The voice of the Roman

When I became a pupil at Highgate School in 1965, our first Latin teacher was an elderly fellow, the Reverend Gowing. Incidentally, there was another language teacher called Cummings.

Some of the boys in my Latin class, including me, had been taught that v in Latin was pronounced like v in ‘vine’. Other pupils and also Rev Gowing were of the opinion that v in Latin was pronounced like the w in ‘wine’. Believe it or not the question of how the ancient Romans pronounced v caused lively discussions in the Latin classes.

One day, Gowing brought a gramaphone record player into the Latin class. After placing a record on its turntable, he told us to listen carefully. The record was of a man reading a text in Latin. After a few minutes listening to this, Gowing switched off the recording and said triumphantly: “Did you hear that, boys? The reader pronounced v as w.”

I think that Gowing, who was probably almost 70 if not more in 1965, believed that the record contained the voice of an Ancient Roman, rather than someone speaking during the 20th century.

Some years later, I described this controversy about the Latin v to an Italian friend who had studied linguistics at university. She felt that although no one could be certain how the Ancient Romans pronounced Latin, it was likely that they would have pronounced v as v in vine. Her reasons were based on a study of the modern languages, which were descendants of Ancient Latin. This seemed sensible enough to me.

Both Gowing and Cummings, who taught me French and a little German, have passed away. Maybe the soul of the Reverend will have a chance to chat in heaven with the souls of the Ancient Romans. If it turns out that they pronounce v the way that he taught us, there might a a flash of lightning followed by a celestial voice booming out: “WENI WIDI WICI … I told you so, boys of Lower Fifth”. And, if the lightning has not struck me, I will shout back: “venue, video,victory.”

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.

Self absorbed

Two of several aspects of contemporary life irritate me. One of them is self-righteous cyclists in London, who disregard red traffic signals and risk fatalities. Another thing I find upsetting is people who walk along in the street with their eyes glued to the screens of their ‘smart’ phones.

Some of these phone obsessed pedestrians catch sight of fellow pavement users and take steps to avoid collisions. Many others do not. They are so very intimately involved with their screens that they seem unaware of their immediate surroundings and other people using the pavement.

Walking along with your eyes focussed on the phone is just like driving a car blindfolded. It is both foolish and selfish. It is foolish because you might trip on an uneven paving stone or fall into a hole. It is selfish because your inattention to fellow human beings causes them inconvenience.

And, what if the thoughtless phone user collides with another pedestrian? The phone user will blame the innocent victim of his or her selfishness for not looking where he or she was going. Actually, it is the phone obsessed pavement hog who is at fault on every occasion.

So, please walk with your eyes on the world around you, and not on the tiny phone screen in your palm.

Here ends my rant!

My cat

I love cats. I have only ever ‘owned’ one. I named it Crumpet.

I was less than ten years old when Crumpet entered my life. I was lying in bed at home, recovering from a bout of tonsillitis, when my late mother brought Crumpet into my bedroom. She had only just bought the cat at a pet shop to cheer me up.

My mother, who was always nervous about me risking injury, would not allow me to open the tins of cat food that Crumpet enjoyed. She was concerned that I might cut myself on the sharp edges of the open tin lids. So, as my mother did not want to disturb my father, who did much of his academic work at home, she became responsible for feeding Crumpet.

Cats tend to be quite self oriented. They favour the people who feed them. In Crumpet’s case, it was my mother who received much of the cat’s attention. Our cat used to rub herself against my mother’s legs affectionately, especially when my mother was opening the cat food.

Now, here’s the rub. My self sacrifying mother could not bear cats. She put up with Crumpet for my sake.

Crumpet must have realised that my mother was not keen on her because after a few weeks our pussy abandoned our home for another about one hundred yards away from ours.

Since Crumpet deserted us, I have never kept another pet, but my fondness for cats has remained.

Claim your steak

STEAK

When I was much younger, my parents often took my sister and me to eat dinner in restaurants.

Before we looked at the menu, my late mother used to examine the plates and cutlery on our table. If there was a blemish on the cutlery or a crack or chip in the porcelain, the waiter would be summoned to replace the defective item(s). Often this delayed the arrival of any food. If we looked reproachfully at my mother, she would say:

“You can eat off cracked plates if you like, but I am not paying good money to eat off bad plates.”

