At the sharp end

“THIS WON’T HURT A BIT” are words that I never used when I was practising as a dentist. However careful and gentle one is when giving an injection, the recipient is bound to feel at least a tiny bit of discomfort. So, I never uttered those words because to do so would be telling the patient something untruthful and that would have risked undermining his or her confidence in me. So, today, when I went to our beautifully well organised local clinic (at St Charles Hospital in London’s North Kensington) to receive the first of my vaccination ‘jabs’ to protect me from covid19, I was pleased that the clinician, who administered it did not say those words which I always avoided, but instead told me that I might experience some discomfort. Despite the needle being of a larger gauge than usual, my jab was not at all painful.

Years ago, a friend of mine, ‘X’, who was married to ‘Y’, a medical doctor involved in biological research, related her experiences of receiving vaccinations and other injections. Until she went into hospital to have her first child, she had always been given injections at home by her husband.

On arrival at the hospital, X was terrified when she was told she needed an injection. However, after it was done, her fears evaporated, but was left with a question in her mind. After she returned home with her baby, she asked her husband the question that had occurred to her in hospital. She said to Y:

“It’s really strange, dear, but the injections I had in hospital were completely painless unlike those you give me. I wonder why that should be.”

Y did not answer immediately, but after a short while, said:

“That’s easy to explain. I always inject you with the type of needles that I use for injecting, or taking samples from, experimental animals, the rats and so on.”

It is no wonder my friend found her husband’s injections painful. The syringe needles he used for laboratory animals were of a much wider bore than those normally used for administering jabs to humans. They were wide enough to be cleaned by pushing a wire along their length prior to sterilizing them.

This reminded me of the somewhat painful injections that our family doctor, Dr C, gave us when we were children in the early 1960s and before. Even though this was long ago, I can remember that his surgery had a gas fire, and its gas pipe had a small branch that fed a burner that heated a container in which he boiled his glass syringes and reusable needles between patients. These needles, like those used on animals and my friend, X, had to be wide so that they could be reamed out prior to being boiled. Furthermore, repeated boiling in water, blunted the needles and made them increasingly likely to cause pain when penetrating the skin. It was lucky that when we were vaccinated as kids, we did not come away with some infection as bad as whatever we were being protected against. There was no HIV in the 1960s, but there were other bugs, which were certainly not inactivated by boiling water.

Today, at the vaccination centre, a beautifully laid-out facility in a Victorian hospital building, I was shown the wrapped disposable syringe and needle, and felt confident that the vaccinator at St Charles had done a good job of jabbing.

How well do you know Leicester Square

IT WAS EERIE walking in Leicester Square today in early February 2021 at midday because we were almost alone. Normally, the square is full of people milling about and joining circles of folk watching street entertainers perform, sometimes with great skill. Apart from us, I saw no more than ten other people in this usually crowded popular focal point for Londoners and tourists alike. There was a sense of peace and calm that one customarily associates with spots deep in the countryside. I doubt that this square has been like this for many years, maybe since it was first laid out between 1630 and 1671, when it was then known as ‘Leicester Fields’.  

At the north-east corner of the Square was Leicester House, which was named after Robert Sydney, 2nd Earl of Leicester (1595-1677), and was built in about 1635. It was home to members of some royal personages including, briefly, Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (1596-1662) whose life ended in the house, and later the huge natural history collection of Sir Ashton Lever (1729-1788), the last lessee of the house before it was demolished in 1791.

During the 18th century, the houses surrounding Leicester Square were occupied by several people, whom we still remember today. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) lived on the east side of the square on a site that was later occupied by the Sablonière Hotel, now demolished. The hotel’s plot is now the site of a twentieth century building housing the offices of several radio stations including LBC and Classic FM and a branch of TGI Friday. The famous surgeon and scientist John Hunter (1728-1793) lived in the house next to Hogarth’s from 1785 until his death. He kept his collection of specimens there as well as giving lessons in anatomy and dissection in rooms he added to the rear of his home. Hunter was buried in the nearby church of St Martin in the Fields. Across the square on its west side, the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) lived and worked from 1761 until his death. His studio was an octagonal room. According to John Timbs, writing in 1867:

“… the sticks of his brushes were 18 inches long; he held his palettes by handle …”

In addition to his residence and studio, Reynolds built a gallery for his works. The row of houses that included that of Reynolds has long since been demolished. When I first knew Leicester Square, the east side of the square was occupied by a large office building, Fanum House, that housed the Automobile Association. Its appearance has been modified and is known as ‘Communications House’.

Other artists, who lived in the square, include Hans Huyssing (1678-1753/53), a Swedish painter; Jacques Christophe Le Blon (1667-1741); Michael Dahl (1659-1743), a fashionable Swedish portrait painter; and William Martin (1753-c1836), an English painter. Apart from artists, other notable people, several military and medical celebrities, lived around the square.

The square has a garden, in the centre of which there is a statue of William Shakespeare. This is a copy of an original made in 1741 by the Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers the Younger (1691-1781) who spent most of his working life in London. It was placed in the square in 1874 when the financier and member of Parliament Albert Grant (1831-1899), who was born ‘Abraham Gottheimer’, bought the garden and opened it to the public. During the 18th century, there was another statue in the square: a metal equestrian sculpture of King George I, sculpted by C Buchard.

