How I avoided an awful fate

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE IS A CITY which I have visited often since I was a child. My first recollection of the place was visiting Gonville and Caius College to meet my father’s long-term collaborator, the Hungarian born economist Peter Bauer (1915-2002). Later, after 1965, during my childhood and adolescence, we used to visit Cambridge to spend time with my father’s friend from his student days in Cape Town (South Africa), the social scientist Cyril Sofer (died 1974) and his wife Elaine. At first, I used to visit them with my family and when I was in my teens, I used to stay with them in their large Victorian house near Selwyn College. It was Elaine, who first introduced me to the joys of the drink known as ‘Bloody Mary’.Further travels to Cambridge followed when a childhood friend of mine attended Clare College to study for his bachelor’s degree. Through him, I met his good friend, now a well-known writer, Matthew Parris.

Many more visits to Cambridge followed my graduation at University College London in 1973. Although I remained in London to study for a higher degree, some of those who had graduated with me moved to Cambridge to pursue further studies. Three out of the nine of us, who graduated in physiology in 1973, embarked on doctoral theses in the city’s university. One of these was Lopa, who is now my wife. While she was at Cambridge, we were still ‘just good friends’, as the saying goes.

On one of my visits to see Lopa, I stayed in a house in Owlstone Road, which is south of the historic centre of Cambridge. A mattress was set up for me in a ground floor room with a street facing window. The room had been recently occupied by a female student, who had moved elsewhere. This sojourn in the city was during the time when the so-called Cambridge Rapist was assaulting young women, always within their homes, at an alarming rate. He carried out his attacks between October 1974 and April the following year.

Apparently, he followed potential victims to their homes and noted down their addresses in a notebook.The rapist carried out his first rape on the 18th of October 1974. Then another on the first of November, and yet again on the 13th of that month (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Samuel_Cook). The latter was carried out within Homerton College, now a part of Cambridge University. He struck again on the 13th of February 1975, and then, unsuccessfully, on the 5th of May.

I slept soundly at Owlstone Road when I was staying there for a night or two. One morning, I woke up and saw police vehicles out in the road. It was the 8th of December 1974 and the rapist had raped a woman in the house next door to where I was staying, having broken into its ground floor room, which mirrored that in which I was sleeping. What none of us knew until after the perpetrator, Peter Samuel Cook, was eventually caught during his attack on Owlstone Croft’s nurses’ hostel in June 1975, was that the villain had listed the house in which Lopa was living with some other young ladies in his notebook of potential targets. The young lady who had occupied the room where I spent a couple of nights was in the rapist’s list of future victims.

Cook, who had knifed at least one of his victims, was a violent person and might have been awfully annoyed with me had he broken into the room where I was sleeping and found me, a man, instead of one of his intended female targets. Subsequent visits to the wonderful city of Cambridge have not, I am pleased to relate, been so potentially hazardous. Cook was jailed for life and died in Winchester Prison in 2004.

Accidentally killed

BROMPTON CEMETERY IS in west London. Richly populated with memorials to the dead, it is a remarkably lively place on a sunny day, being filled with walkers, cyclists, and picnickers. The bodies of people from all walks of life and from many nations lie at rest beneath the many stones in the cemetery, which was first opened in 1840. During our recent visit, I spotted two memorials to men with a military career. Each of them was particularly eye-catching.

The first of these is a pink granite slab resting on stone cannon balls made of grey granite. A pile of similar canon balls is arranged like a pyramid on top of the stone. I felt that it is a particularly fitting design for a soldier’s gravestone. One of the cannon balls is carved with the word ‘BEYROUT’ and another with ‘PORTUGAL’. This is the memorial to General Alexander Anderson (1807-1877), of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. The monument was restored in about 2016. A document relating to its restoration (https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Other-1833173.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=1833173&location=Volume2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1) informs that three of the cannon balls are engraved “Syria”, “Beyrout” (i.e. Beirut), and “Gaze” (i.e. Gaza). However, I photographed one bearing the word “Portugal”, which is not mentioned in the document. The monument was erected by Anderson’s friend Richard Eustace, MD, who lived from 1833 to 1908 (www.bmj.com/content/2/2490/865.2). Eustace entered the Royal Navy as a surgeon in 1854.

