Photographic memories

THERE IS PHOTOGRAPHY IN MY GENES. My great-grandfather, Senator Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) left his native Prussia to migrate to South Africa in 1880. He arrived in King Williams Town where he and his future bother-in-law Jakob Rindl established a photography studio, one of the first in southern Africa.

HAL 6

I became keen on photography as soon as an uncle, a keen amateur photographer who was closely related to Jakob Rindl and also Franz Ginsberg, had presented me with a simple Kodak Brownie camera when I was about seven years old. It was exciting taking photographs, waiting for the film to be developed at chemist or photography shops, and then opening the packet to discover whether the prints bore any decent looking images. In those early days, there were plenty of dud shots, but also a few decent ones. I graduated from the Brownie to another Kodak model, which had two lens and a viewfinder on top of the device. It was probably a version of the Brownie Reflex camera. It pleased me because it had a few things that could be adjusted whilst taking a picture.

As I got older, maybe over twelve years old, I began buying photography magazines. I soon realised that to achieve interesting results in photography, using a 35mm film camera was essential. I leafed through the issues, reading the reviews of cameras that sounded wonderful but were way beyond my budget. I was so fascinated by these sophisticated devices that I used to draw pictures, fantasising what I would have liked to have owned.

Eventually, there was a review of a camera that almost suited my pocket money budget, and which was likely to satisfy my desire to own a more complicated camera. The camera, which was given an excellent review was made by the Halina company and cost around £12.The Halina models were manufactured in Hong Kong by the Hakin Company. I cannot recall exactly which model was reviewed but it looked similar to the Halina 35x. I do remember that it did not have a built-in exposure meter.

Twelve pounds was a lot of money for me to find in the mid-1960s. I did not expect my parents to donate this sum to me for something they considered unnecessary because they never showed any interest in taking photographs. However, they did offer me a solution: I could earn the money by helping them. The task I was given was to mow the lawn in our garden once a fortnight. Please note that we only possessed a non-motorised human-powered mower. So, the £1 that I received for each quite arduous mowing was not easy money.

Eventually, I amassed the required sum to buy my Halina camera and it leather-like case. Then, I was faced with the problem of determining the appropriate shutter speed and diaphragm settings for my shots. My uncle, the one who had started off my interest in photography, gave me a circular plastic exposure calculator. By twisting the dial to three settings (weather condition, subject matter, film speed), the device produced a recommended combination of exposure time and diaphragm setting (‘f number’). At first, this was quite difficult to use. After a little practice, I became very adept. For example, I could use the calculator to work out the correct exposure settings when taking pictures of landscape from a moving car or bus, and the results were often more than acceptable.

A little more money saving allowed me to have sufficient to buy a highly recommended low-cost electronic exposure meter made by the Boots Company (the famous British pharmaceutical retailer). The meter was far easier to use, and much quicker than, the plastic calculator.

I used the Halina happily for several years until 1967. That year, my parents paid a visit to Japan, where they were hosted by various Japanese people and organizations. Moments before they were about to board the jet that would fly them back to London, their hosts handed them several generous gifts. One of these was a top of the range Canon Rangefinder camera. As mentioned already my parents had no interest in using cameras.

When my parents landed in London, they declared their gifts to a customs officer. Handing the camera to him, my mother said:

“We don’t want this. Take it so that we need not pay duty.”

The officer looked at the fine camera and said:

“The duty is only £3. Anyway, I can’t take it.”

As my parents paid the duty, the officer leant over and whispered to them:

“You’ll get at least £300 for this if you sell it to someone on Oxford Street.”

Fortunately, they did not follow the officer’s advice. Instead, they gave me the superb camera, which I used for many years until I decided to buy a Pentax single lens reflex (‘SLR’) camera. Its excellent lens and accurate built in exposure meter never let me down.

The Pentax was a disaster. I bought it to use during my first visit to what was then Czechoslovakia. A critical part of it broke two or three days into the trip. No one in Prague could fix the thing. So, I purchased another SLR camera. It was an Exacta, which had been made in Eastern Germany shortly before the Berlin Wall was demolished. The Exacta was heavy but solidly built; it was probably indestructible and produced lovely photographs.

That was all long ago. My interest in photography has continued, but it has been several years since I abandoned film cameras for digital devices, both ‘phones and actual cameras. The advent of digital photography and the editing software that can be employed to modify the images captured have eliminated the need for film developing and darkrooms. Modern digital software allows anyone to be able to do what was only possible in darkrooms and much more.