The large Odeon Cinema on the west side of the square has a black tiled façade. It was built in the art-deco style in 1937, designed by Harry Weedon (1887-1970), who designed many other cinemas in the 1930s. It was built on the site of the big Alhambra Theatre, which opened as a music hall in 1858 and survived until its demolition in 1936. Today, there is a bar next to the Odeon. It bears the name ‘Lost Alhambra’.  

The Empire Theatre, now a casino and a cinema, is on the north side of the square. With its neo-classical façade, it was built in 1884 as a variety theatre. Its architects were Thomas Verity (1837-1891 and Thomas Lamb (1871-1942). This stands roughly on the western side of the land occupied by the former Leicester House. To the east of this plot, there stands another cinema, a fine example of the art-deco style, the Vue Cinema, which was built in 1938 and opened as the ‘Warner Theatre’. Its architects were Thomas Somerford (1881-1948) and EA Stone. The façade includes two bas-relief sculptures, one representing the spirit of sight and the other of sound, which were created by Edward Bainbridge Copnall (1903-1973), who was born in Cape Town in South Africa.

The Swiss Centre that used to stand at the northwest corner of the square was demolished a few years ago and was replaced by a newer building. The Centre contained a couple of expensive but good restaurants where Swiss specialities were served. The steak tartare and cheese fondue, which were served at the Centre, were particularly good. A clock with a carillon adorned with the crests of the Swiss Cantons is all that remains of that fine Swiss establishment.

At the south side of the square, facing the cheap theatre tickets booth, stands the Hampshire Hotel, currently devoid of guests. Before it became a hotel, this building housed the former Royal Dental Hospital. Opened in 1858 in Soho Square (number 22), it moved to the premises in Leicester Square in 1874 (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/royaldental.html). In those days, the once fashionable Square had become a run-down part of London. In 1983, The Royal Dental Hospital was merged with Guys Hospital Dental School. When this happened, a dental friend of mine, who worked at Guys, suggested to me that the merged hospital should be renamed as ‘Roys’. In 1985, the Leicester Square hospital was closed. Soon after this, the former hospital was reconditioned to become a hotel.

Being the centre of London’s theatre and entertainment district, it is appropriate that recently the square has been adorned with life-size sculptures of famous entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson (with whom you can share a bench), Laurel & Hardy, Mary Poppins, and other familiar actors.   I cannot decide whether these frozen figures enhance the square, but as they are fairly discreetly positioned, they do add something to a place that has been home to well-known people since the beginning of the 18th century.

Had Leicester Square not been as empty as it was today, I would not have spent so long there to take photographs. I realised that this square, through which I have always preferred to hurry, has some interesting architecture and such a lovely statue. Although I enjoyed Leicester Square without the crowds, I look forward to healthier times when people can mix there, freely and happily.

Feeling at home in the UK

ALBANIA. BULGARIA, AND YUGOSLAVIA are countries that I visited in the 1970s and 1980s. I visited the former Yugoslavia the most and acquired a smattering of Serbo-Croat, the main language spoken in that fascinating part of the Balkans. My limited knowledge of this language helped me get by in Bulgaria. My poor Serbo-Croat seemed to be well understood in Bulgaria. During my first visit to Albania in 1984, although we were prevented from communicating with the locals, there were plenty of examples of the Albanian language in the form of propaganda posters and political slogans written with numerous pebbles on the sides of mountains.

Until 1990, my vocabulary of words from various Balkan languages was of limited use to me whilst I was practising dentistry in England, first in north Kent then, after 1994, in London.

In the mid-1990s, I began treating patients who were refugees from parts of the then violently disintegrating Yugoslavia. Many of my new patients were from Bosnia and Herzogovina. Some of them had little command of the English language and were grateful that they were being treated by someone who knew ‘where they were coming from’, as the saying goes, and who knew some words of their own language. Sadly, some of them hearing me repeating what little Serbo-Croat I knew, assumed that I was fluent. I attracted a faithful following, some of whom were charming and a small minority, the opposite, On the whole, even the most difficult of my ex-Yugoslav patients were grateful and brought me gifts, often strong home-brewed alcohol sent from Bosnia, as a mark of their gratitude. One dear lady even brought me a pair of earrings that her uncle in Sarajevo had made specially for my wife.

Some years later, I began treating Albanian-speaking refugees from Kosova, a region of the former Yugoslavia that had and still has a population, which is mainly of Albanian heritage. Many of the recent arrivals from that country, who came to my surgery for dental care, had minimal or no English. My knowledge of Albanian was extremely limited. I could greet them with ‘diten e mire’ (‘good day’) or wish them ‘mirupafshim’ (‘good bye’), when they left my surgery, but I could say little else of any practical use. However, if I said ‘rrofte partia socialiste e shqiperise’ (‘long live the Socialist Party of Albania’) or ‘lavde shoku Enver Hoxha’ (praise Comrade Enver Hoxha’), which I had learnt from propaganda posters in Albania back in 1984, this caused many of my Kosovan patients to smile.  