Anderson became a Companion of the Order of the Bath in June 1869 (www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/23503/page/3179/data.pdf).  His obituary in the London “Morning Post”, which shows why he was awarded this high honour, includes mention of Portugal:

“He obtained his first commission as second lieutenant in the Royal Marine Forces in May, 1823, and had during half a century seen much active service. He served with the army of occupation in Portugal, and was for some time quartered at Fort St. Julian. He served at the battle of Navarino in 1827, and at the commencement of the action boarded with his men one of the Turkish ships and captured the flag. … He served throughout the campaign on the coast of Syria in 1840-41 … was at the attack and capture of Beyrout; the bombardment and surrender of St. Jean d’Acre; the surrender of Jaffa, and was a volunteer in the expedition against Gaza. … He had received the war medal with two clasps, also the Turkish silver medal from the Sultan, and when a colonel, received the good-service pension. He became colonel-commandant in November, 1859; major-general in March, I860; lieutenant-general in November, 1866 ; and general in April, 1870.” (www.newspapers.com/newspage/396245337/)

A memorial, less original in design than that of Anderson, also caught my attention with its bas-relief depicting an old-fashioned biplane heading away from a large flying zeppelin from which clouds of smoke are billowing. The grave marks the resting place of Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford (1891-1915). The stone bears the words:

“Accidentally killed 17 June 1915”

Given the year he died and his rank, it was hard to imagine what kind of accident caused him to die during a war when most fatalities were not described as ‘accidents’.

Warneford was born in Darjeeling (India), son of an engineer working for the railways in British India (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reginald_Warneford). He was educated first in England and then in Simla, back in India. His father:

“…taught him the law of the jungle; to read the moon and stars across the wide Indian night skies; to be able to study cloud formations. Rex rode on the footplates of the service engines, rode the work elephants and hunted tigers.” (http://kes1914.net/the-boys/reginald-rex-warneford-vc/ – a highly informative web page)

 At the outbreak of WW1, he joined the British Army and then was soon transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service to be trained as a pilot. He was a good student even if somewhat overconfident. Soon, he became involved in hunting down and intercepting German Zeppelin airships that were being sent to attack London and other targets in the UK.

On Sunday, the 6th of June 1915, Warneford was sent in a Morane Saulnier L monoplane to intercept the heavily armed and well-powered LZ37, a 521-foot-long German zeppelin, which had just taken off from Belgium and had got lost in the fog over the English Channel. German radio signals, intercepted by the British, discovered that the airship had been ordered to return to base. Warneford was sent out to find and attack it. He reached the airship when it was 10,000 feet over Bruges. Warneford rose to 11,000 feet and dropped six bombs onto the Zeppelin, which burst into flames. The hot air from the explosion caused Warneford’s ‘plane to go into a spin and damaged its fuel line. Warneford managed to land in a field behind enemy lines. After rapidly repairing the damage, he managed to fly back to safety, not before landing to refuel at a French base en-route. On the 8th of June, he was awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross for gallantry. Just before that, he was also awarded:

“Chevalier de la Legion D’Honneur with its automatic companion, the Croix de Guerre’ that had been recommended by General Joffre.” (http://kes1914.net/the-boys/reginald-rex-warneford-vc/).

Modestly, he told a friend that in comparison to his grandfather, who had constructed railways in India:

“Bringing down the LZ37 was just routine and over in a flash. But building a railway, that was something.”

