstone and Ashley Barker (writing in1924):

“‘… one of the most rural and pleasant walks in the summer in the vicinity of London’, and within living memory it led ‘through fields to Kensal Green … cornfields and meadow land on each side … ‘”

Well, Portobello Road is no longer bucolic. It is lined with buildings along its entire length. Currently, it begins with a short section that leads off Pembridge Villas. It is here that you can stop for a drink at the Sun inSplendour pub, which was built in the early 1850s. After running a few yards westwards, Portobello Road heads off in a north-westerly direction, which it maintains with barely any deviation for the rest of its length. Number 22 was the first London home of the writer George Orwell. He lived there as a lodger in the winter of 1927.

After crossing Chepstow Villas, the road slopes downwards and soon after this the market area commences. On most weekdays, much of the market is dedicated to daily domestic needs, mostly food. On Fridays and Saturdays, the number of stalls and the variety of goods on offer increases dramatically. In normal times (i.e., when there is no pandemic), Portobello Road is choked with crowds of people from all over the world, especially on Saturdays.

In the 1860s, the Metropolitan Line (now the ‘Hammersmith and City Line’) was built. It crosses Portobello Road close to the Ladbroke Road station, which was originally known as ‘Notting Hill’ station. Rail access probably accounted for the urban development of what was once ‘Portobello Lane’. The market in Portobello Road probably began operating in the second half of the 19th century. Until the 1940s, it served people’s daily needs. Then, in the 1940s, traders selling anything from junk to antiques began trading along the road, alongside the purveyors of daily  requirements, and that has how it has remained.

The architecture of Portobello Road is far from distinguished. Much of it is ‘bog standard’ Victorian suburban sprawl, but this is hardy disturbing as the eye has plenty of other things to distract it along the multicultural, bustling, colourful, sometimes quirky market street.

Next, I will point out several things worth noticing if you can take your eyes off the shops, the buskers, and the stalls in the market. The Electric Cinema on Portobello Road was first opened in 1910, making it one of the oldest still working cinemas in the UK. It was one of the first buildings in the area to receive a supply of electricity. It has an Edwardian façade. Despite having been closed for several short periods during its lifetime, it still shows films. Since its extensive repairs in 2000, it has become a luxurious space in which to watch films. It is near to Talbot Road that leads to the church of All Saints.

The Victorian church was built between 1852 and 1861 …

END OF SAMPLE. If you have enjoyed it, please download a copy of my book to learn more about London west of Park Lane.

Take me to the Tivoli

WIMBORNE IS A CHARMING small town in Dorset, a little north of Poole and Bournemouth. Famed for its Minster church with its mediaeval chained library, the place is rich in old buildings. One of these, looking less old than many of its neighbours, houses the Tivoli Theatre. It attracted my attention because of its (heavily restored) art deco features.

Housed in what was originally the 18th century Borough House, the theatre-cum-cinema was created in 1936 to the designs of Edward de Wilde-Holding, a prolific architect. The cinema was closed in 1980 and was threatened with demolition for a road scheme, which fortunately was abandoned. It was restored by a group called ‘Voluntary Friends of the Tivoli’ and reopened in 1993. In addition to showing films, the theatre is used for live events on its stage.

The Tivoli was not the only art deco cinema we spotted on our recent trip to the area around Winchester. 28 miles northeast of Wimborne, there is another one, The Plaza in Romsey, which was built in 1931 as a cinema but is now used as a theatre. Unlike the Tivoli in Wimborne, which occupies an old building, the Plaza in Romsey was purpose-built as a cinema.

A new arrival above the theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guard dogs and Cruella de Vil

LARGE FIERCE LOOKING DOGS roam freely in the grounds of a huge mock Tudor house overlooking north London’s Hampstead Heath on the corner of West Heath Road and Platts Lane. Approach one of the metal gates designed to prevent an outsider from viewing the house properly and within seconds one of those dogs will meet you on the other side of the gates and bark menacingly. I did manage to peer through the railings and the shrubbery within them to catch a glimpse of a huge sculpture of a seated lion sitting close to the steps leading to the house’s front door. Several notices on the outer wall of the property read:
“DO NOT ENTER. LARGE DOGS MAY BE RUNNING FREE”.

I have often passed this house and wondered about it.

