From Cuba to Corona

CURRENT AFFAIRS DID NOT interest me when I was a child. I did not read newspapers nor did I listen to the news broadcasts on the radio (we did not have TV at home).The first news item that I can remember hearing my parents talking about was something to do with Cuba. Now, I realise that they must have been discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis that occurred in October 1962 when I was a few months over ten years old. For those who cannot remember this event, it was a dangerous moment for the world because the Soviet Union had placed ballistic missiles in bases on the island of Cuba, which is dangerously close to the USA. These missiles could have been used to drop nuclear weapons on the US. Had that happened, most of us would have been wiped out in a nuclear Armageddon. Luckily, the missiles were removed and a showdown avoided.   

 

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Almost a year later, we lived in Chicago for three months because my father was a visiting academic at the University of Chicago at the end of 1963.  One of my memories of the USA during that time was the preponderance of yellow and black coloured signs indicating the entrances to nuclear bomb (fall out) shelters. The university gave us a flat to live in. This contained a booklet, which fascinated me. It was filled with advice on how to survive a nuclear bomb attack. Two things in that booklet stick in my mind. One was to make sure that you removed your watch if it had a luminescent dial, one which glowed green-ishly in the dark. The other was to crouch under a strong kitchen table. I am not certain how either of these actions would have significantly improved one’s chances of survival.

After we had spent three months living in Chicago, we spent Christmas in New York City. One evening, we visited Steve Rousseas (1921-2012), an economist whom my father knew. He lived in Greenwich Village and was, incidentally, one of the few people who bought any of my mother’s sculptures. As we walked with Steve to a restaurant, he chatted to me. He told me something that made a great impression on my young mind. And, that was if a neutron bomb exploded, most lifeforms would be exterminated, but buildings and other man-made structures would remain intact. I found that idea very eery and quite frightening.

Many years later, I watched a documentary film that graphically portrayed the effects of a nuclear blast. Several aspects of this terrifying film impressed me. First, is that following a blast, there would be a great, powerful wind, which would carry a cloud filled with lethal splinters of glass from windows that had been shattered by the explosion. Secondly, the blast would most probably disable electricity generation and supplies. Thirdly, several species, being relatively insensitive to radiation, would survive the effects of intense radioactivity. These included cockroaches and other vermin.

By 1987, I was well-established in my house in Gillingham, Kent. One night in October of that year, I awoke in the early hours of the morning. It was dark but there was a great noise outside. There was a wild wind blowing. It was so strong that my house swayed slightly as the tempest buffeted against its walls.  I tried to turn on my bedside lamp to see what time it was, but there was no electricity. Then, remembering the documentary, I feared the worst. Was Gillingham being blown by the wind that I had learned from the film would follow a nuclear blast? The failure of the electricity supply confirmed that fear. I lifted the receiver from the telephone by my bed and, to my great relief, I heard a dialling tone. The electricity had gone, but the ‘phone line was still functional. The wind was not due to a nuclear bomb blast but was a fierce storm that devastated many of the trees in the south-east of England. Next morning, I rang my father, who lived sixty miles away in London, and asked him whether his area had been affected by the storm. He asked me:

“What storm?”

When I looked out of my window that overlooked my garden and those of the neighbours, I noticed that all of the greenhouses in my neighbours’ gardens had been flattened by the wind, but not mine. The reason was that my greenhouse had many missing panes of glass, which I had not bothered to replace. So, the wind blew through my green house rather than against it and that left it standing. Another thing I noticed was that the wooden pole in the street from which overhead telephone cables radiated to the surrounding houses had resisted being toppled by the storm. This was not the case for many thousands of lovely old trees all over Kent.  As for the electricity, that returned very soon where I was living but not at the dental surgery where I worked. As a result, the devastating storm provided me with an unexpected day’s holiday.

Now, let us move to the present and the scary pandemic that is affecting the whole world. During, the so-called ‘lockdown’, London became eerily silent. There were few people to be seen out and about and even the main roads were devoid of traffic. One day during a telephone call to a cousin, I was speaking about this weird situation when I suddenly remembered what Steve Rousseas told me long ago one December evening in Greenwich village. The corona virus, as invisible as the neutrons produced by a neutron bomb and almost as lethal, had temporarily rendered London almost devoid of visible human presence. I never would have believed that I would live to experience something like that. Now that the lockdown is easing, London has become noisier and the thoroughfares busier. With good luck and by exercising great caution, we can hope that the virus might well be less successful than neutron bombs in depopulating our world.

