AFTER EATING DELICIOUS KEBABS and a wonderful mutton biryani at Raavi Kebab, a Pakistani restaurant in Drummond Street close to Euston Station, we took a short post-prandial stroll around the area, a part of London that is home to University College London (‘UCL’), where my wife and I did our first degrees and we first met.
The west part of Drummond Street has become a desolate building site because of the works being undertaken to construct the HS2 railway. A building covered in tiles the colour of clotted blood stands in the midst of the building works. It looks like some of the entrances to older London Underground stations. It is located on the corner of Drummond and Melton Streets. It was the original entrance (opened between 1907 and 1914) to Euston station of the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, now part of the Northern Line, which is now accessed from within Euston railway station. The latter was built in the 1960s on the site of the demolished Euston Station (with its impressive Doric arch) built in the 19th century.
When the old Euston Station existed, Drummond Street stretched further east than it does today. It ran past the southern façade of the 19th century station and across the present Eversholt Street, ending at Churchway (not far from the current British Library).
All that remains of what must have been a splendid old station is a statue of the railway engineer Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) and two pavilions on Euston Road. These formed part of the entrance to the old station’s forecourt. Built of Portland stone in about 1870, they were designed by JB Stansby. The corners of these two buildings bear the names of the stations that were served by trains from Euston Station. Interestingly, these include cities such as Cork and Dublin, which are no longer within the United Kingdom. When the pavilions were constructed, the whole of Ireland was under British rule.
Strolling along Gordon Street, we passed the Ingold Chemistry building, part of UCL, where my wife and I spent many happy hours trying to synthesize various organic compounds, often ending up with tiny granules of non-descript materials, which might have been bits of broken glass rather than the desired product. Across the street, where there had once been an open-air entrance to the main campus of UCL there is a new building, glass-fronted at street level. Through the glass, we could see the mummified, clothed remains of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in a glass container, instead of the old wooden one in which he used to be housed. Bentham was strongly associated with the foundation of UCL in 1826.
As I stared at Bentham, an opponent of slavery, through the windows of the new building, I wondered what his views were, if any, on colonialism in India. Some of Bentham’s followers, such as John Stuart Mill, had been employees of the East India Company. Mill and Bentham, were not opponents of British colonialism, but did criticise it.
It was almost dark when we walked into the garden of Gordon Square, a place overlooked by the homes of some members of the famous Bloomsbury Group, a set of British intellectuals and artists, which thrived during the first half of the 20th century. We discovered something that had not been present when we last visited the square some years ago. This is a bust of the Bengali genius Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Created by Shenda Amery, it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 2011, seventy years after Tagore’s death and one hundred and fifty years after his birth.
Tagore coined the name ‘Mahatma’ for the Indian Nationalist and freedom fighter MK Gandhi and also composed (in 1911) both the words and music of the Indian national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”. The eminent historian Ramchandra Guha explains in his “Makers of Modern India” that:
“Tagore was a patriot without quite being a nationalist. He was no apologist for colonial rule… he was dismayed by the xenophobic tendencies of the populist edge of the Indian nationalist movement. He thought that India had much to learn from other cultures, including (but not restricted to) the West.”
Following the horrendous massacre of innocent Indians by soldiers under the command of the British at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, he returned his knighthood to King George V.
Tagore was sceptical about ‘non-cooperation’ as advocated, for example by Gandhi. He was also worried about the concept of nationalism as applied to India. In his book “Nationalism”, published in 1917, he wrote:
“When our nationalists talk about ideals they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes. Have we an instance in the whole world where a people who are not allowed to mingle their blood shed their blood for one another except by coercion or for mercenary purposes? And can we ever hope that these moral barriers against our race amalgamation will not stand in the way of our political unity?”
Tagore’s views on Indian independence were not as clear cut as many of the other advocates of freeing India from British rule, such as Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Vinayak Savarkar. He was essentially in favour of it but as Radha Chakravarty wrote in “The Essential Tagore”:
“For Tagore, the view of nationalism and patriotism that the movement was taking on was too narrow. He disengaged with the movement but remained expressive on the issue of independence through his art and writings … Fundamental to his belief was that nationalism could not rise above humanity…”
We left Tagore as his bust began to become less visible in the deepening gloaming and walked along Torrington Place past Waterstones bookshop that is housed in the pinnacle-rich building that once housed Dillons, the university bookshop. Almost opposite the north eastern corner of the bookshop, a private roadway leads into the UCL campus and under a circular archway. This was a familiar landmark for us when we were undergraduate students because it allows the roadway to pass beneath the building that housed ‘our’ Department of Physiology. Being August and in the midst of both the university holidays and the coronavirus pandemic, this normally busy roadway was empty.
We walked north along the east side of Gower Street passing a door marked ‘Anatomy’. This used to be an entrance to the Physiology Department, where I spent six years studying. During the last three of these, I used to have a key to the door so that I could let myself in whenever I wanted to do laboratory work on my PhD project. In those far-off days, security was far laxer than it is nowadays.
After passing the main entrance to UCL, we reached the corner of Gower Street and Gower Place. This building, now a part of UCL, used to house the medical bookshop, HK Lewis & Co Ltd. This, according to a plaque on the wall, was founded in 1844 in Gower Street, soon after UCL’s medical school was established in 1834. HK Lewis had a useful second-hand department, where I bought a few of my textbooks at prices not much lower than they would have been if they had been new.
We returned to our car parked in Drummond Street. Our favourite Asian grocery and Ambala’s sweet shop were already closed for the day. Raavi Kebab, a haven for carnivores, and its neighbour, the long-established Diwana Bhel Poori House, a haven for vegetarians, were still serving diners. These restaurants and several others in the street serving foods from the Indian subcontinent are run by folk whose ancestors were subjects of the British Empire prior to 1947. The street is a fine example of the idea suggested by the French colonial writer Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), namely, that eventually the colonial chickens come home to roost. And, thank goodness they have because they help to give London the vibrancy that makes it such a great city.