Now that I have been retired for a few years, many of the new arrivals to this country from the troubled Balkans have settled down and contribute positively to life in the UK.  Only today, whilst waiting in the street for take-away coffees, we were joined by three other customers, workmen dressed in overalls. Seeing my furry ex-Soviet Army hat, they struck up a conversation. They were all from Serbia and were delighted that I knew some words of their language, if ‘samo malo’ (‘only a little’). I decided not to show off my knowledge of Serbian swear words that my friends in Belgrade had taught me long ago, and which I shall not share with you.

Just before reaching the café, we had been taking exercise in Holland Park. This park, like many others in London, has wooden benches, often inscribed with words to commemorate lost member(s) of a family. I was idly looking at a row of benches opposite the curious “Annunciation” sculpture, a structure consisting of horns and cogs, when I spotted one with words that are not English:

“Detikuar prinderve  tane  te dashur sabri dhe behije preci”

I recognised this as being in Albanian. Google translates this as:

“Dedicated to our dear parents Sabri and Behije Preci”

Until today, I had not seen a park bench with an Albanian dedication. Seeing this typically British form of memorial made me feel that members of communities that have had to flee from their war-torn homes in the Balkans are beginning to feel that Britain is now also a place they can call ‘home’, whose public amenities they are helping to cherish. 

Uganda and me

UGANDA IS ONE OF many countries that I have not yet visited. Yet, I can relate some personal anecdotes related to it.

When we had our Hindu wedding ceremony in Bangalore (India), several of my wife’s aunts, whose families originated in Kutch (now part of Gujarat State in western India) were present and quite concerned that there were elements of Kutchi marriage traditions incorporated into our three-hour long ceremony. I cannot remember what these were. One of the aunts had lived with her family in Uganda until they saw the ‘writing on the wall’ and left for India before Idi Amin forcibly expelled all of the other Asians from his country. Her son, who lives in the UK, introduced me to Uganda’s national alcoholic drink ‘waragi’, brewed from bananas, which did not appeal to me as much as other drinks with 40% alcohol content.

Soon after I went to India for our wedding, I began working in a dental practice near Portobello Road in west London. It was there that I worked with ‘A’, who was the best dental surgery assistant I have ever worked with. She was resourceful, bright, friendly, polite, efficient, and never lost her cool. When equipment went wrong, I used to want to ring Andy, our repairman, but A would say:

“Let me fix it, Mr Yamey, I saw what Andy did last time.”

And usually, she fixed whatever had broken down.

Occasionally, A worked at the reception desk. Patients used to come up to the desk, often impatient and desperate to obtain dental treatment immediately. Instead of getting flustered, as other receptionists might easily have done, she used to say calmly something like:

“Good afternoon, Mr Brown, how are you today? And how is your family?”

When the patient had been calmed down by her questions, she would get down to the business of making arrangements for the patient’s treatment. She had a civilising influence on others.

A was born in Uganda after Idi Amin had given up ruling the country, but she lived through the troubling times that followed his downfall. She told me that she had witnessed a member of her close family being shot while she hid in a bush nearby. On another occasion, she told me:

“I heard some soldiers coming to my home, and, Mr Yamey, I jumped out of a window at the back and ran into the fields. I ran and ran and ran.”

Despite these and other horrific experiences, one would not imagine that A had had such a traumatic childhood.

A was an evangelical Christian. She kept a small edition of the New Testament in one of the drawers in my surgery alongside tubes and bottles of dental materials. It was printed mainly in black but with some words in red. These were, A explained to me, the words that had been uttered by Jesus. Every day, she used to say to me in her gentle voice:

“Mr Yamey, all you need to do to be saved is to accept Jesus into your life.”

This did not bother me, nor did the evangelical Christian radio station that she liked to hear while we were working. However, one day a particularly nervous dental patient, a frequent attender who had been born in the USA, was lying in my treatment chair, when he lifted his hand and said politely:

“There are two things that upset me. One is having dental treatment and the other is having religion thrust down my throat. So, A, will you please turn off the radio now.”

A did as asked, and we never listened to that station again. Often, A encouraged me to try ‘matoke’, a Ugandan dish made from a type of banana. She thought it was delicious, but I have not yet sampled it. I have not seen A for a long time now and hope that she and her husband are thriving and enjoying a life far better than she experienced in Uganda.

Long before I became a dentist, in my teens (in the second half of the 1960s), I loved collecting travel brochures: leaflets, maps, and booklets issued free of charge by travel companies and national tourist offices. My friend ‘F’ shared this passion. One day during the summer holidays, F suggested that we, that is F and his brother, me, and ‘H’, another close friend, should have a brochure collecting competition.  F and H formed one team, and F’s brother and I the other. The plan was that we start together at Oxford Circus and then work our way down to Trafalgar Square, collecting as much free travel literature as we could gather. The winning team would be the one which had collected most material, but taking duplicates was not allowed. Speed was also important, so we tried to waste as little time as possible in each place.

My team entered one travel agent or national tourist office after another, taking whatever was on display and asking the people working in them for any material that was available but not on display. We piled our ‘loot’ into the rucksacks we were carrying and moved from one location to the next. Our loads were quite heavy when F’s brother and I arrived at the locked door of Uganda’s tourist office on the south side of Trafalgar Square. We rang the door and were admitted by a man who led us upstairs to his office. There, we were asked to sit in front of his desk. He chatted to us politely, passing the time of day, whilst we sat there anxiously as the minutes, which we could be using more profitably, slipped past. Eventually, we got around to asking him for travel literature. He handed us three thin coloured brochures, which we considered to be a poor haul given how long we had spent with him.

