Of doctors and Denmark

ONE OF MY TWELVE FIRST cousins, having just read my recent piece about Finchley Road in north London, reminded me about a hospital close to that road,  where she and her parents had received medical care. This reminded me that I had also been treated at that hospital many years ago. So, here is what you have all been waiting for: undergoing surgery in St Johns Wood.

One night early in 1962, I decided to see what it would be like sleeping on the floor with only the carpet between me and the floorboards in my bedroom. I have no idea what made me want to try that. I woke up the next morning, feeling a mildly uncomfortable sensation in my abdomen. It was not a feeling that I had ever experienced before. At first, I imagined that it had something to do with spending a night on the floor, but something made me decide to tell my mother about it. She was concerned about it and made an appointment to see our GP, Dr Clough, who had his consulting room in the ground floor of his home on Finchley Road, close to Golders Green Underground Station.

Dr Clough was a kindly man, a family friend. His waiting room had a large fish tank as well as the usual collection of well-thumbed magazines. His home was directly beneath an outdoor section of the Northern Line. Trains rumbled overhead every few minutes.

The doctor examined me and rapidly concluded that I had a ‘grumbling’ appendix. He told us that it should be removed, but there was no hurry to have the surgery carried out. He recommended a surgeon, who operated at the private St John and Elizabeth Hospital (a Roman Catholic institution) in St Johns Wood, not far from its Underground Station.

BLOG A Hospital_of_St_John_and_St_Elizabeth_(geograph_3306120) wikipedia

This station, which had, and still has, scraggy palm trees growing near its entrance, was close to the ground floor surgery of our ageing Jewish dentist, Dr Samuels, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany. His waiting room did not have a fish tank, but its floor was covered with luxurious oriental carpets, and the magazines in it were issues of the glossy paged Country Life. Dr Samuels’ surgery was in a block of flats, Wellington Court on the corner of Wellington Road (part of Finchley Road) and Grove End Road, on which the St John and Elizabeth Hospital is located.

I was installed in a private room with, to my great delight, a television for my exclusive use. My delight stemmed from the fact that we did not have a television at home. There were also chairs for visitors. The seat of one of these, which was nicely upholstered, could be removed to reveal a commode.

On the day before my operation, I was taken to a bathroom and told that after I had bathed, I was to call for a nurse by tugging on a cord attached to a bell-pull. There were several cords dangling near the bath. I pulled one at random. Then, I peered out of the slightly open bathroom door and saw a frenzied scene. Nurses were running hither and thither, some of them carrying oxygen cylinders. My nurse returned to the bathroom and told me that by mistake I must have pulled a cord attached to the fire alarm.

The operation went without hitch. I do not recall feeling much pain after it. I was kept in my private room for almost a week. Everyday, I watched as much television as I could. As I had been instructed not to get out of bed unless nature called and the television was far too old to be equipped with a remote control, I had to ring for a nurse each time I wanted to watch a different TV channel. When I pressed the bell button, a nun with a white apron (many of the nurses were nuns) would arrive and switched the channel. (The first time I ever saw a television with a remote control was in December 1963 in a hotel in Baltimore (USA). The controller was attached to the television by a long cable).

Many people including my parents and close family, visited me in hospital. Although this was very kind of them, I always hoped they would not stay long because while they were in my room I had to have the television – the best thing about being in hospital – switched off. It always amused me when a visitor sat on the seat that concealed my commode. I wondered what he or she would think or do had they known what was beneath them.

During the Easter holiday, which occurred a few weeks after I had left the hospital and gone back to school, we set out on a driving holiday to Denmark. We drove to Harwich, where I watched our car being loaded into the hold of the ferry in a rope basket lifted by a crane on the quayside.  We drove through Germany, a country in which my parents preferred not to linger longer than needed. We spent one night in a German hotel. It was there that we experienced sleeping under quilts (duvets) for the first time in our lives. We all thought they were a marvellous alternative to sheets and blankets.

In Denmark, we spent several days on a farm near Toftlund, which is about 23 miles north of (formerly ‘West’) Germany. The farm was owned by one of our former au-pair girls and her husband. My sister and I spent several glorious days mingling with the animals on the farm, mostly cows and pigs. This experience made this holiday one that I remember with great fondness. My mother, who saw danger everywhere, was most concerned that I should not be injured by any of the cows’ horns. She was worried that should a horn impact me, it might cause my recently healed surgical scar to split open. She had no need to be anxious. The weather was so cold that we were wrapped in several layers of clothing including thick duffel coats held closed with wooden toggles.

Our hostess’s father was an interesting fellow. He showed me houses in Toftlund that bore two kinds of house numbers, one blue with white figures, and the other red with white numerals. Between 1864 and 1920, Toftlund had been in what was then German ruled territory. One kind of house number had been affixed by the German authorities, the other by the Danish.  This made a great impression on my young mind. Since then, I have always looked out for small details, souvenirs of historic eras, like these.