Ignorance is bliss

DURING MY UNDERGRADUATE student days in the very early 1970s, a good friend, who is now my wife, suggested that a group of us should visit one of the then very few Japanese restaurants in London. The one we chose was in St Christopher’s Place, close to Oxford Street.

We decided to order sashimi, raw fish. I chose to have a plate of tuna sashimi. I had never eaten raw fish before, but after my first bite I decided this was a very superior way of serving fish. The sashimi was more than delicious. I would have loved much more than the five neatly cut pieces of tuna, which was the portion size. However, I could not afford that luxury.

The five bite sized pieces of tuna cost £7. And, in the early 1970s that sum could pay for a lot of food or other goods. For example, a Penguin paperback book cost 12.5 or 17.5 pence and a gallon (4.5 litres) of petrol was well under £1.

I was left hungry after our visit to the Japanese restaurant, and had to assuage my appetite at a fast food outlet.

Today, the price of Japanese food in London has dropped relative to what it was almost 50 years ago. Outlets like Itsu can provide a satisfying Japanese set meal for little more than £7. Better quality Japanese restaurants are justifiably more expensive, but not usually way out of reach, as was my plate of sashimi in St Christopher’s Place.

We used to visit a lovely Japanese restaurant in Holland Park side street. It was run by an elderly couple from Japan. It closed when they retired. For a year or two, we did not eat Japanese food in London.

One Saturday evening, we were watching a play at the National Theatre. It was not satisfactory. So, we walked out after the first act. We decided to drive to Ali Baba, an Egyptian eatery near Baker Street.

On the way, I thought that if we were to see a Japanese restaurant, we would stop and eat there. I stopped the car outside a Japanese restaurant near Bloomsbury and suggested to my wife that we ate there. She agreed and we entered the small eatery.

We looked at the menu and then looked at each other across the table. By chance, we had walked into a very (no kidding) expensive place. We were on the point of walking out when I said to my wife:
“Let’s eat here. I will enjoy it if I don’t see the bill. You check it, and I will hand over the card.”
Ignorance is bliss, and so was the food.

Pictures taken at Harima restaurant in Bangalore, India

Seven streams

Seven

At first, I was daunted at the prospect of watching a seven hour drama at London’s National Theatre. Then, remembering that I had endured an eleven hour bus journey in Gujarat and several long intercontinental flights, I decided that sitting comfortably at the theatre for seven hours including intervals would not be too bad, and I was right.

The play we watched, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota”, by Canadian playwright Robert Lepage (born 1957 in Quebec,), is divided into seven acts or installments. I found five of those installments to be highly enjoyable. The other two were less good in my humble opinion.

The River Ota runs through the Japanese city of Hiroshima, unfortunately famous for being the first civilian target of an atomic bomb in 1945. One of the main characters in the play by Lepage is a woman who was blinded, as a small child, by the atomic bomb blast’s flash. Each of the seven acts of the drama is linked to her or to characters connected with her directly or indirectly. Therefore, although the play’s plot is quite complicated, there is an easily discernible thread that runs through it.

At times the drama is witty and humorous and at others tragic. However, throughout the performance, the subject matter is both sensitive and moving. The ingeniously crafted play touches on all kinds of important historical events that affected Japan and the Japanese between 1945 and the late 1990s when the play was written. It also makes reference to Theresienstadt, one of the Nazi concentration camps. At first, I was not sure of the relevance of this scene set in the camp, but afterwards it dawned on me. It was an important background to one of the characters, who plays a major role in the latter parts of the play.

Another of the play’s myriad of topics reflects the playwright’s origin, Quebec. There are some very entertaining scenes in which the characters speak in Canadian French (with its particular accent) such as would be heard in Quebec. At times, Lepage makes use of the play to poke fun at cultural rivalry between the Canadian French and the French in France. He also makes reference to Canada’s objection to French nuclear tests that were being carried out in the Pacific between 1966 and 1996. And, nuclear tests relate directly to the main theme of the play, the atomic bomb exploded at Hiroshima.

Without going into detail about the very complicated plot, let me say that this play was highly fascinating, well acted by members of Lepage’s theatre ensemble Ex Machina, and the sets were superb. Sadly, this long play is only being given a short run at the National Theatre. Its final performance, viral microbes permitting, will be on the 22nd March 2020.

As for my initial fears about sitting for seven hours in the theatre, these were unrealised. The time shot past, so intriguing was the play. Lepage’s play was for me as exciting as at least two other epic length dramas I have enjoyed: “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, and “The Coast of Utopia” by Tom Stoppard.