Three years later, little has changed…

WHEN WE LANDED at the huge airport that serves Kolkata (Calcutta), it looked much as it did 3 years ago. Only one of the 6 or 7 baggage retrieval conveyor belts was in use and the vast airport seemed almost empty. The situation was the same when we last used it in December 2019.

We made the long ride from the airport to South Kolkata in a vehicle that was not available 3 years ago: an electric taxi. While being driven in this advanced form of vehicle, I wondered whether much else had changed in the city. Although there is much new construction at the periphery, it seems that delightful old Kolkata simply looks a little older.

A visit to the busy New Market (aka ‘SS Hogg Market’) revealed little obvious change. Our first port of call was at the excellently and tastefully stocked Modern Book Depot, where we chatted with the owner and made a few purchases.

Our search for a small funnel took us around the market buildings. A small store crammed full of kitchenware was able to fulfil our quest. We had been looking for this simple item in three other cities – in vain.

To our great relief, Nizam’s restaurant looked much as it has done for many decades, although an additional dining area has been added. The walls of the two older eating areas are decorated with framed theatre (English and Bengali plays) and cinema posters (mainly films made in India).

Nizam’s was founded in 1932, and has been well-known for its tasty kabab (‘kathi’) rolls ever since. A paratha is fried in oil on a tava, and cooked mutton or chicken is placed on it plus or minus a a beaten egg. When the paratha is ready, it and its contents are rolled up and wrapped tightly in paper. According to the customer’s choice, chillies can be added before the paratha is rolled. The management of Nizam’s states that the paper wrapped rolls were invented so that in the era prior to Independence, British men and their casual, temporary, female companions could eat the rolls without getting grease on their fingers. Whatever their history, these kabab rolls are highly enjoyable.

From where we were sitting, we were able to see the paratha dough being strenuously kneaded by a young man rhythmically thrusting his hands into the stiff paste. I was also able to watch other men threading meat onto metal skewers and others grilling the meat on glowing charcoal. The dough is formed into spheres a little smaller than tennis balls . These spheres are then flattened to make circular discs, which are then fried on the tava as already mentioned.

Walking around New Market and driving between it and south Kolkata revealed that the centre of the city I love has not succumbed to the often tasteless modernisation that has affected many other cities. I enjoy the unchanging appearance of Kolkata, but many people who have lived there bemoan the fact that it is a dying city. This is not say that Kolkata lacks vitality. It is still full of life, but as far as business opportunities are concerned, both the present and the future are not looking particularly optimistic.

A Turkish delight in London’s Dalston

KINGSLAND ROAD AND nearby in London’s Dalston area is rich in restaurants and other eateries serving Turkish food. Early in this century, “Time Out” magazine rated the Mangal Ocakbasi (now called ‘Mangal 1’) restaurant at number 10 Arcola Street as being one of London’s best Turkish restaurants. For those who do not know, ‘ocakbasi’ means ‘fireside’ and ‘mangal’ means ‘barbecue’ or ‘grill’. When we first went to Mangal, and for many years after that, there were tables alongside the long rectangular pit filled hot charcoal, upon which meat and vegetables are grilled. Recently, the restaurant has been redesigned and the grilling area is no longer alongside the tables.

Lokma

The meat served is top quality. It seems far better than that served in the many other Turkish restaurants we have tried in London. Although there is a wide variety of main courses on offer, the range of ‘starter’ dishes on the menu is not as great as at some other restaurants. If it is starters and meze that you are after, the nearby Umut 2000 (on Crossway) is worth visiting. However, their main meat dishes are not nearly as tasty as those at Mangal in Arcola Street. Having said that, Mangal does serve an excellent freshly grilled aubergine hors d’oeuvre. Desserts are not available, but there are plenty of places along Kingsland Road offering a wide range of very sweet but tasty confectionery.

Our favourite dishes at Mangal are lokma, which is grilled rolled fillet of lamb, and yorgutlu Adana, which is pieces of semi-spicy Adana kebab in a yogurt and tomato sauce with lumps of Turkish bread. The lokma and other kebab dishes are served with generous quantities of fresh mixed salad containing many ingredients. As for drinks, you can bring your own alcohol or buy it from the restaurant. If I order a drink apart from water, I always go for Şalgam, which is a purple-coloured drink containing fermented turnip. This has a deliciously sour taste.