Returning to duty after his heroic activity, Warneford’s next mission was to take a new Henry Farman F27 biplane on a test flight. He took off from Paris on the 17th of June 1915 with an American reporter as a passenger. At 2000 feet, the aircraft began to disintegrate and fall downwards. It turned upside down at 700 feet and both pilot and passenger, who were not strapped in, fell to the ground. The reporter died instantly but Warneford survived. However, he died on his way to a hospital.

Had Warneford died whilst attacking a Zeppelin or during any other military encounter, his death would not have been regarded as accidental. As his death was a consequence of an unforeseen disaster, I suppose that calling it an accident is appropriate.

These graves I have described are two of many I saw that attracted my attention. I might well describe some of the others at a later date.

A narrow escape

IN AUGUST 2011, MY WIFE was invited to attend a Loreto House school reunion in Calcutta (Kolkata). As I had never been to the city before, I accompanied her. While my wife took part in the daily activities with some of her former schoolmates, I explored and fell in love with Calcutta.

Throughout our five day visit to the city, the monsoon rain fell heavily and incessantly. I walked around Calcutta, often wading through filthy water that submerged my feet and lapped around my ankles. This hardly affected my enjoyment of the delightful decaying city, in some respects India’s own distinctive version of old Havana in Cuba.

One day, I visited Jorasanko, the palatial residence of the Tagore family, whose members included not only the Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath but also artists such as Abanindranath and Gaganendranath.

After seeing around the fascinating rooms of Jorasanko, I sploshed through the flooded streets towards the Hooghly River. On my way, I walked along a busy street lined with shops and filled with crowds of people. A steady stream of rickshaws pulled by thin sinewy men and each laden with two or three passengers made its way through the busy throng. The huge wheels of these vehicles keep the passengers high above the water flooding the streets.

I noticed that some shops, often clothes and textile merchants, were giving hot food to some passersby. At one of these shops, I asked about the food distribution. It was explained to me that during Ramadan, it was considered to be a virtuous thing to feed the poor.

Eventually, after crossing a wide road clogged with slow moving heavy traffic, I stepped onto the Howrah Bridge, a gigantic steel bridge, a Meccano lovers dream, which traverses the River Hooghly. It was constructed between 1935 and early 1943.

At first, the bridge crosses over a large market that runs along the riverbank. Then, after a few yards, it is over the water. I walked along the downstream facing pedestrian walkway, dodging many porters carrying heavy and bulky loads on their heads. I took numerous photographs until I was two thirds of the way across the bridge and met a policeman with an ancient rifle slung over his back. Politely, he informed me that photography was forbidden on the bridge. By then, I had sufficient images stored in the memory of my camera.

Once over the river, I headed through the streaming rain and thick crowds to a boat station close to the Howrah railway terminus. My plan was to travel on a river bus downstream to a landing stage not far from Park Street.

I bought a ticket which was printed on very poor quality paper, that had to be kept dry to avoid it falling to pieces. I asked someone on the floating platform at the water’s edge if the boat that was approaching was heading for my planned destination. I received what I believed was an affirmative reply, and then boarded a relatively empty boat with plenty of free seats. We set off.

To my surprise, the boat headed upstream rather than downstream. Soon, we passed beneath the Howrah Bridge. We sailed a long way upstream away from the city centre. The banks of the river were lined with unattractive industrial buildings and these were punctuated by occasional bathing ghats.

I disembarked at the boat’s first stop. Had it not been raining so heavily, I would have exited the boat station to take a look around the area. Instead, I bought another flimsy ticket to return to Howrah. This time, I asked several people at which of the two floating embarkation pontoons I should board the downstream boat. I waited close to the water while a large crowd of fellow passengers gathered behind me. I wanted to be sure of embarking first.

The boat approached where we were all standing. I could see from afar that it was packed to the gills with people. When the boat was about 18 inches away from the pontoon, I felt a great push from behind me and I was catapulted across the water towards the approaching vessel. Luckily, I was able to grab something on the boat and this saved me from falling into the water and being crushed between the boat and the pontoon.

