Christmas at home this year

WILL BAXTER WAS a teacher at the University of Cape Town, whilst my late father was studying for a BComm degree before WW2. Will, recognising my father’s academic excellence, persuaded my father’s mother that she and her family would do well to subsidize my father continuing his studies in London. When he presented his case to Dad’s mother, my grandmother was at first surprised and said that my father’s siblings were even brighter than him. By all accounts, my father and his three siblings were well-endowed with brain power. My grandmother agreed, but before Dad was able to set off for London, there was another hurdle. Dad had become articled to an accountancy firm in Cape Town. Leaving this would have involved breaking a legal contract between him and the firm. Will spoke to the senior partners and managed to get Dad released from his contract. Then, the year before WW2 started, Dad sailed to England and enrolled for higher studies at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’). With the exception of a few of the war years and one year in Montreal (Canada), Dad spent the rest of his life in London, where I was born.

Will Baxter returned to the UK and taught at the LSE and became a firm family friend. My earliest reminiscences of him were at Christmas time. Until I was in my mid-teens, we used to visit Will and his wife at his home in the Ridgeway in Golders Green on Christmas morning. We used to have warm drinks in the living room in which there was always a large, decorated Christmas tree.  Will always had wrapped presents ready for my sister and me, always books. I cannot remember which books I was given, but I do recall that every year my sister always received a beautiful hardback edition of one of the classic British novels by authors such as Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters.

The Baxters’ front garden had a gate supported by brick pillars. When I was about 3 or 4, we visited the Baxters one morning (not on Christmas Day), soon after the mortar between the bricks had been renewed. It was still wet, and Will inscribed a small ‘A’ in the mortar to record how high I was on that day. Year after year when we visited the Baxters, the letter was there in the set mortar, but my height had increased considerably. After many years, several decades, it disappeared after Will and his second wife, his first having died many years previously, had had the pillars refurbished.

Always after our Christmas morning visit to the Baxters, we walked or drove over to my mother’s sisters’s home, where we ate a festive lunch, often featuring roast goose. In addition to my close family and my aunts, other people attended this party. These included my aunt’s in-laws, various people we knew who had no close family in London, and my uncle Felix, my mother’s brother.

Felix, more than many of the other adults, truly enjoyed our Christmas lunches. He entertained us kids, my two cousins, my sister, and me, by tales of ‘Turkey Lurky’, ‘Goosey Lucy’, ‘Ducky Lucky’, and similarly named fowl. However, as we grew older, he failed to realise that we had become a little more sophisticated and blasé to enjoy this type of entertainment. At the end of the main course, he used to interrupt the adults’ conversation by standing up, thumping the table, and singing a song about bringing us some ‘figgy pudding’. I noticed that it always annoyed the adults and especially my aunt who was already stressed enough already, having produced a magnificent meal for 15 or more people.

After lunch, we retired to the living room to open presents, and always enjoyed. Felix always felt it necessary to entertain us, his nieces, and nephews, after lunch. To this end, he brought along packets of coloured inflatable balloons. He inflated them and asked one of us to hold them at their necks whilst he knotted them. Next, he twisted and tied the balloons together to make sculptures of animals. I hated these balloons because I could not tolerate the goose-pimples that the squeaking of the balloons set off in me, and still do today. One of my cousins did not enjoy this balloon experience because of the risk that a balloon might pop noisily. It is probably to our credit that none of us, his nephews, ever told him how much we disliked the balloons that Felix always brought with him.

Christmas lunches at my aunt’s house ceased many years ago. For many years, I spent Christmas enjoyably with the family of my PhD supervisor and his wife, with whom I became close friends. Then later, we often spent Christmas in India, in Bangalore where my in-laws live. This year, we had planned to do the same, but, in common with everyone else, this plan had to be abandoned for reasons that need no explanation.

I have celebrated Christmas Day at my aunt’s house, in Paris, in Méribel-les-Allues, in Manhattan, in Bangalore, in Stoke Poges, in Belgrade, in Wrocław, on a ‘plane to Sri Lanka, in Cornwall,  and in Cochin, but until this year, never at home. So, this year is a first for me: Christmas at home.

Scottish reels

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

BOXING DAY IS the day after Christmas Day (25th of December), the 26th of December. Traditionally, it is the day on which money or gifts are given to persons in need or those offering services, for example servants.

For many years, I used to spend the Christmas Season with my old (and now sadly deceased) friends Robert and Margaret at their large country home outside London. The first time I was invited to do this, Margaret checked with my mother that she did not mind me being ‘dragged’ away from our family festivities. My mother had no objections because by then, in the late 1970s, we never celebrated Christmas ‘en-famille’.

Robert and Margaret celebrated Boxing Day on the 26th of December, whether it was a weekday or not, in an especially enjoyable way. They invited friends to their home for an evening of Scottish dancing. The living room at their home was large but filled with furniture. Beneath the carpets, there was a wooden parquet floor that my friends laid down as a dance floor when they moved into the house many years before I met them.

After breakfast on the 26th of December, everyone staying with Robert and Margaret over Christmas began working. In the kitchen, vast amounts of food were prepared for the evening:  goulash or curry and accompanying rice and vegetables; meringues; fruit trifles; peppermint creams and homemade fudge; mince pies; a cheese platter etc. Also, Robert spent hours at one of the stoves, stirring ingredients for concocting two different alcoholic punches, guided by the recipes scribbled in his almost illegible handwriting in one of his numerous notebooks. The kitchen was a hive of activity.