We first ate at Mangal in the early 2000s, when we attended a play in which one of my dental patients was acting. The theatre, The Arcola, was across the road from the restaurant, but has now shifted to larger premises on nearby Ashwin Street (close to Dalston Junction station). We loved the food at Mangal from the very first bite. We have been eating there occasionally ever since then, and the quality of the food has never once faltered. We have been there so often that the older members of its staff recognise us, welcome us warmly, and remember what we like eating. Even though this Turkish delight, frequently patronised by the artists Gilbert and George, is far from where we live in Kensington, it is well worth ‘trekking’ across London to get there.

Macchiavelli and spicy masala meat dishes

RAAVI KEBAB BEGAN serving Pakistani and Punjabi food in the mid-1970s. It is located on Drummond Street, close to London’s Euston Station. This unpretentious eatery with barely any internal decoration except some mirrors with Koranic verses engraved on them in Urdu script, is next door to the Diwana Bhel Poori House. It was at the latter that we used to enjoy Indian vegetarian dishes when we were undergraduate students at nearby University College London during the first years of the 1970s. In those days, Raavi, named after the river that flows through the now Pakistani city of Lahore, did not yet exist. It was only in the early 1990s that a friend visiting from Bombay suggested that we ate with him at Raavi’s. When the grilled kebabs arrived at our table, it was love at first bite. We have been returning to Raavi’s ever since.

Raavi’s with Diwana in the backround

Yesterday (1st of September 2022), we made yet another visit to Raavi’s. As we sat down, I noticed a thick wad of photocopies held together with a bulldog clip. They were resting on top of a neatly folded shawl. Out of curiosity, I looked at the top sheet, which was a page copied from a book with annotations added in red ink. I looked more carefully and noticed that the printed text was in Italian. The page was headed “<De ingratitudine> Joanni Folci Niccolaus Maclavellus”. It is a chapter (‘The ingratitude of Joanni Folci’) from a book by Niccolò Machiavelli (aka Maclavellus), who lived from 1469 to 1527. The rest of the text on the photocopied page appeared to be a learned commentary on Macchiavelli’s chapter.

I do not know why, but I felt that Raavi’s was the last place I would expect to find scholarly papers lying about so casually. I associate the place, as do most of its many customers, with grilled meat and spicy masalas. I asked the waiter about the papers. He shrugged his shoulders and said that someone must have left them behind after eating, and that he had no idea whether anyone would return to retrieve them.

Around London’s Euston Station

AFTER EATING DELICIOUS KEBABS and a wonderful mutton biryani at Raavi Kebab, a Pakistani restaurant in Drummond Street close to Euston Station, we took a short post-prandial stroll around the area, a part of London that is home to University College London (‘UCL’), where my wife and I did our first degrees and we first met.

BLOG TAGORE

The west part of Drummond Street has become a desolate building site because of the works being undertaken to construct the HS2 railway. A building covered in tiles the colour of clotted blood stands in the midst of the building works. It looks like some of the entrances to older London Underground stations. It is located on the corner of Drummond and Melton Streets. It was the original entrance (opened between 1907 and 1914) to Euston station of the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, now part of the Northern Line, which is now accessed from within Euston railway station. The latter was built in the 1960s on the site of the demolished Euston Station (with its impressive Doric arch) built in the 19th century.

When the old Euston Station existed, Drummond Street stretched further east than it does today. It ran past the southern façade of the 19th century station and across the present Eversholt Street, ending at Churchway (not far from the current British Library).

All that remains of what must have been a splendid old station is a statue of the railway engineer Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) and two pavilions on Euston Road. These formed part of the entrance to the old station’s forecourt. Built of Portland stone in about 1870, they were designed by JB Stansby. The corners of these two buildings bear the names of the stations that were served by trains from Euston Station. Interestingly, these include cities such as Cork and Dublin, which are no longer within the United Kingdom. When the pavilions were constructed, the whole of Ireland was under British rule.