My mother was so impressed by the duvets (‘dune’ in Danish) under which we had slept both in Germany and Denmark that she bought four down filled duvets in Denmark along with covers for them. These were transported on the back seat of our Fiat 1100. My sister and I sat on them for the rest of our holiday, which took us to Odense and Copenhagen before we returned to London.

We spent the Easter weekend in Copenhagen. Almost everything was closed and the temperature outside was very low. We wandered around trying to keep warm. The only warm place that was open were the tropical houses in a botanical garden.

Our return trip was not without incident. We broke down in the German border town of Flensburg just after leaving Denmark. Some electrical component needed replacing. We had to wait about four hours for a replacement part from a company I had never heard of before: Bosch. Well, I was about to become ten years old. So, perhaps it was not surprising that I was unfamiliar with the names of German companies. Whenever I hear the name Bosch or the French word for the German invaders during WW2, Boches, I always remember our four hour wait, parked next to an inlet of the sea in an industrial landscape.

We returned to London. My scar had not burst open. Our four blue cloth covered duvets filled with duck down were intact. After our return to London,  we never again used blankets and the hitherto tiresome job of laying beds was replaced by the relatively simple task of spreading the duvets over the beds. I believe that we were amongst the first households in the UK to use duvets.

Of the four duvets we brought to London from Denmark, I kept and used one of them for about 48 years. Reluctantly,  we disposed of it because over the years it had lost most of its feathers. I have got so used to sleeping under duvets that when I stay somewhere which had tightly tucked sheets and blankets, I have to untuck them fully.

Since my youthful experiment of sleeping on the floor, I have only repeated it when camping. And, when in a tent, I like to separate myself from the ground with a fully inflated air mattress. On the one occasion when I had no air mattress, I barely slept and barely escaped contracting pneumonia, but that is another story.

An appendix usually follows a story or text but in this case, it is at the start of my story. I have lost a short and, apparently, useless evolutionary intestinal vestige, my appendix.  Thinking about its loss and the good time I had at the St John and Elizabeth Hospital, has triggered a chain of memories of an era long past. I hope that I will not be deprived of any more parts of my anatomy, especially whatever keeps alive my recollections of the past, many of which I enjoy sharing with anyone who is interested.

 

Picture of Hospital of St John and Elizabeth (from Wikipedia)

 

Denmark in the tropics

I HAVE WANTED TO VISIT TRANQUEBAR (now called Tharambangadi) since I first heard of the place when I was a teenager in the 1960s. Danish settlers established a fort and their first trading post in India there in 1620. I had already visited the former Danish colony at Serampore (established by 1770) on the River Hooghly, and was keen to see what remains of Tranquebar.

We drove south from Pondicherry for three hours through flat terrain, passing huge rice paddies, negotiating sprawling towns and villages, and crossing numerous rivers and streams.

Tranquebar, a sleepy little place on the wave washed shore of the Bay of Bengal, contains a sizeable collection of buildings constructed by the Danes during their tenure of the town, which finally ended in 1845, when the Danes sold it to the British.

During the Danish era, there were three main churches. One of them built by the seashore was been destroyed by the sea long ago. The Zion Church, the oldest Protestant church in India, was consecrated in 1701. It is now used by the Church of South India. It was founded by a German Bartholomew Ziegenbald (1682-1719). He was educated at the University of Halle, where my great great grandfather received his doctoral degree in the early 19th century, and was sent (with his fellow student Heinrich Plütschau) by the King of Denmark to become the first Lutheran missionary in India.

Ziegenbald was a remarkable man. During the last few years of his life, which were spent in India, he was involved in Lutheran missionary work (countering the activities of Catholic missionaries), literary work, translating the Holy Bible into Tamil, running a printing press, and conducting church services.

The New Jerusalem Church, larger than the nearby Zion and designed with its nave equal in length as its transept, was consecrated in 1717, two years before Ziegenbald died. He was buried in it. The church remains a Lutheran place of worship. Its parish priest, Mr Samson, guided us around its plain interior and told us that about sixty local families worship there regularly. The church is partly surrounded by a small cemetery, some of its gravestones bearing Danish names.

Ziegenbald’s home, now located within the grounds of a school, contains a small museum. The groundfloor contains a portable reed organ, some manuscripts related to Ziegenbald, and two printing presses that were acquired long after Ziegenbald died. One of these presses, made in London in the 19th century, was being demonstrated to a group of Tamil Lutheran visitors.