It is a long time since the Cubans hosted Soviet missiles. Since then, and especially lately during the pandemic and the Brexit brouhaha that preceded it, from being uninterested in news bulletins I am worried about becoming obsessed by them. As some people say, infuriatingly:

“Such is life” and “these things happen.”

 

Picture from Wikipedia

No refusal

TAXI NO RESUSAL[2493]

 

UBER DRIVERS IN MADRAS are, so I have been told, unaware of a customer’s desired destination when they accept a job. It might be a short ride or even an out of town destination. We discovered a consequence of this earlier this year when we were advised that the most reasonable way to make the three-hour journey from Madras to Pondicherry was to hire an Uber cab.

The first three drivers, who offered us rides, phoned us to ask where we wanted to go. When we told them, they cancelled our rides. On our fourth attempt, an Uber arrived. He was happy to drive us to Pondicherry because, as we found out three hours later, he had a friend he wanted to visit there.

In Bombay, the taxis are nicknamed ‘kali pili’, which refers to their black and yellow body paint colours. Most of the cabbies are argumentative and some of them seem reluctant to work, making complaints like “too much traffic” or “that’s too far”. Eventually, one finds a cab that is willing to carry out one’s wishes, often complaining all the way. Maybe, that is because their metered fares are so reasonable for the passenger. Driving in Bombay’s traffic cannot be too much fun, especially if one is getting paid poorly to do so.

Further south in Bangalore, popular transport for those who prefer to avoid using urban buses include Uber and Ola cabs as well as three-wheeled autorickshaws.

Bangalore’s Ubers and Olas are unreliable.  Often, they accept a ride and minutes before they are about to arrive at the pickup point, they cancel. I imagine that often they get stuck in the city’s slow moving or often static congested traffic and feel they are wasting their time trying to reach their passenger waiting beyond the traffic jam. Whatever the reason, these app-linked car services are not nearly as reliable as they are in Bombay or London.

Autorickshaws (‘tuk tuks’) are the best method for getting through the congested thoroughfares of Bangalore.  Their plucky drivers can take risks with their small vehicles that larger cars are unable to attempt. These manoeuvres are daring and can be hair-raising for the passengers, but they get you to your destination relatively quickly. I love the drivers’ sneaky tactics, but others do not. Once, I was travelling in an autorickshaw with two American ladies on a busy main road in the centre of Bangalore. They shrieked with terror as our vehicle sped adventurously between a bus and a heavy lorry that were rapidly moving close together.

One autorickshaw driver, whose command of English was good, told me that he had been a truck driver before driving the three-wheelers to earn his living. He explained that an autorickshaw driver needs to use all of his six senses and to ‘feel the traffic’ with his body. It is my observation that most drivers of these small fragile vehicles have lightning reflexes and nerves of steel. Yet, as they weave effortlessly and excitingly through the traffic, many of them chatter away on their mobile ‘phones.

Hiring an autorickshaw in Bangalore is always an adventure. The vehicles are fitted with taximeters, which are supposed to determine the fair. They are used occasionally but not often. The driver will start by suggesingt an often outrageous fare, which is the starting point for haggling.  Or, some drivers will agree to use the meter determined fare plus some extra Rupees in addition.

Some autorickshaw drivers without much to do will offer foreigners something like:

“Come with me. I’ll take you anywhere for only 10 Rupees.”

Sounds tempting, does it not? Do not succumb to this unbelievable offer because if you do, you will soon discover the catch. The naive passenger will be invited to visit the driver’s friend’s/cousin’s/brother’s  store, where if you buy something, the driver will be rewarded with something like: school books for his children, or a kilo of rice for his starving family, or a new shirt, etc.

Some autorickshaw drivers will set off for a journey in Bangalore, and then after a few minutes, will ask the passenger whether, on the way, they want to do some shopping at a shop the driver recommends. That is, at a shop that will offer the cabbie a commission or a gift when the passenger makes a purchase. A determined refusal is required to ensure that your journey will not include an unwanted, time-wasting detour for shopping.

On the whole, autorickshaws are a great way of getting around Bangalore.