A few yards away from the kitchen, heavy physical work was underway. Almost every item of furniture had to be moved from the living room into either a room called ‘the library’ or into the long corridor between it and the living room. We used to shift heavy armchairs and even heavier sofas, smaller chairs (some of them quite fragile), occasional tables, oriental rugs, framed photographs, and ornament cases containing fragile objects including an ostrich egg. Fortunately, we did not have to carry the family’s upright pianoforte or the large decorated Christmas tree out of the room. After almost all the furniture had been removed, the two enormous floor carpets had to be rolled up tightly. One of them had to be carried into the library and the other was rolled up to remain in front of the huge Christmas tree at one end of the room.

With the floor cleared, the beautiful parquet floor became exposed to view. Floor polish was then sprinkled on to the wood and rubbed into it with an electric floor polisher, a job I often performed after helping to shift furniture. The floor had to be polished until it was shiny, which was easy to achieve with the machine.  

The dining room also required preparation. The heavy large antique wooden dining table that had been acquired from University College London when they were discarding it had to be shifted to one side of the room, where it would serve as the place on which the evening buffet was to be laid out. Dining room and other chairs were arranged for those who were sitting out from the dancing and for those who preferred being seated whilst eating. Also, cutlery, plates, various kinds of glasses, and coffee cups with saucers and spoons had to be placed in readiness for the evening.

After lunch, there was a short period of ‘calm before the storm’. Afternoon tea was served as usual in the living room, but we took it seated on the floor instead of on the comfortable furniture which had been moved earlier. Margaret retrieved her two books of dance instructions, one of which made little sense to me. She also made sure that the records with Scottish dance music were near to the gramophone turntable and explained to me which record was suitable for each dance. For, usually I was to be responsible for finding the right tracks on the LPs (including music performed by Jimmy Shand and his band and by Jimmy Mc Cleod) and playing them on the turntable before dashing back to join the dance.

Guests began arriving in the early evening. Everyone was handed a glass of one of Robert’s special warmed punches on arrival and was invited to help themselves to mince pies and other confectionery. When there were sufficient people to perform at least one eightsome, the dancing commenced. The evening’s proceedings continued with dancing the ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, a good warm-up routine. It was not that people needed warming up because there would be a good fire burning in the hearth at one end of the living room.

For about an hour and a half, we danced the ‘Eightsome Reel’, The ‘Duke of Perth’, ‘The Reel of The 51st’, ‘Petronella’, and others whose names I cannot recall. The “Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh” was too complicated for us to master. The dancers varied in skill from expert to almost clueless. Margaret issued instructions, other guests contradicted her, but we all had much fun. As for me, I usually knew where I was supposed to be at any instant during a dance and got there, but without being able to execute my dance movements with any degree of elegance.

By 9 pm, everyone, up to thirty people, was exhausted and hungry, but feeling exhilarated. The hot food was brought from the kitchen to the dining room, which in true English tradition was further away from the kitchen than any other room in the house. It was wheeled on a rickety trolley held together in places with string. People helped themselves to servings of the meat dish and accompanying vegetables and washed this down with glasses of the second punch that Robert had mixed earlier. Then fresh plates were supplied for the trifles and pairs of meringues stuck together with whipped cream. Coffee was served.

Then, it was back to the dance floor. You would have thought after such a hearty supper that it would have been impossible to resume dancing, but this was not the case. However, by then the living room was getting quite warm and it was necessary to open a door that led to the draughty conservatory next to the living room. Dancing continued, sometimes as late as midnight. For me, the highlight of the second part of the evening was a riotous dance called ‘Strip the Willow’. Margaret was usually my partner in this potentially energetic dance. To see her in action either in this dance or on a tennis court, one would not be able to believe that she was as old as she was. In fact, until the last few years of her life, she was a perfect example of a ‘live wire’.

All too quickly, the evening drew to an end. The guests stumbled out into the darkness and retrieved their vehicles from the large gravelly car park. We, the house party, breathed a sigh of relief because the party had been successful; it always was. When I first attended these parties, we used to retire to bed and leave rearranging the furniture to the next morning. However, after a few years Margaret’s son-in-law and I agreed that it was dreadful waking up the next morning with the prospect of furniture shifting. So, we agreed that despite being tired, it was best to do this awful job before retiring for the night and while the excess adrenaline we had generated during the dancing was still flowing through our blood vessels. This proved to be a real improvement.

All of this was long ago. The house where it happened has been demolished and Robert and Margaret are no more than wonderfully warm memories. I am eternally grateful that I knew them and was able to partake in their memorable celebrations and other activities. I am pleased that they did not have to experience this covid19 pandemic, which we are enduring this year. I dread to think what their reaction would have been had they been around when the British Government had effectively ‘cancelled Christmas’ this year. Although they were not deeply religious, Christmas and the day following meant a great deal to them, as it does to many of us who have survived them.

Pond life

WE MADE THE MOST of the shortest day of the year, 21st December 2020, by leaving our house before sunrise, which was supposed to happen at 8.05 am but did not do so visibly because of the grey skies and incessant rain. We drove to South End Green (Hampstead) and parked just above the largest of the Hampstead Ponds (Pond number 1).

Despite the sheets of rain and the sombre sky, the houses across the pond were reflected in the water  where swans and other waterfowl were taking a swim. We splashed along a waterlogged path to the next pond, Pond number 2, which is also overlooked by a few houses, whose inhabitants have an enviable view over the water and the slopes of Hampstead Heath beyond. We stood on a wooden viewing platform and heard a ‘splosh’ near us. It was a cormorant taking a dive. It emerged a few moments later further out in the pond. Several other cormorants could just about be seen through the rain, resting on a tiny island in the pond.

The Hampstead Ponds, three in number, are fed by streams that rise near the Vale of Health, which is about 440 yards northwest of the uppermost pond (number 3), which flows into the second pond and then into the first. These streams, along with those that flow into the Highgate Ponds, are sources of the water that flows in the now subterranean River Fleet, which empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.  