She said this in such a way that meant that really there was no way that any of us could eat off damaged crockery, even if we wanted to.

As the years went by, I used to look at my plate and cutlery carefully as soon as we sat down. If I spotted a defect, I used to casually lay my hand on it so that my mother would not see it. I was always hungry before a meal and wanted to get on with it rather than having to wait for perfect eating utensils to be fetched. Once any defective cutlery/crockery was replaced, the meal could be ordered.

My mother was fond of beef steak. Rather unfashionably for London in the 1960s, she preferred her steak rare, almost what the French call ‘bleu’. This simple request was the real test for a restaurant. Frequently, the rare steak would arrive cold. My mother would then summon the waiter or maitre d’hote.

“My steak is cold.”

“Madame, I will ask the kitchen to heat it for you.”

The steak would then be returned, and my mother would begin cutting it. Soon the waiter would be called again.

“My steak is no longer rare; it is overcooked. Take it away and bring me another one cooked rare and warm.”

Any restaurant that could get this right without fuss, won my mother’s custom. She would then return there frequently.

Today, rare steak is the ‘in thing’. Most good chefs and discerning diners prefer the insides of steaks to be red, if not bloody.

Writing of steaks reminded me of Monty Modlyn (1921-94), a radio presenter and journalist. Occasionally he would speak on the early morning Today programme on the BBC Home Service (now ‘Radio 4’). He would report on steaks and other meat he had eaten. He had a metal ball that he would drop onto pieces of meat. The depth of the indentation made by the ball’s impact was his measure of the meat’s quality. It all sounded a bit mad to me when I listened to him when I was a young boy. Apparently, what he was doing was quite sound. The quality of raw meat can be judged by indenting it with a finger tip and then watching how quickly the indentation disappears. If the meat recovers quickly, then the quality is likely to be lower than if it recovers slowly.

Harrods department store

POLO

 

In the early 1960s, my parents installed a Permutit water softening unit in our family home. I have no idea why they did this. Maybe it was to save soap and the furring up of pipework. I am not sure that they would have done it had they known of the research that shows that heart disease is reduced as the hardness of drinking water increases.

The apparatus consisted of two cream coloured cylinders, each about five feet high, which stood next to each other in our garage by the side of the house. One of the cylinders was sealed shut and surmounted by a circular metal control wheel. Its neighbour could be opened by lifting a lid. Once a week, my father had to refresh the ion-exchange resin in the sealed container. This was done by adding salt in large quantities to the other cylinder, having removed its lid. By turning the control wheel at intervals dictated by an instruction manual, the refreshing cycle was completed over a period of about two hours. When the procedure was completed, my father used to test the softness of the water in our taps by mixing it with a soap solution supplied by Permutit. If a stable foam was produced, this indicated that the refreshment cycle had been completed successfully.

A special salt, called dendritic salt, was required for the weekly process described already. There was only one store that would both supply sacks of dendritic salt and, also, deliver it to our home. That store was the world-renowned Harrods in Knightsbridge, which brought us the salt in their silent electrically-powered delivery vehicles.  In order to get these regular deliveries, my parents had to open a Harrod’s account.

Harrods has never been a store that one would enter hoping to find a bargain. In the sixties, they provided their customers with very attractive carrier bags. My late mother liked these, but she was not particularly interested in buying anything from the store in Knightsbridge. So, she used to enter Harrods and buy a packet of Polo mints, one of the least costly things on sale, and have the payment of them put on the family account. This low-cost purchase allowed her to get what she really wanted: a Harrods’ carrier bag.

Delivered to your door

After we married in 1994, we used to visit my in-laws in Bangalore (India) regularly. During the first few visits, we stayed in their home in Koramangala, a suburb to the south of the city’s diffuse central area. Although they lived close to shops, some within easy walking distance, their street was visited by itinerant sellers. For example, there were (and still are) people wheeling barrows from which they sell fruit and vegetables. These sellers announce their arrival with shouts in the Kannada language, which I cannot understand.  Other vendors come to the door selling bags of nuts and deep-fried and other snacks. Every street or street corner has a stall that is visited daily by the dhobi, who collects washed clothes to be ironed from your front door. All of this occurred in 1994 and continues today.