Calcutta is filled with rugged but battered yellow Ambassador taxis. These are slowly being replaced by newer vehicles with blue and white body paint. One thing they share is the wording “No Refusal” painted on the exterior of their doors. The cab driver, who stops to pick up a passenger, is not supposed to refuse to take you wherever you want. Most of the drivers comply with this.

Black Cab taxi drivers in London and other places in the UK are, by law, required to take you anywhere within the area they can legally operate. Like the drivers in Calcutta, the British cabbie is supposed to adhere to the “No Refusal” concept, and often, but by no means always, cabbies comply.

Interesting as all this is, present conditions during the current pandemic mean that not too many cabs are being hailed at the present in London. While the ‘lockdown’ is in force, even in its present slightly diluted form, I feel sorry when I see an empty Black Cab with its ‘For Hire’ sign illuminated cruising the almost empty streets in the hope of finding a customer.

Fading with time

SINCE THE IMPOSITION OF ‘LOCKDOWN’ in the UK, use of public transport has been discouraged, as has wandering too far from home when taking exercise. While not exactly ‘confined to barracks’, the distance that we have been allowed to move away from home has been limited, more or less to the amount of distance that we can manage to walk (or, not in my case, cycle) comfortably, without exhausting ourselves. This meant that for many weeks we have been walking around our local area. A friend of ours in Dublin told us, half-jokingly, that during the Irish lockdown, he felt that he had got to know every blade of grass in his neighbourhood. I understood what he was saying.  For me, greater familiarity with our immediate locality has not bred contempt for it, but the opposite. We have been walking along small streets we never knew existed and discovering interesting details in those thoroughfares that we thought we knew so well.

HORNTON 2 BLOG

I have been walking along Sheffield Terrace, which leads off Kensington Church Street, two or three times a week for the last 25 years, yet it was only yesterday that I noticed a small square metal plate on the wall of a house in that thoroughfare. It recorded the fact that the author GK Chesterton was born in that house on the 29th of May 1874. A few doors away on the same street, there is a much larger and far more obvious plaque commemorating that the founder of the Church Army, Prebendary Wilson Carlile (1847-1942) had lived there. I had often noticed this memorial, but I had never noticed the far more discreet memorial to Chesterton, which looks like a simple grey wall tile from a distance.

Sheffield Terrace leads to the northern end of Hornton Street, which is marked on 19th century Ordnance Survey maps as ‘Campden House Road’.  Hornton Street leads south and downhill towards High Street Kensington. Once again, this is a street along which I have walked several times a week over a period of at least 25 years. Various roads lead off Hornton Street. The short Pitt Street is one of these. On the corner of Pitt and Hornton Streets, there is a faded rectangular sign that I have always assumed carried the words ‘Hornton Street’. However, I had not looked at it closely enough until yesterday.

I do not know what made me examine the faded sign closely, but I am glad that I did. Some of the letters on it have disappeared. The following are just about visible, and even more so on enhanced digital photographs: H, O, R, N, …, D, G, E. The last three letters are not ‘E, E, T’, which you would expect to see if the sign had read ‘Hornton Street’. I wondered if the sign had originally read ‘Hornton Lodge’. I went home and searched for ‘“Hornton Lodge” Kensington’ on Google.

One of the most useful things that came up amongst the Google search results was an offer on eBay for two pages of the issue of “Country Life” magazine, dated 21st of March 1968. These pages contain an article about Hornton Lodge on Pitt Street. The article bore the title “Serene Vision of a Modern Interior”. It describes the interior of a house built in 1948 on a bomb site and owned by Mr and Mrs James Melvin. The house, a long rectangular building, was called Hornton Lodge. The fading sign is all that remains of the house described in the magazine. Currently, builders are erecting a new building on the part of the plot nearest to the corner where the sign can be found. This new construction is, according to a planning application submitted in December 2019 by Nash Baker Architects, to replace an:

“… early post war semi-detached property … constructed circa 1948-49, on the site of a former villa known as ‘Hornton Lodge’. The architect/owner, James Melvin, was a partner in major architectural firm: Gollins Melvin Ward Partnership. However, at the time it was constructed, the firm was in its infancy, and this project was a modest family home for a young architect and his family; designed with modernist intentions during a time of austerity.”