Passing the Ugandan tourist office, which is still where it was during the 1960s, today in January 2021, soon after a recent election in that country, brought back memories of our brochure collecting dash and made me wonder whether at that time I should have been chasing after girls in my spare time, as many of my schoolmates were doing, rather than picking up leaflets about exotic destinations. By the way, F and H won our competition by a narrow margin.

So, finally, this is almost all I have relate about my somewhat tenuous connections with Uganda. All I wish to add relates to my father’s regular purchases of the satirical magazine “Private Eye”, which gave the term ‘Ugandan discussions’ a new meaning in March 1973. If you do not know what I mean, then I will leave you to search for the term on Google.

Smoking drums

A DENTIST NEEDS manual dexterity and good powers of observation (amongst many other skills). My PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, used to teach physiology to the first year (pre-clinical) dental students at University College London. He not only encouraged them to learn the rudiments of the subject but also how to improve their dexterity and skill in observation.

While the students were under Robert’s care, he tried to instil in them something of his spirit of scientific curiosity. Each student had to carry out an investigative project as part of the physiology course. This had to make use of the students’ powers of observation. He felt, quite correctly, that a good physician must be very observant. He had students, with their pencils, watches, and notepads at the ready, measuring, for example, the blink rates of people travelling on the Underground, or how many times a minute peoples’ jaws moved whilst chewing gum, or how often and for how long people scratched their heads. Projects like these, simple though they sound, honed the students’ ability to observe carefully. These projects also helped to instil something else in some of the students: many of them went on to have academic dental careers.

Robert had great manual dexterity and knew that development of this in his students was of great importance to those aspiring to practise dentistry. When he or his wife Margaret was interviewing prospective students, they always enquired whether a candidate played a musical instrument or enjoyed making models or sewing/knitting/embroidery. If they did, then there was a good chance that the candidate’s manual dexterity would be sufficient to perform dental procedures. Robert encouraged this in the practical physiology classes that he arranged for his pre-clinical students. Typical of this was his insistence on the use of the archaic smoked drum kymograph.

Most students doing experiments in physiology would record results from their experimental set-ups, be it a contracting muscle or a stretch of live nerve, on an electrically operated pen and ink tracing that produced a graph on a piece of paper tape. All that was necessary was to plug the measurement transducer out-put lead into the electronic moving chart recorder and wait for the results.

Robert insisted on his dental students using a kymograph with smoked paper, a mechanical predecessor of the modern electronic equipment. A sheet of white paper had to be attached around the outside of a metal cylinder (drum). This had to be rotated carefully above a smoky flame until the entire surface of the paper had been uniformly blackened by a thin layer of charcoal particles. Without disturbing this fragile black layer with a stray finger or thumb, the smoked drum had to be carefully attached to the vertical spindle that emerged from a cylindrical motor. The experimental tissue – often the students measured the contraction rates and strengths of lengths of rodent gut – was attached via a thin cord to a delicate lever which had a sharp point (stylus) at one end of it. This point was then placed against the smoked paper and then the motor was activated, causing the drum to rotate at a known speed. As the gut contracted, it moved the lever up and down which in turn caused the sharp point to displace carbon particles beneath the stylus point to leave a white tracing on the slowly moving blackened paper covering the metal cylinder. When the tracing had been made, it had to be removed from the drum without smudging it, and then immersed in some liquid, a smelly lacquer, that fixed the image to the paper. This procedure, I can assure you, is no less demanding on one’s manual skills than, say, preparing a tooth for an inlay or a bridge abutment or placing an implant.

Many generations of Robert’s dental students remember him fondly. Recently, someone with whom I studied dentistry at University College reminded me about his curious laboratory coats. He did not wear the long white coats that most scientists and many medics normally use. Instead, he wore a long coat coloured brown or ochre. Why he wore a lab coat that looked more like the work wear of an old fashioned grocer I have no idea – I never thought to ask him – but Robert did many things in his own inimitable style. Often his approach to things seemed eccentric at first sight, but usually after reflection you would realise that there was a lot of sense in what he did and how he did it.

Peel Street and paintings

WALKING ALONG A SHORT street in London’s Kensington recently, I observed things that I had never noticed before and was reminded of Tony ‘M’. When I was a student of dentistry at the University College Hospital Dental School, I first met Tony in the third year. In that year, we began to learn how to make crowns (‘caps’) for our patients. Instead of sending the work out to be done by technicians, we students had to learn the nitty gritty of fabricating crowns, mostly gold ones. We were assigned to one of three or four technician tutors. I was assigned to Tony’s group. Why visiting Peel Street in Kensington sparked me to think of Tony will be revealed later.

