A hill of memories

PRIMROSE HILL IN NORTH LONDON is a delightful place to take exercise. From its summit at 210 feet above sea-level, it is possible to enjoy a superb panorama of London if the weather permits. At its summit, a low concrete construction is inscribed with the words the poet William Blake (1757-1827) told the lawyer, diarist, and a founder of University College London, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867):

“I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”

In one of his poems, Blake wrote:

“The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.”

On a recent visit to Primrose Hill in January 2021, when the temperature was at the freezing point of water and London was covered by low cloud, we had no sight of the sun, spiritual or otherwise. Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable stroll that evoked many memories. One of these was when I studied at University College London. If I felt energetic, I used to walk the five or so miles to college from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Part of my route was up and over Primrose Hill.

The gardens on the south side of Elsworthy Road back on to the northern base of the hill. It was on this road that my parents, newly married in 1948, lived briefly in a flat that they rented from the economist Ronald Coase (1910-2013). My mother told me that amongst the furniture in the flat there was a record player with a gigantic horn as its speaker. 46 years later, my father and my stepmother bought a house on the road. He lived there until he died last year.

Elsworthy Terrace, a cul-de-sac, leads from Elsworthy Road to Primrose Hill. The botanist and first female botanist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, Agnes (née Robertson) Arber (1879-1960), lived at number 9 between 1890 and 1909, when she married the paleobotanist Edward Alexander Newell Arber (1870–1918). The Terrace leads to one of the many footpaths that form a crisscrossing network all over the grassy hill that has well-spaced trees of varying shapes and sizes. Plenty of these were covered with frost. Many of the paths meet at the treeless summit of the hill where, if you are lucky with the weather, you can enjoy a good view.

Primrose Hill, first opened to the public in 1842, was part of land appropriated for hunting by King Henry VIII. The earliest mention of its name was in the 15th century. In October 1678, the body of the anti-Catholic magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (1621-1678) was found on Primrose Hill, marked with signs of strangulation and other bruises. The identity of his killer(s) remains a mystery. The hill was also the site of duels including one in about 1813 when the Italian patriot Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) faced Mr Graham, the editor of the “Literary Museum”. The dispute that led to this was about his ‘Three Graces’:

“The Three Graces were his maidservants; two of them turned out to be prostitutes, and one of them ran off with his former translator. This led to a duel, whether in Regent’s Park or Primrose Hill is not clear; fortunately no blood was shed.” (www.regentsparklit.org.uk/authors_e_i.htm#Foscolo)

The southern edge of the hill is bounded by the Regents Canal, designed by John Nash (1752-1835), first used in about1816. We walked eastwards along the towpath from the elegant bridge number 10 to the point where the canal makes a right angle and heads under the Water Meeting road bridge and towards Camden Lock. This stretch of the canal has the London Zoo on both of its banks. On the north side of the canal, we passed the aviary designed by Lord Snowdon in 1964. One of Snowdon’s collaborators was Frank Newby, who was a colleague of my uncle Sven Rindl, a structural engineer at the Felix Samuely company.  On the opposite bank we passed the Giraffe House and the wild hunting dog’s enclosure, where we spotted several of these beasts prowling about. Moored at the corner where the canal changes direction, you cannot miss seeing an old-fashioned boat that looks as if it has sailed from China. This houses the ‘Feng Shang Princess’ floating Chinese restaurant, which was already built by the 1980s.

The Victorian gothic St Marks Church is flanked on two sides by the canal and on another by a short street, St Marks Square. The church, which is not particularly attractive, was consecrated in 1853, damaged during WW2, and rebuilt by 1957.  The northern edge of the church’s ground is on the southern side of Regents Park Road.

Heading west away from the church, we reach number 52 Regents Park Road. It was here that four of my good friends including the author and art historian Michael Jacobs (1952-2014) lived as ‘house-sitters’ for its then owner Rudi ‘G’ during the 1970s. The road flanks the north-eastern edge of Primrose Hill before curving eastwards and becoming an upmarket shopping street.

Since 1979, a Greek restaurant called Lemonia has been flourishing in Regents Park Road. Originally, this was housed in premises on the east side of Regents Park Road. Then, it moved to larger premises across the road in 1992. For a while, its original premises, remained part of the restaurant but renamed ‘Limonaki’. This has disappeared. The lady, who has become my wife, lived for a few months during the spring of 1983 in an avant-garde dwelling in Eglon Mews, close to the shops in Regents Park Road. It was then that she ‘discovered’ Lemonia, which became one of our favourite restaurants for several years. We held a few birthday parties there. Much later, when my father came to Elsworthy Road, he and my Greek stepmother became keen users of this friendly eatery. Nearby, is the independent Primrose Hill Books shop, a handy source of reading matter for the many local inhabitants with intellectual leanings, real or imagined.

These long-established businesses are in the midst of a good range of shops, offering a wide variety of goods. as well as cafés and restaurants and a pub. I can heartily recommend taking some physical exercise on Primrose Hill before acquiring something to stretch your mind at the bookshop (sadly not open at the moment), and taking refreshment in a pleasant, faintly Bohemian but distinctly bourgeois environment.

The importance of being British

HBY 60s 36 HW BLOG

I HAVE ONLY VISITED CRETE once, and that was in the late 1960s with my parents and sister. We were based in Heraklion and made excursions from there around central Crete, visiting sites including Knossos, Matala, the windmills of Lasithi, Malia, Aghios Nikolaos, and Phaistos. This piece concerns three memories of my late mother on that visit.

The first recollection is of the rather non-descript but very comfortable hotel where we stayed in Heraklion. It had its own swimming pool. My mother, who could not swim, and was always a bad sailor, could not bear to look at the pool; it made her feel seasick seeing its water.