I found references to a ‘Red House’, also referred to in at least one item, maybe erroneously, as ‘Hornton Lodge’.  The Red House was built by Stephen Bird in 1835. It was also known as ‘Hornton Villa’. This was not the property on Pitt Street demolished by a bomb in WW2 because it stood across Hornton Street opposite the western end of Holland Street, which is south of Pitt Street. A future president of the USA, Herbert Hoover, lived at that address between 1907 and 1918. Hornton Villa, The Red House, was demolished in in the 1970s, and on its site stands the architecturally undistinguished Customer Service Centre of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

There is more evidence of a Hornton Lodge, quite distinct from the Hornton Villa, mentioned above. Joseph Foster’s “Men-at-the-bar : a biographical hand-list of the members of the various Inns of Court, including Her Majesty’s judges, etc.” (published in 1885) published the address of a barrister Richard E Webster (1842-1915; called to the Bar in 1868), Lord Alverstone, as “Hornton Lodge, Pitt Street, Kensington W”. He became Attorney General between 1885 and 1886.  Even earlier than that, “Allens West London Street Directory” (published in 1868) lists a Theodore Aston as living at Hornton Lodge.

Close examination of a sign that I have passed and seen many thousands of times, assuming it bore a simple faded street name, has revealed that I had never looked at it carefully enough before. The constriction of my field of activities to a small part of London has, to my surprise, heightened my powers of observation rather than blunted them, which could have easily happened when visiting the same locality repetitively.

Soon, the faded sign on the corner of Pitt Street will either be removed or become even more illegible. I am glad I noticed its clue to the past before either of those things happen.

 

 

Time flies

I DO NOT KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I am finding that time hurtles past during the so-called ‘lockdown’, which severely limits our movements and activities to our local environments. Although I needed little stimulus to do so because I find it enjoyable, it has made me look back into my past more than ever before. This morning (19th of May 2020) on BBC Radio 4, the author Ian McEwan spoke eloquently and with great insight about the perception of time and how it changes during a period of forced inactivity such as long-term prison sentences and our present virus-induced predicament. I was heartened to learn that he and I agree about the effects of ‘lockdown’ on the perception of time’s passage. Having got that ‘off my chest’, I will return to yet more nostalgia. I am going to write about my recollections some of the first ever holidays I enjoyed. These happened when I was well under ten years old. So, my memories may be a little hazy and, also, influenced by what I remember being told about these trips when I was a bit older.

 

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In 1955, when I was three years old, my parents took me to South Africa. We travelled by sea. During the voyage, we crossed the Equator. I have seen photographs taken on board of me dressed in a sheet. When we crossed the Equator, so I was told by my mother, the children on board took part in a fancy-dress party. Unprepared for this, but always resourceful, my mother used a sheet from our cabin to dress me up as a Roman in a toga. Sadly, these photographs have been lost.

On arrival in Cape Town, I faintly recall something that I did on the dockside. There were tracks like tram lines embedded in the ground, along which huge cranes moved. I inserted my tiny foot into the groove of one of these, and then could not remove it. I imagine that my mother, who was excessively anxious about my well-being when I was very young because my birth had been fraught with difficulties, must have been very concerned that her precious child (that is me, folks) would be crushed by a crane on the move. My foot was extracted and with no long-term effects.  

Two other recollections of the trip to South Africa relate to our stay in Port Elizabeth, where my father’s mother and sister lived. One faint memory is my concern about the sinister look of the cacti on display in a greenhouse in a park. Another relates to being offered and rejecting smoked salmon – I was an unadventurous eater until my late teens.  

I cannot remember visiting King Williams Town (‘King’) in the Eastern Cape in 1955, but about 60 years later I discovered that we did. Several years ago, I was researching at the British Library, leafing through old issues of the “Cape Mercury”, a newspaper published in King. In one of the issues published in 1955, I discovered an article describing our visit to King. The reason we went there was to visit my great grandmother Hedwig Ginsberg, my mother’s grandmother. As she was the widow of a Senator and herself a prominent citizen of King, her social life and that of her son Rudolph, a Mayor of King, was recorded in the paper’s gossip columns. Our visit to King was described. I quote from what I discovered:

Mrs Yamey … whom many of you will have met in her single days. They now have an adorable little son, Adam, aged three.”

