Leave the high street to discover hidden history

Ball Court_240

 

The City of London, the traditional business district of London that stands on the site of the old walled London of Roman and mediaeval times, is full of delightful surprises. Although much of the area was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 and the aerial bombing in the 1940s, what has persisted to a remarkable through the ages is the mediaeval street layout.

Another charming feature are the narrow alleyways that pass between or even through buildings. Step through some of these, and suddenly you find yourself stepping back into history.

Recently, we ‘discovered’ Ball Court, which leads south from Cornhill just a few yards west of the Church of St Michaels Cornhill. A narrow alley leads beneath a building to a wider courtyard open to the sky. Two sides of this rectangular  space are occupied by Simpsons Tavern, a pub (and chop house) established in 1757. Ball Court itself is even older than the tavern, appearing on a map dated 1746. 

I can not tell you why Ball Court has that name, but I feel sure that there must have been a good reason, but it had no name on the 1746 map. In any case, when in London, leave the main streets, explore, and enjoy!

 

Every day I am a tourist

LONDON PIC

Recently, I was walking along the South Bank close to London’s National Theatre when I saw two friends approaching each other. One said to the other:

“Hello, tourist!”

The other replied:

“I am a tourist everyday.”

This got me thinking that I am also a tourist every day. Since I retired in September 2017, my time is more or less my own. However, I do not sit at home bemoaning the fact that I have no work to do. On the contrary, I love my freedom to do what I wish. 

Almost every day, when not travelling abroad or to some other part of the UK, I visit somewhere in London. It may be local or more distant, it does not matter where. Wherever I go, I discover something new, something that either did not exist before because it is newly built or opened or something that has been around for ages, which I have never noticed before.

London is so rich in experiences and sights that even a person like me, who has lived there for over 60 years, can always find novelty when stepping out of the house. Every time I leave home, I enjoy and appreciate London. Every day, I become a tourist in my own city.

Breathing the past

CHARLIE

 

I always enjoy visiting places with interesting historical associations. For example, it gave me a thrill to enter the room in a house in Porbandar (Gujarat, India) where Mahatma Gandhi was born, and to stand in Sarajevo at the very spot where Gavrilo Princip shot the Austrian Archduke and his wife in 1914.

I hope that the following excerpt from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me” can begin to explain my fascination for visiting places with great historical significance either for me or the world in general:

To reach Oxford Circus, the starting point of our trips to the West End,
we used to take the Northern Line of the Underground to Tottenham
Court Station, and change there to the Central Line. In the 1960s, there
were signs that directed the passengers from the Northern line to the
Central, but these involved using a number of staircases and walking
quite a distance. My mother ignored the signs, and headed straight for a
passageway at one end of the southbound Northern Line platform. This
was clearly labelled ‘No Entry’. My mother knew better than to obey
this because she knew that it was a shortcut to the Central Line
platform. Today, it is the recommended route. Whenever I walk along
this once ‘forbidden’ passageway, I wonder whether amongst the
billions of molecules that make up the air in that circular passage there
is maybe at least one molecule of the carbon dioxide or nitrogen that
was once breathed out of my late mother’s lungs. And, do the echoes of
her footsteps still reverberate even ever so faintly in this busy
passageway?

It is the thought that I might be sharing even one molecule of the air breathed by the persons who gave a place the historic interest for me that gives me an irrational thrill. It is for this reason that I feel unable to visit places like Auschwitz and Dachau. I do not wish to breathe the air that might possibly have been around when the Nazis and their unfortunate victims occupied such places. 

This might seem a bit ridiculous as the chances of breathing the same molecules of air that say my mother or the Archduke of Austria inspired are extremely miniscule, but what is the joy of life if not full of quirkiness.

 

Charlie Chaplin waved to me” by Adam Yamey is available from:

Amazon, Lulu.com, and bookdepository.com, as well as on Kindle

Two names, one country

The Albanians now refer to their country as “Shqipëria”. Almost everyone else calls the same country “Albania” or some variant of this.

Here is an interesting article that discusses this difference: http://www.tiranatimes.com/?p=133209

Incidentally, the national symbol of Albania is a two headed eagle. This is appropriate for a country known by two names!

