French connections

GENERAL CHARLES DE GAULLE (1890-1970), an eminent refugee from France, was dead against Britain joining what was the Common Market and is now the European Union, despite the country having generously hosted him during WW2, when his country was invaded by Germany. This is quite well known, but far less known is the fact that he lived in Hampstead, north London. His home was at 99 Frognal in what is currently St Dorothy’s Convent.

The convent building, Frognal House, was built in about 1740 and later modified in various ways (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1113077). The convent building stands on the site of a 15th century tenement known as ‘house called Frognal’ (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp33-42). At the beginning of the 18th century, the land on which this stood was owned by the bricklayer Thomas Smith, who probably built the present building, which became known as ‘Frognal House’. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), the house became The Sailors’ Orphans Home (from 1862-1869), which later shifted to the northern end of Fitzjohns Avenue in 1869 and which was constructed on land once owned by Sir Harry Vane (1613-1662).

De Gaulle and his family lived in Frognal House between 1940 and 1942. Monique Riccardi-Cubitt, a writer and art-historian, stayed in Frognal House in about 2000 and has written about it (https://blogs.mediapart.fr/monique-riccardi-cubitt/blog/210418/memories-general-de-gaulle-london). She wrote:

“The reception rooms on the ground floor have remained, but the General’s Cabinet de travail is now the chapel … The first floor panelled library is where I would feel his spirit most strongly hovering as I would work alone early in the morning … In the garden roses grew, I drew and painted them in the late afternoon … His spirit was there too, and I used to wonder how often he would have come back from his headquarters in Carlton Gardens worn and weary with cares, to wander off to the peace of the leafy bowers and refresh his tired mind and soul … From the roof terrace overlooking the whole of London below, he would stand at night and watch the German bombings on the City of London during the Blitz …”

While living in Hampstead, De Gaulle used to attend masses at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Holly Walk. It was the first Catholic church built in Hampstead after the Reformation (16th century). It opened its doors to worshippers in 1816. Its first pastor was a refugee, one of 500 clergy fleeing from the French Revolution, the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel (1766-1852; https://parish.rcdow.org.uk/hampstead/about-the-parish/). Thomas Barrett, a historian of Hampstead, writing in 1912 in his “Annals of Hampstead”, noted:

“Towards the end of the eighteenth century another interesting religious association came into the life of Hampstead, in a very modest and unassertive way, as one of the minor overflows from the French Revolution. Among the priestly refugees from France was a certain Abbe Morel, who had been connected with the Grand Seminary at Bourg. He was attracted to Hampstead by the fact of there being several French families living there—Talleyrand among the rest, some say—exiles like himself, to whom the question of religious worship according to their own faith was becoming a matter of difficulty…”

Barrett believed that Talleyrand, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838):

“… lived for a time at Tensleys, on Hampstead Green, during his service as French Ambassador from 1830 until 1834 … It was pulled down, and the site is now partly covered by the Hampstead General Hospital.”

This is now the location of the Royal Free Hospital. Barrett quotes the following anecdote that reveals that the refugees included members of the French aristocracy:

“… A story is told of two handsomely dressed ladies visiting Hampstead in 1819. They drove in a carriage to the bottom of Holly Hill, and then got out and walked to the top; and sometime later the Abbe was seen walking down the road bareheaded, respectfully escorting them. As the elder of the two ladies got into the carriage she kissed the Abbe’s hand and shed tears. This lady, it was said, was the Duchesse d’Angouleme.”

After some years in Hampstead, Morel:

“… was put to a severe ordeal when, the Revolution having come to an end, it became possible for the refugees to go back to their native country. Most of the little congregation for which he had been officiating returned. He would fain have gone with them ; but in Hampstead he had found a real haven of rest after the turbulence which had preceded his exile, and had formed many ties with the people of the village. He decided to remain, and for many years after that Abbe Morel was a worthy and loved figure in Hampstead.”

In 1941, Fr Joseph Geraerts became the parish priest. During this period:

“… one of the more notable parishioners was General Charles de Gaulle who lived for about a year at 99 Frognal, now St. Dorothy’s Convent. We are told that his tall and impressive figure was always to be seen in the front bench at the 11 o’clock Mass whenever he was home.” (https://parish.rcdow.org.uk/hampstead/wp-content/uploads/sites/193/2015/09/St-Marys-June-15.pdf).

