Organs and archaeology

THE EYES OF MOST VISITORS to Kensington Gore are attracted to the spectacular Royal Albert Hall and, opposite it, the monument to Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Immediately to the west of the Royal Albert Hall, there stands the comparatively less impressive twentieth century building housing the Royal College of Art (‘RCA’), designed by H T Cadbury Brown and opened in 1962. Next to this geometric structure of concrete and glass and on its south side, there is an edifice whose appearance is a dramatic contrast to it. The walls of the RCA’s southern neighbour are covered with figurative illustrations, created in the ‘sgraffito’ technique.  Bands of ‘putti’ carrying musical instruments, scrolls of paper, or singing, appear to be scurrying across the walls of the building. Maybe this is not surprising because once this place housed The Royal College of Organists (‘RCO’).

Founded in 1864 by the organist Richard Limpus (1824-1875) to promote advanced organ playing, it received its Royal Charter in 1893. The building next to the present RCA and facing the Royal Albert Hall was designed by Lieutenant Henry Hardy Cole (1843-1916) of the Royal Engineers, and the ‘sgraffiti’ decorating it was created by Francis Wallaston Moody (1824-1886).

Lieutenant Cole was a son of Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), a civil servant who had an extremely important role in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851. His building, erected 1874-75, was originally constructed to house The National Training School for Music. It was paid for by Sir Henry Cole’s friend, music lover, and a fellow member of the Society of the Arts, the developer Charles James Freake (1818-1884), who lived in Cromwell Road (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/sir-c-j-freake).

The architect, Lieutenant Cole had little practical architectural experience as is revealed in “The Survey of London Vol.38” (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol38/pp217-219):

“Lieutenant Cole had returned in 1871 from India, where he had been Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey, North-West Provinces, and his previous architectural work seems to have been confined mainly to publications on ancient Indian architecture and archaeology, and the preparation of casts for the Indian section of the South Kensington Museum, which he catalogued.”

Consequently:

“He was not left to design the school on his own. It was evolved in consultation with his father and was subjected to criticism by members of the Science and Art Department. A committee of management was appointed in July 1873 …”

Moody was a protégé of Sir Henry and a teacher at the National Art Training School, a forerunner of the RCA.

Between 1883 and 1896, the building was used by the newly founded Royal College of Music, which moved into its new premises south of the Royal Albert Hall in about 1896. The large variety of musical instruments that have been depicted on the building’s walls reflect the place’s first occupants.  Between 1896 and 1903, it stood empty. Then it was leased to the RCO for 100 years at a ‘peppercorn’ rent. When it was learnt that after expiry of the lease the rent would be increased considerably, the RCO moved into new accommodation in 1991. Currently, at least in 2018, it is owned by an entrepreneur, Robert Tchenguiz.

The Lieutenant, who designed the RCO building, became the Curator of Ancient Monuments in India. His “First Report Of The Curator Of Ancient Monuments In India” was published in 1882 in Simla. This contains some of his views on dealing with archaeological items and sites. For example, he wrote:

“Experience has shown that the keenest investigators have not always had the greatest respect for the maintenance of monuments. Archaeological research has for its object the elucidation of history, and to an enthusiast the temptation to carry off a proof of an unravelled mystery is undoubtedly great. If there were no such things as photographs, casts, and other means of reproducing archaeological evidence, the removal of original stone records might perhaps be justified …”,

and, regarding the now controversial British possession of some famous sculptures in the British Museum:

“Sometimes, indeed, the removal of ancient remains is necessary for safe custody; and in the case of a foreign country, we are not responsible for the preservation in situ of important buildings. We are not answerable for keeping Grecian marbles in Greece; neither were we concerned for the rights of Egypt when Cleopatra’s Needle left Alexandria for the Thames embankment.”

However, regarding India, the Lieutenant wrote:

“In the case, however, of India—a country which is a British possession—the arguments are different. We are, I submit, responsible for Indian monuments, and that they are preserved in situ, when possible. Moreover, as Mr. Eergusson remarks, Indian sculpture is so essentially a part of the architecture with which it is bound, that it is impossible to appreciate it properly without being able to realise correctly the position for which it was originally designed …”

In order to satisfy the needs of museums in Europe, the lieutenant suggested that perfect replicas of artefacts can be made as is well demonstrated by the superb life-like plaster casts that can be seen in the Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which were opened in 1873 and established by Sir Henry Cole and the art collector John Charles Robinson (1824-1913). In general, Sir Henry’s son was against moving historical remains from British possessions. To make his point, he wrote:

“The removal, for instance, of Stonehenge to London would, I imagine, provoke considerable excitement in England, and be condemned by a majority in the scientific and artistic world.”

