Russian in Russell Square

RUSSELL SQUARE IN London’s Bloomsbury was laid out in 1804 following the demolition of Bedford House. Russell was the surname of the Dukes and Earls of Bedford. Its garden is a pleasant place to relax and contains fountains as well as a lovely café where Italian food is available. The garden was redesigned in 200-2001 by Camden Council, but retains features of the layout of the original garden created by Humphrey Repton (1752-1818) in about 1801.  Visitors to the square cannot but help noticing a huge, flamboyant hotel facing its eastern side. This is the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel, which was known as the ‘Russell Hotel’ until 2018.

The hotel faced with terracotta coloured stone, which bears the date 1898 on its exuberant façade, was opened in 1900. It was designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll (1850-1929), who designed the dining room on the ill-fated liner, ‘The Titanic’. His design for the building was inspired by the Château de Madrid near Paris (France). The hotel is a remarkably eye-catching building covered with decorative features. A terrace framed by arches and slender pillars runs around the first floor of the edifice. This terrace is decorated by a series of roundish three-dimensional bas-relief coats-of-arms that are best seen with either binoculars or through the zoom lens of a camera. These have caught my eye on many occasions as some of them contain crests that include the mythical/heraldic double-headed eagle, a ‘creature’ that interests me greatly.

The coats-of-arms are of countries that existed in 1898. The double-headed eagle crests contain images of St George slaying a dragon. This suggests to me that these crests represent Imperial Russia rather than Austria-Hungary.  I was able to identify some of the other crests, such as those of the Kingdom of Italy, Portugal, USA, and France. Some of the others represent countries that I am not able to identify.

In 1994, the hotel hosted a meeting that led to the formation of the Russell Group of research universities. More recently, in late 2011, I attended a reunion dinner of alumni of the now defunct University College Hospital Dental School. It was the thirtieth anniversary of my class’s graduation. My memories of the hotel’s interior were of somewhat gloomy but impressive public rooms with much dark marble or similar stonework. The food served at the costly (overpriced) reunion dinner was unremarkable. What struck me was how much some of my fellow students, who were younger than me, had aged. What did not stroke me until some years after that evening was that the exterior of the building which I had entered was studded with double-headed eagles.

Unlike flags that can be easily removed or changed according to what happens to countries, the bas-relief crests on the hotel cannot be changed so easily without damaging the buildings structure. So the Kimpton Fitzroy, once the Russell, bears a curious history of nations some of which have changed considerably since 1898. What amuses me is that the Russian double-headed eagle, which gave way to the hammer and sickle in 1917, survived the Russian Revolution and is now Russia’s symbol once more. It is lucky that the hotel’s management did not attempt to remove it.

Around London’s Euston Station

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.

BLOG TAGORE

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.

Hummus in Hampi (south India)

MANY PEOPLE WILL HAVE EATEN HUMMUS, the chickpea-based dip, but far fewer will be familiar with Hampi, which is the location of an extensive archaeological site in the south Indian state of Karnataka. The village of Hampi contains the fantastic ruins of what was once one of the world’s greatest cities, rivalling Ancient Rome and second in size to Beijing, the world’s largest city in the 16th century. The metropolis, known as ‘Vijayanagara’, now in ruins, was the fabulously prosperous capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, which thrived between about 1336 AD and 1565 AD, when it was defeated by a group of Moslem sultanates. After this, the city began to decay, leaving the spectacular ruins that can be explored by visitors today.

BLOG HAMP 1

The ruins of Vijayanagara lie mainly on one side of the River Tungabadra. They are distributed over a large rocky area rich in huge boulders – almost a lunar landscape. We first visited Hampi in about 1997, when there were relatively few tourists clambering amongst the ruins of temples, palaces, stepwells, and miscellaneous other buildings. Since then, we have visited the place another four times. On each successive visit, we have noticed an increase in fellow visitors, both Indians and foreigners. With the increased visitor footfall, there has been ever growing deterioration and damage to the ruins. This is especially noticeable at the Vitthala Temple. It was intact in 1997, but when we last visited a few years ago, it was in a miserable state, with plenty of damaged carvings and being propped up by ugly pillars of grey concrete blocks. Sad as this is, this is not what I want to dwell on in this piece.

