Head in the air
My house on my back
Am I tort-oise or terra-pin?
Head in the air
My house on my back
Am I tort-oise or terra-pin?
One of the daughters of my former PhD supervisor was about to get married. As a friend of his family, I was asked to be one of the four ushers at the service, which was to be held at St Giles and St Andrews, better known as ‘Stoke Poges Church’, whose graveyard has been immortalised by the poet Gray in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. The church stands on land that was once owned by William Penn (1644-1718) after whom the American state of Pennsylvania is named.
As an usher, I was required to wear formal ‘black tie’. So, not possessing such clothes, I had to hire the necessary formal attire. I went to a branch of Moss Brothers, who hire clothing, and was fitted out with all the trimmings, morning suit, trousers, waistcoat, shirt, bow tie, and a top hat, but no cummerbund. Getting a top hat that fitted properly presented great difficulty to the assistant at the clothes hire shop. He looked at my head knowledgeably with an air that suggested to me that he was an experienced clothing fitter. After a moment’s contemplation, he decided that I needed a certain size. The hat he chose by eye was far too small. It wobbled uneasily on the crown of my head. He selected another size. At this stage, I was still impressed that he appeared to be able to judge head size by eye. The next hat was far too large. It slipped right over my ears. I became less impressed with the fellow. Eventually, he found one that almost fitted my head; its rim rested on the tops of my ear lobes. That was the best he could do. I hired this and all the rest of the required ‘gear’.
Just before the wedding, I got dressed in my formal wear at the bride’s parents’ home. I had endless difficulties trying to get dressed in the two-piece waistcoat, which seemed to separate into two separate items whatever I did. One of my fellow ushers managed to get this on to me correctly as well as to fasten my bow tie (another skill I have yet to master). Sadly, I do not possess any pictures of me in this ‘get up’. Then, we set off for the church.
Of the four ushers, two were Christian and two were Jewish. The two Christians were on duty outside the church. The two ushers inside the church were Jewish by birth. I was one of them and the other was Victor, a friend of the bride. Victor, whom I had not seen for several decades, was one of my classmates at primary school in Golders Green back in the 1950s. My duty as usher was to help people find a seat in the church and to hand out leaflets, which I referred to as ‘programmes’ until one lady with a plummy voice told me sternly:
“They’re not programmes, dear; they’re Orders of Service, don’t you know.”
Well, you learn something every day.
About 25 years later, I communicated with Victor, whom I had not seen since the wedding, via the LinkedIn website. We agreed to meet for lunch at an Italian restaurant near London’s Charing Cross Station as Victor was coming up to London from his home on the south coast. I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes before Victor. When he came through the door, I recognised him. He had aged but was still recognisably Victor, even though his hair which had been red when we were children was no longer that colour. Red hair, or ‘orange’ as I used to call it as a child, fascinated me in my young days. I greeted him, and he shook my hand, saying:
“Hmmm … you are not the person I was expecting to meet.”
I was not sure whether to feel pleased or upset that he had mixed me up with someone else from his past.
Don’t worry! This is not really a crisis. I used the word ‘crisis’ in the title to catch your attention! And, now that I have caught your attention, you might as well read on for a fewminutes because what I am about to tell you has a good chance of being interesting for you.
Since marrying a lady born in India, I have had many opportunities to visit India House on the western arm of the Aldwych in central London. Built 1928-30 and designed by Herbert Baker (1862-1946) with AT Scott, this stone building is profusely decorated with Ashoka lions and many circular, coloured emblems, which were those of the pre-Independence (and pre-Partition) colonial provinces (e.g. ‘Baluchistan’, ‘United Provinces’, ‘Burma’, ‘Madras’ and ‘North West Frontier’).
Looking upwards, there are two elaborate crests each topped with heraldic lions and including the mottos: “Honi soit qui mal y pense” and “Dieu et mon droit”. These are ‘souvenirs’ of the era when India was a British colony. Just as in post-Independence India there are still some statues of Queen Victoria standing– there is a fine example in Bangalore, these reminders of British imperialism remain attached to the building.
One side of India House faces India Place, which contains a bust of the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who became a barrister at the nearby Inner Temple. Close to a side entrance of India House, there is a monument to an off-duty policeman Jim Morrison, who was stabbed in December 1991 whilst chasing a handbag thief, who has never been caught. A ‘Friendship Tree’ was planted nearby in 1994 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.
The India House, which now stands in the Aldwych, was NOT the first ‘India House’ in London. It had a predecessor in the north London suburb of Highgate. The earlier India House stood at 65 Cromwell Avenue was a Victorian house that still exists. The Victorian house was named India House between 1905 and 1910 when it was owned by Shyamji Krishnavarma who made it a hostel for Indian students and other Indians staying in London. The north London India House had a brief existence because it was under constant police surveillance on account of the anti-imperialist activities that went on within its walls (including producing anti-British propaganda, anti-British meetings, bomb-making, and arms smuggling).
Many Indian patriots, who wanted to force Britain to give its then colony India freedom, lived and congregated in Highgate’s India House. Their activities and often daring deeds are described in my new book about a lesser-known period in the history of India’s independence struggle: “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”.
“IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”
by Adam Yamey is available from on-line stores including:
Amazon, Bookfinder.com, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and Lulu.com
A Non Resident Indian or NRI is someone, most usually of Indian origin, residing outside India.
There are Indians living in India who try to make their lifestyle as un-Indian as they can possibly manage. These people are usually fabulously wealthy. They try to isolate themselves from the material reality of India as much as they can. A friend of ours refers to these people as “Resident Non Indians”, which is a great way of summarising the way they try to live.
The 50 pence coin, a seven sided silver coloured object, had already been introduced into circulation in the UK when I was a pupil at Highgate School in North London (1965-70). In the mid to late 1960s, 50 pence had considerable purchasing power. For example, this amount of money would pay for two new paperback books.
At Highgate School, all 600 pupils ate lunch together in a large dining hall. The Headmaster, then Alfred Doulton, sat at a high table facing the long tables where his pupils and teaching staff ate.
At the end of lunch, Mr Doulton used to stand up and make brief announcements. If some money had been found lying about, he used to ask if any of us had lost it. Always, a pupil would walk up to the high table to claim the money. Before releasing it, Doulton would ask the claimant to prove that it was his.
I began worrying what I would say if I felt that I had lost the money that Doulton was asking about, especially if it were a valuable 50 pence coin.
So,whenever I had a 50 pence coin, I used a compass or dividers point to scratch my initials, “AY”, on my seven sided coin.
Luckily, I never mislaid any of my 50 pence coins. Had I done so and it had appeared in Doulton’s hand at the end of a lunch time, I would have been able to check whether the coin was mine. I still shudder to think that I would have become the laughing stock if the school had Doulton announced to the assembled pupils something like: “See how prudent Yamey has been. He has even marked his money just in case it gets lost.”
Now, remember if you are ever handed a 50 pence coin and it bears my initials, give it back to me. It’s mine!