I am not sure that Lieutenant Cole’s views were shared by the American sculptor and collector of antiques George Grey Barnard (1863-1938), who bought and whole cloisters and other architectural items in France and then had them shipped to New York City. There, they were reassembled and displayed in the superb Cloisters Museum at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Looking at the outside of the former RCO building, I could not detect anything that reflected its architect’s experiences in India except, if I stretch my imagination, for the upper storey windows that faintly recall the projecting windows that can be found on ‘havelis’, for example, in Gujarat and Rajasthan. But maybe I am letting my imagination run a little wild.

ABC and a London school

I WAS HAPPY TO find a reprint of “History and Antiquities of Highgate” by Frederick Prickett, first published in 1842. He wrote in detail about the early history of Highgate School, which was founded in 1565 and which I attended between 1965, when the school celebrated its 400th anniversary, and 1970. While not wanting to reproduce all he wrote, I will present several aspects of his history of the early years of my ‘old school’, which attracted me.

Part of Highgate School

The story of Highgate School begins at Muswell Hill, one and a third miles north of Highgate. In mediaeval times, there was a holy well located there in what was an outpost of the central London Parish of Clerkenwell. Also, there was an image of Our Lady of Muswell, to which many pilgrims were attracted. The chapel associated with it was established in 1112 by the then Bishop of London. Pilgrims travelling from London to Muswell Hill would have had to ascent the steep slope of Highgate Hill. At the summit, there used to be a chapel or hermitage established some time before Robert de Braybrook (died 1404), Bishop of London, gave it to the poor hermit William Lichfield in 1386. Pilgrims could stop at the chapel to say prayers or rest in a small room attached to the chapel.

In 1531, Bishop John Stokesley (c1475-1539), the Roman Catholic Bishop of London and opponent of Lutheranism who christened the future Queen Elizabeth I, granted the hermitage/chapel to William Forte, the last hermit of Highgate. In 1565, the firmly Protestant Bishop Edmund Grindall (c1519-1583), who was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1576 and 1583, granted the chapel and “ houses, edifices, etc., gardens and orchards”,  to the ‘Grammar School’. It is at this point that we need to meet Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565).

According to Prickett, Sir Roger:

“…turned his attention to the law, and so effectually that he became successively reader in Lincoln’s Inn, a bencher of that society, serjeant at law, king’s serjeant, chief baron of the exchequer, and, finally, chief justice of the Kings Bench.”

Disaster struck when Queen Mary (reigned 1553-1558) came to the throne. Sir Roger was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his part in drawing up the will of King Edward VI and for signing Lady Jane Grey’s instrument of succession as queen, and his daughters were disinherited. On his release, he settled in Hornsey, did not resume any of his former governmental positions, and worked as a barrister.

Sir Roger was a self-made success, not having relied on parental assistance. Out of gratitude to God, he:

“… he entertained the desire, participated in by many other pious and distinguished Protestants, of endowing a public grammar school, for the diffusion of knowledge and maintenance of true religion …”

He founded what was to become Highgate School in 1565, shortly before his death that year and left money in his will to support its existence.

In December 1571, the school’s six governors, one of whom was Sir Roger’s son, Jasper Cholmeley Esq., signed the school’s rules, laws, and statutes. There were thirteen of these regulations, the first of which included the words:

“ … there be an honest and learned schoolmaster appointed and placed to teach the scholars coming coming to this free school; which schoolmaster that so shall be placed, be Graduate of good, sober, and honest conversation, and no light person, who shall teach and instruct young children in their ABC and other English books …”

The ‘ABC’ mentioned was not, as I first thought, a simple introduction to the alphabet, but, as Prickett points out:

“… a black letter book, called the ABC with the Catechisme: that is to say, an instruction to be taught and learned of every child before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop…”

Prickett wrote that the “ABC with the Catechisme” was written by King Henry VII and then reprinted in the reign of Edward VI. Ian Green suggests that the text in this booklet first appeared as a section in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and then later separately (https://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/03-3/rev_bru2.html#).

The school is no longer a ‘free school’ and has not been so for a long time. By the 1820s, the school, like many others in England at that time, had declined considerably, both materially and pedagogically. New classrooms and school buildings were built.  Then, in 1824, the statutes were modified considerably. Forty scholars chosen by the governors, and no more than this, from Highgate, Holloway, Hornsey, Finchley, Kentish Town, and other close areas, were to be admitted free of charge. Boys had to be between 8 and 18 years old. Each pupil, on being admitted to the school, had to pay twenty-one shillings (£1.05) towards the library. In addition to the forty scholars, other boys could attend the school for an annual fee of £12 and 12 shillings (£12.60).