The boat was stuffed with people. I am sure that sardines are less tightly packed in tins. I wanted to try to take a photograph to capture an image of this crowd, but I could not because so great was the pressure exerted by those around me that I was unable to raise my hands from beside my body.

I looked around and noticed there were few life saving flotation items. Had our boat sunk, few on board would have survived.

It was a great relief to disembark at Howrah. I was drenched, somewhat shaken, and hungry. I decided to take a taxi to Flurys in Park Street, a European style tea room that served what I was yearning at that moment: toasted club sandwiches.

I boarded a battered yellow Ambassador taxi in a car park near the railway station. We moved forward into a mass of other similar taxis. The crowded taxis were so close to each other that it felt that they were all welded together. It took almost an hour for my driver to skilfully manoeuvre his taxi a couple of hundred yards on to the bridge.

At last, we arrived at Park Street, where, slightly drier because of sitting for ages in the taxi, I settled down at a table in Flurys. I ordered my sandwich and savoured the peaceful atmosphere in the tea room.

On my third visit to Calcutta at the end of 2019, we visited Flurys but, sadly, we were disappointed to find that its food and service was no longer as good as before. Fortunately, the scruffy Nizams at New Market, which serves parathas stuffed with meat and omelettes, remains as good as it was in 2011 and many years before.

Despite my near escape from severe injury or worse, my enthusiasm for Calcutta and its people continues to grow and grow.

A narrow escape

Ladbroke monument

 

My first job as a dentist was in a lovely practice in the Medway Towns. After having worked there for eleven years, I married and then lived in London. As it became tiring commuting by car between Kensington and north-east Kent, I changed practices. I worked for about nine months in north-west London in a practice where I was not happy. Then, I moved to another practice near Portobello Road. After about four years, the owner of that practice decided to open another branch in Maidenhead, Berkshire. I thought it would be interesting to work in a brand-new practice, and as Maidenhead was served by a good rail connection from Paddington, which is near my home, I decided to move to the new practice, where I treated its very first patient.

Usually, I boarded a local train that left Paddington a few minutes past eight in the morning. Just over half an hour later, I used to disembark at Maidenhead station, which was a couple of minutes’ stroll from the practice. Of the patients whom I treated there, the less said the better. My best memory of the place was that it was near a wonderful sandwich shop. The people who worked there had no idea about portion size control. So when I ordered my favourite sandwich, filled with prawn mayonnaise, it contained so much filling that I could hardly get my mouth around it.

One Monday evening, I returned to Paddington a little earlier than usual. Not being in a great hurry, I bought a ticket for the following Monday’s journey to Maidenhead.

On the following day, Tuesday the 5th of October 1999, I arrived at Paddington early as usual. Having already bought my ticket the evening before, I was able to take the train that left a few minutes earlier than the one I usually boarded. It left just before 8 am. The train I normally travelled on left a few minutes after 8 am.

I arrived at Maidenhead and began working. In those days, I used to have a radio running in my surgery. I heard a news bulletin that mentioned that there had been a terrible rail crash. I thought nothing of it until I returned to Maidenhead station that afternoon. I discovered, to my annoyance, that no trains were running as far as Paddington. They were all terminating west of Paddington at Ealing Broadway, where, fortunately, there is an Underground line which allowed me to continue my homeward bound journey.

It was only when I reached London that I learned more details about the crash. The train that I normally boarded every morning, the one which left a few minutes past 8 am, had collided head-on with a high-speed express train coming in the opposite direction on the same set of rails. Later, it was reported that 31 people had died and over 500 were injured. Most of the victims, killed and injured, were on board the train that I missed taking because I had bought my tickets on the night before.

There is a monument to those who died in the crash. It is near the large Sainsbury supermarket on Ladbroke Grove. Whenever I see this simple stone monument or think about the incident, I shudder. One of the names on that memorial could have easily been mine.