When I was a child during the 1950s and ‘60s, I lived with my family in Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’) near to Golders Green in north-west London. The HGS is a housing project, which was conceived by the social reformer and general ‘do-gooder’ Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936). The Suburb, whose construction began around 1904, is a mixture of residences of varying sizes built in different styles of architecture. Her idea was to provide homes for all classes of society, so that people from all these social classes could live harmoniously side-by-side. As with all the best-laid plans, this social mixing was never achieved. The very pleasant green suburb became a haven for the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. In his autobiography “A Little Learning”, Evelyn Waugh wrote of HGS (in its early years) that it was inhabited:

“… not exactly by cranks, nor by Bohemians, but mainly by a community of unconventional bourgeois of artistic interests.”

Today, this kind of people cannot afford to live there; it is now a highly desired residential area for the sector of middle class with plenty of money at hand.

Henrietta Barnett included three churches, a community hall (the so-called ‘Tea Room’), a school, an Institute, and two areas of woodland in her utopian suburb, but rejected the idea of including anything so ungodly as shops. So, HGS had, and still has, no shops within its boundaries. The nearest shopping centres are Golders Green, Temple Fortune, and the Market Place that is located on an arterial road that divides HGS into two separate parts. Unless one lived near to any of these shopping areas, the nearest shops could be up to a mile away from your front door. Because of this, HGS used to be visited by various roving services in my day.

The milkman made deliveries of dairy products every day. These were loaded on small electrically powered vehicles (‘milk floats’) that moved almost silently along the streets. The only sound they made was the tinkling of glass milk bottles as they rattled in the wagon. The milkman collected his stock from the Express Dairy Depot at Hoop Lane on the edge of the boundary of HGS. It was at this depot that the electric vehicle’s batteries were charged overnight. Newspapers were delivered to the door by a delivery boy employed by a local newsagent. A man with a French accent wearing a beret used to cycle around HGS selling strings of onions. For some reason unknown to me my mother never bought onions from him, but her sister, who lived close by, always did. Several times a week a tatty lorry used to cruise slowly along our streets. His vehicle contained a vegetable shop.

In summer, vans selling ice-cream would occasionally cruise along our street. When they stopped, they played a pre-recorded musical (well, not very musical) jingle to attract customers’ attention.

Every now and then, a knife grinder would arrive on his bicycle. He had a pedal-operated grinding wheel that spat out a shower of sparks when a knife was being sharpened. My mother never employed the grinder, claiming that he would ruin her kitchen knives. Being a sculptress, she was used to sharpening her chisels on a stone, and probably sharpened her own knives as well. Cries of what sounded to me like “old iron and echo” heralded the arrival of the scrap metal collector. When I was very young, he arrived with a horse-drawn wagon. This was later replaced by a battered motor driven lorry.

Twice a week, a mobile public library visited HGS. I never used it, preferring to walk to the better stocked library in Golders Green. The only commercial establishment, the nearest approximation to a shop, within HGS was Mendels Garage, which sold petrol and repaired cars. This has long since disappeared as did some of the other services mentioned above.

A dhobi ironing in Bangalore

Moving fast forward to today’s world, there is little need to leave your home if you do not feel like doing so. With the advent of the Internet, everything can be brought to your front door: from cooked meals to rare books, clothes, and almost anything you might want to buy. Even fast-food joints like McDonald’s will deliver your favourite snacks. Recently, a friend in Bombay needed a new rubber stamp costing a very few rupees. He rang the manufacturer to order it and was told that it would be delivered to his home within a very short time.

The convenience of home delivery is obvious, but this may jeopardise the future of shops that rely on people entering their stores to buy things.  Such is life, as so many people say, rather irritatingly I feel!

All ‘aggro’ : my Allegro

I passed my Driving Test in 1982. Naturally, I wanted a car after that. A good friend, a dental colleague who was keen on motor cars, suggested quite sensibly that it would be best if my first car was not brand new. He felt that as I was an inexperienced driver, I was more likely to damage it. With his assistance, I chose a second-hand Austin Allegro, which looked in good condition and had not done a huge mileage. Neither he nor I would have guessed what a challenge this vehicle would prove to be.