How times have changed, Today, the school admits children between the ages of 3 and 18, both boys and girls. Sir Roger de Cholmeley would be pleased to learn that recently the school he founded has been recognised as the winner of ‘The Independent School of the Year 2020’ award. However, he might be shocked to learn that the annual fees for his ‘free school’ are in excess of £21,000

Woodwork or Latin

A FRIEND POSTED A PICTURE of something he had created in wood at school when he was about 14 or 15 years old. It looks to be an extremely competent creation. Seeing this, reminded me of when I had to attend woodwork classes at roughly the same age at my secondary school, Highgate in north London.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Once a week, under the watchful eye of the woodwork teacher, Mr Bowles, I participated in a woodwork class in the school’s specially equipped workshop. Mr Bowles was well-known for saying of the timber he supplied in the class:

“Don’t waste it. You know that wood does not grow on trees.”

Although many years later, I was able to perform complex manual tasks whilst practising dentistry, in my early teens I was not skilled at performing three-dimensional manual exercises. I could draw and paint reasonably well, but model-making and woodwork were not amongst my skills.

I struggled with a tool called the sliding bevel when trying to create dovetail joints, which seemed to be of great importance to Mr Bowles. We were set what he regarded as simple tasks. With great difficulty, I completed two of these. I produced a tea tray, which was next to useless as it was only able to rest on two of its four corners at any one time. The bookshelf which could hold up to eight average thickness paperbacks suffered the same problem. Somehow, I had managed to introduce a twist into it so that its two ends were not in alignment. My parents, for whom it was suggested by our teacher that these would make fine gifts, were totally unimpressed. It would have been dishonest of them to have been otherwise.

My prospects of becoming a skilled carpenter were not looking great. Then, my fate changed suddenly one afternoon. I had just finished the school day and was walking across a polished wooden floor, when I slipped and fell. As I began to get back on my feet, I noticed that my left wrist was bent in an unnatural way and was a bit painful. Having recently completed a first-aid course, during which we were taught to tie complicated bandages instead of learning resuscitation and life support, I realised that I had most probably broken a bone.

I walked over to the caretaker’s home across the school’s quadrangle and found him. He said that he would ring my parents and while we were waiting for them to arrive, he gave me a cup of tea and biscuits. This kind gesture meant that I had to wait several hours before it was safe for me to have a general anaesthetic for setting my arm at the nearby Whittington Hospital.

My arm was encased in plaster, which remained in place for six weeks or longer. This accident was a lucky break for me. First of all, my popularity rating rocketed. Prior to my accident, many of my school fellows believed that I was rather unexciting and unadventurous, not even a ‘nerd’. Seeing my arm in plaster, suggested to these classmates that I must have been up to no good. Maybe, I had fallen out of a tree or had an accident on roller skates or on a bicycle. I kept quiet about the innocuous cause of my fracture and enjoyed experiencing the increase in my ‘street cred’. Even after my plaster was removed, my schoolmates retained their improved opinion of my personality.

Doing woodwork with one arm in plaster was not thought advisable. So, I was excused from the second and final term of woodwork classes. Actually, I doubt that using only one arm would have affected my woodwork much, as it was already appalling with two arms. 

At the end of the school year during which we had to study woodwork, we had to make subject choices. Basically, the choice was to follow the ‘arts’ or the ‘sciences’. The choices were history or physics; geography or chemistry; and … wait for it … Latin … or  … woodwork.  To be honest, the latter was a ‘no brainer’ of a choice. Woodwork did not get my (or my parents’) vote. But, as it is good to be truthful, my Latin was barely better than my woodwork. Although I struggled with Latin at school, it has proved useful especially when studying anatomy and, also, when wandering amongst tombstones. As for woodwork, Mr Bowles might be pleased to learn that over the years I have put up several shelves that were able to carry heavy loads. Now, as you read this, do not get any ideas about getting in touch with me to put up shelving in your homes.

A Jewish academy in north London

WHEN I ENTERED HIGHGATE School at the age of thirteen, daily attendance of religious activity was obligatory. Highgate School was basically a Church of England establishment, but by 1965, 400 years after the school’s founding, it recognised religious diversity to some extent. I was offered the choice of attending ‘chapel’ (Church of England), or ‘Roman Catholic Circle’, or ‘Jewish Circle’. In those, now far-off days, the options of ‘Hindu Circle’ and ‘Islamic Circle’ or even ‘Witches Circle’ were not available.

