THE SCYTHIANS ROAMED around the steppes of Central Asia from about 800 BC to about 300 BC. I write “about” because very little is known for certain about this group of people, also known as the Saka-Scythians or Saka. My interest in the Scythians, who were dependant on horse riding for their not inconsiderable exploits including ruling most of Central Asia, was aroused by discovering that they used the double-headed eagle, a symbol that fascinates me, in their handiwork. So, it was with great excitement that I visited the special exhibition of Scythian gold at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The show, “Gold of the Great Steppe”, is on until the 30th of January 2022.
The exhibition is well worth seeing. The gold and other items found in Scythian grave mounds in Kazakhstan are superb examples of sophisticated technology and fine craftsmanship and they are displayed beautifully. The labelling is clear and easy to read. However, what is very clear from what is written on these labels is that almost nothing concrete is known about the people who created the exhibits. The curators make numerous reasonable-sounding suggestions about the possible ways of life that the items suggest, but these seem to me to be mainly intelligent guesswork. The Scythians left no written records. What we know about them depends mainly on metallurgical and genetic findings, as well as a few linguistic studies. Various Ancient Greek writers have written about them, but their opinions were often biased against them. So, it is not surprising that visitors to the exhibition are left little wiser about the people who created the magnificent artefacts on display. Interspersed amongst the items found in the graves in Kazakhstan there are modern recreations of how the Scythians and their horses might have looked in life. I felt that these mock-ups were rather too speculative for my taste. That said, I was pleased to have seen the show.
WALKING ALONG A SHORT street in London’s Kensington recently, I observed things that I had never noticed before and was reminded of Tony ‘M’. When I was a student of dentistry at the University College Hospital Dental School, I first met Tony in the third year. In that year, we began to learn how to make crowns (‘caps’) for our patients. Instead of sending the work out to be done by technicians, we students had to learn the nitty gritty of fabricating crowns, mostly gold ones. We were assigned to one of three or four technician tutors. I was assigned to Tony’s group. Why visiting Peel Street in Kensington sparked me to think of Tony will be revealed later.
Peel Street in Notting Hill Gate lies in land that used to be known as ‘The Racks’. It was part of the extensive estate of Campden House, which was owned by the Phillimore family. In the early 19th century, the land was bought by John Punter and William Ward, who divided the land between them in 1823 after having agreed to lay out two roads: Peel Str and Campden Str. Peel Street lay in Punter’s share of the area. Although Punter retained several plots along Peel Street, the rest were sold to a variety of different people. Nearer the eastern end of the street several buildings were demolished between 1865 and 1875 during the construction of what is now the Circle Line. Though the tracks are underground, there are no buildings built above them. If you look through the gap on the north side of the road, you can see the rear of a brick building which fronts on Edge Street. Near the top of this place, some bricks have been made to project slightly and to spell the name ‘LESLIE’. The rear part of this L-shaped building is currently occupied by ‘The Spanish Education Office’. This building was flying Spanish and EU flags. I have no idea about the significance of ‘Leslie’.
One of the houses on the south side of Peel Street used to be a pub. It still bears the lettering ‘Peel Arms’. It was probably in existence by 1889, but today it is a private dwelling. The pub’s clientele were probably mostly workers who toiled in the gravel pits that abounded in the neighbourhood. The pub is not far from the six-storey Camden Houses, brick-built blocks of flats erected in 1877-8 for labourers, some of whom might well have drunk at the Peel Arms. The blocks contain 125 separate flats. The entrances to the blocks have art nouveau features. The building were designed by the architect Edwyn Evans Cronk (1846-1919) for the National Dwellings Society Ltd. Cronk was born in Sevenoaks (Kent) and died in Redcliffe Square in South Kensington.
At the western end of Peel Street, there is another pub, The Windsor Castle. Unlike the Peel Arms, this is a working establishment, now popular with the locals, most of whom are not poorly paid labourers. It was originally built in about 1826 and then remodelled in 1933. The pub contains much of its original late Georgian building fabric and is a Grade II listed place. Although I have passed it often, I have never entered it or its reputedly fine garden. At the Eastern end of Peel Street, there is a wine bar, The Kensington Wine Rooms. When we were getting married, back in 1993, the premises were occupied by a branch of the Café Rouge restaurant chain. We held a pre-wedding dinner there. The premises now housing the wine bar once housed a pub, The Macaulay Arms. It was listed as being in existence in the 1868 edition of “Allen’s West London Street Directory”. Thus, residents of Peel Street were only a few steps from three ‘drinking holes’.