The idea of damming the streams to make the ponds might have been conceived as early as 1589 (https://guildhallhistoricalassociation.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/the-history-of-the-hampstead-heath-ponds/) but it was only in 1692 that the  Hampstead Water Company  leased the springs that now feed the ponds. The latter, which were used as freshwater reservoirs, were created by damming the streams in the early 18th century. The pond at the Vale of Health was created later, in 1777. Water from these ponds/reservoirs was supplied to users in north London via wooden pipes created by boring holes in elm tree trunks. The Highgate Ponds, which also supply water to the Fleet, were also created by the Hampstead Water Company.

In 1856, the New River Company acquired Hampstead Pond number 1 and the Vale of Health pond, which were by that time becoming less savoury as far as water quality was concerned. Four years later, the Hampstead Junction Railway Company opened what is now Hampstead Heath Overground Station. This was just south of a fourth pond, which was filled in in 1892. In addition, there was another pond in South End Green where a disused 19th century drinking fountain now stands. The pond was filled in in 1835.

Enough of the distant past. Let me tell you how South End Green fits in with my life so far. My mother’s brother, Felix, lived at number 130 Fleet Road. He bought it at an extremely reasonable price because it had a ‘sitting tenant’. Eventually, after the tenant died, my uncle lived on one of the building’s three floors and rented the other two to a couple of Nigerians, who became his close friends. He regarded them as if they were his sons and they looked after Felix as if he was their beloved father.  For a long time, Felix occupied the top flat. He used to visit our flat for dinner regularly and we used to drive him home at the end of the evening. On one occasion, we arrived at his house, and after fumbling in his pockets, he announced that he had left his house keys locked in his home. We asked him what he was going to do. He answered in his South African accent:

“Ag, I do this often. All I need to do is ring my neighbour’s doorbell and they will let me onto their roof. Then, I cross over on to my roof. I keep a stick there so that I can break open my window and climb into my house. So, you don’t need to worry.”

Felix was always creative and inventive. When he grew older and infirm, he moved into the ground floor flat. He began using a stick when out walking. Once, when I was visiting him in a ward in the Royal Free Hospital, which is across the road from his former home, I was present when a physiotherapist visited him. She asked him whether he had a walking stick. He said:

“It’s lying beneath my bed.”

The physiotherapist looked at the stick, and said:

“Well, I have never seen one quite like this before.”

“Ag,” said Felix, “I took a bleddy broomstick and glued an umbrella handle on to it.”

Felix died a few months ago. We miss him greatly.

Sadly, South End Green was  associated with other personal losses. Both my mother, and then many years later, her sister, ended their lives in the Royal Free Hospital.

The rear of Felix’s home once overlooked the LCC Tramway Depot. This was surrounded by the terraced houses on Fleet, Constantine, Agincourt, and Cressy Roads. The entrance to the depot was from the latter. This depot opened for horse-drawn trams in about 1887 and then the system was electrified in 1909. In 1938, trolley buses replaced trams travelling to South End Green and these were replaced by motor buses in about 1960 (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp3-8). Currently the route 24 bus terminates at South End Green, a route which I used when I was younger.

I used the 24, which passed near University College London where I studied between 1970 and 1982, for two main reasons. One was to visit my uncle Felix and the other to visit some friends, who lived in Constantine Road and others who lived in South Hill Park, part of which was built over the pond that was covered over in 1892.

Today, my wife and I enjoyed our visit to South End Green despite the relentless rain. After buying vegetables at a lovely open-air stall close to the station, we paid a visit to the Matchbox Café next to the cobbled area where the route 24 buses rest before setting off. As we waited for the barrista to prepare our hot drinks, we chatted with him through the hatch through which he serves the take-away drinks and snacks. Mirko was delighted to discover that we had visited his hometown Ptuj in Slovenia, which was once a part of the former Yugoslavia. He told us many things about his native place including that a castle north of the town, Borl (Ankenstein in German), was associated with Parsifal, one of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table (more information: https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2018/01/an-arthurian-castle-in-slovenia.html). Incidentally, Mirko prepares good quality coffee and richly flavoured hot chocolate. His café is one of many reasons for visiting South End Green, even on a rainy December day.

Red rover

MY GRANDMOTHER LIVED a serene life in Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Born in the 1890s, she came with her parents from what is now Lithuania to what was then the Cape Colony. She married my father’s father in Cape Town. She raised four children and also helped her husband run a general store in Tulbagh, a small town, almost a village, near Cape Town. When her husband died young in 1931, she continued running the shop for a few years before marrying a widower who lived Port Elizabeth (‘PE’). Through this  second marriage, she acquired three stepsons and her fifth son. Hers was a tough life to begin with. By the 1960s, when the children had grown up and dispersed, she began living a quieter life in PE.

GRANNY red-rover-ticket john harper

Once every couple of years Granny used to visit her son, my father, and his half-brother in the UK. Although I met her when I was three years old, I only remember her from the time I was about nine. She used to sit in our ‘lounge’ (colonial term for ‘sitting room’) and did little except meet people. Every day in the late afternoon, she enjoyed a glass of whisky before the evening meal. It was in our home that she first ate bacon. My mother, although Jewish, was far from observant and was almost unaware of dietary rules. We ate ham and bacon regularly. She served bacon quite innocently to Granny, who had not encountered it before, enjoyed it, and appeared unperturbed to discover that this delicious food item was derived from pigs.

I was about ten when I suggested to Granny that we went on an outing together. It was an outing quite unlike any granny had ever done before or was ever likely to do again. I suggested that we should buy Red Rover tickets and then set off into the unknown. Few readers will be familiar with Red Rovers. So, I will explain. A Red Rover ticket allowed the holder unlimited travel on London Transport’s red buses for a whole day. In the early 1960s, an adult Red Rover ticket cost six shillings (30 pence) and children paid half of that. To my surprise and joy, my not too sprightly seventy-year-old grandmother agreed to the plan.