Another trip that I recall vaguely was less exotic. It was to Winterton-on-Sea in Norfolk (UK). I was taken there by my uncle and aunt and their then young daughter. I recall staying in a round hut. Although I did not know it then, the round hut was based on the design of the South African rondavel, a circular hut with a conical roof. Many years later, I re-visited Winterton-on-Sea. The resort colony of rondavel-like dwellings was still being used by holidaymakers. The place, set amongst sloping sandy dunes, had originally been set up by people from South Africa, but had long since changed hands.

My parents were not keen on seaside holidays. However, I can remember two that we made when I was very young. In each case we travelled with friends, who lived in Kent. Arthur Seldon was one of my father’s first friends and collaborators when he came to London from South Africa in the late 1930s. His wife Marjory, who was born on the very same day as my mother, was one of my mother’s closest friends. The Seldons had three sons, one of whom has become quite prominent in public life.

One year, we accompanied the Seldons to the North Sea beach resort, Noordwijk in the Netherlands. This must have been in the second half of the 1950s, just over a decade since the end of WW2. I remember that we kept moving our beach blanket from one patch of sand to another. This was done whenever my mother heard neighbouring holidaymakers speaking in German. During WW2, my mother had worked for the Red Cross in Cape Town. As the war drew to a close, she read Red Cross reports of the atrocities being uncovered in recently defeated Germany. I suppose she thought that there was a good possibility that any adult speaking German in the late 1950s might well have once been at the very least a Nazi sympathiser.

One day when walking back from the beach, I stepped on a nail protruding from some driftwood. I remember an unusual sensation as the nail penetrated the sole of my foot, but it was not pain. My mother, always anxious about me, rushed me to a local doctor, who gave me an injection for tetanus, something I had never heard of at that tender age.

The other holiday with the Seldons was in Bognor Regis on the south coast of England. We had hired a two-storey house for the stay. I remember my mother checking it out before we decided who was going to sleep where. She decided that the Yamey family, mine, was to take the ground floor. The Seldons, she decided, were to occupy the first floor. She had discovered that the windows on the upper floor had low sills, making it easy for people to fall from them. This was not a risk that she was prepared to take. It seemed that it did not bother her to worry about the Seldons risking falling out of these windows. And, as far as I know, it did not worry the Seldons, who survived.

Sometime in the 1950s, we visited Hilversum in Holland. It was the home of one of our live-in helps, Truus Vollmer. She stayed with us for two years and became good friends. Her father worked for Radio Hilversum. Every now and then, he made gramophone records for me. They played at 78 rpm and were unusual because they played from close to the central label outwards towards the edge of the disc. The recordings included sounds of trams, trains, buses, and other forms of transport. One of the records, which I played often, included a recording of the Dutch St Nicholas Day song, with the words:

“Sinterklaas Kapoentje,

Leg wat in mijn schoentje,

Leg wat in mijn laarsje,

Dank je Sinterklaasje!”

During our visit to Hilversum, which I remember dimly, Mr Vollmer tried to record my voice. This was later presented to me on one of his records. I was extremely shy as a small boy. The recording starts with the voices of various adults (some with Dutch accents) and my mother, saying:

Come on, Adam … Say something … Why not sing something? … Come, say something … Come along … It’s not difficult … Don’t be shy … etc.”

Eventually, my voice can be heard saying sulkily:

I don’t want to”, and nothing else.

We made several trips to Holland at that time. We always stopped for lunch in Rotterdam, where we ate in the restaurant of a large department store, the Bijenkorf. If I remember correctly, my parents enjoyed eating club sandwiches there. To my knowledge, they never ate them anywhere else.

After 1960, when we stayed close to the sea in Cyprus, our family visited the seaside rarely, and never by design. My mother could not swim, and the sight of water made her uneasy – she was extremely prone to seasickness. My father did enter the sea occasionally, but never for long. The seaside was not my parents’ ‘thing’, nor is it mine.

Well, as I mentioned at the beginning, time feels as if shoots past during the ‘lockdown’. It seems but a few minutes since I woke up in the morning to listen to the latest news of doom and gloom on the radio, but now it is mid-afternoon. Years ago, when I was at school, a 45-minute Latin lesson seemed to last a whole day and I dreaded the occasional double-length Latin lessons we had to endure. Now, it seems that 45 minutes passes in a flash and even a three hour wait in an airport departure lounge seems to shoot past. Yes, our perception of time is a curious thing.

 

Picture showing rondavels at Winterton -on-Sea