De Gaulle returned to France in June 1944. After initially declining to join the Common Market, Britain applied to join in 1963. De Gaulle was dead against this (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_de_Gaulle#European_Economic_Community_(EEC)). It was only after De Gaulle resigned as President in 1969 that Britain was able to join the European community, which it has left recently.  

Frognal House was converted into its present role, the home of St Dorothy’s Convent, part of a religious community based in Malta, in 1968. The organisation:

“… caters for young ladies coming to study in London or for a short holiday from all over the world. It aims at providing not only a boarding house, but a homely environment where guidance and advice assure the well being and comfort of all the students. Besides catering for the students, the sisters are very much involved in their Parish St Mary’s.” (www.stdorothysmalta.org.mt/convents.html).

Apart from a couple of restaurants in Hampstead, the former Cellier du Midi and the still extant Cage Imaginaire, I had never considered that Hampstead had any other French connections. However, seeing the convent today and looking into its history, has shown me that France had a significant role in Hampstead’s history.

PS: I almost forgot to mention the onion sellers, who used to come to Hampstead from France with their bicycles ands strings of onions. And, also, there is a French creperie in Hampstead next to the King William IV pub on Hampstead High Street.

Continuity, salad, and Brexit

ROBERT AND MARGARET, my PhD supervisor, and his wife, became my close friends during the execution of my doctorate and for many years afterwards. I had the feeling that they were not as keen as some about Britain joining what we now call the European Union (‘EU’). Today, the 31st of December 2020 at 11 pm, the UK will leave it. Thinking about this reminded me of my old, now sadly deceased, friends and how joining Europe almost wrecked one of their dietary habits.

Robert was an extremely keen and energetic gardener. His home had extensive grounds. Looking after these kept him blissfully busy. The tennis court was separated from the conservatory by a large lawn surrounded by bushes. This was the ornamental garden. It contained one or two benches and a table where tea could be enjoyed in hot weather.  A path led from this into an even larger kitchen garden that was lined on one side by a series of long low huts, known as the ‘goat sheds’. Although they did not contain any goats, they were filled to the brim with … well… maybe many people might have called it ‘junk’. My friends would have disagreed with this assessment. 

At one end of these sheds, Robert, who was a first-class handy man as well as a brilliant scientist, kept a wide selection of tools.  There were few repairs in and around his home for which Robert lacked the skills to perform competently. Once plastic piping became widely available, he carried out many successful plumbing repairs. More than once he said to me with great seriousness that it was senseless teaching children Latin or Greek; they should be taught something useful like plumbing. Amongst these tools, there was also a hand operated mill that he used to grind flour, which he used to bake his own bread.

Almost whenever I arrived at his home, I would find Robert somewhere in the garden. Often, he was hunched over a bed of seedlings, weeding. Sometimes, he would be looking after his crop of potato plants which grew in a field accessed by way of the path between the goat sheds and the stables. He liked this patch of ground because it bordered the large meadow where his horse, Hobo, grazed.  This horse enjoyed company and used to stand by the fence close to where Robert was toiling. Robert valued Hobo’s company as well as that of his Burmese cat, which followed him around the garden.

Beyond the goat sheds and separated from them by a pathway were two adjoining stables. One was occupied occasionally by the family’s pet horse; and the other was filled with the contents of a long-lost friend’s flat. Amongst the various plots for growing fruit and vegetables, there was a spacious elegant Victorian glasshouse. A rusty wide-bore pipe ran around the walls that made up the rectangular base of this. This pipe had once been connected by underground pipes to the house, which was about 70 yards away. In its heyday, the piping in the glasshouse had been part of the house’s central heating system circuit and served to keep the plants warm in winter. By the time that my friends had bought their home, it had been disconnected.

Robert grew a variety of edible plants in the greenhouse. The lettuce he grew there was some of the best that I have ever eaten. Freshly picked, it was so tasty that it required neither salad dressing nor salt nor any other additive. It was grown from seed of a strain of lettuce called ‘Continuity’.