We set off from the bus station at Golders Green one morning and travelled to Chingford, which at that time was the terminus of the long 102 bus route. Then, another long bus journey through dreary parts of north-east London ended at Ponders End. By this stage, both Granny and I had enough of being jerked around on double-decker buses, but we had to face a couple more tedious bus journeys in order to get us back to Golders Green. For the rest of her life, Granny would recall this trip and the name ‘Ponders End’. When my father’s half-brother moved to a new house to north-east London, we were both amused because it was not far from Ponders End.

Many decades later, about two years ago, I decided walk south along the River Lee Navigation canal, starting near Waltham Abbey. After walking slowly for almost a couple of hours along the canal, which is flanked by large reservoirs, many electric pylons, and occasional industrial buildings, I reached the lock system at … Ponders End. Although I could not remember what Ponders End was like back in the early 1960s except that it was dismal, I found that although there had been much new construction, it had remained dismal.

I am glad that I got the idea of using a Red Rover out of my system. Until the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic in London, my wife and I loved using London’s superb bus system. Since mid-March, we have not boarded a bus. Now, it is mandatory to wear a face covering on public transport. We see people waiting at bus stops, their noses and mouths covered by everything from a fairly useless single-use paper mask, such as I used when treating dental patients, to colourful home-made fabric coverings. However, things go wrong once these masked passengers enter the bus. We have noticed that many people travelling on buses that pass us have removed their face coverings once they are on board. Also, many bus drivers do not wear them.  So, if you were to gift me a Red Rover, you can be sure that I will not be using it in the foreseeable future.

 

Photo from john-harper.com

Mon oncle – My uncle

UNTIL I BEGAN LEARNING LATIN (at eight years old), I used to think that my mother’s brother’s name, Felix, was strange. Then, I learned that ‘felix’ was the Latin word for ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’. My Uncle Felix lived up to both meanings of his name.

FELIX BLOG

Felix was born in one of the rooms of his grandparents’ house in Maitland Road, in King Williamstown in South Africa. This house was the home of his grandfather Senator Franz Ginsberg and his wife Hedwig. His three full siblings (and maybe also his half-brother) were born in the same room of this house, which still stands today.

On the 9th of May 1920, Clothilde, Felix’s maternal great-grandmother celebrated her 79th birthday at her home in Munich. That day, she wrote in her diary:

“… Ilse my granddaughter came to Munich with her husband and her indescribably sweet child. It so happened that they could celebrate my birthday with me…”

That child was Felix. That indescribable sweetness remained with him throughout his life.

Felix spent his early years in the tiny town Barkly East in the Eastern Cape, where his father, Iwan, born in Germany, was managing director of the family firm S. Seligmann and Company, which was established in 1885 by his uncle Sigmund Seligmann. In the last few years of his life Felix’s father was the highly respected mayor of this small town in the Eastern Cape. Iwan became very wealthy. The family imported luxury goods from Europe, such as the latest fashions from Paris. Felix told me that they used to buy new American cars (costing £2000) every couple of years. On his deathbed, Felix shared with me some memories of his father, who died in 1931. Iwan used to return home at midday for lunch. He would sit down with his feet up to read his post. Felix told me when he was a little boy, he used to open letters for his father. Many of them came from Germany, where, just after the end of the First World War, there was great inflation. Felix remembered the stamps which bore extremely high denominations (millions, or more) of Reichsmark. He also recalled that his father often took walks on the Common near Barkly East with his friend Mr. Nurse, the proprietor of the local newspaper, “The Barkly East Reporter”.

Even as a child, Felix was an avid reader. It was difficult for his mother to detach him from a book. His love of reading continued throughout his life. He read widely: both fiction and non-fiction. His primary education was in Barkly East. Later, he studied, as a boarder, at Dale College in King Williamstown. After Iwan died, his widow, Ilse, remarried. Her second husband Oscar died soon after the birth of their son John. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Stellenbosch, where Ilse bought a farm called ‘Bantouzel’ (now re-named ‘Mon Repos’), opposite the Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery. In 1936, Felix entered the University of Cape Town and enrolled on the BCom course. His future brother-in-law, my father Basil Yamey, who began this course at the same time as Felix, remembers being greeted by him. They had met in Tulbagh some years before at the home of the Kupfers, who were friends of the Yamey family and relatives of Oscar. Felix and his siblings stayed for a while with the Kupfers in about 1935 whilst their mother was undergoing an operation. He never completed this degree.

World War 2 (WW2) was declared in 1939. Felix joined the South African Army.  Because his eyesight was too poor to be a soldier, he served as a medical auxiliary and saw action in many of the major North African campaigns, including Mersah Matruh and Tobruk. My uncle’s wartime experiences were especially important for him.  He used to love to tell stories about them. I feel that he looked back on this tough time, which encouraged warm camaraderie amongst the military at the front, with affection.  As the War ended, Felix went with the army to Palestine.  There, he met Reinhold Seligmann (son of Sigmund) and his daughters. One of the daughters, Felicity (now deceased), showed me pictures of my uncle taken in Jerusalem during that visit. From Palestine he reached Europe, where he ended his tour of duty with some well-earned sightseeing. In Zurich, he visited the ageing Benno Seligmann, who had once lived in Barkly East.

On his return to South Africa, Felix re-entered the University of Cape Town, this time to study engineering. His mother became extremely unwell and died in 1948. After her death, Felix became one of the two joint guardians, with his uncle Rudolf Ginsberg, of his half-brother John. By that time, my mother had settled in London.  He and my mother’s sister Marion helped to look after their younger brother John. They did most of the caring for their far younger half-brother. When John and his wife Mickey came to settle in London in the late 1990s, the two brothers spent much time together. Having John in London gave him much pleasure. Felix became close to John’s sons in London, my cousins Arnold and David, when they came from South Africa to settle in London.