A few days ago, I received a facsimile edition of “The Northern Heights of London” by the Quaker William Howitt (1792-1879), published in 1869. In a short section on religious communities in Highgate, I read the following:

“Some years ago there was a Jewish academy in Highgate, conducted by Mr Hyman Hurwitz. It was the only thing of the kind in the kingdom, except one on a small scale in Brighton. It had generally about a hundred pupils, sons of the chief families of the Jews; and there was a synagogue for their use. There was also a school for Jewish young ladies, established by Miss Hurwitz, the sister of Mr Hurwitz.”

Seeing this, which was information I had never seen before, I reached for my copy of “A History of the Jews in England” by Albert Montefiore Hyamson (1875-1954), published in 1928. I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand bookshop in Bangalore (India) for a mere 200 Indian Rupees (currently just over £2).  Hyamson, a civil servant and historian, was an ardent advocate of founding a single state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine, an idea that infuriated many Zionists. Regarding Hyman Hurwitz (1770-1844), he wrote in some detail, which I will summarise and add to.

Hurwitz, born in Posen (now ‘Poznan’ in Poland), was a friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who is buried in Highgate, where he died. They lived near each other in Highgate:

“Coleridge and Hurwitz were neighbors and friends living in Highgate, London, England. There are fourteen letters from Coleridge discussing the work of both Hurwitz and Coleridge, including publishing and editing. One letter dated 17 May 1825 from Coleridge encloses a note from his nephew John Taylor Coleridge regarding publication of Hurtwitz’s work through Mr. Murray. A theoretical discussion on the history of language by Coleridge is the subject of the 16 September 1829 letter. The correspondence also includes a recommendation from Coleridge to Leonard Horner regarding Hurwitz’s position as Hebrew professor at the new University College, London, dated 27 November 1827.” (https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_9954204173503681).

 Hurwitz opened The Highgate Academy, a higher school for Jewish boys, in about 1799. Later, on the recommendation of Coleridge, he was appointed the first Professor of Hebrew at University College (London), now UCL, which was founded as a university for Jews, atheists, dissenters, and women, in 1826. Hurwitz’s publications included “Introduction to Hebrew Grammar” (1835), which was the standard grammar for English Jews for many years, and “Hebrew Tales” (1826) as well as “Vindicia Hebraica” (1820).  

The school in Highgate was housed in Church House, which I will discuss soon. In 1821, Hurwitz extended the lease on these premises for another seventeen years. Soon after this, he handed over the direction of his school to his assistant Leopold Neumegen (1787-1875), who moved from Highgate to Kew in 1840, where he lived in Gloucester House, and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Fulham. In 1821 or 1822, Hurwitz moved his home from Highgate to Grenada Cottage in the Old Kent Road (“Marginalia: Camden to Hutton”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, publ. by Princeton University Press: 1980).

Chris Rubinstein wrote (www.friendsofcoleridge.com/MembersOnly/CB24/12%20CB%2024%20Rubinstein.pdf) that Coleridge’s friendship with Hurwitz continued after Hyman left Highgate:

“Coleridge described him as the Luther of Judaism. His eulogies of Hurwitz in his Notebooks and letters were copious from 1816 onwards. The two co-operated in the field of Hebrew learning, each of use to the other as they both well knew. Coleridge relied on Hurwitz for much of his understanding of meanings in the Old Testament, as Hurwitz was authoritative regarding the subtleties of Hebrew, ‘the science of words’ Coleridge’s own phrase. Without his help Coleridge’s vast erudition would have been seriously diminished. And he helped Hurwitz with publication of a least two of his books, one a study of the Hebrew Language, then innovative though ultimately superseded, and the other Hebrew Tales, a best-seller in the 19th century. Coleridge himself contributed three of its many insightful and telling anecdotes. Each of them used the other’s knowledge openly and with attribution.”

So much for the close relationship between a famous poet and a now obscure Jewish scholar. Let us return to Church House in Highgate. Church House is currently number 10 South Grove, next door to the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, in the heart of Highgate Village. The land on which it stands was once owned by Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565), who founded Highgate School in 1565, which I attended between 1965 and 1970. The present building with its red brick façade was built in the early 18th century.

In 1759, the house came into the possession of Sir John Hawkins (1719-1789), a surveyor and lawyer. Following his death, the house was left to his wife, and then to his son, John Sidney Hawkins, who died in 1842.  It was from this man that Hurwitz leased Church House at first between 1800 and 1820, and then for a further 17 years as already mentioned (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol17/pt1/pp32-38).