Peel Street in Notting Hill Gate lies in land that used to be known as ‘The Racks’. It was part of the extensive estate of Campden House, which was owned by the Phillimore family. In the early 19th century, the land was bought by John Punter and William Ward, who divided the land between them in 1823 after having agreed to lay out two roads: Peel Str and Campden Str. Peel Street lay in Punter’s share of the area. Although Punter retained several plots along Peel Street, the rest were sold to a variety of different people. Nearer the eastern end of the street several buildings were demolished between 1865 and 1875 during the construction of what is now the Circle Line. Though the tracks are underground, there are no buildings built above them. If you look through the gap on the north side of the road, you can see the rear of a brick building which fronts on Edge Street. Near the top of this place, some bricks have been made to project slightly and to spell the name ‘LESLIE’. The rear part of this L-shaped building is currently occupied by ‘The Spanish Education Office’. This building was flying Spanish and  EU flags. I have no idea about the significance of ‘Leslie’.

One of the houses on the south side of Peel Street used to be a pub. It still bears the lettering ‘Peel Arms’. It was probably in existence by 1889, but today it is a private dwelling. The pub’s clientele were probably mostly workers who toiled in the gravel pits that abounded in the neighbourhood. The pub is not far from the six-storey Camden Houses, brick-built blocks of flats erected in 1877-8 for labourers, some of whom might well have drunk at the Peel Arms. The blocks contain 125 separate flats. The entrances to the blocks have art nouveau features. The building were designed by the architect Edwyn Evans Cronk (1846-1919) for the National Dwellings Society Ltd. Cronk was born in Sevenoaks (Kent) and died in Redcliffe Square in South Kensington.

At the western end of Peel Street, there is another pub, The Windsor Castle. Unlike the Peel Arms, this is a working establishment, now popular with the locals, most of whom are not poorly paid labourers. It was originally built in about 1826 and then remodelled in 1933. The pub contains much of its original late Georgian building fabric and is a Grade II listed place. Although I have passed it often, I have never entered it or its reputedly fine garden. At the Eastern end of Peel Street, there is a wine bar, The Kensington Wine Rooms. When we were getting married, back in 1993, the premises were occupied by a branch of the Café Rouge restaurant chain. We held a pre-wedding dinner there. The premises now housing the wine bar once housed a pub, The Macaulay Arms.  It was listed as being in existence in the 1868 edition of “Allen’s West London Street Directory”. Thus, residents of Peel Street were only a few steps from three ‘drinking holes’.

The directory ( https://www.gutenberg.org/files/58160/58160-h/58160-h.htm) lists the residents of Peel Street in 1868 as follows:

“1 Upfold George, sweep/ 2 Arnold F., carpenter/ 3 Miles Frederick, painter/ 23 Mansell H., painter/ 26 Redman J., marine stores/ 28 Redman J., beer retailer/ 37 Taylor W., gardener/ 46 Lucas Wm. Grocer/ 53 Hobbs Mrs. general shop/ 55 Horskins Thos. Baker/ 63 Pollett —, bootmaker/ Harris W., greengrocer/ 67 Smart M., The George Brewery/ 69 Dunnett Mrs. dressmaker/ 77 Elson George, oilman/ 80 Evans H., gardener/ 82 Atwood Mrs, dressmaker/ 83 Salmon —, bootmaker”

Most of the inhabitants appear to have been tradesmen, merchants, and craftsmen, rather than labourers. This is probably because the list was compiled before the Campden Houses were built to house manual labourers and their families. Incidentally, there is still a greengrocer on Peel Street. Jack and Jessie’s excellent shop is opposite the Kensington Wine Rooms.

Peel Cottage stands almost at the corner of Peel Street and Campden Hill Road. It is next to number 118 Campden Hill Road (aka ‘West House’), a building on the corner of Peel street designed for the artist George Henry Boughton (1803-1905) in the late 1870s by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). New Scotland Yard and Lowther Lodge (home of the Royal Geographical Society on Kensington Gore) were amongst the many other buildings designed by Shaw. Another artist, the landscape painter Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902) lived at number 80 Peel Street, where once lived the gardener, H Evans.  

The entrance to Peel Cottage, which is dwarfed by its neighbours, is partially covered with ivy. It was seeing the blue, circular commemorative plaque on the wall next to its entrance that reminded me of my former teacher Tony M. The plaque informs the passer-by that the artist Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) lived in Peel Cottage from 1925 until his death. This brings me back to Tony M, about whom you must have thought I had forgotten already.

As a dental student, I spent many hours with Tony M as I struggled to make decent gold crowns that would fit my patients’ teeth in the conservation clinics of the Dental School. Each encounter with Tony involved a trip to the canteen in the school’s basement. Tony was unable to function without a fresh cup of the school’s barely mediocre coffee. Over cups of coffee, Tony used to encourage us when the clinical teachers made our lives miserable, help with our technical work, and chat. During one of our sessions together, Tony, knowing that art interested me, suggested that I visit Cottrell’s showrooms in nearby Charlotte Street (numbers 15-17) to see the fine collection of paintings that hung on its walls. Cottrell’s were an important supplier of dental equipment and materials. Today, although it has retained its original Victorian frontage, it is the premises of the Charlotte Street Hotel.

Dutifully and because I was curious, I visited Cottrell’s showroom and looked at the framed watercolours hanging on the walls of the two ground floor showrooms. The paintings were all works of the inhabitant of Peel Cottage, William Russell Flint.