Felix did not complete his engineering degree. Instead, he helped to run the farm at Bantouzel, but its land was poor because it did not have its own well. He bought another farm, called ‘Eureka’, near Stellenbosch.  Next, Felix studied agriculture at Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch. Eureka was not a great success: Felix sold it. For a brief time, he worked in a nursery garden run in King Williams Town, one of Rudolf Ginsberg’s many businesses. Then, Felix joined his sisters Helen and Marion in the UK where they were both living.  He arrived there on the 5th October 1955.

Felix had a varied career in the UK. At an early stage he worked in a photographic shop near Holborn. This must have suited him, as he was a keen photographer.

Just after I began studying at the Hall School (1960), Felix came to our house to take pictures of me in my new uniform. He brought with him various special studio lamps with long cables, which had to be set up. I remember my mother’s dismay when these lights succeeded in blowing the electrical fuses of the house.

At various times, Felix had small businesses. I recall two of these. One was a flock factory: flocking is the addition of a furry surface to objects such as wallpaper. Another was his foam rubber business, which was concerned mainly with cutting foam rubber into various shapes for cushions etc.  While this enterprise struggled along, my sister and I would be presented with pieces of oddly shaped foam rubber whenever Felix came to visit our home.

For a long period, he was technically unemployed, but far from inactive. He was involved in helping charities. He and his friend, Patrick, were the co-founders of a shop (in Hampstead) set up to raise money for the charity Shelter. Felix used his car to ferry around stock collected to sell in the shop. Although this must have helped others, it did not help Felix financially. This did not seem to concern him. He enjoyed a frugally bohemian lifestyle,  financed by the not insubstantial inheritances that his father and grandfather had left him (and his siblings; my mother used her share to lay down a deposit for a house and to pay for private schooling for my sister and me). However, eventually, his bank balance became worryingly low.  

In his early fifties, Felix he joined the General Post Office. He became a postman, based at the sorting office at Rathbone Place. His delivery round was part of Crawford Street. He was much loved by his ‘clients’, who showered him with lavish gifts at Christmas time. As in the army, his time with the post office pleased him greatly. His career as a postman was curtailed by ill health: he took early retirement. The income he gained as a postman allowed Felix to buy a house in Hampstead opposite the Royal Free Hospital. This was divided into three flats. He lived at the top of the house until the last two years of his life, when he moved to the ground floor flat. In the early 1980s, a Nigerian moved in as a lodger: Bayo. This tenant became a good friend of my uncle. In the last years Felix’s life, Bayo and his brother, Folo, looked after Felix as if he was their beloved father.

Felix used to visit us frequently. He always came laden with gifts for us children. This, he continued when we grew up. He never came to see us without a bundle of well-chosen gifts for our daughter, and flowers for my wife.  He loved to entertain children. An annual treat at Christmas time was the sculptures he made by tying together inflated balloons. He would create dog-like balloon creatures for our entertainment. On Christmas Day he would punctuate the meal we used to eat at my aunt’s home with recitations of the story of Chicken-Licken and Turkey-Lurkey, and renditions of a song about Figgy Pudding.

One evening, when our young daughter could barely walk, he came over for dinner. Arriving an hour earlier than expected, as he often did, he sat quietly amusing himself and our tiny daughter. He had brought along the balloons that could be tied together, as described already.  He wanted to create balloon toys for our little one while my wife was busy in the kitchen. Suddenly, my wife rushed into our bathroom. She was bleeding profusely because she was beginning to miscarry. She called to me to bring tissues. As I rushed past my uncle, who was oblivious to the recently developed crisis, he called to me:

“Here, just put your finger on this knot while I tie these balloons together.”

It was like a black comedy or an aeroplane disaster film. He was calling for me to help tie balloons whilst my wife was trying desperately to stem her bleeding. I explained the problem to him and said that my wife needed to go to hospital urgently. Sweetly, he offered to look after our infant, but we declined his kind offer. As far as we knew, he had little or, most probably, no experience of looking after all the needs of a child less than two years old. Fortunately, my wife was rescued by the local hospital.

Felix talked to everybody and anybody. This was a trait he shared with my mother and Bobby, his younger brother. Almost without exception people responded well to Felix’s friendliness. He was genuinely interested in everyone with whom he spoke.

When I bought my house in Gillingham (in Kent), Felix was my first visitor. He arrived before the house was furnished, a few days after I had moved in, and was happy to sleep on a mattress on the floor. I remember that as we sat on the wall at the front of my house awaiting a delivery, he greeted every person who walked past, proudly informing them that I was his nephew, and that I had just moved into the area. Although Felix never married, I do not believe that he was felt alone: the whole world was his family!

Felix was full of enthusiasm for a wide range of things. He pursued his interest in photography until the end, graduating, before many other people did, into using the latest digital technology. He was an active member of the Hampstead Photographic Club and made many friends there. In the early 1970s, he and I used to attend bookbinding classes together at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute. Later, Felix became interested in pottery. For many years, he produced ceramic objects at a prolific rate, creating a veritable ocean of objects, some useful, but most of them not.  He was full of ideas, which he tried to express in his ceramic art. Everything inspired him. These objects varied greatly in quality of execution, but never lacked in originality. What many might have expressed in poetry, Felix expressed in glazed pottery.

He had a passion for indoor plants. At one stage, half of his large living room floor was covered in flowerpots filled with a variety of plants and much mud that had spilled from the pots on to the carpet: a chaotic indoor nursery. Added to these interests were history, his lifelong love of reading, cooking, and music. Whenever he could do so, Felix travelled: in the UK, Europe and South Africa, where he spent much time with his brother Bobby and his partner Duffy.