“1 Upfold George, sweep/ 2 Arnold F., carpenter/ 3 Miles Frederick, painter/ 23 Mansell H., painter/ 26 Redman J., marine stores/ 28 Redman J., beer retailer/ 37 Taylor W., gardener/ 46 Lucas Wm. Grocer/ 53 Hobbs Mrs. general shop/ 55 Horskins Thos. Baker/ 63 Pollett —, bootmaker/ Harris W., greengrocer/ 67 Smart M., The George Brewery/ 69 Dunnett Mrs. dressmaker/ 77 Elson George, oilman/ 80 Evans H., gardener/ 82 Atwood Mrs, dressmaker/ 83 Salmon —, bootmaker”
Most of the inhabitants appear to have been tradesmen, merchants, and craftsmen, rather than labourers. This is probably because the list was compiled before the Campden Houses were built to house manual labourers and their families. Incidentally, there is still a greengrocer on Peel Street. Jack and Jessie’s excellent shop is opposite the Kensington Wine Rooms.
Peel Cottage stands almost at the corner of Peel Street and Campden Hill Road. It is next to number 118 Campden Hill Road (aka ‘West House’), a building on the corner of Peel street designed for the artist George Henry Boughton (1803-1905) in the late 1870s by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). New Scotland Yard and Lowther Lodge (home of the Royal Geographical Society on Kensington Gore) were amongst the many other buildings designed by Shaw. Another artist, the landscape painter Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902) lived at number 80 Peel Street, where once lived the gardener, H Evans.
The entrance to Peel Cottage, which is dwarfed by its neighbours, is partially covered with ivy. It was seeing the blue, circular commemorative plaque on the wall next to its entrance that reminded me of my former teacher Tony M. The plaque informs the passer-by that the artist Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) lived in Peel Cottage from 1925 until his death. This brings me back to Tony M, about whom you must have thought I had forgotten already.
As a dental student, I spent many hours with Tony M as I struggled to make decent gold crowns that would fit my patients’ teeth in the conservation clinics of the Dental School. Each encounter with Tony involved a trip to the canteen in the school’s basement. Tony was unable to function without a fresh cup of the school’s barely mediocre coffee. Over cups of coffee, Tony used to encourage us when the clinical teachers made our lives miserable, help with our technical work, and chat. During one of our sessions together, Tony, knowing that art interested me, suggested that I visit Cottrell’s showrooms in nearby Charlotte Street (numbers 15-17) to see the fine collection of paintings that hung on its walls. Cottrell’s were an important supplier of dental equipment and materials. Today, although it has retained its original Victorian frontage, it is the premises of the Charlotte Street Hotel.
Dutifully and because I was curious, I visited Cottrell’s showroom and looked at the framed watercolours hanging on the walls of the two ground floor showrooms. The paintings were all works of the inhabitant of Peel Cottage, William Russell Flint.
Flint was born in Edinburgh. He studied at Daniel Stewart’s College and then Edinburgh Institution. Between 1900 and 1902, he worked as a medical illustrator in London. Later, he produced illustrations for books and “The Illustrated London News”. He was elected President of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours (now the Royal Watercolour Society, of which my wife’s cousin, Varsha Bhatia, is a member), a position he held from 1936 until 1956. He was knighted in 1947. Flint produced many well-executed, delicately tinted water-colour paintings. He often visited Spain, where he made plenty of images that often included sensuous portrayals of women in various stages of undress. It was some of these titillating paintings that Tony had sent me to see on the walls of Cottrell’s showroom.
It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s (before 1982, when I qualified) that Tony M encouraged me to pay a visit to Cottrell’s in Charlotte Street to widen my knowledge of the world of art. Many years have passed since then, but a memory of that brief glimpse of Flint’s paintings lingers in the back of my mind. Visiting Peel Street and seeing Flint’s home brought that all back to the forefront of my memory.
I first visited India 25 years ago, arriving in January 1994. On the day before we left to return to the UK, my wife took me to Shezan, a restaurant in Bangalore’s Lavelle Road. This pleasant thoroughfare is named after a Mr Lavelle, who made his fortune at the (now disused) Kolar gold fields east of Bangalore.