Strolling along Gordon Street, we passed the Ingold Chemistry building, part of UCL, where my wife and I spent many happy hours trying to synthesize various organic compounds, often ending up with tiny granules of non-descript materials, which might have been bits of broken glass rather than the desired product. Across the street, where there had once been an open-air entrance to the main campus of UCL there is a new building, glass-fronted at street level. Through the glass, we could see the mummified, clothed remains of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in a glass container, instead of the old wooden one in which he used to be housed. Bentham was strongly associated with the foundation of UCL in 1826.

As I stared at Bentham, an opponent of slavery, through the windows of the new building, I wondered what his views were, if any, on colonialism in India. Some of Bentham’s followers, such as John Stuart Mill, had been employees of the East India Company. Mill and Bentham, were not opponents of British colonialism, but did criticise it.

It was almost dark when we walked into the garden of Gordon Square, a place overlooked by the homes of some members of the famous Bloomsbury Group, a set of British intellectuals and artists, which thrived during the first half of the 20th century. We discovered something that had not been present when we last visited the square some years ago. This is a bust of the Bengali genius Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Created by Shenda Amery, it was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in July 2011, seventy years after Tagore’s death and one hundred and fifty years after his birth.

Tagore coined the name ‘Mahatma’ for the Indian Nationalist and freedom fighter MK Gandhi and also composed (in 1911) both the words and music of the Indian national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”. The eminent historian Ramchandra Guha explains in his “Makers of Modern India” that:

“Tagore was a patriot without quite being a nationalist. He was no apologist for colonial rule… he was dismayed by the xenophobic tendencies of the populist edge of the Indian nationalist movement. He thought that India had much to learn from other cultures, including (but not restricted to) the West.”

Following the horrendous massacre of innocent Indians by soldiers under the command of the British at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, he returned his knighthood to King George V.

Tagore was sceptical about ‘non-cooperation’ as advocated, for example by Gandhi. He was also worried about the concept of nationalism as applied to India. In his book “Nationalism”, published in 1917, he wrote:

“When our nationalists talk about ideals they forget that the basis of nationalism is wanting. The very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice. Nationalists say, for example, look at Switzerland where, in spite of race differences, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, remember that in Switzerland the races can mingle, they can intermarry, because they are of the same blood. In India there is no common birthright. And when we talk of Western Nationality we forget that the nations there do not have that physical repulsion, one for the other, that we have between different castes. Have we an instance in the whole world where a people who are not allowed to mingle their blood shed their blood for one another except by coercion or for mercenary purposes? And can we ever hope that these moral barriers against our race amalgamation will not stand in the way of our political unity?”

Tagore’s views on Indian independence were not as clear cut as many of the other advocates of freeing India from British rule, such as Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, and Vinayak Savarkar. He was essentially in favour of it but as Radha Chakravarty wrote in “The Essential Tagore”:

“For Tagore, the view of nationalism and patriotism that the movement was taking on was too narrow. He disengaged with the movement but remained expressive on the issue of independence through his art and writings … Fundamental to his belief was that nationalism could not rise above humanity…”

We left Tagore as his bust began to become less visible in the deepening gloaming and walked along Torrington Place past Waterstones bookshop that is housed in the pinnacle-rich building that once housed Dillons, the university bookshop. Almost opposite the north eastern corner of the bookshop, a private roadway leads into the UCL campus and under a circular archway. This was a familiar landmark for us when we were undergraduate students because it allows the roadway to pass beneath the building that housed ‘our’ Department of Physiology. Being August and in the midst of both the university holidays and the coronavirus pandemic, this normally busy roadway was empty.

We walked north along the east side of Gower Street passing a door marked ‘Anatomy’. This used to be an entrance to the Physiology Department, where I spent six years studying. During the last three of these, I used to have a key to the door so that I could let myself in whenever I wanted to do laboratory work on my PhD project. In those far-off days, security was far laxer than it is nowadays.

After passing the main entrance to UCL, we reached the corner of Gower Street and Gower Place. This building, now a part of UCL, used to house the medical bookshop, HK Lewis & Co Ltd. This, according to a plaque on the wall, was founded in 1844 in Gower Street, soon after UCL’s medical school was established in 1834. HK Lewis had a useful second-hand department, where I bought a few of my textbooks at prices not much lower than they would have been if they had been new.