 

allegro 1

Austin Allegro [source: Wikipedia]

All went well at first. After a few weeks, I was driving along a motorway between the Medway Towns, where I worked, and London when suddenly the car lost power. I managed to steer the Allegro to the hard shoulder. The engine was not working. I turned the ignition key and the engine sprung back into life. I continued to London uneventfully.

The problem, the engine’s spontaneous and unexpected switching off, occurred on a number of other motorways and main roads, sometimes at night. I returned to the garage where I had bought the car, and their mechanics checked the car thoroughly (so they said). They could find nothing wrong. Reassured, I continued using it, but the same problem recurred regularly. I got to a point where I used to drive along the motorway with my hand holding the ignition key in the start position, so that the motor could not turn off.

After a few months in rented accommodation, I decided to buy a house when I discovered that the monthly mortgage repayments were the same as my monthly rental payments. After looking at about nine properties, I chose one. Before moving in, I used to visit its soon to be former owners in order to settle details of the house sale. On one visit, I parked my Allegro in front of the driveway where two of the occupants’ cars were parked. When I was ready to leave, the Allegro would not start. The owner’s son, a man in his twenties, came out to look at the car. Within minutes, he discovered what the garage mechanics had missed. The lock into which the ignition key fitted was loose: it did not engage firmly in the ‘on’ position. So, when the car vibrated, the key could be thrown out of the ‘on’ position into an ‘off’ position.

When the boy’s father, who was taking an interest in the proceedings, saw what his son had discovered, he fetched a wire, and touched its two ends to a couple of places in the engine. Suddenly, there was a blue flash followed by a strange smell and some white smoke.

“Aw, now look what you’ve gawn and done, Dad,” said the son, “I reckon you’ve blown a fuse.”

Almost as quick as a flash, the young man said that he would run up the road to buy a new fuse, which he did. He inserted it, and then carefully started my car.

I continued using the car for a while. Soon after the fuse incident, the car began belching black smoke instead of the normal exhaust. Once again, I returned to the dealer, who had sold me the car. After I told him what was wrong, he said:

“Sounds like you’ll need a new engine, my friend.”

“But,” I protested, “I’ve only had the car for four months.”

“Such is life, young man.”

 

I took the car to another repair shop. This was run by a wizened old man. He looked at the engine, and said:

“I can do something about that smoke, but it won’t last long. My advice to you is to sell it as soon as I’ve mended it and before the problem returns and the engine burns out.”

I took this wise man’s advice. The local Volkswagen dealership were happy to take my Allegro as part payment for my brand-new Polo vehicle.

 

allegro 2

Volkswagen Polo [source: Wikipedia]

Soon after taking possession of the Polo, I visited my aunt and uncle in London. Their reaction to my new car gave away something of what they had secretly thought about me in the thirty years they had known me. After spending a few hours with them, they accompanied me to the road. I had not told them about my purchase. When they saw me unlocking my pristine Polo, my aunt said:

“Is that yours, Adam?”

“Yes.”

Then my uncle said:

“I never imagined you would have ever bought a new car. It’s the first normal thing you have ever done.”

Not really…

American and English

similar lingos

sometimes different  

USA

Some years ago, I practised dentistry in a surgery near Ladbroke Grove in West London. One day while I was waiting for the next patient to arrive, I found myself alone at the reception desk, the receptionists having gone off somewhere briefly. The telephone rang. Being a helpful sort of person, I picked it up.

“Hello, this is the dental surgery,” I said.

A man with an American accent said to me:

“I want to speak with June Courtney.”

June was a dentist, who used to work in the practice.

“I am afraid she does not work here anymore,” I replied.

“Well, maybe you’re her husband?”

“No, I am not.”

“Well, maybe I can interest you in buying some bonds,” continued the trans-Atlantic caller.

“I’m not really interested,” I replied.

“Well, that means you might be a little bit interested,” the caller replied.

“let me explain something to you,” I began, “if someone English says that they are not really interested, it does not mean that they are ‘slightly interested. It is a polite way of saying that they are not at all interested; they are totally uninterested.”

“Well, thank you for explaining that, sir,” the caller said before ending the call.

I guess that sometimes it pays to speak bluntly.