My wife said to me that brilliant biryani, which I ought to try, was served at Shezan. We arrived at the restaurant, which was then housed in a picturesque colonial era bungalow.
Where this bungalow used to stand, there is now a modern office building called Shezan Lavelle. Since this was built, the restaurant has been situated at various other locations in Lavelle Road. Recently in late 2018, the Lavelle Road branch of this eatery has been discontinued. Shezan continues to operate in Cunningham Road, where there has been a branch for many years.
Back in 1994, I looked at the menu at Shezan and noticed that Chateaubriand beef steaks were being offered for the Rupee equivalent of 2 Pounds Sterling. I told my wife that I would have a steak rather than a biryani. After all, good biryanis were available in London, where a Chateaubriand used to cost eight to ten times the price at Shezan. The steak at Shezan was first class, and it continues to be so 25 years later.
Shezan used to be run by a man, who died in late 2018, and his elderly father. When we began bringing our young daughter to Bangalore in the late 1990s, we took her for meals at Shezan. Whatever was ordered for her arrived with a small candle flickering on her plate. The candle was placed in a hollowed out tomato that served as a shade.
In early January 2019, we visited the Shezan in Cunningham Road with our daughter, by now a young lady. The branch is run superbly by Aftab, a son of the recently deceased former owner.
Our daughter ordered a portion of Sholay Kebab, a slightly spicy chicken dish cooked with curry leaves. It arrived with a small candle flickering under a hollowed out tomato shell. Remarkably, the kindly Aftab had remembered our daughter after not having seen her since she was a small child.
My late mother was involved in a motor car accident near Cape Town in South Africa when she was a young girl in the 1930s.
“Our family dentist, at least the first one who ever looked after me (during the 1950s and early 1960s), was Dr Samuels, an elderly Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. This kindly man, who must have been in his late 60s or early 70s when he treated me, told my mother how he had to smuggle gold out of Germany. When he, and for that matter any other Jew, was fleeing from Germany in the 1930s, it was not permitted to carry anything of financial value out of the country. His resourceful wife prepared sandwiches for his journey. Instead of filling them with lettuce leaves, she filled them with sheets of gold leaf – a material that used to be used a great deal in dentistry. Thus, if he had encountered inquisitive Nazi officials on the train, he could have concealed the gold he was carrying by munching his precious sandwiches. I am not sure when he retired, but I remember him telling my mother that he would not cease practising until the last of his patients abandoned him. I do not know when this was, but I do know that he helped to conceal from us the fact that my mother was missing some teeth.
In all the 28 years that I knew her, I had no inkling that my mother had two missing front teeth. I knew that she had missing teeth because she often reminded us about the accident that she had suffered, but it was not until she was dead that I discovered, almost by chance, that it was two of her front teeth that she lost.
I am sure that it was having been involved in this accident that led to my mother having seat-belts installed in our Fiat Millecento. She arranged for this to be done at least 20 years before they became mandatory in the UK. I have no idea how and from where she got the idea of installing car seat-belts in 1960, but she did. And, with a little persistence she found somewhere where these items, which were almost unknown in cars, could be installed in our Fiat.
Seat-belts were not routinely fitted into cars before the 1980s, with the exception of some Swedish cars such as Saab and Volvo. There were very few of these on British roads in the early 1960s. Therefore, my mother’s idea of installing them into our Millecento in 1960 was little short of revolutionary. The two front seats of the car were fitted with complex harnesses. A strap went over each of the wearer’s shoulders and these were connected together by a waist strap. The people in the front ended up wearing what looked like the sort of safety harness worn by a jet pilot. These complicated straps were extremely difficult to adjust properly.
The rear of the car was fitted with two lap straps such as are found in aircraft passenger seats. My sister and I used one each except when there was a third person in the back. In this case, my sister and I had to share one strap. To avoid fighting, my mother separated us in the strapby placing a pillow between us.”
The passage written above is an extract from a book, “Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me”. It does not mention the extra locks my mother had fitted in the rear doors of our car. These were to prevent my sister and me from opening the doors while were diving. Had we been in an accident, it would have made it very difficult for rescuers to open these doors as the keys were attched to the ring with the car keys.
I only learnt about my mother’s missing fron teeth when after her tragic demise, I found her partial denture lying around in our house.
“Charlie Chaplin Waved to Me” is available by clicking : HERE