May the 8th

SIXTY-NINE YEARS ago on the 8th of May 1952, a lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics was sitting anxiously in the ante-chamber of an operating theatre in the Royal Free Hospital, which was at that time in London’s Grays Inn Road. It is now part of the Eastman Dental Hospital, the post-graduate dental school of University College London, where I have attended courses.

The lecturer looked up from what he was trying to read to distract himself when the gloved surgeon came out of the operating theatre, and talking to himself, but loud enough to be heard, said:

“Shall I use the Simpsons or the Kiellands?”

He was referring to forceps used to deliver babies. My father, who thought that the question had been addressed to him, replied:

“I am sorry I can’t help you with that. I am only an economist.”

The surgeon gave him a withering look, and returned to the operating theatre, where the economist’s wife was lying, deeply anaesthetised. In the end, the surgeon decided to deliver the baby with a Caesarian section.

That baby was me. The economist was my father. That I am writing this today is at the very least a minor miracle, as I will explain.

Back in the early 1950s, one did not argue with medical practitioners; they always knew best. My mother had informed her physician when I had been conceived, but he did not believe what she had said. I can imagine the doctor thinking: “what would she know? Only a woman.” So, when my mother did not give birth when she expected, at about nine months after conception, the doctor told her to be patient as he thought she had another month to go

After I had been ‘in utero’ for ten months, my mother began getting worryingly ill. Eventually, those who claimed to know best admitted her to hospital and I was delivered. Both my mother and me had developed symptoms of toxaemia. It was touch and go as to whether we would both survive, but we did.

Because I had been inside the womb for a month longer than I should have, I was born with several problems. One of these was a cerebral haematoma, which I hope has resolved itself by now. Years later, my mother told the school that I should not play rugby for fear of disturbing this. The other thing was that my neck was bent over to one side; I had a torticollis. The medics told my mother that it was incurable and that she should get used to the idea that I would just have to live with the distortion.

If I am not misrepresenting my late mother, I am certain that she would not have been happy living with a distorted child. She was a sculptor and decided that the doctors were wrong about being certain that my neck condition was incurable. Every day, she stretched my neck gently and gradually it began to grow in the normal way. I am incredibly grateful that she did this.

Getting back to my first days on earth, I had to spend the first fortnight in an incubator. In those far-off days, visiting babies in incubators was limited if it was allowed at all. My mother was exhausted after the traumatic birth and, given that she would not have been able to see me much whilst I was in the incubator, she and my father took a holiday in Cornwall. I only learnt about this a few years ago, Had I known about it when I was younger, who knows but I might have had a rejection complex. My behaviour might be considered unusual at times, but I feel it would be unfair to blame that on my spell in the incubator in London while my parents relaxed in Cornwall.

Well, there you have it: the story of the first few days of my life. Of course, I cannot remember any of it, but what I have told you was related to me by people who were around at the time.

A narrow escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care

Cross the high wall

At your own risk, boldly:

Maybe you will regret it

Some years ago, some youngsters were messing around on their motorbikes late at night on the empty Old Airport Road that passes several military compounds. When they were stopped by the police, they dismounted and scattered in all directions. One youngster leapt over a wall and into the garden of the local commander’s bungalow. When challenged by a guard, he kept running. The guard shot him dead.

Foolish on foot

Taxi!_240

 

Years ago, I had friends who lived south of Hampstead Heath in South End Green, near where the writer George Orwell lived during the 1930s. I often visited my friends there and usually stayed with them until long after public transport ceased working late at night – those were the days long before 24 hour bus services. In those days, I was a student with limited means. Taxi and minicab rides to my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to the north of Hampstead Heath were costly and if used too often would eat too deeply into my meagre funds.

So, often I used to walk through the darkness to my home, a distance of well over 2 miles. Most of this walk was across the wooded stretches of Hampstead Heath. Even back in the 1970s, this vast expanse of urban woodland was far from safe. Murders and attacks were not unknown. My parents and others would have been horrified to learn that I was risking my life to save paying a cab fare. Was I scared? The answer was both yes and no. I was concerned because of the news stories I had read. Yet, on the other hand I was not so afraid.

I felt that anyone encountering me on my nocturnal wandering deep in the secluded heart of Hampstead Heath might have had one of two reactions. Either he or she might have imagined that I was up to no good and possibly on the prowl for victims and would therefore steer clear of me, or that the person  whom I encountered was up to no good. If he or she was ill-intentioned, the person would have still had to be a little bit cautious because I might have turned out to be more than a match for him or her. This reasoning would have done me no good had the person I met been severely evil. 

Fortunately, luck was on my side. I never encountered anyone, innocent or evil, on my nocturnal strolls. However, I would never even dream of making this kind of journey across Hampstead Heath again, and would not advise anyone else to attempt it because London has become more dangerous than it was in the 1970s and before.

Save the planet, lose your life

 

In January of this year, I posted a piece about drinking straws, https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2019/01/24/drinking-through-a-straw/,  and how plastic straws are being replaced by paper straws, which go soggy before you finish your drink.

Well, now you can obtain re-usable drinking straws made of metal. Some of these come with fine brushes to help clean the straw after use. Great idea, you might think, although I would have some concerns about maintaining the hygiene of these straws. Also, I wonder how much energy needs to be expended to create a metal drinking straw.

Today, 9th July 2019, I spotted a worrying item in the Metro, a London daily newspaper. The article described a terrible accident during which someone fell on to her metal straw, which then pierced her eye and entered her brain. This resulted in the poor woman’s death.

Even if it does help save the planet, you won’t catch me using a metal straw!