Well, I did not know anything about Hurwitz and his Highgate Jewish school when I was at the older educational establishment not many yards away. I used to pass Church House every Thursday morning when those, including me, who had opted for Chapel rather than Jewish Circle or Roman Catholic Circle, attended a morning service at the Victorian Gothic Church of St Michael not far from it.

Hurwitz was born in what was Prussia a couple of decades before my great-great grandfather Dr Nathan Ginsberg (1814-1890), who was born in the Prussian city of Breslau (now ‘Wrocław’ in Poland). Both men were intellectual giants. Neither of them would have been able to teach in German universities without first converting to Christianity. Both of them founded schools for Jewish children, Hyman in London, and Nathan in the Prussian city of Beuthen (now ‘Bytom’, in Poland). Nathan, my ancestor, started his school because he was unwilling to be baptised in order to be eligible to accept the professorships he was offered in Germany. Hyman established his school in London before Jews were able to teach in English Universities, but fortunately for him the establishment of University College with its willingness to accept Jewish people, allowed him to become a professor. I wonder whether my forefather, Nathan,  ever considered trying to become a university teacher at the university in London that opened when he was only twelve years old and about which he must surely have been aware as he grew older.

Meeting the professor

AMONGST THE COURSES on offer in the third year in the Physiology Department at University  College London Lon, there was one with the mysterious title of ‘Connective Tissue’. I went to see our tutor Dr Roger Woledge, a specialist in muscle physiology, and asked him about this. He told me that it had been on offer for years, but no one had ever asked to take it. He suggested that I enrol in it so that it would be held for the first time ever, and at the very least he would discover what was on offer. I agreed, and he sent me to the office of Prof Robert Harkness to let him know that I was interested in finding out about his course.

As soon as I entered Robert’s cluttered office, I knew that I would enjoy studying whatever was on offer. There was barely any, if any, free space on the Prof’s huge desk. The walls of the office were crowded with books, runs of journals, pictures, old engravings, and even framed cartoons. There was a small paper notice stuck on the glass door of one cupboard. It was typical of Robert’s sense of humour and his take on common sense.

 His rotating office chair looked antique, rather like something you might expect to see in a bank manager’s office in the old Wild West. There was a glass fronted wooden cabinet filled with books and other objects. On the floor, there was a variety of things including polished wooden microscope cases. I was asked to close the door behind me quickly because he told me that his life would not have been worth living if the new black kitten, which had just emerged from a cupboard, was allowed to escape from the office. He and his wife, Margaret. would be taking it home that evening.

I imagine that Robert must have told me something about his Connective Tissue course whilst I stroked his affectionate young cat, but I do not remember what. All I can recall is that by the end of our brief but friendly interview, I had been enrolled on his course. When I reported this to Dr Woledge, he was delighted. The course was not to be held until well into the academic year, and, by the time it commenced, its participants included G Clough, who is now a professor at a major University, an MSc. Student, and me.

Some months later as I neared the date of graduation, I began investigating the possibility of starting a PhD and began visiting various people who were potential supervisors. While I was walking beside the iron railings enclosing the gardens of Lincolns Inn Fields after just having had two interviews that I had not enjoyed, I had a revelatory moment. It dawned on me that however prestigious a laboratory or potential doctoral supervisor might be, I would have to get on with him or her as well as his or her team of co-workers. I would be spending at least 3 years in their company. It was important, at least for me, that I should feel at ease with whomever I was to collaborate. If I did not, as I had just felt during the recent interviews, I knew that I would not be able to flourish as a doctoral student. Since that day, I have always asked myself whether I would feel comfortable working with whoever was interviewing me when applying for a post. Only once, I did not follow this rule, and then I ended up in a job that did not suit me at all.

On the next day, I visited Robert Harkness in his office.  As I entered and surveyed his undoubtedly individual office, I decided that whatever project that he had to offer would suit me as it would give me the chance to work in the genial company of Robert, Margaret, and their friendly team. He told me that he would be able to get hold of a Medical research Council (‘MRC’) grant for me, providing that I thought of an interesting topic related to connective tissue. He was not going to tell me what to research – I had to make that decision.