I watched as Tamil letters were covered with red ink before being covered with a sheet of white paper. The press was then operated manually. When the paper with Tamil letters was removed and shown to the visitors crowding around with cameras poised in readiness, everyone applauded. Then, the demonstration completed, the group sung a hymn in Tamil, praising God for creating such a technological miracle.

The Ziegenbal house museum is currently curated by a German, Jasmine. She encouraged us to see a small bur lovely exhibition of artworks by two German artists from Halle, where Ziegenbald studied long ago. Then, she introduced us to an Indian artist Asma Menon, who is creating a Cabinet of Curiosities similar to a very old one that is kept in Halle and contains objects collected in India long ago. Her creation that will be housed in a cabinet similar to the one in Germany will contain a series of object that captures the ‘essence’ of Germany, as she found it on a recent visit to Halle and other German cities. We spent time talking with Asma and a young volunteer from Germany.

Aaron Hall, next to the former home of Ziegenbald, is named in memory of Reverend C Aaron (1698-1745). A Tamil, he was the first ever non-European to be ordained as a Lutheran pastor. He was ordained in December 1733. He had been baptized earlier by Ziegenbald. Jasmine told us that when Aaron was ordained, there had been massive objections to this back in Germany, but the ordination took place despite these.

The Neemrana “non-hotel” hotel at Tranquebar is housed in the picturesque former British Collector’s Bungalow close to the sea shore. Unfortunately, its restaurant proved to be rather a ‘non-restaurant’: poor food and very poor service. Most of the other diners were late middle-aged Danish tourists nursing cans of Kingfisher beer. Foolishly, I ordered pasta with “aglio olio”. What turned up was penne drowning in an a virulently bright reddish orange coloured sauce that tasted as if it contained tomato ketchup as its main ingredient.

Lunch over, we strolled along the beach passing a monument recording the arrival of Ziegenbald in India. This overlooks a small harbour surrounded by partially ruined stone walls. Men were bathing in its water which was calmer than the sea around it. From where we were walking, we could see row after row of foam crested waves breaking on the shoreline that stretched away to the southern horizon.

The fort built by the Danes under the command of Admiral Ove Gjedde (1594-1660), Fort Dansborg, is still pretty much intact. It contains a small museum with an odd assortment of exhibits – a bit of a jumble. I was intrigued by several fading Maratha paintings and a 12th century Indian stone carving in good condition.

As I stood by the well in the large central open air courtyard of the Fort with the afternoon sun beating down on me at the temperature well in excess of 30 degrees Celsius, I wondered how the Danish settlers and soldiers coped with a climate so different to what they were used to in Denmark. I was able to dive back into our air conditioned taxi after a few minutes in the sun. This option was not available in the centuries when the Danes and Germans spent months and years in Tranquebar. Even the interior of the Fort, with its thick walls, was not greatly cooler than outside.

The Fort is separate from the former British Collector’s Bungalow and the former Danish Governor’s House by a spacious sandy maidan. The Danish Governor’s House neighbours a smaller and more recent edifice named “Danish Indian Cultural Centre”. This contains a library and a small museum. Amongst the exhibits, there are several drawings and paintings by the former Danish Governor Peter Anker (lived 1744-1833; governed 1788-1806). All of his attractive artworks on display are of Indian subjects.

The former Danish Colony of Tranquebar is in Tamil Nadu. About ten kilometres or less the coastal road leading south from Tranquebar leaves the state of Tamil Nadu and enters a part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry separated from the city of that name by over a hundred kilometres of Tamil Nadu. Like Mahe, a tiny part of Pondicherry on the coast of the Arabian Sea and Chandernagore in West Bengal, this southern territory, containing the town of Karaikal, was a French colony. Yanaon, surrounded by Andhra Pradesh, was yet another French colony and is now part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry.

Karaikal became a French colony in 1674 and remained as such until about 1954. At first sight, it looks like a typical, unexceptional modern Tamil urban area with a few decaying old buildings stuck within a mass of architecturally unexceptional buildings. However, our driver, a Tamil named Pierre, drove us to see what little remains of French colonial Karaikal.

The most notable souvenir is the former French Governor’s mansion. Well conserved, the Governor lived on the first floor and his administration used the ground floor. This building, which is well over 200 years old, is now the Collector’s Office of Karaikal. Nearby, there is a French war memorial commemorating those who died in the two World Wars. The monuments single out campaigns in Algeria and Indo-China. Near this, there are a few architectural details that might have existed during the French era, but little else.

Unlike Pondicherry, which has retained its colonial charm and attracts many tourists, there is little to attract the average tourist to Karaikal. I am glad we went there because I find places like this, which hint at their largely forgotten history, very evocative and fascinating.

While I would not reccomend a visit to Karaikal, a few hours or more spent in Tranquebar will be very rewarding both to those interested in history and to lovers of the seaside.

