How I avoided an awful fate

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE IS A CITY which I have visited often since I was a child. My first recollection of the place was visiting Gonville and Caius College to meet my father’s long-term collaborator, the Hungarian born economist Peter Bauer (1915-2002). Later, after 1965, during my childhood and adolescence, we used to visit Cambridge to spend time with my father’s friend from his student days in Cape Town (South Africa), the social scientist Cyril Sofer (died 1974) and his wife Elaine. At first, I used to visit them with my family and when I was in my teens, I used to stay with them in their large Victorian house near Selwyn College. It was Elaine, who first introduced me to the joys of the drink known as ‘Bloody Mary’.Further travels to Cambridge followed when a childhood friend of mine attended Clare College to study for his bachelor’s degree. Through him, I met his good friend, now a well-known writer, Matthew Parris.

Many more visits to Cambridge followed my graduation at University College London in 1973. Although I remained in London to study for a higher degree, some of those who had graduated with me moved to Cambridge to pursue further studies. Three out of the nine of us, who graduated in physiology in 1973, embarked on doctoral theses in the city’s university. One of these was Lopa, who is now my wife. While she was at Cambridge, we were still ‘just good friends’, as the saying goes.

On one of my visits to see Lopa, I stayed in a house in Owlstone Road, which is south of the historic centre of Cambridge. A mattress was set up for me in a ground floor room with a street facing window. The room had been recently occupied by a female student, who had moved elsewhere. This sojourn in the city was during the time when the so-called Cambridge Rapist was assaulting young women, always within their homes, at an alarming rate. He carried out his attacks between October 1974 and April the following year.

Apparently, he followed potential victims to their homes and noted down their addresses in a notebook.The rapist carried out his first rape on the 18th of October 1974. Then another on the first of November, and yet again on the 13th of that month (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Samuel_Cook). The latter was carried out within Homerton College, now a part of Cambridge University. He struck again on the 13th of February 1975, and then, unsuccessfully, on the 5th of May.

I slept soundly at Owlstone Road when I was staying there for a night or two. One morning, I woke up and saw police vehicles out in the road. It was the 8th of December 1974 and the rapist had raped a woman in the house next door to where I was staying, having broken into its ground floor room, which mirrored that in which I was sleeping. What none of us knew until after the perpetrator, Peter Samuel Cook, was eventually caught during his attack on Owlstone Croft’s nurses’ hostel in June 1975, was that the villain had listed the house in which Lopa was living with some other young ladies in his notebook of potential targets. The young lady who had occupied the room where I spent a couple of nights was in the rapist’s list of future victims.

Cook, who had knifed at least one of his victims, was a violent person and might have been awfully annoyed with me had he broken into the room where I was sleeping and found me, a man, instead of one of his intended female targets. Subsequent visits to the wonderful city of Cambridge have not, I am pleased to relate, been so potentially hazardous. Cook was jailed for life and died in Winchester Prison in 2004.

Hotel Oslo

A BAR OF SOAP reminded me of our first visit to Portugal. I am looking at a small, round piece of soap sealed in a transparent package labelled “Hotel Oslo”, which we would never have acquired had I not been a victim of pick pocketers on a tram in Lisbon. We had only been in Portugal for about four hours when we took a ride on a picturesque old-fashioned tram (route 28) in the Portuguese capital. I was on the point of taking a picture of a sign that told passengers to beware of pick pocket thieves when I became one of their victims. Amongst the valuables that were stolen from me was my driving licence.

Losing the licence was a disaster as we were planning to hire a car to visit several country places in Portugal. Without the licence, the car hire company was unwilling and unable to lend me a vehicle, but it was good about refunding the money we had paid. We decided that we would attempt to carry out our plans using public transport.   

The first place on our itinerary was to have been a farmhouse in small rural place, whose name I do not remember, east of Coimbra. We travelled by train from Lisbon to Coimbra, which has two railway stations in the centre of the city. We discovered that there was a railway line from Coimbra to a spot near our planned destination. When I say “near”, it was really about half an hour’s taxi drive from where we were to stay. After lugging our baggage through the rain about 1000 yards from the station, where the Lisbon train arrived, to the other station from which we were about to depart, we ‘phoned the accommodation to which we were heading. They told us that they did not provide food, not even breakfast, and that the nearest restaurant was about half an hour’s drive from them. As we had no car and were planning to spend three days there, we began to worry how we would survive so far away from any supply of food.