When the UK joined the European Economic Community (‘EEC’) in 1973, something of which I doubt my friends fully approved, the days of Continuity were numbered. Amongst the many regulations that the EEC planned to impose on its members was the banning of the sale of some kinds of seeds including those of Continuity breed of lettuce. This annoyed Robert and Margaret, and it became yet one more reason for them to disapprove of joining the EEC. Not one to be defeated by authority, Robert made sure that he let some of his lettuce plants flower and he collected their seeds in anticipation of the ban. For long after the seeds were no longer on sale, Robert and Margaret and others who ate with them were able to enjoy Continuity lettuce.

Although many people, including my friends Robert and Margaret, benefitted greatly from joining the EEC, later the EU, their disquiet about European judgement about what they could grow in their own gardens was not entirely misplaced. For, over the years, what began as a primarily economic union gradually assumed an overarching political role. We wait with bated breath to see whether leaving the EU will allow Britain to truly ‘regain control’, as Boris Johnson hopes, or, as many people fear, to degenerate into an insignificant archipelago lying off the west coast of Europe.

Taking a plunge

blog Plunge

Whatever happens in the UK’s current tumultuous parliament, it is more likely than not that the UK will leave the European Union (‘EU’). Whether this happens on the 31st of October 2019 or later, the UK is certainly taking a plunge into a possibly frightening unknown. When a majority of the British people voted in favour of leaving the EU, nobody could foresee the problems that we are now facing and will face as time moves on. Sadly, many of those who voted (largely without understanding what is involved and often for xenophobic reasons) for ‘Brexit’ will suffer the consequences more than many who voted not to leave the EU. Our present Prime Minister is optimistic about the future of the UK outside the EU, but as Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill wrote:

There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away. The . . . people can face peril or misfortune with fortitude and buoyancy, but they bitterly resent being deceived or finding that those responsible for their affairs are themselves dwelling in a fool’s paradise.”

(Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. 3 [1951])

Olives in London

I love olives, especially the black Kalamata and Amphissa varieties. These are imported from countries which are members of the EU (European Union), which the UK is destined to leave at the end of October 2019.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the UK will leave the EU without a trade deal. If this happens, supplies of olives may become restricted for some time. Also, the falling value of the Pound Sterling will increase the cost of those olives that make their way into the UK retail market. Gloomy as this seems, there might be light at the end of the tunnel coming from a much feared source.

The UK, like the rest of the world, is affected by climate change, which includes global warming. As I write this, I am sitting in front of a fan, something we would not have considered purchasing, even in summer, 25 to 30 years ago.

A result of global warming struck me today whilst walking in Kensington Gardens. I passed a south facing tree with greyish leaves. It was an olive tree, usually planted in gardens in the UK to provide visual contrasts. However, this particular olive tree was rich in young olives ripening in the sun (see photo above).

Seeing this richly fruited olive tree gives me hope for the future. Maybe, I will be buying British olives as well as those from southern Europe (if import duties and exchange rates do not make them unaffordable).

Common sense

Common sense is one of the least common traits found amongst human beings. It is uncommon to chance upon someone with common sense. There are plenty of intelligent and very bright people around, but most of them lack common sense and often wisdom also.

When I was a pupil at Highgate School in north London between 1965 and ’70, all of the teachers except one had degrees from either Oxford or Cambridge. The exception, Mr B, had been at a training college just east of the City of London. Mr B taught an unacademic but practical subject: woodwork. I was not any good at his craft and luckily I missed most of the classes on account of my having broken my arm during the woodwork term. Amongst all of the teachers at Highgate, Mr B had the most common sense, in fact more common sense than all of the rest of the staff combined.

Another person, who was brim-full of common sense, was one of my aunts. For various reasons, probably not completely unrelated to losing her father at a young age, she did not shine at school. Yet, throughout her long life she approached everything with straighforward down-to-earth common sense.

I am not sure whether the following anecdote was a manifestation of my aunt’s common sense, but I will relate it anyway. Once when she was at a party, a stranger introduced himself to my aunt as follows:

I am a neo-Platonist. What do you do?

Cool as a cucumber my aunt answered:

I am a cabbage.”

Thus, she put pay to her pretentious new acquaintance, and ended what might have become a tedious conversation.

My photograph (above) shows a well-known London landmark. For those who are unfamiliar with London, the picture depicts the Houses of Parliament, which contains the House of Commons. During the current discussions regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU, many intelligent Members of the House of Commons are demonstrating a worrying shortage of common sense.