Felix was inventive, as already described above. He loved gadgets and creating them. Once when I went to see Felix in hospital a couple of years before he died, I coincided with the visit of a physiotherapist. She asked Felix whether he could walk, and he answered that he could do so with the help of a stick. She asked Felix to show her his walking stick. This consisted of a piece of metal tubing, which Felix had picked up in the street, and to which he had added a wooden umbrella handle. She looked surprised, said that she had never seen this design before, and Felix answered, “I made it myself”.  More than inventive, he was very intelligent and thoughtful.

To the dismay of some of his close family Felix was untidy. Extremely untidy! His flat had to visited to believed. I am sure that the disorder did not bother him at all. Whenever we visited him, he would sweep things aside, so that there would be somewhere to sit down. He would brew up a hot drink, which he would serve in mugs, which did not bear too close an examination. I believe that he had a confidence in himself that stopped him worrying about what others thought of him.

Felix was born on the 31st of December. Whenever I was near to, or in, London, I used to visit him on that day. One year, he greeted me telling me that he had just treated himself to a video cassette player. He asked me whether I would like to watch a film with him. He told me what he had in his small collection of tapes, and I chose to see Ingmar Bergman’s “Magic Flute”. Felix found the box for it, but the cassette was not the one we needed. He rummaged through the other boxes, all of which contained films that differed from the boxes’ labels. In the end, he found a video of the “Three Tenors” and inserted it into the player. The TV monitor screen was not too clean, so Felix picked up a cloth off the floor and began wiping it across the screen, covering it with grey mud.  In his still strong South African accent, he said:

“Ag, sorry, I forgot that this bleddy cloth is the one I use after I have watered my plants.”

Felix loved exploring, or, what most people would describe as ‘fiddling’. He picked up everything around him wherever he was. We often ate with him at his sister’s home. He would pick up the crockery, turn it over to see its makers label, and flick it with his fingernail to discover whether it was made of fine china. Once, when he was at our flat, he noticed one of our wedding presents displayed on a shelf. It was a valuable, delicate Rosenthal vase. We held our breath as he picked it up, turned it upside down, rotated it, and pinged it with his fingernail … before returning it safely.

If Felix spotted something that needed mending, he was quick to offer to repair it. He knew how to mend things, but his repairs lacked finesse. One day, he spotted one of my saucepans with a loose handle. He just happened to have some glue in his pocket and began mending it. Although the handle stuck well to the pot, so did the glue, which he had spilled accidentally inside the pot. My cousin told me that once he had tried to fix his broken Pentax camera, but unfortunately managed to drop strong adhesive onto its shutter, rendering it quite useless. She also related that when she and her brother were clearing Felix’s flat after he had died, they found a drawer filled with broken radios awaiting repair. His intentions were good, but the results were not always optimal.

In about 2002, Felix began to suffer several ailments, which gradually eroded his quality of life. He was constantly in and out of the wards of Royal Free Hospital, a place where for many years he had worked as a highly valued voluntary helper. Despite these ailments, he remained as cheerful and as caring of his family as ever. In Spring 2004, Felix was admitted to hospital yet again. For over three months he remained there, ill and very slowly losing strength. Until his death, despite becoming increasingly more debilitated Felix retained an interest in the lives of his family and his many friends. His love of life and of Africa continued until the very end. On the day before he died, Felix was chatting with a Zimbabwean nurse who looked after him. She offered him a piece of biltong (dried meat), which he was pleased to eat despite his loss of appetite.  Soon after this last taste of his beloved Africa, he passed away on the afternoon of Saturday 19th June 2004.

Felix was passionately fond of his nieces and nephews, and this was reciprocated. He had no children of his own: we were like his children. He had a great rapport with children. In a way, and I mean this in the best way, he was a child at heart. He was also first and foremost a South African. Although he spent much of his life in the UK, he was at heart was an African.

One of my favourite comedy films is ‘Mon Oncle’ (1958), directed, produced, and starring Jacque Tati (1907-1982). It portrays the unemployed Monsieur Hulot, who lives happily and modestly in a ramshackle Parisian neighbourhood and is loved by everyone. His nephew, Gerard, lives in a sterile, modern house fitted out with the latest gadgets. Gerard’s parents lead almost mechanical, dull lives, with a great emphasis on tidiness and minimalism. There is little scope for Hulot’s nephew to enjoy the normal life of a child. Fortunately for him, his uncle, M. Hulot, visits often. Hulot is both bemused and intrigued by the hi-tech aspects of his relatives’ uncomfortable home. Prone to curiosity, he fiddles with the modern gadgetry sometimes causing unexpected chaos.  After watching this film on YouTube recently, it suddenly struck me that the M. Hulot, portrayed by Tati, and my uncle Felix, although not too similar, did share some very loveable characteristics.

A small town in South Africa

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MY MOTHER AND THREE OF HER four siblings were born in King Williams Town (South Africa) in the home of their grandfather Franz Ginsberg, who became a Senator in the South African parliament in 1927. They spend the first few years of their lives in the tiny town of Barkly East in the Eastern Cape. Their father, who ran a general store, was also the town’s Mayor until he died in the early 1930s.

My mother migrated to England in 1947. Her sister, my aunt, and one of her brothers arrived in England in the 1950s. Both of them had vivid memories of their childhood in Barkly East, which they happily shared with me.

In 2003, we made a trip to South Africa in order to see places associated with my ancestors, who migrated there from Europe during the 19th century. We hired a car to travel between these scattered places. One of them was Barkly East.

Before leaving England, I discussed Barkly East with my aunt and noted what she told me. During one of these discussions, she drew a sketch map of Barkly East,  marking on it various places she recalled. I took her map to South Africa with me.

Barkly East was established in 1874. In 1885, my maternal grandfather’s uncle Sigmund Seligmann, who came to South Africa from Ichenhausen in Bavaria in about 1865. His nephew, my mother’s father, took over Seligmann’s store in the first decade of the 20th century and ran it along with Mr Blume.