We returned to our car parked in Drummond Street. Our favourite Asian grocery and Ambala’s sweet shop were already closed for the day. Raavi Kebab, a haven for carnivores, and its neighbour, the long-established Diwana Bhel Poori House, a haven for vegetarians, were still serving diners. These restaurants and several others in the street serving foods from the Indian subcontinent are run by folk whose ancestors were subjects of the British Empire prior to 1947. The street is a fine example of the idea suggested by the French colonial writer Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), namely, that eventually the colonial chickens come home to roost. And, thank goodness they have because they help to give London the vibrancy that makes it such a great city.

Eating on a train

 

OHRID BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

 

IN THE SUMMER OF 1973, I was on holiday in Greece. Our family and that of ‘K’, a good friend of mine were guests of an extremely wealthy Greek. We had been put up in luxury hotels. We stayed in the George V Hotel in Athens and K’s family were put up by the sea at a luxurious resort at Vouliagmeni. Before leaving England for our Greek holiday, K agreed to accompany me on an excursion north from Greece to a lake in southern Yugoslavia, Lake Ohrid, a body of water now shared by Northern Macedonia and Albania. I was curious to gaze at the then very mysterious Albania across the water from Yugoslavia and K was just being a ‘good sport’ in agreeing to join me.

One day in Athens, K and I left our very comfortable accommodation and arrived at the railway station from which northbound trains departed. The route between Athens and Thessalonika was long and slow, the train having had to wind its way across mountain ranges.

Every twenty minutes, an attendant arrived at our compartment carrying a tray with pork kebabs, lumps of cooked pork on thin wooden skewers. The barely warm meat was delicious. Each skewer seemed better than the previous one. We kept on buying them each time the attendant arrived.

After several hours and many skewers, K said that he had eaten enough of them and he was not feeling too well. My reaction to this was that being an inexperienced traveller compared to me, his stomach was weak compared to mine. I continued munching the delicious kebabs as the journey continued.

At a small place, which was probably Platy, in northern Greece, our train left the main route and headed along a branch line towards Edessa, where we disembarked. Before leaving the station, we had to have our tickets endorsed by a railway official so that we could continue our journey the following day. As soon as we disembarked, K thrust his ticket into my hand and rushed to evacuate his bowels in a field of ripe corn next to the railway.

We booked into a small hotel, the Olympus, in Edessa, where we paid the Drachma equivalent of £1 Sterling for a room with two beds. I gave K some of my anti-diarrhoea tablets, and he ate some plain yoghurt for supper. At this point, I was still thinking how sad it was that my friend’s stomach was so delicate. Surprised to be hungry after having devoured so many pork ‘souvlaki’ on the train, I ate a normal supper.

The beds in the hotel were very short. My feet projected beyond the bed end. I slept well. The next morning, K was feeling much healthier. However, I was not. I had a terrible pain in my stomach which made it difficult for me to stand up straight. I took some of my tablets and tried without much success to enjoy a bowl of plain yoghurt upon which there was a puddle of oil.

We returned to the railway station and boarded the train which took us westwards to the small town of Florina. We had a short stay, a few hours, in Florina, where I recall buying a roll of toilet paper. The daily train, a single motorised carriage, from Florina to the border with Yugoslavia departed in the early afternoon. K and I were the only passengers. At the border, the Greek carriage drew up next to a Yugoslav motorised train with several carriages on the neighbouring track. A Yugoslav soldier instructed us to move from the Greek to the Yugoslav train and then we set off northwards through southern Yugoslavia, crossing a flat plain with well-tended fields.

We disembarked at Bitola, once known as ‘Monastir’, and transferred to a long-distance bus. As the sun set, this carried us north westward over the mountains towards the historic city of Ohrid on Lake Ohrid.

It was dark by the time we arrived at the campsite on the lakeshore about a mile north of Ohrid city. Both of our stomachs had settled down. For the next few days, I explored the beautiful sights along the lake and enjoyed the local food, much of which was in the form of kebabs. K, having been made wary as a result of our experiences with the Greek railway ‘souvlaki’, avoided this kind of food, preferring to feed himself at our campsite.