Then all of a sudden, he opened one of the leather-bound volumes that contained reprints of his published papers, and showed me a graph published in a paper that he had written for the prestigious Journal of Physiology. I forget what the graph illustrated but recall that it was divided into sections by several vertical dotted lines. He explained to me that he always had a great deal of trouble from the editors of the Journal. They were forever returning the manuscripts of the paper that he submitted to them, wanting him to make minor modifications and thus delaying publication.  He asked me to examine the vertical lines with a magnifying glass, and then I saw that they were made up of dots and dashes, which looked like Morse code. He asked me whether I was able to decipher Morse code. I told him that I could not. Gleefully, he translated the dots and dashes which he had drawn on the published graph and revealed that they spelt out the words ‘drat those flies’ repeatedly along the length of the lines. They had not been noticed by the journal’s fussy editors and were Robert’s revenge for their pernickety interferences.

Not only did I complete my PhD under the supervision of Prof Harkness, but also, I established a close relationship with him and his family. This friendship with the family, which my wife and I value greatly, has endured long since the deaths of the Prof and his wife.

Examining the past

ON 13th AUGUST 2020, MANY YOUNGSTERS in England received the results of the state’s university admission examinations. This year of plague and social distancing, 2020, the results have not been determined by the students themselves writing examination papers but by a clumsy, somewhat arbitrary, algorithm that takes various factors other than a student’s own ability into account. Things were quite different last year and back in 1970 when I sat the A-Level examinations required for admission to university.

BLOG EXAM

Back then, as now, universities offered places to potential students subject to achieving or exceeding certain grades at A-Level. The place that was my first choice amongst the six universities I chose was University College London (‘UCL’). In ‘my time’, UCL invited potential students for extensive interviewing. I was invited to spend a whole day at the Physiology Department. During that day, I was interviewed at least three times by different people and met both members of the academic staff as well as students already embarked on their courses of study.

Several days later, I received a letter from UCL offering me a place on the BSc course providing I achieved three E grades at A-Level. The top grade at A-Level was A, the lowest pass grade was E. At first, I was not sure whether to be pleased that all I needed was just to pass my three A-Level examinations. Was that the best that they thought I could manage? No, it was not. In those days, if UCL liked a candidate at interview, they took the strain off the candidate by not expecting high grades. Thee Es was normal for most subjects except medicine and dentistry when 3 Cs were required.  These days, candidates to places like UCL would be expected to get 3 A grades or something awfully close to this. Well, having been offered a place subject to my attaining at least 3 E grades and being neurotic by nature, I began to worry. What if I could not manage the three Es?

I became obsessed by examination papers to such an extent that I used to use my father’s typewriter to compose examination questions that I hoped would never appear in front of me in the examination hall. Whether or not composing these impossible questions was a kind of self-therapy or simply an opportunity to enjoy using the typewriter, I cannot tell, but it did me no harm. At the very least, It gave me short breaks in what for me was long hours trying to understand what I was studying.

My three A-Level subjects were Biology, Physical Science (a mixture of chemistry and physics), and mathematics. I found that all of them were most interesting and not too taxing. When I was at school, it was possible to opt to attempt supplementary papers in the subjects chosen for A-Level. These papers were known as ‘S-Levels’ and were designed to test a candidate’s deeper understanding of a subject. I chose to do S-Level papers in biology and mathematics. The biology S-Level paper was enjoyable. I was able to show off what I had learnt from reading around the subject. One of the questions was something to do with discussing the origins of life on earth. Well, in addition to various then current theories I decided to include what is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament. I passed that S-Level. The mathematics S-Level paper was a quite different ‘cup of tea’. Even though I had attended special classes to learn the mathematics that was required, I was stumped. For the first 30 minutes of the three-hour paper, I just stared at the questions. There was not one that I could even begin to tackle. So, after 20 minutes, I walked out of the examination room, leaving a blank script on my desk.

I can remember where I was when I received the A-Level results in August 1970. I was in Italy with my parents and sister on one of our annual visits to that country. We were in Venice, staying, as we always did, at the Pensione La Calcina, where many decades earlier the eminent John Ruskin(1819-1900) used to reside when visiting the island. The establishment’s façade is on the Fondamente Zattere across the water (of the Giudecca Canal) from the famous Santissimo Redentore church (completed 1592) designed by the architect Andrea Palladio.

We had just eaten lunch at the pensione and were taking the air on the waterfront prior to retiring indoors for a siesta when Signorina Steiner, the manageress, came rushing up to us with a telegram. My parents opened it to discover that my aunt in London had sent my A-Level results, which to my great relief were way in excess of the minimum required to gain admission to UCL.

If I had not managed to attain even 3 E grades, I would certainly not have expected to be admitted to any university. I would have had to accept the result and might well have decided to re-sit the examinations a few months later. As far as I am aware, in my day, there was no appealing to have papers re-marked as has become normal in the last twenty or thirty years. During recent times, it is not unusual for someone who is not satisfied with a grade to have his or her examination papers re-marked. Often, the revised grade is higher than the original, but things can go less favourably for the candidate.