Barkly East was an important commercial centre for the many sheep farmers and wool producers in the district. It began to decline greatly when the usage of motor vehicles increased and farmers were able to reach the far larger centre the town of East London.

When we arrived in Barkly East in 2003, we found a town with almost empty streets that gave little or no feeling of its once prosperous past. It looked like a place on its ‘last legs’, a bit like London is now during the Coronavirus ‘lockdown’.

On our first day we visited the office of local newspaper,  the Barkly East Reporter,  which was then run by the two Mollentze brothers. They welcomed us and told us a lot about Seligmann’s shop, a place where you could buy everything from a needle to a tractor.

I showed my aunt’s map to the brothers. Despite the fact that she had left the town on the early 1930s, they said her map was very accurate.

Using her map, we found the location of her father’s store, which burnt down in the 1960s. The firm’s wool storage warehouse still stood. It was near to the small street where my mother and her siblings spent the first few years of their lives. It stands next door to the house once owned by Mr Blume.

We were keen to see inside my mother’s childhood home. A young man, probably a teenager,  was sweeping the front porch. His name was Frikkie. We explained our interest in the house. Without hesitation, he showed us around the house despite his parents being at work in their café located near a bridge named after my mother’s father.

It made my spine tingle wandering around the building where my mother was a child. Not having seen it before I was unaware that many internal changes had been made to the building since my mother’s family sold it after my grandfather,  the Mayor of Barkly East, died at an early age.

After my mother’s family left Barkly East, their large house was used for a time as a nursing home before being reconverted to a family residence. My aunt’s two children visited Barkly East in late 2019. They found the old family home, but were unable to enter it. Currently, it houses the offices of the local branch of the African National Congress (ANC). How the tide has changed! In my mother’s childhood, the only non-Europeans who would have entered the house were domestic servants.

We also visited the tiny museum in Barkly East,  where we were welcomed by its curator. Like other curators of local museums in other small South African towns we visited, the curator in Barkly East was concerned about their future in the light of lack of both funding and footfall. She told us about the six or so Jewish families in Barkly East. The last of these, the Bortz family, to leave the town had moved elsewhere a few years before our visit.

The curator said that the Bortz family home had stood empty since they left. Then, after rummaging in a drawer,  she showed us a small metal object in the palm of her hand, and said:

“I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I prised this off the frame of the front door of their empty house long after they left. I took it for the museum. Had I left it there, it would have been taken by someone else eventually. Are you able to tell me what it is?”

It was an empty mezuza, a casing for a prayer scroll that Jewish people attach to the doorframes of their homes and sometimes also within them.

On the last day of our visit to Barkly East,  we visited its extensive cemetery, overlooked by a sad looking shanty town. The small Jewish cemetery containing 11 graves, mostly damaged but identifiable was surrounded by a fence, separated from the resting places of white skinned gentiles. Even after death, apartheid exerted its unsavoury influences. The graves of non-Europeans were in a part of the cemetery well separated from the final resting places of the Europeans.

We left Barkly East, the place where my grandparents enjoyed dinner parties, fly fishing, tennis, and golf, as the snow began to fall on the town. We met many lovely people there during our brief but moving visit to the place where my mother lived for the first decade of her life. I am only sad that she died 23 years before our visit. I would have loved to talk with her about what we saw so long after her childhood.

 

New York! New York!

IN THE SUMMER OF 1992, I began planning a trip to the USA. It was going to be the first trip that I had made to that country since 1963, when our family lived in Chicago for the last three months of that year. While we were in Chicago, President JF Kennedy was assassinated. Most of my 1992 trip was to stay with friends who lived in Manhattan. I was also going to stay in Boston with some other friends. When my cousin Anthea heard that I was going to be in New England, she suggested that I looked up some cousins of my father, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island.

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I was keen not to waste a moment in Manhattan. So, unusually for me, I spent many hours of my spare time at home reading numerous guidebooks to New York. Each of these detailed tomes contained a section on keeping safe in New York. Each one of these explained what to do WHEN you get mugged rather than IF you get mugged. It seemed to me that getting mugged in New York was an inevitable experience for tourists in the city. The more I read, the more anxious I became. As the date of departure drew closer, my inclination to cancel my trip increased steadily. However, my desire to visit New York was greater than my fear of the dangers described in my guidebooks. I decided that should I get mugged, as seemed inevitable, I did not want all my money to be taken. I wanted to be left with some so that I could make my way back to where I was staying after the robbery had taken place. I decided that a safe place to hide my ‘emergency’ cash would be inside my sock beneath the sole of a foot. This is what I did every day in Manhattan, but, fortunately, the guidebooks were not entirely accurate: I was not mugged.

Plenty of beggars tried to entice me to put money into the paper cups they held out hopefully. Once, I succumbed and threw a coin into one of these cups, and its owner shouted:

“Is that all? I was hoping for a hundred Dollars,” adding a few seconds later, “well, it’s a start.”

I loved Manhattan. I loved the quick wittedness of almost everyone I met. I felt as if I was taking part in a Woody Allen comedy, but the things said by New Yorkers were often far cleverer and funnier than any of Woody’s lines.

One purchase I wanted to make in New York was a padded winter jacket. When I entered one shop, I explained what I wanted. When I told the salesman that I wanted both outside and inside pockets, he exclaimed:

“Hey, what are ya? Some kind of secret agent?”

He sold me a superb jacket, which I used until a couple of years ago.

My father had told me to look up one of his first cousins, who lived in Manhattan. She lived high up in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. Its windows overlooked The Metropolitan Museum and Central Park. After dinner, I announced that I would walk the few blocks to where I was staying. She was dead against this and insisted I went by taxi. As she and her husband were seeing me off, she said:

“Press the elevator button marked ‘taxi’.”