Flint was born in Edinburgh. He studied at Daniel Stewart’s College and then Edinburgh Institution. Between 1900 and 1902, he worked as a medical illustrator in London. Later, he produced illustrations for books and “The Illustrated London News”. He was elected President of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours (now the Royal Watercolour Society, of which my wife’s cousin, Varsha Bhatia, is a member), a position he held from 1936 until 1956. He was knighted in 1947. Flint produced many well-executed, delicately tinted water-colour paintings. He often visited Spain, where he made plenty of images that often included sensuous portrayals of women in various stages of undress. It was some of these titillating paintings that Tony had sent me to see on the walls of Cottrell’s showroom.

It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s (before 1982, when I qualified) that Tony M encouraged me to pay a visit to Cottrell’s in Charlotte Street to widen my knowledge of the world of art. Many years have passed since then, but a memory of that brief glimpse of Flint’s paintings lingers in the back of my mind. Visiting Peel Street and seeing Flint’s home brought that all back to the forefront of my memory.

Between Mortimer Market and Iraq

MANY LONDONERS WILL HAVE walked past Mortimer Market without knowing it exists. Yet, I used to visit it every working day for about five years. It played an important role in my life and greatly affected my career. How it did, I will reveal later.

Mortimer Market lies a few feet east of Tottenham Court Road (‘TCR’) between Capper and University Streets. Immediately to its east, runs Huntley Street that is parallel to TCR. I used to enter Mortimer Market through a short, covered passageway leading off TCR. Vehicles can enter the Market via Capper Street.

Mortimer Market before 1949
Mortimer Market before 1949 when this photo was published

Until 1886, Capper Street was known as ‘Pancras Street’. This street has existed for over 300 years. Its history is outlined in some detail on an interesting website (https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/). Before it was laid out, the land on which it runs was part of Capper Farm, which was in existence by 1693. The farmer, Christopher Capper, whose widow died in 1739, kept cattle. Members of his family, his daughters, kept the farm going until at least 1768. After his death, the family moved to crop growing in preference to rearing cattle. In 1756, the Duke of Grafton constructed the Euston Road that ran along the northern boundary of the Capper’s farm. At first, the Capper sisters raised an objection to it, saying that the dust raised by traffic along the new road would spoil their crops. The Duke and the sisters eventually came to some agreement. By 1770, the Capper sisters gave up their farm. It was then bought by Hans Winthrop Mortimer (1734-1807), who merits an entry in Wikipedia and on the History of Parliament website (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/mortimer-hans-winthrop-1734-1807 ).

Mortimer was a property speculator and a Member of Parliament between 1775 and 1790. In the 1774 General Election, he was defeated by Sir Thomas Rumbold (1736-1791), who served as British Governor of Madras between 1777 and 1780. Rumbold became well-known for being corrupt. His misdeeds included what was effectively the theft of a precious ring from the Nawab of Arcot (Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, who reigned 1749-1795). Rumbold’s corruption preceded his stay in India. This involved, amongst other things, bribery during the election he contested against Mortimer. After a court case against Rumbold, Mortimer was awarded £11,000 in damages in 1776 and also gained the parliamentary seat that Rumbold had tried to win by cheating (bribery). It is a sign of the East India Company’s wobbly ethics that a man as corrupt as Rumbold was appointed the Governor of Madras so soon after losing his case of corruption.

Mortimer spent a great deal of money acquiring property in Shaftesbury, his constituency and also in London.  

The land, which Mortimer bought that had been the Capper’s farm, became known as ‘The Mortimer Estate’. Some of this estate was later sold and became the site of University College (‘UC’) London, which established in 1826. Mortimer Market began to be built on the western part of the estate in 1795. Old maps of the area show that in the 19th century Mortimer Market was like a piazza containing two parallel rows of small shops. This can be seen in a photograph published in 1949 and reproduced on a British history website ( www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol21/pt3/plate-27).

By 1963, the shops in Mortimer Market had been demolished. In that year, a purpose-built structure standing where the rows of shops had once stood was opened as University College Hospital Dental School (‘UCHDS’). It was this architecturally undistinguished building that I used to visit during the clinical years (1977-1982) of my studies of dentistry. The building is so non-descript that it does not get even a tiny mention in Pevsner’s detailed guide to the buildings of north London.  Prior to 1914, what was to become UCHDS was known as the National Dental Hospital, founded in 1861 and located at 187-191 Great Portland Street (see: https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/uchdental.html). In 1894, the establishment relocated to 59 Devonshire Street. Twenty years later, it amalgamated with University College Hospital. From 1963 until its closure in 1991, 9 years after I qualified as a dentist, UCHDS was housed in Mortimer Market.  The former dental school building still stands and looks very much like I remember it, but now it houses a centre for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

As mentioned earlier, I used to reach the entrance of the dental school by way of the passageway from Tottenham Court Road. However, the hospital could be reached via the network of underground passageways that linked various building of the hospital both with each other and UCL itself. To the right of the passageway if you face it from TCR, there used to be the premises of the Iraqi Cultural Centre. I went in there several times. On one occasion, I mentioned to one of the friendly men who worked in their shopfront office that I am fascinated by folk music from all over the world. He told me to wait and within a few minutes he returned and presented me with an album containing two LPs of recordings of Iraqi folk music. For years after this, I enjoyed listening to them.