Some men of history

HIST 1

 

My interest in history began when I was about six years old. I could read well by that age. My parents gave me a book called “Looking at History”. It was a simply written thoroughly informative book with many line drawings illustrating everyday life in the British Isles from earliest times to the twentieth century. The book, published in 1955, was one of my treasures. I loved leafing through it. It was created by the historian RJ Unstead (1915-88). This book kindled my life-long interest in history.  One birthday, my parents gave me another book by Unstead, “People in History: Caractacus to Alexander Fleming”. Published in 1959, it contains a series of simple but informative biographies of important British historical personalities.” This was another book that I read over and over again.

hist 1a

In 1960, I entered The Hall School, a prestigious educational establishment in London’s Swiss Cottage area. This school’s main aim was to educate boys sufficiently well so that they could enter the best private secondary schools. To enter these schools, an examination called ‘Common Entrance’ had to be passed with high marks. One of the papers in this test was history. At The Hall, history was taught with only one goal: passing the Common Entrance. Year after year, our history teachers guided us from Julius Caesar’s arrival in Kent to the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. What seemed to be important was knowing the dates of events rather than the significance of these happenings. History was reduced to monotonous chronology.

hist 00

Things did not improve when I entered my secondary school Highgate (founded 1565). History was compulsory in the first year. It was taught by a well-known historian AW Palmer, who has published many books. For some unaccountable reason we had to study the history of the USA. Palmer managed to make it both incomprehensible and uninteresting. This was one of the many reasons that I gave up history in favour of the school’s alternative to it: physics. In fairness to Palmer, his “A Dictionary of Modern History, 1789-1945” (published in 1964) fascinated me. It covered a period of history that was poorly covered at The Hall and had fascinated me from an early age. I believe that my interest in what Palmer termed as “Modern History” began when I was about twelve. It was then I began looking at the adults’ section of Golders Green’s public library and discovered books about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

HIST 2

Gwyneth Klappholtz, who was married to Kurt – one of my father’s colleagues at the London School of Economics, taught history at a state school. I used to visit the Klappholtz home regularly in my teens. Gwyneth picked up on my interest in history and recommended me an author whom I feel can write history superbly. The historian Alistair Horne (1925-2017) has written over twenty-six books. I have read several of those. My favourite is “The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71” (published 1967, during the time when I used to visit the Klappholz family regularly). Horne writes history as if he were a really good novelist, yet everything he wrote was based on solid, reliable historical research. His books are a joy to read. This is something that the other writers of history, whom I am about to mention, share: an ability to present, often complicated historical situations, in a clear, easily readable form.

hist 3

At about the time I discovered Horne, I found an exciting book amongst my father’s library of mostly erudite books on economics. It was called “The Golden Trade of the Moors”. Written by Edward William Bovill (1892-1966), it describes how the Moors crossed the Sahara with salt to exchange for gold in sub-Saharan Africa, where salt was scarce, and worth its weight in gold. Although I enjoyed this book, I have not read anything else by this author.

hist 4

My PhD supervisor, a medical doctor and physiologist, introduced me to another very readable historian, the American William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859). This remarkable historian had very poor eyesight. Often, whist he was doing historical research an assistant was required to read documents and other literature to him. He had a phenomenally good memory, which must have been a great help if he had to perform most of his research through the eyes of another. He wrote mainly about aspects of Spanish and Spanish-American history.

hist 000

Christopher Hibbert (1924-2008) is another very readable historian. He has written over fifty books, many of which are historical biographies. I have particularly enjoyed his accounts of the lives of King George III and his son King George IV.  Like the other historians I have been describing he combines erudition with literary skill. In 1983, he edited the magisterial, splendid “The London Encylopaedia” with Ben Weinreb.

hist 5

About four years ago just before my first trip to Sicily, I read “The Sicilian Vespers.” This deals with a complex series of events leading up to a revolt of the Sicilians against their French occupiers in 1282. Although the author Steven Runciman (1903-2000) does not make the story appear simple, he skilfully navigates the reader through the complicated intertwining strands of history leading up to the event. Some decades before visiting city, I read Runciman’s “The Fall of Constantinople 1453”, another captivating but historically accurate account of an important turning point in the history of Europe.