A plaque posted by the Hampstead Plaque Fund reads as follows:
“Francis Owen Salisbury (1874-1962) ‘Frank’. Artist. Mural and Portrait painter, recorder of scenes of magnificent pageantry and historic event. Stained glass artist. Lived here.”

Frank, born in Harpenden (Hertfordshire), was the son of a craftsman, who worked in plumbing, decorating, and was also an ironmonger. He was apprenticed to a stained-glass company when he was 15, and then entered Heatherley’s School of Art as a part-time student (www.19thcenturypaintings.com/artists/79-francis-%28%22frank%22%29-o.-salisbury/biography/). A skilled artist, Frank won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools, where he won two silver medals. Soon, he:

“…acquired a considerable reputation. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1899 to 1943 and his career as a portrait painter also flourished in the United States. His sitters include five presidents of the United States, five British prime ministers and many members of the British royal family, including the official coronation portraits of King George VI.” (https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp07514/francis-owen-frank-salisbury).

Frank painted more portraits of Winston Churchill than any other artist. His portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt is still the official portrait of this president hanging in the White House. He was the first person to paint a portrait of the young lady, who is now Queen Elizabeth II. He made portraits of many of the most famous and infamous personalities of the first half of the twentieth century. Frank’s skills were not confined to portraiture as the commemorative plaque reveals,

Frank was highly successful in the USA and by 1932, he was able to move into his impressive mock-Tudor mansion, Sarum Chase, overlooking Hampstead Heath. The house was designed by Frank’s nephew Vyvyan Salisbury (died c1982). Following Frank’s death, the property was bequeathed to the British Council of Churches, who soon sold the house and its contents. The house has since been used as a background for photo and film shoots. In Disney’s 1996 film of “The 101 Dalmations”, Sarum Chase was used as the exterior of Cruella de Vil’s home.

By 1974, the house was home to St Vedast’s School for Boys, part of the School of Economic Science, which has links with a branch of Hindu philosophy. In 2005, the building was sold and is now, or has been, the home of property developer and donor to Jewish charities.

So, there you have it. If I have aroused your curiosity, that is good but do not try to enter this heavily guarded premises as did a little dog called Chewy, who found its way through a hole in the fence and met his sudden end in the garden of Sarum Chase in September 2016 (https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/our-pomeranian-dog-died-after-being-bitten-by-wealthy-property-3531920).

Atlantic crossing

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

FRANCE BLOG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Himalaya Palace

HIM 1 BLOG

 

THE HIMALAYA PALACE cinema in the London suburb of Southall, an area where many people of Punjabi descent live, showed only Bollywood films from India, usually the latest releases. Being keen on these films, we often made the long trip from our home to Southall to watch them. During our regular visits to India, always including Bangalore, we take time to see Bollywood films in the country where they are created.

We were in Bangalore in December 2001 when the blockbuster film “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (ie ‘sometimes happy, sometimes sad’) was released all over India. We were staying with my in-laws,  and everyone decided that we had to see it.

We chose a cinema near the famous Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR), a long established popular eatery in Bangalore. It was decided that we should have breakfast there before seeing a morning screening of the film. So popular is MTR, that queuing is always required before getting a table. It was my first visit to this highly esteemed place and I hope my last. Everything we were served was almost dripping with ghee, which is part of its attraction for its many fans.

The cinema was a few steps from MTR. After buying tickets, we had to wait in another queue. This one was to await one’s turn to have bags searched by security personnel. I thought this was to prevent weapons and bombs from entering the auditorium, but it was not. The security people were searching for food and drinks. So-called ‘outside food’ could not be brought into the cinema because it risked reducing the sales of overpriced snacks and drinks sold by the cinema.

When we reached our seats, my sister-in-law showed me her basket, lifted a shawl within it, and revealed the sandwiches and other snacks beneath.  So inefficient were the security people that they had not delved into the bag with any seriousness of purpose.

Before the film started, my sister-in-law offered me and the rest of the family rolls of compacted cotton wool rather like those that dentists stuff into patients’ cheeks to dry the mouth. She said we might need them because the volume of the soundtrack would be very high. I declined them, and enjoyed the full impact of the sound.

At the Himalaya in Southall before the start of any film, a sign would be projected. It said something like:

“Please do not talk during the performance.”

This was a pointless exhortation because at the Himalaya the soundtrack was played so loud that even if you screamed at your neighbour, they would not have heard you.