Our next train was not due to depart for another two hours. I decided to walk back to the centre of Coimbra to see whether there was a hotel where we could stay instead of heading out into the ‘wild’. I rushed through the rain and found the Hotel Oslo, which had space for us and did not seem unreasonably priced. After reserving a room, I dashed back through the rain to the rest of the family, who were waiting on the platform. These were the days before we had more than one mobile ‘phone in the family, so I had to reach them to tell them about the Oslo instead of phoning them. Using our one ‘phone, we rang the rural accommodation and explained our plight. They were helpful in that they cancelled our booking gracefully and without cost.

Although not a de-luxe hotel, the Hotel Oslo was solidly built and extremely comfortable. It was located close to most of the sights in Coimbra, a place that had not been on our original itinerary. We spent four pleasant days in this delightful university city, and we were fortunate that, by chance, we were in the city at the time when the university students were starting a new academic year. By day and by night, we encountered groups of boisterous, happy students wandering about the city dressed in traditional  capes.

Had my driving licence not been stolen, I know that we would never have stayed in Coimbra and that we would have missed seeing one of the loveliest places that we have so far visited in Portugal.  As people say, every cloud has a silver lining. Although I was deprived of a lot of cash, I gained the pleasure of spending time in a wonderful place and witnessing some age-old traditions that added to our fondness of a country that we have grown to love.

The Hotel Oslo was, when we visited it, an old-fashioned style of hotel even though the 20th century building that housed it did not look archaic. Some years after staying there, we spent a couple of nights in the Hotel Mandovi in Panjim, Goa (India). This hotel had been built in 1952 by the Portuguese while they ruled Goa as a colony. It was built to coincide with the Pope’s visit to the Tenth Exposition of the relics of St Francis Xavier, which are kept in Goa. They are ceremoniously displayed once every ten years, subject to the discretion of the authorities who keep them in the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. Although the Mandovi looks much older than the Oslo, they both have high standards of service and comfort that are old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. I am not sure whether we have kept any soap from the Mandovi as a souvenir, but you never know, one day we might find we have one lurking about somewhere in our home.

New York! New York!

Brooklyn Bdg_240

 

In 1992, I decided to visit New York City (‘NYC’). I had a week available and did not want to waste a minute of that precious time.

In order to make efficient use of my time in NYC, I bought several guidebooks. I spent several weeks studying them in my spare time. I wanted to make sure that I did not miss seeing anything that seemed likely to be of interest to me.

As I turned the pages of these books, something began to worry me and nearly made me want to cancel my trip. Each of the books had sections on dangers in the city including ‘mugging’. What worried me most was not that these books warned of the risks of being mugged, BUT what to do when you are mugged, rather than if you are unlucky enough to be mugged. The implication seemed to me to be that getting mugged was inevitable. That was what got me worried.

Well, I decided, if I was going to be mugged, I had better be prepared for it. Had the situation arrived, which (thank heavens) it did not, I was going to hand over my wallet politely without attempting a struggle. However, I was not prepared to hand over all my cash to any old criminal. To avoid this, I carried a useful nmber of US Dollars in my socks beneath the soles of my feet.

As it turned out, my week in NYC was not only free of unpleasant surprises but also highly enjoyable. 

The streets of NYC in 1992 were far more exciting and ‘edgy’ than when I returned for another visit in 2007. Between those two visits, Manhattan seemed to have been socially ‘sanitized’. The sense of excitement and uncertainty that I felt in 1992  had been replaced by an almost dull genteelness. Manhattan had been transformed from an electrifyingly live place to something like an urban theme park. No doubt, those who live there find it an improvement over what it was back in 1992, but I was a little disappointed.

Tram number 28

Tram

 

We had only been in Lisbon (Lisboa) for about three hours when we boarded the picturesque old-fashioned tram on the number 28 route, which winds its way uphill to the old Alfama quarter of the city.

The tram was quite crowded and I stood in the small entrance hallway at the rear of the vehicle. I looked up and noticed a sign in three languages (including English) that advised passengers to be wary of pickpocket thieves. I was just about to take a photograph of this sign when the tram reached the stop we wanted.  Getting off the tram was somewhat difficult becauses three men tried to disembark at the very same moment as me. 

When I reached the pavement, I noticed that my overfilled wallet had gone missing. I had been pickpocketed. The thieves got a good haul: several credit cards, my driving licence, and a large sum of cash. I was stunned for a moment. Then, we used our mobile telephones to cancel our cards. Our enthusiasm for Lisbon fell to an all-time low.

We were directed to the local police station, where we began relating our sad story. Before we had managed to say a very few words, one of the policemen said:

“Tram number 28?”