 

Picture taken in 1977 shows the train in Yugoslavia between the Greek border and Bitola

A candle on the plate

I first visited India 25 years ago, arriving in January 1994. On the day before we left to return to the UK, my wife took me to Shezan, a restaurant in Bangalore’s Lavelle Road. This pleasant thoroughfare is named after a Mr Lavelle, who made his fortune at the (now disused) Kolar gold fields east of Bangalore.

My wife said to me that brilliant biryani, which I ought to try, was served at Shezan. We arrived at the restaurant, which was then housed in a picturesque colonial era bungalow.

Where this bungalow used to stand, there is now a modern office building called Shezan Lavelle. Since this was built, the restaurant has been situated at various other locations in Lavelle Road. Recently in late 2018, the Lavelle Road branch of this eatery has been discontinued. Shezan continues to operate in Cunningham Road, where there has been a branch for many years.

Back in 1994, I looked at the menu at Shezan and noticed that Chateaubriand beef steaks were being offered for the Rupee equivalent of 2 Pounds Sterling. I told my wife that I would have a steak rather than a biryani. After all, good biryanis were available in London, where a Chateaubriand used to cost eight to ten times the price at Shezan. The steak at Shezan was first class, and it continues to be so 25 years later.

Shezan used to be run by a man, who died in late 2018, and his elderly father. When we began bringing our young daughter to Bangalore in the late 1990s, we took her for meals at Shezan. Whatever was ordered for her arrived with a small candle flickering on her plate. The candle was placed in a hollowed out tomato that served as a shade.

In early January 2019, we visited the Shezan in Cunningham Road with our daughter, by now a young lady. The branch is run superbly by Aftab, a son of the recently deceased former owner.

Our daughter ordered a portion of Sholay Kebab, a slightly spicy chicken dish cooked with curry leaves. It arrived with a small candle flickering under a hollowed out tomato shell. Remarkably, the kindly Aftab had remembered our daughter after not having seen her since she was a small child.

Shish kebab and sausages

Not long ago, I wrote about Warren Street, which played a significant role during part of my life. Now, let’s move a little further south to a street, which is overshadowed by the Post Office Tower and contains many memories for me.

CHAR 0

London’s Charlotte Street runs between Rathbone Place in the south and Maple Street in the north. It is just over half a kilometre in length. Laid out in 1763, it was named after Queen Charlotte, who married King George III. I began to get to know the street just under 200 years later.

My earliest recollections of Charlotte Street were regular visits in the early 1960s to the Hellenic Stores on the west side of the street south of Goodge Street. My mother bought olives and other Mediterranean products at this store and another Greek shop in nearby Goodge Street. The latter was smaller than the Hellenic Stores, and a little less honest. When something needed weighing in the Goodge Street shop, the shopkeeper would throw it on the scales. The weighing machine’s needle would flash across the dial, and before one had time to think, a price was given. Neither of these purveyors of Greek produce exist anymore.

CHARL 4 site of Schmidts

Site of Schmidt’s, now rebuilt

During the twelve years (1970-82) that I studied at University College London (‘UCL’), I used to visit Charlotte Street often. As a student, I was always keen to find somewhere to eat cheaply. Schmidt’s on Charlotte Street was one such place. This was a German restaurant. Its dining area was on the first floor. Most of the waiters were pasty-faced gentlemen, who added to the gloomy atmosphere of the place. The ground floor served as a delicatessen. It contained a counter where boiled Frankfurter sausages were served with mustard and slices of delicious greyish German bread. They were very cheap and extremely delicious.  A female cashier sat in a booth in the middle of the room. Whenever I saw her, she had a blackish facial hair where men grow moustaches. My father, who was in London during the 2nd World War, told me that during the conflict, the owners of Schmidt’s posted labels on their windows, which read: We are British, NOT German.”

There have always been plenty of eateries on Charlotte Street. L’Etoile, which I never entered because it was beyond my budget, was a long-established restaurant on Charlotte Street. It had a Parisian look about it, but like Schmidt’s, it has disappeared. Near to the posh L’Etoile, there was a Greek ‘taverna’ called Anemos. I never visited it, but plenty of my fellow students did. One did not visit Anemos for its food, but for its riotous atmosphere, which included music, dancing and the trational Greek practice of plate breaking. Venus was another Greek place that has long since disappeared. I was taken there several times by an uncle, who worked nearby and regarded it as his favourite Greek restaurant.