EUROPEAN HAUNTS ON THE HOOGHLY RIVER: Former European trading posts

PLEASE TAKE TIME TO READ INDIGO SEXY”, so announces a sweet female voice over the public address system in the passenger cabins of aeroplanes flown by Indigo Airlines. Actually, this voice is encouraging flyers to read Indigo’s in house magazine “Indigo 6E”. The November 2029 issue of this well produced monthly had an article about places that I have long wanted to visit: the places on the banks of the River Hooghly that were once occupied as trading posts by Europeans from various parts of that continent.
I knew that, apart from Britain, at various times the following nations had had tiny colonies on the banks of the River Hooghly (north of Calcutta): Holland, France and Denmark. Until I read an article in “Indigo 6E”, I was only barely aware that Portugal also claimed a parcel of land. That was at Bandel.
One day, we rented a car with driver to explore the former haunts of the nations listed above. We commenced at Bandel. To reach this place we drive pat endless numbers of heavy trucks north along the National Highway that links Calcutta with Delhi until we reached a road to Bandel.
To our grumpy driver’s indignation the road to the centre of Bandel was amazingly congested with cycles, tricycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, pedestrians, a variety of motorised three wheelers, dogs, trucks, buses, and so on.

Eventually, we reached the imposing church of the Miracle of Our Lady of Bandel that is separated from the Hooghly by a large garden. The church, which was built on a piece of land gifted to the Portuguese in exchange for military assistance given to a local ruler, was built at the very end of the 16th century.

The original church, one of the oldest in Bengal, still stands but has been heavily restored. It has been buried beneath shiny tiling, both outside and inside. The only original feature visible is an altar piece that looks as if it was created many centuries ago. The church was part of an Augustinian monastery, and is now part of a Salesian institution. The cloisters, like the church, are lined with tiling.

We drove south, following the Hooghly, to Chinsura, which the Dutch had occupied from 1656 to 1825. Apparently, there are several Dutch buildings in the town, but we did not find them. Instead, we managed to see the exterior of the town’s Armenian church, which is the second oldest church on Bengal. It is surrounded by a high wall surmounted by fierce looking spikes. A local informed us it wasonly opened up once a year, and we were not in Chinsura on that day! Later, we learnt that it is open for masses one Sunday in three.

Between Bandel and Chinsura, we came across an elegant house standing next to but high above the Hooghly. It was the place that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) lived for several years. Some say it was the place where he composed the patriotic poem “Vande Mataram” in the 1870s. It was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore. The British imperialist authorities made it a punishable offence to sing in the esrly part of the 20th century.

We drove south along congested roads that more or less followed the Hooghly until we arrived at Chandernagore, which was a French enclave until 1947.

The Institut de Chandanagor, a fine colonial building that could do with a little restoration, was once Dupleix House the former residence of the French governor. It now houses a museum that has many exhibits that recall the history of European trading settlements along the Hooghly. It stands in gardens, where once stood a fortress built by the French. The museum faces a lovely riverside promenade that includes a late 19th century pavilion built with French funding. This edifice is adorned with sculptures depicting elephant heads. At the southern end of the promenade, there stands a house, which Rabindranath Tagore has mentioned several times in his writings. When the river rises, its lower storey fills with water, by design.

The church of Sacre Coeur stands about 100 metres back from the promenade. It was built in the late 19th century, but was first established in 1691. Its interior has recently been redecorated with garish colour paint.

It was a long drive to Serampore on the Hooghly. We drove there along through narrow winding lanes and a stretch of the Grand Trunk Road. The Grand Trunk runs from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh, to Kabul in Afghanistan, passing through Calcutta and Delhi. It has existed for at least 2500 years and is one of the longest roads in Asia (almost 3000 miles).

Between 1755 and 1845, Serampore was under Danish control. The Danes knew it as Frederiknagore. We visited the church of St Olave, whose design resembles that of St Martins in the Fields in London. The internal walls of it plain but elegant interior bear memorials to several Danes who worked either for the Danes or for the British, who inherited Serampore from the Danes, or fir both. Serampore is also the home of Serampore College, which was founded in 1818 by Joshua Marsham and William Carey (1761-1834). Carey was born in Paulerspury in Northamptonshire. This village is the home of friends of ours. It was following a visit to them that we were first alerted to the existence of the former Danish colony on the Hooghly.

Before returning to Calcutta, we had coffee at the recently restored Denmark Tavern that overlooks a lovely stretch of the Hooghly. The tavern was first opened in 1786 and appears in a painting by Peter Anker dated 1790. The original building has been beautifully restored and is still serving its original purpose.

Although we only saw a few of the haunts of the former non-British European settlements on the bank of the Hooghly, our visit has made us want to revisit them in the future.