We were then asked to visit the Tourist Police in the centre of Lisbon. We walked there feeling very downhearted and wishing that we had never come to Portugal. The Tourist Police could not have been nicer. Between them, they spoke every language you could think of. They helped us contact various banks and assured us that whoever had stolen from my pocket could not possibly have been Portuguese. After spending about an hour with the sympathetic Tourist, we left feeling much better about Portugal despite our recent loss.

With my driving licence stolen, the rented car that I had hired from the UK was no longer feasible. To our great surprise, the car hire company, learning of our disaster, cancelled our booking without charging us anything – we paid nothing for the car we were not able to use.

Without the car, we had to change our travel plans within Portugal. One of the places we visited, which we would not have seen had we had the car, was the university city of Coimbra. We spent several days in that delightful city during the period that the academic year begn. The city was full of groups of cheerful students wearing archaic black capes. Had it not been for our ill-fated trip on the 28, we might well have missed this. As they say, ‘every cloud has a silver lining’.

Green crime

plant

 

I am no gardener, but I enjoy garden, plants, and flowers. When I lived in Kent, I had an enormous garden, which I filled with shrubs because someone advised me that they needed little care and attention. This was good advice.

There was a strip of earth next to where I parked my car at night. I filled this with various shrubs that needed almost no care. One of these plants was a very slow growing conifer, which looked like a miniature Christmas tree. It grew close to where I entered the driver’s door of my car.

One day, I noticed that this tiny tree was no longer in its place. It had disappeared. I thought that maybe it had died and rotted away. After that, I thought little if anything about the missing plant. Where it grew was soon covered with foliage from the neighbouring fast-growing shrubs.

Many weeks later, a uniformed policeman visited my house and asked me if anything, such as garden tools or plants, had gone missing from my land. At first, I thought that this was an odd request. Then, I remembered the mysterious vanishing of my small conifer. I told the policeman about this. Then, he told me that there had been a garden thief operating in the area and the police were collecting evidence.

I told the policeman that I could not believe that my tiny plant could have been of any value for a thief. He explained to me that plants are valuable, and that the maturer they were, the greater their value. I was amazed that there was such a species of criminal as a plant thief.  But, since then, I have heard it is quite common, especially amongst respectable looking visitors to horticultural gardens such as Kew Gardens.

Well, as the saying goes: ‘you learn something new everyday’

A long holiday

To tell the truth
there is nowt as bad as
a pain in a rotten tooth
hallway with window

 

When I worked in a dental practice near Portobello Road in west London, I met a lot of ‘colourful’ characters, many of whom I might have avoided had I saw them approaching me by chance in the street. One fellow, Ted, a large patient whose nose had been broken at least once and been badly fixed, said to me once: “If anyone ever causes you trouble in the street, just say you’re a friend of Ted. That’ll warn them.”

One day while I was standing in a queue at a takeaway counter waiting to order lunch, someone standing near me, a patient of mine, said: “Need a motor, doc?” I answered that I did not need a car at that point of time. “No problem, Doc,” he replied, “when you need one, just tell me what you want, whatever colour and make, and I’ll get it for you.” Not willing to sound ungrateful, I thought that when he said “get”, he really meant “steal.”

I had many patients who had been in and out of trouble with the law. Often, I would be told: “Look what the prison dentist did to this tooth, doc. Bleeding butcher, he was. Ought to be put behind bars.” I never asked why my patients had spent time ‘inside’. I felt it would be better not to know.

The last patient before one lunchtime was an aggressive young man. He was accompanied by his friend, a slightly older man. Before I had time to ask the young fellow what was wrong, he told me. Pointing to a lower left premolar tooth, he said: “Get it out. It’s f…..g killing me.” I looked at the chap. His mouth did not seem to close properly. “Don’t just stand there. Get it out, man”. I looked at the tooth. It looked alright. It was neither decayed, nor wobbly, nor tender. That strange mandibular posture bothered me.  

 

“You’ve broken your jaw,” I said. “Don’t give me that crap. Just take it out.” I said: “If I take it out, you will still be in pain. You need to go to a hospital to fix your jaw.” This only angered the patient more, and I began to fear for the integrity of my jaw. “I’m not leaving until you take it out.” “Then,” I replied, “I’ll ring for an ambulance.” The patient’s friend said: “Come on, mate, let’s go.” Reluctantly, the patient allowed his friend to drag him out into the street. I locked the practice for the lunch break, relieved to see them leave.

Some days later, I met the patient’s friend in the street. I asked him whether the young man had been to hospital. He did not answer my question. Instead he said: “He’s gone away.” “On holiday?” I queried innocently. “Yes, on holiday.” “Long holiday?” I asked, beginning to understand what he meant by ‘holiday’. “Yes, very long holiday”.

 

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