This year, when young people have not been able to attend school since March and have not been awarded A-Level grades based on final papers written under strict examination  conditions, they have been awarded grades based largely on statistics (generated by what appears to be a poorly conceived algorithm) rather than individual ability. Many students have been awarded grades well below what they and their teachers expected. Thank heavens that there are appeal procedures in place.

I remember how much of a nail-biting experience it was waiting for my A-Level results back in 1970. This year, it was far worse for candidates. Not only did they not know on what basis their grades would be estimated, but also many of them will have to remain anxious for even longer whilst their appeals are being considered.

History is bunk

“HISTORY IS BUNK”. So, said Henry Ford in 1916. Although he meant something different to what I understood by those words, I feel that they apply very well to the history lessons that I had to suffer at school until I was about 14 years old. It was not that I had no interest in history when I was a child but the way it was taught at the schools, which I attended, put me off studying the subject any longer than I needed.

bunk 0

Gwyneth K

At the Hall School in Swiss Cottage, which I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, history was one of the subjects that had to be learnt in order to pass the Common Entrance examination that would admit me to a private secondary school. Each school year, we began British history with the arrival of the Romans in Britain and worked through the centuries until we reached the end of the 19th century. The emphasis was on chronology of events rather than what happened, and why it did, and, what were its consequences. We were being trained to answer idiotic examination questions such as:

“Put the following in chronological order: Archbishop Laud, the Corn Laws, Lady Jane Grey, Plassey”

To know their dates was important. To understand their roles in the history of Britain or elsewhere seemed irrelevant. You are probably beginning to get the idea of why history taught like this failed to capture my interest.

Something unpardonable about the teaching of history at the Hall was that although we had to learn the dates of important battles that the British fought overseas, we had no idea of their significance. It was like learning about a series of football or other sporting results. For example, it was long after leaving the school that I began to understand why our ‘team’ was sent abroad to fight Napoleon. It was not simply to notch up yet another British victory at, say, Waterloo, which is what I was led to believe at the Hall, but to combat a force that was invading most of Europe. The same is true of British victories in India and North America. It was vaguely satisfying to know that we had ‘scored’ well at Arcot, Plassey, and Quebec, but I was not aware that the reasons for these battles were ever explained to us.

Well, with the help of my mother, who spent many hours of my spare time cramming the historical facts into my head, I was successful at the Common Entrance examination and gained admission to Highgate School. As far as history was concerned, things did not improve at my new school. Our class was taught by the eminent historian AW Palmer, who eventually gave up teaching to devote his time to writing books on a variety of historical subjects, many of which I now find interesting. However, it was our fate to have to study the history of the USA. We had a textbook with an orange cover, whose title and author I have long forgotten. Neither this nor Mr Palmer managed to excite in me any interest in the undoubtedly exciting history of the USA. So, when we were given the choice of dropping either physics or history, I abandoned the latter. In my time at Highgate, history was alternative to physics, geography to chemistry, and Latin to woodwork. I chose chemistry and Latin in addition to physics.

When I was about 16, I used to walk from our family home to Finchley to visit my father’s colleague Kurt Klappholz and his wife Gwyneth. I was fond of them as well as their two children, one of whom was named after me. Gwyneth taught history at a local school and quickly realised that although I was not taking her subject at school, I was, in fact, quite interested in it. She recommended that I read a series of books written by the historian Alistair Horne. He wrote history in such a way that reading it was as enjoyable as reading a gripping novel. Everything he included in his narratives was reliably sourced. His books are both scholarly and engrossing. Through reading these books and discussions with Gwyneth, my interest in history grew and grew. I am eternally grateful to her for this.

If, God forbid, I should ever decide to study for another degree, I would head for a course in modern history. Far from being ‘bunk’, history is most important. As someone said to me recently:

“The future is a plant that grows in the soil of the past.”

And in the words of the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), who influenced Bertrand Russell among others:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 I hope that we can learn from the past (by studying history) and avoid repeating the mistakes, which were made then, in the future. But maybe, I am being a little bit over-optimistic.

 

 

Wake up call

RETIREMENT OFFERS MANY PLEASURES. One of these is waking up in the morning at whatever time one wishes. I do not want to sound slothful but waking up early rarely appeals to me.