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Just north of Goodge Street, there is another long-standing, and still existing, restaurant. This is the Pescatori, an Italian place specialising in fish dishes. It was one of my parents’ favourite restaurants in London. Back in the 1960s, there used to be a life-size boat suspended from the ceilings above the tables. I believe that my father was being serious when he said that he preferred not to sit beneath the boat, in case it fell.

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There was another fish restaurant in Tottenham Street that leads east of Charlotte Street. Pescatori was at the high end of the scale of elegance, and Gigs was at the lower end. Gigs was very popular with students from UCL and workers in the neighbourhood. It was divided into two sections: take-away and sit-down. At lunchtimes, there was always a long queue at the take-away counter. Two gentlemen, oozing with sweat, took the orders for fish and chips and also for the delicious lamb shish kebabs they prepared while you waited. In between taking the cash and wrapping the fish and chips, they threaded lumps of lamb onto skewers, and grilled them. The kebabs were served with salad in a warm pita bread. As the saying goes, they were ‘to die for’. Despite the rather haphazard-looking hygiene, I know no one, who died from these mouth-watering bundles of meat and salad.

Gigs closed many years ago. Then a few years ago, the premises were modernised, and Gigs was brought back to life by some relatives of the original owners. What used to be the take-away section is now an attractive restaurant, and what used to be the sit-down area is now the take-away area. The updated Gigs is both hygienic in appearance and looks as if it is designed to attract a more sophisticated clientele than its ancestor.

My father was a professor at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’) for most of his working life. The LSE has a hall of residence for students, Carr-Saunders Hall, a non-descript 1960s building on Charlotte Street. When it opened in 1964, my father’s colleague Kurt Klappholz was its first warden. Kurt, whom I knew well as a family friend, was a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor. Later, another of my father’s colleagues was a warden there many years ago. Once, he invited me to his flat. This academic possessed the most wonderful sounding HiFi equipment that I had ever heard. The warden, who owned it, was rather over-built. He told me that he preferred listening to music sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of his HiFi, than trying to squeeze into uncomfortably narrow chairs in concert halls.

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The building that used to house Cottrells

When I became a dental student, I became aware of Cottrells in Charlotte Street. This was near the Rathbone Place end of the street. It was the showroom for a major supplier of dental equipment. Housed in an elegant Victorian building, which still exists (it now contains a restaurant), the firm supplied everything from dental examination mirrors to entire dental operating units (chair plus attachments fordrills etc.) The technician responsible for teaching me how to cast gold crowns (caps) told me to visit Cottrells, not to look at the equipment, but, instead, the pictures hanging on the walls of the showroom. The walls were hung with a large collection of paintings by William Russell Flint (1880-1969). He specialised in depicting women.  Well-painted, and quite artistic, the paintings on the walls of the dental showroom and of its main staircase fell very definitely into the category of extremely light porn.

CHARL 6 Rathb Pl

One of the longer established shops in Rathbone Place: Mairants

Rathbone Place, a short street which connects the southern end of Charlotte Street contained a large postal sorting office. Quite late on in life, one of my uncles, a bachelor now sadly no longer living, got a job there as a postman. He often used to tell me about his experiences as a medical orderly in the South African Army in the North African desert during the 2nd World War. He spoke of them fondly, regarding the great camaraderie he experienced amongst his fellow serving men. I often felt that this was one the more enjoyable times in his long and varied life. When he joined the postal team at Rathbone Place in his fifties, he spoke of this in the same appreciative terms. He liked being part of a working team. Now, not only has my uncle gone, but also the sorting office no longer exists.

Charlotte street and its surroundings lie in the shadow of the Post Office Tower, which was ready for use in 1964. Until 1980, it was the tallest building in London. When it opened it had a revolving restaurant high above the ground. I never ate there, but did manage to visit the viewing platform just beneath it. When I looked up from this platform, I could watch the concrete base of the restaurant rotating slowly. A terrorist attack in 1971 put an end to the public being allowed to visit the viewing platform or any other part of the tower.

I still wander along Charlotte Street occasionally. Although it is still extremely vibrant, it evokes many memories of times long past.