During several of my brief lunchtime visits to the Iraqi Cultural Centre near Mortimer Market, I noticed something strange in it. Men would suddenly appear from what seemed like nowhere, maybe from doors hidden in the shop’s internal walls. When Saddam Hussein’s regime (1979-2003) began to attract western military attention, I remembered these curious appearances, and wondered whether there was something other that cultural promotion going on in this place so near my dental school. My suspicions have been confirmed: according to the writer Said K Aburish (born in Palestine in 1935), writing in 2004:

“Years ago Saddam Hussein used the Iraqi cultural centre in Tottenham Court Road to conduct intelligence against dissident Iraqis and to eliminate political opponents.”

Also, The Guardian newspaper noted on the 30th of April 2002:

“The Iraqi government also used some of the students on its scholarships as spies, and set up a London surveillance network based at a “cultural centre” on Tottenham Court Road. There were sporadic assassination attempts against dissidents: in 1995 Latif Yahia, a defector previously employed by the Iraqi government as the official double of Saddam’s brother, alleged that he had been attacked with knives by five men speaking Arabic while stuck in traffic on the capital’s Edgware Road.”

My time studying in Mortimer was quite exciting but not as much as what must have been going on nearby in the cultural centre.  Thinking back to my years of study, we had some lectures given us by a young Iraqi dentist, who was working on his PhD – something to do with denture fixatives. He seemed very pleasant, but now I wonder… 

While I was studying at UCHDS, I had wanted to write about the history of Mortimer Market. In those days before the Internet, although I looked at several books in UCL’s very well-stocked library, I did not find anything about the story behind this little-known part of London. So, what you have just read is what I was hoping to write more than 38 years ago.

The saint and her teeth

SAINT APOLLONIA WAS born in the 2nd century AD. She was one of a group of virgin martyrs who was killed in 249 AD during an uprising against the Christians in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Prior to being murdered, she was tortured by having her teeth pulled out and damaged. Since then she has been regarded as the patron saint of dentistry and those suffering from toothache and other dental problems.

St Apollonia by M Landy

When I was a dental student back in the early 1980s, I did some research with a view to writing an article about Apollonia for the dental school’s journal. While carrying out my investigations, I came across an article (I cannot remember where) which described a sacred relic, one of Saint Apollonia’s teeth, which is held in a church somewhere in northern France. I cannot recall where this tooth resides, but I have not forgotten something that was written about relics in general in that article. That is, according to the writer, one of the miraculous properties of sacred relics is that they can self-replicate.

Since working on that unfinished article, I have hardly given Saint Apollonia a moment’s consideration until today when we visited an exhibition based around the works of the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). This wonderful exhibition is being held at Compton Verney, a fine old house built 1714 in Warwickshire and set in gardens very capably designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (c1716-1783), until the 3rd of January 2021.

One of the rooms of the exhibition is devoted to works of art inspired by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Two such works by Pablo Picasso are on display alongside various other fabulous modern artworks by slightly less well-known artists. One of these pieces is a mechanised sculpture by Michael Landy (born 1963). This was inspired by the depiction of St Apollonia in a painting by Cranach which is held in London’s National Gallery. In Cranach’s work, Apollonia, dressed in a long, pleated dress coloured red, stands beside St Genevieve (martyred in what is now France), dressed in green.

Landy has created a wooden sculpture, a three-dimensional version of what appears in Cranach’s painting. In the latter, Apollonia is depicted with her hands clasped together around the long handles of a pair of pliers whose beaks are wrapped around an extracted tooth. Landy’s three-dimensional version, which is about twelve feet high, looks remarkably similar to Cranach’s. A foot pedal is attached to the sculpture by a cable. When a viewer presses the pedal, Apollonia’s hands move the pliers towards her mouth and then fall back again. It appears as if she has just pulled out her tooth. I wonder what Cranach would have thought about this rather gory adaptation of his original image.

You have now been warned. If you are a dental phobic and happen to visit this marvellous exhibition, do not, I repeat, do not press that pedal beside Landy’s sculpture. Also, try not to miss visiting this superbly curated show.

Career tracking

LIKE MANY OTHER YOUNG BOYS, the idea of being a train driver appealed to me. I am pretty certain that my parents would not have been ecstatic had I ended up in the driving cab of a railway train. Once my father told me that he did not mind what I studied or what profession I took up eventually, so long as it was not economics (he was a professor of economics). He had no need to be concerned about that, as what I could gather about economics made it sound unappealing to me. So, what did I consider after my urge to drive trains diminished?

tracks

From an early age, I used to spend much of my spare time drawing and painting, pursuits encouraged by my mother, who was an accomplished, but lesser known (and not self-promoting) painter and sculptress. In addition, in my early teens, I began to develop an interest in ‘modern’ architects including Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright. I read books about them and the idea of studying architecture, to become an architect, entered my head. My hope was to create structures as beautiful and innovative as those, which I had read about. After a year or so, I was walking back to school from our dining hall when I was struck by a depressing thought. If I studied architecture for the required seven or so years, there was a good chance that I would not be undertaking major, exciting projects like those which had made my architectural heroes famous. Instead, I might very well have ended up designing loft rooms, domestic garages, garden room extensions, and similar important but mundane structures. This thought dampened my enthusiasm to pursue architecture as a profession.