The next memory is of a hot day somewhere in the Cretan countryside. We were all thirsty and ready for a drink. We passed a house with a garden. Some people were sitting at a table sipping the tiny cups of coffee that Greeks favour. They were drinking what many people call ‘Turkish Coffee’, which many Greeks prefer to call ‘Greek Coffee’ or even ‘Byzantine Coffee’.

My mother walked up to the gate leading into the garden and using one of the few words of Greek that she knew, called out:

Kafenion?

Kafenion (καφενεῖον) is the Greek word for ‘café’. Another Greek word she knew well was ‘siga’ (σιγά), which means ‘slowly’. She used it almost in every car that we were being driven in Greece. She was terrified that others driving her would have an accident because as a child in South Africa she had been involved in a dreadful car crash.

Getting back to my story, the coffee drinkers invited us into the garden and asked us to join them. My mother was mildly embarrassed to discover that this was a private house, not a ‘kafenion’. Soon, we were all supplied with Turkish Coffee. One of our hosts spoke rudimentary English. He had been a sailor when younger and excitedly told us that he had been to ‘Kong Kong’, in his own words.

Then, my mother noticed a single brightly coloured flower in the hedge surrounding the garden. She pointed at it, exclaiming “oreia” (ωραία), the Greek word for ‘lovely’. Our hosts burst out laughing. They found my mother’s reaction to the flower hilarious. One of them took Mummy to the flower and showed her it was artificial, attached to the hedge with a fine wire.

The third thing I recall about our Cretan odyssey relates to a commodity that was in great demand recently here in the UK: toilet paper. When we used to visit Greece in the 1960s and 1970s, there were usually people sitting at the entrances to public toilets. These folk, often elderly women, were there to sell sheets of toilet paper to people about to make use of the facilities.

We were in one small Cretan village when my mother needed to answer Nature’s call. We found a public convenience. An elderly toilet paper vendor was sitting by its entrance. My mother rummaged in her handbag for small change. While she was doing this, the lady asked my mother:

“Deutsch? German?”

My mother answered:

“British.”

The lady handed her some toilet paper and would not accept the customary two Drachma payment.

We were in Crete at least twenty years after the German occupation of the island had ended in spring 1945. The Germans had perpetrated many horrific deeds on the Cretan population. The woman outside the toilet was certainly old enough to have had strong memories of that ghastly time. Had my mother been German, she would have had to pay for the toilet paper. Being British, she was like the great writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) who fought the Germans in occupied Crete, a representative of  a nation which helped rid the island of its unwelcome occupiers. This toilet attendant’s small act of kindness towards my mother helped drive home how awful it was to have been occupied by the Germans during WW2.

Meeting the Colonel

My parents were against supporting dictatorial regimes. For example, during the 1960s and ‘70s, they would only buy pickled gherkins that had been made in Western Europe, in places like West Germany or Holland. They would not have bought Hungarian or Polish, or even Bulgarian gherkins because by doing so they believed that some of the money they spent might well end up being used build weapons that could be used against the ‘free’ West. They were against visiting countries behind the “Iron Curtain” or General Franco’s Spain.

PATT 1

My father had several Greek colleagues. At a dinner held by one of them, they met a Greek millionaire, one of Greece’s wealthiest men. My mother noticed that he was fiddling with worry beads and did not know what they were. She asked him, and he threw the beads across the table to her. They were coral beads on a gold chain. She looked at them, and then began to hand them back, when he said:

“Keep them.”

“Don’t be silly, I can’t keep these,” my mother replied, realising their worth.

“No, please let me give them to you.”

My mother and the millionaire struck up an amicable relationship, and near the end of the evening, he said:

“You must bring your family to Greece as my guests.”

My mother thought he was joking, but after that occasion my parents kept getting invitations from him.

PATT 2

The symbol of the Junta is circled in this picture taken in rural Greece during the late 1960s

This dinner party happened soon after the 21st of April 1967, when a group of colonels, the Junta, took control of the Government of Greece replacing a democracy with a dictatorship. How could they possibly accept their new friend’s kind invitation to a country with a dictatorship? Much as they would have liked to accept, going to Greece was even worse than buying gherkins from a Communist country.

The invitation kept being repeated. After about two years, I came up with a suggestion. I said to my parents that if we were to become guests of the millionaire, we would contribute little or nothing to the economy of the Greek Junta. Miraculously, my parents saw my point and decided to accept the invitation.

 

On arrival in Greece, we found it very difficult to spend any of our own money. We were looked after by one of the millionaire’s former employees. If he saw us so much as looking at something, he would try to buy it for us. We learned to look at things discretely!

We saw little of our host, a busy man. One evening, we were invited to a party at his large estate on the edge of Athens. It was a lovely place with numerous outhouses including an open-air eating area with its own large kitchen building. Our host met and introduced us to various guests. After a while he introduced us to a gentleman, saying:

“Please meet Colonel Pattakos.”

PATT 3

Colonel Stylianos Pattakos. [Source; Wikipedia]

My parents were polite, but doubtless horrified after shaking hands with Pattakos. Stylianos Pattakos (1912-2016), a Greek military officer, was one of the principal leaders of the Greek military dictatorship. Pattakos is best known outside Greece for his decision to strip the singer Melina Mercouri of her Greek citizenship. She is reported to have said of Pattakos, who was the Minister of the Interior:

“I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr Pattakos was born a fascist and he will die a fascist.”

Unloved by most Greeks, Pattakos is said to have told a reporter that when, he returned to his native Crete, a few months after seizing power, his mother had demanded to know who had put him up to “this evil” (see: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/10/09/stylianos-pattakos-last-survivor-of-the-1967-greek-military-junt/).

I feel sure that if they had been able to do so, they would have washed their hands thoroughly after contact with Pattakos.