hist 6

In October 2018, I made another visit to Sicily, mainly Palermo. That city and nearby Cefalu contain buildings erected while the Normans occupied Sicily. They took over the island several years before invading Britain. The Normans in Sicily built fine churches and palaces. Often these buildings contain elements of Arabic architecture. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. The leading account of the Normans in Sicily (and southern Italy) was written by the prolific John Julius Norwich (1929-2018). Although he claimed to be no expert on the subject, his two-volume history of the Normans in Sicily is both scholarly and very readable. As with the works of the other authors mentioned, reading this history is both informative and pleasurable. In addition, Norwich injects humour at appropriate places. I am looking forward to reading other books by him including his highly-rated history of Venice.

They have never had it so good…

ARY 36 HW 60s

To many readers the early 1960s must seem as remote today as the 1860s seemed to me when I was a young boy at school in the 1960s. Between 1960, when I was eight years old, and 1965 I attended a prestigious private preparatory (‘prep’) school near Hampstead in north-west London. For those who are unfamiliar with private schooling in Britain a prep school prepares children for examinations that allow them to gain admission to Public Schools (i.e. private secondary schools).

In British schools today, teachers get into big trouble if they so much as touch one of their pupils. Even an affectionate pat, let alone a punitive slap, can get a teacher into ‘hot water’ both with the parents and with the school authorities. This was not the case at my prep school in the first half of the 1960s. Let me tell you about three of my school teachers.

Mr Rotherham taught us Latin. He was a short, slightly plump man. His face was always bright red. It looked as if he was about to burst yet another blood vessel. He was not a man to mess with. If he thought that a pupil had done something wrong, even a small grammatical mistake, he would race up to the miscreant’s desk, and seize a bunch of the poor boy’s hair. Then tugging at the hair, Mr Rotherham would pull the boy off his chair and drag him around the class room, shouting abuse. This procedure was known as a ‘Rozzie haircut’.

Mr Bathurst, who I quite liked, taught us history. Every year, we would begin with the date that Julius Caesar first landed in England and would end at 1914. The aim of the history, which we were taught at prep school, was to drum into us a series of important dates. What actually happened on those dates and the significance of those occurrences was of no importance. It was important that we could arrange in chronological order a set of items such as for example: Archbishop Laud, Agincourt, The Corn Laws, Waterloo, Magna Carta, and The Armada. Their importance was unimportant. It is no wonder that it took me many years before I realised how exciting it is to study history. On the whole, Bathurst, or ‘Batty, as we referred to him out of his earshot, was a kindly fellow. However, if you annoyed him, there were two possible outcomes. He would have called you up to the front of the class and then gripped one of your ears before twisting it painfully. Alternatively, the victim of his wrath had to lay his palm on the desk in order that Batty could hit the ‘criminal’s’ fingers with the edge of a wooden ruler.

Mr P also taught Latin. His first name was Denzil. This was also our nickname for him. Denzil’s fingers were crooked, distorted perhaps by a joint disorder. His voice was very nasal. In the early 1960s, teachers were not forbidden from smoking in class. Denzil used to hold his chalk in a crooked finger of his right hand, and a lighted cigarette in a curved finger of his other hand. His handwriting on the blackboard was illegible.  Occasionally, he would show off, claiming that he was ambidextrous. He used to let go of the cigarette and replace it with a second piece of chalk, and then write on the blackboard with both hands at the same time. The result was terrible, even more illegible than when he wrote with only one hand. If someone annoyed Denzil, he would come up to the person, and sharp clip an ear with the knuckle of one of his twisted fingers. We called this short, sharp, painful blow the ‘Denzil blip’.

Well, none of this would be tolerated in today’s Britain, and quite rightly so. In the words of the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, let me tell today’s school kids that they: “… have never had it so good…”

Island of history

The timeless Mediterranean washes the shores of an ancient land, Sicily.

Here in Cefalu, the Normans built a magnificent cathedral after taking over the island from its Arab rulers.

Sicily has been invaded many times, each invasion adding to the variety of culture and traditions on this piece of land that separates the western part of the Mediterranean from the eastern part.