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Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

While I was undertaking research for my PhD in physiology at University College London (‘UCL’), there were no daily time constraints. I could turn up at the laboratory whenever I felt like it and leave whenever I wanted. My timings were entirely up to me. I used to arrive at UCL at about 10 in the morning. At 11 o’clock, I went upstairs for coffee and biscuits in the Starling Room (a departmental meeting place for post-graduates and academic staff; named in honour of the physiologist Ernest Starling). By noon, I had returned to the lab. However, there was not much time to do anything because I liked to have lunch at just before 1 pm. And, after lunch, I often sat in the Ladies Common Room, chatting with Margaret, my supervisor’s wife who also worked in the lab. You can be sure that we never discussed scientific matters over our cups of sub-standard institutional coffee.

By just after 2 pm, I began getting down to work, setting up an experiment. However, everything stopped at 4 pm, when one of us would put the kettle on to boil, the heat being supplied by a gas flame from a Bunsen burner. Tea and biscuits involved me spending another hour chatting, mainly with Margaret. The other PhD students and workers in our lab took tea but were not distracted from their work. At 5 pm Margaret and my PhD supervisor, Robert, set off homewards, followed soon after by the rest of the lab. Between 5 and about 8.30 pm (and on some weekend days) is when I managed to do some ‘solid’ work. Miraculously with this lackadaisical schedule, I managed to do sufficient experimental research to be awarded a doctorate. Then, my life changed dramatically.

Soon after becoming ‘Dr Yamey’, I enrolled in the Dental School of UCL to train to become a dental surgeon (‘dentist’). Compared to my BSc and the PhD studies, this course leading to a Batchelor of Dental Surgery degree was far more demanding of my time. Five days a week, my presence was required at the Dental School at 9 am sharp. The day, which included a lunch break and two brief coffee breaks (if you were lucky), ended at about 5 pm. This seemed to me as bad as being sent back to junior school.

At first, I found this rigorous routine difficult after the relatively laxer times I had enjoyed during my BSc and PhD courses. I remember waking up at 7.00 am on dark autumn mornings and looking out of my bedroom window to see if there were lights on in any of my neighbours’ windows. Often, there were none. To arrive at the hospital by nine in the morning, I had to board the Underground at the peak of the morning rush hour. The tube trains were always crowded, standing room only, at that time. However, in those days in the late 1970s each train had two carriages in which smoking was allowed. Because many people were going off smoking or did not smoke, these carriages always had plenty of empty seats when they pulled into my station, Golders Green. Ignorant of secondary smoking, as I was then, I always travelled comfortably in the smelly, smoke filled carriages. However, by the time I had travelled the thirty minutes to Warren Street, I was always in great need of a quick coffee in the Dental Hospital’s basement canteen before classes began. After qualifying, the early morning routine continued. It lasted for thirty-five years until, at last, I retired.

Waking early in the morning was not confined to dental studies and practice. It is a feature of life that I have got used to in India. Many people in India wake early to take advantage of the cooler early hours of the day. I learned this very soon after arriving in Bangalore during my first visit to India in 1994. For the first few weeks, my wife and I stayed in my in-law’s home. On the second or third morning of our stay, I woke up in darkness. I could hear people rushing about in the house. I woke up my wife and said that I thought that the house was being burgled or attacked. She reassured me that all was okay and told me that the family liked to rise early. It was not quite 5 am. Day after day, my father-in-law tried to encourage me to join him on his early morning walk, to see the sun rise. Eventually, I gave in and we walked around a nearby open space in semi-darkness. It was only when we had returned to the house that we noticed the sun was beginning to rise.

Since those early days in India, I have just about got used to getting up incredibly early if there is a good reason to do so. Driving out of a city as large as Bangalore is one of these reasons. Before 7 am, there is hardly any traffic on the roads, which are usually choc-a-bloc during working hours. Flights to London are another good reason. They often leave India at early hours of the morning so that they can land in Western Europe at an hour that will not disturb those asleep in the UK, where late night/early morning passenger flights are forbidden. Although I can see the benefits of doing things early in the morning in India, I still miss being permitted to sleep until my built-in biological clock gives me its wake-up call. And for those of you who are by now thinking that sleep is all important to me, let me tell you that of late, despite not having any work or travel obligations, that clock of mine is waking me up much earlier than it used to years ago.

Books of choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where there is smoke, there is fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please return it.”

To which ‘J’ snapped:

“Don’t be so Jewish, Adam”

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

“That was not a nice thing to say.”

I was pleased because I  was somewhat lost for words.

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

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

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

Remembering the pencil incident, I told her immediately:

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

My supervisor’s wife turned to me and murmured:

“Well said.”

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

‘J’ abandoned her PhD a few weeks later.

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