I boarded the lift, found the button, and pressed it. The lift descended and when the doors opened on the ground floor, I could see a taxi waiting just outside the doors to the apartment block. I was amazed. I had never encountered such a thing before. I felt like a country bumpkin marvelling over the wonders of the big city. This button that summoned taxis seemed to me an example of what made ‘America great’.

It was fun visiting my friends in Boston back in 1992. However, after the excitement and uniqueness of Manhattan, I was not as trilled by the city as many other visitors are.

I took a train from Boston to Providence. It was the time of the famous ‘Fall’ colours. The journey afforded me with a great opportunity to view the outstanding display of autumn leaf colours, which far exceeded my expectations. I had no idea about what sort of time I would be spending with my newly discovered cousins in Providence. My main worry was that they would not take me sightseeing. So, I told them that I would be arriving on a train that reached Providence in the late afternoon but boarded one which arrived in the middle of the day. That allowed me a few hours to look around before I met them.

After spending a few hours on my own in Providence, I returned to the station platform, and then walked up the stairs to the waiting area where I had planned to meet my relatives. I had no idea what any of them looked like. They had no idea about my appearance. I entered the waiting area and found that a lot of people were seated there. I scanned the faces and spotted an elderly lady sitting with two young boys. I fancied that the face of one of these looked like I did when I was only a few years old. Then, I thought that I was being silly, but I was right. I approached the elderly lady, the grandmother of the two boys and introduced myself. Greta, widow of one of my father’s cousins, said she had noticed me and thought that I had a family resemblance to her late husband. She drove us to her daughter’s home in a large American saloon car, swinging the steering wheel with gusto whenever a change of direction was required. My cousin’s family did take me sightseeing. I particularly remember the roads in an Italian neighbourhood. The median road markings were in the three colours of the Italian flag.

I enjoyed my trip to the USA in 1992. My next visit to Manhattan was in 2007. Things had changed a lot since 1992. The city seemed to have lost its edgy, almost electric feel. Gone were the men on the pavements with their paper cups and witty comments. Also missing, were the endless stream of dubious characters walking, often menacingly, along the corridors of the Subway trains. Although Manhattan had probably become a safer place for its inhabitants, I felt that it had become almost twee in comparison to what I had found so exciting in 1992.

Sadly, now in April 2020 as I write this piece, New York City is facing one of its greatest, if not greatest, crises: a viral epidemic that is trying to outdo the Spanish Flu that occurred at the end of WW1. May it return to normal as soon as possible.

Calm sea and Prosperous voyage

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A few years before my mother died, I persuaded my parents to invest in a stereo hi-fi system. My mother would only have such a system if it looked nice. So, they settled on a Bang and Olufsen system. Unfortunately, the aesthetically pleasing speakers sounded awful and we replaced them with something less pleasing to look at but which sounded good. When CD’s (compact discs) became available, I added a CD player to the system. By then, my mother was dead and the appearance of the player no longer mattered.

After my mother died, I was living in Kent. I used to visit my father on Sundays. We used to have lunch together in various restaurants in Hampstead village in north-west London. Always, after we had eaten, we used to viit the Waterstones bookshop and the Our Price music shop nearby.  Often, I would purchase a CD to add to my father’s small collection. On one occasion, I bought a CD with some orchestral music by Beethoven.

Some weeks later, I asked my father if he had enjoyed that CD. He said:

“There is something wrong with it. There is complete silence for the first few minutes.”

I said that I would look into this. When I reached his house, our family home, I turned on the hi-fi system and inserted the problematic CD. My father was right. For the first few minutes, there was nothing to be heard.  Then, I looked at the volume adjustment slider which was marked at equally spaced intervals from 0 to 10. I discovered that my father had been using the system with the volume slider set between 0 and 1. 

The first track on the CD was Beethoven’s Opus 12: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The first few minutes of this piece are very quiet, which is why setting the volume so low made it sound silent. My father’s penchant for barely audible low volume background music was the reason for doubting the integrity of the CD, which I had given him.

 

You can listen to the music mentioned above by clickingH E R E

Why I started to write

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Well over 10 years ago, I came across a website specialising in genealogy relevant to my background. I was curious about my ancestry, but knew very little about it. So, I registered with the site.

One of the sections of the website allowed members to insert surnames alongside towns with which the surnames were associated. So I put my mother’s maiden surname next to the name of a small town in South Africa, where she lived with her parents as a young child. I did the same with my father’s surname. The idea behind this particular section is fo researchers to see if any of the surnames that they are looking into match entries that other researchers had entered. For example, I might have entered ‘Goldberg’ alongside ‘Cape Town, South Africa’. If another person was interested in ‘Goldberg’ families either in Cape Town or South Africa searched this section of the website, they would find all of the Goldbergs in Cape Town or South Africa, which had been entered by other researchers, alongside a link for contacting the person who had entered the information.

So, I entered the two names as described earlier, expecting very little or nothing to happen. My skepticism mas ill-founded. Two days later, I received a message from someone, whose name I did not recognise. He had found my mother’s maiden surname alongside the small town where she lived in South Africa. My new correspondent had worked out that he and I are second cousins. Subsequently, he sent me a family tree for my mother’s father’s family. 

When I told my mother’s brother about this beginner’s luck, he added to it by giving me the family tree for another of my ancestors. One thing led to another, and soon I had compiled an enormous composite family tree. 

My wife commented that it was all very well collecting ever increasing numbers of names to add to my family tree, but that it was not particularly interesting. She suggested that what would be far more interesting would be to look into what the individuals on the tree did when they were alive. This proved to be fascinating, and was the reason that I began writing and publishing books and articles. I fell in love with writing. Regular readers of this blog will know by now that my interests are no longer confined to tales about my ancestors.

 

Picture shows Cuneiform writing at the British Museum