Sadly, the Himalaya Palace (built 1929) is no longer a cinema. It closed in 2010. When we last visited Southall a few years ago, the Chinese style front of the Himalaya, complete with dragons, still existed, but its interior had become a covered market.

Nowadays, well at least before the pandemic arrived,  we watch Bollywood films that are shown regularly (at least one per week) at a Vue cinema in London’s Shepherd Bush.

Providing you miss the Friday and Saturday screenings of the latest releases, the audiences are usually minute, often less than ten people in an auditorium that can seat well over 150 people. Even before the pandemic, social distancing  was the norm during the screenings because empty seats usually greatly outnumbered occupied ones.

Most Bollywood films are long, usually over two and a half hours. So, there is an interval during their screening. The point at which the interval occurs is chosen by the film maker to leave the audience at a point of high suspense in the story.

Once during an interval at a Bollywood screening at the Vue, we sat in the almost empty cinema and heard two ladies, sitting several rows in front of us, chatting in Italian. Out of curiosity,  we asked them in Italian why they had chosen to see a Bollywood film. Their reply surprised us.

The two women were members of an Akshay Kumar fan club in Calabria in the far south of Italy. They had only ever before seen films starring Akshay on video screens.  They were staying far away from Shepherds Bush in Dulwich when, to their delight, they discovered that the film we were watching, starring Akshay, was being screened in Shepherds Bush. They had come to see one of Akshay’s films on the ‘big screen’ for the first time.

Bollywood’s films have captured the hearts of people all over the world. They were even  popular in the former USSR. When we visited Albania in 2016, we discovered that they, as well as Indian TV soap operas, had captured a significantly large audience of Albanians. These films would not have been shown in Albania prior to the downfall of its Stalinist style regime in 1991.

Until it is safe to do so again, my wife and I will have to enjoy armchair screening of our Bollywood DVDs. Enjoyable as these are, they are an incomplete substitute for ‘in your face’ full blast performances in a cinema auditorium.

The kiss

SHE LAY ON A RUG on the well-trimmed lawn of the Ootacamund (Ooty) Golf Club, propped up by one of her elbows. Dressed in a colourful sari, her long black hair was partly hidden by a picnic box filled to the brim with fruit. There was a thermos flask and a cylindrical container for warm food next to and in line with the fruit filled box.

Soon, a bespectacled young man with well coiffured hair and dressed in a white shirt with brown trousers began crawling towards the lady’s feet. Then, he manoeuvred his body over her knees and towards her face. Then, just as he was about to kiss her, both of these figures lowered themselves so that their heads were hidden from view by the picnic box, the hot food storage and the thermos flask.

This amorous couple were neither alone nor unobserved. Apart from my wife and me, local women carrying unwieldy bundles of wood on their heads passed by. Also, the couple were surrounded by a large film crew with lights and cameras.

Soon after their heads disappeared from sight, they reappeared as the film director came running towards them. He talked to them and they repeated what we had just watched after a man with a clapperboard bearing the film name “Andaz” had stood close to them for a few seconds.

“Andaz”, a Bollywood film, was released in April 1994. By chance we had stumbled on this outdoor film shooting in January 1994 during our honeymoon, part of which was spent in Ooty.

In 1994, and certainly until quite recently, intimate displays of affection were not included in Bollywood and other Indian films. What we saw in rehearsal was one of many ways from which film audiences would be saved from seeing an intimate moment. At the moment the audience would expect the male actor was about to plant a kiss on the young lady, they disappear from sight behind the picnic items. Nowadays, the audiences in India get to watch the intimate moment, often in surprising detail for someone, like me, used to watching the older more prudish Bollywood productions.

Although my love of Bollywood films began around 1994, seeing this scene being shot only increased my affection for them. My addiction to Bollywood films began in 1993 when in London some Maharashtrian friends of my wife-to-be insisted that watching the Bollywood film “Sholay” (1975) was important for acclimatising me to the Indian milieu I was about to marry into.

Although many of the latest Bollywood films are extremely good, my preferences is for the older ones. Though often with very complex plots, they have, I believe, an enjoyable innocence that transports the audience temporarily away from the harsh realities of the world beyond the walls of the cinema. Many of the more recent films do the opposite: they remind the audience of the problems they are facing.