My next idea was to become a schoolteacher like those who taught me at my secondary school. I am incredibly pleased that this idea was short-lived because over the years the conditions that many schoolteachers have had to endure have deteriorated continuously.

My father, now long retired, was a university teacher (he became a senior professor at the London School of Economics). From my young vantage point, his lifestyle looked good. Despite working hard, which he did, he had lovely colleagues and many pleasant students as well as long holidays. His profession appealed to me and set me on the path of pursuing studies which I hoped would lead to an academic career. After completing my BSc, I worked on a research topic that led to me being awarded a PhD.

As I reached the completion of my doctoral work, two things began to worry me. One was that none the other British-based workers in the field that I was working (connective tissue physiology), whom I met at conferences and seminars, seemed like people with whom I would enjoy working. The prospects for obtaining post-doctoral work abroad were not good, and at that time I had no yearning to live outside the UK.  Another thing that worried me, which I only realised after I left research, was that it was a lonely pursuit.

To cut a long story short, I began studying dentistry. I had an idea that with a clinical qualification, a wider range of research possibilities would become available to me. However, I discovered during the clinical dentistry course that I enjoyed working with people, members of the public, who were willing to risk their teeth in the hands of students. So, when I qualified as a dentist, instead of going back into research and academia, I began working as a practising dentist. I did this for 35 years with varying degrees of enjoyment and satisfaction. Overall, it was a valuable life experience for me, as I hope that it was for my patients.

I have been retired for over two years now and love it. Jokingly, I often tell friends that my main reason for going to work was to retire eventually. But there is an element of truth in this.  Even now, so many decades since my childhood, I still enjoy railways and rail travel. I have not yet completely lost that juvenile desire to drive a train. Maybe someday, I might get to ‘have a go’ at the controls of a train. I have heard that these days drivers of London’s Underground trains make quite a good living. The money would be satisfactory but,  more importantly, the thrill of controlling the train would be a fine reward.

Have you, dear readers, been satisfied with the tracks along which your working lives have travelled?

Climate changes

BLOG CLIMATE

 

DURING THE 1980s, I lived and worked just over fifty miles south-east of central London in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns in Kent. Usually, I drove to London on Saturday afternoons after my morning dental surgery session ended at 1 pm. Then, after buying innumerable gramophone records and later also CDs and seeing friends, I would spend the night at my father’s home before returning to Kent late on Sunday evening.

One winter Sunday evening, after visiting friends, who lived in South Hampstead close to the Royal Free Hospital, I began driving towards Kent. When I reached Lewisham in south-east London, snow began falling lightly. I thought nothing of it. By the time I arrived at the start of the M2 motorway, the situation had changed considerably. The motorway was under several inches of fresh snow. The few vehicles travelling at that late hour drove on a pair of groove-like tracks made in the snow by vehicles ahead of me. It was rather like the page in the song “Good King Wenceslas: ‘Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly … In his master’s steps he trod, Where the snow lay dinted’.

The snow continued to fall and by the time I reached the motorway exit west of the Medway Bridge, I decided that it might be better to drive through Strood, Rochester, and Chatham rather than along the motorway that by-passed these places along a hilly exposed rural route, which I believed might have been badly affected by the snow.

It was about 2am when I left the motorway. I joined a line of cars that was crawling slowly towards Rochester – a traffic jam at 2 am. Eventually, I drove across the River Medway on the bridge at Rochester. The traffic was slow moving and dense despite the time. I decided to leave the main road and follow a back road that wound around Rochester Castle and avoided the city centre. I drove about fifty yards upwards along a steep snow-covered lane and then the car would go no further. Its wheels were unable to grip the road and I slid down to the bottom of the hill where I had started. There was no choice. I had to re-join the slow procession of traffic crawling through the interlinked Medway towns.

When I reached Gillingham, it was long after 3 am. I turned off the main A2 road and drove, or rather slid, downhill along Nelson Road which was covered with deep snow. At my street, Napier Road, the snow was even deeper and had not been compressed by passing vehicles. I headed towards my house but could not reach it because my car became wedged in a drift of densely packed snow. It remained locked in the snow for over three weeks.

The following day, the Medway Towns were almost paralysed by the snow. However, the only stretch of railway that was still operating was between two neighbouring stations, Gillingham and Rainham, where my dental surgery was located.  I managed to reach my surgery by train in my Wellington boots and wore these whilst treating the few patients who decided not to cancel their appointments. The only patients who struggled through the snow that day were elderly people who considered that cancelling appointments was disrespectful to the professional. All those brave souls, who made it through the hazardous snow, were seeing me about false teeth.

Although the snow did not disappear from the Medway Towns for over three weeks, the rail service to London resumed quite quickly. So, I continued to make my weekly visits to the capital. Fifty miles from snow-covered Gillingham, London was free of snow. Exaggerating slightly, visiting London was like travelling from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Few of my friends in London could believe that my home in Kent had sufficient snow to keep most skiers happy.

The spectacular change in climates that I experienced that winter when shuttling between London and Gillingham occurred long before the concept of ‘climate change’ became widespread in the public eye.