India has become a popular destination for Israelis, particularly the younger ones. India is probably a complete contrast to Israel, which I have never visited. In brief, to Israelis India must seem far more ‘laid back’ than their highly organised country. Many Israeli visitors to India visit Hampi to ‘chill out’ and relax.

During one of our stays in Hampi, we took a walk along one bank of the River Tungabadra. We came across a couple of riverside eateries advertising that they served Israeli food. As it was near lunchtime and our daughter and I love hummus, we entered one of these establishments, whose menu included the chickpea paste that we enjoy so much. Also, I was curious to try hummus in India. It was then not a food item I was expecting to see on sale a few years ago. Now, it is becoming available in select food stores such as branches of the upmarket chain Nature’s Basket.

We sat down on a rickety looking terrace overlooking the river and, with mouths watering, and ordered a portion of hummus with pitta bread. It took quite a while to arrive as the hummus was made fresh whilst we waited. When it arrived, the pitta looked remarkably similar to an Indian chapati, rather than an Arabic or Turkish pitta. As for the hummus, this was disappointing to say the least. Its colour was acceptable, but its texture resembled lumpy rice pudding rather than even the coarsest hummus. As for the taste, there was little to report: it was unseasoned and tasteless. I dread to think  what a direct Israeli guest would have made of, or said about, the hummus we were served at Hampi. I had not the heart to send it back to the charming locals who had produced it, but neither was I hungry enough to finish it.

DINNER WITH THE NIZAM

During a recent visit to the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad (India), I saw a sepia photograph taken at a dinner party held by the ruling Nizam during the era when India was part of the British Empire.

Some of diners were Indian and others sitting beside them at the table were Europeans, most probably British. All of them have their faces turned towards the camera, but what was going through their minds?

The British at the table, who were probably high ranking colonial officials, and their wives probably believed, as many Europeans did in the past, that they were superior to the Indians. They were most probably outwardly polite to their Indian hosts and fellow diners, but inwardly contemptuous.

The Indians at the table were probably also outwardly civil to their fellow European diners because not only are Indians hospitable by nature but also they knew that the high positions they held in the State of Hyderabad were dependent on being respectful and loyal to the British. However, inwardly I am sure that they regarded the British as inferiors, worthy only of contempt. They felt, I imagine, an innate sense of superiority over their European guests, who unlike them were not members of a royal house.

I wonder whether, apart from the superior British military ability, it was this mutual contempt that ensured an albeit uneasy harmony between the British imperialists and the royal families that ruled the princely states that made up a sizeable portion of the British Indian Empire.

A Chinese gong in Bangalore

The Bangalore Club, until 1947 a British officers’ club (the Bangalore United Services Club), was founded in 1868.

gong

At the entrance to the dining hall, there stands a heavy metal Chinese gong shaped like a ship’s anchor. It is held in a wooden frame surmounted by carved wooden dragons. On each of its flat surfaces, there are Chinese pictograms (writing characters).  My friend Pamela Miu has kindly translated these Chinese pictograms. What she tells me gives some clues as to the history of the gong, which I have been seeing regularly for 25 years.

On one side, the inscription reads that the gong once  belonged to the imperial navy school of the late Qing dynasty’s Beiyang Fleet, dating the object to the late 19th century.

The other side of the gong includes a date. This refers to the Qing Dynasty period. It mentions the the gong’s date is October in the 21st year of the reign of the Guangxu Emperor, who ruled 1875-1908. This dates the gong to 1897.

How the gong reached Bangalore from the Chinese naval school is a mystery at present. Apparently, the Beiyang Fleet suffered many defeats. Also, the British, along with seven other nations, fought the Chinese and looted many treasures from China. Tjis gong might well be be part of the loot. Finally, Pamela mentioned that when the British took (leased) Hong Kong in 1898, many of its police force were brought over from India.

So, there is a bit of the history of a dinner gong, which I have never seen used.

 

Many thanks to Pamela Miu